How a bug with the Light of God in its ass can illuminate your darkness
Perhaps you’re one of those odd ducks who comes back from vacation tanned, ready, and rested – it’s not my place to judge. But for me, escaping the world usually carries a bittersweet downside, since it always requires reentry, reminding you with renewed urgency of what you were trying to give the slip in the first place.
Jim Harrison, before expiring at his writing desk in 2016, often holed up for extended periods at his cabin in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I can’t find the exact quote anywhere after dedicating a half a day to searching for it. But I recall once reading from him something to the effect that the only thing a week in the woods makes you good for is more time in the woods. On another occasion, he was asked by an interviewer whether his going on the lam helped center his frame of mind. To which Harrison responded: “You know, I used to think it made you better able to handle the world, but it doesn’t, it makes it worse. Everybody says if you go on a retreat, then you’re fresh for the world, well, bullshit. You just see it, you see that everyone’s suffocating in lint.”
As I mentioned while in reruns last week, I was away with my family, and not just with my nuclear one, but also with my sister and her kids, as well as our folks, who, for the last couple decades, have been gracious enough to pop for a big beach house that fits everyone, just down the Delaware shore from where – as my acerbic father would put it – Joe Biden spends time eating soft foods, ignoring inflation, and falling off his bike.
But even amidst the January 6 hearings (which I took care to tune in just to irritate my Trumpster dad), politics rarely infringe on our annual time away in the family bubble. That’s the entire point of family bubbles – the cares of the world have a tough time penetrating them. Our week away together usually has a ritual sameness: tennis and biking and fishing derbies. Playing tasteful board games like “Secret Hitler.” Eating a half bushel of steamed crabs, supplemented by fried chicken. (As Marylanders, we’re required by law to eat crustaceans seasoned with Old Bay.) We all take a turn cooking each night – always the same menu, year-to-year. And I man the grill each day for lunch like a frazzled short-order cook, serving up hamburgers and brats and Italian sausages until our arteries cry “funcle” (a portmanteau of “fun” and “uncle” – my nieces and nephews bestowed me with a t-shirt this year that reads “Funcle” - which they’ve been calling me since they were tykes. It has already caused several store clerks to titter, but for sentimental reasons, I’m committed to this iffy fashion choice).
This summer, the week fell on my birthday – I am again 35 years old, as I have been for the last decade and a half. And it landed on Father’s Day as well, which still makes me glad I sired a couple kids under the wire, before the gender gendarmes change the holiday’s name to Non-Gestational Parent’s Day, and declare that possessing sperm with intent to distribute is a Class A felony.
Despite the celebratory atmosphere, however, there were still intimations of doom. On a solo bike ride on one of our last days, I rolled past the first beach house my parents ever rented. A small crowd had formed, watching a bucket-loader go at it, tearing it down to put something better in its place. (A new house which will carry none of our old memories.) I still have a photo of my two kids and my sister’s then-three, sitting on the old house’s deck with squirt guns, my youngest son just a baby with a mop of curly hair, getting held by his older cousin who he’s now big enough to bench press, as somewhere along the way, my infant turned into a college sophomore. I don’t know what the statistical chances are of me rolling by that house during the very hour of its demolition after it had stood for decades, but it felt like a Powerball drawing that I didn’t want to win.
On the way home from the beach, I decided to ease our way back into real life by stopping by my favorite seafood market, so I could steam some mussels with wine and butter, fresh garlic and diced onions and red pepper and Italian parsley. It’s a regular stop for me, but I hadn’t been in a month. And the market had gone out of business while I wasn’t looking. I figured I’d go to my back-up seafood market about a half an hour away, but when I looked it up on my phone, it had just closed, too. Two places that brought the sea our way whenever we needed a hit of brine – both of them having existed for over forty years apiece, both gone in an instant and within weeks of each other without so much as offering a clue as to why.
The bad news kept pressing in, or maybe it’s not bad news so much as it’s just the unavoidable stuff of life. We weren’t home two days before a dear family member received dispiriting medical news. And then there’s the news itself. After taking most of the week off from the internet, I opened my regular Apocalypse Bible – the Drudge Report – and found that I hadn’t missed anything. The world was on fire when I left, and it still seems to be burning itself down: polio outbreaks in London, bloodbaths in Ukraine, prices rising, quality of life declining, Jerry Hall and Rupert Murdoch divorcing (why, God, why?), Elon Musk still acting like a jackass. (Continuity can bring comfort.)
And that’s before we even get to our domestic politics, which I won’t bother with today. Too depressing, too exhausting, too conducted by propagandists, for propagandists. It’s enough to make you want to re-check out, even as you’re checking back in. But the world is a hard place to escape when you still have to live in it.
So we look for pockets of grace to provide rest. Not resting in peace, mind you – something we avoid doing until they plant a granite slab over our heads. “In this world, you will have trouble,” the Good Book even warns. But we can still steal restful catnaps along the way.
One of mine comes each June, when the fireflies show up again. Not to go all twee on you. But I’m a big proponent of hope restoratives that can be easily accessed from home, in the interest of staying regular. It’s why, when fishing buddies tell me they’re off to grand and expensive adventures chasing sea run browns in Tierra del Fuego, I wish them well, but am just as content to hit the bass ponds and Bay near me. They get a week of unforgettable fishing. I get a lifetime of fishing that helps me forget everything else. Sometimes, when you have a headache, you don’t need to alter your entire consciousness, having some shaman feed you Ayahuasca in a Peruvian rainforest. You just need to head to the medicine cabinet, where a couple of Advil can do the trick.
Similarly, I’m willing to trade lightning for lightning bugs. For years, they seemed to disappear, or go dangerously sparse. The scientists constantly warn their numbers are dwindling due to everything from pesticides to light pollution to their habitats getting bulldozed, not unlike our old beach house. I was worried they’d go the way of the eastern whip-poor-will, whose song used to be everywhere, but is now one you hear played mostly on YouTube.
But about six or seven years ago, I drove my car up our street at night, past thick stands of trees which hug a small fishless stream that drains the hills of our ‘hood, and I saw a flicker of light or two in the treetops. I stopped my car, and killed the lights, and there they were, everywhere. Just as they have been ever since. Maybe they were there all along, and I was too blinded by artificial light to see their natural alternative.
I’ve gotten curious enough about them to do a little reading up. Thanks to firefly listicles, and my invaluable sources at Wikipedia, and entomologists like Marc Branham writing about them in Scientific American, I know that they are actually beetles, not flies. That their light production is called bioluminescence. That they produce defensive steroids in their bodies that make them distasteful to predators – you wouldn’t want to snack on them. That their larvae are snail’n’slug-eating machines, and that while most move off flesh as adults, some are cannibals. I know their flashing light patterns are mostly mating acts, which seems a lot cooler than posting a 15-year-old picture of yourself on eHarmony.
But mostly, I don’t want to know much about them. The same way I don’t really want to know about dark matter, or how Stonehenge was built, or whether cruciferous vegetables make Penelope Cruz gassy. You want some things to remain a mystery. And I refuse to believe Penelope Cruz is ever gassy. Sometimes, the mystery is the allure.
And so, most nights in June, I wait until about midnight or so for the neighborhood to still itself, and pray that those neighbors who have floodlights on their houses haven’t flipped them on, polluting the night sky. I march down our hill, sometimes with the dog, sometimes without him, stop by the darkest thicket of forest, and let my eyes adjust. I usually just first pick up a few, and then scores more, and then it’s like a twinkling light show, fireflies dancing against the darkness, turning oaks and poplars and sweetgums into something like living Christmas trees. They pinball around like shooting stars that have fallen to earth, putting me in the mind of the lyrics from the Texas troubadour, Townes Van Zandt: There ain’t no dark till something shines/I’m bound to leave this dark behind.
I’m still not sure why these little bugs with the Light of God in their asses bring me so much simple pleasure. But I’ve learned not to question things that do. Instead, I’m grateful for small things that give me good moments. Because good moments beat bad ones, every time. Put enough good moments together, and you have a workable formula for turning the lights out on your own darkness.
Bonus poem: Wendell Berry’s “The Peace of Wild Things”
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Bonus Great Pyrenees/firefly porn: Here is a video of my faithful beast, Solomon, from a few years ago, when a firefly landed between his eyes, and set up camp there. Being my dog, he didn’t seem to mind:
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Bonus track: The song from which the aforementioned Townes Van Zandt lyrics were taken, “Rex’s Blues”: