We knew it was officially summer as kids when the first fireflies appeared. My Mom would give us mason jars and we’d run out into the yard and try to catch them. We’d creep through the darkness and wait for the tell-tale blink to give away their hiding places in the bushes. I got one!–we’d scream out to each other as we cupped our hands around the little black bugs, watching them glow through the cracks in our fingers. We’d stuff them in our jars, then take off again for the next.
Each time we opened our jars to add another, they’d all be clinging to the lid underneath and we’d have to flick them back down to the bottom with our fingers so they wouldn’t escape. I remember putting the top back on, then holding the jar up to my face so I could watch them flail around on their backs for a moment before righting themselves, only to crawl right back up the slick side again, towards the top. Instinctively, somehow, they knew that was the only way out.
After it got too dark to see anymore, my parents would call us in and we’d see who got the most, then my Mom would make us let them go. Can’t we just keep them overnight?–I’d ask, wanting the jar for a nightlight on my bedside table so I could watch the cycle of them crawling over each other to get to the top, only to fall back down to the bottom again—their bodies ticking on the smooth glass below. They will die if you don’t let them go. My Mom would say. So, reluctantly, I’d take off the top and set them free. One by one, they would perch for a second on the rim of the jar and spread their wings, as if assessing the darkness, then fly off into the night. Some would lay dull and motionless on the bottom, their abdomens barely fluorescent, their bug bodies giving out on them—the way to freedom opening too late.
A few weeks into summer, we tired of catching them. My Dad would say—look, fireflies! We’d nod, glance out the window at them, then go back to our game inside under the glow of artificial light.
Every early summer, I watch my kids go through the same ritual of catching fireflies. My daughter wanted to know why they flash, so we studied them for homeschool. It turns out the beautiful, blinking patterns that decorate the twilight, summer landscape like Christmas-lights aren’t as random and meaningless as they appear.
Fireflies form underground as larvae for two years, then crawl out of the earth to live in the new June air for only two short weeks. All the males join forces and blink out their unique DNA code in unison, creating a mass synchronized declaration of their species, so the wingless females waiting in the leaves can recognize them amongst the splendid cacophony of blinking bugs in the night sky and signal back in the same code. So intense is their purpose, of finding a mate to reproduce, that they don’t even stop to eat or drink. They use all the strength of their short, fitful lives to carry out one single task—to carry on their insect lineage before they drop dead out of the summer, night sky.
Fireflies, like all insects, like all beasts—are hardwired for meaning. Salmon finds its purpose in swimming up out of the salty ocean back to the freshwater. They battle upstream hundreds of miles, taking on the form of birds to leap up out of the water and clear rapids. Their sole meaning is to find the shallows where they were created; so they can spawn another generation before they lie exhausted on the gravel beds they were born on and die.
Adult mayflies don’t even have functional mouth parts because they are unnecessary to their purpose–to pass on their genes through a flirting dance in the air only to die by sunset on the first and last day of their tiny lives.
Only we humans have trouble knowing which way the jar opens, which way the river flows, the purpose in all our different parts and personalities. Unlike the Salmon, if the journey is too far upstream, we abandon it. We swim down easy inlets instead that lead nowhere, getting lost for years down one after another—always seeking but never finding that distant shore deep inside our muscle memory we call Home. We never give up looking for something eternal in the shallow shores of the finite.
We chase after money, relationships, status, power, acceptance, and love from others; but when we finally catch one— I got one!—the allure dims and we let it go in order to chase another who’s light shines just a bit more brightly. We lose years this way: one after another, after another, after another; until there’s nothing shiny left to chase, nothing left worth catching . All of the initial glow of life fades and the world becomes a dull and dark place.
Our lives feel almost over and we have nothing but an empty jar to show for our efforts—when all we want is to be truly seen, to be truly found. That is why we keep blinking out messages, S.O.S flashes that get lost in the cacophony of everybody else doing the same thing all around us.
We lose ourselves in the static of creatures calling, drowning each other out in the dark. It is like the sound of a thousand insects crawling over each other to find the one way out that something tells them is still there. Something that insists in a small, still voice to all insects, beasts, fish and man that there is a path to freedom, if only they would just follow it. That’s why we keep sending signals out into the night, long after the sun has set. We hope somebody or something out there will hear us, will reach through the static and extend hope— like a small, bright light blinking in the darkness.
No finite point has meaning without an infinite reference point. Jean-Paul Sartre