I remember the first time I saw a firefly. Time stopped – literally – like someone had frozen life in its frame and all that moved were the small, glowing lights drifting through the darkness.
Birmingham, AL – 2008. My family was unloading the car and dragging suitcases into the house we’d be staying at for the week. We were in town for the National High School Speech and Debate tournament. My mind was filled with things that tend to preoccupy sixteen-ish year old girls: friends, boys, clothes, foreign policy and international treaty reform… But the hours of riding in a muggy, cramped car and the apprehensions of the coming week vanished when those fireflies appeared.
The rest of the week I could count on sitting on the hood of our car for a few minutes and letting all my worries melt away – it didn’t matter that my braces hadn’t come off in time for the tournament or that I was the only one of my friends not to advance in my category. It didn’t matter that so-and-so hadn’t talked to me or that next year seemed confusing and far away. It was just me and the fireflies.
But we don’t have fireflies in San Diego, so when life gets overwhelming I have to close my eyes and picture them there instead. Usually that takes too much effort and I just find myself standing in a VONS line with four boxes of fudgesicles.
Although I’ve cut back on the fudgesicles (they are hard to find in Prague), I continue to dream about fireflies – or maybe now it’s just a dream of a safe place where, for a moment, everything is okay.
Tatras Mountains, Slovakia – 2010. The first summer I came to Europe I heard that they sometimes had fireflies in the woods so I led an expedition into the forest one evening to find some. We came up empty-handed but when we finally gave up the search, we found ourselves in a meadow under a sky threaded with stars.
“There are your fireflies,” said one girl. We watched them twinkle thousands of miles away and the disappointment of not finding glowing bugs, the cuts on our legs, even the language barrier dissolved into the inky night. That girl still calls me Maruška Světluška (Mary-Firefly).
But it’s been a long year in Prague. Some of it has been magical. Some of it has felt a lot like eating a PB&J with too much peanut butter – it doesn’t taste too bad but it’s really, really hard to get down.
And honestly, I had no idea how much I missed home.
For that reason (among many, many others) English Camp last week was wonderful. Most of the people on the team are not just old friends or family friends; they’re people from my neighborhood! They know my family and my church and my favorite burrito joint! We share similar senses of humor, mutual friends and experiences, and the same faith.
Šumava, Czech Republic – 2014. Towards the end of the week I got the overwhelming sense that I was about to be left behind. Like that feeling you get on Sunday evening when the weekend is finished and Monday is about to start – the week ahead seems so long and you’re wishing you could be back in Saturday afternoon. You don’t want to go to bed because it means waking up to a new week, but there’s nothing left for you in the old one.
Even though I love, love living and serving here in Prague and I have made so many sweet, kind friends, there is no place like home.
So on Thursday night I cornered my good friend and fairy-godmother, Autumn, at the bonfire and we walked a few yards away from the quiet chatter and soft music around the campfire. Sitting on the stairs I just sort of poured out my worries about the next year – how long and lonely it looks – and she listened the way she always does.
We were occasionally interrupted by children running up wanting hugs or people offering us s’mores, but for the most part, we just sat there in the shadows cast by the crackling fire having a heart-to-heart – one last time before she left two days later.
And you know what happened? (Of course you don’t – it’s my story).
Two little kids ran up to us, faces glowing, with tiny bugs in their hands. I instinctively pulled away but Autumn waved me closer.
“Look, Mary,” she said. “They’re glowworms.”
I leaned in. There, crawling around on the sweaty palm of an excited 9-year old, was a magical, mysterious little bug that lit up like a lantern.
The bugs came and went with the kids, some in handfuls and some as lone passengers. Finally, one little girl brought over a bug that was badly injured. Autumn took off her shoe, ready to smash it.
“You can’t kill it!” I cried out.
“It’s dying,” she explained. “It’s better to just put it out of its misery.”
I’m not huge on killing insects, certainly not magical ones like these, so I turned my head until I heard the swap of the shoe against the cement stair. Then I heard two soft, “Aaaaaaws.”
There, in a morbidly beautiful streak, was the trail of light left by the bug, still glowing.
Amazing, how things can continue to give off light after life has left them.
My friend left on Saturday and I’m not sure when I’ll see her again. The rest of the gang left over the course of the short weekend. But I feel like they are still here with me, glowing in the dark long after they’ve gone.
I think God gives us little things in life because he realizes how much we need a picture of that perfect place that is safe with no worries or concerns, a picture of our future home. I believe God knows how much we need friends in the dark, stars in the sky and places with fireflies.