The beauty of lightning bugs, or fireflies, can't be captured by the photographer or painter. On, then off; first here, now over there – the invisibility is the art.
For me, seasons are arbitrary. This year, summer started when I looked out on a field of beans while driving through the Ohio countryside, where ever-changing constellations of lightning bugs were keeping an irregular beat.
I can't help but smile when I see lightning bugs. I remember being barefoot and shirtless, scattering across the yard with the other kids, arms outstretched, hands ready to snap shut gently, my focus shifting from one pulse of light to the next.
Caution was required to avoid tripping over the balls, bats, rackets, and lawn darts left over from a successful day of play. Saplings that we had nursed through the dry summer and parents in lawn chairs provided their own unique challenges.
There was always that moment of questioning after making a lunge at a darting dot of light: Do I have more than air? Then it would happen – yellow light filling the spaces between my fingers. A miracle!
I ran to Mom and opened my hands a crack, showing her my treasure. If the lightning bug flew away, I would run off to capture another. Mom would head into the house. I'd wait by her lawn chair. The ice-cream maker's motor droned behind the adults' conversation. Why they weren't chasing lightning bugs was beyond me.
Cousins and friends ran this way and that, jealous of me because I had one flashing in my hands. I was jealous of their running and laughing and longed to rejoin them. After all, the hunt was the best part.
Finally, Mom arrived with the Mason jar, the kind that grandmas use for canning string beans. Delicately, I made the switch and topped the jar with aluminum foil full of small holes Mom had punched.
By the time the ice cream was ready, I had three or four lightning bugs in my jar. They flashed at my feet as I shoveled ice cream into my mouth. Then it was back to the hunt.
After everyone left, I crashed on the living room floor and later magically awoke in my bed next to my teddy bear.
The Mason jar sitting on my nightstand lighted my room, my face, and my dreams. By morning the jar had lost its magic, its occupants motionless on the bottom.
But now the summers of childhood are over. I now know the lightning bug is a beetle. And I know that the male lightning bug flashes to attract females to mate, and females respond with their own flashes. Not only do I know what bioluminescence is, I can spell it, too.
I know that if I fall asleep on the living-room floor, no one will carry me to bed.
I know that there are things in this world and in this life that you can't hold on to forever. You can try to preserve them in glass jars, but by morning they'll be gone.
I know that fall will be followed by winter, winter followed by spring, and spring by the return of lightning bugs.
I went the entire summer last year without catching a single lightning bug. I'm quicker, taller, and faster than I used to be. When it comes to catching lightning bugs, I'm in my prime. I've got no excuse.
So this summer, I'll kick off my shoes, get out of the lawn chair, and catch one. After that, who knows?
Lightning bugs aren't easy to catch, but they're even harder to let go.