Lightning Bug Liturgy
by Kristen Bird
As a kid growing up in north Alabama, I would watch the intermittent glow of lightning bugs, and in these evening moments, my mind was calm, focused on the beetle-sized marvels suspended mid-flight. When I caught one in my cupped hands, the tiny legs tickled my skin like an eyelash against a fingertip. Sometimes I would beg for a glass jar and trap them inside, my own little night light, until it was bedtime and my Nana told me to release them so they wouldn’t die. Lightning bugs, called fireflies in some parts of the country, can have a year-long lifespan, meaning that they can survive cold winters as well as squelching summer heat, so I’m glad she didn’t let me needlessly murder them.
If you’ve never caught lightning bugs, first, you’re missing out. I live near Houston, Texas now, and because of the heat, humidity, and urban sprawl, I only see these creatures once in a blue moon. Secondly, here’s what you’re missing: fireflies are not fast moving bugs and they emit light as a form of communication, so as soon as you spot the flashes, you can run in their general direction and have a fair chance of waving one into your outstretched hand.
I was a nervous kid, and by that I mean this: when I was five years old, I had the hallmark ingredients of generalized anxiety disorder sprinkled with a teaspoon of OCD. But in 1988 in a small town in north Alabama, we didn’t know much about mental health, and besides, we liked to serve up denial along with our hot-out-of-the-oven banana pudding. I was fine and my family was fine and everything was fine. Really.
One place I do remember actually being fine was on summer nights at my grandparents’ campground near Guntersville Lake. On those nights, my Nana would sit outside of her elaborate camper on the wooden deck my grandfather had built and chat with ladies from nearby campsites. With the hum of their conversations in my ears, I would run around the grass, catching lightning bugs.
Lightning bugs only shine intermittently for about a half hour each evening at dusk, and I can’t help but relate this insect’s nightly activity to my own more recent experience practicing liturgies. Many of us from the Deep South grew up with at least a cursory understanding of the Baptist or Methodist traditions, which observe The Lord’s Supper and the basic church calendar. Those more accustomed to high church may have recited the Apostles Creed, walked the Stations of the Cross, or even Prayed the Hours.
Including these formal practices as well as more mundane daily activities hadn’t been on my radar until I recently read Tish Warren Harrison’s Liturgy of the Ordinary, a memoir-esque collection of essays about daily practices that can carry symbolic and healing weight. She reminds the reader that simple acts such as brushing one’s teeth each morning or doing laundry each week can provide opportunities to reflect, to mature, to slow.
As a child, I didn’t know the term liturgy, and I certainly wouldn’t have associated running after flying insects with my mental health or spirituality. But from this vantage point three decades later, I can see how watching for these glimpses of light in the evening hour allowed my anxious mind to pause and be still. I can see how running toward the luminescent creatures gave my body physical exercise, and I can see how holding the creatures in my hand and planting my bare feet in the soft grass connected me to nature and grounded my body in place.
As an adult, part of my personal wellness is the regular act of spending time in the quiet of nature as well as the daily activity of sitting in a blue chair in my closet, completely silent, sometimes praying, sometimes simply being. Such routines have provided anchoring points during the season of COVID and beyond, helping me find stillness in the midst of increasing frenzy as life returns to some kind of normal.
Next week one of my children will start therapy for her own struggle with anxiety. This past summer we returned home to the Appalachian foothills to see family, and I’ll never forget introducing her to my old pastime. In the middle of July, we took a late-evening walk in the humid heat, hand in hand, and at the edge of the pine woods, I spotted a flicker in the dark. I pointed the lightning bugs out to her and watched wonder cross her face. Together, we ran toward the twinkling light.
To see her characters catch lightning bugs as they grapple with their own family trauma, check out Kristen Bird’s most recent psychological suspense novel set in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains near her hometown in Alabama. I Love It When You Lie is available for preorder now. Her debut novel, The Night She Went Missing, is set in Galveston. She currently teaches high school English and lives outside of Houston, Texas, with her husband, three daughters and lab mix.
This is one of our “Slowing Down” accepted submissions. Read the rest from this theme here.