When We Used To Glow by Tom McAllister

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outstretched hand holding lightning bug

All summer, we’ve been talking about how there used to be more lightning bugs—some people call them fireflies, not the name I grew up with—and I’m worried that what we’re really talking about is how we used to be younger, how we used to run around in the yard without worrying about the degenerative arthritis in our ankles, used to imprison those little miracles between clasped hands and stare in wonder as light pulsed in the gap between our fingers like E.T.’s heartbeat, used to free them sometimes but more often crush them in our palms because it was easy and because the other kids were doing it, used to smear the phosphorescent goo from their corpses across our cheekbones and our foreheads in consecration, used to run over to our parents all smiles and demand they witness us glowing like something out of Neverland, used to go back and capture more and more until at some point we were too tired to stand.

When we say there used to be more lightning bugs, I’m afraid we’re really talking about how our parents used to be alive. I’m afraid we’re saying there was a time when anything seemed possible, and now we can barely remember it. I’m afraid I’m on the verge of following all those Facebook pages that post a picture of chalk erasers with a caption like “If you know what these are you had a great life.” I’m afraid if I let it go too far, I’ll convince myself I did have a great life.

I remember summer nights looking out and seeing hundreds of them flashing in the trees. Sometimes one landed on my arm and I resisted the urge to swat it away, bathing in its light. Now, I can go a whole week without seeing even one. When I google “Are there fewer lightning bugs today,” I get mixed results, but choose to relate the information that most hews to my beliefs. I tell my wife the internet confirms their population is in decline, but nobody is sure why. Pesticides maybe. Climate change maybe. Good enough guesses. My wife used to text her father early in the summer, whenever she saw the first lightning bug of the season. He would reply “Wonderful!” He’s dead now, but she still feels that urge to text him. That’s one of the ways you keep someone alive.

The seasons are not what they used to be either—summer is longer and hotter now, and we pinball between droughts and severe storms that sometimes last a week. New Jersey gets regular tornados between May and October. The rhythms of our lives are out of sync with the planet. In early August, we sat outside on a cool summer night (shorts, sweatshirt half-zipped) and talked about how every summer night used to be like this. It could be that this is just a new phase of life, where we yearn for a time that never really existed. But I think you can feel it too. It’s not the same out there.

We don’t use plastic wrap or Ziploc bags anymore. We buy reusable and recycled products whenever possible. We stopped serving guests on plastic; too many times we hauled out three full bags of trash with nothing but cups & plates & forks & knives that would outlive us all. Every couple months there’s a new article about how recycling doesn’t work, has never worked. We keep doing it, because it still seems preferable to the alternative. It is important to us to feel like we’re being good people. I take a fish oil supplement every morning because my cholesterol is too high and getting higher. I want easy fixes. I want my choices to matter. Ideally, only the good ones.

A few years ago a friend from Portland traveled across the country to visit, and we were sitting outside on our deck when some lightning bugs emerged in the night sky. My friend had never seen one in real life and, she later confessed, she’d been halfway convinced they were a mythical creature. Something that existed only to populate the background in cartoons; a figure you insert into a story to suggest the possibility of magic. When she saw her first lightning bug, she leaped out of her seat and ran down into the yard, running in circles and chasing them, calling out to us and laughing, exactly the way we used to do.

Meet the Contributor

Tom McAllisterTom McAllister is the author of the novels How to Be Safe and The Young Widower’s Handbook. His essay collection It All Felt Impossible will be published by Rose Metal Press in April 2025. He is the nonfiction editor at Barrelhouse and co-host of the Book Fight! Podcast. He lives in New Jersey.

Image Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Lindsey Turner

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