Fireflies and the First Dance

We didn’t see them coming. They surrounded us as we lay in lounge chairs on the beach, wrapped up in sleeping bags–because even though it was late June, nights were still cold on the sandy shores of Lake Superior.

We had been too engrossed in laziness, watching the horizon change colors, melding from pink to red to dark blue. We had been too captivated by the lights of the ore boats gliding across the surface of the lake, following them as they crested the horizon, then faded away into the distance, listening for the soft hum of the engines, and actually being able to hear them from miles away in the deep silence. We had been too focused on spotting the first few stars as they revealed themselves in the moonless, darkening sky.

The first fireflies that flitted about on the periphery of our eyesight–before the great horde enveloped us–had seemed like nothing unusual. They’re a common sight in the northern landscape on summer nights. They’re something all children, at one time or another, has chased across their backyard at a late night barbecue, or has captured in a jar to ponder for a while, marvelling at the magic of the odd, cold light until their parents made them unscrew the lid and set the winged creature free. Although fireflies make an appearance every summer, it is only for a few, short weeks, and it was a lucky night when we saw two or three in the yard.

They affirmed for me, as a child, that there really was magic in the world.

This magic of the firefly begins when they hatch from eggs in late summer into larvae, known as glowworms. They live in the soil for a few years, then construct a mud chamber in the soil into which they settle. In this little mud chamber, their larval body is broken down and they transform into their adult form, emerging when the conditions are right as the twinking firefly, ready for its first sky dance. This stage of flickering light lasts only three to four weeks while the fireflies mate. There are many species of fireflies around the world, and all of them undergo this metamorphosis on their life journey.

Although my husband and I both enjoyed fireflies in our childhood, the great swarm that surrounded us so swiftly and silently was not our usual experience. We discovered, as we looked behind us at the wide expanse of beach to the tree line, that instead of one or two lights, the entire pine forest was alight, as if hundreds of strands of lights had been strung while we were watching the sun slide behind the lake. Thousands upon thousands of nature’s strobe lights danced in the night sky around us, twinkling and bobbing erratically down the vast sand beach stretching for miles in either direction.

It was a firefly dance party on the beach, and we had crashed it.

As the stars appeared, one by one, or in two or threes, the sky began to mimic the beach. I would  look away for one momenyt, watching a spectacular firefly dance move, and when my eyes returned to the sky I would find three new stars were out, as bright as if they had been there all along. The Big Dipper appeared directly in front of us over the lake, poised to scoop water out of the great basin.

As it grew darker, the Milky Way revealed itself, stretching across the sky from the lake horizon,  sweeping over our heads, then disappearing behind the treeline. When it was full night, we could no longer see the line between water and sky. All that remained was darkness and light.

The firelies did not radiate enough light to make it brighter, but held a light that was self-contained, like the stars. Their biolumenescence, which is caused by a chemical reaction, is the most efficient in the world, with all of the energy being emitted as light and none as heat. But to me, it just seemed like the stars had come to Earth to spend the evening on the beach with us.  And they were dancing.

I have thought about that night many times since. It is my happy place, where I go to reaffirm the dream that my life can be whatever I make of it…and to remind myself that there really is magic in the world.

I have seen the stars dancing.

It was the night I began to metamorphise as well. I had been in my mud chamber, burrowed in the ground, being broken down. I was ready to begin transforming, springing forth wings and learning to sparkle and fly.

I brought home two rocks from the beach that had been rounded by the waves. They have embedded stones and swirls within them. Though they are gray and somewhat drab, the amalgamation reminds me of the fireflies, the swirls, the milky way. They sit on my writing desk as a reminder of that night; a reminder that perfect moments do happen, and that I have to cherish them, hold them in my thoughts, continuously smoothing them, remembering.

Since then, I have made many changes in my life–at times fearlessly, and at times merely pretending to be fearless.

I’ve found it works either way.

There are many more steps to go before I can say I danced without abandon on the beach under the Milky Way on an inky black, summer night. But I keep working towards it. I have felt a few flickers of light within and my wings are getting stronger every day…

The Secret to Happiness

The small, yellow cabin on the shore of Lake Superior was built by our friend’s father in the 1950s. It faces west, toward the vast lake and a sandy beach that stretches for miles in either direction. To the north, a rocky shoreline rises and curves, creating a long sweeping bay. A monastery is perched on the cliff, hidden entirely by thick tree cover, except for the large metal cross on the peak which occasionally catches afternoon sunlight. The monks who live there have a small store where they sell baked goods and homemade jam from raspberries and thimbleberries they grow on their property. To the south there is only beach, with a small, sandy point miles away, reaching out into the lake, creating the other arm of the bay. Past that, I don’t know…

When my husband and I arrived in the Keweenaw Peninsula I didn’t know how that beach was going to change me. I didn’t know that over the course of five days I would learn the secret to happiness.

The beach is over a hundred feet of soft sand from the edge of the tree line to the water, and it’s the kind of sand that sings when you walk on it–but only the dry sand, the saturated sand near the shore is silent. The sound of the lake is a melodic roar, a series of continuous notes creating a resonance that penetrates everything. It pulls, reaches out and eases tensions with its song. Being near it, I felt the relaxation similar to those few moments before I fall sleep when my body lets go of tension and sinks into comfort. I was ready to sink into that quiet serenity for days.

The first day was a typical June day in the Upper Peninsula, with temperatures wavering around seventy degrees, humidity so low that bright, blue sky could be seen between the branches of the pine trees, and a cool breeze cruising in from Lake Superior. As evening approached, we built a fire in the cabin’s wood-stove to combat the chill. Through the trunks of the tall red and white pines, we watched the sun set over the lake. I sat in a rocking chair by the fire and gazed out the front picture window at the oncoming night, thinking of the days when this was normal life, before the invasion of noise and too much information into every nook and cranny of our existence. The quiet, the dark, the disconnect was a relief. After my husband fell asleep, I spent many more hours sitting, thinking nothing, alone in the dark, with only the amber glow of fire for light. Ore boats passed silently by in the distance, gliding along the horizon.

The second day we walked around the camp searching for the fabled Pink Lady’s Slipper that we‘d heard recently bloomed. Lady’s Slippers are rare orchids which grow only in unique conditions. We found six in one sunken area in the woods, soft and mysterious, all connected by underground rhizomes. Then we found two by the beach, facing the lake as if they were gazing out across the water as I had been the night before. Later in the afternoon, we stumbled across another hiding near the wood shed. That night, inside the cabin, I read the book “The Legend of the Lady’s Slipper” which the owner of the cabin had thoughtfully left out. It tells the tale of an Native American girl who saves her village by traveling out in a terrible blizzard to a neighboring village for medicine. After sinking in the snow and losing her moccasins, she walks home barefoot, barely making it back, leaving bloody tracks in the snow. In the spring her footprints have become Lady’s Slippers.

The woman who owns the cabin has been an artist and art teacher for over 40 years. Her husband built the camp and they spent many summers here with their children. It is a place filled with love and creative energy, decorated with intriguing nature-inspired art: creatures made from driftwood and stones, animal tracks that have been plaster-cast and hung on the wall, jars of agates and other interesting rocks. Everything about the place inspired creativity. The ground around the cabin was a soft bed of pine needles and pine cones, with occasional strips and rings of birch bark. I found a scale of a red pine tree that resembled a child looking up with a curious expression, then found a piece that resembled the face of an old woman. I put the two together on a piece of birchbark with another piece of birchbark as flowing hair. It took a picture, then put them back outside calling it temporary art. I picked up rocks and driftwood on the beach, followed bird tracks in winding circles and studied the wind and water patterns in the sand.

My eyes were continuously drawn toward the water, and my feet led me back repeatedly to the shore. Every morning, every afternoon, every evening, called for walks on the beach.

The second night we wrapped ourselves in blankets and reclined in chairs on the beach.  A deer made a surprising appearance and even a few eagles. The slight, cool wind kept the mosquitos away as we watched the sunset. It took so long for the sky to grow dark! Dozens of shades of blue made their appearance, along with a few reds and pinks.

Then the fireflies appeared. First one, then ten, then hundreds, maybe thousands. All around us, down the beach and in the trees, magical lights flickered and bobbed.

Then came the stars. The Milky Way stretched from behind the lake over our heads into the trees. It was brighter than I had ever seen before! The Big Dipper spread across the sky in front of us, pouring its water directly into the lake. The fireflies made a spectacular showing, dancing all through the night. I couldn’t tell if the stars had come to Earth to dance with us or if the fireflies had made it all the way into the sky.

The third night we watched it grow dark again, except that night the air was thick and humid and the sky overcast. We walked the beach, hoping we could again watch the darkness overtake the day, but the bugs were too hungry. We ran for cover into the large screened porch filled with buckets of driftwood and decorated with colored globe lights on a string, fishing nets, a buoy that had washed up on shore, and a handmade brick on the table by the front door that had the impression of just one word in it.  Enjoy.

As I sat in the cedar swing, winded from running, smelling of campfire and putting Xs on my bug bites with my fingernail, I looked toward the lake and had a deep epiphany. The moment I thought it, contentment swelled and filled me…or possibly it emptied me…either way, I knew. That’s what it’s all about.

It’s the secret to life.

It’s the meaning of life.

Enjoy.

That’s the plan for us–we are here to enjoy.

It’s so easy! Enjoy!

That was exactly what we’d been doing all weekend. It was why we were able to walk the beach, again and again, without care. It was how we could just stare at the fire for hours or spend an afternoon seeking rare flowers in the forest. We were enjoying. Only that. It was something we desperately needed and were not allowing ourselves to do enough in our daily lives.

It’s incredible how hard it is to enjoy the wonderful things in the world and enjoy our precious lives. We always seem to be working toward some goal, continuously planning or achieving, concerned about our image, our reputation. We very rarely just ‘enjoy.’ The concept was so foreign to me, that I knew when I went back to my life I would actually have to work hard to do it. I laughed at the irony  to cover up the fact that I was a little ashamed. 

My husband looked at me quizzically, and I told him I just discovered the secret to happiness, picking up the brick and showing him. Before either of us had a chance to say a word, an icy breeze blew through the porch and the first lightning flashed over the lake. A moment later lightning flashed again and we began to hear thunder. A storm was coming. A warm front and a cold front were battling above the lake. First we would feel the warm front enveloping us like a hot, humid breath, then a cold blast of arctic air would chill the moisture on our skin. The winds fought for over an hour and we had begun to give up on the storm ever reaching us when we heard the deafening roar of billions of raindrops pounding the sand and water. It was so loud, so deep, rolling up the beach from the south, that I honestly became afraid. The wind picked up and the trees bent and swayed, then it was upon us.

The power went out immediately, which didn’t bother us since we only had the string of colored globes on. I lit a few candles and we sat in the dark, listening to the storm. After a while I realized I needed to feel the rain, so I stepped outside, barefoot, under the pine trees, and closed my eyes, turning my face upwards to feel the cold, refreshing rain. I opened my mouth, wanting the storm to become a part of me, catching raindrops on my tongue. Some of them were pine flavored.

Within moments I was drenched, but it was the most cleansing and revitalizing shower I have ever taken. 

After five days I was renewed. Like the lake, the things that were deep within me were swept from the bottom and pulled to the shore, to be examined like driftwood or tumbled stones. “Ah, here we see evidence of a shipwreck…and over here, a red stone tumbled and beaten upon the rocks until the edges are smooth and worn…and over here a jawbone of a fish…and there, a feather.” At times there was simply water and sand.

The final day we did the same things, walked the beach, picked up driftwood, sat in front of a fire. We enjoyed the silence. I had been afraid of silence, afraid to be alone with my own thoughts, afraid of what demons may arise. But during those beach days no demons arose, no fears, no regrets, only clarity. I realized the secret to happiness–that I have much to be thankful for, and so much that is worthy of enjoyment in my life. All I needed to do was take the time to enjoy it.