In the long evenings of summertime after supper, the grownups would take chairs from the kitchen to the front porch and sit there watching over us children as we chased fireflies in the front yard. It wasn’t the “cool of the evening”; in rural Georgia there was no such thing, but at least work was over, it was deep shade, and every now and then a small breeze did bless us with a brief visit. It was dusk, and it didn’t last for long but we enjoyed it while it did.
The children would run down the steps barefoot and out into the yard, swept clean and clear under Granny’s direction nearly every day, carrying our jars to collect the little glittering stars that flew around us everywhere, teasing us, turning off their lights as we grasped at them to catch them and put into our jars. We squealed and laughed and bumped into each other, not noticing the growing dark. The horizon on the fields across the road grew ever dimmer and the great looming darkness of the pinewoods came ever closer to us.
When one of the grownups would get up and go inside to light a kerosene lamp, we would know that our play was over and we’d have to go inside, wash our feet, and go to bed, but we made the most of the darkness and the play while we could. Sometimes, a little flying star would tease us too close to the edge of our watched-over safety, and we’d hear, “Now, don’t you go past that persimmon tree!” We’d hear that with a child’s kind of unacknowledged gratitude, not with irritation, because it made us know that we were cared far, watched over, and that gave us a freedom that children who have no persimmon tree boundaries can never know.
This image has returned to me many times over the nearly seven decades since then. I’ve learned that freedom exists only within loving boundaries, I’ve learned that we should never take for granted those who wait and watch over us.
When it was time to go inside we released our jarfuls of stars, letting them fly on their way. We never tried to keep them cruelly in their prisons, for we’d had our play and now they should have theirs.
Just after the recent election when people formed mobs and threatened everything from suicide to homicide in their rage and bitterness, a news commentator said, “Well, you have to understand—they have no God, so they’ve made politics their god. Of course they’re passionate. They’re true believers in their ideology.” In their zeal, these children chase the fireflies into the woods and get lost there. They hold them in their jars until they die and their fire goes out and they have to get new ones to replace them. Because without them, there is only darkness. One so wants to say, Please realize that these are just transient little glittering things. Look at them, enjoy them and let them go. What is real, what matters, is back there on the porch, worrying for you. Where have you gone?