Lights and Fireflies

Tonight I almost tripped over a firefly.

Well, not exactly. I was out for a run and it was around 9 at night. By that time, nearly the only light in my suburban neighborhood comes from scattered lampposts and the flickering of televisions in living room windows. Which means it’s hard to see uneven sidewalks elevated by tree roots, especially if you’re distracted by the first firefly of the season.

Every year I look forward to that first firefly – it’s as if the illuminated case holds within it all the wonders of childhood summer: dripping popsicles and ice cream cones, late night sprinklers, playing out in the streets and watching thunderstorms from my bedroom window. My birthday.

But now it’s a different kind of summer, because for first time in years I’m totally and completely free. And of course, this may be my last summer in that sense.

Having just graduated from college, I’ve been struggling to accept that sense of freedom, since my previous life was defined by never being free. I can’t accept summer for what it is, an open in-between period when it’s acceptable to spend hours shopping or tanning at the pool. I can’t accept that I should relax. (But should I?)  

Apparently, there’s no need to power walk to the pantry just to get a handful of crackers and get back to work. I can sleep in if I want to, and accompanying my mother on a long trip to the grocery store will make no difference in my plans for the day, and will certainly not set me back from the nonexistent pile of work I still need to get done.

Because my goals — write more often, keep up with the news, spend more time with my family — are all rather vague “self-improvement” goals that do not have a set timeline. But I have this irrational fear that by letting down my guard, by not filling my free days with something like the antithesis of relaxation, I’ll lose the drive that powered me through my college years.

As I continued my run tonight, which itself had been an escape from my too-relaxing book and movie, I realized this summer is so unlike “real life” that it’s hard to define what my ideal summer would even be. By the time I made my way back up the road, careful to watch for tree roots, the fireflies had retreated to wherever they go between dusk and dawn.

I opened the door to my house, greeted by central air and the possibility of spending the rest of my night doing whatever I feel like.

It’s summer and I’m not sure what that will mean.

Praying for headlights

–Published 4/16/12 in The Observer.

“Wagon Wheel” by Old Crow Medicine Show is one of those songs college students love.

The moment that distinctive introduction blares from the speakers, arms link, glasses clink and the room erupts in cheering.

In true spring break road trip style, “Wagon Wheel” played multiple times on our drive from South Bend down to South Carolina a few weeks ago.

The first time it came on, I was behind the wheel and we had just crossed the Kentucky-Tennessee state line. We had all been silent for awhile, enjoying the green and gold scenery that unfolded before us. The open road softly rose and fell as we sped at 80 miles per hour south down I-75.

The lyrics of “Wagon Wheel” filled the empty space between us, representing all the things we were thinking, but hadn’t said.

In my head, I tried to define what the song is about. On one level, the song is about freedom — having the freedom to pursue what matters most. It’s about remembering the people and places you care about after being away for a long time.

As a senior in college, this aspect of the song seems especially relevant. I’ve spent months abroad and summers away in different cities. In four years, my younger siblings have grown up, and people in my childhood neighborhood have moved out. Like the narrator, I’ve gone away to mature, and will return both different and the same.

“Wagon Wheel” is also about the beauty of simplicity — that life can be reduced to a single person, a single car and a single desire. You don’t need to know the song to relate to it — the music reflects some reality about the future we all can find truth in.

On our way back to South Bend after spring break, “Wagon Wheel” came on again while I was driving. This time, it was about 10 p.m., dark and raining, and the song had a much more sobering effect.

I realized then that the song is bittersweet, even sad. Loneliness and regret infuse the lyrics because the past still weighs him down. It’s possible that after all those years of longing, after seventeen-straight hours of driving, his vision for a new life could be shattered.

At its core, however, “Wagon Wheel” is about faith. It’s about having faith that the one you love will still be there when you come home, about having faith that you can drive straight into the unknown and everything will end up okay.

With May 20 quickly approaching, I feel like I’m speeding at 80 miles per hour towards graduation, and after that, the unknown. But before then, I hope to share a few more swaying “Wagon Wheels” at Finny’s, indulging in one of those rare moments when we all feel exactly the same thing.