Firepits and Fireflies

They say smell is the sense most closely linked to memories. Which is why, I suppose, nothing takes me back like the scent of burning wood. Doesn’t matter if it’s a campfire under a July moon or a wood burning stove pumping its aroma from the chimney in the dead of winter; a hint of fire in the air always transports me to my childhood summers.

I lived in the city, but summers were spent with my grandparents in a little bungalow in the country. We had no television or phone (which back then were the only electronics anyone really had), and so our days were spent climbing trees, swimming, reading and indulging our imaginations. Back then, an ordinary “game” meant something like turning the porch table into a restaurant that served salads made of grass and dandelions, which could be ordered from a menu written in crayon, and paid for with leaves and rocks (to represent bills and coins, of course).

Heat was another amenity we didn’t have in the bungalow, so a bonfire burned outside each night, where we’d gather to roast marshmallows, tell stories and soak up some warmth before retreating indoors to snuggle under thick army blankets with Grandma’s hot water bottle as she read aloud to us from a chapter book.

While the fire was being built, we’d catch fireflies in glass jars, hunt for the best marshmallow roasting stick, and grab a last ride on the swings before the dusk faded to black. Once the darkness fell, the orange glow of the fire was a beacon, calling us back to the only place left that our eyes could see.

When I think of those days and the images of kids running in the fading light of day, catching fireflies in a jar, roasting marshmallows by a campfire, stargazing….I can’t help but think of how much my memories resemble some of the modern day memes I often see on social media. Memes about once upon a time childhoods peppered with dreamy quotes about how things should be today – how they would be if not for the dousing of bonfire beacons in exchange for the light of a mobile screen.

I’m not going to lie. My summers were spent in the country, completely free of electronic distractions, but back in the city for the other ten months of the year, most of my face to face interactions were with a television screen or gaming system. So, when my own kids reach for a screen, I really do understand the appeal. But, when I look back on my childhood, the things I remember most, the memories I hold dearest, all come from those summers where imagination and nature were the only source of entertainment.

I think that’s why I decided to leave the city and raise my kids in the country. I wanted them to have year-round what I had for a short season each year. But real life is not an internet meme, nor does it run on nostalgia and good intentions. As much as I’d like to pretend it is so, we are not exactly living some idyllic, device-free existence, fueled solely by fresh air and imagination. We are, however,  trying to create a happy medium of sorts, where our devices are not driving the bus (even though they are invited along for the ride).

I think homeschooling certainly helps us steer things toward the desired direction. This lifestyle affords us more time to enjoy a balance (more time overall, actually), so no one is clamoring for their must-have screen time in the twelve minutes of free time that exists between coming home from one day of public school and getting ready for the next day of public school.  Homeschooling also gives us the opportunity to explore various avenues of entertainment (both on and off screen).

Rural living, on the other hand, means long, snowy winters that keep us indoors more days than we’d prefer. That’s when the cell phones and tablets really turn up the charm, and often even I will find myself logged in for longer than planned.

I’ve considered the idea of a device-free summer. But so far, we haven’t needed to go to such extremes. We’ve been spending more time outdoors, thanks to a really generous stretch of beautiful summer weather, a really fantastic group of homeschooling friends to gather with, and a plethora of local lakes, parks and hiking trails to enjoy. There’s also our own pool and fire pit, along with quite a few lighting bugs flickering in the backyard. What I’ve found this year is that the more time we spend outside, the more we naturally gravitate toward spending even more time outside. And that’s less time to worry about what is happening on our screens. We’ve even returned from outings to find devices left unplugged and drained of their batteries because in their excitement to venture out, the kids forgot to charge them.

Maybe it’s a sign that we’re doing something right; that when they grow up their fondest memories, too, will be of warm days in the pool and cool nights under the moon.

And someday, in the dead of winter, perhaps they’ll catch the scent of someone’s fireplace on the wind and be transported back to magical summers spent roasting marshmallows around the bonfire.

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