Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Light a Candle








Strictly as sources of light, candles are pretty cumbersome, in my experience. When "the power" got knocked out in the Sierra Nevada, we first went for the flashlights and then the candles. We didn't have enough bona fide candle-holders, so sometimes we'd heat the bottom of a candle and stick the candle on a saucer--precariously.

No matter what kind of holder you use, you have to walk very slowly with a candle. Then: where do you place the candles in the house? How do you make sure they don't start an unwanted fire? If you use them to read by, how do you position them? It's all quite complicated in a pre-Modern way.

We go through the same thing if and when the power goes out in the Northwest.

At the same time, candles are an immense source of fascination and can be a source of comfort. I didn't take up any religion, per se, until I was pretty far along in life (the year 2000), when I converted to Catholicism at St. Leo Parish. But when I was in Europe two decades before that, I still liked visiting cathedrals, chapels, and churches. They are cavernous, built of stone, and cold, and often (as with gothic cathedrals) the architecture is, as they say, "out there." So what's not to like? The gargoyles can be awfully fascinating, too--and the stained class, obviously.

At any rate, I always lit candles (and contriuted to the candle-fund by putting coins in a box) when I visited these places. Often I lit one for Charlie Epps, or rather for my memory of him. Charlie and another guy were killed in a car wreck one week before we all graduated from high school. The event permanently marked a lot of us who knew them. Perhaps it made us grow up, in some respects, more quickly. Hard to say.

. . . What is one doing, exactly, by "lighting a candle for" someone? Opinions vary about this quesiton. Even so, there seems to be a note of comfort there, or at least a focusing of the mind, regardless of the reason why the lighter lights the candle.

In Germany, in 1981, a colleague took me to an ancient church in the town of Kiedrich, near the Rhein. The parish had received permission to continue using the Latin liturgy. The pews were made of stone. The acolytes, et al., used large incense-burners, and there were candles lit everywhere. I knew very little about Catholicism then, chiefly the historical background, so I was very much a spectator, an outsider, a tourist. But the experience was a bit like being launched just for a moment back into the Medieval era.

In Sweden, candles are a huge part of the Christmas season, and they're associated with St. Lucia. Because the sun doesn't come up for a while in Winter up there, the non-religious connection between Winter and light (candles) is obvious. But the variety of ways Swedes use candles at that time of year is impressive. . . .

. . .Apparently candles made of soy are more environmentally friendly than those made of wax. And I do hope candles made of whale tallow are 100% a thing of the past.

Nowadays aromatic candles seem to be quite the rage. I don't buy many of them, but I pick up quite a few in stores and sniff them. Technically, does this qualify as olfactory shop-lifting? I mean, my nose is taking molecules out of the store without paying for them.


Light a Candle


Sure, light a candle. Watch the wick, air,
and fire adjust to one another. Wait
as flame rights its posture. Glance at
gleaming liquid wax in a shallow pool
around the wick. Hear the nearly
inaudible sigh of oxygen as it expires.

Think your thoughts--or no thoughts:
stare. Consider someone afflicted, recall
someone gone long, say a prayer out loud
or silently, or say nothing. Flame seems
to center silence and the darkness. Light

a candle for a primitive impulse: flame
fascinates, it always has, and aromas
pique. Shadows perform. Light one
for a practical reason: to see better.

Light a candle and carry it in a silent
parade past the Power House. Or let
the candle stand. Stay home and subvert
the Power Houses simply by thinking
for yourself. Light a candle. Good idea.


Copyright 2009 Hans Ostrom
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