Poetry and Prose from the Center for Writers
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by DANIEL J. PINNEY
I light candles. It’s what I do. I’ve never been particularly godly, and while a number of my dear, dear friends are witchy folk, I can’t seem to bring myself to fully embrace their divergent theocracy any more than I can the more established and doctrinaire ones—you know, the kinds of faiths that construct buildings. Lighting candles seems like an acceptable middle ground, a symbolic truth that can be found in just about every religion one could name that has any sort of use for ritual. And ritual, I suppose, is kind of what it’s all about.
I don’t like candles that smell like anything. I’ve grown out of the coy and ultimately insincere romance that I pursued in my younger days with witchy folks with their attributions of virtues or powers or what have you. Sandalwood for purification. Attar of roses for…well, I don’t remember, exactly. The imposition of meaning is an important element of parsing any experience or attributing significance to any action, but such imposition can be overdone, and it usually is.
Essential oils are introduced into the candlemaking process, by those who want to make their candles either witchy or smelly. That seems to be the preferred method. If you’re doing it at home, you melt the raw wax in a double-boiler on the stove, drop in the proper solid dye slabs to achieve the color you’re going for, melt in some stearine globules so that your candles won’t melt in a sunbeam on a hot day, and dump in a dollop or two of essence of what-have-you to create the spiritual efficacy that you are going for, and ultimately you pour the whole mess into a mold, hopefully lubricated with some sort of aerosol-silicone stuff, so that the wax won’t adhere to the plastic of the mold as it cools, with a wick of the proper gauge tautly extended between the base of the mold and the top. I did all that, back when I used to make candles at home. Except for the oils, because I can’t bring myself to buy all the symbology, and because I don’t like smelly candles.
A candle is a ritual object, and an important one, because the basic symbolism is powerful. You shouldn’t over-elaborate on that symbolism, though, because you don’t need to. Flames generally burn hot, but a single candle doesn’t give off much heat, or indeed much light, in a darkened room. A single candle will seem very small in the darkness, and its flame will flicker and gutter with every draft, and that is the image that matters. All the other shit is just overextended metaphor.
Candles are a fine, symbolic, ritualistic shorthand for grief, or loss—a wish or a remembrance for those who have passed. They are light in the darkness, but a small and vulnerable light—a glimmer in a cold, cold place. I’ve lit candles on three separate occasions over the last year or so, before tonight—the one I lit one tonight I lit for complicated reasons.
I lit a candle last year, on October 12, for Laura, the woman I thought I was going to marry, who is with us no more. I lit a candle in the wee hours between January 31 and February 1, which was the vague attribution of the time of death for my brother, David, who died on that date, in that window of temporal opportunity, of indeterminate cause. I lit another candle for Laura sometime over the summer, because I was thinking of her and I missed her. Because it was summer, I also had the fans going in my apartment, and the candle sat atop one of my bookshelves, and with the breeze from the fans and my inattention once I’d lit it, it dripped white wax down across the spines of all the books I read last semester.
Tonight, a candle is burning at my bedside for a whole bunch of people, a whole bunch of beings, a whole bunch of things. One of my cats is dying, and it is burning for her. It is also burning for Laura, now and forever. Tonight it is burning for 2752 of my neighbors from back in 2001, people I never got to meet because they had business in an ill-fated building on a really bad day. The candle is of white wax, and it smells like nothing, and it flickers and gives off little heat, even as it burns brightly in my dark, dark room.
Daniel J. Pinney drinks like a chimney, smokes like a fish, has lived all sorts of places and mainly writes science fiction these days, though he takes time out now and again to write the odd story about the wacky shit that one can find lying around in the desert.