In the sky, traces of clouds, /the last few darting birds, /watercolors on the horizon…I light a candle on the wood table. — Billy Collins
Candlelight transforms a place — a room, a porch, a garden — with warmth, color, and shadows. Before the invention of candles, did people go to bed at dark? Or did they sit around a fire and talk? Eventually, someone figured out how to make the fire portable — put it on a stick, make a wick. We know the Egyptians used candles more than 3,000 years ago; the Chinese made them from whale fat; other ancient people used wax from insects, seeds, cinnamon, and tree nuts. It’s funny how newer inventions (electric lighting, for example) are far more practical but often not nearly as pretty.
…Summer nights in Kentucky we sat in the yard long after dark. Houses were hot. No airconditioning. An oscillating fan was only good for the few seconds it sent air in your direction before continuing on it’s way, back and forth ad infinitum. And I never learned to appreciate a window fan; no matter what folks said to the contrary, blowing air to the outside didn’t make the room one bit cooler. So, we sat outdoors — sometimes stringing beans or peeling peaches or shucking corn to can — until it got too dark to work. And then we talked. Talking in the dark takes on a whole new dimension when you can’t see mouths move or faces change expression…or the look in a pair of eyes. The sound of a voice becomes far more essential to a conversation’s meaning. Light, or the lack thereof, makes a world of difference.
On stormy nights, with electricity lost, we headed to the cellar. Mom lit the kerosene lamp and we listened to the wind lash and the lightening crackle while we snuggled down amongst the rows of canned beans and tomatoes and corn that lined the cellar shelves waiting for winter. My dad told tales about the awful destruction caused by twisters out West, and his face would take on a fierce look in the lamplight. I sat in the shadows, visualizing our cows being yanked from the fields, the green pick-up truck lifted from the driveway, the cherry tree uprooted, all being swept away in the gust of a monster wind. It was such a relief when a storm finally passed. We’d open the cellar door and peek out into the black silence, watch as the stars came out brighter than ever, flickering like the flames of a million candles.
Recent trips to Mexico threw me around in time and space, reminding me of the flickering of firelight, of candles and lightening bugs and a wide country sky full of stars. I can’t recall a single dinner on trips to Mexico — in the central mountains, beside the sea, or in the Yucatan interior — that didn’t include a candle on the table. In fact, there were always lots of candles. White candles everywhere! All sizes and shapes…some standing alone in great clusters, others in glass holders or clay pottery, many displayed on elaborate stands or in simple hurricane lamps. Cheap, fancy, pretty, practical. Plain, unscented candles. I don’t remember any of them smelling like roses or citrus or apple spice. A candle doesn’t have to smell good to be downright lovely.
At Chichen Itza last winter my niece and I shared a cottage named after Alice La Plongeon, a European woman who had come to Mexico in the late 1800s to study the Mayan culture. I’d seen her photograph — a young woman with long, dark hair in white pants and smock and sombrero, perched amongst the ruins of the ancient city. Walking back “home” in the eerie darkness from the ruins, one could easily imagine what nights here were like in the 19th century — with only candles for light. How marvelous that it’s still a place of candles and lanterns. By candlelight we sat on the cottage porch and watched the night birds come to roost in the trees.
…and Alice’s cottage…
…In the time before electricity, Goya, the famous Spanish artist, invented a candle hat. He often painted portraits in a single session that lasted as long as ten hours, and he needed to find a way to “see” after dark. So he put together a metal contraption to hold candles, attached it to the brim of his hat, and voila! The painter carried his light with him — on top of his head.
Billy Collins (quoted at the beginning of this post) is a former Poet Laureate of the US. He once wrote a poem titled “Candle Hat” about Goya, imagining what a lost traveler might think if he knocked on Goya’s door one dark night in the hills of Spain and was welcomed by the great artist holding up the wand of a brush,/ illuminated in the blaze of his famous candle hat. I imagine this might have confirmed many a lost traveler’s opinion that artists can be a bit wacky. But one can’t deny the sheer practicality of the curious hat.
Light a candle…and, because you always need to stay in the room with lit candles, it’ll be a good excuse to stop for awhile and savor the moment.