Life by Candlelight

One day, while C was out of town, I turned off all the lights in the house and lit the parlor by candlelight. The transformation was magical.

I have been fascinated by light my entire life. I am entranced by the way natural light from an overcast day half-fills a room; by how bright sunshine on a freezing winter day can shine down through a window and warm your feet as you stand on the rug; by the endless spectrum of color as the sun disappears at dusk and reappears at dawn.

Vermeer understood light, as did Rembrandt, and Van Gogh. It is no surprise to me that painters from northern lands, people who spent months in half-light, would love light. Think of New England’s Andrew Wyeth.

I wondered what it must have been like to live in a time with only natural light as a source of light, either sunlight or fire. Emerson wrote that we should reserve our reading for the evening by lamplight, for we are made for the daylight and daylight for action, not reading. So one evening, I lit the parlor by candlelight to see what the world of Emerson and Vermeer looked like.

It was beautiful. The taper candles in the brass candlesticks glowed with a yellow flame alive and moving. Sharp shadows appeared in the corners of the room and beneath the furniture. There was a warmth and intimacy about the room that no electric light could reproduce, and I fell in love with candlelight that night.

One time I surprised my darling C with an evening by candlelight, and she thought it lovely, but the practical scientist in her finally spoke its mind later when she said, “Yes, lovely…can we stop sitting in the dark now?”

I discovered many kinds of candle stands and candle lamps, which improved the light and made the candles safer to use. I created a small collection of them. Then I tried out oil lamps, beautiful glass or brass lamps that burned liquid paraffin, which is far superior and safer than kerosene. I even discovered lamps that burn olive oil, from primitive clay lamps from biblical times to exquisitely crafted crystal lamps made today.

But I always returned to the candles. Smokeless, odorless, safer, the candles created a light all their own. Here in the country, where electricity is spotty, everyone has a few candles at the ready for an outage. It is not odd to have candles about the house in the Ozarks.

I read about a husband and wife who moved into an off-the-grid home in the mountains, and lit their home exclusively by candlelight and their hearth. Avid readers, they decided to collect and read books by authors who only could have written their books by natural light – candles or the sun. They wondered what kind of works would be written by the magic and intimacy of candlelight, and what it would be like to read those same books by the magic and intimacy of light that produced them.

It is interesting to consider that much of the world still lights their homes with oil lamps and candles, but it is done out of necessity, not choice. Poverty forces people to live like humanity has for thousands of years, and there is not much magical about poverty. But even in poverty can be found moments of beauty and grace, even by the light of candles, if we are but present to it. It does not absolve us from addressing poverty among our fellow human beings, but even in the direst of circumstances we can find beauty and grace, even if by one single candle.


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