“…a candle with a broken wick,
a puddle that reflects the sun…”
My sense of smell is duller than an old bike frame. Been that way my whole life. Squinting hard, I think I can see, way at the back of my memory, images of a hospital interior—I’m little more than a baby—no, not the memories when I was twelve, getting moles scraped out of me—the dimmer hospital visions, of being collected by a now-blurry adult. I don’t believe it was my mom. It wasn’t my dad.
This is my only memory of when a doctor removed my adenoids and put tubes in my ears. The procedure aimed to relieve my sinuses and end a tiring cycle of ear infections. It didn’t, in the long run. I got and still get ear infections. I get sinus infections. In fact, an ENT told me in my teens that my adenoids grew back, which should be impossible—and that my nasal septum deviates enough to weird my breathing. So, my nose is perpetually stuffed.
My whole life I’ve automatically inhaled and exhaled through my mouth. Dentists used to comment on my rounded-down teeth to my mom. I did not have great breath control running in PE. My nose has been little help to me. Still isn’t. My sense of smell is my third cousin I met once. It has no constituency in my head—and my sense of taste busies itself with food’s texture, not flavor. Two of my senses, set to grayscale.
Nevertheless, I light candles in my apartment daily. I have three burning right now. I like the way burning candles massage and exfoliate the air, glaze the atmosphere in anointing oil, something like that. Two of my current burners are the multi-scented kind—three smells are layered one on top of the other. As it burns, a new smell escapes. I don’t know why I bought this type. Probably more expensive. Must’ve done it years ago, when I was dumb. Luckily though, past Kyle purchased me a small epiphany.
A few days after Clinton lost to Trump, I jammed my snout-nosed lighter into one of these candles and noticed that I had just unlocked the final smell-layer. Wintergreen or something. It’s gone white-pink, magenta, and now wintergreen. I assume it’s that or pine—or is “wintergreen” the Hallmark word for “pine?” I’m not checking, it’s across the room. Anyway, while jamming the lighter down, trying to light the damn thing, I suddenly reached a new understanding of Time.
Outside, it was misty—a cement-colored sky—unseasonably warm. An idiom which will have no purpose by the next election.
Krista Tippett interviewed Ruby Sales, the lifelong civil rights activist and public theologian, for the On Being podcast. The episode is titled “Where Does it Hurt?” In the middle of the program, Sales loosens her genius a little further—begins to speak profoundly about white Americans. Here are her comments (slightly trimmed):
“I really think that one of the things that we’ve got to deal with is that how is it that we develop a theology or theologies in a 21st-century capitalist technocracy where only a few lives matter? How do we raise people up from disposability to essentiality? And this goes beyond the question of race. What is it that public theology can say to the white person in Massachusetts who’s heroin-addicted because they feel that their lives have no meaning, because of the trickle-down impact of whiteness in the world today? What do you say to someone who has been told that their whole essence is whiteness and power and domination? And when that no longer exists, then they feel as if they are dying…
I don’t hear any theologies speaking to the vast amount — that’s why Donald Trump is essential, because although we don’t agree with him, people think he’s speaking to that pain that they’re feeling….I don’t hear anyone speaking to the 45-year-old person in Appalachia, who is dying of a young age, who feels like they’ve been eradicated because whiteness is so much smaller today than it was yesterday. Where is the theology that redefines to them what it means to be fully human? I don’t hear any of that coming out of anyplace today.
…There’s a spiritual crisis in white America. It’s a crisis of meaning, and I don’t hear — we talk a lot about black theologies, but I want a liberating white theology…I want a theology that begins to deepen people’s understanding about their capacity to live fully human lives and to touch the goodness inside of them rather than call upon the part of themselves that’s not relational. Because there’s nothing wrong with being European American. That’s not the problem. It’s how you actualize that history and how you actualize that reality. It’s almost like white people don’t believe that other white people are worthy of being redeemed.
And I don’t quite understand that. It must be more sexy to deal with black folk than it is to deal with white folk if you’re a white person. So as a black person, I want a theology that gives hope and meaning to people who are struggling to have meaning in a world where they no longer are as essential to whiteness as they once were.”
Wisdom swims into your brain in a specific way, I think—or it’s like diving into a clear river. You swim into it. It’s a different temperature. You have to widen your eyes to take it all in. A salmon reorienting. I felt that way hearing Sales words then and when I read them now.
What strikes deepest in me is her diagnosis that perhaps white people have given up on each other—at the precise moment when we’re all trying to deal with how we can’t feel all the power we’ve been told we have. We forsake each other. I’ve done it. How often have I dismissed a million souls in abstract. Why do I roll my eyes? It’s the worst way to flip the world back over.
In 2002, when I was nine-and-a-half, the West Coast hip-hop duo Blackalicious released their masterpiece, the double-album Blazing Arrow. You might know them from an earlier track, “Alphabet Aerobics.” The team’s DJ, Chief Xcel, is a serious beat builder and world constructor. And emcee Gift of Gab is an intellectual, mile-a-minute, force-for-good wacky uncle: anti-violence, pro-advice, meditations on time, frequently dwells on family and positivity. He mentions Saturn more than you’d expect. You know, they’re dad-rap. And if you know me well, I mean, what did you want? One of my favorite bands is Keane (cf: dad-rock).
I heard Blazing Arrow‘s single, “Paragraph President,” on a PlayStation2 game’s soundtrack around the time of the album’s release—maybe a Madden game—but I wouldn’t think to listen to the whole thing until a decade later, at college in Oklahoma. Once I did, I had turned a musical corner in my life. To this day, it’s one of my favorite albums, above No Strings Attached and beneath Channel Orange.
On one of the final tracks, “Release Part 1, 2, & 3,” Saul Williams recites a poem over this visionary supporting soundscape. He occupies the middle section—“Release Part 2.” I’m not sure if he wrote it for this song, or if it’s a poem he already he had that he just records for them. Either way, he is heads-and-shoulders the best part of the track. Hell, he’s the best part of the last quarter of the album.
His lyrics quoted at the top of this post surfaced in my mind as I was lighting the candle last week: “a candle with a broken wick.” Duh, I realized. What good is a candle with a broken wick? It’s a waste. And I’ve tried to dig out a candle’s wick before. Clearing the airway is not easy. I never lit that candle again.
And the inverse image: a puddle that reflects the sun—a thing eradicating itself by its own toil. How a candle is supposed to operate. What white people are doing to each other now.
I glean from Saul William’s images a theme most art offers up: that time is incremental and professional yet slippery and devious. But the epiphany for me was pondering the physical thing: the candle with a broken wick. Like—here I am sitting with an unusable chunk of wax, a feathertease, the only artifact from a world behind a door I’ll never open.
I think of other unburned candles: the candle of my childhood where I play fewer video games and study better; the candle of my teenage where I lifted weights; the candle where Gift of Gab doesn’t have to deal with kidney failure; the candle where I was disfigured in that car accident; the candle where Episcopal martyr Jonathan Daniels shields young Ruby Sales from a shotgun blast, but survives; the candle of Hillary Clinton’s, or Bernie Sanders’s, or John Kasich’s, or Mitt Romney’s presidencies; the candle where I didn’t help smear that person with gossip; the candle where my mom’s mom or our first dog is still alive; the candle where the Eagles won the Super Bowl that year; the candle where I have more siblings; the candle where I am born a different person altogether, somewhere else in the world.
Reading it, I feel silly. Of course, you’ve all thought about “what could’ve been” without needing a candle to help you. We all know the butterfly effect. It’s pretty much all we think about, right? Really, an unused candle is the dollar store equivalent of Frost’s road not taken—a version not pursued (for ninety-nine cents.)
What tickles me, what feels worth sharing, is I listened to that song for five years, and only just now understood what I’d heard. It took me five years to have ears to hear. That was the real epiphany.
The tubes fall out of your ears eventually. And when I was little, they did. My sister and I embarked on a new journey of childhood illness: strep throat. We contracted it all the time, a streak of doctor’s visits every season that must’ve driven my mother mad. The two of us finally stopped getting it when the doctor very sternly told us that, if we got it again, they’d remove our tonsils. She and I didn’t want surgery.
I didn’t test positive for strep until college after that.
The candle wick metaphor improves (imperceptibly) looking into the future. If some candle wicks are broken, what candles are currently burning? What candles remain available to light? Imagine yourself in a warehouse full of candles, a cavernous ceiling, cold-smooth floor, and you are a lone, lots of Yankee candles scattered everywhere, poorly spaced. Some are empty, some are wickless, some burn, and some remain. Should you extinguish some? Of your options, which one(s) should you light?
I could attempt to rattle off some neatly-packaged vague ideas about a correct path into the future. “Light the candle of exercise!” “Plant a tree.” “Buy Campbell’s stock.” Blah blah blah—I mean do those things, but you didn’t need me to say them. I will, however, offer you the one part of Saul Williams’s verse that floored me back when I was nineteen-and-a-half. It is some of the best poetry I know. A brilliancy that seemingly comes from nowhere in the song. A sweet tune, that cries out to each of us, singing: what you consider improbable, about reality or your fellow human, is just a blockage in your mind. Release it.
“I can think of nothing heavier than an airplane.
I can think of no greater conglomerate of steel and metal.
I can think of nothing less likely to fly.
There are no wings more weighted.
I too have felt a heaviness,
The stare of a man guessing at my being.
Yes, I am homeless.”
I think about my first memory, which now is only a memory of all the times I’ve concluded this is my first memory, smoke trapped in a jar.
I am looking up at my mother, being carried into our Virginia townhome. My sister unborn for seventeen more months, is an unlit candle herself. Around my mother’s face, others’ faces. Are they my relatives? Are they angels only I can see? Does my mother think she and I are alone, yet infant me can see the guardians who will help her raise me? I won’t be a difficult child, but I won’t be what she expects. This memory is a complete wash, dim—a salmon asleep, afloat, the river at night.
How wonderful to be collected, to be little enough to be cradled, to wait in place until they come to get you.
Terror in that, too.
Pardon me, anyone, for the times I have counted you out, failed you. Over and over, I have lit the wrong candles, burned them as I slept with all my clothes still on, teeth unbrushed, not seeing I was neglecting better flames.