Candles — Really. | 07

We’re talking about something so common it might seem like it hardly warrants an entire podcast episode. But because they’re so commonplace, there are interesting ways to use them in your work, home, and even spiritual life. 

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Episode Transcript

This is The Good List — I’m Tsh Oxenreider.

This is a thing.

I don’t really have this intertwined, deep history with these ubiquitous items, but I do have this weird, flash memory from first grade. We were on a field trip to a place called Pioneer Farm, here in the Austin area, which still exists today if you’re around here. It’s a settlement from the 19th century they’ve restored and turned into an educational space, with the different types of houses, buildings, and farming techniques from a bygone era — you know, a place perfect for elementary school field trips. When groups come, they give tours in period clothing and teach basic life skills that were common and that every child knew in the 1800s. 

So I have this memory of being split into groups, where we would each do two of these activities. One of mine was basket weaving, which I thought was hard and kinda boring, and the other was candle making, which at first I thought would be a complete snooze fest, but turned out was pretty fun. We dipped weighted wicks again and again into the melted wax (which in the actual olden days, would have been animal tallow if you were working class — which smelled horrible — or beeswax if you were wealthy), and after enough times dipping and cooling, magically produced a taper candle. I remember them saying an average working family needed about 500 candles a year to — quote — ”keep the lights on” back then. ….Aaaand that’s all I remember from that field trip. It’s weird the things that stay in our minds, and for whatever reason, old-fashioned candle-making is one of mine.

So yes, this episode is about something so common it might seem like it hardly warrants an entire podcast episode (however, side note: if you haven’t yet caught on, that’s kinda the beauty of the premise of this entire show — let’s dedicate a few minutes every week to talk about the little, everyday things that make life better). Candles. They’ve been around since forever, and you’ve probably got a few collecting dust somewhere. So why talk about them, and why are they even a good thing? 

Well, first off, let me tell you why I’m thinking about candles now. As I stand here recording this, it’s late January — it’s past the holidays, and we’re in the thick of winter in the northern hemisphere. Depending on where you live, you might have several months of gray, cold weather ahead of you. It’s a doldrum time of year, meaning a time of inactivity and stagnation, often depression. Many of us get the blahs. I know I do, and I now live in central Texas, where winter is mild and fairly short; when we lived in the Pacific Northwest I felt the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder for almost the entire first half of the year. For a lot of us, this rough season of late January into mid-March or so just isn’t our favorite time of year. Low-energy, gray skies, bleak weather.

So there’s that, but there’s another reason why I’m thinking about candles right now. And it’s a little unknown day called Candlemas — it’s a real thing. Traditionally it’s a low-key Christian holy day, sometimes known as the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus Christ, which recognizes the presentation of Jesus at the Temple. It’s on February 2 because this is traditionally the 40th day of and the full end of Christmas–Epiphany season (yep, it’s long). In some cultures even today, people bring their candles to their local church, where they’re blessed and then used for the rest of the year. Plenty of cultures still celebrate Candlemas, and of course, there are other traditions incorporated with lighting all the candles in your house, including eating crepes if you’re in France or tamales if you’re in Mexico, both of which I highly endorse and may have to start doing in our home on February 2.

But like the groundhog Punxsutawney Phil, it’s also said that Candlemas is on February 2 because it’s roughly the midpoint of winter, between the shortest day of the year and the spring equinox. You’re halfway through official winter, in other words.

Even if you’re not religious, or aren’t interested in recognizing the official reason for Candlemas, I like the idea of February 2 being a day where you light all the candles you have in your house — to fight back the doldrums of the blah winter. This is the perfect time of year to dust those candles you’re saving for a special occasion and just light ‘em. That’s what they’re there for.

I’ll get into more about why I like candles, and a few ways I use them in my work, home, and even spiritual life, in just a moment, right after this short break. Be right back.

Okay, candles — these otherwise, low-tech, unimpressive, been-around-forever objects that only cost a few dollars at their most basic level. Why talk about ‘em? Here are a few reasons I actually love these things:

  1. They’re an affordable, immediate mood enhancer. Nothing else adds an ambiance quite like what a candle adds: a sort-of reverential, quiet-yet-sparkly tempered, understated beauty to anything from a fancy dinner party or wedding ceremony to a messy coffee table on a blah Tuesday, like what I’m literally looking at right now in my own home. The warm, incandescent glow it gives off in the evening adds an instant mood, but they’re just as great in daylight, flickering next to you as you do your thing.
  2. They can smell lovely. Now, I’m hyper-sensitive to fake smells, and nothing brings on an instant headache for me like a super-fake smelling candle, made with paraffin and artificial scents — so I’m not talking about those. I’m talking about the ones made with natural ingredients, like soy candles with a blend of essential oils, or even beeswax candles with no added scent at all except for its natural scent with just a hint of honey. Quality candles with the right scented ingredients have become one of my favorite things in my adulthood — they’re one of those just-right simple pleasures.
  3. They’re grounding. What I mean is, the flicker of a candle flame, or the crackling sound from a wood wick, and even the striking of a match and lighting of a candle, are all very present-focused activities, and they keep us in the present. It’s kind-of the equivalent of walking to a nearby store instead of driving for two minutes — it’s an intentional act of something analog in a modern age. Having one lit for whatever reason keeps me in the moment.

So it’s all well and good to talk about candles here, but what am I talking about, really — just lighting a candle all day and calling it good? Not really, because even though they can be found not too expensively, that can add up, and by lighting one all day, every day, without any thought to it, it kinda loses its specialness — there’d be nothing to talk about here in this episode. It’s like me making a GL episode about light bulbs (who knows, though, maybe we will if this show stays around long enough). So I’m talking about lighting candles regularly, but with a purpose, because of something in particular. Here are a few reasons and ways I light my candles throughout any given day:

  1. As someone who works from home, I use a candle as bookends to my workday. By this, I mean I light a candle on my desk to signal to me that the workday has begun — and then I snuff out the candle at the end to mark that the workday has ended. That last half has actually become important, because if you work from home, whether it’s for yourself or for a company, you know that it can be a real challenge to leave work at work. It’s even more of a challenge for me these days since we’re renovating an old, small house, and my work desk is literally in our bedroom. The plan is for that not to always be the case, but since it is at the moment, it’s all the more important for me right now to have clear boundaries around when I’m working and when I’m not. A candle is a simple visual tool for me to remember when I’m on the clock. If the candle on my desk is out for the evening, I think twice before opening up the laptop “one more time” to do those little things I tell myself are quick and won’t really impede on non-work time. The longer I’ve worked from home, the more and more important it’s become for me to draw a really hard, non-negotiable line in the sand for me at the end of a workday. But even in the middle of the day, looking at this candle on my desk is important: when I don’t feel like powering through a tough assignment, or when is often the case — many well-intentioned friends assume I can just drop my work any time because I work for myself, so of course, I’m available for this-or-that in the middle of a workday — looking at the candle reminds me that nope, I’m working, this is real work even if it’s from home, and that my place at the moment is where I’m doing my work. This ritual of lighting a candle at my work desk has become pretty important to me because it’s such a simple, simple thing that actually helps.
  2. I often use candles for prayer. Now, this is a relatively new practice for me personally, even though it’s been around forever, especially in those gorgeous ancient chapels and cathedrals around the world. And I’m not talking about some woo-woo idea of lighting candle somehow replacing prayer. But just as I’m drawn to a high-liturgical approach to my faith because it incorporates so much more of my body than just sitting in a comfy chair and listening to a long sermon, lighting a candle engages my senses when I pray. The striking of the match and lighting of the wick feel like a form of prayer for my fingers when I simultaneously pray in my mind, and then looking at the flame as the day goes on reminds me that my prayer doesn’t go away when I move on to other things and thoughts, that God remains the same throughout the ordinariness of my day. And at the same time, looking at the candle reminds me to keep praying for something, not because prayer is magic, but because it’s good for me. There’s a certain situation I’m praying about pretty fervently at the moment, and lighting a candle when I do keeps me focused on that prayer, and then grounded in it when my faith starts to waver. It’s also a beautiful way to pay homage and keep a prayer close to home in heavy situations that are often global or don’t directly affect me — such as the current Australian wildfires or Kobe Bryant’s family.
  3. Like I said earlier, I love great-smelling candles, and since I often get them as gifts, I have quite a stockpile. I used to save them for special occasions, but no more: I’ve long learned that saving the “good stuff” means they’ll never get used, so just use them and make everyday occasions special. So, I get a specific tree-scented candle every December and we burn it all throughout the month (which makes us homesick for Oregon, but in a good way). I love citrus-scented candles in particular because they’re a jolting juxtaposition in the winter and cozy in the summer. There’s all sorts of science studies out there about the power of smells, and how they trigger memories and moods. I love the thought of certain scents one day taking my kids back to a hopefully happy childhood home. Last week, we burned a candle I got as a gift and turns out it smelled weirdly like my last college apartment (which is a compliment, by the way), and it completely took me back to that place I hadn’t thought of in a long time. And speaking of gift-giving, just because it’s on-topic in the show notes there’s a fantastic SNL sketch about candle regifting that makes me laugh every time I see it.
  4. To bring it full-circle, I like burning candles because they’re timeless. As a history nerd, I love that in some weird way, lighting a candle connects me to all the people who’ve gone before me and done this thousands of times, for them not out of sentiment or fanciness, but because it was literally all they had for indoor lighting and was just a thing you did, as commonplace as turning on a light switch for us. Sounds strange, but I like how lighting a candle reminds me I’m one more tiny person in the vast human race, and that as fast-paced as our technology-driven world goes, there are a few things that can hardly be improved on. Like candles.

So, if lighting candles isn’t really a thing for you yet, or you have a shelf in a closet full of candles you’re saving for something special, let this GL episode be a reminder to just go ahead and light them. Borrow my reasons for doing so, or find your own — they’re a simple, cheap way to add more specialness to your ordinary days.

Hey Tsh, it’s Bethany Rydmark out in Portland, Oregon. I just thought I would tell you my good thing at the moment is Blue Lotus Chai. It comes in little packages that you can carry around that have 17 servings or it comes in a little tin of a hundred servings, but it’s wonderful. It comes with its own little bamboo scoop and it’s just finely ground chai powder that dissolves into your water and it has no sugar or sweetener and it has no dairy products or milk fillers, so you can customize it however you would like. It’s potent and strong and delicious and I love it for my early morning wake-ups.

As we round out January 2020, this marks the first month of this new fledgling podcast, and I’m so glad so many of you are loving it. Hearing this truly does make my day! There’s one small thing you can do if you haven’t yet to help this baby bird find its wings: and that’s to leave a review. Many podcast players, especially Apple, make a show more findable for new listeners whenever it has more reviews, so leaving a super-quick, five-star review means you’re helping The Good List grow. There’s already a few super-sweet reviews that are so very kind, like this from Ruby Girl, who says, “Inspired! The Good List is podcast perfection! Just the right length and just the right amount of content. Tsh not only shares practices that can make life better, she also gives you the tools to get there. Who doesn’t have 15 minutes for that?!” I love that because it’s just what I’m going for here, so thank you, Ruby.

So if you’d like to keep The Good List around for a while, please leave a quick review — it doesn’t need to be long, and it only takes a few seconds. Details on how to do this are at thegoodlistshow.com. Or if you already know how, great — go do your thing.

When I hang out online, I’m mostly on twitter @tsh and sometimes on IG @tshoxenreider, so I’d love you to say hi. I also spend much more focused time with the good folks who support this show by subscribing to my newsletter — if you’d like to join them, head to thegoodlistshow.com. That’s always where you can find a transcript and the show notes of this episode, #7, where I’ve also linked to a few of my favorite candle companies if you’re curious.

And like always — I want to hear what’s on your good list! Leave a voicemail at (401) 684-GOOD, which goes directly to voicemail; or, record your voice and email the voice file. Just state your name, where you’re from, and what idea, work of art, habit, or thing is making your life just a bit better, and hopefully one day you’ll hear your voice here on The Good List. For reminders on how to do this, and everything else I’ve talked about, go to thegoodlistshow.com.

Thanks so much to Bethany for sharing her thing that’s making her Good List. Music for the show is by Kevin MacLeod, and thanks, as always, to Caroline TeSelle for her help, as well as my furry intern, Ginny. I’m Tsh Oxenreider — thanks for listening to The Good List.

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