the physics of candles
Yesterday John wondered aloud where candles go as they burn. Some of the wax drips down, of course, but some candles burn so beautifully clean that you turn and they’re gone, dematerialized into thin air.
We burn a lot of candles. In winter they are a way of keeping the light present and close. We found a silver candelabra in a junk shop in Faulkland years ago, its silver hidden under half an inch of blue wax. I could tell it would lovely once it was cleaned and polished so we bought it for 20 bucks. On that particular road trip, we’d been listening to Ian Tyson and I kept pressing Replay when “The Road to Las Cruces” came on: “Does the wind still blow/Out of New Mexico?/ Does the silver candelabra still shine?” So it was fitting to find what we call the Ian Tyson candelabra and when the candles burn in its shapely holders, I think of Faulkland, and New Mexico, and roads leading to mythical places. When we went to New Mexico a few years ago, we didn’t drive as far as Las Cruces but we did recognize Las Vegas from the song, and the cow boss of the big ranch nearby.
But where does the wax go? I was awake early wondering. It must be the same place firewood goes when it burns, only part of the log reduced to ash. It goes to heat and smoke, to water, to carbon dioxide. Are you awake, I asked John. Just, he said in a sleepy voice. It was 6:18 and we spent half an hour discussing the physics of candles and firewood.
And time. Where it does. Because yesterday we were caring for our grandson while his parents and his auntie Angie went down to Sechelt for sushi and Arthur spent an hour outside with his granddad, doing stuff. Throwing stones into the little pond where the yellow irises bloom so beautifully in summer. Exchanging sticks. Picking up boughs brought down by wind and taking them to the burning pile. And as I looked out the kitchen window, I thought I saw Arthur’s dad Forrest following his dad as he did those same things 34 years ago. When I told John this, he said he’d had the same sense of time. That he was outside with his son, showing him the woods, the birds, the long curve of the driveway down and out into the world.
In our bed before the rest of the household woke, I confessed that I feel I’m in a place between worlds these days. Part of it is due to the presence of part of my family, the way they occupy the rooms in the back of the house as others once occupied them, their younger selves, their brother who is in Edmonton with his own young family. When I wake in the night with the feeling that the house is full again, I have to stop to parse what that means. Who, where, when. Part of it is because I’ve been writing about my parents and my father’s family, new immigrants to Alberta in 1913, and the difficult lives they led there. They’re all mine and I hover between them, the different worlds, the time passing and accumulating, so that I don’t recognize where I am in that continuum. Part of it is because I’ve been anticipating some medical tests after the holiday and maybe I’m closer to those who’ve already passed from this world than I’m ready to admit. But I feel strangely comfortable with that thought.
When I read Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall, I noted this: “A stray fact: insects are not drawn to candle flames, they are drawn to the light on the far side of the flame, they go into the flame and sizzle to nothingness because they’re so eager to get to the light on the other side.” Is this what candles know, as they burn and transform to water and heat? Is this what we know as we gaze at them, wondering?