Candles. This time of year, their holy symbolism comes to mind. A candle is light in the darkness. It’s God on earth. It’s the breath of the Holy Spirit. Catholics light candles to the dead to show solidarity with the person who has died, a way of proclaiming that, in heaven or on earth, we're all in this together.
When Resi and I were kids—I was maybe five years old—one of our parents lit a candle in the center of the kitchen table, and we all circled around and watched the dancing of the tiny flame. This was an uncharacteristic activity, and to this day I can think of no reason for it. Maybe the parents were trying to teach us about fire. Resi and I were big-eyed for a few seconds, then we were just bored. Then all of us became distracted by chores and projects, and we went our separate ways. After a while, when someone walked back through the kitchen, the table was on fire.
Later, as a music major, I was expected to join the band sorority. I was pulled in many directions at the time—I didn’t live on campus, had a commute to get there, and held a part-time job in another town—so I really didn’t have time to join a club. My attitude toward the whole endeavor was pretty snarky. And when the sorority sisters (oh, they took themselves so seriously) herded us pledges into a dark room, handed us candles, and had us swear our eternal loyalty and dedication to all things band, I got tickled. I hadn’t participated in anything so silly since I joined Rainbow Girls. My eyes snagged the eyes of the girl on the other side of the candle circle, and she, too, was fighting laughter. I tried to stop, but couldn’t. Running tears, stifled snorts, shaking shoulders. I’d control it for a few seconds, and then it would bubble up again. And the girl across—she was having the same issues, so we dared not let our gazes meet. I’m sure there was an explanation in the ceremony about what the candle symbolized, but I was preoccupied.
Years later, same kind of thing, only this time I wasn’t the one being herded into a dark arena—it was Sam and his fellow students, being told to form a half-circle on the unlit high school stage. They were being inducted into the Spanish Honor Society. David and I were in the audience, looking around, checking out the number of parents who turned out for this rather boring gig. A teacher came on stage and started handing something to the kids.
“What is it they’re doing up there?” I asked David.
“Passing out candles. Some kind of ceremony,” he said.
“They’re taking an oath over candles?” Of course the whole sorority debacle popped into my mind.
“Look at the program.”
Sure enough, right there as the main event, Oath to the Mother Candle.
The teacher lit the candle of the kid on the end, who shared the light with the next kid, who shared it with the next, and so on. Then a large candle, the Mother Candle, was placed on a table in the middle, and it, too, was set alight. Then the kids all made some kind of promise in Spanish. To this day, we laugh about Sam and his classmates swearing allegiance to the Mother Candle. At least, in this case, I understood that the candles represented education and knowledge.
David called from India this morning, where he gave a lecture to petroleum engineers from the ONGC, the national oil company of India. And he knew I’d get a kick out of this—the opening ceremony involved lighting a candle.
“Was it a Mother Candle?” I asked.
What does the candle in this Indian setting stand for? Education, like with the Spanish Honor Society? Or, considering the group, fossil fuel?
I ponder it: The professional gathering of successful well-educated Indians, coming together to hear what my husband has to tell them about shale gas, but before he can get started he must participate in an obscure candle-lighting rite. I just find that funny.