A Candle Is Burning
Candles: they are some of my most favorite things. Once every other week I fill my beautiful garden tub with steaming hot water and bubble soap. I light three Yankee Candles—Frosted Cupcake for my Alight who has a definite sweet tooth, Fresh Cut Roses for my Breathe who is also my garden girl and Peach Bellini for me because peaches remind me of Georgia’s mountains and Georgia’s mountains make my heart happy–and I turn the lights off. Then I soak. I lay my head back, force my eyes to close and I stay perfectly still. The bubbles make my skin feel refreshed and soft; the candles and their scents fill me with rich memories and a reason to relax. Every other day, I shower to clean. The bubble bath, however, isn’t really about cleaning. It’s about taking a time out; it’s about remembering to breathe.
Tonight was not supposed to be my bubble bath night. It’s about five nights early. But tomorrow is Tuesday: my dreaded appointment with the St. Thomas oncology department for the first IV iron drip and to discuss a possible biopsy. Concentrating has been difficult today. So, once my girls were asleep, I went into the master bath and drew the water. My heart quieted and the desire to cry faded. But instead of closing my eyes, I stared at the candles that sat around the edges of the tub.
Candles are beautiful. They can take a bare room and transform it into a welcoming, cozy space. If you keep them lit a little while each day, they fill the room with fragrance, even when they have been extinguished. Candles provide a touch of simplicity and elegance to any space. They invite.
And, for me, they are more.
I can’t tell you how much I rely on those candles and Lambie, my special, lamb-fur pillow. I depend on those things to help me get through nights when there are no children in need of my care, when all the words I can write in the books have been written, when the house is clean and the lesson plans prepped. When there is nothing but silence to surround me, I depend on those candles and that pillow to help me sleep without nightmares. They are indeed beautiful.
What is to give light must endure burning. –Viktor Frankl
Of course it would be the old quote from a Holocaust survivor that would whisper comfort to me. I’ve gathered solace from the survivors of that time half my life. The beautiful candles I love don’t merely light my dimmed bathroom. They don’t just activate a wonderful scent designed to help relax. On the inside of the glass of my Peach Bellini candle, there is a small, rotund, black burn mark proving that the candles also burn. The wick gets smaller and smaller with each use. I know from experience that a small Yankee Candle jar lasts about a day and a half; afterwards, it’s gone. Because it burned.
There are a few scars that still feel raw. There are a few wounds still in need of bandaging. There are still memories that sting the eyes and the heart. Embers that are still hot. Ashes that have not yet been swept away. That’s what fire does. It leaves a pile of soot that dirties my thing it touches. It leaves sadness and a sense of permanent loss that is absolutely terrifying. There aren’t many things in my life that are out of bounds–at least through the written word. But there are a few that still remain; there are a few that still burn.
When I emerged from the tub, I sat down to write. But my fingers wouldn’t move. I was tired. So instead I opened the email account dedicated to the books and writing. I call it my “fan mail” account. I spent almost an hour reading dozens of letters that strangers have emailed me concerning the books and/or my speeches. My heart melted. You see, the thing that most of the letters have in common is a tremendous sense of loneliness. They don’t call it that, of course. Instead, they write about how no one else has seemed to understand. They write about feeling different.
I felt misunderstood and different my entire life. When I was a kid, when I was a teenager, what I wouldn’t have given for someone to sit me down and tell me that they totally understood and that there isn’t a “right” way to handle trauma — only a personal way. What I wouldn’t have given to know that someone else listened to her peers’ locker room talk and thought she was a freak for not thinking the same kinds of thoughts. I was the “smart” one. I didn’t want to be the smart one; I wanted to be the “normal” one. I used writing and my ability to make good grades as a shield; if I waved it high enough, no one would want to talk to me. And it worked: no one bothered me. I thought I was healing; really, I was burning.
The people who have written me… They are where I was ten, twelve years ago, right now. They are the ones who think that by hunching their shoulders and weathering the storm they’re beating the odds. Only they’ve read a book that, as one wrote, “took me back.” They don’t feel alone. This isn’t anything I’ve done—half the time, I have to pinch myself to remember that I wrote the words they’re talking about. It’s not about talent. It’s not about success. It’s not about praise if any kind. It’s about God connecting lives. It’s about shining light instead of burning.
You see, a candle with one wick doesn’t provide as much light, or fragrance, as a candle with two wicks. The books that get the most feedback are nothing more than a sharing of my life. They aren’t incredible masterpieces over whose details I had to strain myself: they were memories. I had no idea they would get the kind of responses they have. But you don’t forget being burned. You don’t forget. When you share, you stand, a beautiful sign of survival and grace, in the midst of the debris and shake the soot off. Your sharing lights the way for others to do the same. The burn then isn’t for naught. The burn then wasn’t merely about you. It was about shining light on evil, on pain.
Writing this feels so vain. But I have to believe that suffering isn’t in vain. I have to believe that it serves a greater purpose than the birth of shame and humiliation; punishment and fault. I have to believe that it can be a path to grace and light; I know it has been for me because without my history, I wouldn’t have met some of the people I have. Without intense pain, I wouldn’t have those precious e-mails in my inbox.
What is to give light must endure burning. Viktor Frankl
Tomorrow, I have to go in for the first IV iron drip. After four surgeries and cancerous nodules in my thyroid, it sounds stupid to say this, but I am scared spitless of an IV iron drip. I mean, prescription iron makes me itch like crazy; iron overload can kill you. Even if it doesn’t kill you, people who have had it done say they go home and, out of nowhere, feel “the worst pain of my life” in random joints; back, fingers, etc. I’ve got two little girls; I don’t have the ability to just trek to the ER for morphine. While I’m at it, have I mentioned that I’m only 32 years old and already have endured four surgeries including heart and cancer-removal? One of my doctors tried to relax me by joking: “Your body’s just trying to get all the hard stuff out of the way early.”
I don’t want to get it out of the way early.
Scared. I’m a wee bit scared. And, a little tired of feeling scared. And, also, I’d rather have only one thing to fear: let it be the stupid anemia and IV iron drip or a growth on my larynx; not both.
The candles that gave light tonight burned also. The wicks are a little smaller. Viktor Frankl survived Auschwitz, of all places. He survived to become a psychologist and a writer who brings hope to thousands. The smell of smoke haunts him; but he hasn’t been reduced to ashes. Erik, the Holocaust survivor I spoke with recently, reminded me that human kindness is far more powerful than violence. So said from the man who lost his family to murderers; a man who had the chance, and every right, to exact vengeance upon his tormentors. He chose peace instead. He chose to be a light, not a burn.
My candles offer me comfort. Light and fire all in one. Comfort from knowing pain has both an end and a reason. Comfort from believing that light comes after darkness and joy from ashes. Comfort from remembering that, just as others e-mail me to say thank you for sharing my story, so I say thank you to them for reminding me that, even when I didn’t know it, I was never alone.
Grace is feeling God’s presence when we shouldn’t. I don’t know how tomorrow will be a light to myself, or anyone else. But maybe that’s because I’m still too close to the flame to see anything but danger. Grace is believing that God’s hand will hold mine in that room, and that, soon, there will be nothing to do but share with others a story that matters.