Trumping the candle

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, December 27, 2015

We have just lit a candle. An expensive, beautiful smelling, long-burning candle, the scent of which is neroli, I believe, (citrus aurantium — the flower of the bitter orange — a heady, citrusy, flowery scent still prized, as it was in ancient Egypt, for its calming, tranquilizing and mood-elevating effects). It is widely used in the perfume industry, and suspected to be one of the secret ingredients in the recipe for Coca-Cola.

We have not lit this candle as vigil or to make the house redolent of some evocative, mysterious, unnamable thing that leads one by the nose to blissful realms. It has not been lit to mark the presence of guests or the dinner hour or even as a late night treat for watching flame shadows flicker against a wall. In fact, we’re not even at home. We’re at work.

We’ve lit a candle quickly, with a specific purpose in mind and are having a good laugh about it now. This candle and matches have been dispatched to dispel bad energy, to clear the air, to burn away any residual negativity and to begin a new moment. Because what we’ve just had in our midst is an unfortunate person who does not have much control at all over her thoughts or her mouth and whose go-to expression is one of sourness, negativity and fault-finding. Meanwhile, in reality and right outside the door, soft fat snowflakes are falling all around, dotting peoples’ noses and eyelashes and accumulating in frosting-like layers, blanketing the town in a quiet and beautiful peace.

We are laughing for a couple of reasons. Because of the quick first aid we’ve applied to our space, the great and perfunctory speed of the sequence at which we’ve allowed a negative person to exit through a door and gone to fetch a good candle. We’re laughing because of the visible drama of marking the moment instead of internalizing it, which would involve taking on someone else’s miserable day, and taking it personally, a switch-up that is truly liberating.

And we’re also laughing because we’ve all been there before, in that discontented place, marching around like Pigpen from “Peanuts,” neck deep in a cloud of angry or resentful or fearful or lonely pheromones — inattentive to the world around us, thoroughly smitten by our own up-and-and-down-and-all-around stories, unaware or uncaring of their undeniable effects on other people.

The candle smells really good. In contrast to crisp, fresh mountain air, which is intoxicating and soul-reviving in its own way, the warmth and sweetness of the candle calms, helps us pause, accompanies us. Now, we are able to relax. Reboot. Let go of someone’s sharp, unwitting commentary.

Candles, which have been around for thousands of years, from the tiniest birthday candles to the tallest pillars, never disappoint. From insect wax and tallow, to oils, petroleums and more current permutations, we have lit our way through time, consoling and marking the moments as small flames burn bright. Now more than ever — in the advent of blue-screen glow and fluorescent light — we can benefit from the purity and light of fire, even in its most diminutive format.

Very shortly after we’ve applied micro-fire and scent to our space, another person walks through the door, this time a well-known personality with a couple of teenaged children and a husband in tow. They are an up group, a group whose vibe, charged with laughter and good cheer, with positivity and a sense of fun all around, changes everything and all at once.

We can feel it permeate not just the space but also our bones, our brains. It’s sweet and infectious and transformative. The children are polite. There is no sense of privilege or entitlement or urgency — none of that; and once they leave with their bags, the air in the shop expands, charged with good sparks, with pleasure, gratitude and generosity. It is now the prevailing climate, the power of which has trumped the candle by a long shot.

And we are the beneficiaries. It leaves us with a moment of real gratitude for the goodness of people who behave well. Who spread lightness of heart and joy. It gives us a moment to reflect on all of those who have told us (from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Norman Vincent Peale to Louise

Hay, Pema Chodron and many others) how important it is to tend to our emotional health, to take responsibility, to

examine the quality of our thoughts and emotions and to take care as we birth them in every moment.

What we learn, once again, this time from the cute candle-trumper family, is that good behavior is its own reward. It feels good and it makes others feel good. And what more could we possibly ask for as we attempt to make the very most of our limited time here on planet Earth?

America

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, November 23, 2014

A little boy about five years old peers back from row 30 and looks at me. He’s cute. Big brown eyes, curly black hair, communicating with his expression since he doesn’t have English at his disposal. I smile at him, and he shyly holds my gaze. No trace of a brat. Occasionally I hear the low voice of the mother but I can’t make out the language.

I have row 31 all to myself on this flight from New York and have been reading and staring out the window a lot, thinking about One World Trade Center, 1776 feet, the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere, and now open. Window washers have just had a close call on floor 68. Our entire town could easily fit in one of these vertical needles. How does this teeming, grinding, vibrating city do it?

Halfway through the flight, the mother of the boy, a beauty, taps me on the shoulder. “Excuse me, can I sit here?” Despite an accent, she speaks without faltering.

Sure, I say, and she immediately curls up in the seat, knees up, and conks out like a light. I actually crawl over her to get to the bathroom at some point, and note she’s dressed like half the rest of the people on the plane — jeans, hoodie, sneakers, leather shoulder bag, leather watch. By the time I return, she is awake.

She has three boys, in fact, and a husband (and a brother-in-law farther forward). When she takes the three year old into her arms, I motion for her to use the middle seat for him, and once he falls asleep she looks at me, “We are all so tired,” she says, a little sheepishly.

“Where are you coming from?” I ask.

“Turkey,” she says. “We were two years there. Before that, Iraq. Now we have been sleeping in the airports for two days.” So, they are all kinds of unfathomable layers of tired.

She was at university, she says, when she had her first child. The boys are now three, four and five, “like steps. Not one child, not even two, but three!” She says this both exasperated and captivated, as if now, tired with travel and the further unraveling of her story, the magnitude of this brood has finally exploded. The two older boys are lying like sardines in row 30. The husband has found himself an empty seat across the aisle.

I ask if she speaks Turkish, too. “Not perfect, but well.” She smiles and says she likes languages, that they are good for — she points to her brain. Now, she says, they are on their way to Portland. Where they have friends. It soon becomes clear this is not a simple visit but a permanent one.

I tell her Portland is a great city — and the water is nice. Her eyes light up. “Water?” she says. She has no idea that Portland is on the coast. She is looking forward to cool weather, she says, loves the cold, Iraq is so hot. She tells me she is worried about getting a job and wonders out loud if it will be okay. I tell her my mother was an immigrant and she thinks about this, studying me, and then tells me I look American. I tell her she looks American, too — that anybody can look American here in America. She smiles at this.

“We are starting again,” she says. “We are from Iraq — we are not bad people,” she pauses. “We have dreams.” The word dreams resonates and I feel the miles she has walked and the lives she is carrying on her back. “You’ll be fine,” I say.

“You think?”

I nod. “Yes,” I say. “Be strong!” It is not something I have ever really said to anyone but they already know what strong means, I’m just adding a little more kindling to her fire.

Once we’ve disembarked, I note that the two men have paperwork in plastic sleeves strung around their necks on lanyards, paperwork that says, we are fresh, we are legal, we are vulnerable and we will take your help if you give it. I steal one last look as they all stand there studying the departures, one zoom-click closer to a fresh and unimaginable life.

This is still America. People are still arriving, homeless and tempest-tossed, as the poem says. Their huddled mass may be family-sized but they are tired. They have dreams. They are pilgrims on missions to lay rest to their past unrest, to start all over again with hope and determination.

What a beautiful thing to remember as we prepare to break bread, slice turkey, and eat pie together, 393 years after the original thanks-giving feast.