Over the course of two years, I’ve snooped around candle stores, botanicas, cultural emporiums, holy product dispensaries— whatever you might call them. You know, those shops with shelves full of talismanic tapers printed with images of Our Lady of Guadalupe, love hexes, and lightning bolts striking people and houses.
Contemporary holy candles, historically rooted in African spiritual practices, present a confusing situation for someone like me. They decorated my white Roman Catholic grandmother’s living room, appropriated into Eurocentric worship. I wince at religious memories from my youth, the pervasive guilt associated with dark confessional booths. As an adult, I’ve taken instead to treating myself to a melange of candles, no homilies required.
Not long ago, after a fast and furious downhill spiral preceded by many weeks of manic overcommitment, I was left with few options for “getting it together.” I called my therapist who suggested I leave Louisiana immediately and seek treatment. I flew to New York at 6 a.m. the next day. Pumped full of sedatives for three weeks, I received a diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder. For years, I’d been misdiagnosed with Generalized Anxiety-Depression Disorder. The incorrect pharmaceuticals had created a rollercoaster effect that got worse with age, culminating in a frightening mental health crisis. I joked about it to play down the severity.
Browsing the candle stores, not once have I heard “I’m feeling a little hypomanic today,” or “Which oil best encourages cognitive restructuring work?” or “Any candles to alleviate my uphill battle with generalized anxiety-depression disorder?” In Louisiana, treatment for these “disorders” involves paying huge bills or making your condition fit into a category of illness covered by Medicaid. Mental healthcare for economically disadvantaged families and individuals is pigeonholed into “Behavioral Services”—often part of even more general catch-all clinics, addressing both mental disorders and substance abuse.
While I am not classified as economically disadvantaged, my choice to acknowledge and treat a mental health condition is still a difficult one—especially when it becomes life-threatening if left untreated. It is not without penalties, both for my personal life and wallet. Luckily, my Blue Cross Blue Shield premium covers a therapist I trust, specialists accepting new clients, and four prescriptions to feel generally OK. In comparison to the red tape and limited options of Medicaid, I feel blessed for this level of care. My bill is $483 a month.
That’s about 160 candles.
Why couldn’t I just pour heartache into an oily votive, or incinerate the dispiriting hustle of the service industry with a seven-wick glass vessel teeming with imminent riches?
“The Pink Female is for women only,” she cautioned. “You know how men are mean to you at school or whatever? You light this one to keep you safe from harm. My mom uses this one when men are bad to her. The Pink Female doesn’t make them stop, but protects you from them harming you.”
She continued: “You should also get Big Money, but don’t think you’re just going to light it and be rich, okay? The candle isn’t how you get big money. You have to work really hard for a long time. You light Big Money when you’re ready to work hard. Maybe you work every day from five until midnight like my mom does. I guess people can work at other times, too. When do you work? Anyway, you don’t work less, you just work your best every day for a long time.” How could an eight-year-old see into my checking account and connect it with my extraordinary procrastination talents?
“You also need to pray. Get some of these white candles with a prayer on it to Mary or the other ladies. Pick whichever one you like. It doesn’t have to be Mary. Read it carefully and say it when you light the other candles.” Jogging my atrophied Catholic memory, I discovered with great relief that my Hail Marys, Our Fathers, and novenas were on point. At least one part of this consultation wasn’t completely foreign.
“Wait! You need one more thing! Let me show you!” She walked to the back of the shop and grabbed what appeared to be a small condiment cup. “Here’s a powder to protect you from yourself. When you’re about to scream and get very angry—” She paused, mouthed a fake shriek and threw her hands up in the air. “You rub it three times, once on each arm, and you feel calm.” She yanked my hands toward her, gently applying a white powder. “There. Now we’re done. I hope you take this one, too. Anything else you need protection from?”
I’m a sucker for wise children, and I left the shop with an unwieldy paper bag of mixtures to massage into my ankles, rub on my forearms, and burn. I began experimenting with my own rituals. In the same way that medication is not a miracle fix, neither is the use of candles. My process of trial-and-error involved filling the house with smoke from burning incense too long, or my roommate arriving home to find a wax woman melting on the dresser.
Last Mardi Gras morning, which I commemorate like New Year’s Eve, I lit a big stick of herbs and Peace/Paz candles and ran down Canal Street until the torches disintegrated. A weary couple sneered at my pathetic pile of burning foliage and wax as I burnt my fingers and stooped in front of VooDoo Mart to blow everything out and rub my hands on the filthy sidewalk. I felt like an idiot. Fortunately, I brought the drama down a few notches, and started instead to hang out quietly and privately with my candles before protests and public speaking gigs— the times I need to be brave but feel small. Some unscripted mindfulness therapy (a type of counseling that is unequivocally not covered by insurance) also doesn’t hurt.
Frankly, my main motivation for visiting the shops isn’t to peruse intriguing potions and powders. I show up to resolve my weltschmerz, a German word that basically means sadness about sadness.
At my familiar spiritual dispensary, I could have just bought myself a Steady Work/Trabajo Fijo to pay off that premium and colossal deductible. Instead, I bellied up to the counter and let my freak flag fly. I engaged the resident spiritual healer and spilled my guts about my love life, rudderless lifestyle, and struggle to “just chill out and be normal.” I expected very potent candles, a bottle of Florida water (a spirit-conjuring astringent), and a customized incantation to cure what ailed me. I waited anxiously, anticipating whether I’d be prescribed Come To Me/Ven A Mí or Stay Away.
Instead, I received a surprisingly firm talking-to. The healer showed me a yellowed, crumpled photograph of his children in Honduras, who he sends money to every month. He told me that he had a vision for what he wanted his life to be—to create a space where people receive healing and to fund his children’s housing and education. Then, he would help as many children as possible in other parts of Central America access good education. He would check on their progress and not abandon them. He told me that in order to accomplish this, he worked his ass off every day at the shop in the service of this goal. “What is your vision for your life?” he asked.
For once, whining about my social network was out of the question.
I told him I wanted my Ph.D. and to be a teacher. He told me to unrelentingly pursue this vision and not let my focus waver. Everything else, self-love and the love of others, would fall into balance.
“Is there a candle to help me?” “No. Do your work.”
The proprietor’s diagnosis was utterly disappointing. Not even one candle? What about the ominous red and black candle that showed a woman controlling a man like a marionette? Or the Uncrossing and Jinx-Breaking torch? Why couldn’t I just pour heartache into an oily votive, or incinerate the dispiriting hustle of the service industry with a seven-wick glass vessel teeming with imminent riches? The White Female is for peace, so all my PMS definitely belongs there. Screw my deductible. Screw the stigma and the hard work of re-ordering myself.
Other proprietors also never tell you what to buy; they don’t give free readings or flippantly dole out prescriptions. There is a mystique and various misconceptions around these shops. Hollywood versions of vodoun, hoodoo, and santería rituals lead many outside observers to reckon these spaces as cheesy effigy or doll inventories, evangelical sanctums of “black magic,” or stockpiles of cheap gag gifts. If you can buck preconceived notions and enter these spaces with candor and openness, you’ll find that they don’t seem to be any of those prejudiced and frankly, offensive notions. These boutiques take on a unique quality of refuge, abuzz with intergenerational exchange. They’re more community healing centers than pharmacies.
I’m a strong believer in the power of listening to—and standing by— other humans seeking refuge. I meet compelling people browsing, bemoaning misfortunes, and soliciting counsel. They prove to be dispensaries of advice, sharing wisdom, anecdotes, and tips on creating rituals based on their families’ mythologies. For me, these exchanges undoubtedly result in armfuls of products. Later, at home on my bookshelf, they are traces of many inner lives.