Stoic Stories (2002 - 2018)

In 1999, after finishing a graduate degree in fine art, I started reading the Stoics. With studio requirements behind me, I found myself back in the library exploring the bookshelves. My undergraduate degree had been in philosophy, and I couldn’t quite shake away from the past completely.

In my twenties, I had been especially interested in Existentialism, and Taoism had found its way into my life in my thirties. Epictetus was the first stoic I read. Then Seneca and Marcus Aurelius.

Thoreau, essentially a 19th century American Stoic, felt like a kindred spirit and became an inspiration. Joseph Campbell’s stories and descriptions of human mythology also captured my imagination.

The years after graduate school were an obvious time of transition, and one of my first jobs was reviewing art exhibitions for the local paper. After a year or two, however, I started to feel restricted in both style and substance. Writing about other people’s art began to feel formulaic. So, I decided to quit writing as a journalist and start focusing on developing my own unique voice.

The following stories are very short, almost like vignettes. They are an ongoing project that continues to this day. The first in the series was written in 2002 and the last in 2018.

On the surface, they are about my daily life, but below the surface, they incorporate metaphors and symbols that touch on deeper human themes. I refer to them as "stoic" not because they are unfeeling, but because they explore experience and emotion from above. Self-observation and self-reflection lie at the heart of Stoicism, and when we make an effort to look at ourselves from a distance, we may be surprised by how universal our individual stories can be.



The color of the sun, and the diagonal beams of light that glanced in through the frosted rear window, had never looked so warm and golden to him before. He could see his breadth as he yawned and pushed the chilly corner of his sleeping bag away from his chin. He was still a bit confused while he stretched his legs and arms. The day before seemed like a dream, an irritating memory, reminding him that he wasn’t as brave as he imagined himself to be.

He had driven hundreds of miles north, across strange highways and bridges and along beautiful winding roads and desolated tracts of land. And, though he had always loved to drive and explore, this particular sojourn north, however well-planned, had begun in a way he simply hadn’t expected.

Twenty-four hours earlier, the sky had changed from blue to gray, and a long hard rain had begun to beat down on his windshield. It was neither a drizzle nor a raging storm, just a consistent and unwavering pulse that weighed heavy on his tired eyes in the most definitive manner. He had planned to reach the campground before dark, but the road to it was thick with mud and grooved, which made him question the agility of his 2-wheel-drive truck. He had eventually decided to pull over, consult his map, and consider another route before the sun disappeared and the sky grew more dark and confusing. For whatever reason, the unknown had always seemed to both attract and unsettle him.

Perhaps last night had been his first test, he thought, as he sat up out of his sleeping bag and rested his elbow on the pillow he had held close eight hours earlier. It didn’t matter how excited he was while he packed his truck before he left home. It didn’t matter that he had always dreamt of driving across the country on his own. Yesterday, he decided, was simply a healthy dose of reality and a reminder that nothing real, nothing worthwhile, was ever easy.

“If you want to grow and evolve, you better get used to a little fear” he mumbled to himself, as the tailgate of his truck dropped open and he pulled a heavy sweatshirt over his head. Reaching around a small camping stove and over a pair of wet boots, he grabbed his wallet and keys that had been sitting on top of the wheel-well above the right rear tire. He also noticed the lantern and book he had placed next to them before falling asleep, and he smiled, realizing that he had already created a bedside table for the next two months.

Despite the heavy rain and darkness of the night before, he had carefully packed two cameras and an apple in his backpack. He decided to double-check their contents before zipping everything back up again and pulling the arm-straps over his shoulders. Bending over slightly, he pulled his hat down over his ears and laced up a second, dry pair of shoes. As the gravel crunched beneath his feet, he walked around the truck and down a short drive toward a clearing and empty parking area. Through the trees to his right, he could see a couple of tents in a couple of different campsites, but no movement within or around them.

The campground was located next to a small river that flowed into the lake, so he decided to walk along the riverbank until he reached the beach. It was surprising how the water spread out over the sand, becoming almost still as it emptied itself into the waves. It looked kind of like a thousand flickering mirrors had been carefully arranged and spread out in front of him. The sun really was a bizarre thing, he thought, while squinting into his camera and trying his best to capture the morning light.

Removing a map from his left front pocket, he looked both directions and decided to start walking northeast along the shore. Realizing he was completely alone, and had the beach all to himself, he paused and then exhaled deeply. He looked out over the horizon. The waves seemed quiet and considerate as they curled and fell into themselves on the sand. The beach held the weight of hundreds of large stones, rubbed smooth by the water over the years, and the trees to his right seemed to anchor him to something that felt vaguely familiar.

With his hands still cold from the chill in the air and his legs not quite used to the give of the sand beneath his feet, his stride felt clumsy at first. As he walked and slowly realized where he was and how he had arrived, for some reason, tears gradually collected in his eyes. He ignored them for a while and continued to walk forward, but when they eventually escaped and rolled down his face into the corners of his mouth, he paused and decided not to blink. Instead, he held his eyes open wide and looked upward toward the cloudless sky.

As the wind picked up a little, he looked back over his shoulder and noticed a seagull out over the water. He thought maybe it wanted some food and would disappear after a minute or two. However, several minutes came and went, and as he began to walk again, the seagull remained. Sometimes it would fly beside him just above the waves, and other times it would fly ahead and perch on a stone until he got too close. After about an hour of walking, he realized that he had made a new friend.

When he came upon the remnants of a sunken ship sticking out of the water, he couldn't help but stop to inspect it. Large beams penetrated by steel rods and mesh brackets peeked out from beneath each approaching wave. He wondered about the age of the ship and how many people had been aboard during the wreck. Allowing himself to daydream a bit, he imagined the names of the captain and the crew. He suspected that a few men died in the cold water and a few escaped to shore. He figured they were probably French-Canadian and wondered how many mariners were bachelors, like himself. He also wondered how many were married men who left their wives and families behind.

While he walked, he occasionally hopped from one large stone to another, and sometimes he stopped to study the sand and stones up close. He liked how his backpack seemed lighter whenever he leaned forward and picked up something on the beach. Many of the stones were gray, washed almost black by the water, while others were orange and tan. The prettiest stones, he thought, always seemed smooth like marble and were a deep, dark indigo blue. He tried skipping a few over the waves, but to no avail. The waves seemed to protest somehow, by making themselves just too high to allow anything to tread upon them.

The sky was changing colors as the morning progressed. The trees along the beach were becoming a lighter shade of green as their shadows grew shorter and the light around them became less dramatic. The sand and stones were warming as well. He could feel the sun starting to burn his face, when he decided to adjust his route. If he ventured off of the beach, up into the woods, he could eventually make it to the lighthouse and the dunes several miles further north.

Behind him, a few hundred yards away, he noticed what looked like a couple walking together along the water's edge. So, before they approached, he thought, it might be a good time to disappear and let them enjoy the beach together in private.

Scratching his chin then cupping his jaw in the palm of his hand, he looked into the trees to determine the best place to enter. There was what seemed like a walking path to his right and another opening to the left of that. He kept looking however, and decided he would climb a small outcropping of rocks directly in front of him. It didn’t look like a particularly easy way to enter the woods, but something about it drew him closer.

He smiled, adjusted his backpack, and walked to the base of the rocks. As he reached up and began pulling himself over the first large stone, his foot slipped, and he came down hard on his left wrist. He got up quickly, however, ignoring the pain and pretending nothing had happened. He then looked back over to his right at the open path leading into the woods. Letting out a sigh, he paused and looked back up toward the tall stones in front of him.

It took him about five minutes to navigate his way up and over the rocks. Both winded and proud, he eventually pulled himself into the shade of the trees. When he stood up and looked back down toward the beach, he noticed that his friend, the seagull, had left him and was flying out over the water. He watched and waited until she disappeared before steadying himself and turning again to the north. After a few strides, he almost started pulling the map out of his left front pocket, but then he reconsidered. The lighthouse was just a few miles away, he thought, and it was still morning.



The chest was black with brass corners and latches. The lock was broken and had been pried off in case the key was ever lost. The inside was a bit of a mystery. Other than the interior cedar walls, he wasn’t exactly sure of what was inside. Sometimes he thought of opening it to see, but other times, his mind would change and waver. Long ago, he had embraced the belief that certain things in life invited clarity and others did not.

On top of the chest sat a few dusty guitar picks, a tin container of breath mints, and a few candles. Some of the candles were old and half burnt and others were new. Some looked like miniature lanterns used for camping. It seemed like he was always lighting candles at night.

Next to the matches sat a number of books. He had decided to leave them out for easy access. Most of his books were on a shelf next to his bed in the upstairs loft, but a few, his most recent favorites, always seemed to hover conveniently around his keys, wallet, and notepads. Most of the things he used during his waking hours tended to find themselves on the chest, near the candles, which sat maybe six or eight feet from the door.

The blue couch behind the chest was covered with an assortment of coats and hats. He simply had too many outer garments to worry about hanging everything up all the time. It seemed inefficient to walk clear across the room to hang things up every morning and evening. And, he never did find a good place to keep his motorcycle gloves and helmet. Given the relative infrequency of visitors, the couch just seemed like the most logical place for such things.

About five feet from the front edge of the chest sat his rocking chair. Square and low to the ground, the seat cushion was heavily worn. A couple of remote control keypads, a pair of headphones, and a coaster for tea or hot chocolate had been married to the chair for as long as he could remember. A larger flat pillow was tossed beneath the legs, but was pulled out nightly and used as a footrest.

He never thought it overly important to hang many things on the walls. A few well-centered and original pieces of artwork seemed to suffice for his wandering eyes. While the lights were off and the candles burned, it wasn’t particularly important to focus on the pictures anyway. Too many things meant too many distractions, and he always lamented the wasted moments of his life. He wanted to accomplish so much, yet he often felt tired and unable to summon the much-needed energy to complete his most treasured goals.

While sitting in his rocking chair, however, he thought of Vermeer and Salinger, and he remembered that he would never be a prolific artist or writer. A small body of work, a few well-considered, focused accomplishments were enough. Although he could take hundreds of photographs during a series of two-hour walks through the woods, he only ever felt proud of maybe one or two carefully crafted compositions. Perhaps his creative impulse resembled a peace lily, a plant that sends out only an occasional flower when all appropriate environmental conditions had been achieved. Just a single disturbance in his life and his creativity seemed to wither.

He was powerfully secretive about his deepest strengths and weaknesses. Few people knew what he was best at and what he was worried about. In his twenties, he had realized that he was often too influenced by the people around him, so in order to maintain his essence, he had learned how to be alone and to accept, even embrace, the importance of solitude. It wasn’t that he didn’t love his friends and family; it was only that he tended to lose himself in their company. To be alone was to uncover his own nature, and to be with others was to experience theirs.

Most nights he tended to reflect on the events of the day. He often analyzed his own trials and tribulations at work. He measured his ability to remain settled during unsettling situations and to not become frustrated with people who didn’t understand certain things he considered obvious. Sometimes he felt proud of himself for being nice to people who were habitually negative, and other times he felt ashamed that he had allowed himself to be drug down into the mud, to wrestle with the pigs. He never did understand people who needed to control others. He had a hard enough time controlling himself, so he had no idea how people found the time or had the inclination to selfishly manipulate the people around them. Their nature was a true mystery to him and an exhausting existence to encounter. He thought perhaps controlling personalities were more dependent upon others in order to experience themselves. While these people tended to unsettle him throughout the day, they tended to awaken his pity at night.

Sometimes while he rocked back and forth and listened to his favorite songs, his eyelids would begin to fall, and his thoughts would turn to one of the many beautiful women he knew. He sometimes wondered if he could be a good man for woman A or if he made enough money for woman B. He knew however that his indecision spoke volumes, so he tended not to act on any of his late night reflections. Besides, certain late nights had hurt people in the past, and he knew he didn’t want to go down that road again. He often wondered why he never seemed to put his whole heart into the pursuit or why he was so often attracted to women who seemed to add stress to his life – instead of relieving it. He wondered if partners existed in the world in order to actually comfort each other. Or, if the role of each partner was to challenge the other and purposefully burden them with worry and trivialities. Perhaps he had grown too comfortable with his independence, or perhaps he hadn’t yet met the right woman. Regardless of the reason or combination of reasons, he was often perplexed how he could find women so attractive, and yet, he never seemed to make things work out with any of them. He did have a few friends who complimented his personality, but he couldn’t remember a girlfriend who was able to brighten his life in the same way.

He loved the way the candle flames flickered and seemed to wave back and forth within the holders containing them. They never seemed to be in synch, which was both beautiful and intriguing, and they often created the most interesting shadows on the wall above his couch and pile of coats and hats. The way the shadows illuminated the shape of his dusty guitar held a certain charm as well, and it often brought a smile to his eyes.

Every night, at some point, the back of his rocking chair would begin to knock on the wall and the stairwell behind him. Whether he wanted to get up or not, the knocking usually interrupted his wandering mind, and he would lean forward and out of the chair. Sometimes he forgot that he was wearing headphones and the cord would tug gently at the sides of his head. Sometimes he remembered to put his cup in the kitchen sink, and other times he left it to sit empty on its coaster. Each night, however, he always remembered to blow out whichever candles remained burning. The smell of the smoke was the last best thing he felt, before he walked upward into the loft, toward the place where his thoughts would finally subside.

After brushing his teeth and pulling the shades down over the large wooden windows looking out over the street, he eventually found his way underneath the layers of blankets covering his bed. As he rolled over onto his side, rubbed his feet together, and closed his eyes, he thought about the black chest in the room beneath him. It was definitely the perfect home for his books and candles. He just couldn’t remember what was inside. He wasn’t sure why this tended to make him laugh, but the corners of his mouth curved upwards nonetheless, and when he finally yawned, exhaled, and fell asleep, both of his hands relaxed and found their way into the warm hollow between his neck and left shoulder.