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 manner in which they walked together, side by side, seemed natural. Perhaps this was why strangers tended to assume that they were a couple. The evening air was cool; she was glad to have brought her sweater after all. The streets were relatively quiet, and as they walked toward an unassuming pair of glass doors, he began to feel his own restlessness. Each time he brought a new person to this place, he was filled with both excitement and fear. He had spent so many hours building and preparing his own private nest of creativity; the thought of inviting a friend, no matter how close, was almost like allowing someone to search through his closet and dresser drawers.

“It’s kind of dark” he said as he unlocked the door. “Wait here, and I’ll go turn on the lights.”

A little perplexed, she agreed and tried to hide her curiosity. Although she generally thought she knew him well, he would surprise her from time to time with an unexpected piece of personal history, or even better, a witty remark about life or traffic. To him, opposites fit perfectly together. He always tried to be playful and wise, sensitive and sarcastic, gentle and brave. She, on the other hand, tended to believe that a person was either one way or the other. He suspected this difference between them to be the most likely reason for their current status as "friends." He also thought, however, that certain things were better left unstated, better left to be discovered over time.

As he finally opened the door, she opened her eyes wide. The gallery lights were dim, and his art was arranged like most other aspects of his life - with meticulous consideration. His heart pounded as she began to look around. Within a few seconds, he excused himself and disappeared through a different, interior doorway. The thought of awkwardly standing around while she inspected his work was simply out of the question.

A few minutes passed. When he eventually returned through the same interior doorway, he began to feel more at ease. It seemed obvious from her body language that she was filled with interest. Regardless of what she had originally expected, it was clear to him that she would not continue to underestimate this aspect of his life. Her voice was filled with sincerity, her eyes with honesty, as she proclaimed,

“This is a REAL gallery. You need to get more people in here. How do you make these? Are those bronze?”

His heart smiled as he began his explanations. Although he usually felt uncomfortable discussing his creative process, he felt more at ease with her. The tone of her voice had given away the depth of her interest, and he knew that regardless of what he said, it would not spoil the quality of her first impression. Her initial reaction was the very kind that artists live for, the kind which make them feel that their impractical, dreamy careers are indeed worthwhile.

“Do you want to see the rest of the building.... the unfinished parts?” he asked with raised eyebrows.

Anticipating more surprises, she agreed, and they found their way back into a large and dusty storage area, where the lights were even less revealing. While his voice echoed beneath the old and weathered tin ceiling, her inquiring eyes and inquisitive neck peered around each shadowy corner. They really were a lot alike, he thought, as she pondered the age of the building and as he explained his arrangement with the landlord. Although their hearts had always been in different places, the similarity of their curious minds made him feel less odd, less alone.

Continuing to sense her fascination with the building itself, he decided to try to coax her into other areas, where the building's age and mystery were even more prominent. Unsure of her comfort threshold, he suggested they ascend a remote stairway, down a dark hallway near the back door. Noticing her indecision, he smiled and pulled his keys out of his right front pocket. With a slight twist of his wrist, a small beam of light appeared from the end of a thimble-sized flashlight. She cautiously followed.

As they reached the base of the stairway, he thought of taking her hand, and then reconsidered. Instead he pointed the golden beam of light behind himself, alighting the first stair beneath her feet.

“Do you go up here by yourself?.... at night?” she asked in amazement.

He smiled again and nodded, and they stepped gingerly upward among the dirt and dust, among the flakes of dry paint which had peeled away and fallen from the walls. As the stairway turned to the right, he pointed to a broken window where only the exterior, protective bars remained. They each glanced out toward the dim light of the moon and the empty alley behind the building before turning upwards again, toward the darkness at the top of the stairs.

“Did you hear that!?.... that noise?” she asked in a broken whisper.

Just as the words “it’s nothing” came from his mouth, a fury of flapping wings descended upon their ears and upon their confidence. Startled, she fled back down the stairs immediately, guarding her head with each frightened step. Perplexed, he paused at the top of the stairs and aimed his small flashlight toward another window above, where two gray and speckled pigeons perched, then fluttered again.

“Are those bats?!” She yelled. “What are you still doing up there?”

Insensitively, he burst into laughter and slowly made his way to the bottom of the stairs. Still laughing, he checked to see that she was alright, to see if she had regained her composure. Unfortunately, he certainly had not, and his laughing continued to the point of embarrassment, to the point of contagion.

Once she finally began laughing herself, it became clear to each of them that the tension of the evening had finally subsided. He couldn't imagine a greater feeling of relief, except perhaps in the hearts of the pigeons.

“Go ahead,” he suggested, “I’ll turn off all of the lights after you’re back outside.”

Without argument, she agreed and made her way through the dark hallway, through the gallery, and onto the sidewalk. After he had finally extinguished each of the lights, he too found his way outside. Though the temperature was still cool, the laughter between them continued, and they slowly walked away from his gallery and the old building containing it.

With their hearts still in different places, he thought, on this particular evening, it didn’t really feel that way. It seemed rather, that something between them had deepened. And as they walked beneath the warm glow of a nearby streetlight, he smiled and noticed how their shadows had overlapped and disappeared into the sidewalk.



As he stepped outside and shut the door, he squinted his eyes. Adjusting to sudden changes was never one of his strengths. His was a studied, cautious personality. With so many things to consider, he often marveled at the go-getters, who seemed blind to so much. Did they not realize the consequences of their actions? Did they not know that with every word and with every breath, the world would be altered?

While his thoughts spun wildly out of control, his walk was familiar. About four blocks stood between him and his lunch. There were many sites to see along the way. A small, yet scenic college campus, an 84-year-old house, a crack in the sidewalk, and sometimes, even another person, walking a dog or parking a car.

Automobiles seemed like such curious objects to him. While their primary purpose was transportation, their various secondary purposes seemed far from secondary. As he walked by each parked car along the way, he often glanced in through the windows and wondered about the owners. Whether a car was clean, dusty, tidy, or unkempt could mean a variety of different things. Who knows? Perhaps the owner of that dusty red Prelude was named Stephanie. With all of the fast food debris strewn around the passenger seat, he imagined that she was in her early twenties. Maybe her father had purchased the car for her on her sixteenth birthday, and since it was no longer the latest model, she had grown bored with it. After all, it probably did not attract the eyes of all the boys like it used to; and, due to the recent jerk she had dated, she did not care much about boys anyway. He pictured Stephanie as a brunette, with stylish platform shoes and a tattoo on her lower back, or maybe just above her left breast. Surely her parents did not approve of her tattoo, or her navel ring for that matter. Perhaps this was why the complexion of her car had been neglected. Or, then again, perhaps her parents were divorced when she was young, and her life had always felt disorganized and filled with chaos, both emotional and otherwise. So many hints, so many worlds, he thought.

There were not many mini-vans in his neighborhood, which meant few children could be found. For the most part, he thought this was unfortunate. Children always seemed to have a wonderful way of injecting life into living. Whenever he remembered such things, he would adjust his behavior accordingly. Every once in a while, he would kick a small pebble on the ground until he reached an intersection, or he would walk along the edge of the curb, as though it were a balance beam. The good thing about his neighborhood was its personality, its history. Because of its in-town location, it had been protected from suburbia and the ugliness of the corresponding generic strip malls. Whenever he remembered this, he tended to smile and look up at the trees.

He often ate lunch around 2 or 2:30 in the afternoon. This way, he could avoid the hectic atmosphere of the traditional noontime lunch hour. One of his favorite lunch spots was the local Pizzeria. The food was tasty and inexpensive, and the servers, like the neighborhood, exuded a unique character. The owner was very selective with his kindness. His gruff voice was matched only by his loyal, protective eyes. He often spoke Italian, which seemed to perplex and confuse the usually young, demanding customers. He had two primary assistants behind the counter. One was a younger, sincere, and outgoing gentleman who obviously enjoyed his work. And, the other was a single, hard working mother. A survivor and an optimist, she often spoke of her son and her dogs. To her, the local customers were people, with hopes and dreams and problems, like her own. To be in her presence was to feel human.

He usually carried a book with him, a companion for his meal. Being a philosopher by nature, a copy of “Walden” and two slices of pepperoni pizza were perfect for filling his mind and stomach. Occasionally between chapters he would quietly listen to the voices around him. Men often spoke of work, women, and sports, while women tended to exchange stories about friends, relationships, food, and clothes. Although each conversation varied in length and pitch, few varied in content.

He was slow and methodical with his meal. Making sure not to accidentally spill any food on his clothes or on his book, he often cut his slices of pizza with a small plastic knife and fork. Occasionally, another customer would try to catch a peak at the title of his book, and sometimes, young women would walk swiftly by his table in an attempt to pull his eyes away from his reading and chewing. On this particular day, out of the corner of his eye, he happened to notice a pair of trendy platform shoes shuffling toward the table behind him. He couldn’t help but laugh to himself, as he remembered the story he had imagined earlier about Stephanie and the messy red sports car.

Sometimes, he thought, these coincidences might mean something, but other times, he figured, it was just the rambling of his active imagination. In any case, upon finishing his meal, he decided to push his thoughts and empty paper plate aside. While he could hear some faint whispering and giggling coming from the table behind him, he still closed his book, walked to the door, and pulled it open. As the sun glistened off of the metal door frame, he squinted his eyes. Adjusting to sudden changes was never one of his strengths.