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.




Friday
Mar302018

winter



The flame sparked then grew blue and yellow as he touched the match to the corner of the dry dark brown peat moss briquette. He had bought the Irish incense online a month or two earlier, after he had been talking about fireplaces with his co-workers.

Since his loft was inside of a renovated mill with no chimneys, he tended to light candles during the winter months, and he was especially proud of himself for remembering the incense he had seen in a tourist shop in Dingle years earlier.

“If you can’t burn wood, you can always burn other stuff” he thought, “and if the smell of cinnamon and lavender and some kind of random potpourri makes you sneeze, then you can always burn some imported Irish peat moss and daydream about walking along the Cliffs of Moher and exploring the interior hallways of Bonratty Castle.”

After the incense had caught fire, he carefully placed it into an empty black metal lantern sitting next to the doorway leading out onto his deck. In order to make sure the aroma spread evenly throughout the loft, he decided to turn on the ceiling fan. The smoke collected within the lantern and slowly curled out through the openings at the top. Just like when he used to build campfires with his father as a boy, he inhaled deeply, smiled, and watched the flames for a while with pride.

No matter how small, he couldn’t think of many things that were more comforting than sitting in front of a fire. Long ago, he had hypothesized that any and all human beings who didn’t like campfires were probably extinct. They probably froze to death during the Neanderthal or Cro-Magnon eras, leaving only fire-loving humans to roam the earth and gather around the flames for warmth during cold snowy winter days when they didn’t have to hunt or gather or work in office buildings to feed themselves.

His work was actually quite interesting on most days. He was lucky enough to register and photograph historic documents, artwork, and books before his colleagues repaired and restored them. His cold hands had held many rare and valuable items over the past 15 years - land surveys signed by George Washington, books signed by Mark Twain, prints by Picasso, Wyeth, and Whistler.

His favorite books were the oldest ones that were hand-written by monks back in the 15th century. The calligraphy and hand-painted illustrations were so detailed and exact. The focus required to make such things captured his imagination and tended to inspire his own occasional philosophical creations.

On good days, cold winter snow days, while sitting nearby miniature incense fires, he could keep busy for hours around the house. Framing old travel postcards. Organizing his notebooks and bookshelves. Brainstorming new running and eating schedules. Making lists of projects and topics to discuss with city groups and leaders. He sometimes turned his many opinions into letters to the editor as well as letters to himself.

His journal was coming along nicely. Quotes, running distances, his weight, and heart-rate all seemed to find their way into the pages. He thought that maybe tracking his life would help him live it well. If he didn’t remember where the time went each day, he suspected he might look back with regret when it was his time to stop breathing and be gone forever. His Dad had lived a good life - impacting his family, friends, and community in many loving ways, and he wanted to carve his own unique initials into the tree of life. He wanted to grow and do good deeds and inspire the people he lived among and the people he loved. He could still be an impatient sarcastic jerk at times, and he knew that all of these musings didn’t mean that he would ever be perfect, but he thought that cold winter days with 12 inches of snow on the ground outside could at least become positive and productive and memorable somehow.

“There are stories everywhere” he thought. “Our lives are stories. We can be the heroes of our own stories. We can be supporting characters in other people’s stories. I guess it just seems like such a waste if our stories are boring and forgettable. So we might as well write them well.”

Every few minutes, he tended to get restless, stand up, an walk around. While inhaling the lingering smokey air emanating from the lantern, he found his way into the kitchen and stood in front of the refrigerator. He glanced inside at the half empty shelves for a moment, and then closed the door. He turned around and looked at the dishes in the sink. Not sure what he was looking for exactly, he remembered the Irish incense and walked back into the living room toward the black lantern. He noticed that the bright flame and smoke were completely extinguished - leaving behind only a small pile of gray ashes.

He reached to the wall, turned off the ceiling fan, looked out the window, and watched the snowflakes fall for a few minutes. Eventually, he returned to his desk and sat down. He hoped that something would come to mind while sitting there, something that might be comforting for someone else to read one day.

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