There was more than one moment in the depths of the pandemic that the decision to open a small town bookstore seemed like the absolute worst idea in the world — a monument to arrogance and self-indulgence. At first we couldn’t open. Then we didn’t feel right opening. Then a freak storm (and political incompetence) shut down the power grid, leading to burst pipes and a busted roof. Then books were unavailable due to a global logistics crisis.
In between all this, there were new variants and sick employees. Expensive new air conditioning units. Online attacks from political extremists and trying to raise two young children.
It was, you might say, one damn thing after another.
I don’t know what my wife and I expected the experience to be when we first conceived of opening our store, The Painted Porch, back in the fall 2019, but I’m not sure we could have predicted this. Nor do I imagine we would have proceeded had we had any such inkling.
During one of these many dark nights of the soul, I turned back, as I often do, to Stoicism, the philosophy that I am lucky enough to write about. As it happens, there was plenty to find parallels to. In 160 AD, Rome was hit by a horrible plague. The “Antonine Plague” would kill somewhere between 10 and 18 million people. No one knew what caused the awful disease, or what had brought it on. But it quickly overwhelmed the country — bodies piled up in the streets, the economy was devastated, civic institutions crumbled.
One ancient historian, Cassisus Dio, would write that Rome’s emperor Marcus Aurelius “did not have the good fortune that he deserved…and for almost his whole reign was involved in a series of troubles.” It’s almost incomprehensible and impossible to compare to…and yet not all that different than how life goes for the rest of us: one damn thing after another.
Yet Dio would write that these events made Marcus Aurelius, that he “admired him all the more for this very reason, that amid unusual and extraordinary difficulties he both survived himself and preserved the empire.”
I’ve always wanted to do that, people will say when they hear you’ve opened a bookstore, not unlike the way we fantasize about…