Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” On the first of each month, Catching Days hosts a guest writer in the series, “How We Spend Our Days.”

Today, please welcome writer Fenton Johnson.

December 2013 on the porch of Thomas Merton’s hermitage at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky

On the porch of Thomas Merton’s hermitage at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky in December 2013

Cynthia’s blog charged me with describing my day, but then I read Cynthia’s touching introduction with its mention of Fenton the Canine, and I found myself writing an obituary, and grateful to Cynthia for inspiring me to do what needed to be done. Ain’t that the way of life–some kind word or thoughtful comment, a bit of praise from a fellow traveler and suddenly we see what’s been begging to be seen all along.

And so here is how I spent my day: composing a tribute to my namesake.

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Fenton Johnson on Fenton Johnson

I was walking with Pam Houston, the human, and I had been complaining. Non-Southerners do not realize that south of the Ohio objecting to the nature of reality is just a conversational mode–a way of making a particular kind of mouth music that is not intended to carry any larger implications about the speaker’s temperament or frame of mind. Many of the most light-hearted Southerners I know are the most eloquent complainers. Some of them find their ways to becoming writers.

Anyway, I had been complaining about my sixteen nieces and nephews and my friends, none of whom had chosen to name any of their children after me. I would go to my grave without issue or marker, I said. Not long afterward, being the kind of friend she is, Pam announced that she was naming her next Irish wolfhound Fenton Johnson.

I admit I was taken aback. I understood this to be a compliment of the highest order, and Fenton / Fintan, a name with deep Irish roots, was singularly appropriate. The first of the two Saint Fintans is revered as “Father of the Irish Monks,” and both ruled over monasteries in the glory days of Irish Christianity, well before the Roman Church suppressed its so-called pagan elements–nature rituals and goddess worship. All the same. A dog is a dog, when evidently I had set my perverse heart on an eponym and namesake attached to some creature of the two-legged variety, despite the overwhelming evidence of the moral superiority of canines.

Wolfhounds, most particularly Irish wolfhounds, are a noble and enduring breed–when you see them in paintings and tapestries in the company of medieval kings and queens, the impression is of the royalty escorting the dogs rather than the reverse. But they have suffered the ravages of inbreeding, and as an emotional investment they are as risky as–well, as the men Pam writes about in her books. Some can be–let’s be generous here–learning challenged, and many develop bone diseases and arthritis early in their short lives. To keep company with Irish wolfhounds is an ongoing reminder that indeed our lives are as grass on the roof–an ongoing lesson in the symbiotic relationship between love and loss, life and death.

But when the gene pool coalesces they are the noblest of hounds, and I know that I will get no argument from Pam when I write that in Fenton the Canine, the gene pool seriously coalesced. For starters, at almost eleven years old he was the longest-lived of Pam’s several wolfhounds, beating out even the remarkable Dante on this score. To watch him in his youth–or even in his old age–hit his long loping stride chasing sea birds on Limantour Beach was a q.e.d. moment, when the illusion of separation and the burdens of being a sapient homo slipped away and everything, sea, sand, birds, surf, dolphins, sky, humans, dog and the long perfect arc of Point Reyes curving toward sunset was one and whole and completely and fully integrated. No duality. We are all one in Christ Jesus. Like Pam, Fenton the Canine was a teacher, and like her, he taught through the simple fact of being who he is, who he was.

What we have to be is what we are–thank you, Thomas Merton.

Permit me to indulge in self-aggrandizement by writing that Fenton the Canine and I shared some deep genetic bond. Not long before his transition from hither to yon, Pam wrote that “he was always kind of stand-offish–you could hug and pet him and he would like it well enough but after a little bit he would wander over to the corner as if to say, ‘that’s enough now, I’d rather sit over here in the corner and watch.’” And I thought, of course and helplessly, “Yes, I know another Fenton like that.”

“Life is the little that is left over from dying,” wrote Walt Whitman, our national prophet and saint. In the losses lie the lessons, I know that to be true, too. Put those statements together and you see that if we would embrace death as another aspect of life–if we would let the animals teach us how to live and how to die–we just might treat each other and our animals better than we do.

A tribute to Fenton the Canine is of necessity a tribute to Pam, who brought him into my life, and who has the bigness of heart to admire and love and care for these beautiful bright short-lived creatures.

It is hard to accept that, ojalla, the next time I walk on Limantour Beach, I will have to conjure Fenton the Canine in my imagination. And yet in the end I am glad to know and to write that glorious, useless art has a greater hold on me than practical fact, and that to live in the imagination is another way of living in what the saints and prophets call eternal life.

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1. What is the best book you’ve read in the last few months and how did you choose it?

  • The best book I’ve read recently is a tough question, because I read peripatetically, keeping multiple books at hand and browsing through them. (Evan Connell: “I don’t read for pleasure, I read for what I can steal.”) These are the books on my coffee table, right now, as I’m typing: The Oxford Annotated translation of the Bible (I recommend Genesis, Exodus, the opening and closing passages of Isaiah, the Psalms, and the Gospels). Maurice Manning’s The Common Man and The Gone and the Going Away. Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna. Emily Dickinson’s complete poems. The American Library edition of the complete Zora Neale Hurston–I’m reading her memoir, Dust Tracks on a Road.

2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?

  • In Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find, the Misfit says of the Grandmother, “She would have been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” This, of course, is true of all of us, every single day, true of you, true of me. How we spend our days is how we spend our lives. So here is a prompt, a daily exercise, for you, for me: Next time we sit to the blank page or the keyboard, let us ask: How can we really see the gun pointed daily at the heart? Assume the loping stride of Fenton the Canine on Limantour Beach. Go looking for that place. Then write.

3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?

  • I’ll start with a definition of terms: I’ll assume the question to mean, “my strangest habit that I’m willing to post on the web.” I assume “habit” to mean “something I do regularly,” and “strange” to mean “something few other people do.” So, with those qualifiers in mind: I get down on my knees every night before I climb into bed and do my best to remember to say, “grateful, grateful.” Sometimes I forget the “grateful,” but the getting down on the knees has become ingrained.x


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In the meadow in front of Thomas Merton’s hermitage, December, 2013. L to R: Dave Harrity, poet; Paul Quenon, poet, monk, teacher; Silas House, novelist and hell raiser; Fenton Johnson, wordsmith and proximate cause; Maurice Manning, poet. Photo credit: Jason Howard, writer and editor.

By Fenton Johnson

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Other Writers in the Series