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Inspired By Monks, A Writer Embraces His Life Of Solitude


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. After living alone for more than 20 years, my guest, writer Fenton Johnson, wanted to write about solitude and the people like himself who seek it. He'd already written about the contemplative life and the religious pursuit of solitude in his book, "Keeping Faith: A Skeptic's Journey." The research had taken him to monasteries of different faiths. His own pursuit of solitude was inspired in part by growing up near the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani, in the area of the Kentucky hills known as the Knobs. His family knew many of the monks, including Thomas Merton, and several were frequent dinner guests at his home when he was a child. He wrote the cover story in the April issue of Harper's called "Going It Alone: The Dignity And Challenge Of Solitude."

Fenton Johnson, welcome to FRESH AIR. So you live alone. Is this something you think of yourself as having chosen? Or is that just how it's worked out?

FENTON JOHNSON: Well, it's a question of fate and destiny. I think it's my destiny to live alone and to be alone. I think it is a combination of choice and circumstance, what we're given and what we make of what it is that we are given. At some point, I did make an active choice - a very active choice - to inhabit my aloneness. And that, I think, is probably the most relevant consideration in addressing that question.

GROSS: So what's the difference to you between living alone and living alone while inhabiting your aloneness?

JOHNSON: Well, I went through a long period where I had a partner. He died of AIDS in the great epidemic in San Francisco in 1990. I figured after that - I had a kind of pattern of serial monogamy - I figured that I would go through a grieving process, and then I would find another partner and settle down. And then the years passed. And I began to realize that not only was that not happening, but that I - that I felt... I don't know how to say this other than in the passive voice, that I felt called to a kind of aloneness in the secular world that enabled me to inhabit it, to inhabit what it is that I wanted to do with my life better than being in a relationship. I'm speaking for myself of course. Over the years, I began to realize that a lot of the writers, artists, musicians that I liked, was attracted to or reading, were people who themselves had never conventionally coupled. They tended to be alone throughout their lives. And I began to get a kind of uneasy sense of recognition that these people might be me. And so then I began to look at their work more carefully. And I realized that each of them has a quality of the work that I would describe as a kind of essential solitude that they are giving expression to.

GROSS: You grew up near monks. You grew up in the Kentucky hills, the area that's known as the Kentucky Knobs. And you were just, I don't know, a mile or two away from the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani. And this is where Thomas Merton lived and wrote. And he's famous for, among other things, writing "Seven Storey Mountain." And your family interacted with these monks regularly because they used to come to your home and share dinners and stories. What did you know as a child about what their monastic lives were like?

JOHNSON: Well, I feel very fortunate in that I didn't see this - I did see it, of course, as a life that was somewhat of an extraordinary choice, but that it was so thoroughly integrated with our lives. It was the '60s, a wild and crazy time, as we know. And many of the monks were exploring, shall we say, whether they wanted to remain in the monastery. And the wise abbots of the time allowed them to move fairly freely among the community, even though they lived in a cloistered community. Now, that was something that - that was a big change. That was because of the '60s. That had not been true prior to that. But consequently, we came to know them quite well. My father - my family has made whiskey for the last couple of centuries in those hills. And my father was working at a small distillery. Brother Fenton, after whom I was named, brought his fruitcake recipe to the monastery, partly as a way of getting lots of whiskey into the monastery. He devised a recipe that had a lot of whiskey in it. And my father became the conduit for the whiskey from the local distillery to the bourbon, from the local distillery into the monastery. And that became the foundation of, I now look back, extraordinary history. I took it for granted, of course. I had never been out of this town of 800 people and the hills. But I hardly remember a childhood supper where we didn't have a monk or two sitting at the dinner table. And they would come over for parties. And my mother would dance and sing with - climb on top of the kitchen table and dance with Brother Simeon or... You know, this was all just kind of a regular part of my childhood. And then I got out into the world (laughter) and realized that it was an unusual thing to have Trappist monks dancing on your kitchen table on New Year's Eve. So I guess I grew up in that kind of environment. It's hardly surprising that I would continue - that it would be a source of a lot of rich material for me.

GROSS: Just curious, where did whiskey fit into the monastic life?

JOHNSON: Well, you know, the monks have - many of the orders of the monks make alcohol. The Benedictines - certain orders make beer and, you know, liqueurs. There's never been a strange relationship between Roman Catholicism and alcohol. And in this case, it was just, you know, my father taught me never show up at a monastery without a bottle of bourbon tucked in the - you know, because if you want to make friends, you know, people will somehow, in the mysterious and marvelous ways of monasteries, people will find you out. And then you end up sitting in the cow barn, you know, swapping stories and - and really, I want to emphasize this, learning a lot about a true spiritual life. I don't want to give the impression that these men were - I guess you'd call them jack monks. Most of them, I think, were extremely serious about their vocations. But there's such a thing as merry monk, you know? And I had the privilege (laughter) of being exposed to a lot of them.

GROSS: So when you were young and were exposed to all these monks from the abbey, did you have any understanding of why they chose a life of communal solitude?

JOHNSON: You know, that's an interesting question. I, of course - as a child, I just accepted it as a given, the donnee, in a way that... You know, of course what you did on Corpus Christi in the high heat of June is that you all dressed up. And you went over and had these elaborate processions with gold monstrances and men decked out in gorgeous (laughter) clothing and singing in Latin. And, I mean, all of that was just part of the landscape. And I suppose in some sense, of course, it drew me because I inherited from my - both of my parents - a deep love of beauty. And here were these people who had - I think this may be the best way to describe a monastic life - people who had made a conscious choice to dedicate their lives to the pursuit and - the creation and the pursuit of beauty. And what I ask in the course of this essay in Harper's is whether we can take that noble motivation and transfer it into the - into the secular world, whether we can have a kind of, for solitaries, people I call solitaries - I borrowed the word from Merton - can have a kind of dedication to beauty that operates outside of a cloistered wall in the same way that it did for these men within the cloistered wall.

GROSS: It was a surprise for me to find this out, but it was one of the monks from the Abbey of Gethsemani that helped you realize that you weren't the only male in the world who was attracted to other males. This happens to be the monk that you are named after...

JOHNSON: (Laughter).

GROSS: Before your parents knew he was gay (laughter) and before he was out.

JOHNSON: Well, I think...

GROSS: You think they knew?

JOHNSON: I think my parents always knew that he was gay. It's a great story. I - you know, I - this is a town of, when I was growing up, 800 people. And it really was true. I loved getting my eyes examined because we drove to Louisville for it. And I loved going to a place that had parallel parking and traffic lights and escalators. That was enough for me, to keep me entertained for a day. So it was really an isolated environment. And I really, of course, like so many gay people in those days, thought of myself as being the only such person in the world. And Brother Fenton, who originated the fruitcake recipe that still supports the monastery, he left the monastery when I was about 5 years old. Prior to that, he would make me these fantastically elaborate cakes as his namesake. He would make me these huge Mickey Mouse heads or whatever for my birthdays. But he left the monastery. And he came back when I was about 15, for New Year's Eve, with a man. And there was the usual New Year's Eve party that the monks, you know, who were still in the monastery who were old friends of his came over, and we had a big celebration. And there was dancing on the table and all those things that my family did with the monks. And then he and his - the man that he had come with, left the next day. And in the silence that followed their departure, I understood that they were lovers because there was no subject that invoked a silence so vast and so unassailable as sex. And - you know, because if he had had - if they had just been friends, there would've been, you know - everybody would just sort of banter about who this person was. And, of course, if he had brought a woman, there would've been lots of sort of, you know, chitchat about well, gee, do you think they're going to get married or whatever. But there was just - after their departure, there was just silence. And I understood in that silence that these two men were lovers and that I was not the only person in the world who had that kind of attraction. And that I would find that out from my namesake, from Brother Fenton - there's some (laugher) marvelous, I don't know, wholeness that's at work there.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Fenton Johnson. He's a writer who has an article in the new edition, the April edition, of Harper's Magazine. Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Fenton Johnson. His essay about solitude is the cover story in the April edition of Harper's.

So just in terms of your life of solitude, you live alone. But you teach. I'm sure you have neighbors. I don't think you live, like, in the middle of the woods...


GROSS: Far away from other houses. So I mean, you have your share of human connection in your life. You just are solitary in terms of your home time.

JOHNSON: Yes. And I would say, in fact, that I throw a mean party. And I am a good cook. And I throw a great dinner party. And I love nothing more than (laughter) to invite several well-chosen guests over, fix a really nice meal and get them a little drunk and then get them to talk about whatever it is that I'm writing about at that particular time because I get the benefit of their insight and perceptions to enrich my own work. I'm not writing about hermits, even though hermitry is a way of being in the world that I have a lot of respect for. I'm writing about people who are solitary travelers, who have embraced being solitary travelers because in that embrace of their destinies, they find the richest possible way of being in the world.

GROSS: In some ways, you are so outside the culture now because as somebody choosing a more solitary life, you are also, I am sure, choosing to not really engage with things like social media or, you know, lots of cable television or, you know, all the new, electronic device, digital kind of stuff that we have access to. And so, you know, in some respects, you're probably really losing touch with what's happening in our culture. And I wonder how you feel about that.

JOHNSON: I feel really, really good about it. (Laughter). I - my students say to me - my students are 21, 22, whatever - come into the classroom and they say, we can't keep up with the software. We can't keep up with what's happening. And I say, you can't keep up with what's happening? I have a terrible sense that this is a chatter that we are creating as a mask for the issues of serious, great consequence that we should be facing head-on and engaging.

GROSS: You wrote a memoir a few years ago about the love of your life, who died in 1990 or '91 of AIDS. You were together for about three years. Your memoir was called, "Geography Of The Heart." He was already HIV-positive when you met him. And I'm wondering how his death affected your choice to live alone. Some people might think that after he died, you thought, never again. I can never have a partner that would come close to what I had with him. He was the love of my life. So that - that idea of coupling was ended when he died. Does it - is your story anything like that?

JOHNSON: The evolution of my being alone - certainly his death deeply affected me. I will say this about grief, something I feel very strongly, which is that we're often told that - or expected to get over a great loss like that, a certain period of mourning - and that there's something wrong about preserving or continuing to dwell on a relationship like that in the past. I don't believe that at all. I think grief is probably the most idiosyncratic of emotions. And some people will lose a great love, and six months later, they will remarry to another great love. And for other people, it's important - it's emotionally sustaining for them to go about their lives with the memory of that great good fortune of having this person, this one person, enter their lives in that particular way. And I think both of those are entirely marvelous and defensible ways of being.

GROSS: And you fall into the second category?

JOHNSON: You know, things might change tomorrow. That's tomorrow. But the enterprise of solitude is to sit down and embrace what you have in the here and now. And we've turned that observation into a kind of cliche, as we often turn beautiful, true words in our society into cliches, I think because we're afraid of them. But it really is - we're afraid of their power or we don't want to inhabit their power. But if we really - if we really lived with what we have in the here and now, it would radically change how we live in the world. Thomas Merton again, what we have to be is what we are - what we are right here, right now. And solitude can be a way of fully inhabiting that way of being in the world.

GROSS: So we've been talking about the life of solitude, of having a certain amount of solitude in your life and living alone. You were very sick last week. You had a procedure that led to a systemic infection and had to go to the hospital. And it was a rough week. How did your conscious solitude work out when you were alone in the hospital? Did you feel like you had enough connection with people who were friends or colleagues or students or whatever, who were there for you and came and visited you when you maybe really wanted company and wanted support and reassurance?

JOHNSON: That is a very good question because it addresses the challenge of living alone, if you're living alone, which is the establishment of those kinds of networks. To experience the support and outpouring of love and affection was so moving that it almost made the illness worth the price of the ticket. Those people did come together for me. They did support me in a way that was extraordinary to witness. And during this week of illness - and I was very, very ill - I have to say that I got through some of the most difficult times, the 3 a.m., 4 a.m. times in the hospital, drawing upon the reservoir of strength that I had assembled over my time of living alone, of accepting being alone, of accepting that this is happening to me and it's OK. It is what it is. It's a different version of the autumn light falling across the room. And I don't think I could have - I don't think I could have gotten - I couldn't have gotten through those - the past week - without two ways of being in the world, one of which was the great love of my friends who came together to support me and family. And the other was that reservoir that I had built up in solitude of accepting illness, even death - especially death - as a necessary and beautiful part of what is, in its way. But at 3 and 4 o'clock in the morning, what I went back to a lot was sitting alone in silence, for day after day, with a Zen Buddhist community. And I went back to those times of sitting alone. And I drew a lot of strength from them. And I thought, I'm lying in this hospital bed, and it's just a different way of sitting alone and being alone with the world.

GROSS: Well, Fenton Johnson, I wish you a good recovery and a lot of good health.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

GROSS: And I thank you very much for sharing some of your thoughts with us.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

GROSS: Fenton Johnson wrote the cover story about solitude in the April edition of Harper's. After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review two memoirs about grief and loss. We'll hear about how dirty, smelly and kind of disgusting the streets, the air and the river were in Victorian London. And linguist Geoff Nunberg will call out one Wikipedia editor for his war against one phrase. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.