I have been looking into schedules. Even when we read physics, we inquire of each least particle, What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.
~Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
On the first of each month,
a guest writer
how he or she spends the day.
February 1, 2020: Emily Arnason Casey
Once while spending a rare weekend at the cabin when I was sixteen, my mom stood beside her bed in the loft, her back to me, spreading out the sheet. I walked up to fish a book out of my bag and find my swimsuit. She turned to me and said, “Sometimes, when I’m standing here, looking through the window at the dock and the lake, I forget where I am and it’s like for a second I’m a young mom again with small children.
I know the feeling. We travel along the surface of time and then suddenly the layers give way and we are in another year, another body, another place. We’ve dipped down into a different layer on the geological map of life, and for a split second we really are the other self again. (9)
This excerpt is from Emily Arnason Casey’s Made Holy, her debut collection of essays from the University of Georgia Press. Throughout the book, just as here, Emily will take us in close for a scene and then float us out to stretch our hearts even more. “Now, as I run, story lifts its wild heart from the trees, stringed together on the wings of blackbirds, of berries, of dreams.” (178)
It’s true that these twenty essays tell the stories of Emily’s family and their struggles with addiction. “Even now, years into recovery, this disease rips apart my carefully stitched seams on certain days.” (39) But she doesn’t leave us there. Just as Emily does with the paragraphs above, she starts close in and lifts us up and out wide wide wide. And who wouldn’t want to follow her there.
Emily and I share obsessions–things, houses, self or selves, leaving, and the passing of time. And then I think, there might so much in these essays that each of us will find shared obsessions inside her sentences.
At the beginning of the book, Emily thinks of her grandmother’s old oak dresser, which is for sale, as a link between the women in the family. “How the objects in our life extend such meaning, I’ll never know, but the history of things gives joy.” (21) Sixty pages later, Emily revisits this theme in an essay devoted to the subject, where she is writing about her husband’s baseball cards. “Collecting wards off ending. His objects refuse to let the past slink away, to let childhood dim into remnants of something lost.” (84) In the last paragraph of this essay, this line. “Objects are the antithesis to letting go.” (88)
About her grandparents’ house in Minnesota, she writes, “I will not return again, and the house will fall to memory, to the unguarded parish of nostalgia, but the myth and story of it remains growing stronger with every year.” (32)
Early on, Emily writes about trying “to put together a solid self.” (11) Later, about her childhood, she goes deeper. “I started to divide. What was really me remained folded inward, a secret, different from the me I presented or let be observed.” (65) Still later, she writes, “But perhaps longing becomes a pleasure all its own, and we are merely an amalgamation of all our selves–all the girls we once were and the lands beloved.” (135) Which sent me in search of these words from earlier. “If nostalgia is the desire to return, to know again, to relive, longing carries the want for nostalgia over the thing that never was.” (109) This back and forth makes me think of my childhood self weaving a placemat with ribbons of paper, picking up the next strip and taking it over and under the others. It makes me think this book may have started out as twenty essays, but it turned into one.
About her move from Minnesota to Vermont, Emily worries. Maybe she is “living the wrong life,” but here is the thought that floats up. “I needed other landscapes. I needed the distance that myth is made of and a sky fortressed by mountains.” (139)
Not only has Emily written these gorgeous essays, but she had the brilliant idea to invite artists to be in conversation with one of them. “The Essay Exhibits” is a show of eight Vermont Artist’s work in conversation with “Beneath a Sky of Gunmetal Gray.” This exhibit is currently touring Vermont libraries. Next stop, Brandon Public Library, where there will be a Reading & Conversation on Tuesday February 11th. For more information and future dates and locations, please check her website.
Emily is a faculty member at the Community College of Vermont. Her work has been published in the Rumpus, the Normal School, upstreet, and other journals. We met at Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Come back on FEBRUARY 1st to read how EMILY ARNASON CASEY spends her days.