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 EMILY ARNASON CASEY.
In the wide space of morning everything seems possible. My children wake me, almost always. Today, it’s Willem’s face, wild-haired and elfish, I see first. I go down the hall to the kitchen where my husband stands over the French press he can never seem to press correctly, and so, to avoid grains in his cup, he pours the coffee through a second filter from my tea pot. He hands me a mug. It’s the new mug that says, a little cup of love, from his cousin Emma who was a flower girl in our wedding almost ten years ago. Since I drink the coffee black, I prefer a wide brim; it cools quicker. Burning my tongue would ruin the day.
I sit on the couch under a blanket with the cup. My oldest son, Moses, sits on his heat vent listening to a debate podcast Smash, Boom, Best. New toys from Christmas ring him like a horseshoe. Willem clambers for my lap. Please could I read just one book? I check the time: it’s ten to seven. Not enough time but he’s dressed, so I agree. It’s his Orca Whale book. When I read to him I feel a surge of joy, and it surprises me today. It’s a pinprick in my morning—a glimmer of gold.
I think of Washington state and the Pacific Ocean, how I would like to stand in the briny-scented air before that great beast and watch it come crashing in. Echolocate, echolocate, Willem chants as I finish the book and set it down. He runs to his brother’s corner repeating this phrase. Mo says nothing. As the older brother, he’s quieter, often caught in his own thoughts. My husband appears, and it’s time to go. They pile into their snow pants, jackets, boots, hats, mittens with only minor outbursts, “I can’t get my boots on!” and “Tuck my pants over!” I stand to kiss and hug them each, a ritual we rarely miss. “Remember, no kisses, Mom,” Willem says. “No kisses,” I repeat and rub my nose against his cheek instead. “I love you so much,” Moses whispers in my ear, and I never wonder when he will stop saying it.
When they are gone, the house is a sanctuary of silence. I embody this luxury, breathe it in. Sip my barely warm coffee, stare at the empty fireplace, the bricks, the two stockings still hung on opposite ends of the mantle. Through my kitchen window, during the winter months, I can see the little graveyard on the hill through the woods. Four headstones from the 1800s. I wash my cup, enjoying the warm, soapy water, and think about the graves and the story I’m working on.
In everything I write, the land speaks to me, existing as a character that embodies the emotional fabric of my narratives. Terry Tempest Williams writes, “Wildness reminds us what it means to be human, what we are connected to rather than what we are separate from,” and this understanding becomes a practice for me—where am I connected rather than separate? I look for this in the landscapes I inhabit, and here, the little graveyard is something I feel connected to—to the dead who also lived in this field, walked these woods, followed the path down to the pond.
In the spring, last year, after feeling (as always) like a subterrestrial creature come into the daylight anew, I stood at the edge of the cellar hole where the old house once lay. Listening to the robins, I thought of the woman who once lived there and the robins she listened to—what thoughts were hers, what secret pleasures and sorrows? How many generations of robins between us?
I’m writing about a day in July, a death and a birth in the early 1800s. “God bless the baby that’s born into a July and lives to know a northern winter,” I write. It’s folksy and old fashioned but I don’t censor my first attempts. It’s the wandering and getting lost that brings my best work.
Later, I run up the dirt road dressed in slicks and layered fleece. I live on a hill and always start my run going up. I jog past farms: the black beef cattle stand at the wire fence watching me pass. Their eyelashes so incredibly long and elegant. The scent of grain and manure wafts. Last year’s lambs munch hay. The wolfish dog trots out to bark at me but never leaves the yard. Show up, I whisper to myself when the running gets tough, show up for this mile. Pushing myself now will feed me later.
In town, at the new coffee shop, I sit with my oat milk latte at the bar below the window. My journal and pen await me, but my mind shifts, unfocused, I think of the other things I need to do—work stuff, appointments, purchases, emails. I feel a surge of anxiety; I open my notebook and write the date. But then, I notice the slightest rain drops plinking into a mud puddle. I cannot see the rain, only the dainty splash of each drop in the water, a dance of shadow and light. I add this image to the list in my mind of things I will miss about the world when, one day, I have to leave.
Morose, I know, but I tend to live close to the knowledge of mortality and ending. Or, to be honest, I’m obsessed with death and dying. It’s okay, though. It’s okay, to be me. “Look at me,” writes Sarah Manguso in Ongoingness, “dancing my little dance for a few moments against the background of eternity.”
In the evening, I will tend the children: they run, wrestle, scream, mess everything. That is their nature. But when the lights are out, and I am sitting on the blue chair between their two beds, they are most attentive. More than anything, they love good stories.
NOT THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. When you’re writing, is there something you return to again and again for inspiration?
- The woods, nature, the magic of feeling connected to the physical world and therefore whole.
2. What one word describes your reading life?
3. What gives you energy?
- Distance running. It’s one of the only things that helps me with depression besides medication. I’ve run two marathons and a handful of shorter races. Running is meditative, and it has taught me how to push myself. Writing this book or essay or story is nothing compared to something like the one-mile time trials I did with my sister and brother last summer in Minnesota, the nineteenth mile of a trail marathon, or running sixteen miles in Vermont summer heat in the middle of the afternoon because you spent the morning writing. Physical extremes have always excited me.