Editor’s Note: The Hibbing Daily Tribune is set to run excerpts from the book of essays, ‘Made Holy’ on the inside of the newspaper every Sunday in September.
A professor in the M.F.A. creative writing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts called out Emily Arnason Casey nearly a decade ago for telling life experiences about her Minnesota upbringing under the guise of fiction. That reality check forced her to shift focus toward creative non-fiction in the form of the essay. “I was writing about alcoholism and trying to understand it,” Casey said, recalling that at the time she was in the early years of her own recovery. “I asked myself, why some members of my family had this disease and what it meant? Why am I in recovery and others aren't?”
The Chisholm-born author had graduated from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities with a bachelor’s degree in English Literature and eventually earned her M.F.A., before she began teaching at the Community College of Vermont, Winooski, in 2012. Her essays have been published in various publications across the country, such as Hotel Amerika and American Literary Review and one of her essays titled ‘Laughing Water’ received notables listing in the Best American Essay series.
The material for her first book, ‘Made Holy’— a 200-page book including 20 essays — hits close to home on the Iron Range. The book was published on Sunday and can be purchased from the University of Georgia Press Crux website https://ugapress.org or from Amazon.
In the words of her publisher, “Casey employs the lyric imagination to probe memory and the ever-shifting lens of time as she seeks to make sense of the ideas that haunt her maternal family tree and the alchemy of loss and longing.” Through writing, she uncovers how “the lakes of her childhood in Minnesota form the interior landscape of this book, a kind of watery nostalgia for something just beyond her reach.”
Patrick Madden, author of ‘Sublime Physick: Essays’ and ‘Quotidiana: Essays,’ wrote a blurb for the book. “Made Holy satisfies a reader’s longing, quenches a thirst for beauty won from suffering, or peace from travail. Here is Emily Arnason Casey’s life, or parts of it, but more, here is her art made of words that refer to and call back and make sense of her life, which is a life, like all lives, rife with struggle and disappointment and lasting memories of pain, all of which she explores with a gentle nostalgia and unrestrained love,” Madden wrote. “The essays here ultimately bring light and goodness, hope and joy, all synonyms for the holiness we all seek.”
In Casey’s essay titled, ‘Ancestry of Illness,’ she writes about “life’s dualisms — the anger with the love” and explores the time she returned to Hibbing by constructing a literary bridge between her memories of her grandmother, aunt and mother and the new experiences that come with being a wife and mother herself.
In ‘Self-Portrait,’ Casey contemplates her first time drinking alcohol and grapples with becoming a young woman in Chisholm. And in ‘The Blue Room’ she reflects about her relationships struggles and triumphs while deep in her addiction.
Casey recently shared her essays and some of her personal anecdotes with the Hibbing Daily Tribune. She is not shy about confronting her past but is mindful of how her words could affect her family and friends. “I had every opportunity a person can have growing up on the Range,” she said. “We had enough money. I went to college. I think it’s important to remember that this is a disease that doesn't discriminate. As an essayist I have this itch to understand.”
Sometimes writing about addiction can come off as exploitative. But Casey is a talented writer and took her time editing and figuring out the heartbeat of her stories. “This serves as a book of what a life of recovery looks like,” she said. “I could only do it in an honest way. I think I represent people fairly. I’m most critical of myself. I have a deep love and respect for my family and they know that.” She notes that secrecy is a large part of the disease of alcoholism and speaking publicly about her struggle is, she hopes, an antidote to that.
So far, a “family member” and “two sisters” gave her the greenlight to publish the book. When asked whether she was worried about backlash, she replied: “Sure, but you have to take that risk.”
Here, Emily Arnason Casey offers an excerpt from her newly published book, ‘Made Holy.’ The excerpt is from the beginning of the essay, “The Highway Home,” which contemplates place through landscape and imagination during Casey's drive with her family from Vermont to Minnesota where she returns each summer to visit. The book is available for purchase from Amazon or her publisher at the University of Georgia Press Crux.
The Highway Home
Northern Michigan opens like a gateway to my childhood. Near the Upper Peninsula, the forest along the highway turns from hardwood to coniferous, and I can feel the moisture receding from the air, the scent of pine seeping in through the open window. Late June, my husband, our baby son, and I cross the Mackinac Bridge with little fanfare on our way from Vermont to spend the summer with my family in northern Minnesota. In recent years, we stopped for pancakes in Mackinaw City, snapped photographs of the living statues painted gold or silver, waded into chilly Lake Michigan. In years to come, I imagine we'll do so again. But Moses, at four months old, isn't enjoying this ride, so as long as he's sleeping we'll keep to the road. Josh at the wheel, we head west on Highway 2 toward the boondocks of northern Wisconsin.
Highway 2 cuts through a landscape of beauty and desolation that composes the Upper Peninsula--craggy pine forests, pale sand beaches, and occasional wetland bogs with tree skeletons clustered like the naked masts of ships lost at sea. Small houses, some merely the size of sheds, with chipping paint and junkyard lawns appear along the highway. We pass few towns. Then a bar and a tiny gas station that regretfully only takes cash the elderly man explains from his perch behind a counter. He bats the air with his hand and tells me something about the price of those machines or bounced checks. But the people here are friendlier I think, unlike New Englanders who keep to themselves, mind their business at the grocery store. Though New Englanders fancy themselves look-you-in-the-eye friendly, it's nothing like the Midwest, where people talk to you like they've known you for years. I walk into a gas station and yawn. The middle-aged woman behind the counter calls out to me, "Don't be doing that in here, it's contagious." She smiles at me. I think of my own mother's gentle sarcasm and the gratuitous friendliness known as "Minnesota nice."
Occasionally I spot a manicured lawn, a fenced garden, a potted geranium hanging from a porch awning, or a window box of marigolds, and this dedication to beauty and order pleases me. I am drawn to these unassuming homes, and the monotony of the road leads me to imagine the lives of the people who inhabit them. The solace of reverie is the only cure for boredom on the road. It is only now, having lived away from rural life for years, that this landscape strikes me as both foreign yet subtly familiar. For the landscape in which I came of age, that molded me and fed my imagination, that held me in its wildness until I spoke the language of trees, lakes, dirt, and sky, no longer feels like home--like breath and body--though I call it that. Where this passage begins--the gates of the Mackinac, the shores of Lake Superior, or the country roads unraveling through forest--so too the grand theater of memory and imagination follows, one becoming the other becoming the other in a perpetual Mobius strip of who we are, were, and hope to be. We are never the same and each moment gives way to a new remembering of what has been. Does memory filter the present or the present filter memory? Which version of the story will carry us into tomorrow, and once we choose it, will we ever be able to return and choose differently?
From my passenger seat, I see a woman crouched in her garden, hatless in the sun. I consider who she is, was, and hopes to be. What is she growing, where do her children live if she has them? Does she mind the sound of traffic or has it long ago receded from her notice? We pass an old boarded up summer home, half-finished, it's windows still covered with stickers announcing their maker. I imagine a family running out of money in the middle of construction and moving away. Somewhere a woman stands in her suburban kitchen, eyes out the window on the overfertilized lawn, and she recalls this view of the great blue lake--endless and wild. If she closes her eyes she can smell the pine forest, hear the soft waves of Lake Michigan, feel the give of the boat beneath her body as she motors out from shore. For a moment, she touches that wildness that soothes something in her, its flame ignites and she has not abandoned herself, no, she realizes, despite the drudgery of daily life, she can still find her way back, she still hungers.
I ask my husband what he thinks about the people of Highway 2 in northern Wisconsin. "This highway is odd, don't you think?" I say, trying to sound casual, to not reveal that I've already created a narrative of these people's lives, already imagined the details of their homes and hearts. "Where do you suppose these people work? What do you think they do?" He keeps his eyes on the road. His Red Sox cap is pulled down over a mess of greasy road hair.
"Hard tellin' not knowin'," he says in his best Vermont redneck accent. He is an overeducated mountain boy himself. I grunt; he smirks.
"Fascinating insight," I say.
"I know you don't know. I'm asking what you think. You know, what kind of assumptions do you make about the people of this highway—what is it like here?"
"Like I said, hard tellin' not knowin'," and I know without looking there's a gleam in in his eye as he says it.
Josh and I share certain traits, but he's intuitive while I'm imaginative. He believes in ghosts and animal spirits, recounts his nighttime dreams to his kindergarten students during morning meeting and asks them to share their own. He declares allegiance to all sorts of mystical experiences, including one where he floated up to the ceiling. Yet he prefers not to imagine the intricacies of the lives of others in the wildly subjective ways I'm fond of. So, while I would like to share my fantasies with him, the people of the highway will remain my secret. "Aren't you at all interested?" I urge, one last time.
I glimpse an old man on his riding lawn mower, cutting a square patch of lawn around his small house, his forehead polished with sweat in the afternoon sun. Who is he? What does he love?
We pass a small lake with rippling waters, tiny waves gallop. We pass Ashland, Wisconsin, where a few years ago I attended a concert with my mother, aunt, and cousins, and where two years ago, on our drive, I bought orange cheese late at night, desperate for something more substantial than gas station food. Last year, pregnant, I procured organic fruit for a small fortune at the co-op in the college town of Marquette, Michigan. These landmarks comfort me, as though moving through a loved one's home, touching objects that you've come to recognize over the years. They make the drive feel less daunting, and now on our third year of repeating this journey, these landmarks also forebode an emotional unrest lingering in me. Home is a refuge sometimes encumbered by sorrows from my former life. I get stuck in the webbing of the old grief. I stayed away for years, unable to return for more than a week or so, unwilling to face who I was, who I had been, or what still lay unwelcome, beneath the surface. But my love for my four sisters, my brother, my mother and father always leads me back.
What is it we remember, anyway? Everything of the past makes itself known only through the singularity of any moment in which we find ourselves, and what we have been thinking of, longing for, hurting over always shines the view. Who hasn't yearned for a relationship to be another way, wanted so much to be well loved? Yet perhaps in so doing we foreclose the possibility of what might be, might have been. We lose. And what can we know of those we've lost, who have passed from living into the wide breath beyond, who have passed from fluid existence into the haze of our remembrance, who in longing go back into the waves, go diving into the wreck?
The world, after all, is in us, not us in the world, or so they say. When I began writing these essays, home meant something different than it does today. What I know about the world, how I feel my way through it, can only be my story--as flawed and broken as that truth is, it is still the only one I have.