This Life is in Your Hands is a marvelously tender, sometimes tremulously sad, memoir of Melissa Coleman's life as a child in rural Maine. Born to parents who were at the heart of the back-to-the-land movement of the 60s and70s, she writes intimately of Scott and Helen Nearing, the godparents of the homesteading trend of those years. Now in her early 40's, Coleman looks back at those years of life on the land; the struggles, the adventures and the resentment that sometimes comes from unfulfilled expectations and family tragedy.
For this reviewer, the book was bittersweet, for I too was part of this back-to-the-land adventure. Much of what Coleman speaks about resonates with me, and I enjoyed reading her intimate revelations about the Nearings, who were not as godlike as they liked their followers to believe. She reminisces about the conflicts between total independence from the typical American lifestyle during the 70s—the energy crisis, (the one then, not the one now!) and the frustrations of trying to live without electricity, indoor plumbing and refined sugar. It was hard to explain, then, why such a life was desirable; how much better home-grown organic food was than chemically treated store-bought, how much stronger body and mind could be when focused on creating a life of simplicity and interdependence on the land.
But problems came quickly, and rarely singly. Parenting took Coleman's mother Sue away from the planned partnership of planting, growing, harvesting and selling their crops together, and created a moodiness and defeat in Sue that others could not understand. Postpartum depression was not diagnosed in those days, and Coleman remembers her mother "checking out," not on drugs or other forms of self-medication, but on fasting and turning inward. Her father Eliot was ambitious to share the enlightenment he had found with the Nearings and within himself. A former college teacher, his flock became disenfranchised young adults searching for their own answers, willing to work and learn at his side for a chance at redemption and a place to sleep.
Living "next door" to the Nearings (and, in fact, having purchased their 60 acres for a token price) definitely influenced both Sue and Eliot. The Nearings had warned them that homesteading with children was a difficult and arduous task; Eliot wanted to expound and expand on his ideas, while leaving Sue to raise his daughters and literally keep the home fires burning. Like many so-called soothsayers, he saw himself as an idealist with a message that must be imparted at whatever the cost to those in his life. Somehow the "SELF" in self-sufficiency became paramount to his message.
The remarkable realism in Coleman's message (profound because she is speaking of her first seven years, and that from the distance and advantage of adulthood) is sometimes hard to read. The painful reality of the vitamin deficiencies of an all vegetarian diet, the bone-jarring physical wearing-down when labor was mostly human with hand tools, the connections with others living the same lifestyle and the profound effect on the children of these folks, was all part of the ebb and flow of Coleman's story. The tragedy (spoken about from the beginning, so that the reader is eerily aware of its coming) of the drowning of Coleman's younger sister at the age of three comes near the end of the book, which leaves you both yearning for that denouement so you can get through it, and fearing it, knowing that this pivotal event contributes mightily to the destruction of the family and their dreams.
The things the Nearings and the Colemans were aware of, discussed and fought, as did others such as Rachel Carson (Silent Spring,) are still being brought home to us today. Overuse of pesticides, poor soil management techniques, and the strong push by wealthy chemical companies to increase crops regardless of the long-term effect on all living creatures are all modern horrors. Yet although this is discussed within the pages of Coleman's book and obviously had an impact on the young girl growing up in rural Maine, it is the warp of the story to the dynamic weave of a family torn apart by forces beyond their control, and truly, beyond their understanding.
Most of us who were enchanted with the hippie back-to-the-land movement changed as the actualities of such a life set in. Yet we remember, and we try to maintain the inner peace and deeper message of the times. Melissa Coleman encourages us in this, for despite the fact that her family's dreams were shattered and blown away in the northern wind, she was resilient and strong, and came through with her wit and wisdom empowered by the experience. This is a book that will leave a profound impact on the reader and will inspire us all to look at our dreams and remember that "This Life is in Your Hands."
As a freelance writer, Melissa Coleman focuses on lifestyle, health, and travel. She's a columnist for Maine and Maine Home and Design magazines and serves on the board of the Telling Room, a Portland writing center for kids. This Life Is in Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family Undone is her first book. She lives in Freeport, Maine, with her husband and twin daughters. Visit her website.
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