It is impossible to read Melissa Coleman’s beautiful memoir, This Life is in Your Hands, without thinking of Eden. In fact, knowing as we do from the beginning the tragedy on which the narrative hinges, the story is specifically haunted by thoughts of Paradise Lost. Coleman addresses these echoes head on in an episode about halfway through the book when she hears visitors to her family’s farm talking:
“It’s paradise here,” I once overheard a woman say to her friend.
“The very nature of paradise,” the friend replied, “is that it will be lost.”
And it is, indeed lost, in spectacular fashion. This memoir is about how hard we can strive for something we believe in and still fall short. It is about realizing that even dedication and hard work can’t protect us from pain. It is about how people grow and change and how small silences in a relationship can grow deafeningly loud. It is, ultimately, about the redemptive power of memory and about how, no matter what, the seasons turn ceaselessly forward.
Before paradise is lost, though, Coleman gorgeous draws it. She describes in lush terms her early childhood on the homestead that her pioneering, strong-willed father establishes with her sensitive, singing mother’s help. Young, innocent, and full of wonder, Eliot and Sue set up their lives on a piece of wild land that they purchase from their “back-to-nature” idols Scott and Helen Nearing. From the very beginning, it is clear that they live close to the land and near to the edge: Eliot rushes to complete the bare-bones house they live in in time for their first baby, Melissa, to arrive.
Coleman’s father is the beating heart of the book. He is a man of superhuman energy and single-minded drive. In his pursuit of his dream of a more organic, natural way of life he becomes a kind of celebrity, eventually attracting a legion of fans who are drawn to his clear charisma. Before long the Coleman farm is a place that young hippies go to on pilgrimage; once there, they strip off their clothes and pick carrots in the nude, swimming at dusk at the ocean and dancing with fireflies after the sun goes down. It is, for several seasons, an idyllic place.
Coleman beautifully conjures the alternation between the fertile, sun-drenched, almost-frantic summers full of visitors and a raw, sexual energy and the cold, long winters, hibernating under feet of snow. The family of three, and then four, traverses this progression together, a small unit closely knit by their alternative lifestyle that demanded intimacy both physical, in their small house, and emotional, in their commitment to a baldly difficult way of life. Eventually the relationship between Coleman’s parents begins to fray, though, dissolved over time by a number of small factors that, “…like raindrops on stone, can eventually change the course of a river. These small forces, too, can change the path of a life.”
The early years are about the hard work and deep satisfactions that come from a life drawn from the very earth most of us merely walk on without another thought. Coleman describes the endless litany of chores, from hauling manure to digging ditches to painstaking bread-making and it is hard to not feel exhausted. Yet the closeness of Eliot and Sue and their abiding faith that theirs is a true heaven on earth radiates from every page. Even in her most glorious descriptions of her family’s life at its pinnacle of happiness, Coleman gently presages what is to come. She says of her mother, “she wanted this moment to last forever, but deep down knew its impermanence was what made it so beautiful.”
It might be because we know her fate, but Heidi, Coleman’s younger sister, seems half wood-sprite, only half-human. Her character floats through the story as though trailing clouds from the spirit world. She senses weather before it arrives and hears the voices of an imaginary, spirit friend, Telonferdie, in the rustling of the leaves on trees. In one beautiful scene Coleman illustrates a classic evening on the farm and her sister’s otherwordly spirit,
The glass bell of night settled over the farm … I read in the light as Heidi dangled her feet on the doorstep, looking out for Papa to return from the campground to tuck us in, the cool spring air breathing through the door … I knew the cricking came from the inflated sacs on the throats of the frogs, but it was hard to undersatnd how the slimy shapes we caught at the pond with our bare hands could make such a piercing sound. Their concert filled the night with a noise so distinct it had a three-dimensional presence, solid with longing. The noise shapes came right up to Heidi’s feet, praying to her like their goddess.
Then the dark cloud of terrible news descends, Heidi drowns in the pond on the farm, and the family unravels quickly. The speed with which their paradise dissolves makes clear that there were deep cracks in eden already, but clearly the trauma of Heidi’s death sets a new narrative in motion. Coleman renders her mother’s decline with compassion and kindness, though its impact on the girl she was was painful and profound. We see Coleman trying to keep everything okay, worry about her mother weaving a scary thread through every single day. In one scene, as Coleman’s mother drives both of her daughters (Coleman and baby Clara), her inability to cope crescendoes to near disaster. Coleman, sits in the backseat, overcome with fear for herself, her sister, and her mother: “Don’t lose your grip, Mama, I whispered out the window. Hold on, hold on, or we will crash.”
Before long Coleman longs for her father, realizing “his certainty was the one thing I could trust.” She is relieved when she and Clara go to live with him. Coleman, in an epilogue, tells of how both she and her mother fought losing battles against their own private guilt about Heidi’s death. As an adult, Coleman realized that her understanding of Heidi’s death, in which she played a pivotal role, was wrong. She has thus been released from her guilt. And over time, her mother, too, has made peace with the tragedy in her young mothering years. Coleman describes her, living contentedly with her second husband, in my hometown, quilting, “trying perhaps – like me – to unite the pieces of the past into a pattern that makes sense of things.”
It is a remarkable peace, actually, that suffuses the end of This Life is in Your Hands. I read the last few pages with tears streaming down my cheeks, feeling incredibly empathetic towards all the characters, flawed and well-meaning humans who are desperate to believe in a benevolent universe. Coleman has accepted her history, with all of its stunning pain and unique beauty, but has refused to accept the destiny that might have come out of its central tragedy. This, I think, is the enduring message of This Life is in Your Hands. It is a story about self-determination and about the fact that we can, through hard work and committed belief, continue to shape the contours of our own lives. We must not give up, surrender to what might be the easy road, whether that’s in how we till the land or how we define ourselves.
The lines of our hands, and of our lives, are not predetermined and final, but can change as we do. We are, in fact, already creating what we will become.
(Full disclosure: Harper Collins sent me a review copy of This Life is in Your Hands)