The civil unrest of the sixties and seventies has been over for almost fifty years, but in Arms Wide Open: A Midwife’s Journey, Patricia Harman (Beacon Press) manages to remind my generation (Generation X), and generations after, exactly what it was that those hippies were trying to accomplish. In her latest memoir, Harman recalls the years she spent living on a self-sustainable commune with like-minded men and women, and her eventual journey into the medical world, taking on the role of a midwife.
Every so often, my husband will suggest that our family — he, our twin daughters and myself — should try living “off the land”, unobtrusive to the world, a friend to Mother Nature. After reading Arms Wide Open, I can assure him that will never happen. Living without the comforts of modern day is a difficult and arduous task, one that takes an immense amount of labor and dedication, and such a life can break even the most dedicated of spirits.
The first half of the book is a beautifully narrated and intimate look at what a self-sustainable life entails. Harman does a fantastic job of placing the reader right there on the commune, alongside the naked women dancing in the moonlight, the harvest of honey from actual beehives, the three-mile hikes through snow and ice to reach civilization. Her descriptions are marvelous and unpredictable, like the powerful river running past her small cabin in the Minnesota woods.
But make no mistake; Harman is quick not to glamorize this way of life. While we feel her contentment, we also feel her isolation, her unbearable frustration and her overall resignation that raising children sometimes requires access to indoor plumbing and electricity. A sudden downturn in luck signals a shift in the political climate, not only on the commune, but also in the world around her. Vietnam is over; the country is beginning to heal. The world begins to change around Harman, and as her fellow hippies age, they begin to move away and take up actual employment. “Patsy”, as she is called by her husbands, Stacy and Tom —the latter, remaining with her for most of the story— is saddened, but sees the exodus as an impetus for change.
Surprisingly, it is her husband, Tom, who is first drawn into the world of medicine. He embarks on a journey to become an EMT, and suggests that Patsy join him in some formal medical training. Flash-forward thirty years, and the couple is running a woman’s clinic in Appalachia. They have three grown sons, one of whom we have not met until his adulthood, and a house in the suburbs. They use laptops and cell phones, and vacation in their own lake house. The shift in tone and time is jarring, and we mourn for the hippie woman we met in the first chapter. However, Harman, with her vivid prose, reveals remnants of that woman, buried deep inside. When planting vegetables in her now nicely groomed yard, she writes, “We could purchase packaged vegetables in a supermarket much easier, but this is our link to the days when we believed we could change the world.”
Despite the shift in time and place, the last third of Arms Wide Open, carries with it echoes of the first. While Patsy and Tom work hard to help women who suffer from chronic pelvic pain, they are fish out of water in a society becoming increasingly addicted to synthetic drugs. Harman reveals the dark and devious side to the human spirit, the new war in which we are engaged. Frivolous medical malpractice suits, prescription drug abuse and a growing global threat to our national security, collide to create the same cruel conditions that Harman and her husband once longed to escape.
The end of Arms Wide Open leaves the reader left with a heavy heart. The hippies are gone; they’ve grown up, moved on and became part of the capitalist cog they worked so hard to avoid. But the system is not kind; good-natured people, like the Harmans, are forced to seek refuge elsewhere. Arms Wide Open is more than a book about delivering babies and bringing new life into the world; it’s about the deterioration of the optimism once so prevalent in the cracks and crevices of this country. It’s about the human spirit, and the desire to do good unto others. But most importantly, it’s about Mother Earth, the time we spend here, the things we plant, the mark we leave and the power she has over all of us.