In the sixties ‘wheel of life’ folk song The Great Mandala, Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul & Mary sings these lines: “Take your place on the great Mandala— As it moves through your brief moment of time— Win or lose now, you must choose now— And if you lose you’re only losing your life.” With this book, Coleman brings those words full circle, so to speak, delivering a rendition of his own life that, though marked by hardship and judgement, turns always toward a better day. Here’s the story of a man who took his place on that great wheel, and did not lose his life but gained a richer, better one. Even the title of the work evokes the turning wheel metaphor, in addition to other meanings.
Though SPOKE is Coleman’s memoir, Rosie Coleman Gilchrist, the author’s mother, hovers above every page, providing rich background, sustenance and support for her youngest son as he seeks his way out of one life-turning event after another. With an epistolary style, almost journalistic, Coleman’s chapters weave his life back and forth, from boyhood in Oklahoma, to his parents’ deeply unhappy marriage and his father’s active physical and psychological abuse. The chapters are, as the author himself states later in the book, “…words screaming to get out of my head…little versions of my locked-up self.”
He writes of a childhood deprived of material things, but enriched by a mother’s activism and idealistic endeavors. The signal event in his young life is his mother’s self-immolation when he was eleven. When Rose survives, the harshness and seeming insanity of her act stamps the family with shame and introspection, especially oldest brother Gordon who must care for their brutalized mother. Then another turn of the wheel. With her determination to change the world, the horribly-scarred Rose Gilchrist shows son Joe (Coleman) how to survive the flames of his own life, his departure from home to escape his father’s capricious abuse when Joe is sixteen, his resolve to refuse induction into the Army, his subsequent arrest and ultimately his prison term as “…a felon for peace.” Through all the hardship and disruption, Coleman takes direction and comfort from his resolute mother, and their relationship is the thread that holds the book together.
Like a churning wheel, Coleman reinvents himself time and again. By book’s end he’s made peace with his sexuality, and marries John, “…the love of my life.” It’s notable that, in these times of an energetic LGBT rights movement, Coleman’s passion for justice seems to have dissipated, his energy spent during the great issues of the sixties—Vietnam in particular. Or at least he writes little of his political activity in regard to LGBT issues. If the book has a flaw it might be this: that with his opportunity here— and with his superb ability as a writer— the author might have better articulated his views on gay rights, particularly the treatment of bisexual citizens. Perhaps, as he says, “…that’s a subject for another book.”
Let’s hope it is. If SPOKE is any indication, with mother Rose as his guide, Coleman will write that book, the wheel will turn once again and the world will never be quite the same.
Byron Edgington, author of The Sky Behind Me, a Memoir of Flying and Life