Hiking Naked (review)

Hiking Naked:
A Quaker Woman’s Search for Balance
Written by Iris Graville
Reviewed by John Brantingham

Hiking Naked is a memoir that explores ways that Friends in the medical field stretch themselves beyond their emotional limits, and how Iris Graville attempted to bring herself back into balance. Graville is a mother of two, a wife, and a nurse who works for the Health Department in Belleview, Washington. Her job is serious, and the stakes are high for the people in underserved communities she works with, so she gives herself fully to her job – emotionally, physically, and spiritually. By the time we join her, she is dealing with burnout.

Her solution is to form a different lifestyle with her family for a year in the small remote town of Stehekin, Washington, nestled deep in the Cascade Mountains, far from the constant pressures of her profession. Her plan was to get away from the constant contacts she felt in the city, and see if she could turn inward and figure out what she wanted out of life for herself. During that year, she spent time with her family, worked small jobs (as a baker, for example), became part of the village, and did find time for herself, exploring the mountains and meditating. She ultimately discovers that she has a place in life beyond her profession, which has defined her for so long. She finds that she is not a nurse; she is Iris.

The central metaphor of the book comes from a joke by her husband. In the opening chapter of the book, he jogs ahead of Graville on a trail and strips off all his clothes, then surprises and amuses her by hiking naked. This becomes a representation of how, by stripping off the trappings of our lives – our titles, our standing, our jobs – we can find ourselves more easily. This book is not, however, a how-to guide for finding oneself. It’s a memoir – recounting the the family’s year of living more or less off the grid and the ways that living closer to nature affected Graville.

For me, Hiking Naked appeared in my life at just the right time. Like Graville, I work in a “helping profession” – I teach. Like many teachers, I often find myself stretched beyond my limits emotionally. Of course, Graville’s memoir did not solve this problem for me. But in a world that often seems to constantly demand more from me, in a world where I am always connected to people who seem to want another piece of me, it was a relief to read the words of someone else dealing with similar problems.

Many Friends are drawn to these kinds of careers. We are often rewarded and praised for giving of ourselves to an unhealthy degree. Hiking Naked offers insight into the shadow side of this tendency. Yes, it is noble to give of ourselves, but not to the extent of sacrificing our own and our families’ happiness. This book cannot be used as a guide to solving that problem, but it can open up the discussion, and we can take heart from seeing how one woman resolved that imbalance in her life. ~~~

John Brantingham is the Poet Laureate of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, where he teaches poetry and fiction.

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