By Iris Graville. Homebound Publications, 2017. 260 pages. $17.95/paperback; eBook coming December 2017.
This wonderful memoir tells the story of a Quaker woman and her family as they leave city life behind and seek a simpler life deep in the mountains east of Seattle, Wash. Burned out after years of nursing and seemingly fruitless public health interventions, Iris Graville retreats with her husband, Jerry, and their 13-year-old twin son and daughter to an isolated lake deep in the North Cascade Mountains. Her family looks for adventure. She finds solace in the lush landscape, quiet dirt roads, baking, and writing.
The “hiking naked” part of the story does not refer to the like-minded sporting groups you can find online, but to the moment a year earlier when Graville realized she needed to change her life. Hot and exhausted as she and Jerry hike high into the mountains on their yearly getaway alone together, their twins happily staying with a grandmother, Graville stops and wonders if she can walk another step. Slowly she rounds a bend and sees her husband standing there, waiting for her, naked and grinning. It is her sign, and the metaphor for her journey to come—to lighten up, count her blessings, let go of heavy baggage, and hold on to what really matters.
Stehekin—a Salish word that means “the way through”—becomes their next stop together. A tiny community of 85 residents, the village is accessible only by boat, floatplane, or hiking. The kids become the seventh-graders of the one-room schoolhouse. Jerry becomes the bus driver. Iris becomes a baker, bicycling to work in the early morning darkness on the dirt road down to the village. Hours off fill with chores—chopping wood, repairing plumbing, and cooking—punctuated by trail hikes and cross-country skiing.
Food is planned a week ahead, the handwritten list sent by ferry down the lake to the friendly grocer, who sends the boxes back in a day or two. Occasionally a black bear wanders into the backyard; winter snow piles up against the windows; a forest fire threatens to sweep down into the valley; and a spring flood strands them for three days—nature’s way of reminding them of their powerlessness. Trees fall onto power lines, leaving some evenings brightened only by candles and kerosene lamps. With no phone, no TV, no Internet, the family embraces old entertainments anew. They read books, play board games, learn to juggle, make block prints for Christmas, and write letters to friends and family.
Graville embraces this rustic life as a way to simplify—leave behind the noise of highways, crowded urban streets, and schools with hundreds of students. Most important, though, she knows she needs to let go of 20 years of anxieties about her job, in particular, her fears of inadequacy in the face of the overwhelming human needs of her patients.
A practicing Quaker, she feels at home in the deep quiet of the woods. When the summer tourists leave and the bakery closes for the winter, she uses the silent days to write in her journal, waiting for “the still, small voice” as in Quaker meeting, seeking insight into the past that had tied her in knots, and writing her way into a calling to come. As she “attends to what is important”—the tasks of family life in a small, close-knit community and her times alone—she discovers that “the smallest touch, the briefest contact, the quietest diligence can make a difference—can change the course of a river.”
In the end, through solitude amidst the pines, family support, and deep friendships old and new, she finds a spiritual footing to carry her into her next chapter. Their family will move to Lopez Island off the coast of Washington state, larger and more developed than Stehekin but offering similar kinds of quiet and leadings through natural beauty.
And Graville will continue to write. Her essay “Seeking Clearness with Work Transitions” was published in the February 2015 issue of Friends Journal. She has also published the award-winning Hands at Work: Portraits and Profiles of People Who Work with Their Hands; and Bounty: Lopez Island Farmers, Food, and Community. Now, she publishes Shark Reef literary magazine. This eloquent memoir shows the move to Stehekin was indeed her “way through” to her new calling as a writer.