#7: A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage For the Restless and the Hopeful by Gideon Lewis-Kraus
Might I recommend you also read the full Catapult review.
Gideon Lewis-Kraus was living in Berlin, in his mid-20’s, without gainful employment or a particularly driving passion. His younger, more successful brother Micah summed him up as such: “Your life is economically nonviable. You write book reviews and work part-time at a literary journal not even Mom reads.” He had moved to Berlin because of its supposed lack of constraint, but Gideon was finding that he needed, well, a sense of direction in his life. After a 4-day drunken spree with his friend Tom Bissell (journalist and author of Magic Hours and Extra Lives) they decide to find that “sense of purpose” by walking the Camino de Santiago – a 1000-year old pilgrimage route across the whole of northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela, the fabled burial site of St. James. It wasn’t that Gideon or Tom was Catholic or even vaguely religious (“a heretic and a Jew,” in fact) – the Camino is all about the journey, man. About finding a direction…
So they walk. They walk a long way together, all the way across the north end of Spain. This gives Gideon a lot of time to thing about things, unencumbered by a job or paying the rent or thinking about who he’s dating.
I know, it sounds like bunk or the privileged meanderings of the restless, single, white, American male. All I can tell you is that as a former 20-something white American man (still a man, just no longer 20-something) I hit that same point in my life where I was questioning my direction, my sense of purpose. I don’t know, exactly, what pulled me from this existential funk, but I eventually moved forward. Maybe it was moving to New Orleans. Maybe it was working in a bookstore. Maybe it was meeting my wife. Probably, it was all of those things that happened in the same span of years – the point is that I get where Gideon is coming from. Our exact, specific life trajectories and familial histories may be vastly different, but I understand the feelings and thoughts he was having when he hit that mid-20’s point without a real sense of where his life was taking him.
One of Gideon’s acquaintances in Berlin had a great, resonating assessment that I felt kind of nailed it down well. Gideon has complained to him that he’s having a “crisis.”
Of course you’re having a crisis. Look, everybody is having a crisis all of the time. You either feel like you’re too tied up and thus prevented from doing what you want to do, or you feel like you’re not tied up enough and have no idea what you want to do. The only thing that allows us any relief is what we tend to call purpose, or what I think about in terms of direction.
Gideon doesn’t exactly find all the answers on the Camino – he never really thought that he would – but he did find the inherent benefit of living in the moment for awhile, of being able to focus inward. He definitely found out that he enjoyed the act of a walking pilgrimage, so the book is also about the other two pilgrimages that he went on, searching for that life direction. Actually, the way he describes them, each trip had its own purpose: the Camino was about searching for the sense of direction; the second – a cold, lonely circumabulation to the 88 temples of the Japanese island of Shikoku – was about coming back around to where you started; and the third was about “knowing where we stand.” (The third pilgrimage was with his father and his brother Micah to a Rosh Hashanah celebration in Uman, Ukraine.) This third one was really about re-centering his life and trying to heal the fractured relationship with his father – a gay rabbi with a propensity for leaving his kids in the lurch. Only Gideon could tell you whether he succeeded in achieving what he set out to do – but it would seem that through these trips, he found that elusive sense of direction.
This is definitely one of those books that may not be for everyone out there – it‘s certainly worth the read for the travelogue aspect, as Gideon is a solid journalist on par with the best travel writers out there in that regard. (I loved his observations about what he saw in those three very different countries.) To some, his inward meanderings may not hit the mark – they did for me, but books are often very personal in that way. I would say that if you’ve ever had that same feeling of being rootless or directionless – or if you know someone, maybe that 20-something in your life struggling with this – Gideon’s book is a very necessary read. Thus it comes in at #7 on the Notable list.