In medieval times, a pilgrimage gave the average Joe his only break from the daily grind. For Gideon Lewis-Kraus, it promises a different kind of escape. Determined to avoid the kind of constraint that kept his father, a gay rabbi, closeted until midlife, he has moved to anything-goes Berlin. But the surfeit of freedom there has begun to paralyze him, and when a friend extends a drunken invitation to join him on an ancient pilgrimage route across Spain, he grabs his sneakers, glad of the chance to be committed to something and someone.
Irreverent, moving, hilarious, and thought-provoking, A Sense of Direction is Lewis-Kraus's dazzling riff on the perpetual war between discipline and desire, and its attendant casualties. Across three pilgrimages and many hundreds of miles - the thousand-year-old Camino de Santiago, a solo circuit of eighty-eight Buddhist temples on the Japanese island of Shikoku, and, together with his father and brother, an annual mass migration to the tomb of a famous Hasidic mystic in the Ukraine - he completes an idiosyncratic odyssey to the heart of a family mystery and a human dilemma: How do we come to terms with what has been and what is - and find a way forward, with purpose?
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Gideon Lewis-Kraus has written for Harper's, The Believer, The New York Times Book Review, the Los Angeles Times Book Review, n+1, McSweeney's, Bookforum, The Nation, Slate, and other publications. A 2007-8 Fulbright fellowship brought him to Berlin, world capital of contemporary restlessness. He has more or less settled in Brooklyn.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
My friend Tom was trapped at home in a tiny, distant city. He had no Estonian visa, and he knew if he left Tallinn he'd be unable to return. More immediately problematic was the Russian stripper he'd been flirting with, or, more specifically, her boyfriend, who had taken to hanging around Tom's front door. Tom pleaded with me to visit, confident the guy wouldn't take on the two of us.
Tom and I didn't know each other all that well then, nothing like later, but it sounded like a fun excuse for a trip. Unlike Tom, I could leave my apartment in Berlin whenever I wanted — I had a German freelancer's visa and no cuckolded Baltic criminals camped out on my stoop — and was, in fact, spending more time away than at home. By that point Berlin often left me feeling at loose ends, and one of the things I had come to like most about living there was how easy it was never to be in town. A lot of my friends had already moved on, had gone back to resume their real lives in New York, and I myself was beginning to wonder if it wasn't time to pack it in. It was unclear where I'd go, though, mostly because nowhere was more appealing than Berlin had once been, should have been still. I'd been living in lovely, provincial San Francisco and had moved to Berlin because I'd felt I was missing out on something exciting, and now I was on the brink of leaving lively, provisional Berlin because I was afraid I was missing out on something serious. A quarter lifetime of anecdotal evidence suggested, however, that once I actually motivated myself to move somewhere I considered serious, somewhere like New York — where I had never actually lived for very long but where, I imagined, I would find myself ready to get on with the routines and attachments that make for a real life (cat, yoga, a relationship) — I would once again regret missing all the novelty diverting people elsewhere. Maybe not New York, then. Maybe Kiev. I'd heard Kiev was cheap and cool. I often reminded myself to look into it.
Tom and I held in common the hope that there might be a geographic ticket out of the problems of indecision, boredom, and the suspicion that more interesting things were happening in more fashionable places to more attractive people. Actually, that last part was my worry; in Tom's version, less interesting things were happening in contemplative places to more industrious people. Tom had moved to Tallinn with the idea he'd be pressed into productivity there, that the constraint of its distance and exoticism would force him to focus on the work he'd been neglecting in favor of video games and the more dissipated varieties of recreation. I'd moved to Berlin precisely for its lack of constraint, hoping that its sense of vast possibility would help me figure out what I wanted. Needless to say, for reasons that went beyond Russian strippers, it wasn't really working out for either of us. Tom's claustrophobia left him desperate for distraction, and my distraction left me desperate for discipline. We were like two ships waiting for a breeze that might float us past each other in the night.
Tom picked me up at the tiny airport in a taxi and brought me up to date. "I was living in Saigon," he said, "and after a year I had to leave because my life was spinning out of control. Then I was living in Rome, and I had to leave after six months because my life was spinning out of control. Then I moved to Las Vegas, and I had to leave there, too, very quickly, because my life was definitely once again spinning out of control."
"You were having trouble keeping yourself together in Rome, so you moved to Vegas?"
"So I left Vegas and I thought to myself, okay, I need to finish this long-overdue book, so I'll go to a small, distant country with an impossible language and I'll just sit and write all day until the book is done. I came here."
He looked out the window at the looming medieval spires of the old town, where he was paying Manhattan rent to live in the lavishly restored fourteenth century. "And now I can say, with utter confidence, that my life is spinning out of control."
I hadn't known Tom long enough to presume to tell him how to live. Besides, he was a successful writer I admired and had long wished I might one day resemble. He was only six years older than me, not quite enough to make him a paternal figure but enough to make him a guide, and I preferred to think of him as somewhat more together than he liked to suggest. I assumed that despite his life's apparent mismanagement there must be some greater logic to it. Plus he was living out a somewhat distorted but still recognizable version of my own fantasy: skipping club lines with future Baltic dictators, then until-dawn depravity with minor Baltic celebrities. The best thing I could do for him, I decided, was to provide him with company and reverence.
What I chiefly remember about the four-day jag that followed is waking up in my bed, peering at my uncharacteristically unread email, and realizing that I was back in Berlin. I had vague recollections of sitting in an idling cab outside a Soviet-era tower block on the outskirts of Tallinn, and of spending an evening in the company of some Siberian dancers and the man being groomed to lead Estonia's next nationalist front, and of gazing through a bobbing porthole at some gray sea while Tom let his forehead cool against a Formica table. I looked at my camera to discover a few blurry images of what I have come to believe was probably Helsinki. The only other clue was a page in my little notebook, where I'd managed one note in four days: "Camino de Santiago — sense of purpose — June 10." I'd underlined "purpose."
This Camino business sounded vaguely familiar. The internet dutifully reported that in the year A.D. 813, the alleged bones of the apostle St. James the Greater were unearthed in Santiago de Compostela, in far northwestern Spain. St. James had supposedly evangelized as far afield as Galicia — unlikely, Tom says — before he was martyred in first-century Palestine. His relics were said to have arrived at the Atlantic coast, then the presumed end of the world, in a stone boat, where they remained buried under a hermitage until their discovery eight centuries later. A pilgrimage to the site started up within the next hundred years, probably along the old trail of a pagan death cult. (The Iberian Celts walked to the end of the earth to watch the sun perish nightly into the sea.) Around 1140 the Codex Calixtinus appeared, a book that's part how-to and part spiritual advice, and that has come to be regarded as the world's first travel guide — the route is also credited with the invention of the souvenir tchotchke — and since that time the Camino de Compostela has seen a more or less continuous parade of redemptive aspiration. Over the past twenty years, in no small part thanks to the efforts of a dopey German television comedian, the pilgrimage has become popular with a secular crowd. It's about nine hundred kilometers, or a little less than six hundred miles, depending on where you start and whether you continue to the sea, and takes most people about a month to walk.
The book Tom had moved to Estonia to work on was a record of his visits to the far-flung tombs of the apostles, and by the time I was done reading up on the Camino, which had an immediate appeal for reasons I only dimly understood, I'd retrieved a faint memory of Tom's having said he planned to spend the following summer strolling across Spain, starting on the French side of the Pyrenean border. I didn't know what to make of my "June 10" note, though, so I called him up on Skype. He hadn't slept since I'd left, but he sounded chipper, happy to hear from me.
"I miss you, man," he said. "I'm lonely again and wish you were still around."
"Me, too, buddy." I paused. "So, Tom, what's going on June 10?"
"That's the day we start," he said. "It worked with both of our schedules."
I had no schedule to speak of, so I couldn't argue with that. Then again, neither did he. The notion of something working with our schedules made me suspicious.
"The day we start what, Tom?"
"Our walk across Spain. You don't remember? Strolling through hills by night, just you and me and the long path ahead. I told you any hotels we stay in are on me. You had that whole rousing speech about how we'd wake up each morning full of the simple, broad purpose of moving forward. You pounded your fist on the table and shouted to the whole bar that you were one hundred percent in. A few Estonians even clapped, though maybe they were just trying to get you to be quiet. Then we promised some girls we'd send them postcards from Santiago."
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