Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s modern-day pilgrimage story, A SENSE OF DIRECTION: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful, is one of those books you never want to end. As this book is a non-fiction account of Lewis-Kraus’s wanderings on three separate pilgrimages (to the most famous pilgrimage of them all, the Camino de Santiago, then to the 88 Temples of Shikoku, and finally to Uman to take in Rosh Hashanah with his father and brother), the obvious narrative is simple: Lewis-Kraus wants to find himself and isn’t quite sure how to do it. So even though he isn’t all that religious despite being brought up by two Jewish rabbis (or perhaps because of that), he decides to go off on his first pilgrimage, to do “the Camino,” and hopes he’ll gain some illumination along the way that will help him be able to resume his life with greater meaning and purpose.
Yet the obvious narrative isn’t really the point; instead, it’s how Lewis-Kraus describes the journey he and his friend take while they travel along the Camino (and the other trips Lewis-Kraus takes without him), and how insightful his commentary can be along the way. As Lewis-Kraus puts it on page 53 while talking about the yellow arrows that keep you on the path:
“(They) free you from needing a map or a sense of the terrain. They’re not symbols of direction; they are directions. They free you from needing pretty much anything. You can literally show up and start walking. You just let yourself be ushered forward by the arrows, and by the third or fourth one it already feels great to make zero decisions about where you’re going or when you’ll get there or what you’ll do when you arrive.”
This is a passage that is deceptively easy to read, but there’s a deeper meaning here. Most of us blindly stumble through life and have little idea of where we’re going, what we’re going to do when we get there, or what we’ll do when we arrive. So going on a pilgrimage like this one, where all of the worry about these things is taken away by the yellow arrows, seems to remove these worrisome barriers in order to concentrate on the prosaic — such as Lewis-Kraus’s feet hurting at the end of a twenty-mile hike (and twenty miles is an easy day when you’re hiking the Camino), or worse, how much his friend Tom’s feet hurt after just a few days on the trail.
As neither man is religious, in their conversations they mostly concentrate on the history of the Camino and how going on such pilgrimages used to be the only way for people to get away from their boring, humdrum lives. This is because if you went on a pilgrimage in the Middle Ages (as Geoffrey Chaucer points out in THE CANTERBURY TALES), it was a way to travel, to meet interesting people, to discuss out-of-the-way experiences, and for mystics was probably the closest they were ever going to get to God (or whatever the Deity is). Much was forgiven for a person who’d gone on a pilgrimage, too — he or she was seen as holy, or at least more interesting — so overall, it was a desirable way to get away from it all.
Now, of course, walking the Camino is seen more as a poor man’s vacation than as any sort of spiritual exercise because of all the low-cost hostels along the way. Yet while the religious part of the journey has been de-emphasized, the spiritual aspects of pilgrimage remain constant — that is, a modern-day pilgrimage like this one can transform you, at least for a time, into someone you’d rather be. Someone more decisive. Someone who has made common ground with others along the trail from other countries and other social classes, just because you’re all in this together, all suffering the same problems (the heat, the terrain at times, the constant foot problems, the exhaustion). Someone who’s been clarified into his best self — or at least his most consistent self — due to the pain and privation even an easy trip along the Camino can’t help but bring. And someone who must come face to face with his biggest inner demons, as along the trail there’s no place left to hide — not even from yourself.
At any rate, Lewis-Kraus and his friend Tom successfully complete the Camino. But because Lewis-Kraus enjoyed the pilgrimage aspects so much — and because he’d run into some Japanese tourists along the trail who’d told him about the 88 Temples of Shikoku pilgrimage and its circular nature — he decided he must take another trip. So off he went, this time accompanied by his grandfather Max for the first few temples.
However, the economic differences between Spain and Shikoku, the Japanese island the pilgrimage takes place on, is stark. Shikoku is desperately poor, the poorest by far of Japan’s four main islands, and many of the shopkeepers seem to want the greater business more American tourists would bring. This might be one reason why Lewis-Kraus is treated with great respect, though the fact that Lewis-Kraus is walking from temple to temple — something that’s considered especially challenging — also has something to do with it.
The 88 Temples of Shikoku pilgrimage is different in many aspects for Lewis-Kraus. This is a circular pilgrimage, instead of being from point to point like the Camino, which of course points out one of the main differences between Eastern and Western thought — in the East, the journey itself is far more interesting than where you’re going, while in the West, most of us journey to get somewhere in order to say we’ve been there. Lewis-Kraus meditates on this, along with various riffs about the girl he really likes (but who has a boyfriend so isn’t interested), whether this pilgrimage, like the prior one to the Camino, will change his life in any way, and while Max is around, has many interesting conversations that point out how much fun someone’s grandfather (even at the age of eighty-two) can be if you only give him a chance.
Finally, Lewis-Kraus decides to go on a pilgrimage with his brother Micah and his father, an openly gay rabbi. There’s a lot of healing that needs to happen between Lewis-Kraus and his father (though Lewis-Kraus gets along with his brother just fine, mostly because his brother seems remarkably tolerant); Lewis-Kraus’s subtext adds depth and richness to the problems his father caused when he broke their family apart, came out as a gay man, and started to live a flamboyant lifestyle.
Of course, going to Uman (in the Ukraine) once again points out the different ways people live in other cultures. But it also points out some sad economic facts: in Uman, people often rent out their houses for the week of the Rosh Hashanah observance to Orthodox Jews because this helps the homeowners pay their bills for the entire rest of the year. The people of Uman seem bemused by all of the pilgrims to their city, but by gosh and golly, they’re not going to miss out on the chance to make a buck — and indeed, they don’t.
Lewis-Kraus’s father, of course, can’t help but figure out all of the closeted gay men among the Orthodox Jewish community (as the Orthodox believe that being gay and acting on it is a sin), and keeps making comments to his two sons about that. This mostly points out that human frailty exists even among Orthodox Jews, though all three of the men seem to understand the need for these Orthodox Jews to get away from it all, too.
The pathos of the Orthodox Jewish community (that has only this one safety valve all year long) is explicated admirably by Lewis-Kraus, but of course it’s balanced by the cynical nature of the people of Uman who are beyond tired of these Orthodox Jewish men (all men, always, as they’re the only ones who go on this trip) and just want them to get out of there, soonest. Their attitude is probably common of tourist traps everywhere: come. Stay a bit. Then go — but do leave all your money, because we need it here. And Lewis-Kraus, being a most observant writer indeed, can’t help but point that out, often in hilarious fashion and sometimes by using his father the openly gay rabbi as a foil. This works both structurally and as a way for Lewis-Kraus to describe his own “coming of age” narrative, and was a particularly nice touch.
A SENSE OF DIRECTION is a book that fascinates for more than one reason: Lewis-Kraus’s writing is excellent, his descriptive powers are also excellent, and his friendly skewering of the Orthodox Jews at the end of the book is worth the price of admission all by itself. Lewis-Kraus has a keen eye for hypocrisy, especially when it comes to pointing out his own, and yet sees the value in pilgrimage even in these modern-day times despite the baser aspects of money and how it temporarily alters the city of Uman every time the Orthodox Jews show up for Rosh Hashanah. This makes for a powerful, yet unsettling, narrative that gathers more steam the longer you read it — and the more often you read it, the more you’ll get out of it.
Simply put: A SENSE OF DIRECTION is a complex, fascinating, and often witty narrative that incorporates history, comparative religions, and an interesting coming of age story and makes it more than the sum of its parts. Lewis-Kraus’s book is extremely readable, very interesting, highly engrossing, and yet sometimes made me want to throw it across the room (especially when Lewis-Kraus reminded me of how young, chronologically, he actually is by pointing out his romantic difficulties and the like). A book that can do all that is one that needs to be in your library, which is why I recommend A SENSE OF DIRECTION without reservation.
— reviewed by Barb