A Sense of Direc­tion: Pil­grim­age for the Rest­less and the Hopeful

  • Review
By – April 23, 2012

A Sense of Direc­tion is an extend­ed med­i­ta­tion in mem­oir-and-trav­el­ogue form on the author’s strug­gles to find pur­pose and mean­ing in life, and to for­give his rab­bi father for hav­ing neglect­ed and deceived him, his broth­er, and his moth­er, both before and after com­ing out as a homo­sex­u­al. As the book opens, Lewis-Kraus, an Amer­i­can writer, is in his late twen­ties, dis­sat­is­fied with his bohemi­an life in Berlin, yearn­ing for love but only sleep­ing with oth­er men’s girl­friends, stalling in his career, and anguish­ing about whether he’s liv­ing life ful­ly enough.

In a drunk­en moment, he agrees to hike the Camino de San­ti­a­go, a tra­di­tion­al Catholic pil­grim­age around north­west­ern Spain, now a pop­u­lar sec­u­lar endeav­or. The jour­ney, tak­en with his friend Tom, both tries and deep­ens their friend­ship, and cre­ates a space and struc­ture from which Lewis-Kraus can bet­ter under­stand his life. Sub­se­quent­ly he makes anoth­er sec­u­lar­ized pil­grim­age, this time around the island of Shikoku in Japan, with his father’s father join­ing him for part of the trip, and after this voy­age, he invites his younger broth­er and his father to join him over Rosh Hashana on a trip to the Ukraine to the gravesite of the Hasidic leader Rab­bi Nach­man, a jour­ney that draws thou­sands of reli­gious Jew­ish men every year.

Lewis-Kraus under­stands pil­grim­age as hav­ing always been more than mere­ly a spir­i­tu­al quest: it is also a pre­text to leave home, to do what we want to do, to have a series of struc­tured days,” and to step out­side of all roles and just be a per­son, some­one with­out respon­si­bil­i­ties or any con­straint besides con­tin­u­ous for­ward move­ment to a dis­tant goal.” He writes that the Camino isn’t at all about free­dom from restraint, but free­dom via restraint,” and that there was at once a feel­ing of deci­sive­ness and a feel­ing of lib­er­a­tion from the anx­i­ety of deci­sion.”

The book is an enter­tain­ing, non-roman­tic depic­tion of trav­el and a philo­soph­i­cal explo­ration of the psy­cho­log­i­cal forces that pro­pel and inhab­it it, and that are unleashed, forged, or trans­formed through it. Lewis-Kraus is intense­ly self-con­scious about what he does as a trav­el­er and as a writer, and there’s some­thing coura­geous and mag­nif­i­cent yet simul­ta­ne­ous­ly unkind and undig­ni­fied about writ­ing so inti­mate­ly about his still-liv­ing father with whom, over the course of the book, he comes, through great effort, to a place of accep­tance and under­stand­ing. Cer­tain­ly his emo­tion­al naked­ness is com­pelling, and offers the read­er splen­did insights into the imper­a­tives of for­give­ness, grow­ing up, and mov­ing forward.

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