It really can be a wilderness, sitting at my desk looking out onto the porch roof where two squirrels are chasing each other. I’m working on a book about Siberia. More specifically, it is about riding the Trans Siberian Rail from St Petersburg to Vladivostok with my son, Michael.
A friend of mine in Arizona just published a very limited edition of my book about the Camino de Santiago. Out of the Way is the same length as my book Penance—very short—and the same form, actually. The reason I went with an edition with only 250 copies and don’t plan on going further than that is simple: I had nothing more to say. Plus, there are hundreds of books and blogs and short films about the Camino. But I had published several pieces about the Camino in various magazines, including two national publications, and they received a lot of positive response. Nothing I write about the pilgrimage will ever reflect the experience, though I suppose I’ll keep trying.
But the Siberian work is different. More specifically it is about fathers and sons, about figuring out what we can keep with us as we move forward. Out of the Way is about 60 pages, the manuscript for the Siberian book is already around 200 pages, and that is after months of editing. It will flip flop for some time still, getting longer and then edited down, longer again and then shorter. Michael points out pretty soon it will be longer than all my other books combined.
But that’s because it is about Siberia. More specifically, it is about history and migration and the disconnection that still exists in some remote areas of the world. Siberia is wild and natural and vast and unlike any other region. Not much has been written about in the popular-culture arena. One of the best is Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia, which manages to capture the experience perfectly, but it remains focused on the people and the history without reaching out of itself. David Green’s fine work, Midnight in Siberia is also an excellent book for understanding the experience on the rail, and since NPR fans know his voice so well it is easy to read the book and hear David’s voice at the same time.
But other than those and some Colin Thurbon books about Russia and Siberia in general, there is little else out there.
So I decided to put it together, this book about Siberia; more specifically about exiles and dissidents, about what we leave behind, about the need to be direct with others and oneself instead of passing judgement and deciding without facts, without at the very least asking. It is about hesitating while at the same time jumping off the edge of the world. Of the fourteen sections of the book completed so far, eleven have been published in one form or another in various journals, but the book ties them together.
Which brings me back to Spain, to the Camino and sixty pages.
Two books occupying my mind at the same time is interesting. It really is like having children. One of them needs more attention than the other, more help, more of my resources—for whatever reason—and I need to pay attention to it. But, as van Gogh eloquently wrote, “Art is jealous; she will not let us choose ourselves over her.” That’s so true. These books are siblings, and I want them to get along, especially when one doesn’t understand why I need to pay extra attention to the other. So as it is, they have different needs, and it is time to think about Siberia.
Siberia is an intellectual project; it also has much of my heart since it is framed in letters to my late father, but at its core it is about Siberia. More specifically, it is about the delicate balance between focusing on “now” and focusing on “what’s next.” This work comes out of the journalist in me.
But Out of the Way, which isn’t a story as much as it is a reflection about faith, comes very much from my heart. And I discovered something interesting in these two projects. In the past I have the normal problems writers have; whatever I’ve done is not enough, needs to be expanded, deepened, approached from another angle. Reworking means filling in and trimming down, as I’m doing now with the book about Siberia, which is really about learning to find our way home.
But with Spain everything I wrote always already seemed too much, like I was telling someone else’s secret. I think that’s because it is not a “project,” it is who I am, and writing about it became too personal. I’ll never go back to Siberia. But the Camino beckons every single day, especially lately when I’m finding less and less reason to stay.
A lot has changed in the past year in every single aspect of my life and I sometimes have trouble understanding it all, and I know for certain people I’ve been close to don’t understand and for whatever reason don’t bother to ask. But in Spain I feel my life is completely exposed and everyone there understands each other, like two lovers who can finish each other’s thoughts.
So I’m very pleased Out of the Way is on its own now and I can only pray people find a little of what I was trying to do. But to be completely honest, I wrote it for me; that book is for me.
The two squirrels outside my window on the porch roof ran off. I need to grade papers, and I want to play golf with my brother. I want to go to Starbucks with my sister, take pictures with my son. I want to wander aimlessly amidst the trees running from here to the Rappahannock, and then head out on the water and disappear for awhile. I want to call my mother and thank her, and stop and leave flowers at my father’s headstone. I want to drive west, sail south, and find out the least of my days is still an amazing grace.
Instead, I’m going to sit at this desk and expand my book about Siberia, which, ironically, is also about pilgrimage. I’ll edit and deepen until it finds its way to the publisher.
Unless I go for a walk. I might go for a walk.