By Terri Schlichenmeyer, April 9, 2015.

I Left it On the Mountain by Kevin Sessums. St. Martin’s Press, 2015 | $25.99.

“I’m sorry.” There they are: two words you learned (or should’ve learned) as a toddler to make amends, set things right, receive forgiveness, and move on. Followed by, “please forgive me.”

If acknowledged, those words are cathartic and weight lifting. If ignored, they can be crushing. Or, as in the new book I Left It on the Mountain by Kevin Sessums, they can do both over the course of a lifetime.

On the morning of his 53rd birthday, Sessums woke up in a funk. It wasn’t his workload that his body had “already begun to rebel at,” he was scheduled that evening to attend an Oscar party with Courtney Love. No, what plagued him was that he’d signed up to walk the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Spain, a pilgrimage of 500-some miles.

Sessums wasn’t sure what he hoped to gain by walking the Camino. He’d been told that the trek was spiritual, one “that pilgrims have walked for over two thousand years.” He’d been told that it would change him.

Change was what he realized he needed.

As a child growing up in Mississippi, Sessums was a “sissy boy” and he knew that he’d disappointed his father. Efforts to align with his father betrayed his mother in ways that hurt her. But because both his parents died when Sessums was 9 years old, he couldn’t ask for their forgiveness.

Molested at 13, now HIV positive and feeling abandoned as an adult, Sessums had been bingeing on drugs and sex for months when a friend suggested the Camino. The journey “beckoned” – but not without questions.

“How,” Sessums mused, “do I fully combine the spiritual with the carnal?”

Weeks later, the answer arrived in pieces as he chose the more difficult path of the Camino walk, up hills and through mud, fighting blisters and exhaustion but noticing men and miracles. Answers would come as he learned to “let go” and as he met people he enjoyed, “including now myself.”

Photo by Matt Edge.

But that’s not the pinnacle of this powerful memoir – not by a long shot. And yet, my emotions ran the gamut from “OMG” to “Ho-hum” while reading it.

 

To start, Sessums is a first-rate memoirist. He opens his heart and soul and lets you see everything that’s there: warm childhood memories, recollections of time spent with “heightened acquaintances,” love of (and frustration with) family as well as painful years of grief, loss and fear. This unfiltered, diary part of his Camino journey – the passages about passages, if you will – underscore his talent.

Readers, however – especially readers unfamiliar with New York society or the pop-culture-fashion magazine industry – may struggle with frequent, unfamiliar name-dropping. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the presence of very explicit, brutal sex.

Still, despite eye-poppers and flaws that really aren’t flaws, there was a bigger part of me that couldn’t put this book aside. It’s beautiful, it’s ugly, and if you skip reading I Left it On the Mountain you may never forgive yourself.

 

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