Book Reviews

Sea Changes

Navigating the currents of midlife—and redefining home along the way

By Amanda Parrish Morgan | June 29, 2023
Duane Romanell (Flickr/drp)
Duane Romanell (Flickr/drp)

Directions to Myself: A Memoir of Four Years by Heidi Julavits; Hogarth, 304 pp., $27

In his 1949 book of comparative mythology, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell argued that while the archetypal man’s journey is physical and outward, that of the woman is domestic and inward. Apart from the painfully reductive nature of this idea, what most annoyed me about the book was not so much Campbell’s distinction between genders but the implication that a journey inward is inherently less dangerous, less difficult, or less societally significant than a journey outward. In her new book, Heidi Julavits, a writer and a founding editor of The Believer magazine, rewrites that myth. Directions to Myself is about finding a way home in every sense of the word—and what it means to navigate there, not as Odysseus returning to Ithaca but as ordinary parents, teachers, writers, friends, and neighbors.

Julavits and her family split their time between school years in Manhattan and summers in Maine, and in Directions to Myself, she is concerned with finding a home in both landscapes. Each of the book’s sections opens with hand-drawn maps of places important to Julavitz—among them Small Point Harbor, Maine; Julavits’s childhood neighborhood in nearby Portland; and the neighborhood where she works and lives near New York’s Columbia University—complete with annotations like “do not climb” and “watch for broken glass.” The narrative moves associatively, rather than chronologically, through four years of Julavits’s life, documenting the effects of aging, shifting friendships, professional highs and lows, and the internal conflict she faces in preparing her children to go out into a world that feels increasingly destabilized.

Julavits’s central interest in geography is rooted in how our ability to navigate change allows us to feel at home, even if “home” is not a fixed place or concept. Realizing how she’s re-created the patterns of her childhood—moving to Maine, owning a sailboat—for her own family, Julavits writes, “Home is still defined by me as where I grew up, more or less, and so we bought this house, thus repeating the mistake of my parents, conscripting our children to spend summer vacations in a vessel that fills with water from below.” When she confesses that “as confusing and shameful as it is to be a homesick adult, homesickness becomes its own home after a while,” she is writing as much about the physical as she is about a period of her life that has slipped out of reach. “The older I get,” she goes on, “the more I understand [homesickness] as love that’s too big and has always been too big for one body to manage. That love is unbearable only when I’m not with the people who inspired it”—for Julavits, those people are her parents, her friends, and most of all, her children.

In a scene she returns to throughout the book, Julavits is approached by a famous writer who smugly “announc[es] that writers should never have children because each child represents a book the writer will not write.” Julavits offers a hypothetical retort: if she were his accountant, she’d ask him to run the numbers. Why is it children that this man sees as the primary impediment to his genius when bathing, eating, sleeping also must pull him away from his prolific and brilliant output?

And yet, Julavits acknowledges that she too sometimes falls prey to this belief. “For this reason, I kept my first pregnancy a secret,” she writes.” I’m ashamed now that I did this, even while I had what seemed like valid reasons at the time. … I didn’t want anyone to think I wasn’t serious about my career. If I were to visit a life accountant, my spreadsheet might reveal the following. … I have experienced the unceasing pressure of proving that, by having a child I’ve cost myself nothing, and this has cost me.”

As Julavits charts her journey through early motherhood, it becomes clear that having children has cost her something, in the way that any kind of care is inseparable from loss. When she spends a night laboring with and delivering her second child, a son, in her Manhattan apartment, Julavits evokes the language of Campbell’s hero’s journey and its cycle of departure and return with a gift:

People have been dying in childbirth for a thousand years and labor unites us. With my daughter, during the twenty-seven hours we lived between worlds, I felt more connected, as the pain swelled and ebbed, withdrew and revisited, to this lineage of strangers than I did to the human inside me that I hoped would choose life, and let me keep mine…I’m more confident, this time, that I’ll survive the trip. But she will never again be the only person with whom I’ve traveled through in-between places. And I’ll be bringing someone back.

Campbell, too, saw the abyss in childbirth—in part because of the very real potential for physical death—but Julavits seems to be alluding to a much less literal and much more ordinary death: having a child means losing the self who did not know the all-consuming love of motherhood. During labor, Julavits observes, “each completed orbit on this clock thins and thins the membrane covering the abyss where the self is annihilated and becomes the ghostly bridge connecting life with life.”

One afternoon, back on the ocean in Maine near where her son nearly drowned the previous summer, Julavits sees that he has grown increasingly independent. She guides her son, in a boat tethered to her own, as he makes his way through the same water she once navigated on long summer trips with her own parents. Recalling the night they spent together on that ghostly bridge of labor, Julavits writes: “I walked for longer than a day; I traveled a measurable distance through time and space to give birth to him.” Now, though, she is traveling a different bridge—the passage between her son’s childhood and adulthood. “I’ve been prepared for this day,” she explains, evoking the umbilical rope that connects their two boats: “His growing up is unfathomable to me, even as I can precisely mark the distance. My son is two fathoms away. He is three fathoms. He is four, seven, ten. As the tide rises and the beach shrinks, I start to lay the rope on the sand. I re-create the path the two of us took together before his cord was cut and our individual expeditions began.”

Directions to Myself is a book of dualities—about motherhood and childhood, birth and death, career and family, middle age and youth, the external and the internal. Even stylistically, it’s simultaneously serious and tender. Home, split both by time (childhood and adulthood) and place (Manhattan and Maine) is the book’s central duality—and it is Julavits’s ability to craft a cohesive narrative as she wanders through them that makes the memoir so striking.

By the book’s end, it seems that the real difference between the archetypal hero’s journey and the one that Julavits describes is that the latter is one on which all of us will embark—a natural consequence of caring deeply about our children, our work, and the landscapes we call home.

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