Directions to Myself

A Memoir of Four Years

About the Book

New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice • A sharply observed memoir of motherhood and the self, and a love letter to Maine, by a writer Eula Biss calls “witty, sly, critical, inventive” and whose mind Leslie Jamison calls “electric.”

“An absolute stunner: frank, funny, self-aware, constantly surprising.”—George Saunders

That night, in his bed, I spread my son’s palm wide and tried to read it. If the hand was a map that led to a future person, was there any changing the destination?

One summer Heidi Julavits sees her son silhouetted by the sun and notices he is at the threshold of what she calls “the end times of childhood.” When did this happen, she asks herself. Who is my son becoming—and what qualifies me to be his guide?

The next four years feel like uncharted waters. Rape allegations rock the university campus where Julavits teaches, unleashing questions of justice and accountability, as well as education and prevention. She begins to wonder how to prepare her son to be the best possible citizen of the world he’s about to enter. And what she must learn about herself to responsibly steer him.

Looking back to her childhood in Maine, where she and her family often navigated the tricky coastline in a small boat, relying on a decades-old nautical guide, Julavits takes us on an intellectual navigation of the self. Throughout, she intertwines her internal analysis with a wide-ranging exploration of what it means to raise a child in a time full of contradictions and moral complexity. Using the past and present as points of orientation, Directions to Myself examines the messy minutiae of family life alongside knottier questions of politics and gender. Through it all, Julavits discovers the beauty and the peril of telling stories as a way to locate ourselves and help others find us.

Intimate, rigorous, and refreshingly unsentimental, Directions to Myself cements Julavits’s reputation as one of the most shrewdly innovative nonfiction writers at work today.
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Praise for Directions to Myself

“Julavits’s writing is a life raft: elegant without sentimentality. . . . Directions to Myself is less a memoir of parenting and more a memoir of developing personhood.”—The New York Times
“An achingly rendered experience of parenthood. Rather than simply passing, time escapes from us, along with our children. And it makes its wounds along the way.”—The Washington Post

“All parents worry about what the world might do to their children. Julavits worries about what her child might do to the world. Directions to Myself is at its best when Julavits, as her title suggests, considers how she might grow alongside her child.”—The New Yorker
“An open airing of the worries and fears of a woman in the 21st century, an ode to books and streams and rocks and artifacts and to family. But it might be, above all, about nature, human and otherwise.”San Francisco Chronicle

“A journey to self-discovery.”WBUR Boston
“Julavits’ fans will enjoy the insights into her life, child-rearing, and finding direction for one’s self and one’s family.”Booklist
Directions to Myself sees Julavits studying what she calls ‘the end times of childhood.’ She writes about her son’s upbringing as well as her own to find answers about motherhood, family life, and growing up.”The Millions
“A memoir about navigation in every sense . . . Julavits writes with sparkling insight and stunning clarity.”Bustle

“An absolute stunner: frank, funny, self-aware, constantly surprising . . . one of the most insightful representations I’ve read of what it feels like to be alive these days . . .”—George Saunders, author of Lincoln in the Bardo

“Directions to Myself is the product of an awe-inspiring mind, whose “inner Maine,” captured here, was a place I did not want to leave. The writing is a miracle of precision and spirit, and Heidi Julavits is as darkly funny as John Cheever, my other favorite Yankee subversive.”—Rachel Kushner, author of The Mars Room

“Inside these pages is a sanctuary of unwordable grief, exactly because of its proximity to our purpose and joy, our mothering, our try, our children. We have tried our best. Now, to the world they go.”—Dede Gardner, Oscar winning producer of 12 Years a Slave and Moonlight

“Honest, blazing, and generous, Directions to Myself manages to be an essay about everything by focusing intently on the basic human need of giving care to other people. Truly astounding.”—Catherine Lacey, author of Biography of X

“A touching meditation on time, motherhood, and memory . . . Affecting reflections on life’s transitions.”Kirkus Reviews

“In this self-aware book, issues of politics and gender thread together with the daily ins and outs of family life.”TIME
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Directions to Myself


Here, the road hugs the ocean. The water comes and goes from view because the coast is shaped like a hand with hundreds of fingers, the road tracing the edge of the palm. When visible, the shore is a pile of seaweed-covered rocks, the water between 30 and 58 degrees and some shade of metal no matter the month. The ocean floor is covered with barnacles, mussel shells, and the spiky domes of dead anemones. Water shoes or old sneakers are recommended if planning to swim, along with a healthy sense of personal limits. Islands are farther away than they appear.

The sale is in the next town. My son, who is five, sits in the backseat. He’s already announced: He’s going on this errand against his will and won’t be having any fun. I promise I’ll be quick once we arrive, but I need to drive slower than the speed limit because of the frost heaves. They crack through the asphalt each winter. They wreck the shocks on cars already corroded by the salt the snowplows scatter, to keep everyone’s tires from sliding. Even so, people in a hurry end up in the woods.

Nature is always warning: Slow down. Time is moving quickly, why must you move so quickly through it?

We find a parking spot near an electrical pole and walk past a person carrying a plastic tricycle and a rusted Weedwacker. Inside the barn, people politely jostle for position to inspect the offerings, displayed on tables and stacked in boxes. Objects on this peninsula travel in a slow orbit through the houses. Most of our possessions once belonged to people up and down the road. I know which house the rice cooker came from, and the raincoat with the broken zipper, and the amateur portraits of Napoleonic-era naval men. Things leave as well as enter. Our former front door is now the front door of a house we pass on the way to the grocery store.

I steer my moody son toward a basket of pendants and bracelets and rings because that’s where his happiness is reliably located. I don’t even think it counts as a trick to lead him here.

The used books table, where my happiness is located, is half covered in kitchen appliances so old that the task they were meant to ease is impossible to even guess. Art hangs on the wall, including a few framed charts of the area and a grid of knots in a shadow box. Each knot is identified by a bronze plaque. The Surgeon’s Knot. The Strangle Knot. The Marlinespike Hitch. A friend hurries by with an armful of sheets—you should totally get that! she says, out of breath—but I already own a shadow box with a bronze plaque. I’ve recently started to envision the yard sale that will be thrown after my death. I need to curate my posthumous image now, so as not to be inaccurately seen as a person obsessed, for example, with shadow boxes.

Today, the majority of the books on the table are last century’s self-help bestsellers and the usual selection of nautical and navigation books. These comprise the local canon. Most appear to never have been read, because people tend to want only to find themselves.

I sort through the piles. A few of the books I’ve bought at previous sales: Games People Play, Chapman Piloting and Seamanship, Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them, and A Cruising Guide to the New England Coast.

It doesn’t count as doubling up—or, rather, won’t compel future strangers, acquiring my belongings for one or two dollars, to get any wrong ideas about me—to buy an earlier edition of A Cruising Guide, because mine is from the 1970s, and this one is from the 1930s. At a glance, the spirit and methodology remain unchanged. Both give directions by telling little stories, often a mix of history, bigotry, gossip, hearsay, and lore. The warnings issued are stern and incessant; the outlook, given the Guide is written for people on vacation, refreshingly fatalistic.

Eternal vigilance, the Guide reminds, is the price of safety.

Instead of compass headings, the Guide describes how to enter dicey harbors using local landmarks such as “the high brick chimney of the sardine factory” as points of orientation. Some ledges are marked by actual shipwrecks.

The Guide also functions as a self-help book, its cautious wisdom transferable to people, lost or not, without plans to ever leave land.

It is no place for a stranger except in daylight and fair weather.

The approach is through a narrow channel where the tide runs hard.

There are a number of attractive anchorages, some of them of no value in a storm.

My son digs through the answering machines and calculators on the electronics table, the once shiny, future-hearkening machines now dusty and sucking up light. In addition to a bracelet and a ring, he chooses a DVD box set of a ’90s television show that’s available online, plus we own no machine to play the discs. I grab the Guide, a bracelet, a cellophane sleeve containing what look like giant ceramic teeth, and a ziplock bag of postcards featuring reproductions of famous Annunciation paintings.

Outside, people are chatty as they exit the barn, burdened with cast-offs reincarnated as a windfall. Someday everything will reenter the economy, and increasingly cause perplexity. What is this palm-size rectangle with the cracked black screen? My son carries the DVDs in front of him like a divining rod pointing toward the shortsighted past. So much change occurs in fifty years, and even five. Wrecks disintegrate. Sardine markets decline and chimneys topple. The directions for entering a harbor may no longer advise keeping the tall pine to starboard, because the tree was struck by lightning, chopped down, used to build a barn like this one.

We drive back along the coast, the Reach to our right. This is how we find our way around the peninsula—over which shoulder is the water? But even that’s a conditional rule of thumb. Salt ponds, rivers, and extreme tides spiral and extend in all directions. The Reach—named because of the southwest wind that blows through it during the summer, allowing the old schooners to travel the length without changing the set of their sails—stretches between the mainland and an island so vast it looks like the mainland. At both ends are bays leading to the same ocean. Determining from which direction the tide flows and ebbs requires a rethinking of tides completely. Here, the incoming tide moves clockwise; the outgoing tide moves counter.

In the backseat, my son is talking about squirrels and how many taste buds they have. They grow even more,
he says, if you feed them sandwiches. My son and I share many similarities. We both apologize to inanimate objects when we drop or break them. We both worry we’ll be abandoned by everyone we love if we stop making cheerful conversation. We are both, given this anxiety, sometimes misunderstood. Recently, a great-uncle told him, You’re just like your mother. You don’t listen. You talk too much.

I’m half-listening to my son because, to our right, the fog is rolling in. This almost never happens. I grew up ninety miles south of here. When I was younger, the fog was an unpredictable but regular guest. It could arrive in June and stay until September. Each year, it was a question: Would there be any summer this summer?

We don’t ask this question anymore. Something warmed or cooled. Regardless, the fog rarely appears and so this place has become increasingly unrecognizable for being so easy to see. When people say their memories of childhood become erased the older they get, I think: My childhood memories were of erasure, of summers spent in a blank. My parents, in the late ’70s, decided to buy an old wooden sailboat. It was the equivalent of a used camper van that we drove up and down the coast. My family spent April and May getting the boat ready to put in the water. We sanded and varnished the mast, the boom, the coaming, the rails.

Then we would launch the boat and wait for it to fill up with the Atlantic. The unknown was not if, but how much.

I’ve since learned, because my neighbor is a boatbuilder, that a boat’s first days in the water, and its first times under sail, are called sea trials and shakedowns. These are to identify problems so that they can be fixed. But that’s not how it worked with our boat, which came with the slightly concerning name (we did not, due to superstition, change it) Second Chance. The boat, throughout each summer, sprung new leaks. The engine was always being fixed yet never was. The point, it seemed, for us and for it, was to live with the problems, to atone for whatever mistakes made by the previous owner that necessitated this reprieve, and to be constantly evading conviction for crimes we’d inherited. Every day on the ocean was a stress test of luck, preparedness, and skill.

We named our dinghy, which trailed off the stern, Last Chance.

In my final accounting, the danger, wonder, and thrill outweighed the moist discomfort of being stuck inside a fogbank with family members who were rarely more than twenty feet away, and more commonly within seven, for days on end. My brother’s math doesn’t agree. Recently, I told him that I wanted to acquire one of the sailboats that were abundantly for sale nearby or even free. Every fourth house had one tarped, on blocks, in the yard.

If you do that, he said, your children will hate you.

About the Author

Heidi Julavits
Heidi Julavits is the author of four critically acclaimed novels (The Vanishers, The Uses of Enchantment, The Effect of Living Backwards, and The Mineral Palace) and co-editor, with Sheila Heti and Leanne Shapton, of the New York Times bestseller Women in Clothes. Her fiction has appeared in Harper's Magazine, McSweeney’s, and The Best American Short Stories, among other places. She's a founding editor of The Believer magazine and the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. She lives in Manhattan, where she teaches at Columbia University. She was born and raised in Portland, Maine. More by Heidi Julavits
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