A twenty-something Harvard graduate leaves his suburban home outside Boston to live alone in the New England woods for two years in an attempt to explore nature and his own nature.
No, I'm not describing Henry David Thoreau, but Howard Axelrod, whose memoir "The Point of Vanishing" (Beacon Press, 2015) is a beautifully moving story of loss and discovery.
Axelrod had lived a comfortably conventional life in Brookline, Mass., attending private school and then Harvard, when his life suddenly changed at the end of his junior year. During a pick-up basketball game break while studying for final exams, his optic nerve was severed by an errant finger reaching for the ball, and he immediately and irreparably lost the vision in his left eye. The first part of the book focuses on the harrowing story of the accident, the hurried visit to the emergency room, and the physical and emotional pain of adjusting to this unanticipated change in his ability to see the world. With time, Axelrod adjusted well physically to this life-changing event, but the loss of binocular vision resulted in a far greater impact on his world view and his understanding of how he fit into that world.
After a year in Bologna, Italy on a Rockefeller fellowship and some traveling through the western U.S., Axelrod remained restless, unmoored, and uncertain of where he was headed. He was torn between two selves — the 'mask' he wore to meet the expectations of parents, friends, and society and the inner self that he felt was different but difficult to define. To try to resolve this dilemma, he posted notices in towns across northern Vermont, seeking an isolated place to live.
Eventually, he found himself living alone in a small, ramshackle, wood-stove heated house in Glover six miles off the dirt road that led to a paved road to Barton where a general store and an intermittently open caf were his only contacts with "civilization." He had no TV, radio, cell phone, newspaper, or mail. He had no neighbors and no visitors. As he states, "I'd come here for that silence: a silence that might enable me to hear more, which might enable me to see more." The isolated cabin provided him with solitude and silence, with time and space to find "solid ground ... anything I could trust."
Axelrod's story is not unique---a young man succeeding in his family-determined life course of accomplishments in school, social life, athletics and pre-destined for a profession comes to the conclusion that he's wearing a `mask' and living someone else's life and strikes out on his own to "find himself." What makes Axelrod's memoir different is the precipitating event, the loss of vision that crystallizes his awareness of his situation and is powerful enough to blast him out of his predictable orbit and into the solitude of the Vermont woods and countryside.
What is also different is his striking ability to convey the physical and emotional terrain of that place and time. His writing is exquisite and wonderfully paced and structured. His narration is replete with metaphors and similes that force the reader to stop and read them again, savoring the image and the language. Effectively and unexpectedly, the continuity of this tale over a broad expanse of time and space is provided by flipping back and forth from the period around the accident to the time in Vermont several years later, with the ability to bring the reader into this cabin, into the woods, and into his inner life. Considering that there is almost no human interaction and no distraction from the cabin, the woods, the hills, and the weather, it is extra-ordinary that the author can keep the reader fully engaged for the nearly 200 pages of solitude and introspection.
This is not one of those memoirs that currently fill the Internet and the shelves of bookstores written by young people who feel that two decades of living provides them with wisdom that must be shared. Axelrod wrote this book 20 years after his accident and his time in Vermont. He had half of his life to carefully consider these events and their impact. When I asked him if he had kept a detailed diary in order to later write this book, he said that he hadn't and that the events and impressions of that time had remained vivid and easily recalled.
The result is a beautifully rendered story of how a sudden and unpredictable loss can lead to an unanticipated and perhaps otherwise unachievable positive change. "The Point of Vanishing" title is a clever and wise play on words equally referring to the abrupt change from his accident as well as to the goal of spending two years in rural solitude. The structure of the book, the language with which he describes the beauty and power to both heal and destroy that exists in the Northeast Kingdom, and the strength and will of the author make this a book that will rewardingly remain with the reader for a long time.
Michael F. Epstein is a retired physician who reads and writes in Brownsville and Cambridge, MA. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org