Occasionally a book comes along that has the power to transport readers to a place that many of us, I believe, wonder about, if only in the darkest moments of the night. Howard Axelrod’s memoir, “The Point of Vanishing,” was such a book for me.

It is a brave book. It is also finely crafted, which is what enables it to carry the reader step by step into a dark but illuminating interior space. Axelrod tells the reader in the first chapter that his journey to a remote corner of the Vermont woods for what was planned as one winter and ends up as two years is no mere retreat. “I needed to live without the need of putting on a face for anyone, including myself,” he writes. “Beneath all the masks I’d accumulated over the years, beneath even the masks that resented those masks, there had to be something there, something essential, some sense of reality and of myself that couldn’t be broken.”

He took up residence in a ramshackle house cobbled together by some 1970s hippie. One of the first things he did was burn the manual given to him by the current owner, one with instructions for not only how to live in and care for the house, but for how to deal with living so isolated, including “THE THREAT OF SILENCE.” Axelrod clearly intended this to be a journey undertaken without a map.

“Your life changes in an instant,” he writes. “When it does, it splits into two different lives, with two different timelines, the Bridge between Before and After exploded in the very moment of its making. There are questions on that other side – questions about the very nature of what is real, what is important, and what is worth living for. You have to answer those questions.”

The ostensible pivot that blew the Bridge was a decision to play an extra pickup basketball game during his junior year at Harvard University. Axelrod jumped for a rebound, along with a friend. In an instant, his friend’s finger hooked inside Axelrod’s eye socket and severs the optic nerve.

Partial blindness pushed him to pursue a second sight – that of insight into how he had become a total stranger to himself, directionless and lost. The accident on the court was catalyst, leading him away from all that came before: his role as dutiful son and his acceptance of privilege in attending Harvard, where he excelled without passion – almost without caring. After the accident, he was dislodged by initial anger, often at others who violated his personal boundaries, physical and emotional. Two years later, standing in his wilderness hovel looking out the window at an endlessly falling rain, his first lesson of solitude came to him. There was no one else to blame: “Everything really is your fault.”


Later that evening, he took in the essence of what was all around him. “The acres and acres of wilderness were an invitation. A way to learn what was solid – in the world and in myself.” Later still, lying in bed unable to sleep, consumed by thoughts of what had driven him there, he suffered the doubt many “travelers” experience in the early going. “I wondered if I’d make a horrible mistake.” But his was no ordinary journey, and he knew it.

He stayed. And continued to pursue some definitive anchoring point. His first accommodation to the task was to attempt to slow down, to move outside and beyond time. He started with early morning, slow motion walks in the woods, sliding his bare feet through damp meadow grass, over the debris that trees drop in the woods. In time, this evolved to setting out with no clothes at all. He sat at length and concentrated closely on observing the impenetrable movement of snails in the grass, seeking always to get closer “to something real.” Out of this emerged recognition of his habituated pattern “to play along.” He considered that part of himself “who didn’t really know anything. The part of me that I’d never introduced to my family – because I’d never needed to.”

That first winter, he snowshoed through the surrounding woods, ever expanding his physical sense of the external world as he also journeyed inward. By slow degrees, he began to feel “at home in a habitat that fit with my senses, as though some membrane had been dissolved. I was back in the world rather than outside of it. And seeing this way felt like a kind of cleansing, an absolution, as though the land itself had opened to take me in.” The rough edges and boundaries that had seemingly separated him from himself and the world began to dissolve.

Through the winter, as his interior solitude deepened, he became aware that even words were taking absence from the world. It was a startling discovery. “I could feel them slowly sinking back down into the depths. The most painful part wasn’t that distance between my silence and how I might talk to another person. (But rather, that) I’d had no idea the distance had grown so large.”

Questions of identity and of how one lives in the world consumed Axelrod. So much so that he had little awareness for how he was changing. When he reluctantly accepted his parents’ urging that he join them for Thanksgiving, he was met at the door by an expectant family throng, one member yelling out, “Look – it’s the Unabomber.” Axelrod’s long, dark hair was mangled and a shroud of beard hid his face. Against great protests from his mother, he pitched his tent in the backyard. In the morning, he rose to go for a walk, as had become his habit in the woods, and his presence brought police cars wailing into the neighborhood. Only then did he realize that he was dressed in long johns and wool socks.

Axelrod skillfully plays the narrative of his time in the woods against a parallel backstory. The two threads ultimately merge, and he comes very close to passing right through some imagined bottom into another dark realm, one from which there very likely is no escape.

Though “The Point of Vanishing” isn’t a map, it charts some of the territory that lies between the hard surfaces of the world and the murky depths in the shadows within all of us. The story is a beacon for those who have ever sensed such a realm.

Frank O Smith is a Maine writer whose novel, “Dream Singer,” was named a Notable Book of the Year in Literary Fiction in 2014 by “Shelf Unbound,” an international review magazine. “Dream Singer” was also a finalist for the Bellwether Prize, created by best-selling novelist Barbara Kingsolver “in support of a literature of social change.” Smith can be reached via his website: frankosmithstories.com

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.