Wisdom from a Hermit

When Howard Axelrod lost his depth perception in a freak accident, he started to realize how little depth there was in his own life. The cure? A year-and-a-half in the remote woods - alone. No phone, no television, no internet, no visitors. Howard walked out of the woods with some wisdom and a great story.
Howard Axelrod, author of "The Point of Vanishing: A Memoir of Two Years in Solitude" (Sophie Barbasch)

In the spring of 1994, Howard Axelrod seemed to have the world by the tail.

He was in his junior year at Harvard with plans to pursue a law degree. One day, the English major took a break from studying for his finals for a quick game of basketball.

It was a game that would change his life in an instant.

A freak collision with another player. A finger in Howard's right eye. The optic nerve completely severed. In an instant, Howard became permanently blind in that eye.

Howard was determined to move on and get back to normal life. He seemed fine to passers-by. But he had lost his depth perception - a condition that occurs when one eye is blinded, removing the third dimension - and he had a constant feeling of disorientation. Howard would crash into people in the cafeteria and on the street. His feelings of humiliation were compounded by the fact that he couldn't give a proper explanation without launching into a long story. the situation was awkward and alienating.

In the months following his injury, Howard was struck by how his physical loss of depth perception mirrored his thoughts about life in general. 

"Without depth perception, the world looked simultaneously flat and permeable, like I'd crossed the threshold into a fantasy land, where nothing was solid, including my sense of myself," he writes in his memoir The Point of Vanishing: A Memoir of Two Years in Solitude.

To work through his trauma - and try to regain his sense of depth, meaning, and self - Howard retreated deep into the woods of Vermont. For eighteen months, he took up residence in an isolated cabin. There was no computer, no television, no phone, no clock. In the absence of the clatter and demands of modern life, Howard created new routines and lived by the rhythms of nature. 

"For daily activity, I woke with the sun, walked or snowshoed in the woods surrounding the house, and kept the fire going. Sometimes I wrote poems. It became second-nature to live without an outer life—so much was happening inside me. One winter deepened into two."

After a year and a half of profound solitude, Howard Axelrod emerged from the woods with a lot of wisdom and a great story.

In this episode of Tapestry, Howard relives his journey and shares the insights he gained along the way in an in-depth conversation with Mary Hynes.

Win a copy of Howard's book

We have three copies of The Point of Vanishing to give away. To enter your name into the draw, email us at tapestry@cbc.ca. We will announce the winners in a couple of weeks.

Click here to read an excerpt from The Point of Vanishing: A Memoir of Two Years in Solitude by Howard Axelrod. Copyright © 2015 by Howard Axelrod. All rights reserved.

Excerpt from "The Point of Vanishing: A Memoir of Two Years in Solitude" by Howard Axelrod

After the accident, perhaps on the advice of her doctor friends, Mom had suggested I see a therapist. Every month or so, she'd bring it up again on the phone, and I'd tell her there was no need, perhaps she should see a therapist, everything was fine. But fall of senior year, with everyone planning for the future, I wondered if she hadn't been on to something.

Preparations were being made. Futures were being plotted. It was only November, but you couldn't walk into Adams House and not feel it. Every meal had the diffuse buzz of Grand Central
Station—harried seniors checking for posted maps, for spinning placards, for the time on some enormous clock. Hardly a day passed that someone didn't interrupt a conversation about cute sophomore girls or Karl Marx to hurry off from breakfast in a blue suit, hair combed, a leather folder at his side. Representatives from Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and McKinsey were on campus to recruit. Everyone was herding towards the future. Even the frighteningly studious kids who seemed to come from nowhere, who emerged from the Widener stacks maybe once a semester for hygiene purposes only, were suddenly passing through the dining hall in high heels and makeup, with new blouses and haircuts, their backpacks on over their new outfits, little corporate butterflies not quite emerged from the chrysalis.


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