• Gregory Orr on Rebuilding a Life When Nothing Makes Sense

    "I’d need to find new meanings if I were to survive."


    In the beginning, I believed in school the way pious and naive monks probably believed in the medieval church. The reality of school might be blurry or harsh or confusing, but the idea was lucid and just: a white city on a high hill whose walls were made entirely of mimeographed quizzes—it shone from within with a splendid glow and the little red-circled grades the teacher made with her pen were like rosette windows through which the pure glory of God’s judgment light streamed.

    For the most part, my actual early experiences confirmed my sense of belonging to a coherent and humane institution. Of course, there was the periodic teacher like Mrs. Henderson in third grade, who seemed to have stepped out of the Spanish Inquisition: she gave me D’s in “Eats Well” and “Plays Well with Others” and stationed herself next to the line of garbage cans in the lunchroom where she inspected everyone’s tray. She invariably found the coleslaw I’d stuffed into my empty milk carton and sent me back to my seat to fish it out and finish it. But then I console myself by lingering over memories of Miss Buswell rewarding our fifth-grade class for straightening our desks at the end of each day by reading aloud from The Otter Family and all of us, even the hardest cases, even Eddie Whitney who’d eat white paste on a dare, weeping quietly when the mother otter got her paw caught in the steel jaw of a trap. Then I believe again, I am brought back into the fold of Mother School and think: “Yes, there is a bosom here, capacious as Miss Buswell’s, on which all the sad young things can sob and be restored; there is a capacity to reward the forlorn ones who come seeking love and approval.”

    The intensity of my faith itself had a fatal feel. My deep need for order hinted at equally deep doubts hidden within. Even before Peter’s death, I’d begun to lose my status as a certified teacher’s pet—something stubborn or suspicious emerged in me and I began to drift farther back in the classroom, farther away from the front row desks where alertness reigned.

    And then, there was the trauma of Peter’s death and its aftermath. When Peter died and I heard of the uncanny coincidence of Charley Hayes’s death, I thought I was staring into the destructive face of God—a face like a dark mirror in which I saw my own face reflected back to me as Cain. Cain’s story could carry me forward, where my own human identity, that of a 12-year-old boy, could not. That grim identification sustained me through my parents’ separation and even through my mother’s sudden death. Both these catastrophes seemed the indirect but clear result of Peter’s death. But my father’s marriage to Inga felt different. Her violent instability seemed a thing of its own, a vengeful entity unrelated to Cain. I felt my identification with Cain beginning to lose its explanatory power.

    The real task of a trauma victim—the task that makes life worth living again—is to reconnect the self to the world.

    Violent trauma shreds the web of meaning. It destroys all the threads of relationship that link the hurt self to the world—to other people and objects, or to nature, or even to the inner world of its own feelings. The real task of a trauma victim—the task that makes life worth living again—is to reconnect the self to the world. To do that, you need to reweave the web, to risk the spinning of new threads until they form a sustaining pattern the self can inhabit.

    I didn’t do this. On the day of Peter’s death, I heard every thread in my web snap in a single instant. I didn’t know how to repair it, or to make new connections to the world. Instead, I grabbed at a new identity. Overnight, I became Cain. Cain lived in a vacuum. He was a desert wanderer and fugitive. Wearing his mask saved me. Once I had clasped that mask over my face, I was afraid to take it off. Why? I believed it gave a shape and structure to my features, that if I ever removed it, the real me under its sinister surface would be revealed not as a face but as a single, huge teardrop. If anyone touched that strange, transparent globe, even myself, no matter how lightly, it would burst.

    The mask of Cain was structure, was protection against the absolute sense of terror and vulnerability I felt—the terror I felt about living in such a dangerous world. I wanted to be Cain, because if I wasn’t Cain I was something even more frightening: a 12-year-old boy who had stood in a field and heard a gun go off and seen a boy fall dead and seen in that same instant the fabric of the world tear from top to bottom like a painted stage set. Behind it, an empty abyss.

    At 12, I had grabbed the mask of Cain. Now, 15 and back in Germantown, I felt the mask slipping away from me and I sensed I’d need to find new meanings if I were to survive. The meanings I needed had to be commensurate with the terrors I’d seen and felt.

    My teachers, almost without exception, meant well. I think they wanted to bring me back inside the social community. But by then, the safe world they espoused—the closed system of multiple choice, vocabulary quiz, essay questions—seemed no more than an elaborate and silly game.

    I felt like that man in the Renaissance engraving who’s on all fours and has poked his head through the shell of the atmosphere, so that it sticks out into the higher realms where he has a clear view of the heavenly spheres and the glory of the fixed stars. Only my head had poked down into the earth and I was gazing now, not at the orderly constellations of a cosmic order, but at the chaos and flames of hell.


    The Maidens of Hades

    My search for new meanings led me to strange places, among them a store called Lawlor’s. Three or four days a week, instead of boarding the school bus at three, I’d walk the half mile up to our town, hang out at Lawlor’s for a few hours, then make my way farther up the street to my father’s office. There I’d sit on a stool reading in what had been my grandmother’s kitchen, waiting until Dad finished up his afternoon office hours around seven in the evening. Somewhere along the line I would have done my homework and we would make our way out toward the old house, stopping for house calls on the way or zooming back for evening hours, depending on the day of the week.

    Lawlor’s was essentially a soda fountain named after its owners, Ray and Maggie. But it was more than that. It harbored, in its shadowy interior, the whole buried life of the community, all that was suspect and intense. Its stale air buzzed and blared with noise from a pinball machine and a jukebox, those two technologies of the Devil. But it was Lawlor’s array of magazines that most alarmed and offended—bright-colored, indisputable proof that a whole world of desire and mystery existed beyond the drear, constricted horizons of our tiny town. Hot Rod, Popular Mechanics, Men’s Adventure, Field and Stream, Custom Car, Motor Trend, True Detective, and then the girlie magazines: Adam, Playboy, Dude, Frolic, Escapade, and half a dozen even more Dionysian others. These were all laid out in neat rows on a large flat shelf in the front window alcove with only their titles showing.

    Above the magazines, two large, pivoting racks hung down from the ceiling like long Chinese lanterns: one was stuffed with comics, the other with cheap paperbacks. Between them, they blocked out all light from the street.

    I felt safe in Lawlor’s. I was too ashamed and self-conscious to move at ease in the daylight world of other people at school. And I could no longer turn to solitude and wandering in the natural world—there had been a time when wandering in the woods had make me feel light and invisible or transparent, but all that had changed with my mother’s death. Now, I felt a heaviness filling my body, a shadowy opacity that roiled there and tied itself in knots.

    It was not Nature but the Netherworld that called me. Lawlor’s darkness was where I felt most at home. It wasn’t Hell in any Christian sense, but it did seem to resemble some pagan Underworld inhabited by the dead. It was a claustrophobic place impacted with the same obscure intensities I felt in myself. It was here I belonged—not with the small group around the pinball or the jukebox, but by myself in a booth, with a Coke and a package of Hostess Twinkies reading comics. Or dawdling at the comic rack as if trying to decide between the Classics Illustrated Jane Eyre and Archie while all the while I could see the titles of the pinup magazines spread out on the flat shelf below and wished only to yank one from its place and leaf through it quickly. Terror and risk and shame! Intensity! This glimpse of a world beyond imagining. This was the mystery that haunted me, women who exposed their breasts and smiled—two magical gestures at the same time, this was the mystery at the heart of it all.

    Have I said Lawlor’s was the Netherworld? Then Ray Lawlor was no less than Hades himself: large, pale, and enervated, like a giant albino toad or a troll so lost in rolls of fat he could hardly move. He dressed always in a shirt and pants as dark as the grease-coated, varnished paneling that lined the walls, dark almost as the faux-marble counter that reflected back the round moon of his face like a midnight pond. Dark in his dark lair, Ray combed his lank black hair straight across the large white dome of his head and looked out at the world with a mournful, harassed expression. Mostly, he sat at a small desk halfway back along the wall, with a stub of pencil in his hand and another tucked behind his ear, ceaselessly mulling over accounts and scribbling on small sheets of paper, as though being Hades meant he must perpetually puzzle over itemized lists of the dead.

    And Maggie, Ray’s wife, was Persephone the Maiden—a tiny redhead with a bouffant, a cigarette, and a foul mouth; even with her foot-high, teased hairdo she was under five feet. With her puckered, pouting face, she looked like Mickey Rooney eating a lemon. How old was she? Ageless. She’d hardly changed at all from the day of her abduction—she’d somehow been preserved, pickled in brine, a doll, as if Barbie never grew, but only aged.

    To me, Maggie and Ray seemed demonic in their oddness. I chose them now not only as sponsors but almost as surrogate parents for a new birth. I entered their lair, their underworld. I died into it as a skinny, alienated adolescent and was reborn as someone precariously balancing over his own inner abyss on three slender threads. The first thread connected me to comic books. I took them back to my booth and read, one after the other: Archie, Superman, Green Lantern, Scrooge McDuck. It didn’t matter how dumb or predictable they were. It was as if I were gripped by a nostalgia for childhood, an idiot innocence I’d never possessed. The second thread attached me to the rack of cheap paperbacks, which were mostly mysteries, but here and there a Signet Classic. And so I began to buy and read those “classics.” Those serious books helped sustain me for the brief time of reading them. They were like little buoys that kept me afloat on the night sea as long as I read them. But when each book was finished, I began to sink again, to drown.

    The third thread connected me to the girlie magazines. How I felt a thrill as I gazed at their smiles and bare breasts, the photos of nymphs in Hades’ morgue—the nameless, dead beauties. These were not the famous ones whom François Villon, the medieval poet and criminal, lamented by name in his litany with the refrain “where are the snows of yesteryear.” These sad lasses staring up out of the gloom of Lawlor’s were anonymous from the start. And yet their smiles seemed to speak of the body’s possible joys, of erotic mysteries that they understood and were eager to share. My despair was so deep I might as well have been dead, but as I gazed at these women I felt almost alive, felt a yearning for intimacy and the meaning that might come from it.


    The Thread of Poetry

    And then, during my senior year in high school, everything changed. The concentration of bright students in our class of 36 was higher than anyone had seen in years, and the school authorities had been watching our progress through the grades with amazement and wonder. Now Mrs. Irving, the school librarian, stepped forward with a proposal the like of which had never been heard in Germantown. She would take six of the best students in our class and set up an honors English group that would meet each day with her in the library while the other kids had their regular English class.

    What I felt when I wrote my first, clumsy poem was that the words were creating a world, not describing a preexisting one.

    I had known Mrs. Irving since seventh grade, when I began going to the upper school library. I knew the library primarily as the place where flirting could happen. It was only a single room with a series of tables. There were no stacks you could linger behind, so the main trick was to arrange to meet a girl there and then sit across from her at the same table. If things were really intense between the two of you, you might try actual physical contact under the table, rubbing your pant leg against her naked shin. Some of the girls wore stockings—and the sensation of that preternatural slipperiness, even through the fabric of my pants, was intoxicating.

    I saw Mrs. Irving as most students saw her—as an impediment to powerful urges. From her desk in midroom against the wall of windows, she kept a sharp eye out for any hanky-panky and brought her voice down with the authority of a ruler slapped flat on a desk. Short, stocky, with a severe bob and an alert face that seemed permanently frowning, she was not generally popular.

    Our newly established honors English class met in a side room of the library that was used for storage. We also had permission to go into this room during the day to talk. This room was the only place in the school where students were allowed to talk together, the only social space, unless you counted the bathrooms and cafeteria. We were keenly aware of the privilege and enjoyed it immensely.

    In the course of that class, the six of us entered worlds we never knew existed before. We traveled the full 40 miles north to Albany to see the Royal Canadian Ballet. No one traveled anywhere on school trips from Germantown, other than athletic teams heading off in a bus over backroads to encounter the representatives of some equally forlorn hamlet on its home court. We drove—inconceivable!—the 120 miles south to New York City to see a matinee of Chekhov’s The Seagull. Mrs. Irving drove us to these places—she conceived of these possibilities and had the heroic initiative to get us there. It’s not that we’d never been to Albany or New York before, though some hadn’t, but that we’d never realized you could go there to specifically seek a cultural experience.

    And more than that: I saw there were people out there—musicians, performers, artists—who wanted urgently to make and communicate meanings, who devoted energy and skill to intensifying the sense of what it was to be alive. Mrs. Irving showed us that the world was immeasurably bigger and richer and more curious than we had previously been able to imagine, and she showed us there were roads that connected Germantown to this astounding world.

    Wonderful as all this was, it wasn’t what mattered most. The world that was to lure me and place me under its spell was an inner world, the world inside me. Not the landscape already crisscrossed with roads that are other people’s novels or plays, but my own interior landscape. I was enthralled by the possibility of making my own paths out of language, each word put down like a luminous footstep, the sentence itself extending behind me in a white trail and, ahead of me, the dark unknown urging me to explore it.

    We kept journals. We did daily writing assignments: descriptive sketches, haiku, book reports, a one-act play, short stories, poems. POEMS! Were there more than a few? I’m not sure, but for me there was a single pivotal experience.

    One afternoon, we all took a walk back behind the school across the playing fields. If we were sent out with an assignment in mind, I don’t remember it. I think we just all strolled about enjoying the day. We did wander off the school grounds into the nearby scrub woods, maybe only a few hundred yards, to a place where we scrambled on top of a large rock. It felt important to step off the school grounds, to transgress that mental boundary that had ruled my whole life as a student.

    When we got back inside, Mrs. Irving asked us all to write something about the walk. I wrote a poem about being alone on a rock by the sea. What I felt while I was writing it was overwhelming. I felt an incredible sense of release. I felt as if the passionate and agonized inner world that I really inhabited was suddenly and precisely given form and objective reality. I had thought writers were supposed to describe the “real” world we all knew, only they used vivid, accurate, interesting language. They would describe the wood grain on the yellow-pine table so precisely you could see it before your eyes, almost palpable. They used language you could test against the world of your own experience. But what I felt when I wrote my first, clumsy poem was that the words were creating a world, not describing a preexisting one. I had tapped into the inner world of my emotions and feelings and was trying to give them form in concrete language. In this first poem, I had been lucky enough to find a physical equivalent for my inner state and the emotional experience was joyous.

    Those first spider threads I’d thrown out at Lawlor’s—those tentative, guilty linkings to the world of books, of childhood nostalgia, of eroticism—were nothing compared to the precious thread of poetry. Once I had hold of it, I knew I might find my way out of the labyrinth of my own consciousness. I was no Theseus. No hero who’d slain the man-eating minotaur raging at the heart of the maze (though I dreamt violent, shadowy dreams where blood was spilled). No Ariadne, loving me passionately, had placed that thread in my hand. I’d simply woken in the dark with the thread of poetry gripped in my fist and—perhaps—the nightmare combat already behind me.

    What the myths don’t mention is that there is no light in the labyrinth. And that it takes years—it took me years—to get out. Was I going to perish there in the dark? I didn’t know for sure. But I did know this: if I once let go of that thread, I would certainly die.

    The thread was poetry. True to poetry’s laws of dream and metamorphosis, it changed in my hand as I held it. Sometimes, it was the thinnest silk filament, so fine it almost cut my palm simply resting there. Other times, it thickened and became slick as if with blood, all warm and wet, and I felt as if it was my own throbbing guts paid out and now to be followed back toward what source or exit? Other times, it became braided and dry as a rope and I wondered if I were meant to twist it around my neck. Sounds would come from its side where small wound-mouths had opened to utter almost human, almost animal cries. And sometimes it seemed a woman’s hair as impossibly long and fragrant as Rapunzel’s.

    This was poetry, not poems. Poems are discrete artifacts of language that prove someone’s imagination and linguistic gifts have triumphed over disorder in a definitive, shaped way. What I held onto then was not poems, but the idea of poetry—which I had to follow for years before I emerged into the light, before I could let go of the thread for a moment and sit down to write my first poem.


    From The Blessing by Gregory Orr. Used with the permission of Milkweed Editions.

    Gregory Orr
    Gregory Orr
    Gregory Orr is the author of more than ten collections of poems, including, most recently, The Last Love Poem I Will Ever Write. He is also the author of several volumes of essays, criticism, and memoir, including Poetry as Survival and A Primer for Poets and Readers of Poetry. Recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for The Blessing, Orr was the founder and director of the MFA Program in Writing at the University of Virginia, and the longtime poetry editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.

    More Story
    Why Were the 1970s So... Weird? Stephen Paul Miller calls the 1970s the uncanny decade—the “undecade.” Things were particularly weird in these years,...
  • Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

    For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.