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Mary Swander’s Fifth Chair: Honoring the Chaos Narrative

Posted on Mar 8, 2007 by

Before I go ahead and finish writing about Arthur Frank’s The Wounded Storyteller, and make my way to his third kind of narrative, the quest narrative, I thought I’d put in a passage from an essay by Mary Swander, an essay that manages to convey well, I think, something of the chaos narrative—and how hard it can be sometimes to get someone to listen to, and help hold, the chaos narrative.

In an essay, called “The Fifth Chair,” in the anthology, Healing Circle, that she co-edited, Mary Swander writes about her experience with myelitis, an inflammation of the spinal cord, which resulted for her in an extremely painful, chronic, relapsing, and at times immobilizing illness. At one point she finds herself requiring a wheelchair, dreading sunset because her joints had this tendency to lock up during the night, immobilizing her in her bed. And she writes about how listeners—these nearly always able-bodied listeners—had a tendency, to interrupt her story of illness, her at times perhaps chaotic story of illness, and insert their own meaning.

She writes:

A huge chasm opened between me and the rest of the world. I looked toward others for support and a cacophony of well-meaning voices rose up to fill the empty spaces. You’re making a joke of everything, taking this too lightly, some said. You’re making too much of a deal of this, others said. You’re not asking for enough help. You’re asking too much. . . I know what it’s like, I had gout for five days. You look good. You look like my grandma. I know what it’s like, I had the flu for five days. You must’ve done something really horrible in your past life to bring this on yourself now. You’re such a good person, why’s this happening to you? Are you depressed? I’m glad you can be so cheerful. Why don’t you move to town? Why don’t you go to New York and see your specialist? Why don’t you move to New Mexico?

I love that paragraph. It sounds so—right. I think she gets it right—that’s what people do. Or that’s what they sometimes do. And Swander’s grace here, I think, is in seeing these voices as essentially well-meaning. There’s also a nice sense of comedy—juxtaposing these voices—conveying the cacophony they make.

But what then?

Swander writes in her essay how she turned away from these voices—took a respite.

I stopped answering E-mail and the phone. I stopped playing the radio and the stereo. I let the silence fill my room. I read Thomas Merton, Aldous Huxley, Hildegard of Bingen. I read Meister Eckhart, Thomas a Kempis, and the Rule of St. Benedict. I read Walt Whitman, the Book of Job, Lao-Tzu, and Mary Baker Eddy.

Whereas before, that cacophony of voices was filling up the empty space, she writes of how—instead—something new——–I let the silence fill my room.

And that list of writers she chose to read. I’m not familiar with all of them, but of the ones I am familiar with, they’re writers who seem to know something about silence—and about empty space.

Maybe that’s something that the chaos narrative needs—sometimes.

Empty space.

Having written that, it occurs to me to ask a next question: what books would you choose to carry along if you knew that you were going to be entering chaos?

My choices—something by Pema Chodron, I think, and Sogyal Rinpoches’s Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. And maybe one of Michael Connelly’s books.