Who is the third who walks ALWAYS beside you?
The White Road, a tale of terror and suspense by South African Sarah Lotz is inspired in great part by this line in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Eliot in turn was inspired by the account of Ernest Shackleton who during his traumatic journey through an barren Iceland experienced an ever present sense that some unseen, incorporeal being was present as a comforter and protector. This statement by Shackleton prompted numerous others to come forward with similar experiences in a phenomenon that has come to be known as ‘Third Man’ syndrome.
Lotz takes ‘Third Man Syndrome’ and turns it on its head; what if the spirit with you wasn’t benevolent? What if in fact it meant to destroy you? This is the question that comes to haunt main narrator Simon Newman a self-described Time Waster Extraordinaire and co-founder of a website Journey to the Dark Side that specializes in listicles and footage of ugly, scary things. To that end Simon, went on a tour of the infamous Cwm Pots caves that had been closed off for decades in hopes of finding corpses to film, only to have things go horribly awry thanks to flash flooding and a mentally unstable guide. In the wake of that incident, Simon decides to go to another notorious graveyard; Mount Everest in hopes of finding more dramatic footage. While there though, he has to struggle with low oxygen, his own limitations, as a climber, and buried secrets. Twelve years earlier Juliet Michaels, perished on Mt. Everest leaving behind a journal detailing her belief she was being shadowed by something.
Lotz addresses how real life sites similar to Journey to the Dark Side exploit real life tragedies for entertainment and the slimy moral places Simon’s led to. Lotz is writing in the distinct voices of two very different main characters and pulls them both off beautifully with an incredible attention for detail that makes you feel like you’re breathing the harsh, thin, air of Everest right with the people there. Her characters are well rendered and layered with some unexpected but welcome bits of humor thrown into the mix. Much like the classic short story The Horla by Guy de Maupassant the reader is never sure if what’s being described is delusions by hypoxia and PTSD or something more sinister and supernatural. You’re kept guessing right through until the final pages and the conclusion with linger with you for days and nights to come.
The White Road
April is not “the cruelest month.” There, I said it. Although saying that amounts to something between ingratitude and intellectual patricide for one who used the American-born master as the subject for papers that helped win both undergraduate and graduate degrees. It just needs saying, as I review the events of the month just ended.
Dare I say, I think T.S. Eliot’s indictment of April in the opening of The Wasteland is that it forces us to take a fresh look at all the things we expected to have predictable endings, but which didn’t. It sounds a bit like an indictment of surprises.
Cruel? I don’t think so. Only for those who bet on nothing changing; on no one from your past re-emerging as a richly progressed version of him or herself; on a flock that has lost a shepherd, not just pulling itself together, but setting off on brave new paths, together in their diversity.
So it was on April 8 when I joined in the blessing of the Daniel Berrigan Center for Art & Activism at Benincasa. As one of scores of guests of the Benincasa Community on Manhattan’s West 70th Street, I heard voices from around our country and the globe turn the Tower of Babel story into a lie. People of wildly different talents shared common memories and dreams for the future. And there emerged the promise that the friends of the recently deceased 94-year old veteran of the peace movement had come together to demonstrate the truth of his one-word answer to the question of how peace can be brought to life. “Community.”
Coming early in the month, Easter provided the perfect “looking glass” through which to view the much more ordinary but no less lovely experiences that force us to redefine both success and failure. To delight in the unexpected happenings that give day to day life its rich texture. And as with the Easter story, it can often be triggered by the speaking of a name.
It can be something as unpredictable as discovering that the new neighbor recently arrived at the end of your corridor is the dynamic globetrotting woman of social conscience who, having left her fingerprint on at least four continents, had now chosen to return to the home base of an extended (very) family spreading out from our urban village. I knew her legend as a member of a shared community, but had never met her until I heard her speak my name on Easter Sunday. Welcome to your next, best chapter Ellen Mohr.
It can be the happy rediscovery that you really can take up the dialogue with an admired friend and colleague and begin that conversation after years of silence with the words, “Well, as we were saying.” So it was with the brilliant hospitality industry marketer Brenda Fields whose latest accomplishments popped up on Linked In. I had worked with her in Chicago during the Ireland promotion at Marshall Field. You will read of her when I finalize a book with the working title, Local Heroes.
It can be standing up at the call of my name in the waiting room to note that the woman across from me did the very same. And when my name was spoken a second time, she explained that her surname was Counihan. I remarked that her name could probably be considered a South African version grown from the same linguistic root. And then, when I paused, backtracked and asked, “Might you be a friend of Olive Berry Schwarzschild”, she instantly responded, “Annette?” An encounter of two people from an aggregate geography that reaches from Manhattan, Illinois to South Africa; from New York to Tennessee and Florida, and who have never met except in the stories of our mutual friend come from Ireland first to New York City and then to suburban DC. Now, as we are fond of saying in our urban village, “You can’t make this stuff up!”
You may have read last week a story that grew out of my April challenge of “purging” my apartment of the mounds of papers that threaten to accumulate in all of our lives until we catch on to the glories of Going Green. Or, as our publisher Debra Toppeta warns, the perils of letting sentimentality get between you and the shredder. For me the moment came when I removed the glorious poster from the box it has occupied since coming here after the closing of the bricks and mortar offices of asc international, ltd. The eloquence of the art and its challenging juxtaposition of Change and Chance gave me the gift of reopening the outpouring of friendship and inspiration that I rank as the greatest of many masterpieces that continue to come into my life from designers Peter and Janet Good.
The day on which this is being written, began with an e-mail exchange that started when I received a response from a no longer “little boy” to a message that was labeled an open letter to God to thank Him/(Her?) for entrusting this remarkable man to our family. Remembering an incident from long ago, he assured me that he would not send me “on an impossible stuffed animal hunt because I have Whinny.” That in turn reminded me of the video his Father sent me when, with infinite tenderness he commandeered a backhoe and provided a glorious burial for a horse that lived on their property. As its grieving pasture mate looked on, his siblings were led by their Buddhist friend and caregiver in placing flowers and coins in the beloved horse’s grave.
Two certainties are growing in me, bolstered by a number of April’s happenings: one, that there are no coincidences in life; and two, that whatever the demographers say, there are probably less than 500 people in the world. If you reduce that number by one each time one of these so-called coincidences occur, you will rapidly reach “scratch.”
I hope you will agree that this anything but cruel April proves my point. Join me in the wish, that should the dead earth surprise us by breeding lilacs, bring them on!
Read T.S. Eliot’s poem The Wasteland.