Jonathan Morgan is a student of religion and psychology pursuing a PhD at Boston University. His interests range broadly but always return to a deep fascination with what curious and amazing animals we are. He is currently working with a team exploring the neural underpinnings of religious thought, but he keeps pet projects on the relationship between religion, culture, and mental health as a good excuse to travel and learn with wonderful people. We are thrilled to have his piece “Styx” in Anamesa Fall 2013:
Waking up after dying feels like coming to in a warm bath. The only thing that pulled me awake was the gentle tap on my foot. Charon had pulled up to the dock and was leaning against his wooden paddle. I don’t know how long he had been watching me, but apparently he saw me slipping away.
That’s how he described it—slipping away. When I asked him later on, he told me most people slip away. He was surprised to find me still there and was eager to wake me up just to chat. That’s what he said at least, but I’m pretty sure it was more than just wanting company. He seemed sad to not take more people down the river. It’s not that he gets lonely. He just believes it’s important and wants to share it with others.
When I lay on the dock over the river, I wasn’t thinking about a journey. I was happy to fade out of existence. But the tap on my foot reminded me of my wife—of the way she’d gently wake me from afternoon naps. At first I thought it was her. But when I saw his face, and the dock, and the river, when I saw the grasses moving in the current along the bank, it all came back to me: the flash of the accident, the suspended time when my car began to crumple under the truck, the warm fog. I knew I was dead, and I knew I’d never see her or my daughter again. The sadness made me retch on the dock. It also kept me awake.
It wasn’t a rational decision. I just knew it’d be a betrayal to slip away. Going on the river wasn’t going to bring her back . . . it wouldn’t bring me back. I had died, no choice about that. But I wanted some purpose to it, some sort of resolution that would make it all seem okay instead of absurd. Slipping away, just fading out into the warmth—that felt like giving up to the absurdity. It felt like a denial of existence and thereby a denial of all the love and good we had shared. I didn’t know what going on the river would change, but it was the only option beyond just fading away.
All that wasn’t going through my head when Charon tapped me on the foot. I just knew I couldn’t do it. So when he offered me a ride, I dragged myself up from the wooden planks.
He asked for my fare and I found the two pennies I always get as change for my morning coffee. The barista reminded me of my daughter, so I’d taken to leaving a dollar in the tip jar and pocketing the pennies. It seems like a strange thing to have made the transition from living to dead, but he was pretty adamant about me paying the fare.
It was only after we cast off the dock that he introduced himself as Charon and the river as Styx. I must’ve looked at him like a crazy person cause he just laughed and assured me that it wouldn’t be like I’d imagined. “I guess not,” I responded. “You’re pretty far from the old man I’d pictured.”
“Yea, I get that a lot. You’ll notice we aren’t underground, either.”
The first memory came shortly after that.
We were drifting down the river. I watched the fog play in the trees along the banks. Charon and I talked. More accurately, he talked and I tried to understand why I was still awake, why death hadn’t just taken me into nothing.
“Where are we going?”
“That depends on you, my friend.”
“I don’t even know where we are or what we’re doing. I’m not sure I’m in a position to tell us where to go.”
“That’s okay, we don’t have to know just yet . . . We’ll figure it out as we go.”
I wasn’t comforted by this answer. I wanted something solid to hold onto, or at least an idea about when it might begin to make sense.
I asked more questions, trying to understand where we were. Charon would gently hold his wooden paddle and pull us along the river.
Gesturing to the forest along each bank he told me how that’s the border between the land of the living and the river. He told me stories about people who traveled through the woods. He told me about religions and prophets and how some would get lost in the forest and how others always knew the way. He told me about fights he could hear through the trees—people arguing over directions in the distance. He told me many things.
And I sat and watched his hands grip the wooden paddle. I watched the small whirlpools it made in the water and the gentle lap of waves against the side of the boat.
None of these stories were helping me understand where we were going. I still didn’t understand what death was about. So I just sat and watched. And then came the memory.
It was a memory I’d forgotten long ago, a memory of my first love. It was the loss of that love.
I was back in that small town in the foothills of the Andes. I could feel the blue plywood walls of the phone booth in the small bodega on the edge of town. I saw the dust and heard the ferocious wind outside the store. I heard the crackling reception as she told me it was over. You could barely see outside for all the dust.
When I came to in the boat I was hunched over on my seat, chest against my thighs. My legs were covered in the red Chilean dust. Reaching forward, Charon handed me a metal bucket full of water.
The practiced ease with which he handled these situations forged my confidence in him. It held me steady in a land of the bizarre. Without this the sheer weight of the unknown may have forced me to give up, to slip away. After I washed the dust from my legs, I looked at him shakily. My whole body must have shown the fear I felt.
“You may come to think that this journey is about letting go. You’d be right. But, it’s also about encountering something new. This was true while you lived and continues to be true now. Every moment you’re letting go of one thing and encountering the next. During life you carry some things with you, but the pattern doesn’t change: separation, encounter, separation, encounter . . .” I later came to see that this was Charon’s breath: the rhythm of his wooden paddle, the river’s ebb and flow. Separation—the paddle rose from the water. Encounter—he gently broke the surface again. Separation—the tree’s reflection scattered into a hundred pieces. Encounter—they all came together again.
“This movement creates a great tension. When most people choose to fade away, they’re releasing this tension, easing the separation and the encounter into nothing. I don’t blame them; it takes great courage to stay.
“Separation is loss, it’s splitting, it’s difference. Separation divides what once was united. Encounter is like a stranger approaching unexpectedly. It may seem like a confrontation, but then you recognize that the stranger is your lover. And you have one breath before separation again.
“You can’t change this pattern, but you can release with gratitude or release with fear. You reserve the choice of encountering your lover or a stranger.
“When you chose to join me on the boat, you were saying yes to this tension. Just trust that initial yes and remember—it’ll be okay.”
I sat, expecting more memories to come. Maybe this is what dying is about, I thought, you take account of your life.
Instead, we just drifted. I wanted change or some sense of progress. I wanted more memories to come, so I could get on with it. Instead the river swayed reeds along the bank, back and forth. Here and there tree branches dipped down into the water like the live oaks near my grandmother’s home in Georgia. Charon pulled his wooden paddle through the gray water without urgency. My sense of time began to vanish.
Slowly the fog rolled in. At first it clung to the trees. But it became so dense over the river, I could hardly tell the difference between the two. An intense light illuminated the fog from above. Swirling in eddies, the fog would shift, change. The light remained steady. Charon slowly guided the wooden boat. These movements were my only sense of time.
It was like insomnia. You breathe and know that time is passing. Your lungs rise and fall. But you’re not going anywhere, you’re not doing anything, all you want is to sleep, but all you can do is lie there, awake, breathing, rolling over occasionally, waiting for sleep or the morning. It could be calm. Instead it’s maddening.
Eventually the waiting became too much. It was almost like the river was waiting on me. Later on Charon laughed at the speculation, but he didn’t correct me. He just laughed and asked if it really mattered.
I snapped at him. It wasn’t a curious, “Oh, where are we going?” It had an edge that grunted the real question: “Why aren’t we going anywhere?” Charon responded with a story.
“I rowed a man down the river once. He shared this story with me and now I pass it along to you. Maybe it will help:
“‘When I was a child, my father would take me exploring in the hills behind our home. Not far from our home, amidst the cliffs, there was a small split that opened into a large cave.
“‘He’d bring a lamp and we’d explore different parts of the cave, but there was one ledge we always came to before turning around. My father told me this ledge looked over a bottomless pit. We’d throw stones into the pit, but no sound ever came back. I was fascinated by this pit, by what it meant to be bottomless. I would lay awake as a boy and picture this void just beneath the ground. I would picture shepherds moving in the hills above, unaware that they hovered so precariously above an abyss.
“‘One day, I was playing in the hills by myself. I had no intention of finding the cave, but there I was, at the split in the cliff. Confident as only a young boy can be, I entered the cave without a lantern. We had been there so often that I had a feel for the walls and contours. I felt my way along, reassured as my hands anticipated and then found each rock. Finally I came to the edge.
“‘Each time I came with my father we left shortly after throwing our rocks into the pit. I thought maybe this was a trick—perhaps we just didn’t stay long enough to hear them hit the bottom. This time I would stay. I tossed the rock, and I waited.
“‘Mind you, I was terrified of this pit. It had an allure, some draw that would pull my father and me back. We threw rocks piously, like offerings to the void. I sat perfectly still and envisioned my rock falling. I took small quiet breaths lest I mistake the rush of air from my lungs as a reply from the pit. I sat there like an ascetic, perfectly still, waiting for anything from the void. Nothing came.
“‘I pictured the rock falling. I pictured it so clearly that I became the rock. I became the sacrifice to the void. I felt myself falling.
“‘Then my mind turned. The down of falling became the up of flying. In the void there’s no difference. If there’s no bottom to hit, then there’s no falling and no flying. If I were the rock, then it was my choice to fall or fly. The only points of reference would be my attention and the movement.
“‘I don’t know about religious experiences, but at that moment I was flooded with joy. My very soul began to laugh. My stillness and silence had reflected the austerity of the void. But now, as I laughed, the cave reflected me. The abyss laughed back.
“‘That sounds like a metaphor, but the abyss truly began to laugh. It might have been an echo, but I have not heard an echo persist like this ever before or since. I stopped laughing and it continued, with the same gentle mirth. I knew the void had responded to our offerings. When I left the cave, I still heard the laughter. On that day, the abyss had become a womb, no longer an unfamiliar void, but a nurturing darkness from which I had emerged.
“‘When I returned home, I didn’t tell anyone. But I think my father knew. He smiled at me with more mischief than usual, and we never returned to the cave. There was no mention of the cave. From then on, we spent our time together exploring town. He taught me his business; I helped him with the books.
“‘When I was learning division, I asked him what happens if you divide something by zero. He smiled that same mischievous smile and said: “Some say you can’t do that. Others say it makes anything infinite.”
“‘I took over his shop when he became sick. My mother had been gone for a while, so I took care of him in those final years. I ran his shop during the day, and I would come back at night to feed and bathe him. I could tell he was sitting on the edge of the pit again. The week before he died he had a large grin on his face, wavering between fear and bliss, sadness and gratitude.
“‘On the night before he died, I was sitting with him, reading as he fell asleep. Before sleeping, he reached into a small box that he kept close to his mat and pulled something out. Gesturing for me to come over, he grasped my hands and pressed a cool, ridged stone into my palm. Looking at me, with eyes full of clarity, he laughed. His laughter echoed my own from years and years before. It was as if the laughter had been waiting in the abyss all this time and only then came back to the surface. I laughed with him, sitting on the edge of the void. We laughed like little boys. He fell asleep and died.’”
After the story, Charon grew quiet, slowly tracing his paddle through the water. The fog had receded so we could see the golden reeds along the riverbank. The trees seemed especially green. Eventually he continued.
“The man who shared that story was one of the few I’ve ever let ride without paying the fare. When I pulled up he was sitting up on the dock, legs dangling over the edge. With one toe tracing circles in the water, he greeted me with a familiar smile. We chatted, which as you know is a rare pleasure down here, and eventually he asked for a ride.
“I asked where he was going and he said, ‘as far as you will take me.’ So I asked for his fare, but he shook his head, saying he had none. Instead he pulled out the stone from his pocket. At the time I didn’t know what this was, but he held it up and promised to tell me a story if I gave him a ride.
“I don’t typically give rides for rocks, but the man’s boldness was intriguing. So I let him in the boat, and he gave me that story. As he finished he held up the stone, the one his father gave him, and just laughed and laughed and laughed.
“His river was very short. By the time he finished his story we were already there. He turned graciously, said thank you, and dove into the sea.”
From that point on, the river changed. Or I had changed. My urgency to get somewhere, my need for change and progress was gone. And in its absence the journey began to unfold. I let go of progress and embraced the river, only to find the letting go was progress. It just moved in a wholly new direction.
As a young man I thought that progress meant more, more, more. I wasn’t interested in buying things or that kind of increase. It was about fulfilling my potential— an increase of skill. Progress meant excellence. But life never really moved that way, and that’s not how the river carried me here.
But the river wasn’t decrease either. It wasn’t the stripping away of everything to discover perfect nothingness.
That’s how I always felt when I read the ascetics. I’d feel guilty for all that I held on to. I’d feel guilty for my love for my wife and my daughter, I felt guilty for enjoying a good concert or delicious scotch. The intrinsic goodness of these things undermines the ascetic’s credibility.
The river didn’t move by increase or decrease. These are the movements of the falling rock. The increase and decrease, the ebb and flow, the in-breath and the release, Charon’s paddle moving with and against the water, these things are given. Separation. Encounter.
Luther said we can’t progress to God because God is too far away and we are too lowly. The distance is too great. But maybe there are other reasons.
Perhaps God isn’t too far away. Perhaps God is too close. How do you reach your breath? If you tried you might become so out of breath as to feel even further away. The move of spiritual progress is an oblique shift, a radical acceptance. The falling stone had only two points of reference—the movement and the self. Spiritual growth is a shift in the self, which completely changes the relationship to all surrounding movement.
The monotony of the river remained, but I began to transform. Memories began to wash over me like waves. Tossed and turned, I was swept back to soft pieces of my childhood and the hard angles of being an adult. They had the blurry edges of dreams but the full weight of emotion.
These were things I had mostly forgotten: mason jars of sweet tea sweating on the metal table of our back porch; being pushed in the tire swing by my mother; the green rug in my friend’s basement as we felt ourselves becoming adults; the smell of my lover’s skin during lazy mornings.
I wept. And the memories continued: being too busy to ask my friend why he was upset; the look of pain in my daughter’s face when depression pulled me away; the asphalt against my shoulder when I fell off my bike; the white wicker chair at my brother’s lake house where we sat all night laughing; burying our dog in the woods behind our home; a distance in my lover’s eye; my father’s gray hair falling to the floor when I gave him haircuts.
I didn’t relive my life in a flash. Instead, I felt every contour of my soul and the flood of events that carved and smoothed those curves. I felt the entire web of relationships in which my life was held and a gradual release from that web.
I lay in the bottom of the boat trembling. Charon gently bathed my body in the warm river water. He dipped the metal bucket over the side and poured the water over me. I lay there and shook as new memories surged up. The water blended with my memories, washing them away. New ones would take their place and these too would wash past.
Charon poured bucket after bucket of water over me. My chest rising and falling with breath, the water in the bottom of the boat gently sloshing.
I can’t piece together the specific memories or even their order. But sitting here now, with the bamboo wall pressing against my back, I can feel the way each experience impressed itself upon me. They’re gone, but each made me a little different, made everything a little different.
At the end of it I felt a peace that one might call grace. I had seen myself in fullness and depth and accepted the ambiguity. Just like all those memories, all my love has passed, and I will also pass. By knowing the contours of my soul, I feel at ease to face what may come, even if it is the void.
After the water ran clear and my breath steadied, I sat up in the boat. Charon calmly sat back on his seat and looked at me, sympathetic. The river was no longer a river. The forested riverbanks had given way to an expansive marsh. Salt filled the air. Fog still hung overhead. Grasses rose from the water, and lilypads created islands of green.
The current gave way to the ebb and flow of the tides. Charon looked over the water. He picked up his paddle and slowly stood. Reorienting the boat toward some end, he began paddling again.
It was like the clarity one feels after resolving a lover’s quarrel. Like confessing a secret and realizing it’s okay. But this secret had been lodged in the center of my being; the quarrel was in myself.
“Does that happen to everyone?” I asked. He laughed and told me another story.
“The Greeks called this river Pain. I think it’s a little unfair to project their fear of dying onto this river, but I’ve gotten over it. Release isn’t always painful. They said there were five different rivers down here, but I’ve explored every bit of these waters and only found one river. It just goes to show that this single river is different for everyone. So, no—what happened to you doesn’t happen to everyone.
“But in another sense, yes. The arc of vulnerability is the same. But people travel that arc in many ways. The river waters give you what you need, but it’s rarely what you expect.
“At first I didn’t really understand this myself. I’d simply steer the boat downstream. But I met a woman who helped me see the river in a new way. She understood these waters more than anyone I’ve met.
“The Greeks called her Thetis. Long ago they called her the Creator, but culture slowly demoted her into a sea nymph. From the mother of all gods she became a daughter of male gods. A little ridiculous how that only seems to happen to female gods, right? But no matter how culture regarded her, she kept her creative power. She just began to work more behind the scenes.
“In most stories she only shows up as Achilles’ mom. But if you read closely, you’ll also realize she started the Trojan War through her marriage to Peleus. It’s well known that she dipped Achilles into these waters by his heel. That dip gave him his strength. He had the power of war, which was the power of his time. And through this power he continued the war she began. People become so focused on the glamour of Achilles that they lose sight of this larger arc, they forget she’s the real orchestrator. But she seems to be okay with that.
“I imagine you know how the story of Achilles ends, but Thetis is immortal, she doesn’t just go away. She may fall from memory, but she still walks between our lands. And in the course of time she had many more children. Living by the river, it became her habit to dip these children in the waters. Some she even let play, swim in the river. That’s how I met her. Our friendship grew along those banks.
“The river gave these other children a different power than Achilles. He became invulnerable, but these later children became completely vulnerable. It’s a different sort of power. It’s like grass, or water. You can’t cut water. You can’t break a supple reed. Stones seem so strong, but place a stone in the river and give it some time.
“These other children of Thetis have disrupted your world even more than Achilles. That’s what she taught me about the river. The vitality it holds changes depending on the time and the need. It may not always be calm and peaceful, but it’s always good.
“You asked if everyone goes through what you went through. If you’re asking whether everyone who dies must let go of their life, then yes. But this isn’t much different than living, is it? Life isn’t that different from this river, everything changes, everything passes. The difference is that while living, there’s so much experience that voids are filled and new love emerges. But the basic process remains: separation, encounter, separation, encounter. And the basic question remains: How we will regard each turn of this cycle?
“Vulnerability, transparency, these characteristics allow the tides to be met with love, to be enjoyed and delighted in. In Achilles’ time a hard heart was necessary to weather the harsh crash of the waves, but the tide wears heavily on a burdened heart. Thetis’ new children brought in a time where war is overthrown . . . at least it could be.”
I already knew this answer. Charon had been telling me this since we started the journey. It was something I knew before that too.
I had studied philosophy as a young man because I was anxious and thought it could help. Somewhere beneath all the esoteric jargon and convoluted arguments, I could tell some philosophers felt a similar uncertainty about existence. And some of them had faced that uncertainty and crossed a boundary that allowed them to convey a wonder about existence. I reveled in that wonder. I wanted it.
One day, my mentor pulled me aside after class and offered me a cup of tea. As we sat in his office, I told him I was planning on majoring in philosophy. He smiled and began to muse:
“The basic question of philosophy, of any metaphysics, is the question of existence. But the challenge of metaphysics is that this question is experiential. Some people just feel it in their bones; they can’t shake the wonder and the sense of utter absurdity that there is anything instead of nothing. This question is felt, so the answer also must be felt.
“And the answer is buried within the question. The very fact that there is something, that we exist to ask the question, is itself the answer. We may be stranded on a thin wire of being, bordered on all sides by nothingness, but we still are. We still exist for this brief moment. We can’t explain the reason for our existence. But we can delight in that existence. We can manifest our lives as fully as possible, we can carry that torch briefly across the deep and dark sky.”
More intently, he looked at me again. “Do not study philosophy because you expect it to answer these questions for you. Study philosophy because you love it. That love is the answer. That love is the torch.”
His tone changed and he excused his rant the way people do when they’re embarrassed by showing their passion. I also laughed and asked if that meant I didn’t have to write a final paper. But I left that office changed. Existence shimmered with a sense of wonder I hadn’t seen before. I knew this was the boundary between anxiety and wonder. Both are acutely aware of the non-being in existence, but one fears this presence and the other delights in spite of it.
That was when I decided to become a journalist. I no longer needed an answer to why I existed. I just wanted to dig as deeply into that existence as I could. I wanted to hear the stories of others as they made sense of traversing the thin thread of being. Of course I didn’t often think about it like that. Deadlines and assignments, new passions and old arguments pushed me through the welter of life. But every so often I sent my friend a postcard to let him know where I was.
Our journey through the salt marsh was largely silent. Birds flitted through the air and alighted weightlessly on the thick grasses. Charon and I would look at each other and laugh as if the grasses were telling jokes as they brushed past our boat. He let me steer and I marveled at how effortlessly we moved across the tides. Charon rested in the front of the boat as though we were in a gondola, cruising the salt marsh of the dead.
Eventually the grasses became sparser and the tides strengthened. Without any urgency or need, we knew it was time to switch back. Charon plied the boat with deliberate strokes and took us directly into the oncoming tide. Soon all grasses and birds vanished, leaving just the fog and the water, both rising and falling. With no point of reference, we might not have been moving at all, but Charon continued to row and steer—separation, encounter—with a relentless strength.
Eventually it emerged on the horizon. Faintly at first, but with increasing detail. It was a large dock built of bamboo. It rose and fell with the unfolding swells. Rising from the dock, there were dangling pathways leading to various huts that sat on stilts above the waves. They’re simple structures: bamboo floors and walls, thatched grass roofs. The fog had grown heavier and heavier as we approached. Now it reached around and through the structures, every so often pulling them into its blanket of gray before revealing them again. This wasn’t a cold fog that penetrates your bones with a chill. It was warm, comforting, and persistently lit by some unchanging sun.
Charon deftly pulled us next to the dock and secured the boat alongside. Leading me up one of the walkways, he brought me into an oblong hut. The bamboo floor sagged ever so slightly beneath our bare feet. After the boat, this space felt spacious, with wide windows letting in the fog and light. A reed mat was laid out on the floor and a red cushion sat beside it. Otherwise the room was bare.
Charon has left me here since arriving. I asked if this was heaven and he laughed. “No, this is a bamboo hut—but it’s also my friend’s home. This isn’t where we always end up, but I’m grateful that your river led here. Rest for a while and I’ll go see if she’s around.” I asked him if sleeping would risk slipping away. We’d been together since those earliest moments on the dock, and I worried he was part of the reason I hadn’t faded out.
He assured me, without laughing, that I had passed the risk of that. “No, your rest will no longer be the rest of slipping away. Now your rest will be simply that—rest.”
I laid on the mat and smiled as my chest rose and fell, as the sea beneath me rose and fell against the bamboo stilts, as fog played in and out of the windows, as memories came and went. They passed through me; I felt all the confusion and complexity, the utter chaos that swarmed within each moment of my life. I felt the complete love that held the chaos together.
Other moments the fog came in more fully and filled the room. Then there was no distinction, no content to my thoughts, just the steady pulse of existing: my breath rising and falling, separation, encounter, rising, falling, separation, encounter. The fog would lift, and the memories would pour back in.
I wept. And laughed. And wept. The gratitude poured out of me, falling between the reeds and the bamboo and slowly entering the sea.
There was no sense of time. It no longer mattered. It may have been eternity. It may have been mere moments.
Charon came back and I rose. “She’s here and glad to meet you.” We walked back to the dock and he gestured towards another pathway, but didn’t make the move to lead me there. “You’ll find her down there, but I can’t go with you. I have to return to the river.”
I knew this would happen, I knew he wouldn’t stay with me forever, but I wept again. We embraced and he was weeping and laughing. “It was good to travel with you, my friend.”
He got back in the boat and left. The fog turned his figure into a shadow and then took him away completely. Separation, separation, separation. I sat there for a
while in gratitude. But eventually I arose, the gratitude changed into love, and, overflowing, it pushed me towards encounter, encounter, encounter.
I know what’s down this pathway.
I will leave the dock and walk down the path into the fog. The waves will gradually wash over the bamboo planks as I get closer and closer—crest, trough, crest, trough . . . The planks will sink and rise beneath my weight. The fog will wrap around me and all that will be left is the sea and the fog and the path.
At the end of this walkway, Thetis will be waiting on the dock. The dock will be poised between the crest and trough of the waves. Water washing through the bamboo planks, the waves will wash gently around our calves as she embraces me. The waves will sink through the dock leaving us dry as we sit. The water will rise and fall and rise and fall.
I don’t have any questions for her, I know that she’s there to help me transition. In the hut I came to know the depths of gratitude and separation. Breathing in and out and in and out. Sitting with her I will come to know the depths of encounter. My chest and the waves and the fog and the dock are all rising and falling and rising and falling.
My thin wire of being is coming to an end. Each separation and encounter before now has been a shadow of this most basic encounter and separation.
I will sit on the edge of being and nothingness where encounter and separation become the same.
I will laugh like the man in the cave. The waves will blend with the fog and engulf me.
I will become nothing.