Last night, trawling through old images, I came across a daft sketch I did way back in 2009. It was the product of a conversation between Running Elk and myself. My memory is not precise about the sequence of events, but at some point during that online exchange, we spoke of Hades’ Ferryman, who carries the souls of the departed across the River Styx. A typo later and the Keeper became the Kipper of the Styx and, a few scribbles after that, the kipper was committed to paper.
I was pondering the liminal Kipper as I was driving today. He is, if nothing else, the guardian of a point of transition, a point of change.
In Greek myth, the river forms the boundary between the Earth, where the living dwell, and the Underworld, which is the realm of the dead. There is always a price to pay for passage across that river and those who do not pay, cannot cross, nor can they return to the lands of men. They do not know where they are going, they know only that the time has come to cross into another phase of existence. They must pay the price and move forward in trust. The only part of that story that worries me is the idea that someone else can pay the Ferryman for your crossing. I don’t think that, in real terms, that is ever possible.
In symbolic terms, death and the Underworld usually refer to a change in the state of being that is not always a physical death. The year I drew that sketch was the year my son was stabbed, leaving him facing change on a monumental scale as he addressed the physical, emotional and intellectual challenges of a sudden and enforced removal of both the popular and his personal concept of normality. The one thing that remained to him and completely within his control, was choice. He could not choose to return to the normality he had known for 25 years. That life was over and there could be no going back. He could not simply choose to be on the other side of the nightmare either. The choice lay in whether or not he chose to make the journey between the two, paying its price or remain locked into the imposition of disability, like a soul wandering in limbo.
He chose to make that journey, trusting that the undefined goal was the right destination to aim for. He did not know what lay ahead, nor how far he could go. But he went anyway. At first he followed what to many seemed to be a false trail, chasing the red herring of complete physical recovery, even whilst he accepted that such was unlikely. The distant, seemingly unattainable goal, was a good one. It demanded a high price, making him push the boundaries of his own expectations and carrying him much further towards that stated goal than anyone could have expected. It may have been a red herring, but the quest for that recovery taught him a great deal about himself and what really mattered to him.
Then came a point when he began to reassess and exercise his inner choices rather than his muscles, with the emphasis he chose being less on how to walk and more on how to live. Again, he had to trust that the journey towards impossible goals would take him to where he needed to be… and now, another world of his own making lies open to him, full of adventures.
My son’s situation was unusual, but the choices we each of us have to face are much the same, from the small, everyday moments where we have to trust in the outcome of our decisions, to the life-changing and momentous situations where all we know is that we cannot stand still and must move forward, even if we cannot see where the current will lead.
There is another story in mythology about the Styx. As a baby, the invincible warrior, Achilles, had been dipped in the waters of the river. The only point the water did not touch was his heel…and that was the only point of vulnerability he had. To bathe in the river of choice at a point of transition does render us invulnerable, for, like water, our choices ebb and flow about us all the time, and choosing to embrace, in trust and full awareness, whatever journey lies at our feet gives us a strength that cannot be easily broken. Even those choices that are red herrings will offer us opportunities to learn and teach us things we may never have known without the false trail.
Our choices are not always right, we do not get it right first time very often, but when we listen to the promptings of the inner heart and being, and choose our way with courage and conviction, the effort of the journey is always worth the price we are asked to pay.