The Ferryman

Journal of Endings

Why You Pay The Ferryman


There’s a reason why you pay for anything and The Ferryman, after whom this zine is named, is no different. Why is the transport across the River Styx not free? What is the meaning of the silver coin beyond the employ of his muscles? Can we not row ourselves?

Every transaction is a story; The Ferryman is a metaphor, the coin, a token. How wide is that river? What is said during that last transit? Yes, we can walk into death, blind and tragic, in a moment’s moment. Or, if the moment gives way to a breath, we can listen to The Ferryman’s story, which is the story of everyone who came here before you. And tell him your own too, for his ears are big and others will come after who are also afraid.

I am training to be a ferryman, the silver coin is my memento mori. My peers carry them too and we talk about money. They ask, “But isn’t it wrong to be paid for this sacred task?”. “Why is would it be wrong?”, I ask back. And they tell me the story of their conflict, which is the same story that artists tell themselves, and poets, and philosophers and anyone who does similar immeasurably important work. And while they tell me, they rub their coin smooth with worry and rub their bellies with hunger.

For them, for me, money seems loaded with negativity. It weighs heavy; it is a shadow. In my art-making practice, one which includes painting, sculpting, photography, poetry etc, I have expressly tried to distance that work from money making, as though money itself would taint its integrity. And there’s some reason for this.

I was born in 1980 and the world is still, almost 40 years later, spinning the roulette wheel of greed - the acceptability of which appeared to have cemented during my early years. I grew up in a world, by which I mean our Human situation, that both validated and celebrated material imbalance; that would consume itself completely in furious abandon, were it not the central tenet of the contradiction embodied in unfettered growth: that it is a tumour and we are too sick to eat it.

Artists have responsibilities and this situation, of wealth acquisition and greed addiction, has distorted what it means to take on responsibility, by making greed itself our responsibility. What artist have you heard of who is very rich? Are their works considered a more important story than their “wealth”? Unlikely. What happens when greediness becomes more important than anything else? The ferryman doesn’t get paid is what - because even if anyone wanted to pay, he doesn’t want it, it makes him sick. For those of us who wish to make work that has an important function for ourselves and others, we must also take up the task of challenging this distortion.

We know that money is not the same as greed. Money means whatever you want it to mean. So while it might make sense that in this situation, where the norm is that money equals greed and “greed is good”, that artists and thinkers and ferrymen and women would assume to make their work in opposition to this perceived position and therefore deny themselves money. But the distortion is not money, but the position itself.

The distortion is manifested in the fallacy that greed and its product, wealth, are a natural reward for high quality work and that therefore, it must follow that all wealthy people produce high quality work. This is an easy myth to consume especially as the position that high quality work always deserves reward, holds true. It is a mistake to believe that the reward will always involve money; some of my work brings me money enough to buy bread and some of it is a purer expression of love. Life is too short for expectations; money has no value when you’re dead.

If you find that the work you do for money makes you feel tainted, that it is ruining your ability to bring love into the world, then stop. If you see other people being incorrectly rewarded for low-quality work by people who have bought into the greed story, if you are one of those people, then stop, oppose it. Do something else. All of my money making enterprises are tangental to my main practice. When I talk about keeping my integrity, I’m talking about separating my important work from the effects of the distortion.

Yes, artists and ferry people, take up your responsibilities and step into that agency, but know that it is not money itself that is negative, but the acceptance of its negative meaning as desirable and “good” that is unhealthy and worthy of your opposition. And if this is the time to challenge preconceptions about what money is for, I put it to you to make work that serves an important function to yourself and others, like helping them die and helping them understand and enjoy their lives. In this, money and other important rewards will come to you and it won’t feel dirty, but like its fallen into the right hands.

I’ve chosen to train as a ferryman for many reasons. Within the context of money, it is because I want to make a valid contribution to people’s lives whilst doing two things: maintaining my artistic responsibilities and sustaining my sense of human integrity. I see death and dying as the special space of equality; it is where we all go, regardless of who we are or what we think we possess. In this space, which is where we can access the pinnacle of Human wisdom and experience, I am the ear to your mouth, the witness that walks by your side, with complete parity as a fellow being.

And you might ask, “But why should I pay you this silver coin?”, this coin you’ve been rubbing smooth with worry. And I see that you are holding that distorted myth close too. And I open my hand and look you in the eye and say “put it here” and as you do, I hold your hand gently and say,

“These are my reasons:

1. You do not need money any more. You are going to die. I am hungry. I can use this money to buy food. If you are not going to give it to me, give it to someone else who needs it.

2. This money is not the same as life, or death. It doesn't equate to either, even if that’s what you thought it was. You’ve held onto it for a long time, but just because you have put it in my hand, does not mean you are going to die. You were always going to die whether you had the coin or not and yes, if you didn’t have it, I would have taken you across this river anyway.

And to this I add: you’ve spent all your life paying money for things that didn’t help. You’re cynical about it and about me for asking for it. You cannot believe that because I’ve stepped forward in this role that is predominantly about caring for you in a way that no one else can, that I do not deserve as much as the people you helped make rich. Of course, when I confront you on this, you balk and feel guilty and hand over the coin. And yes, I didn’t feel comfortable asking for it, but understand this: I am not a prostitute. You are not paying for my friendship. You are not paying that I will listen to you, or that I will ease your suffering. You do not pay for my wisdom or my kindness. I can give all of these things, they are my art-works. But they cannot be bought.

And you interrupt and ask again “Well what am I paying for then? Because I could simply swim this river and maybe I’d drown which given the state of me would hardly matter. I could row myself even”

“Go ahead”, I say and pass over the oars.

If you like, see it as an easy transaction. You know all about those which is how you came to have this coin in the first place. You’ve stepped on my boat, you’re rowing with my oars, both of which costs me silver to buy and this is not an easy river to navigate. I trained for years to do it and you can very easily, with little or no emotional weight make your passage on my vessel, making use of my skills and body, to meet your end. Justify it that way if you want.

But, as I said, the truth is that I’m running in opposition to transactions in these distorted times. I don’t want to feel like I’m prostituting myself, my integrity, my values in taking money for something that should be given as a gift; without cost. Love does not have a price. What does have a price is my presence; the function of the silver coin is to give me permission to be there. I, a stranger, who may be the last person you share any intimacy with; I, a person you can trust to be the steward of your wisdom; who will try, with as much vulnerability and compassion a person can muster, to support your agency till your final breath; what right do I have to be here, in this moment that is so personal, so private, so intimate?

All around you, we hope, people who love you, people who are looking after you. What right do I have to step among you? Do not worry. The coin is my right to be here, it is my token of consent and you've placed it in my hand. You are released from it. So give me back my oars and let me row this boat with courage to the sacred isle while you tell me your story in truth.

Graeme Walker, May, 2018

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Dear Yusuf

Grief is all the love you wish you could have given;
The penultimate of our rites
before our own unburden.
Little do you know pain, both wondrous and real
'Til suddenly it knocks you out;
Sat sobbing on a stranger's couch
Before there's time to think
Or even feel.


Dear Yusuf,

I am really trying to say something
But there is a wall of grief that makes words seem trivial.
I’m looking at it now and wondering how to get over it.
Perhaps if I look at it with your eyes:
Filled with wonder, filled with mischief and questions
Eyes that saw all that could be seen by a man in a lifetime of seeing
I might say to you
“I know there is no wall”
And you’d say “of course”,
Or nothing at all
And I’d know exactly what you’d meant.

My friend Yusuf, my brother
My dear brother
I can hear you laughing
Your way was gentle but strong
If you knew how I long to have kissed your forehead
And had you know it
You might have laughed and said
“But you are always with me”

And if you knew how I long to have held your hands
As I sometimes did to warm them
You might have told with words or silence
A different story of warmth
One which starts in the heart and radiates outwards
And through life
And beyond it

Imagine:
I am sitting in your cabin
And you are too
We’re eating nuts
Outside there’s a song bird
The grass is starting to turn green
The lichen is coloured fresh with melt water
The birches are white in the strong sun
And I can breathe.

I look over and you’re sleeping
And I say
“Are you sleeping?”
And you say
“No”
And I say
“Do you mind if I join you?”
And you say
“Ab-so-lute-ly. . .”
And you smack your lips and whisper
“Wonderful”

So I close my eyes
And I know you are close
But Oh Mighty Universe!
I do not want to say goodbye!
Tell me the story one last time!
And you say
“I’m - still - here!”

Dearest Ina
Your Yusuf was right
You are a wild force of nature
And I say this now and forever more
Lest there ever be a doubt
That Yusuf said exactly what he saw
That in plain view, you are a river of light
That you are loved
That it was your bold strength
Your will, your kindness
That kept our Yusuf for so long

You brought him the gift of peace
And against the will of his body
It made him, I think;
It finally all made sense:
Before me, wrapped in a colourful wool blanket
Leaning back in a spindly wooden chair
Old slippers, tight red socks
Dozing like a contented cow
Sat a recently completed human being.

“What more could you possibly ask for?” I teased
“Nothing” he said, slowly smiling that big teeth smile.
And I leant back, closed my eyes again, smacked my lips and
whispered...

“Wonderful” .......................“Wonderful”

Your friend,

Graeme Walker

Written January 2017, published May 2018



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Those That The Gods Love Die Young


Strange to go to the funeral of a young girl called July. The same name as my own daughter, also known as Julie. Strange as I felt in some senses that I knew equally little about either of these two young women; even stranger that after July’s commemoration, I felt I knew more about the young woman who was not my daughter than I knew about my own daughter: closer to the dead than to the living.

Feelings slipping through my fingers as I listened to the celebrations of July’s life. A dislocation: wondering how I would experience my own daughter’s funeral. Would I know her any better when she was dead? Would I cast my eye around the gathered sea of faces I barely knew, and listen to words that made little sense? July as a strange psychic double of my Julie; the life of one dead superimposed on the life of my own living flesh.

Then shaken out of my musing on July: words of love for July emanated from the mouths of the family and close ones, July took on a mythic form.

July was the third child of Steve and Jura Mattison who long long ago had been my neighbours, living across from our house. They were neighbours whom I did not know very well. For the short period of time, a couple of years no more, during which they lived opposite us, I had fled our home and was living separately from Martha, in a room rented from friends. For some of that time I was in a relationship and living with my girlfriend. Trying to work out what to do with my life, how to order relationships out of my emotional chaos. When Ben, Martha and my son, was four years old, I had quit my job as a lecturer at Newcastle Polytechnic and was hazarding forwards hopelessly as a would–be film maker. In this time of my absence both Ben and Martha came to know the Mattisons. I understood they were very supportive of Ben, who was having some problems coping with his parent’s separation, though I never abandoned Ben, continued to see him almost every day, and looked after him over week-ends: it was a congenial relationship.

I never knew the Mattisons as neighbours. I never even visited their house. But I was aware of them as kind people. Later from time to time I crossed Steve and Jura’s path, but only rarely - most often when they visited Ben in London, and recently at Ben’s wedding to Susan. They were always warm towards me; the sort of people who enjoyed life. I certainly never met July, though she has the same name as my own daughter albeit with a slightly different spelling, July as opposed to Julie.

So I was suddenly confronted by July in her death. An invitation to her funeral. She was 24 years old when she died. Born sometime after 17 April 1994. Six years old at the Millennium. All I had been told was that she had been killed in Mexico whilst she was on a cycling holiday with her parents - knocked off her bicycle by a truck.

We drove with Ben, Susan and his children to the celebration of her life - people don’t do funerals these days. Winsham House was an extraordinary 16th century house and garden very close to to the inner suburb where the Mattisons family lived. The event had attracted a huge number of people, well over 100. Arriving late we were ushered into the overflow room where the proceedings were relayed from the main hall via a PA.

The first thing that was explained to us was that the accident had been an inexplicable event.

My impression, though the description given was sparse, was that no one had seen the accident (I can’t be sure of this). July had been cycling with her parents and boy friend Carl. The account given was that somehow bizarrely, for no apparent reason, July’s bicycle had veered - started, jolted, flipped or kicked, out into the road at the exact time a truck was overtaking her. The truck hit her and she was hurled through the air - killed instantly; instantly not alive. That was all that was told. Perhaps all that is known. And the aftermath? It seemed to me the aftermath had been a calmness. The calm after the storm. No one was angry, no anger. For today, unusual. Neither Steve, Jura or Carl attacked blamed or held responsible the driver of the truck. With grace it was accepted as that which had happened, that which had come to pass, that which was an accident. A cruel playing out of chance. A random throw of the dice.

Jura told that when they came to July’s body, despite the violence with which she had been hit, she had been perfectly preserved. There was no blood, her body lay lifeless but with no sign of being crumpled broken or smashed. Just dead. There on the ground.

The information provided may have been sparse, perhaps some things omitted. However the feeling I got, and nothing I heard corrected this feeling, was that this loss of July was so great, a loss of such magnitude, a hole punched through the stuff of life so large, that blame was not just irrelevant - rather it was just not possible as a psychic response. Her death was a sacred moment and violation of this moment would have broken her bond to life.

Her loss, from its actual moment is and was an absolute. The tear, a ripping open of the cosmos that no mortal recourse of retribution, justice rage, could repair. But also a moment of possibility, as if there could be nothing ‘after her not living’, that made any further sense, other than her fragile shadow extending; reaching out beyond death. Her no longer being alive, became a mythic reality. She had to be honoured mythically; all who were close to the event intuitively knew that the moment was precious and could only be held by the integrity of their response, the integrity of their actions. A type of dying.

As myth, her death became necessary; in ways that the living had to honour, probe, understand; but not dispute, provoke, challenge. The myth had to be absorbed, assimilated, honoured in the steam of life. She had been claimed by forces other than those of man, and to fight her death would be to drag her back into the realm of the human and destroy her.

And this July, this young woman had had a remarkable life, having an impact, making impressions on those whom she had touched. Life led in an intensity of being and doing.

Almost life as a young goddess. She seems to have had an impeccable path from early childhood to womanhood. From an unconventional girl of 6, through to college, university and travel, she lived very much on her own terms making her own decisions, almost always on her bike. Drawn to Mexico by her Spanish studies and perhaps as the place where her parents met, she taught English, bike maintenance and repair and helped set up a women’s centre. She also met Carl with whom she fell in love. Before settling down with him, she cycled solo around Mexico and across the USA. And then, at that moment of engagement with Carl, Steve and Jura flew out to Mexico to see them and together, all go on a cycling holiday.

The way she lived, July made a vital pact with life. Not in a conscious way, but every act performed with the vitality of the breath. Life as a doing and a being. Life a marriage of intensity.

Those that the gods love die young.

As if the intensity of her bond with living being of such an order of magnitude that it had exploded off the scale to which earthlings are confined.

It was never explained how the accident happened. How July was alive and then in the path of the truck, hurled through the air. There was no blood. Her body perfect. The body of a mortal whom the gods had taken back as one of their own.

At the commemoration I never addressed Carl, too shy, not having ever met July anything I might said would have been formulaic. Carl was a huge bearded man, who would have towered over July physically but psychically probably been in her shadow. I could understand why July had chosen him. As Jung remarks about the nature of female relations, their bond would have been an act of completion.

The possibility that there should be some form of completion with my own daughter Julie, evades me. And the thought is that it will perhaps always elude me. Even as life calls me and her separately, as mortals, we will never know each other except perhaps in death.

Adrin Neatrour, April 2018

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