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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