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Ferry Me Across the Water?

I'll ferry you

Paddle boat on river
I'll ferry you

The sound of a children’s choir singing the simple words to the poem 'Ferry Me Across the Water' is haunting. This short poem by the famous Victorian poet Christina Rossetti, is a dialogue between two people:

‘Ferry me across the water,

Do, boatman, do.’

‘If you’ve a penny in your purse

I’ll ferry you.’

‘I have a penny in my purse,

And my eyes are blue;’

So ferry me across the water,

Do, boatman, do.’

‘Step into my ferry-boat,

Be they black or blue,

And for the penny in your purse

I’ll ferry you.’

Some interpret it as a conversation between Charon and the soul of someone recently deceased. In Greek mythology Charon is the boatman who rows the dead across the river Styx to Hades once they’ve paid the toll of a coin. But for the sake of this article, at this time in human history, I want to use this poem to raise the point of the principle of give and take in our society.

These simple lyrics capture the exchange we’re all involved in. While we’re on this side of death we depend on each other. Our survival is assured through teamwork. Seen from outer space we’d appear like ants scurrying around, performing our assigned tasks for the good of the whole nest.

We all have a part to play, a job to perform, a skill that others need to access. And we need to be paid for it. In our society money changes hands. In other societies it’s more a principle of bartering: I’ll give you an egg from my hen house in exchange for an apple from your tree.

And sometimes, in golden moments, we do something for nothing, or someone does something for us, wanting nothing in return.

They’re the moments we remember.

Once I was an impoverished Australian student in America. I worked as a janitor to pay my fees and could only afford two meals a day. Soap and toothpaste were carefully rationed and a haircut out of the question. One day I found an envelope in my mail slot. Inside it was a ten-dollar bill. No note of explanation. No one to thank. Something I really needed, given for free.

In their book Minimalism: Lead a Meaningful Life, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus wrote:

Unless you contribute beyond yourself, your life will feel perpetually self-serving . . . A life without contribution is a life without meaning. The truth is that giving is living. We feel truly alive only when we are growing and contributing.

Living with mindfulness

We have to survive. We have dependents, and accounts to pay. But there’s always something we can give or do for free.

Underneath all the surface structure, we’re one organism, linked by evolutionary roots that bind us to each other.

So today, when we encounter spirits that might be low or eyes that look confused, let’s give something for free. A service. A product. A smile. A ride. A heart-touch.

For one moment let’s change the last stanza. Let the choir sing:

‘Step into my ferry-boat,

Be your eyes black or blue,

Keep the penny in your purse,

I’ll still ferry you.’

With love, Marlane

Original version published at

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