Debt and indebtedness – what we might owe or hold our ancestors to account for…

I have been thinking a lot about indebtedness – the immeasurable step-sister of debt.

Many people, I am finding, if they have a clean credit record, think debt is something that does not apply to them, is to be feared and is all about finance. To some extent , on a socio-politcal level this is an accurate perception. However, broadening things out  (as I like to do),  although we may not always be personally in debt – in the external sense of the word, i.e. through finance or favour – there is always someone to whom we are indebted too.

And this is the week when it is said, depending on your cultural / belief system – whether all Souls Day, Day of the Dead or Samhain that we are closest to those who have come before us, to that darkly poetic veil between the worlds… And there is the opportunity to reflect on and, where appropriate, symbolically honour, lay to rest or break bonds with, the actions of our ancestors and how they have or still do affect us, in the present. At least that is what I am proposing and have been looking at myself.

Debt or indebtedness?  I intend for The Book of Debts to cover both  of these and to look at the distinctions and connections between them. And the story I will tell here is personal and covers both concepts in one tale.

I am in debt to a number of external agencies – mortgage, credit card and loan companies etc. The expected payback is measured in a certain way and the circumstances of that payback shift over time, depending on both my capacity to pay, how I manage my finances and the revealing of information about how some of those agreements were sold or signed for (PPI, bank loans sold as student loans when in fact they were high interest bank loans after all, fraudulent information supplied on guarantor loans by a family member, hidden interest rates poorly explained in esoteric language). Yet, beyond the emotional stress that was caused when I went from defaulting to a debt management plan, there is no sense of a personal relationship that I need to repair or an emotional residue hanging over them. They are figures on a page, to be managed. (Not true of outstanding debts to friends but more of that in another post).

I am indebted to those who helped to save my family and I from going under in the chaotic wave of financial devastation, as we lost our home, credit rating and temporary self-esteem, not to mention the rocks which almost lured my marriage apon them in the fallout.

To some I am both in debt and indebted. I am indebted to those who did not judge us harshly for having screwed up, who were there to offer emotional support, straight talking or a compassionate ear. As well as offers of practical support to make sure we were not on the streets or unable to feed our children.

In thinking of these people – mainly close friends – some of them responded to my gratitude with an example of previous counter-indebtedness to me, which balanced the scales for them, for others there was/ is still a sense of something to pay for –whether in money or attention. But there is clearly a deeper bond with these people than there was before. They witnessed my often-uncomfortable vulnerability (I was so often before the one to treat, host or give generous gifts, in true Iranian tradition.). And now, as they see life and work starting to flow for me once again, they know what caused the suffering apon which it is drawn. They know me more.

Parvin Azadeh Namini

My mother, Parvin, before she came to the UK, pre 1965

I am also constantly drawn back to those I may be indebted to who came before us/me. My Iranian mother, Parvin Azadeh Rieu, who passed away in 2004 and was an example of extraordinary generosity and compassion, to whom I acknowledge the qualities of creativity and self-belief, social conscience and a love of poetry and interactions with the public…. this is an emotional debt owed via her biology and commitment.

And yet at times I see how this generosity of hers turned into over-protectiveness and financial co-dependency, bordering on control (confused with a passionate motherly love). Especially  true in the case of my long lost brother, who was the catalyst for our family’s descent into a tidal wave of uncontrollable debt. (Strange I wrote that, she died in a tidal wave, more threateningly renamed a Tsunami at the time in 2004)  This backstory  of my fall from financial grace is told earlier on in this blog, reposted from my R+D blog .

It is a story about learning to draw a line with those you love and managing one’s ability to help another (whether financially or emotionally) on one hand and managing the risk to ones own financial, emotional and mental well being involved in doing this on the other.

Looking back, beyond my mother, to my ancestral line on the Iranian side, to North West Iran,  I had always been aware of the story she told me of our charismatic, gambling, great, great grandfather who took the proceeds of the sale of my family’s land back to the state around 1900 (?) – in a beautiful metal box with a secret lock  – which she gave me and I still possess.  It had been filled with gold coins, I was told, and in the possession of my great, great grandmother, who was by her account the matriarch and in control of the land and the finances. One night, her husband took this chest with him over the border to Russia (where I imagine gambling was not illegal?) and sat up all night playing cards. He returned home the next morning with the chest completely empty, and my great, great grandmother banished him to Russia, never to be seen again.

Last weekend, in a rare reunion with my Iranian aunt, cousins, sister and nieces in London, I asked my aunt about this story, which I had become attached to as ‘true’ and part of a personal archaeology which explained why I seemed to always fall on hard times when I entered into financial relationships with men close to me, whether related or not…

She said that it there had been a chest of coins (silver, not gold) and it was indeed the chest in my possession.  But that it was the dowry payment from my grandmother’s family to my grandfather’s family – so one generation closer. And that her father – my grandfather – was the gambler. He did indeed gamble the whole lot away, along with several properties in the village, and they – a family of 11 children (two wives) were then forced to rent a house, and later moved to the south of Iran, living out a much more modest lifestyle than could have unfolded, due to his habit. I know this grandfather was loved by my mother and her siblings, he was a handsome, charming, free-thinking man  (a resistor of religious and social dogma, according to my mum) and he was the one, when the census was introduced and the family had to give itself a surname – to introduce ‘Azadeh (the free one) into the mix.

My Iranian grandfather, left, my mother next to him.

My Iranian grandfather, left, my mother next to him.

So where was the Russian connection? My aunt then told me that her fathers father HAD indeed vanished to Russia, but this was because his wife, her grandmother – was so dictatorial he could not bear to stay. It sounded like he also had a gambling streak but absconded before being held to account. So somewhere we do have Russian relatives…

This still ‘explains’ to me, in terms of the patterns following a family timeline, some of the behaviours of both my brother and other male members on that side of our family. Something in that story gives me the ‘proof ‘ that what has happened did so in a wider context, stretching back over time. But it is still a story. But I want to put it in The Book of Debts, to symbolically have it stop with me. A phrase from a  book I am reading jumped out at me the other day: ‘The past is over, it can touch me not’. Yet sometimes the consequences of my actions have felt like they are part of a much longer backstory that I can ever know, and, I have fallen into fetishing them and giving them more power than may be helpful to determine . I want to play with the idea of writing them off..

There is a conversation around forgiveness here, which I have had with a few contributors in Birmingham at the Library where I have been with The Book of Debts recently. It is the difference between forgiveness and accountability. I can forgive my brother, and myself, and those errant male ancestors of mine, but I can still hold him/ myself to account for what needs to be cleared up, written off, paid up. This will be an on-going theme, and for now I invite you to think back and draw out any ancestral stories – whether personal or national – to add to The Book of Debt Volume III.

(Ps We will now be burning The Book of Debts,  Volume III, Birmingham at the end of the winter, early March, details tbc. by mid November.)

Happy All Souls, Day of the Dead, Samhain – whichever or none you may be observing in whatever fashion..

 

Talking with campaigners (2) : Pakistan

Second part of interview with John Nightingale, Chair of Jubilee Debt Campaign (www.jubleedebt.org.uk) and my first in-person contributor to The Book of Debts at the library last week. 

John added $58bn – Pakistan’s current foreign debt burden – to The Book of Debts – and led up to this by talking about it generally:

J:  We have a meeting next week: Life and Debt in Pakistan.. Pakistan is a very poor place, it has got lots of debt that the government has run up over the years – and the rich countries have colluded in this, when Pakistan had all those floods they needed more money to rebuild things – the British gave very generously ha ha decided they would lend them some money -now if you’re going to rebuild things you’re not going to make any more money than you did before this shouldn’t be a matter of loans but of an outright gift! . So they do have a terrible burden which needs to be sorted out, but with it needs to be a better tax system because you have the situation there where many rich people and firms there are not paying the proper tax they should so something needs to be done about that.

And what we also need is a bit of reform so that we don’t get silly debts being built up in the future. Whether its Wonga or debts or the British Government sometimes underwrites at businesses do in other parts of the world, which is no bad thing but sometimes they do so with countries that are really doing quite bad things in terms of arms or dud contracts or things that are frankly corrupt. There needs to be a stop to that sort of thing.

And often this idea of a helping hand is sold in PR terms as a gift but in fact it’s a high cost debt, a commodity that they can’t really afford to pay for, in the form of a loan.

Have you read ‘The Shock Doctrine’  by  Naomi Klein?  – she proposes this has been a neo- liberal/capitalist plot to try and have economic and political power over the third world by giving them loans  / unhelpful development projects that get them into a state of dependency where they are naturally more malleable to what you want them to do..

A: What about Americas debt to China and the 16.7 debt ceiling, what if that gets called in there would be a tidal shift around that and we might find ourselves understanding what we have been doing for centuries, here in the west..

J:  Yes and it’s very interesting that people complain about China being very active and buying land in Africa etc. but its no better or worse than what European countries have been doing for a couple of hundred years so why are we complaining about them doing it…?

A : I was in China recently installing an artwork there and you sense the scales tipping the other way and now you see Osbourne signing deals etc. I’m interested to see how we deal with that because we are not equipped – historically, really – we are not used to that idea of chasing for business in the same, overt way are we?’

More on China later – I still have to write up my trip there, and some of the reflections  I have to make are relevant to this project so I will link in here once it’s published

BTB Trailer still

The Book of Debts at Birmingham Library: Talking with Campaigners (1)

A lot happened when I was with my Book of Debts at The Library of Birmingham last week. You can get the picture quite quickly from the contributions that are now in the book by clicking here , on ‘explore debts’. And please, do contribute as The Book is open to anyone to add to, at any time, whether in Birmingham or not.  But first things first.

My very first encounter in the foyer area of the lovely Library, (so welcoming! Thankyou. esp to Cathy wade in the Carousel) was with John Nightingale, Birmingham –based campaigner for the Jubilee Debt Campaign (JDC) – a natural ally to this project from the perspective of financial and social debt.

Interestingly, last Thursday  Oct 17th was officially UN Poverty Eradication Day  – and I timed the start of my encounters to this as it seemed apt – but this event went totally unnoticed or marked in the media – or anywhere –  poverty fatigue??, National Day marking fatigue?  or , as one journalist friend told me she had heard her editor remark , ‘poverty is so…boring’.  Let’s cover the prices of luxury branded art commodities at Frieze art fair instead then… Enough said. Or rather, too much to say.

But back to JDC, whose work I have been aware of over the years and is a very practical way that anyone can get involved with that affects poverty in a very real way, by campaigning for the cancellation of unjust debts globally.  So, John began by explaining their aims in very accessible way, covering a lot of the moral questions which I have looked at over the last 18 months, which might be useful to hear here. He also put £58bn of unjust unpaid debt into The Book (!)– the foreign debt burden of Pakistan, more on that in the next post.

Since this project – and The Book of Debts itself – operates as a framework for a multiplicity of perspectives, whether spiritual, activist, utterly personal or totally pragmatic, I try to deliver what people bring to me in a simple way. The final recital is influenced by what i am given and how much impact those givings have on my own growing understanding of this often confusing phenomenom of debt as a human construct.  So here is the transcript of what was said and brings the international perspective to this particular Volume, it was a long conversation so it will come in two parts:

 

BTB Trailer still

Still from BTB trailer, produced by The Swarm

‘ Jubilee Debt Campaign calls for the unjust and unpayable debts of poor countries and also a changing of the system so that sort of thing does not happen again. Not all debts are unjust – there can be some debts that are for good purposes, I mean you can lend some people some money, they buy some tools, they do some work, they repay you – that’s’ a good thing that could not have been done before.

With debt there is always a risk – it shouldn’t be just one party that bears the risk…. Risk should really be shared, that’s only fair and just. But anyway some debts can become unpayable, something can go wrong, there can be an accident like that and once you get 10% or more of your income going into debts, there is no way you can get round it. It is in everybody’s interest that something is done. As you will know from David Graeber’s book, this goes back to time immemorial. Primitive societies didn’t necessarily need to have money, all they needed was some way of reckoning obligations to one another, that at certain times becomes intolerable and either you get a new ruler or a revolution or something like that – and when you do, the first place they go to is the place where the record of the debt is kept and they destroy it.

So, in one sense there is a right sort of debt – because we are part of the human community you see and we are not isolated individuals, and we owe something to one another. That’s good – you know families don’t necessarily like one another but you do help one another, owe something to one another- we ought to be more like a family. But on the other hand you have got to keep up the relationships and when things become intolerable, things have to change.

A good thing did happen around the time of the millennium there was, with Jesus’s birthday, a question around how do you celebrate it ? etc., and one of the things that Jesus historically at this time  said  (which went back to the ancient Hebrew scriptures) was  in terms of the cancellation of the debts and the idea of the ‘ jubilee’  every 7th year and returning to a level playing field again. So that was necessary because in his time there was the most terrible debt, I mean people were paying debts to the Romans several times over and to the temple several times over and they had to sell their land because they didn’t have enough money etc. they were becoming debt slaves. Jesus speaks about this  (I’m a Christian myself but not all those involved in JDR campaign are Christians). Jesus speaks far more about money and debts than he ever speaks about sex or anything like that because it’s an absolutely crucial theme. And when you look at the followers of Jesus, when they got going on their own one of the things they were very concerned about was to help one another, and not to get into debts, into trouble.

So Jubilee Debt Campaign brings together those of all beliefs, faiths or none – and the great event which was here in Birmingham in 1998 was the human chain, when the leaders of G8 were surrounded by 60,000 people holding hands and as a result of that there were promises that something would be done about the unjust and unpayable debts. And since that time about $130bn of debt has been cancelled .It was done very carefully, so that the money that was released did not go into someone’s back pocket but would go towards health or education and we have many examples eg Tanzania and Zambia of the mortality rates of mothers and children going down as a result and the rates of people being educated going up. But if course things don’t stand still and you have to come up to a crisis and that in many ways, just as it’s worse for the poorer countries that it hits hard something has to be done again’…

Tbc 

Libraries, dreams and civil rights ….

I have spent a second day with The Book of Debts at the wonderful The Library of Birmingham. Many thanks to them for taking me in at such short notice..! This post is really an aside on this location in which I find myself, falling in love with a building and wanting to move in…. I am sure this is a feeling shared by many who have passed through its doors since it recently opened them..

I have been warmly welcomed and engaged with by staff and visitors alike, have risen up to the 7th floor on escalators with my jaw open, and risen even higher in the great  glass elevator to the Shakepeare Memorial Room, peered over the outside balconies with glee and wonder at the city all around, listened as someone sat quietly playing a jazz tune on the open piano in the music section, seen children and adults alike dreaming on beanbags, seen the first ever photograph on slide at Carousel with the very welcoming Cathy Wade, engaged with the Discovery programme of inter ventions subtley and beautifully sited through the space, and run my fingers along the spines of actual books, holding my nose to a few of the older looking ones to remember the smell of LIBRARY again. Remembering for some reason the day they sold off their vinyl collection at the Tunbridge Wells Library where I grew up to ‘upgrade to CD’ and I carried off bags full of amazing jazz and spoken word. That library, my main place of refuge, a place where no-one argued or hassled you and you could sit reading uninterrupted for hours…and daydreaming..and in my case, sketching..

LibofBhamAlinah

Birmingham Library is a Library of the future, of the type which writer Neil  Gaiman refers to in his recent lecture : Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming ..

I have been thinking about civil rights in relation to debt, poverty etc, and as literacy is so linked to  socio-economic well-being and this project to a kind of collective re-imagining,  I think it’s relevant to quote Gaimans ‘charter’ section on our civic responsibilities re reading, writing and imagining, i.e what we owe to our children as future readers, thinkers and shapers of the world.

‘ I think we have responsibilities to the future. Responsibilities and obligations to children, to the adults those children will become, to the world they will find themselves inhabiting. All of us – as readers, as writers, as citizens – have obligations. I thought I’d try and spell out some of these obligations here.

I believe we have an obligation to read for pleasure, in private and in public places. If we read for pleasure, if others see us reading, then we learn, we exercise our imaginations. We show others that reading is a good thing.

We have an obligation to support libraries. To use libraries, to encourage others to use libraries, to protest the closure of libraries. If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom. You are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future.

We have an obligation to read aloud to our children. To read them things they enjoy. To read to them stories we are already tired of. To do the voices, to make it interesting, and not to stop reading to them just because they learn to read to themselves. Use reading-aloud time as bonding time, as time when no phones are being checked, when the distractions of the world are put aside.

We have an obligation to use the language. To push ourselves: to find out what words mean and how to deploy them, to communicate clearly, to say what we mean. We must not to attempt to freeze language, or to pretend it is a dead thing that must be revered, but we should use it as a living thing, that flows, that borrows words, that allows meanings and pronunciations to change with time.

We writers – and especially writers for children, but all writers – have an obligation to our readers: it’s the obligation to write true things, especially important when we are creating tales of people who do not exist in places that never were – to understand that truth is not in what happens but what it tells us about who we are. Fiction is the lie that tells the truth, after all. We have an obligation not to bore our readers, but to make them need to turn the pages. One of the best cures for a reluctant reader, after all, is a tale they cannot stop themselves from reading. And while we must tell our readers true things and give them weapons and give them armour and pass on whatever wisdom we have gleaned from our short stay on this green world, we have an obligation not to preach, not to lecture, not to force predigested morals and messages down our readers’ throats like adult birds feeding their babies pre-masticated maggots; and we have an obligation never, ever, under any circumstances, to write anything for children that we would not want to read ourselves.

We have an obligation to understand and to acknowledge that as writers for children we are doing important work, because if we mess it up and write dull books that turn children away from reading and from books, we ‘ve lessened our own future and diminished theirs.

We all – adults and children, writers and readers – have an obligation to daydream. We have an obligation to imagine. It is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything, that we are in a world in which society is huge and the individual is less than nothing: an atom in a wall, a grain of rice in a rice field. But the truth is, individuals change their world over and over, individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different.

Look around you: I mean it. Pause, for a moment and look around the room that you are in. I’m going to point out something so obvious that it tends to be forgotten. It’s this: that everything you can see, including the walls, was, at some point, imagined. Someone decided it was easier to sit on a chair than on the ground and imagined the chair. Someone had to imagine a way that I could talk to you in London right now without us all getting rained on. This room and the things in it, and all the other things in this building, this city, exist because, over and over and over, people imagined things.

We have an obligation to make things beautiful. Not to leave the world uglier than we found it, not to empty the oceans, not to leave our problems for the next generation. We have an obligation to clean up after ourselves, and not leave our children with a world we’ve shortsightedly messed up, shortchanged, and crippled.

We have an obligation to tell our politicians what we want, to vote against politicians of whatever party who do not understand the value of reading in creating worthwhile citizens, who do not want to act to preserve and protect knowledge and encourage literacy. This is not a matter of party politics. This is a matter of common humanity.’

So well said.

Letter to the people of Birmingham – Invitation to contribute to The Book of Debts Volume III

Photo: Sogand Bahram

Photo: Sogand Bahram

 October 2013

Dear Strangers,

We may meet, or we may never meet. I am an artist, mother, southerner, human being and… debtor. I’m also the keeper and scribe of The Book of Debts  which, one Volume per location, will be filled, read from and burned as it travels the UK, starting in the Library of Birmingham this Thursday 17th (UN Poverty Eradication  Day ), Friday 18th and Saturday 19th October, meeting its fiery end on Saturday 2 November  at Minerva Works, Digbeth hosted by Fierce Festival. (see details below).

We can meet to talk in person.  Or you can contribute to The Book of Debts online and I will only know you through your words.

With the Book in hand, pen ready and ears open, I offer you a conversation about debt you might not expect to have. We are all debtors on some level. Here is a moment to listen to the experiences of others, be heard, and speak about  or describe the lived experiences, issues and hopes of those who inhabit the same city as you – and further afield too. The Book of Debts is open to anyone who finds it and wishes to contribute, whether debtor or creditor – past or present. The debt can be owed by you or to you. Or it may be owed  to or by a third party – individual or institution.  It may be financial, social, emotional, ecological or spiritual – or all of the above. All contributions are anonymous and you can add as many debts as you like, one by one.

So, what do you think about when you think about debt ?  Money, time, love, attention?

Shame, denial, regret, anger, injustice ?  Love, community, compassion, forgiveness? Who owes what to whom? Do all debts have to be repaid?  How responsible are we for what we, our family, community or nation owe?  So far I have collected, recited and burned around £3.6 billion of unpaid financial debt, spanning unpaid corporate taxes, student loans, credit card bills and  defaulted mortgages. But debt is a broader than finance. And there is no debt without story.  Some of the immeasurable debts I have collected are tales of unrequited love, political repression, ecological damage, family feuds and missed opportunities. Sometimes they are a single word, name or figure of money. I have put many of my own debts into the book and if you want to know why and how I am doing this project, you can read my blog  and find out.

Burning the Books II. Photo: Sogand Bahram.

Burning the Books II. Photo: Sogand Bahram.

I’ll be on the streets, in communities (some slots still open to invitation so do contact us if interested) and in the Library of Birmingham, beginning this Thursday October 17th  3-6pm in the ground-level foyer somewhere. I’ll also be there Friday 18th October (3-6pm) and Saturday 19th October (11-1pm) and Thursday 24th October (3-6pm). Come sit with me for 15 minutes – you can listen to existing debts and their stories from The Book of Debts  (including my own) and – if you wish – you can tell me your own – or call another to account – and I will scribe it to the book.

Or you can browse existing contributions and add your own to reach The Book in absolute anonymity via www.burningthebooks.co.uk/contribute now or at anytime before Saturday 2 November, 3pm. The Book of Debts will then be recited in public and burned in a symbolic act of ritual destruction, at 5.30 – 7.00pm Minerva Works, Digbeth.

Please share with anyone who might find this interesting. All events are free.

Yours truly

Alinah Azadeh

 

#burningthebooks to follow me around the city or follow on facebook.

Supported by Arts Council England, Fierce Festival and the Library of Birmingham

Touring producer, community and press contact: Elizabeth Lynch

 

Burning the Books, in the words of one of the first contributors –  is ‘a free public service’ for anyone who wishes to use it. It is an imaginary form of debt relief which all are welcome to be part of. It aims to challenge the social stigma around debt and also consider the alternative economies that communities are turning to as the mainstream economy is drying up for so many of us.

How this project created itself (6)..

6. (# 8 [7 January 2013])

What about the cultural and socio-economic context we are living in, can’t I just have blamed that in my recounting of my debtor story here?. Or, as many thinkers/writers including Margaret Atwood and Charles Eisenstein have recently explored, blame the primal human programming from our hunter-gatherer days that has a huge proportion of us ‘grab it now’ and believe we can grow sufficiently to pay it later, inflated by credit opportunities and an entire global economy built on this very premise?

Yes it has a large part to play for sure and there will be more referencing of that wider socio-political story here, though Strike Debt, an offshoot of the Occupy movement, has available all the information we need to know about the mechanics of the debt industry and their shady operating tactics, their own Debt resistance manual, kit and an extraordinary social initiative launched in November 2012 – Rolling Jubilee – through which debt, a cheap commodity these days, is being collectively bought up and written off by an open collective of contributors in an act of simultaneous critique and liberation.

But the external story we have all been living inside is not the whole story.

Eisenstein brings this up in Sacred Economics. He says, like the Sufi’s I love and many have said before in different ways:’on a personal level, the deepest possible revolution we can enact is a revolution in our sense of self, in our identity”

An obvious statement for some, but for others (including me at times) a confronting one when there is so much out there to blame and to bring to account at this time. I see it as a mirror between the two worlds, so without, as within, and all that. Inseparable.

And nowhere to hide.

..My own experience, shared here, which was the first entry into the Liverpool Volume of the Book, is what initiated the content for this concept, which stemmed from a broader interest in the darker side of gift. Initially I did not intend to disclose my own related experience in detail, for a project I saw as ‘stripped down’ and focused on the ‘other’. But as well as those others involved in the current stage of the project – who I will talk about later once we are up to date – many I have talked to or gave me contributions on that day in Liverpool – asked me what my personal interest and motivation was in the project. So just as I have done in the past – where I have laid the initiating narrative from my own life out as a bridge for other to cross the projects I have been involved in – so here it has been detailed and all vulnerabilities laid open. And it has been very hard to write. Sometimes it felt like loss of credit rating was equivalent to loss of credibility rating. And then I realized that is simply the pathology of debt at work with its chief companions of guilt, shame and pride playing their part. And this is also the language of the work, of the Book itself.

What people who read this blog make of this approach and their relationship to the Book if they choose to contribute to it when it opens its pages again, is really up to them. I will be its servant, there to collect, discuss, recite and lovingly destroy.

 

How this project created itself (5)…

5 (From  # 7 [6 January 2013] )

I now see, with time, that the catalyst that the extraordinary situation with my brother, featuring as the catalyst in the unfolding of our own story of the ‘loss’ of our previous way of living – was, from a broader perspective – a huge gift.

Why? Firstly, the cold shower of being on a debt management plan (a temporary fix until/unless we grow considerably, financially) – halted a really stressful, nasty series of aggressive harassments by creditors on a daily basis over a 6 month period. Which was a huge relief.  It also started the process of cold turkey off from our perceived need to consume and support unsustainably and gave us the information we needed to know what rights we had to resist the amount of debt being asked of us above and beyond surviving as a family. It was and is a kind of fast which has borne inner fruit and created strengths in other areas, just after almost breaking me in two. Almost broken, mainly because my relationship with my closest sibling (and almost at one point, my marriage) had been consumed alongside my credit-rating, house, pride and so-called security. I saw the spectre of my mother and felt shame every time I thought about it for a very long time afterwards.

Blank Gallery, Portslade May  2013

Blank Gallery, Portslade May 2013

Secondly, having realized too late I had effectively acted out my own late mothers behavior in entering into a financially co-dependent relationship with my brother, I had to face up to how little I had learned up to the point of signing those agreements for him about setting boundaries and needing to rescue men. Agreements which far exceeded  what we owed and therefore constituted an extreme form of emotionally-loaded interest, to someone who was living in our house and whose idiosyncratic spending habits and mental well-being I was as concerned about as my own at that point.  It’s not appropriate to comment on why I think he did what he did in any great detail for obvious reasons. Learning how to say no had always made me feel uncomfortable, now I notice from this how I am more able to draw boundaries with greater fluency and without the guilt -not only with money but in other areas-  because I ask and know what the limits are more clearly.

Lastly, it has necessitated the learning on how to receive from others with lessening discomfort. Without a number of close friends in our community  stepping in in the aftermath of losing our house and a year of insufficiently paid work to cover our living costs, (but too much to receive sufficient working tax credit to create a cushion), two young kids and mounting debts, we could very well have ended up on the streets. But we live in a community brimming full of what Eisenstein and others have called social capital – and overcoming my ego’s need to be in control and to be the one who provides, hosts, treats and says yes to whatever I or others fancy -in order to embrace a more collective source of life support-  was perhaps the deepest lesson to learn and the most uncomfortable. Things are now coming into balance.

So, although I’m still deeply sad at the impact the story I have told has had on the relationship with my closest living sibling and I no longer blame him, (though I do hold him accountable for his part in it), it has led to a complete re-evaluation of values and attitudes around both money and relationships that has been essential to my emotional survival as a human being! And once again, had the effect of changing the direction of the work I make.

How this project created itself (4)…

‘When ritual is embedded in a story that people believe, they act accordingly, playing out the roles the story assigns to them and responding to the reality the story establishes’ (Sacred Economics, Charles Eisenstein)

 (4.  From # 6 [5 January 2013])

Searching for material on the connection between sin and debt and drawn once more to using public ritual in my work, with a link to the idea of money as an unreality, and the concept around the story around debt as a dark fairytale ready for the flames of an imaginary hell – I found the perfect book. Margaret Atwood’s “Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of wealth’, where she masterfully explores ‘debt as a human construct – thus as an imaginative construct- and how this construct mirrors and magnifies both voracious human desire and ferocious human fear’.

Debt as sin, debt as a figment of our collective imagination, debt as inherent in human patterning, debt as plot, the shadow side and a host of references to the myths through human history that draw apon these threads. Perfect.

burning-debts

A number of other books have been published recently including the brilliant Charles Eisensteins  ‘Sacred Economics: Money, Gift and Society in the Age of Transition’, which I am just reading now, and before that ‘Debt: The First 5,000 Years’  by David Graeber (of Occupy Wall Street, talking here online). From these there is much to underpin the themes of the project and that at the time in 2011 were being activated in my own life.

And now for the Debtors Anonymous section of the blog, where, by request, and not so anonymously, I get my own story out of the way so we can move onto broader issues but also to show you the emotional footnotes of a page of the Book of Debts that was burned in Liverpool.

Back then, I had gotten into the position of using of credit as an income supplement, not only to support our own unsustainable lifestyle as a growing family in an unaffordable house, but to support others close to me, in particular my own brother. At a crucial moment following our mother’s death he had loaned us money to cover a deferred ‘education’ loan that actually turned out to be a high -interest bank loan+PPI agreement (before Lloyds were called to account and Debt Charities were up and running) and they started to collect – at the rate of £1000 a month. This almost as much money as we were earning at the time but, not knowing our rights we thought we had not choice but to pay it. We were also still living beyond our means -on credit – when my brother arrived for the collection of the debt owed a year earlier than agreed, having rapidly spent up all his inheritance and in need of a place to stay and financial support while he ‘sold’ his flat (which was later repossessed for lack of payments, taking with it a large amount of equity which had constituted his payback  and future egg-nest). He then pushed the limits of what we were able to pay back so far that we literally went broke. And I allowed this to happen.

Six months later he moved to France without keeping his agreement to take over the loans I had signed on, (though there were were a few initial attempts..) leaving me/us in legal possession of a number of his debts  to the tune of tens of thousands of pounds, including a rather expensive car that he was driving, seriously in arrears on payments and in my name. To cut it short, the compound interest on his debts + our own led to a disastrous spiral of events which ended up stripping us of most of what we owned materially, destroying any access to credit and creating huge amounts of anxiety, shame (doh, I did WHAT?!) intermittent depression and a sense of betrayal, vulnerability and disbelief.

But there is a thin silver lining to every dark threatening cloud.

How this project created itself (3)…

‘Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors…’ Lords Prayer (early version)

 (From # 5 [5 January 2013])

I still had one Jesus Army flyer left. Light-headed by now from the appropriateness of what I was encountering to my own personal story, I moved down through the backstreets and into another small square, where there was a mini salsa festival going on. I danced for a while among the crowd – aware of dancing as one of my favourite free gifts ever. Then I popped into a pub with my flyer in hand, where a crowd of relatively tanked up and meaty football fans intently watching a match swung round to look at me and my Jesus Army flyer. That morning I had seen a crowd of Liverpool fans on the station platform at Lewes where I live, and I asked them who had won the match. ‘Game was on Wednesday, love, they’re probably still down there robbing!” They asked me if I was a time traveller and did I want a drink? If not, I had better get back in my tardis, then. Ok. I left, sheepishly deciding against trying to gift the flyer to them as a goal seemed on the verge of being scored..

I found a café inside a mall, at this point really wishing the whole thing could be over. I was tired. In the table in front of me was a plastic stand-up menu holder. The size of the holder was the exact size of the Jesus Army flyer, so I slipped it in on top of the menu, leaving it was as a ‘gift’ for someone who wouldn’t know it. All done, I thought.

Heading back towards the Bluecoat, I came across a very angry-sounding fundamentalist Christian on a megaphone challenging anyone who would listen to repent.. Behind him, a young Philippino guy stood with the PA and ‘Repent Now!’ poster, incongruently beaming at me as if welcoming me to Disneyland.

Two young guys started a conversation with the megaphone guy, challenging him on just about everything he had to say. I felt compelled to join in. They were arguing him about the concept of sin, with which I personally have a huge problem. In the face of some of the other encounters I had had, especially outside Northern Rock and the Jesus Army earlier, it seemed relevant, if futile to engage in the current discussion as to why he thought that a child who had been raped and hadn’t repented their sins would go to hell but those who had raped her and had repented wouldn’t. But kind of in keeping with what was coming up. We stood there for about 20 mins  arguing vociferously but playfully with him, then I swung round, and there stood a stray member of the Jesus Army, beaming at me. She told me she had noticed me earlier in the procession and wanted to talk to me about her community, which was a lot more forgiving than this man’s version of her faith. I had all kinds of thoughts spinning in my head around debt, sin, repentance, guilt and shame… and  I poured some of these out, conceding that her version of the Christian faith seemed bit softer than the megaphone mans, as I really found the idea of being born with sin and burned in hell if I didn’t repent  just beyond anything I could accept these days. She smiled sweetly at me, telling me that yes the JA are into love and joy and community, but that the Bible DOES say that the wages of sin ARE death, and would I like to come to one of their gatherings? I declined with a smile and said I had a 5pm deadline, hastily accepting her card and heading into the Bluecoat. I still have the card to this day, so not all gifts were circulated!. I think I was at that point saturated but had been given more than enough clues as to the direction of the work:

Gift, debt, sin, guilt, absolution, payback, here were the headlines of the work I knew I had to now develop over the next month.

How this project created itself (2)….

 

It is said that our children and grandchildren will be paying out these bailout and stimulus debts, but they could also simply be declared into non-existence. They are only as real as the story we agree on that contains them. Our grandchildren will pay them only if the story, the system of meanings, that defines those debts still exists. ‘  (Sacred economics: Money, Gift and Society in the Age of Transition’, Charles Eisenstein)

(From # 4 [4 January 2013]

I watched as the Jesus Army paper plane caught a breeze and landed…right in front of the offices of Northern Rock, just behind me. This took my breath away. We were in the process of negociating a ‘short sale’ of our family home with them (where your property is in negative equity and the sale will mean you owe the mortgage company money afterwards, in our case £30k). It had been a hellish year financially, the pinnacle of which had been realizing that we had to either short sell or walk away from our house – our absolute (but illusory) symbol of security – and had ended up in a repossession proceeding that summer. We were later able to short sale it rather than have it go to auction, limiting the total debt owed, but the dealings with NR to enable this to happen had been katfka-esque to say the least.

However, I had at that point started to feel relief at the prospect of NOT being the joint owner of an asset mainly owned by a bank which itself was in meltdown and moved through the terror and shame of losing something that had been bought partly with money gifted to me through my mother’s inheritance.The turning point had been sitting in the county court and having what amounted to a philosophical conversation with the judge and the NR lawyer -who were really quite helpful and just human beings in fact – about why 85% of people don’t turn up for repossession hearings when in most cases they could be helped to find solutions to staying in their homes. Shame was brought up as the main reason. I could understand this and something in me began to get both detached and interested in the subject. The notion of failure attached to not being able to afford the roof over our heads and this being public was one we had been painfully immersed in. Somehow we had moved through this and realized that we weren’t our house, or our broken credit rating, and that the most liberating thing would be to get rid of both. And that it was all a kind of absurd game, a story, the plotline of which we had to start to rewrite.

So, emboldened by my previous encounters, I was ready to go and have some kind of playful discussion in the Northern Rock offices right there when I noticed they were closed as it was the weekend. Shame. So I wrote them  a letter, thanking them for the opportunity they had given me to liberate myself from my deep fear of debt, authority and institutional norms around finance and to move onto new horizons. For good measure, I enclosed 20p, as a symbolic gift in recognition of the financial contract with them that we had broken, and because  I wanted to keep the gift going. I finished the letter with ‘Our contract with you will soon be at an end’ .Which isn’t technically true, as we are still paying them a small amount towards the shortfall owed, which, like most debts these days owed by millions, based on notional number trails on a computer, will never fully be repaid….