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..

 

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