IOU

Maybe you've heard about that little kid who sneaked over to his new sibling's cradle. His parents overheard him ask, "What does God feel like? I'm starting to forget."

Some use that story as evidence for an ideology and they might have a case, but then again, the Bible itself tells us to put away childish things. That boy’s experience is interesting without the dogma, though. There are things we lose touch with, things that slip away by degrees. Most of us forget what childhood itself feels like. We hafta go play grown up. A mortgage and a lawn to mow, as Joni Mitchell would say.

I realized last week that I forgot what 9/11 felt like. WXXI aired Objects & Memory, a documentary about the effort to collect and preserve items from Ground Zero. A lot of the debris was sifted through at the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island. They found marbles and keys and ID cards. They searched damaged vehicles. One had a wrapped present in the trunk. 9/11 was somebody’s wife’s birthday. She got her present a few months late.

There’s been a lot of talk about panic and fear on Wall Street lately and even phrases like “left for dead.” Maybe if the news media remembered what 9/11 felt like, they’d ratchet back the descriptions of the loss of money, as opposed to lives. Margaret Atwood takes a different approach, beginning her recent Wall Street Journal article with the statement that “without memory, there is no debt.” She goes on to trace the current turmoil in the financial markets back to the very idea of owing someone, focusing on two versions of Ebenezer Scrooge: the extreme miser and the reformed man “who signals the advent of grace and the salvation of his soul by going on a giant spend-o-rama."

An accompanying feature titled "Lending Library" listed several books where debt is a theme, including "Madame Bovary," wherein the title character compensates for one kind of poverty by bringing on another. She goes into debt...and overspends in other ways. It got me thinking of what a musical sidebar might've looked like. James Brown's "The Payback" came to mind, as did a Lyle Lovett line: “You spend the night like you were spending a dime.” But surely the most notable intersection of debt and music can be found in the story of bluesman Robert Johnson. His visit to the crossroads is a central myth of the American landscape. The story goes that he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for extraordinary musical talent.

I think that story resonates because we all arrive at that place. We’re offered the thing we want most and have to decide if we’re willing to pay for it. It didn’t work out so well for Robert Johnson. He got the talent, but wound up being poisoned by a jealous husband at a Mississippi juke joint in 1938. Poison ended Emma Bovary’s life as well, although not by the hand of a jealous husband. No one expects to get what they want without suffering, but debt doesn’t always have to be so destructive. We loan things besides money. We owe things besides interest.

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