The power of objects is that, while serving as props in our games, they sometimes reveal to us something about ourselves that we did not know before. Leo Racicot’s story (Lowell, Massachusetts, 1950s) is one such testimony about a discarded object that, through play, prompted an early self-discovery.
Leo’s story features a fox face fur neck warmer that used to belong to his mother. While it was hanging in the dark closet, Leo says, it looked frightening to him: “It always looked as if it was trying to say something to me - or was I imagining it?” Yet Leo’s attitude changed drastically when he one day found the fox fur thrown away in the trashcan behind their house:
"It looked so suddenly there not scary but scared. My mother had deemed it no longer worthy, not useful. Maybe it had hit her how strange it was to wear a dead animal around her shoulders, how apart from the rest of her clothes the fox fur was, misunderstood, somehow 'other.' I went all sad inside yet didn’t know why. After all, hadn’t these same eyes scared the hell out of me? Hadn’t the mute face refused for so long to tell me what secrets it held? But I hated that the fox had been thrown away as if what it had once meant now needed to be forgotten."
Suddenly moved by the appeal of the fox fur, perplexed by his own strong feeling towards it, Leo salvaged the fur from the trashcan, of course, then hid it from his mother. There in the safety of the house it remained, until some time later:
"The rare day came when I was alone. Hot, hot day. I put the mink over my shorts and summer shirt, wrapped the fox face fur around it, stuck my too-small feet into a pair of matching pumps and ventured outside.
The fox and I came alive.
Parading around the yard in my mother’s clothes. Loving the delicious click-clack of her high heels on the sidewalk. Loving the fox against my neck. It smelled like fur and perfume. I sashayed back and forth, back and forth. I was Audrey Hepburn at a movie premiere, Angela Lansbury in Mame. The world fell away. I was invisible in my discovery of 'me.' The fox felt almost unbearably lush against my face."
The story gets even more dramatic as a neighbor spots young Leo’s parade outside the house, calling him “a sex maniac.” Regardless of the consequences, though, the newly formed bond between the person and the thing proved to be lasting:
"I saved the fox face fur for years, a talisman of sorts, a protector. It freed me to be myself because it was so very boldly itself, a sly thing, an ugly entity that was, in its essence, a beautiful one. I could not bear to see it relegated to the trash heap of someone’s fickle disregard. Once I accepted its oddball charm, I knew what it had been trying to say to me. I gave it back its life and in return, it told me mine."
Faced with the otherness of objects, we become more attuned to otherness per se, more tolerant and open to experiences and sensations. In a world where formation of identity is guarded since the earliest stages, the role of free play is hard to underestimate, and so is the role of objects that act as catalysts of discovery.
I find it significant that in Leo’s story, the change of perspective happens once the status of the object is changed: from a treasured decoration to a discarded, lost object rejected by reason but rebelliously and “boldly itself.” The fox face fur is a perfect example of a discarded object “in the process of becoming”, which comes with an unprecedented freedom: they can be anything, and defiantly so. Broken, in various stages of decay, transformed into an oddly shaped entity that at times does not yield recognition, discarded objects possess what I believe to be an intrinsic ludic quality, exactly what helped young Leo imagine, through play, possibilities of identity.
Many of our contributors share stories about making things from trash. For example, Piter from Togliatti, Russia, remembers spending hours crafting presents as a child: “I loved to make holiday cards from whatever materials I happened to have: sticks from ice-cream, melted aluminum, bits and pieces from ribbons, old beads, glue and paint, feathers, grains, plastic straps from some old boxes. I could spend days creating just one card. I must have had a great attention span back then, sitting over my handiwork for days on end.” For many, a favorite childhood pastime became a welcome hobby as an adult, allowing for a creative outlet and a way of self-expression. Omnidoll from Garden Grove, California says, “The skills and eye for small things I gained then assist me now in repairing old dolls and making dolls for my renewed pleasure as a grown up and to give pleasure to children and adults whose dolls I fix. I am grateful that I did not lose my ability to appreciate overlooked objects.”
My friend who lives in Yekateringburg, Russia, has similarly carried over an ability to create worlds from simple things to her adult life. She makes hand-made teddy bears that look vintage, using pieces of old cloth, “real” antique details and accessories, such as buttons, and following old-style blueprints. Her teddy bears are aged on purpose: stitches are made to look worn out, there is some patching and special treatment to elements such as brooches to make them look older. Essentially, artificially aged things are “fake authentic,” appealing to the allure of mystery that surrounds old things. However paradoxical, they are aesthetically pleasing, creating a welcoming enchantment.
This aesthetics has become popular only recently in Russia, as fashion and public taste gradually turned away from the glamour of the new and towards appreciation of antique, weather-beaten things. In the early 2000s in Russia, resentment against the hardships and poverty of the post-communist years took an extreme turn: those were the years of the so-called Putin glamour, which glorified an expensive, swaggering lifestyle. Everything had to be new: clothes, furniture, accessories, which meant that everything old was ruthlessly discarded if the owner had a slightest opportunity to replace the old thing with something new, even if it was cheaply made (not unlike the transition from the 80s into the early 90s in the former GDR, as depicted in Goodbye, Lenin!). People were in a hurry to discard the past, hastily replacing the old self associated with poverty and stagnation with a new, shiny façade.
This was, of course, one of paradoxes of the ways in which societies assign value: now, only a decade later, Russian culture caught up with the West and its much more nuanced understanding of the value of old things. “Vintage” and “antique” things are now in fashion.
Here we highlight featured stories from the archive, contributions by fellow writers and artists, as well as reflections and comments on the value and impact of discarded objects in our world.