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The emotional lives of everyday objects29:45
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Green-Wood Cemetery art installation, "Here Lie the Secrets of the Visitors of Green-Wood Cemetery." (Courtesy Allyson McCabe)
Green-Wood Cemetery art installation, "Here Lie the Secrets of the Visitors of Green-Wood Cemetery." (Courtesy Allyson McCabe)

Many prized possessions and artifacts imbued with sentimental value go missing, unintentionally. But, what about when we choose to renounce the items that mean the most to us --- like that mixtape your old girlfriend made, right before she broke up with you? The Nirvana baseball cap you wore to a Kurt Cobain memorial? Or the Sorel boots your father-in-law gave you, right before he died?

Join arts and culture journalist Allyson McCabe (Lost Notes, Short Cuts) as she weaves together personal stories of objects in flux with artistic attempts to convey their spiritual significance in our everyday lives. As Allyson discovers, getting rid of your baggage isn't quite as simple as getting rid of the bags.


Show notes: 

Special thanks to John Griffiths, Emily Spivack, Jeffrey Schiff, Sophie Calle, Green-Wood Cemetery, the McCabe Family Players, and everyone else who lent their voices to this piece.

To learn more about Allyson’s work, check out her website, allysonmccabe.com

Derby & Watson on the couch (John Griffiths)
Derby and Watson on the couch. (Courtesy John Griffiths)

Full Transcript:

This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text. 

Nora Saks: Allyson, tell me a little bit about your closet. Is there perhaps an object that no longer sparks joy, one you really want to get rid of?

Allyson McCabe: I would say I have many objects like that, basically the entire section of my closet devoted to professional clothing, which I sometimes refer to as the “dry cleaning section”. But since the pandemic, I haven’t really had to wear many of those things, and I would love to be able to get rid of them permanently. 

Nora: I’m talking to arts and culture journalist Allyson McCabe. And - Allyson is not alone in her struggle to part ways with the artifacts of her life. A few years ago, she noticed that everyone seemed to be trying to master the art of tidying up - once and for all.  First, there was the KonMari method, from Japan.

[MARIE KONMARI: Hi, I’m Marie Kondo. I’m so excited to introduce my tidying course.]

Allyson: The KonMari method is that you are organizing everything. You're sorting it, you’re organizing it, you're deciding what to keep and what to get rid of. And the criterion is that if it doesn't spark joy, you should thank it for its service and then send it on its way. 

Nora: Then came something called Swedish death cleaning.

Allyson: Yeah, that's pretty grim. So the idea behind Swedish death cleaning is you collect all the stuff and then God forbid, you should die, then your loved ones will have to come and sort it all out and decide what to keep and what to get rid of. But you're going to lift that burden from them by doing it in advance. It's sort of like an advanced directive for your stuff. 

Nora: So many trends. What is all this decluttering supposed to do? 

Allyson: You know, I think the idea is that if you get rid of the stuff, you can achieve a kind of spiritual decluttering. You know, you can lift a burden off of your loved ones and also save the planet. But as I've discovered, getting rid of your baggage isn't quite as simple as getting rid of the bags. 

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Nora: Welcome to Last Seen - a show about people, places and things that have gone missing and whether or not they can, or even should be found. From WBUR - Boston’s NPR Station. I’m Nora Saks.

So far, most of the episodes in this season have been about things that get lost - unintentionally - like a planet, a tiny endangered fish, a stranger's ashes. But today, Allyson McCabe invites us to consider those things we try to lose - on purpose.

This is Episode 8: The Emotional Lives of Everyday Objects. 

[MUSIC]

Allyson: When you ask most people about sentimental objects, they’ll first think about childhood toys, trophies, diplomas, wedding albums, things that are loved- and saved- because they’re attached to happy memories. But look behind anyone’s closet doors and you’re bound to find other things lurking in the shadows: that bff mug from someone who’s no longer your bff, that employee of the month plaque from the summer job you hated…

[CONVERSATION IN AN ATTIC: Oh my gosh, oh wait a minute, look over here. I just found that old box of mixtapes]

Allyson:…that old mix tape your first girlfriend made you right before she broke up with you. Oh, there it is.

[“Always Something to Remind Me” by Naked Eyes]

We should be able to just get rid of this stuff, right? But  it’s often complicated. Certain objects are a marker of who we are, or were, or wanted to be. They’re heavy with meaning. John Griffiths recently discovered how difficult it is to let them go.

John Griffiths: Hi this is John Griffiths.

Allyson: John is a tv critic- and the founder and executive director of Galeca: the society of LGBTQ entertainment critics. When John was growing up in California in the 60s, it was just him and his mom, living in an apartment in his grandma’s backyard. But when he was eight things changed.

John: She met this guy who had eight kids from his previous marriage. I just wasn’t like the other kids. They were kind of wild and rough and fun, and having parties and I was this little tow-headed gay kid that was kind of shell-shocked. 

Allyson: Eventually, John told his mother he wanted to move back and live with his grandmother. She said okay.  He had an apartment in the backyard to himself. And gradually things got better. When he grew up, John became a high-profile entertainment journalist.

John:: I was sort of rising as a celebrity journalist, interviewing all sorts of people for the cover of Glamour or Instyle or Cosmo as well. 

Allyson: He got a cool LA apartment.

John: With coffered ceilings, and old Spanish hardwood floors…

Allyson: And a really cool art deco sofa: a hand-me-down from a neighbor.

John: So cool. She said it had been in a bank in the 30s, and she said, “Do you want this?” And I said, “Sure.” And we moved it down the stairs (she was upstairs) and got it into my apartment and it just made everything look amazing. And it was like out of a David Lynch movie- it was dark blue velvet, sort of a slanted back, and really thick, wide arms that you could sit on. I think it made people feel like they were stars or something. It just made people pose. It was that kind of couch. And I loved that couch! You know a lot of things happened on that couch. It was the centerpiece of so many parties.

Allyson: Maybe too many parties. When John decided to get sober, he moved to a new place in the Hollywood hills, a nice big house with a backyard. His neighbor suggested that he get a rescue dog.

John: I saw Derby and I was just like, “Oh my god, she looks so sad,” but not manipulative. But head down, but eyes up and then would sort of avert, like “I know you’re not going to pick me or like me.” 

Allyson: John took derby home, then he went back and brought home another dog, Watson. The three of them became a family, the couch as much theirs as his.

John: Derby had a special blanket on the couch, and Derby would just sleep there and get really cozy and sometimes just like marvel at Watson’s cuteness from a distance. Watson wasn’t much of a lap dog but he would get on the couch, too. I soon thought, “Oh, this is how it used to be. We’re having parties on the couch but the parties are with my doggies.”

Allyson: John and his dogs went for daily park runs, trips to the beach, and of course, they all loved tv time. But Derby’s health began to fail, and she spent more and more time alone on that couch, curled up in her favorite spot.

John knew it was time to say goodbye, so he decided to have derby put down at home, where she’d be most comfortable, on the couch. Afterwards he regretted the decision.

John: I would look at that couch and it became a symbol of this, you know I would sort of see that lifelessness, you know, that life to lifelessness. 

Allyson: John thought about getting rid of the couch. Who wouldn’t? But then he got a new dog, Guapo.

John: Guapo loved that couch! And if I would sit on it, he would just - or even a friend or whatever, he would just jump up, and sometimes it was a little too tall for him. You could tell he was trying to gauge how to get up best. And he would kind of fall asleep in the pillow cracks, but you know there were three big pillows and he would just settle himself in the dip between two pillows.

Allyson: Guapo helped john cope with losing the derby, but there were more changes to come. John's mom is in her mid-80s now. She was living in grandma's old house when the pandemic hit. John decided to sell his house and move into the backyard apartment they once shared.

Of course, John planned on bringing the dogs, and the couch. But a few days before the big move, Guapo had a heart attack and he died in john’s arms.

John says the couch looked great in his new place underneath the glass brick window, next to the vintage torchiere lamp. And yes, it was probably worth about five grand if he had it refurbished. And yes it reminded him of how far he’d come.

John: I had that couch for about twenty-five years and it was beautiful and I look back at it with admiration. It was like a giant tree with different rings or whatever. My wild party days. My early sobriety, my dogs.

Allyson: But rather than looking back at his life, john realized the only way to move forward was letting it go. The only way to reframe the transition from one of loss to one of possibility.

John: I just looked at it and I go, if I’m going to change things, I can’t look at that couch and think of the dogs that have passed. I gave it away.

Allyson: John gave the couch away to a guy who said he planned to fix it up and flip it at a vintage store or sell it online.

John: I said goodbye to that beautiful couch. 

Allyson: Rather than making john feel stuck in the past, now the couch can be part of someone else's future.

It’s probably sitting in someone else’s living room- maybe even yours.

John’s story got me thinking about the lives of objects, how they end up here or there, carefully preserved or carelessly trashed, connecting us to other people’s joys or sorrows, often without our conscious awareness.

[EBAY SOUND & VOICES]

VOICES: My vintage lace wedding dress… Modern Cyberpunk Ninja Backpack…I love Angelyne Pink Girls’ Cami…Manolo Blahnik Gorgeous Gold Heels 38.5 EUC

Allyson: That led me to Emily Spivack, an artist and writer whose work explores the interplay of clothing and memory.

Emily Spivack: My work looks at contemporary culture, everyday objects, and I delve into a lot of archives and I create my own archives in my work.

Allyson: That work involves scouring the internet for second-hand clothing—Spivack isn't looking for items that people once bought for a special occasion, like a prom dress or a bar mitzvah suit, but what they wore when something weird, wonderful, or unexpected happened; like a bloodstained jade green ball gown she once found on eBay.

Emily: The woman in the eBay post talks about how this had been her aunt’s. And her aunt was dating a guy who was involved with the mob. And they were in Atlantic City, and they were out at some kind of event. And there was some kind of gunshot, there was some kind of - someone shot someone in the party, and blood got splattered on her dress.

Allyson: Spivack discovered that eBay was more than an e-commerce site for buying and selling things. It was a place to share experiences.

Emily: I am interested in these weird moments, you know. I was once levitated in a magic act, and now I’m selling this dress. You know, Michael Jackson once touched these sunglasses and I’m never touching them again…

Allyson: From 2007 to 2014, Spivack collected hundreds of clothing finds in an online project called sentimental value. At first, she just curated e-bay auction posts.

But then about three years into the project, she started bidding on these garments herself. Revealing the hidden value within otherwise unremarkable possessions.

Emily: These are the jeans that my granddaughter bought for her boyfriend, and if you are dating a guy who would leave his girlfriend for his pedicurist, then these are for you.

Allyson: Not simply a collector, Spivack became an investor in an economy of emotions. Even though her interactions with sellers were anonymous, she says they were surprisingly intimate.

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Emily: These stories would just kind of show up in the mail from complete strangers. 

Allyson: Sellers often included heartfelt letters, notes spilling over with grammatical quirks and hand drawn emojis. Sometimes the correspondence was even more weirdly personal, like what came with a nirvana baseball cap once worn to a Kurt Cobain memorial. 

Emily: And along with it is a little thank you Nutri-grain bar.

Allyson: Spivack started showing these garments in art galleries, where visitors could picture the sellers, imagine their voices, and fill in the gaps in their stories with their own experiences and memories.

[VOICES READING THEIR EBAY POSTS]

Voice: Sexy Gothic Not-A-Maid’s Dress Sz S Must See!!!! I wore this to a horror movie convention and Tom Savini looked down the top of it to check out my goods. (Google Tom Savini if you really have to) If the man who is the patron saint of horror movie effects liked this dress, everyone else at the club will too. Trust me. You want this dress. You need this dress. I need your money. Everyone wins. It’s only been worn once. Tom Savini kind of scared me. 

Voice: Sorel Caribou Waterproof Pac Boots- Worn Once- Perfect shape. This is a sad but true story. I got these last year at a local sporting goods store for full price, in MN we get blizzards and we had one soon after I got these, I wore them to do the driveway with the snow blower; so they were worn less than an hour. Not quite two weeks after that my father-in-law was killed by an idiot that ran a red light. I got his vintage Sorels. I can’t bring myself to wear these boots again. My loss is your gain. 

Voice: Purchased in early 1983 and signed by Robert Smith of The Cure at Elephant Fayre Festival in Cornwall around that time. I attended the festival and spoke to Robert at length behind the stage after their soundcheck in the afternoon. I had nothing on me for him to sign so he signed my T shirt! The shirt has been washed several times since and the signature has worn off but it’s a nice true story about this shirt.”

Allyson: Take a look at your closet. Instead of just seeing rows of shirts and pants and accessories, pick out a few things you bought new or vintage, things that were passed down to you, things that might seem completely ordinary but hold deep meaning for you. Now imagine re-contextualizing these items, presenting them as a series of garments with stories, a retrospective exhibition of you.

[Welcome to the National Museum of Us. Press the button by the exhibit if you wish to hear an audio tour.

  • “This is the 1997 baseball shirt Allyson McCabe wore to a grad school classmate’s birthday party.”
  • “Allyson McCabe,  J.Crew Black and Gray Tweed Blazer, acquired circa 2003.”
  •  “These 2017 Chuck Taylors are a replica of the pair first issued to Allyson McCabe in 1987”]

Allyson: Next: imagine your friends and friends of your friends doing the same thing in adjoining galleries, and then, at the close of the show, a gift store where everyone can anonymously swap everything, literally walking home in each other’s shoes.

Now let me ask you this: what if it’s not just you or your friends or friends of your friends, but the whole world that’s connected this way?

Coming up after the break,  I’ll show you what I mean.

[SPONSOR BREAK]

Allyson: Saint John the Divine in New York City is the world’s largest cathedral. I mean this place is literally awesome. It is the size of two football fields, plus a football. It is full of religious symbols, they’re on the walls, they’re in the windows, they’re even in the smallest architectural details.

There is a ton of art to take in too, from 17th-century tapestries to Edwina Sandys’ 1974 sculpture of a female christ to a massive bronze altarpiece by Keith Haring.

Saint John’s calls this stuff “the fabric.” every single element from which the cathedral is composed is part of an endless work in progress, designed for contemplation.

Jeffrey Schiff: When you’re walking in a Cathedral and observing the various elements of a Cathedral and objects within, you have a heightened sense of attention. And ritual heightens your sense of attention. And art viewing as a ritual, as an activity, is also an experience of heightened attention. 

Allyson: That’s sculptor Jeffrey Schiff. About twenty years ago, Schiff was invited to be part of a group art show at Saint John’s. As he thought about what he wanted to create in the space, he walked into a side chapel and encountered a statue of the prodigal son, who squandered his father’s fortune before returning to seek forgiveness. It gave Schiff an idea.

He started by building a large wooden platform at the base of the statue, which he covered with bright yellow felt.

Jeffrey: As you’re walking down the nave of the Cathedral and you see this bright yellow platform, it’s very surprising. 

Allyson: Schiff constructed chambers of various shapes and sizes inside the platform, he then asked his friends to leave objects there, things that symbolized what they most wanted to renounce.

One friend rejected his anxiety by giving up his mouthguard. A couple abandoned their attachment to star trek by offering up their phaser. But Schiff says most of the offerings were serious.

Jeffrey: Probably because my friends were sort of embarking on middle age there was a lot of reflection, and even reckoning, going on. So, people were making transitions of one sort or another. Some people were making transitions from just a carefree youth into a more sober middle age. One person gave up her boots that she used to wear to Studio 54 in the wild years of her youth. Someone else was remembering a marriage left long ago, and remembering it through an object that had been given to her as a wedding present for that particular marriage just as she was about to embark on her second marriage, a new marriage. 

Allyson: There was a car radiator, a baseball bat, and a pair of bells: everyday items turned into a catalog of experiences, the platform a place to bury the pain they’d been holding.

Some of the participants anonymously shared their memories in a book that had been left nearby, further releasing the objects from the attachments they had taken on.

[VOICES: “An old lady, who sold candies off a street-cart near my house in Bolivia, gave me this bill…” “I have always found it difficult to give up on friends, no matter how far apart we become. But one friend, once very very close, in fact, originally a lover, and never an easy man, became an impossible burden…” “These two Santa figures were recent Christmas presents from my father, given to me in consecutive years…”]

Allyson: Each year hundreds of thousands of visitors pass through the cathedral as worshippers and tourists. They couldn’t see the renounced objects at first, but as they approached the platform they started to come into view.

Jeffrey: And you’d look into them the way you’d look into a box from above. And they’re scattered about irregularly so it’s as if they’d been thrown at the feet of the Prodigal Son. 

Allyson: They too could participate by leaving objects in chambers that had been intentionally left open. They offered notes, keychains, coins, whatever they happened to have that could stand-in for the emotional burden they wanted to shed. Schiff called this project “potter’s field”– a place to bury the unnamed and unclaimed. But eventually objects started disappearing from the platform too—

Jeffrey: There were musical instruments for instance. There were articles of clothing, there were a couple of artworks, by friends who were artists…

Allyson: And many objects with little or no monetary value, perhaps reclaimed by others because they were powerful emotional artifacts, symbols of human connection.

[CBS NEWSCAST: It’s 8:52 here in New York, I’m Bryant Gumbel. We understand that there has been a plane crash on the southern tip of Manhattan]

Jeffrey: And then everything changed, because 9/11 happened. 

Allyson: Schiff couldn’t return to the cathedral until a few months later. By then the platform was overflowing with objects and notes, and prayers in many languages.

What was once a collective repository for personal loss became a communal expression of grief… and hope.

Jeffrey: I think people found their version of a religion in the moment, to participate in the piece, in the ritual. 

Allyson: Loss always leaves a trace, a scar, a reminder of what was once there. The French conceptual artist Sophie Calle says that doesn’t mean that loss can’t be reframed. As you may know, the title of this podcast, last seen, is a reference to one of Calle's art series, inspired by the unsolved 1990 theft of 13 artworks from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner museum.

Sophie Calle: I found out that where they had been stolen there was just an empty space. And this was not an aesthetic decision. So it gave a mise-en-scene - extremely interesting because it’s a museum that’s full. There is not a single space to hang anything, and suddenly, every time you had a stolen painting you had a white space.

Allyson: Calle stood where those paintings were once exhibited and asked museum staff to tell her what they remembered about the missing works…such as Rembrandt's The Storm On The Sea Of Galilee.

Voice: “When I was a youngster one Christmas, a dear family friend gave me a five-pound box of candy in a tin box. And on the lid was The Storm in the Sea of Galilee. It was the first time I’d ever seen it. It was my prized possession. I loved it, absolutely loved it.”

Allyson: And the figures depicted in Vermeer’s The Concert...

Voice: “I could hear them singing, and they sounded very private, quiet, and pure. You felt like an intruder and you didn’t want them to know that you were watching.”

Allyson: She created transcriptions of their memories to be displayed side by side with photographs of the labels, empty pedestals, and wall hooks that had been left behind. She then returned to the museum again in 2012. After the frames had been restored and rehung, but the paintings were still missing.

Sophie: It was even more incredible because they framed the absence. Many people didn’t know there was a missing painting inside those frames.

So this time Calle interviewed visitors, asking them to explain what they saw.

Voices: “I see my reflection so I see my sadness.” “What you see is yourself.”

Allyson: She paired their responses with images of the visitors gazing into the frames, photographed in shadow or from behind, their identities as mysterious as the whereabouts of the still unrecovered paintings.

In her will, Gardner stipulated that the arrangement of the galleries could never be altered, so Calle’s artworks were shown in a new wing of the museum, acknowledging the loss while creating something new from what remains.

[IN THE CEMETERY: Creating something new from what remains- to honor that idea, I’ve come here, to greenwood cemetery, which sits atop the highest point in Brooklyn, 478 acres looking out over the Hudson river. Leonard Bernstein is buried here. Basquiat too. 

Near the main entrance, there is a marble obelisk with the inscription “Here lie the secrets of visitors of green-wood cemetery.” 

This is another artwork conceived by Sophie Calle. For a 25 year period- from 2017-2042 - visitors are invited to take their secrets to the grave, but unlike in the movies that doesn’t mean keeping them buried inside of us. 

So I’m actually writing down my secret, which of course is a secret, so I can’t tell you what it is. And I’m going to put it right here, in with the others. It’s actually kind of full, so it’s gonna take a second]

SOPHIE: In the stone at the bottom we put a little slot for people to be able to put their envelope inside, something that looked a little like a mailbox. Nobody knows what’s there and it will disappear because it’s in humidity, it’s not open, it’s not protected in anyway. It’s supposed to disappear. 

Nora: Allyson, you just performed a letting go ritual. How did that feel - what was that experience actually like?

Allyson: Well, have you ever had an experience where you mailed somebody a letter, and then as soon as you put it in the mailbox, you’re like - oh my god, I shouldn't have done that, but it’s too late.

Nora: Yeah, 1000%. It happened a few months ago.

Allyson: Okay haha. It was sorta like that…I knew that I was going to the cemetery, I knew I was gonna be writing down my secret and putting it in the slot. And when I got there, the slot was pretty full, and I really had to shove it in there. And even though I wasn’t handing my secret over to another person, you know I did have that feeling of - oh my gosh, and it was only later, on my way home, that I had the release.

I mean, I think if you’ve ever tried to get rid of something, it’s typically because it sparks pain. If you’ve tried that, you know it doesn’t work unless you work through the pain itself.

So taking my secret to the grave helped me realize that. I wrote it down, which  helped me externalize my feelings and get them out. And then putting it down on paper, that kind of made it into a sort of temporary object. But it was really participating in the ritual that brought me to that feeling of release. And it wasn’t really the end point, but it was, it felt kinda like the beginning of something new.

Nora: Do you think that was artist Sophie Calle’s intention all along? What does she have to say about that?

Allyson: Well, as Calle points out, the unburdening isn’t really dependent on anybody else’s judgment or absolution. It’s a dialogue you’re having with yourself. It’s a chance to kind of work towards healing by recognizing the loss.

Nora: Yeah and sometimes that’s enough.

Allyson: All that remains is what’s inside of us, what makes us human, the capacity to hurt and the capacity to heal.

From the Buddha to Saint Francis, when we think of renunciation it usually involves giving up things that appear to make us happy to attain some form of enlightenment or elevation. Or it’s to discard things that make us unhappy as a form of taking stock of what really matters.

Either way, it’s often misunderstood as being about self-mastery, control, rejecting worldly things to spiritually clean house.

But the truth is our world is  messy and imperfect. The solution isn’t to sweep our disappointments under the rug, or box up our suffering and put it out as trash. But to let one thing become another, accepting the residue that life leaves behind so that we can still experience the possibility of living.

[END]

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