The extraordinary emotional pull of commonplace objects

At the beginning of her story, Eden Medina is the classic young dancer: self-absorbed, self-centered, self-appraising — all those words that start with self. She is obsessed with her looks and moves, compared with her imagined ideal.

In the middle of her story, she decides she is never going to be one of the world's greats, and hangs up her ballet slippers. So far, so standard.

It's the twist at the end of the narrative, however, that gets you. As an adult, she decides that she still loves dance, and is no longer consumed with her ego, so she straps on her ballet slippers again, for the sheer joy of movement and music and art.

Wow, you think. She has managed what you thought was impossible. She has separated the dancer from the dance. Cue the little frisson of reader pleasure.

Her ballet slippers are the physical things by which she comes to think more clearly about herself.

Her yarn is part of a new book with a seductive idea that's easier to cite examples of than to wrap your mind around: "Evocative Objects: Things We Think With," edited by Sherry Turkle. It's a collection of short essays, each centered on some artifact that has allowed the writer to think self-reflectively.

By examining what certain objects mean to them, the writers gain new insights into who they are. "We think with the objects we love," Turkle says. "We love the objects we think with."

These include such unlikely candidates as "The Axe Head," "The Vacuum Cleaner," "The Rolling Pin," "Slime Mold" and a "1964 Ford Falcon."

Everything about this book is improbable. The idea of examining the meaning of everyday objects to an individual's psyche, for example, comes from an MIT techie.

In works such as "The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit," Turkle has long probed the intersection of our most advanced inventions and our lives.

The book's graceful writing sprang from years of bringing together what Turkle calls "beautiful minds" to discuss their personal evocative objects as part of her MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. Many of these, she says, "were somebody smart who I knew had a relationship with an object. Sometimes I knew the person and had no idea of their objects, but just wanted to see a fascinating mind" addressing the subject.

"This is a very unconventional book for MIT Press," says Robert Prior, the executive editor there, and Turkle's editor. "It's far more literate and literary. It's equation-free. But I think there are a lot of people for whom this book will have meaning."

The book is in part a personal journey for Turkle.

"As a young girl I would visit my grandparents every weekend. They had a closet of old objects and old books and old stuff and I — really not knowing quite why I was doing this — would pore through it," says Turkle, a petite 50-something woman with long hair, little jewelry, lively eyes and evocative hand gestures.

"Everything was opened, everything was put back. I remember doing it very slowly and fantasizing, not wanting to get to the end of it. It seemed to me the closet had infinite depth and I could never use up all the objects in it — dance cards and pictures of soldiers in World War I that my uncle had brought back, and a German helmet."

She was living nearby with her mother and stepfather in Brooklyn. Her father had exited when she was 2.

"My grandparents and aunt would watch me, and I think they knew what I was doing, which was looking for some trace of my biological father, who had been taken out of my life and I didn't know why. It was kind of a taboo. We didn't talk about that. But I was looking for something, and finally I find a picture. The picture was him — and his face is crossed out.

"How much I got from that picture — his shoes, his pants were tweed, his watch. I began ... to try to put the bits and pieces together somehow from these shards of objects.

"Since I didn't have a person, I became fascinated by the objects that led me to be thinking about him and searching for his traces."

She calls this thinking concretely with objects — tinkering with them physically and mentally as a vehicle for self-reflection. In Turkle's fields of social science, the word "bricolage" is used to describe the way people cobble together identities through objects and ideas they gather that gain great meaning.

The book itself is just such a pastiche. One essay, by Olivia Daste, an MIT researcher, is called simply "The Suitcase." It recounts the time her beloved grandmother died unexpectedly. Her mother rampaged through the apartment, sorting and discarding things.

"With each book, shoe, and coat my mother grabbed and threw in a trash bag for donations or garbage, my stomach turned and my heart sank," Daste writes. The evidence of her grandmother's life "was being erased. In the kitchen, I held the glass she used the day before, fresh lipstick marks still on the rim."

Daste reaches for her grandmother's small suitcase, "elegant and practical, just like her." Hiding in her grandmother's bedroom, she begins to fill it. "From the kitchen I took our two pink-and-green flower-painted teacups in which we had our morning coffee. I was taking our breakfasts with us; our long, animated conversations; our ritual of sharing our dreams; our nightmares and laughter." A red cardigan with her scented handkerchief, letters, her favorite navy skirt formed to her curves by time, cut-out quotes that she kept everywhere — the suitcase, when full, "holds her for me and me for her."

Was it hard to write?

"My words and emotions were preparing for this dance for a long time," Daste responds in an e-mail. "The words ... felt simply like the release of a rising stream of consciousness."

Writer Matthew Belmonte meditates on "The Yellow Raincoat."

"Even in primary school I was preoccupied with the idea of protection from an unpredictable world," he writes. "More than its function of keeping rain out, however, (the raincoat) represented my fear of letting anything in — people most of all."

He developed a "desperation for order that drove me into science, and later into the craft of fiction. Like my old raincoat, science and art enable me to immerse myself in nature's order while they insulate me from nature's chaos."

His "childhood sensitivity to the boundary between self and external world led me in my adult life to study people with autism," writes Belmonte, now in the department of human development at Cornell University and author of the novel "Full Abstraction."

In this way, the raincoat is a defining thing, like the sled Rosebud in the film "Citizen Kane."

"Everybody has an object that brings together things that are important to them," Turkle says. "Sometimes it's memories, sometimes it's issues in the life cycle with your kids. Sometimes you think about love. Sometimes you think about lust. But it's through a physical object."

So, OK, Sherry Turkle, what is your evocative object?

"No, no, no," she says. She turns out to be seriously reticent to answer. This is remarkable because she lives in what would appear to be an evocative object: an imposing, five-story 1868 townhouse in an impressive part of Boston's Back Bay.

Pushed hard enough, she finally relents. She goes to a cupboard and takes out her grandmother's dishes, discreetly patterned with roses.

"They were her most valued objects. Objects that were only used on very important family occasions. Occasions when everybody was together. Everybody was together.

"When I was growing up, I was hungry. The dishes feature prominently because I was missing these elements of family. The idea that you could have family dishes symbolized having this thing that I was missing.

"It was a way of fantasizing having it.

"Knowing, of course, that someday they would be mine."

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