Uncovering the imagination

Finding human truths in Found items
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  May 6, 2009

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More than meaningless scraps of paper, discarded objects, or misplaced keepsakes, Found items are stories in themselves. Depending not just on what they are, but also on who picks them up, they can embody the human condition. If we are to believe some of the writers in Requiem for a Paper Bag: Celebrities and Civilians Tell Stories of the Best Lost, Tossed and Found Items From Around the World, Found things — and the very act of finding them — can be interpreted in an almost mystical manner.

"[T]here is something magical about finding things," writes Paulo Coehlo, author of The Alchemist and The Witch of Portobello, in "The Good Pirate," about a found white feather that he considers to be his good luck charm. "The universe places things in your path; it's the language the universe uses to communicate with you."

And what messages is it transmitting? Many of the writers in editor Davy Rothbart's anthology (Rothbart is the creator of Found Magazine; read an interview with him on page 10) suggest that found items remind us of the diversity of our experiences. Perhaps finding what someone else has lost (or let go of) encourages us to adopt a broader perspective, to remember that we are not the center of the universe.

"There are so many different kinds of lives being led," Geek Love author Katherine Dunn writes in her Paper Bag essay, "The Old Clerk's Diary." "When you read a journal like this old woman's journal, and you peer so deeply into a stranger's life, it expands your imagination so that you can't look at other people — a woman on the bus, a guy on a park bench — without wondering about them and what their lives might be like. You feel a sense of communion with the people you share the world with — it's a way of connecting with the cosmic consciousness."

Imagination is integral to the experience of stumbling upon an unclaimed object. Each one is taken from its natural setting, from its own reality, and placed into our personal contexts, imbued with our histories, associations, needs, and stories. In going from trash to treasure, found items both feed and need our imaginations.

"The attraction of these found items is that they arrive context-free, separated from the situation in which they once, perhaps, made sense," writes Glasgow artist and author David Shrigley, in his piece about a mysterious 1982 missive from a headmistress to parents about a potentially offensive guest speaker (we, as latecomers, never learn what was so objectionable). "My imagination is obliged to fill the gaps. Maybe in a small way this is an example of what makes good storytelling — giving the audience just enough so that they can finish the story themselves."

And finish it we must, or so our brains insist. When we stumble upon pieces of other people's stories, we feel a need to fill in the blanks, to come up with explanations and context, and not just because it's voyeuristic and fun. No, we do it because we need to assign order to seemingly random events, things, or conversations. It's interesting that some of the authors in Rothbart's diverse anthology choose to do this by fictionalizing their found experiences (particularly memorable is author Kevin Sampsell's story about a well-worn erotic photo), while others take the more straightforward, analytical approach of a non-fiction essay. It reminds the reader of the very act of interpretation that goes along with finding; it also highlights the different ways that such understanding can occur.

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