Let Us Now Contemplate the Key

An Object Lesson in nine parts


1. Inventory
Let's make an inventory of all your keys. Not the keycards. Keys with teeth. Keys with mouths. First, the keys on your keyring: house, car, mailbox, office, office mailbox, friend's house for when you feed her cat. You remember which one corresponds to which door by color (brass or silver), by the size and shape of the bow, the part that you hold (brass square or trio of small windows). Sometimes, you mark the key to remember its purpose.

Next, gather up the other keys, those not currently in use. Keys in candy dishes, on bookshelves. Keys lolling in kitchen drawers next to can openers and rubber bands, tucked beneath chains in jewelry boxes. Keys in the toolbox in the garage. The gold key to an apartment from five years ago. In another state. A key that unlocked every dressing room in a Lazarus Department Store (gone for a decade). A miniature key that unlocked the diary you've since lost. A key that you played with as a child. Even now, you know the pleasure of the key as a thing, its small, certain presence in your hand.

In Steven Price's excellent book of poems on the life of Houdini, Anatomy of Keys, he mulls over the maddeningly unobtainable (and thus, intriguing) narratives of these keys: "[k]eys/ drowned in jars like small dark snails, consider/ the stubborn silences of these, what stories they could tell." These keys are divorced from purpose, belonging to places we no longer know. Somewhere, there might be a house or a room or a cupboard, waiting for you to bring it back to life. You might need whatever is inside.

2. Toys

Lunchbox Photography/Flickr/Rebecca J. Rosen

We are primed to love keys from an early age. Think of that classic baby toy, a ring of teether keys--a rainbow of smooth-edged plastic keys, safe to chew and shake, subbing in for the real keyrings that babies constantly reach for.

As a child, I wanted keys. The keys I wanted came from books and movies about children and magical places. In Alice in Wonderland, a golden key to unlock the talking door glimmers high atop a glass table, but she can't reach it because she shrank herself (that Drink Me/Eat Me conundrum). The NeverEnding Story showed me Bastian, a bullied bookworm, who skips school to read a gorgeous, magical book in the school attic (rebel!). The key to the attic is kept in a metal box with a broken glass panel on the wall -- coolly, quickly, Bastian steals the key with two fingers. Return to Oz had the keys I wanted most: the key Fairuza Balk's Dorothy plucks from the Kansas mud, as evidence that Oz exists and the ruby key worn around the wrist of the evil Princess Mombi, to open the cabinets that contain other women's heads for her to wear (I swear, this is the real plot).

These kids want to go somewhere they shouldn't. Wonderland. Fantasia. Oz. We love them for it, for their longing.

3. History


Since there have been humans and possessions that those humans valued, there have been locks and keys, or, at least since the first millennium BC, as Louis Zara says in his fascinating little book, Locks and Keys. A locked door says: Stay out, all ye who are keyless (and thus, potential intruders). There were iron keys, wooden keys, keys that were so big they required two people to maneuver them. Keys to sarcophagi, fortresses, and women's nether-regions (a.k.a. keuschheitsgürtel, ceinture de chaseté, chastity belt).

There is a pleasure in looking at old keys, in touching them, studying them. Gothic keys soared and twisted like the drop caps of illuminated manuscripts. Keys of the Renaissance held delicate, ornate bows. The most intricate were the clefs de chef-d'oeuvre -- the French masterpiece keys. These gorgeous creations had no accompanying locks, and served no purpose, other than laying there, sparkling in a box or on the owner's palm.

"The great craftsmen [of keys] of the past," Zara explains, "prior to the 18th century, leaned toward beauty rather than security."

4. Security


Watch me as I leave my apartment, and you will immediately know my strange attachment to keys. It's not enough to put the key in the lock and turn -- I need to check that the door is actually locked. A few times. Once I'm satisfied that my door is secure, I'll toss the keys, a heavy bunch of metal grapes, into my bag. I can hear their comforting jingling as I walk.

Let's say you need a key today, post-18th century. It's not an artist or a blacksmith you visit. You go to the hardware store. It smells of sawdust and metal. You walk past shelves of nails and screws, paint cans and buckets and snow shovels and mops, to the counter in back. You tell the old man behind the counter that you'd like to make a copy of a key. "You don't even have to take it off your ring," he says. "Wait right here."

A noise like a buzz saw from behind the counter. Right behind the counter, a wall full of blank keys, just bows and shanks, and undifferentiated bits. No teeth. A key needs teeth to speak a lock's language. All those blanks will eventually guard places, will invite new owners to come inside. The old man is back in two minutes. He hands you a piece of still-warm steel, a silver sliver. "Two dollars," he says. It surprises you, how little this costs. A beautiful key is beautiful, sure, but a plain key is also beautiful.

5. Home


"Wow, you have a lot of keys," people have often said to me. It's true. In my set that I always carry with me, I have at least ten keys. I've got another couple of key-clusters that I no longer use, but apparently, can't abandon. I have always kept keys, but have noticed more of them in my possession within the last six years, something that can perhaps be attributed to the significant moves my husband and I have made since 2007 -- Columbus, Ohio; Vancouver, BC; Los Angeles; and again, now, Columbus.

A key is not just a way to get into a place -- it is a symbol of both entrance and exit, access and forbiddenness, mystery and knowledge. A key means a locked door that you, holder of the key, can open. That you are supposed to enter. It is a remnant of a place you have loved, lived in.

6. Jewelry

sfslim/Flick/Rebecca J. Rosen

Keys continue to show up in women's jewelry, often paired with hearts. One of my favorite pairs of earrings consists of tiny keys, one for each ear, with two hearts within the bow of each key. Arguably, the most popular of key-simulacra-jewelry are the Tiffany key pendants (to be worn on a chain around the neck). Barbara Bixby's "Keys of Life Collection" is another well-known line (her jewelry appears to be featured frequently on QVC).

In one QVC community forum from 2010, the comment thread begins with a question, posed by user QVCDebt : "If I get a Tiffany key, can I always wear it?" There are 32 responses in this thread, and the discussion quickly waxes philosophical. One commenter, CamilleP from Oregon, wonders, sensitively and astutely, "I wonder if the re-emergence of keys in our [women's] modern jewelry wardrobe is something of a symbol that we have truly begun to return to a place of equal status and power in our society, where we were for so long treated as second class citizens."

I enjoy CamilleP's analysis. A sort of flipping Bluebeard the bird, one might say. The inverse of what a chastity belt connotes, perhaps: up here, around my throat, a glittering symbol of choice.

7. Dark Alley Key Fantasies

Mark Ramsay/Flickr

1. One day, I will be walking down a dark alley (you know the kind: rainy, puddles, garbage cans). A man takes out the trash through the back door of a Chinese restaurant. I hear footsteps behind me. Someone is there. I run, and so do they. I take a quick turn, and so do they. I approach a dead end, but notice that there's a door. It's locked. Footsteps quickening on the wet pavement behind me. What if....? I grab my keychain, find the key that I've kept without knowing what it went to. I've had it for years. For this, I realize, because the key fits into the lock in this door. The door opens, and I escape.

2. I am walking down a dark alley again (I should really stop doing this), and a stranger is following me. He's behind me. No dead end with a door this time. I'm going to fight him. I hold my keys between my fingers, stalagmite brass knuckles, and turn toward him, swinging. I escape easily. You have probably held your keys like this while walking, at least once. The places we love can protect us.

8. Keyspeak


What the lock on my door says: Faultless. What my keys say: Do not duplicate. Do it BEST. University Property. ilco. Schlage. NA 114C. RA 119-22F. This is a language of ownership, location, warning, instruction (not unlike Eat Me/Drink Me). The key speaks to those who use it, and those who made it. Here's where it came from, and here is how to make another, neat little formulas for existence. Skeleton key: a key that lets you in all of the doors in an old house; a key stripped down to only the most essential parts; a boney password; a key that allows you to pass through every door, a powerful ghost.

In one of The Matrix films, the characters are driven to search for someone called The Keymaker. He's nearly impossible to find. Eventually, they are granted access to his secret key-making studio. The Keymaker sits at a desk, engraving a key by hand, surrounded by thousands and thousands of keys, neatly hanging in tight rows. A honeycomb of keys. A keyhive. Upon being found by these characters, he says, "I've been waiting for you."

You can't speak directly to the sealed-off spaces waiting for you. You need a password, a key. The way to enter any place: hand-first, a secret handshake with the door, a whisper in its ear. I have a copy of the holes inside you, only filled in, you say, turning.

9. Lost

Mappery/Rebecca J. Rosen

Once you have entered a place, you no longer need your keys; you set them down, out of your mind. Link all your keys to one another, make a charm bracelet of where you go, and still, you can't always find them immediately. "Accept the fluster/ of lost door keys, the hour badly spent," Elizabeth Bishop directs us in her poem "One Art." Because keys are ridiculously easy to misplace, they can stand in for any number of seemingly small yet significant possessions.

Responses triggered by losing one's keys: frustration, panic, fear, anger. Bishop's poem culminates in disaster. In her first essay in A Field Guide to Getting Lost (a gorgeous book, and another muse for my course), "Open Door," Rebecca Solnit reminds us, "Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing...either way, there is a loss of control."

Lose a key, lose a place. Gain a space closed off to you, temporarily or forever. Gain a blind spot that you are itching to see, a hole punched into your life. A key protects the illusion that we own a thing or place permanently, that we have control over some part of the always-changing world.

Best to hold onto keys, even if (especially if) you're not sure what they open. Just in case. Or so you can remember how it felt to live in another country, another state, another home, an earlier version of the self you are now.