A way of living

I almost threw it away. Like the others, it was so layered with paint that it revealed its shape -- that of a window lock -- only in the most general ways. I had unscrewed it from its ledge where the two sashes meet in order to paint the windows. Fidding with it, I noticed its spring was broken. One more item in this old house of ours, I thought, needing replacement. No matter: A nuisance, perhaps, but of little value. The new ones would probably be better.

So it lay in an old pie plate while winter shaded into spring and the painting got done. And then, a few weeks ago, it happened into the batch of other fixtures to be cleaned up. Feeling genial and inclusive -- for one cannot venture into paint removal unless time would otherwise hang heavy -- I let it take its place among the batch unwilling to subject it to the final rebuke of the wastebasket.

Now, there is a certain thrill of discovery attendant upon renovation. Some discoveries are small, like noticing the square nail in the stairwell. Some are large, like finding hand-hewn beams under the living room ceiling. And some, small in size, are large in significance.

Like the window lock. The paint remover took it gradually back through the strata of its history, from white to light green and down to a particularly astonishing red. And as I chipped and scraped, one thing became most apparent. This was no ordinary winow lock.

It was, in fact, a minor piece of art, or, if that term needs to be reserved for special use, of artisanship. Steel most of the way, it culminated in a brass handle on the top. But what left me string was the detail. Both base and brass were laced with a frieze of decoration around the edge, the intricate lines founded in low relief.

What could they have had in mind, I remember thinking -- those old boys who lavished such care on an ordinary window lock? Were they casting about for extra work? Were they laboring at the cutting edge of high fashion? Were they trembling under the watchful eye of buyers who would toss aside their work if it were less than the hardware equivalent of haute couturem ? Or were they responding to the demands of the Edwardian age (from which I suppose it came) and compelling even the most indifferent items to combine beauty with utility?

Grabbing a rag, I wiped it dry and ran to show my wife -- for all the world, no doubt, like five-year-old with a new toy bulldozer. But what else does one do in those situations? Some things have to be shared -- although I suspect her kindly expression of interest was tempered with surprise that such trivia could generate such delight. But there it was, and I was no more free to set it aside unheralded than a returning Columbus would have been able to reply to Queen Isabella's question "What did you find?" with "oh, nothing."

But what had I found, anyway? Surely it was more than a broken bit of metal. And surely it was more than the satisfaction of having staved off the wolves of costly repair with the stout cudgel of innovative thrift.

In the end, I suppose, my delight had something to do with coming back in touch, however fleetingly, with an entire age. It was as tough, in small and delicate ways. I had discovered not only an object but an entire as in individuals, our largest motives and concerns are in fact revealed in our approach to the smallest things. I remember once reading an essay by an art connoisseur who was convinced that he could detect forged portraits by looking at the ears. He reasoned subject's individual ears. Instead, he simply reproduced his own conception of the ear in every painting, style as characteristic of him as his own fingerprint. As ears to michelangelo, so window locks to fixturemakers: items so insignificant that they spoke of unconscious habits reflecting an entire period.

And if so, what were those artisans saying? Maybe only this: that there are ways of living that elevate even the most mundane objects into a place in the pattern of our lives. That every made thing upon which the eye lights has the capacity to satisfy our innate sense of visual design. And that no oppurtunity for providing that satisfaction, however tiny, ought to be lost.

It is a cast of mind that, as words like "productivitym " and "costm "rise in popularity, we seem to be losing. And yet, I furtively wonder, ism that a loss entirely to be regretted? For living among tradition is so often confused, these days, with living among decoration -- filling one's home, or town, or country, with so many items from the past that the new has little chance to take root. Even a window lock has a responsibility to bear in that milieu. Maybe, after all, an unobstrusive, undecorated lock is an admission of great himility. Maybe it confesses that the natural world beyond the window, rather than anything man might set in its way, is what most matters.

Yet even there, so close upon a conclusion, comes the eternal "but". For what if our modern locks are no more than expressions of carelessness? What if all they mean is, "Here is something stamped out with no imagination and got on the cheap"? What will they say, those tinny ear-shaped things, about us to future ages?

I do not know. I have refitted the unpainted lock to the window again and put back the tools. No doubt some future craftsman, seized by the desire for consistency, will paint it woodwork-color again. And so it will go, posing its question over and over, carrying forward that potential for discovery which elevates life out of drabness into grace.

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