When is a door not a door? When it’s a jar. Ahahahahahaha

I presume you, like me, first heard that joke in your childhood. You probably also heard “You make a better door than a window,” meaning you can’t be seen through, so get out of the line of sight. You’re a closed door; open up.

So is a door that’s ajar closed or open?

It’s a jarring question. If a door is ajar, you can’t necessarily just walk right in. But it’s not quite closing you out either. You don’t know if it’s meant to be open, or to be closed, or to be… neither. Just to leave a crack to let the light get through, or to allow a bit of fresh air. This door, this boundary, this limen, is in a liminal condition. It is not sealed, but it is not open enough for a person to pass through. It may or may not be open enough for a cat to pass through. The only way to know for sure is to ask Erwin Schrödinger to lend us his, and then observe.

But wait. Schrödinger’s cat is in a closed box, and its state becomes known when the box is opened. What if the box is ajar?

A jar, as we know, is a round container. Usually jars have lids that screw on. They turn, deturn, return. Is an incompletely screwed-on lid ajar?

Can a sliding door be ajar?

In my world, ajar is not a word for a sliding door. Ajar means the possibility of nudging and turning. Of jarring it open or closed. It is just that disturbance that would resolve it.

Is that what ajar comes from? There is a word ajar which means ‘to be in a jarring state’; it’s roughly synonymous with ‘awry’. But the ajar for doors is not that ajar. Its jar comes not from jar as in discord (“a jarring sound”); rather, it is a turn served on char, an old word which means ‘turning back, returning’. So. Returning to closed or to open?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, on char is ‘on the turn, in the act of shutting’. Which would seem to answer the question of whether a door that is ajar is slightly open or slightly closed: by origin, it is pushed towards shut but not fully closed. Who, after all, would push a door just slightly open?

Who but a person who wanted to indicate that the door was openable, perhaps. Awaiting an arrival… or a return. Perhaps the person on the other side is listening to Steely Dan on their album Aja singing “Peg”: “It will come back to you…” (Steely Dan also sing “go back, Jack, and do it again,” but that’s on Pretzel Logic, and it seems to me that the logic of ajar is not so much of a pretzel as of a Möbius loop, the one side being in truth the same as the other.)

Or perhaps the person wants to come out but doesn’t want to. Or doesn’t want to but wants to. Or simply hasn’t gotten the momentum. Or wants to be neither in nor out. Or wants you to be neither in nor out.

Or is a cat, of course. In a perpetual state of uncertainty: in theory neither one nor the other; in reality oscillating and vacillating.

Does every door that opens eventually shut, and does every door that shuts eventually open? When you say “ajar,” your tongue swings shut onto the ridge behind your teeth, and then with a slight hesitation swings open again. Returning is the motion of the tao, and it seems to be the motion of the door. But returning to open or to closed? What is the destiny of the door, what is its assigned role? Open, shut, both, neither? Would Arjuna counsel it to be unajar? Is a door that is barely open or barely closed a real door? Or is it the only real door, the only door that, when you come to it, frames the decision as yours?

3 responses to “ajar

  1. Two memories triggered:

    My (older) sister would say “you’re a pain but I can’t see through you.”

    Also, I remember some plant that came with instructions to allow for some fresh air. “Crack the window a bit.”

  2. When I am at the doctor, or the chiropractor, and they ask me to strip down to my skivvies and put on the backless gown, they always say “crack the door when you’re ready”. They never say to put the door ajar.

    More common is “leave the door ajar”, but that definitely connotes not quite shutting it, rather than opening it a bit.

    On the other hand, why would I want to crack the door? In a previous life as a doorhanger, I would often see old doors where the varnish had dried out and cracked, sometimes to the point where the veneer cracked and delaminated. But that’s not what they mean. Sometimes they say “crack the door open”, which clearly means “open it by just a crack”. Whether “a “crack” is as much as “ajar” is a question I hadn’t pondered. Is it intentional, or do the nurses just not know the word “ajar”? I think it’s intentional. One one does not “open the door ajar” or “put the door ajar”–or at least I have never heard it phrased that way. Those verbs just don’t resonate with ajar. Perhaps they would resonate in a bell jar, or a doorbell? Perhaps they should have a doorbell in the exam room, so that you would ring for them to open the door and come in? I’m trying to imagine a special doorbell you might have at your front door: one to request entry, the other to ask you to come out.

    Owl (WOL) in Winnie the Pooh had a somewhat similar arrangement:
    “Owl lived at The Chestnuts, and old-world residence of great charm, which was grander than anybody else’s, or seemed so to Bear, because it had both a knocker and a bell-pull. Underneath the knocker there was a notice which said:
    Underneath the bell-pull there was a notice which said:

    These notices had been written by Christopher Robin, who was the only one in the forest who could spell; for Owl, wise though he was in many ways, able to read and write and spell his own name WOL, yet somehow went all to pieces over delicate words like MEASLES and BUTTEREDTOAST.”
    But eventually WOL removed the bell-pull; it turned out that it was Eeeyore’s missing tail. And thereby hangs the tale.

    And perhaps a door “hangs” ajar. But you still wouldn’t say “please hang the door ajar”, because it’s already hung. And the doorbell left unrung. Especially if there isn’t one.

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