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Daily Constitutionals

By Nance Van Winckel

I’ve had some lovely walks along the Spokane River trail and in nearby state parks, but on such hikes, a walker must keep constant vigilance over the feet and all that could trip them up: the skateboarders, the rocks and roots and chuck holes. So for my daily constitutionals, I most prefer the quiet side streets. Plugged in to the 5,000 songs on my iPod, packing along my canteen, my shades, my camera, I’m off. I cruise. I figure I log in 20-30 miles a week, all seasons.

Also, I confess I most prefer the sights of the streets. I love the decorated front porch stoops, the yard ornaments, the homemade fountains and festooned patios. The lavish and professionally manicured gardens don’t draw my eye nearly as much as the chess-playing frogs on a stump or the weathervane that’s clearly seen so much weather it can no longer say which way the wind blows. I take its picture. Someone has loved it well and put a pot of geraniums beneath it. Turn a corner, and there’s an angel keeping watch over the few bright green leaves in her chipped pot.

Style, said T.S. Eliot, is an extension of personality. And personality rises up from these yards as I rush by. I slow down. There’s such a warmth and charm about the cracked gnome, and surely, I think, there’re not nearly enough gnomes in this world.

I am fascinated by the seemingly endless small ways people arrange things—the quaint or quirky, the dear or dorky, kitschy or lovely—in their personal space so they can be shared by others. It seems important that people do this, not just that these things stand as welcomes to the passersby, but that these things stand as a shared understanding and respect for the importance of beauty in our lives.

Ordinary loveliness is how I think about the sights I see on my walks, and I think what I most appreciate about this loveliness IS its ordinariness. Beauty need not be about the marble fountain or the eerily green, chemically enhanced lawn. The residents of such homes are less known to me than the day-sleeper (or so the sign on the trailer house says) whose plaster paint-chipped cherubs peek out between shrubs. Clearly I am peeking back. Our gazes meet.

I’m most attracted to the objects that seem to have lived a good life and survived, as most of us do, our share of trouble. The object settles into a certain repose. It doesn’t mind a few weeds or a vine. It’s okay about being half-forgotten. It appears part of its place, as if it’s grown there, set down roots. In some ways these objects seem to have been freed of the burden of having to BE beautiful: the “burden of intentionality,” as we say in the poetry biz. Not having to be beautiful, they are even more so. Unlike the gleaming bronze sculptures, the “ordinary” object is not quite so full of itself. And being less full it can, in turn, allow in more of us, more of our wonderment, our curiosity. There is a space for us to enter. A point of contact. It’s a point of our own making. “Awe” is not required.

The objects that make up the yard “art” usually have a history, a story. The homeowner comes outside to tell me about it, pleased that I’ve knocked on her door and asked permission to take its picture. This one’s a great grandmother’s washing machine, and it carries so much with it—a particular woman’s past, and the past of women in general. All of that now overflows with petunias and fragrant verbena. I have to get down on my knees for this shot, which I gladly do. I shoot the shot. Years leak into the shadows. Generations flash by.

Over the last few months, as I’ve watched the devastatingly sad images from the Gulf Coast cross my TV screen, I find myself returning to these digital images I’ve culled from my neighborhood streets. How lucky we are. How grateful I am for the most ordinary in life. How doubly grateful for its loveliness.


Nance Van Winckel's fourth collection of poetry is Beside Ourselves (Miami University Press, 2003). A new collection of poems is forthcoming from U. of Washington Press. She's received a Pushcart Prize, Poetry Magazine’s Friends of Literature Award, and two NEA Fellowships. Recent poems appear in APR, Ploughshares, Poetry, New Letters, and The Massachusetts Review. She's also published three books of short fiction, most recently Curtain Creek Farm (Persea Books, 2000), and is the recipient of a 2005 Christopher Isherwood Fiction Fellowship and the Patterson Fiction Award. New short stories appear in The Georgia Review and Agni. She teaches in the MFA programs at Eastern Washington University and Vermont College.

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