When I was a child, I was fascinated by globes — my fascination lingers, although I no longer experience a compulsion to reach out and touch every single one I pass. I loved the globes in stands that could be tilted around in all different sorts of directions, although I was continually hung up on the question of which way was up. In space, where surely these things didn’t matter, who was to say that the North Pole was the top of the planet? Was it important?
These things, my father told me, were just declared for consistency and convenience, but it still troubled me. Even as a child I appreciated order and clearly definable things, with explanations for the details of my life. Thinking about the globe too much, and wondering about my own position on it, would make me uneasy and edgy, and I’d stare nervously at the pages of our atlas, wondering if it would feel less overwhelming in a flattened form. It didn’t; then I just got confused about why Greenland was suddenly swollen to a huge size, why the continents were distorted and strange, why the geography I thought I knew was suddenly so unfamiliar.
Fascination with sense of place is perennial for human beings. No wonder we were so determined to map everything, and so terrified of what happened when the map ran out. It wasn’t just a very real fear of not knowing how to navigate in strange lands and the risk of wreck, or loss at sea. It was also about that looming sense of something beyond, the unknown, where anything might happen and anything might be real. To map is to control, to understand the planet’s true shape and the way the currents move across its surface, another key victory in knowing our landscape and comprehending what lies ahead of us.
When my father explained the equinoxes and solstices to me, using a globe at the library, I remember his rough, nicotine-stained fingers on the frame of the globe, swinging it this way and that, tilting it, showing me the movement of the sun opposite, using the actual sun as a standin. The morning light shifted across the surface of the globe as he took it through summer, fall, winter, spring, and back again, the seasons looping round and round. I didn’t believe him when he told me the Earth’s orbit wasn’t a perfect circle, that planetary orbits in fact became more and more elliptical the further out you went.
I’d seen the mobile in my classroom, and I knew.
He showed me the moon, too, and how her journeys criss-crossed with the Earth and the sun, why the moon’s years were so much shorter than ours and how the moon eclipsed the sun sometimes, moving perfectly into place to mask its light from us. Unconsciously, all these years later, I mimic his movements when I’m talking about astronomy, when I’m explaining the seasons to someone. I pick up his cadence and tone, his lecturing voice, distinct from his casual conversational one, this is the voice that says you are going to learn things.
It can be a frustrating voice, a steamroller, a distancing voice, used as a distraction, an abstraction, to avoid an actual conversation. But it’s also a familiar one, obscurely comforting when you come from a family of pedants and you need to retreat into yourself for a moment, being there but not all there, soft, squishy bits tucked under your shell so no one can step on them. Even when it happens accidentally, it burns like fire when people stumble across your tender parts, and it is a tragic confluence of circumstances, to be a sensitive pedant.
On this year’s equinox, I can almost feel the globe slowly tilting into alignment, as though my father’s fingers are at the poles, painstakingly pushing it into the perfect position. Then I wonder if we will be frozen here for a moment while my father gestures, draws a hand across South America, points at the equator, before slowly pushing at the North Pole again, forcing the planet to lean further and further away to his hand, exposing its belly to the sun, warming the Southern Hemisphere in the brilliant, harsh light. Once there, the planet will be poised for a moment, tilted while he gesticulates and we talk about the myth of water spinning the wrong way round drains in the Southern Hemisphere.
When he taught me about the seasons, I had never been south of the equator. I crossed that very landmark for the first time this year, silently, without fanfare — after years of reading about shipboard dunkings, I found a certain sadness in the fact that Air New Zealand didn’t send around moist towelettes or some other nod to tradition, but it was the middle of the night. We crept across the horizon and I watched a new country spread out before me, and I confess that when I deplaned and went into the bathroom, I watched closely as I washed my hands.
Just in case. Just because sometimes, myths are true, and sometimes, if you wish for it hard enough, a myth will spiral into existence for you and delight you.
But it wasn’t to be; instead, all I saw was water pouring down a drain, and all I could hear was the overhead call for my next flight, warning me that my time was coming soon.