Written by 6:56 pm Art Is Essential

Art is Essential Essays Vol. 4

Writers on the art that matters to them

Circumnavigating

Nancy Geyer

When my mother-in-law moved to Manhattan from Queens, we hurried to see her new apartment, arriving late at night, when the blinds were closed. In the morning I went right to a window. I saw a white pigeon take off from a rusty air-conditioner, and a pinwheel on a balcony turn one way and then the other. Across the street stood a seven-story school with a nondescript façade. All was still; the school year hadn’t begun. But as I started to turn away, what had fallen on my eyes began to register. Globes. A multitude of globes. In every classroom, in the middle of each sill. Window after window, floor after floor.

I felt a surge of excitement for the children, who would soon walk into those classrooms to find the world there to welcome them. So much possibility packed into that little sphere. Then, fickle as that pinwheel, I fell into regret—for all the places I might never see.

That was sixteen years ago, and I’ve left the U.S. only once since then. These days of pandemic, travel isn’t even a possibility. I’ve been going places vicariously, though, by way of Teju Cole’s book Blind Spot, which contains photographs Cole made around the world. In one, “Zurich,” a dozen globes are arranged on dusty glass shelves in a shop window, looking as if they’ve been waiting forever for someone to set them spinning. Most are partly in shadow, eclipsed. 

The brief, lyrical text that accompanies “Zurich” is uncannily apropos to the current situation. “Kitchen to living room,” Cole writes. “Bedroom to bathroom. Downstairs to get the mail . . . Up in the middle of the night for a glass of water.” Cole tallies the footsteps, most of them taken at home— surprisingly, given his apparent wanderlust—but some during an evening stroll, and calculates that a person who lives to eighty “will have circumnavigated the globe on foot four times over.”

Not could have circumnavigated the globe with those footsteps. Will have.


Nancy Geyer is an essayist and the art editor at Terrain.org. She lives in Washington, DC.


Born in 1975, Teju Cole is a writer, art historian, as well as a photographer. He works as the Gore Vidal Professor of the Practice of Creative Writing at Harvard University. 

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