“Distance is the soul of beauty.”
– Simone Weil
“The best views in Victoria are of another country,” poet Nicholas Bradley said. In spring 2019, I invited him to speak to my class of international students at Royal Roads University, just outside of Victoria on Vancouver Island. Professor Bradley was delivering his talk in a third-floor room whose suite of windows offered a panorama of peaks he’d written about in his poetry, including that of Mount Olympus.
However, there is nothing to view, just a poignant vibration, at one important spot before Mount Olympus. Twenty kilometers down the Strait, as the crow flies, the Canadian border touches palms with that of the United States. Two nations straining at one another as if curious beasts separated by glass.
Having been born in the United States and recently become a Canadian permanent resident through my husband, I have one hand on each side.
Staring out the windows of that third-floor room, I saw the mountains surge toward me, their snowy peaks like memories foaming at the mouth.
“There’s something useful about being able to view your country from a distance,” Professor Bradley assured us.
Rebecca Solnit wrote an essay about regarding San Francisco, where I lived for a decade, from across the water in redwood-rich (and just rich) Marin County: “Some things we have only as long as they remain lost, some things are not lost only so long as they are distant.”
I agree with both of them. Distance is clarity, sharpened on a far wind.
Before Canada, my husband and I lived in Japan’s Yamanashi prefecture, on the less glamorous side of Mount Fuji. There are mountain views from Yamanashi, yes, but it is Shizuoka prefecture that provides the postcard-perfect shots. In Hokusai’s 36 Views of Mount Fuji, Yamanashi hosts precious few scenes.
In December 2016, while fighting a severe lupus flare, I spent several weeks in a hospital in Kofu, capital of Yamanashi prefecture. The address of this hospital literally translates as “Fuji-viewing neighborhood,” and it wasn’t a lie. If I chose, I could enjoy a stunning sight of that mountain from my hospital bed. The problem was, people with systemic lupus are photosensitive and must avoid exposure to UV rays, even through windows, especially when suffering a flare. So I had to keep my curtains closed.
But I knew Fuji was there, just beyond my vision. And knowing that, I longed for it all the more.
In 1930, Kuki Shūzō, a Japanese writer and philosopher, inked an essay about native aesthetics called “The Structure of Iki.” He envisioned iki, often translated into “chic,” as an interplay of three aspects: coquetry, bravado, and resignation, each of which he defined in an unusual way. “The essence of coquetry is that whilst approaching as far as distance allows, the difference in distance does not reach extreme limits,” he wrote.
As I move through Victoria and its outskirts, I drift toward and away from the U.S. and its mountains, but they always remain within sight. The difference in distance between us does not reach extreme limits.
In other words, I flirt.
When I was little, I dreamed of living abroad. Now, I have little choice in the matter. My diagnosis of systemic lupus and previous bouts of mental illness dot my medical chart like marks of Cain. If the Republicans succeed in abolishing protections for pre-existing conditions, I’ll be doomed in the U.S., like so many others. Yet living in Canada with health care, I feel the guilt of the survivor.
I also feel the allure of the denied object when I glance at Mount Olympus. I find myself nodding over what Mishima wrote in one of his final novels before he ended his life by ritual suicide: “Once we are even marginally separated from what we can touch, the object is sanctified; it acquires the beauty of the unattainable, the quality of the miraculous.”
The United States knows how to play hard-to-get.
Kuki Shūzō pointed out that there is distance in language as well. The French courtisane is a kissing cousin of Japanese words for women of the night like geisha and oiran. But within each word there is a secret chamber, like the heart of a nautilus shell, packed with cultural baggage. Outsiders rarely travel that far inside.
Words are also conditioned by where you are on the map, and where you started from. The word “outsider” likely sounds different to me in Canada than it does to an Indigenous person or a Syrian refugee.
On the Royal Roads campus, non-Indigenous people are the outsiders. Their mission statement welcomes Indigenous people as well as the descendants of European immigrants. To be white and acknowledged as an immigrant feels refreshing.
Mount Olympus went through several name changes. A Spanish explorer swapped out its Native American appellation, Sunh-a-do, for El Cerro de la Santa Rosalia. Then, four years later, a British explorer opted for the classical Greek reference. Language colonizes even mountains.
It can work the other way, thankfully. About ten years ago, Canadian and American officials agreed to group several bodies of water, including the Strait of Juan de Fuca, under the name, the Salish Sea, in honor of the Coast Salish, a group of Indigenous peoples who inhabit the Pacific Northwest.
Sight-seeing is an exercise in power. So is sight-looking-away.
Most of us grasp, in this time of hostility toward outsiders, the privilege of white skin and that of citizenship. Supplied with both, I find pleasure in being a foreigner, and especially in observing myself the same way I observe the alpine tableau across the waters. That is, from the outside.
Sometimes, when I confront Mount Olympus, I dream of gliding there. Not by boat. I fantasize about just letting go of this mooring and pushing off toward another shore, sleighed over the water, arms outstretched, by a flock of South-bent birds.
When I was a child, I loved to ride the swan boats in the Boston Common. Mallards sailed across the pond, untroubled by tourists and boats. Each drake a quickened world of brown and emerald, as if every creature on this planet were made of earth and gems. As if each were carved from a land where all belonged everywhere.
My mother and stepfather came to visit me here in Victoria. My stepfather, suffering from Alzheimer’s, kept asking, “Have I been here before?”
When we spoke of their home in Florida, he asked me, even though we had lived there together for eight years, “Have you been there?”
How does the view change if you don’t know where you or anyone you love has been?
I wonder what I’ve forgotten across the waters.
June 2020. The border between Canada and the U.S. is now closed. The Royal Roads campus is shut down too. The pandemic rages beyond the mountains’ wall.
I watch Mount Olympus from my sunporch.
Everything so beautiful from here.