Counter Assault

by Nic Olson

We stood on the trail from the lake to our campsite, holding hands in fear of our premature deaths. What the fuck is that, I had wondered, an elk? It was a blondish brown patch of fur the size of a beach towel, stomping in the bush. It turned its body around for us to see enough of its shoulder to know that it wasn’t a charming, peaceful elk, but a medium-sized, overly curious grizzly. We backed our way down the path, jingled our keys and bear bells like distracted children at a Christmas pageant, trying to remember the advice from the Bear vs Human pamphlets. We spoke loudly, awkwardly. She recited poetry, I repeated it in booming baritone.

Not to lose the feel of the mountains
while still retaining the prairies
is a difficult thing. What’s lovely
is whatever makes the adrenalin run;
therefore I count terror and fear among
the greatest beauty. The greatest
beauty is to be alive, forgetting nothing
although remembrance hurts
like a foolish act, is a foolish act.

-John Newlove, excerpt from The Double-Headed Snake, The Wascana Poetry Anthology

The fear of death brought the idea of practice into our minds. The more your practice it, the less you fear it. The next week, (although we saw no more quadrupedal omnivores on the trail) we felt stronger, more secure, more confident in grizzly country. But the pressurized can of capiscum in my back pocket, Counter Assault Bear Spray, may have been the source of that confidence. By the tenth time I see a bear, fear will be an afterthought and the Coghlin’s Brand Survival Horn that we bought for a sense of security will be even more of a prank.

After nearly two weeks surrounded by a Matt Goud/Tim Barry/Ken Freeman/Allison Weiss tour, you learn to fear not death, but inaction. Don’t be afraid of dying, be afraid not to live, Tim would say most nights. A wasted life is worse than death. Not in a danceclub/yolo/butt-touch kind of way, but in a I’ve-wasted-enough-time-on-all-the-bullshit kind of way. These mantras ring throughout the art that most closely resonates with me. But ‘wasting’ is what needs to be discovered. What is living?

The greatest
beauty is to be alive, forgetting nothing

I’m reading books about writers. Fiction books. Bohemian authors of San Francisco or Toronto talk about the noble craft and its apparent sexual exploits. Dry literature, to me, but classic to many. It somehow puts the fear in me. Not the fear of death, but the fear of running out of things to say that are worth anything, the fear of writing about writing; writing about extramarital affairs, writing about ‘cultural eras’. So here I am, trying to scare the fear away the only way I know how. With practice.

I dream of quitting my day job to write. Drive across the country occasionally, wash dishes at the pizza place, sit in a grungy library facing a scuffed-up wall and do something as banal as ‘express myself’, being naive enough to think it might change someone’s perspective. But to me, not paying attention to your neighbour is a waste of both your life and theirs. Not living is comforts and distractions. Quitting to pursue a naive selfish dream of typing nonsense onto a dead tree or into a digital void, can seem like a waste. Is a waste.

But it may also be a waste to isolate, to work 11 hours a day even in the vague name of social justice, to sit in a stiflingly humid bachelor apartment overflowing with hats, broken bicycles, interprovincial beer. So which is it?

Not to lose the feel of the mountains
while still retaining the prairies
is a difficult thing…

It becomes a lot easier to fear not death, when it isn’t literally knocking on your fire escape window, asking your deteriorating body if you want a huff. To have the privilege to even make this choice is what eats me alive like a starved grizzly south of the Crow’s Nest Pass. And these words are my only Counter Assault.

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