Turning Thoughtfulness into Gratitude

How to turn your things into a valuable, badly needed resource…

step2 storage bin

#600: Step2 plastic toy storage bin — Freecycled October 2014

Here’s another reason for getting rid of things thoughtfully: gratitude.

The world could use a lot more gratitude. Surely if there is one thing we can agree on in our contentious, polarized society, it’s that there is a shortage of gratitude. Imagine if there were hidden, largely undiscovered reservoirs of gratitude just waiting to be released, easy to find and use.

Well, it turns out there are: just look in your basement…or attic…or garage — anywhere you’ve got lots of stuff you’re not using, you don’t need, and someone else might use.

That was one of the biggest lessons I learned from the 1000 things project: our things are vast deposits of untapped gratitude. I was sitting on a gold mine of good will, a Prudhoe Bay of positive energy to give to the world. Or at least it felt that way every time I overcame my resistance to giving away a (formerly) useful or expensive thing I owned.

I realized abstractly that people would be grateful to receive things I gave away, but I didn’t expect any more than polite expressions of gratitude. I was focused on getting rid of things, not on receiving anything from that process. So it was a bit of a surprise when people said more than simple polite thank-yous — nothing elaborate, just taking the time to say a few words of appreciation, or how they would use the thing and why they were grateful to have it. It was even more of a surprise when I started feeling gratified about giving things away, rather than simply being relieved to be rid of them.

The experience of creating gratitude made it a lot easier for me to give away things I didn’t need anymore — at least sometimes.  It certainly wasn’t automatic; I often had to go through the process of confronting various mantras about holding on to certain things:  A relative might be able to use it. It’s probably worth something. I should get some money for it. But gradually, I started to learn that I got more satisfaction from giving some things away than I ever would have gotten from any money I would have received.

In the process, I also learned an even more powerful truth: giving things away created new stories, based on generosity and gratitude.  The process of giving the thing away was the story sometimes; other times, it was hearing the story about a new attachment, a new role this thing was going to play in someone else’s life.  At a basic level, the story was simple: thing gets used instead of sitting in my house doing nothing and benefiting no one. Usually the stories were a little more substantive than that. For example, here’s an email I got from someone who took an old golf push and pull cart (#29; freecycled May 2014).

“Thanks so much. Just last weekend I played golf with my son and I was telling him that if I’m going to start using a cart, I need to get one rather than rent it. This is just what I was thinking of.”

It was gratifying to think of this golf cart being released as a tool for a father and son to spend time together. This in turn echoed the cart being a connection between my son and me in a different way: we never played golf together (I hadn’t golfed for ages and had no plans to do so), but I’d let him cannibalize the cart for a couple of school projects — the wheels were particularly valuable, and I remember it feeling liberating at the time to re-purpose the cart to a more engaging use.  Afterwards, though, I had a piece of junk on my hands unless I fixed it; but I was able to find the parts and put it back together except for a couple of screws at the wheels — not perfect but good enough to give away.

The plastic toy storage bin in the picture above (#600) was another gratifying example, in part because I resisted getting rid of it for some time. The bin was durable and weather resistant, so it had spent a long time outside on our front porch holding various toys until I eventually realized I could consolidate those toys into another bin. Then I thought maybe my niece and her family could use it for some of their young daughter’s toys.  Slowly it dawned on me that it was not worth it to transport an old, somewhat dirty bin 150 miles when they could buy a new clean one cheaply and easily where they lived.  One by one, the mantras fell away, and I finally got the gumption to put it on Freecycle. I’d put it on the front porch with a sign as was my custom, and a couple came over to pick it up while I happened to be home. I was aware of their presence but didn’t see a need to greet them, until I noticed that they seemed to be there for a longer time than usual. So I went out to see what was going on and discovered that they were having problems putting the bin in their mid-size car.  They’d tried squeezing it into the back seat with no success, so I tried to help. The bin was too big for the trunk even after we unloaded it; I tried squeezing the bin into the back seat several times with equal lack of success. They were clearly looking forward to having the bin to use to store garden tools and supplies outside, but they were about ready to give up. Finally I noticed that the bin would fit fine in the back of my car and asked them how far away they lived. When they said about 20 minutes away, I offered to put the bin in my car and drive it over to their house for them. At first they demurred, but eventually they agreed, so I followed them over to their house, unloaded the bin, received their thanks, and returned home.

From a time value perspective, this was a lot of time to spend (one could say wasted) on this thing.  But from a gratitude perspective, it was well worth it.

Of course, getting something from giving to others, whether it’s time, energy, attention, or things, is timelessly human and nothing new.  Nonetheless, you too might find that giving away something is more rewarding than you might think.

Bandwidth, Part 2: Freeing Up More Mental Space

Managing our personal bandwidth for fun, health, and happiness…
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Image from Dr. Chuck Hillman, University of Illinois.*

How can we manage our own personal bandwidth for fun and happiness?  And by “we,” I mean “me” first: my main reason for posting this is as a giant online reminder note to myself that words are not enough and that sometimes only actions will do.  The picture above is a powerful reminder for me to get moving; I’ve seen it many times, but then it always disappears before I remember to capture it. So it’s captured here as an anchor to move me to action when needed.

Embrace, Be Aware, Visualize: The first steps in managing personal bandwidth were described in my previous post: embrace the concept of bandwidth, become aware of how your available bandwidth operates in your life, and visualize that in a way that makes sense for you. I’ve been using Activity Monitor to help me visualize my available bandwidth; here’s how that got started.

bandwidth narrow

Almost immediately after I got a new computer two years ago, this brand new MacBook Pro suddenly slowed down to a crawl for no apparent reason. It seemed to be happening while I was web browsing, but it would happen even if I had only one window open. Stymied and a little peeved that I was having trouble with a brand new computer, I called Apple Support, which is when I learned about Activity Monitor — one of those many apps on the Mac Launchpad that, if you’re like me, you don’t pay any attention to.

Activity Monitor performs many functions, including monitoring system memory use. The System Memory option will tell you what process are running on your computer (apps and behind the scenes processes) and what percentage of the CPU and how much real memory each process is using. When the Apple Support specialist asked me to read the system memory report, he quickly identified the culprit: a process called SafariDAVClient, which was hogging all the CPU capacity and a huge amount of real memory (a problem which, I learned later, was afflicting other Mac users as well).  After multiple phone calls, the Apple Support specialist was able to help me remove SafariDAVClient from the system memory, but unfortunately he could not identify a fix that solved the problem completely. So now I never use Safari because each time I do, SafariDAVClient appears and slows everything down to a stop, even though I thought that deleted that folder and removed SafariDAVClient from my computer. Oh well; I use Firefox now, and I don’t miss Safari a bit.

Green Circle Time: Another important step is to recognize our need for downtime.  Every once in a while, we all need to have a circle/pie that’s mostly green: chilling out, nothing wired or much active taking up our precious mental space — talking a hike or bike ride or walk in the park that require much effort, or zoning out in front of the TV if we must. And having moments where we seek a totally green circle on our bandwidth dashboard — this is what I imagine effective meditation to be — are really helpful and nice as well.

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The analogy is imperfect, of course. We can’t shut off our brains the way we can shut off our computers, even during sleep.  But it’s close enough for me. So, my quest for mental well-being has become a quest for more green space on the bandwidth pie.

One suggestion for doing this is to find those things that are bogging you down mentally. What are the “SafariDAVClient” processes in your life that are hogging your bandwidth and slowing your mind down to a crawl? How can you delete or move or otherwise work around them?  One of the SafariDAVClient processes that recurs in my life is pushing on when I’m tired. Having been a single parent for so long, I got used to the pattern of work-then-parenting for 12, 14, 16 hours a day for so long that I lost the internal mechanism that told me when I was tired. Being too tired to function was not an option, after all; so I learned to push and ignore feeling tired until my work was done, often falling asleep on the floor of my son’s bedroom after he’d fallen asleep in his bed.  After years of this, even when my son was old enough that I could lighten up a bit, there would be many evenings when I’d feel out of sorts — grumpy, a bit depressed, even a little hopeless — until eventually my therapist provided a valuable insight: I may be those things, but basically I was just plain tired. When I realized that, it took a big burden away, because it was true: I was simply tired. Realizing that made a huge difference, because I still knew what to do when I was tired; I just needed to regain the capacity to recognize when I was tired.

Some of my other current favorite strategies:

Meditation — daily if possible, even if it’s low quality (i.e., full of thoughts about the day).
Stretching time — especially good for me in the morning as a wake-up routine.
Designated chill out time — if I make a schedule for the day, the schedule is required to have a certain amount of down time built into the schedule. This is non-negotiable if at all possible.
– If I have one of those days where it’s just not possible to have enough or any down time, I do my best to make sure that I have a day soon after with plenty of down time — a half day, or a four-hour block at least. If I don’t do this, I find my not-so-subconscious self doing this anyway — dawdling longer on Facebook or online, finding an undemanding chore which suddenly cannot go undone for another moment, staying out longer on the run or the bike ride — you recognize the pattern.
– If I have a string of days where downtime is impossible or in short supply, I do my best to schedule an off-day — again, I find it better to do this consciously than to find my not-so-subconsious self doing this anyway.  If I do it consciously, then I get to enjoy it more.

Sometimes the best way to chill is to do something active: take a walk, do an exercise routine, go for a run. Especially if you’re someone like me whose work involves sitting at a computer for long stretches during the day, it’s important to remember the health hazards of sitting and do something about it.

There’s probably nothing new in these suggestions; no doubt you’ve done or read most if not all of them. I know I have — and yet here I sit, typing away, when what I should be doing is something active — anything. So off I go…

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*Can be found in various locations; this one is from Explore, a blog by Maria Popova.

Bandwidth, Part 1: Visualizing Our Free Mental Space

How’s your bandwidth these days?…
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My bandwidth’s not been so good lately. It’s been a bear of a month workwise — 45, 50, even 60+-hour workweeks; not a day off yet and there probably won’t be one; and the end is not yet in sight (although certainly in mind).

[Sidebar for my DC, NYC, and other workaholic friends/folks: Yes, I know that you laugh in the face of 45-50 hour work weeks, which are routine for you. Yes, I know that you work hard. You work too hard. Stop working so hard. And spending so much time on Facebook and web surfing while you’re at work supposedly working hard. ;-)]

As you might expect, I’ve been short on bandwidth recently — certainly not as much as I’d like. You know what I’m talking about: the amount of time (or energy or resources) we have available to take on something new, or to handle what’s on our plate without being unpleasantly stressed out about it. I’ve taken to calling this ‘bandwidth’ because it captures my sense of how I experience the mental side of daily life. If I have plenty of bandwidth, I’m happy, or at least OK. If I have too little bandwidth, I find my mind and my life slowing down to a unhappy crawl.

I’m surprised I don’t hear more people talking about their bandwidth. There’s really only one colleague I can think of who talks about his bandwidth, which he started doing a few years ago if I remember correctly.  I thought it was an interesting way to look at it, but didn’t think much more of it.

Then the idea of monitoring my personal bandwidth took hold for me a couple of years ago when I started using the Activity Monitor app on my Mac computer. (more about that story in a later post). Once I discovered Activity Monitor, I started using it regularly to monitor my computer’s bandwidth. This was useful if I was going to do something like run a session on a synchronous program such as Adobe Connect or Blackboard Collaborate. Or, if my computer was running a bit slow, I could look and see why, and then I could decide which of the eight applications and 30 open files (yes, I’m one of those kind of computer users) I could close to free up some memory.

It wasn’t long before I started thinking about this applied to my own CPU, aka brain. It was easy to imagine having a Activity Monitor-like dashboard which told me how much mental bandwidth I had at any one moment. For example, here’s how my dashboard might look if my brain was full with stuff:
bandwidth really narrow 215
Not much bandwidth there.  Probably a sign that that my mind was likely already slowing down, even if I didn’t realize it yet, and that I need to back off of something — close some files, forget about this or that for the moment — until there was a workable amount of bandwidth again.

Here’s how it might look if I had plenty of available bandwidth:
bandwidth wide
If I my dashboard looked like this (above), I’d know I have plenty of mental space to take on a new activity or project — or maybe just cruise along for awhile.

Or if my dashboard looked like this (below), I’d know that I was still OK but that I needed to be wary as they’re probably wasn’t much room left to take on anything else:
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Another feature I like about the Activity Monitor dashboard is the notion of “active,” “inactive,” and “wired” space. There seems to be parallels in how our minds work in daily life (or at least in how we experience them). “Active” describes those activities and tasks in which you’re actively and consciously engaged at any particular moment — those tasks that are in the foreground of your doing and being in the moment. “Wired” is that level of memory you need to have going at all times whenever you’re plugged in, no matter how undemanding the other tasks might be that you’re doing at that particular moment. Then there’s “inactive,” which is that memory you’re using when you think you’re not using any — for instance, “vegging out” in front of the TV which is not as inactive as we think it is.

While I pay the most attention to my available, “free” bandwidth — the green portion of Activity Monitor’s system memory circle (or pie chart if you prefer) — is the one I watch the most, because that tells me the most about how mentally serene or frazzled I’m feeling at any particular moment.

How have I used this idea to manage my own personal bandwidth for fun and happiness? More on that in the next post…

Every thing we own has a story

Why it’s so hard to get rid of things…

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#572: license plate

The biggest reason that it’s so hard to get rid of things is because every thing we own has a story to tell.  These stories vary wildly, and some are much more compelling than others, but each story forms the basis for an attachment to that thing.

Some of these stories that keep us attached to our things have to do with past uses of the objects themselves, others more to do with the memories they evoke.  Indeed, many of the things we own have such compelling stories that the stories themselves take on lives of their own.  Case in point: my old license plates (#570-579; also see pic above), which I recycled very reluctantly at first, because putting them in the metal recycling bin transported me on a flood of memories with each one — memories of the car the plate was on, memories of living in that place at that time, memories of love and marriage and fun weekend excursions and of lives past, my own and others.  In fact, the only way I could get rid of the license plates was to take pictures of them and to tell myself that the pictures would evoke the memories just as powerfully as the actual metal objects did.  (This technique served me well on many occasions, as will also be described in future stories.)

I also balked briefly about getting rid of the plates thanks to the idea that they could be put to some creative use; I imagined my license plates on a bar wall or maybe a mailbox (one of the LittleFreeLibrary structures in my town is decorated with license plates) or something like that. Then the cliche moment passed, and I realized that the pictures were good enough; my license plates did not require a physical future in their present form.

The power of each thing’s story also depends on our degree of mindfulness about it. It might not be much of a story if I throw away a battery, for example — unless I start caring about the possible effect of that battery on our environment. The county government says it’s OK to throw out old batteries in the trash, but other groups disagree.  How much should I care? What should I do? Whatever the decision, my experience was that being mindful about things almost inevitably led to discovering, or creating, a story about that thing, even if it was a small story. For instance:

– Alkaline batteries got saved for years — lots of them — until I found a place to recycle them: in this case, Mom’s Organic Market in College Park, which is not near my house but is conveniently located near REI, so I dropped the bag off (#1047*) during a visit to REI to buy a bicycle rack to replace the one which was recently stolen off my front porch. In the process, I discovered a new grocery store to shop in whenever I’m in the area; I bought a few interesting food items like Gardenburgers, which I haven’t had in years (pretty good actually, a lot better than expected); I felt a bit virtuous and glad to have found a place to take care of those batteries responsibly. (Longer story.)
– I uncovered a single stray battery somewhere soon after that; I wasn’t ready to start a new collection of old batteries, and I just didn’t want to deal with it at that moment.  My county government says it’s OK to throw out old batteries in the trash, so I tossed it (#1093*). A bit more thoughtless, but everyone has their limits. (Short story.)

Not all of the stories are particularly interesting either, but interest isn’t the only form of attachment.  For instance, the story of a battery charger (#860) that I recycled at the county dump wasn’t that interesting a story — I bought a battery charger a long time ago (maybe 10 years? 12 years?), and I used it for awhile during a period when I tried to be environmentally responsible by using only rechargeable batteries. It worked for awhile until I was overwhelmed by the voracious appetite for batteries in our household during the Game Boy-driven, digital camera and other electronic device-crazed early teen years. Eventually, I decided that battery use was going to have to fall in my environmental deficit column for awhile, even after the deluge of battery demand subsided in my son’s later teen years. Still, I held onto to the battery charger for years of non-use because I thought I might use it again Some Day. Eventually, I decided that maybe someone else would be more likely to use it and that it was time to get rid of that attachment. I can always buy another one if I decide to get serious about using only rechargeable batteries again. Hmmm — maybe there’s more of a story there than I realized.

Many of the things in the 1000 things project have far more interesting stories to tell, of course, and I’ll be telling many of them in future posts…

*Technically, the batteries belong in the “2nd 1000 things” project (currently underway), but they fit the narrative, so I’m gonna go ahead and confuse things a little for now.

Ground Rules #4: The Ultimate Goal

“I might find it useful someday” and other powerful mantras…

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A sander (not one of the 1000 things — see below for explanation)

Beyond the goals listed in my previous post, I wanted the 1000 things project to bring me closer to one more overarching, ultimate goal: living in a dwelling in which every physical object I have has some sort of identifiable purpose or meaning.

If there was a light at the end of this project tunnel, it was this notion, or ideal if you will: what would it be like to live in a place where you could look at any object you had and know why you had it?  Know that it had a value or purpose and be able to say what that was? I meant this beyond simple utilitarian reasons: anyone can tell you why they own a hammer, for example — in case you need to hammer things. But ideally I’d like to justify owning that hammer for reasons simply beyond ‘because I can (afford it)’ — Why did I get it in the first place? When was the last time I actually used it? When is the next time I’m likely to use it? If I can’t answer either of these latter two questions, why do I still have it? Why do I have four or five of them? (Which I do, more or less…). Actually, I can’t tell you how many hammers I have, which is just one of many indicators of how far I am from my stated ideal.

I didn’t expect that getting rid of 1000 things would get me to this ultimate goal of every thing I own having identifiable purpose or value, but I hoped that it would give me a reasonably good idea of how close I was to that goal, or even whether such a goal was attainable.  Standing in the way, I learned, was a formidable phalanx of mantras which embody various beliefs, ideas, attachments, and other impediments to getting rid of 1000 things I own.

Having a hammer (or a few different ones for different purposes) is easy to justify, so here’s a better example. I own a sander (see picture above) which I got from my dad’s workshop when we were cleaning out my parents’ house after my dad’s passing. The decision to take the sander was one minor skirmish during the Battle of the Basement, which was a major part of the War of What to Do with All Our Parents’ Stuff.  The war and its battles were always about deciding what to do with yet another thing so carefully saved for Some Day. Once my parents died, Some Day became days upon days of reckoning for us three adult children, constantly battling with decision after decision of what to do with so many things of tangible value found amongst a myriad of other things, most of which could not be saved without subjecting ourselves to the same thing-filled existence as our parents had lived. Inevitably there were seemingly endless battles which seesawed back and forth between We Can’t Just Throw This Thing Out; It’s Worth Something and If I Have to Decide What to Do with One More Thing, I’m Gonna Go Crazy.

OK, I may be exaggerating — slightly. Anyway, in the case of the sander, I took it with the notion that I might find it useful someday — a common mantra which explains a lot of the things in our house. I can’t remember if I ever used it, although my son used it some years ago for a high school project.  When will I ever use it to sand anything again? The likely answer is never — yet that sander did not become one of the 1000 things; I still have it because ‘I might find it useful someday” is also a very powerful mantra. In fact, it’s one of many powerful mantras which I encountered along the way, both old acquaintances and new, that keep us bound to our things — mantras like:

  • “It might be worth something”
  • “I paid a lot for that; I can’t just give it away”
  • “My son might want that some day”
  • “This was my favorite [x] when I was a kid”
  • “I might want to look through those (papers, pictures, drawings, etc.) some day”

Thanks to these and many other such mantras, at times it felt like ending a personal relationship every time a thing went out the door. Not always, but often enough. Along the way, the nagging question became: why is this so hard to do mindfully, responsibly? What’s going on here? These mantras go a long way toward explaining why, but there is an even deeper, more important reason why we are so attached to our stuff. More on that in the next post…

Ground Rules #3: Why a “project”?

Why in the world did I do this? Why would anyone do this? Also fair questions… Featured image

#674: an old suitcase (speaking of baggage…)

It’s also worth explaining why I called the “1000 things project” a project. I knew from the start that, like any project, the 1000 things project would require a significant amount of effort and commitment, a target timeline, some planning along the way, and the willingness to change and adapt as the project went on.  Most importantly, the 1000 things project was motivated by a particular set of goals, which are worth explaining in more details. My goals for the project were these:

Make my house look and feel noticeably less cluttered. My house is not all that large (1400 sq. ft. or so), so even though I don’t have a lot of stuff compared to many people I know, I don’t have a lot of space for what I do have.  There were numerous clusters of things (which I came to call “nests”) scattered about the house. Some of these were still useful (the coat tree and the recycling area, for instance) but many of them had long ago lost their purpose or never really had one to begin with: things just gravitated to certain places and settled there without any particular purpose or value. So I wanted to change that.

Gain insights into my attachment to things, both in general and relative to specific objects.  As I started looking more closely and consciously at the things I had, naturally it wasn’t long before I started questioning why I had many of them. How did I get them in the first place? Why do I have still have them? What’s stopping me from getting rid of them?

– Change the way I think, feel, and act about bringing new physical objects into my home and my life. As I started focusing on the outflow side of things (getting rid of stuff), inevitably I started thinking about the inflow side of things. What would be the point of getting of 1000 things if I brought in 1000 or even more other things into the house at the same time? So while I did not make my 1000 things project a ‘net flow’ project (i.e., get rid of 1000 more things than I took in), you could certainly do it that way. Choosing not to keep track of things coming in is certainly easier for tracking purposes, but the more important reason for me was to keep my focus on the giving up/getting rid of part. Besides, I had already been experiencing a noticeable drop in the flow of incoming things now that my son was off to college (big difference there, as any parent will tell you). This allowed me to have much more control over the inflow of things; and since I’m not personally inclined to collect a lot of things, there was already a noticeable drop in the volume of things coming into the house, so I just didn’t see it as an issue.

Get me thinking about the way I think, feel, and act about bringing other things into my life. As the project progressed, one of the things I learned early on was that my relationship with things is really much more a mental one than a physical one (more on that in future posts). There is a physical relationship by definition, of course, but it isn’t necessarily primary or even operative — for instance, a sentimental attachment to the object that can exist whether the object is present or not. This in turn got me wondering about the other things that I bring into my life that are not physical — digital, mental, emotional.  This was too much for me to focus on at the time, but the 1000 things project did plant the seed for future wondering.

– Do the process as responsibly and consciously as possible.  It’s pretty easy to get rid of 1000 things once you put your mind to it. An afternoon or two of going through a garage or basement or attic, assembling a pile of stuff and then calling a junk hauler to remove it — that’s pretty much a no-brainer. Adding a sense of stewardship to the process is an entirely different matter. Caring where each thing ends up, placing a value on each object and then deciding what to do with that value, turns into an undertaking. It takes a fair amount of commitment to be even more mindful, let alone at all mindful, about this many things, rather than being thoughtless about them.  And that’s one of the main reasons why I called it a project. You might think that undertaking this project in this way is a bit crazy, and you would have a point. For me, it was well worth the time, as I will explain. Your experience may be different, but most likely it will be very similar if you choose to do the 1000 things project as an extended act of stewardship – some parting attention for each thing with which you part. Beyond these goals, I had one more overarching, ultimate goal: more on that in the next post…

Review: On Grief, Hope, & Motorcycles…

Reviews of books from authors I know…

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Lately I’ve been reading a number of books from authors I know (or at least have met in person and become acquainted with). Good reads; it’s time to write some reviews for them. Here’s the first one…

On Grief, Hope, and Motorcycles: A Diary  by Candiya Mann

On Grief, Hope, and Motorcycles is about spark: the spark of igniting a motorcycle engine, and the spark of reigniting one’s life after Life has dumped a whole boatload of — let’s call it mud — on it.  The book is based on a blog which chronicles Mann’s “crazy, brutal, sad, absurd grief journey” as the result of her boyfriend Mike’s death in a motorcycle accident shortly after returning from deployment for military service.  On Grief, Hope, and Motorcycles is most definitely a diary as well, which gives the book an engaging structure based on parallel narratives of risk. Mann’s no holds barred, intensely personal account of coping with her searing loss rides alongside her story about learning to ride a motorcycle alone and effectively.  Along the way, the narrative takes the reader through the wrenching twists and turns of both journeys, and it doesn’t take long to realize which journey is more agonizingly difficult.

Anyone who’s been through the loss of a beloved one will recognize the path that Mann’s loss of her boyfriend forces her to take: “just trying to endure and survive” for the first year after Mike’s death, trying to keep one’s bearings until one can find a way to be “moving forward” and “choosing life.”  (Disclaimer: I know the author personally as a professional colleague and as a fellow widow(er).)  To be honest, a few of the especially intimate moments in the book made me feel a little uncomfortable at first, as I found it took some extra mental effort to abstractify descriptions of intensely personal moments the way I would do if I wasn’t acquainted with the author personally.  All in all, though, I admire the courage it took both for her to bare her soul and to describe how she found “food for the soul,” a theme which recurs throughout the book.

While those of us who don’t ride motorcycles may wonder if Mann’s pursuit of motorcycle touring competence is a way of courting disaster (subconscious or otherwise), her choice is anything but a death wish.  It’s more of a form of therapy, an antidote to the desperation she feels during the initial stages of her loss, and ultimately it becomes a vehicle for finding joy in life again. Besides, at many moments, Mann describes herself as a careful cyclist, often exercising extreme caution that would make a driver’s ed instructor proud, for instance going at very slow speeds on gravel paths or allowing ride mates to zoom ahead of her without trying to keep up with them.  In the process of mastering and re-embracing her chosen craft, Mann takes motorcycle trips during which she surrounds herself with beauty — beautiful places, beautiful days, beautiful highways, beautiful things in the world (the word “beautiful” appears 46 times in the book).  Nonetheless, grief is the more constant and reliable companion on these journeys (not surprisingly, the word “grief” appears twice as often in the book), so that the resulting tension between these two forces becomes a defining theme of Mann’s rides down the parallel roads of asphalt and agony.

Her journey culminates in a solo, 10-day, 2,263 mile trip on the back roads and interstates of the Pacific Northwest.  I’ll leave the details for the reader to discover, but it’s not an understatement to say that this journey was epic. I’m sure that Mann would be the first to say that her trip pales in comparison on an Epic Challenge scale to, say, a Mount Everest climb or English Channel swim or really fast motorcycle ride. I would respectfully disagree, as those feats are usually not performed with a mountain or ocean of grief on one’s back.

In the end, Mann helps us realize that the linkage between motorcycles, hope, and grief is not an odd or contrived combination. In fact, the experiences are very similar: each person’s experience of riding a motorcycle can be appreciated by fellow riders, shared with other riders, and understood to some extent by those who don’t ride. Ultimately, however, both motorcycle and grief journeys are solo rides, each one intensely personal and irreducibly unique, especially when riding “two up” is not an option.

Even so, the book does not make me want to go out and start riding motorcycles around; my vehicle of adventure will be something different.  But On Grief, Hope, and Motorcycles does inspire me to go out and take new journeys, find my open roads, and embrace the adventure and ambiguity of the experience. Because whatever mode of transport we use, our truly worthy life journeys always require us to travel them in this way: vulnerable, a bit uncertain, and never far from the edge of risk.