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.

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