Stella and I have been living in my van this week, up on Mt Ashland. The weather has been perfect, and I’ve only seen one or two people, most days I’ve been up there. Heaven on Earth, for this solitude of a human being.
In the Fall of 1995, My mom purchased a new 1996 Dodge Grand Caravan ES minivan. It was white, the most common color car in California, with a tan interior. She told me that white is also the least expensive car in California, or perhaps anywhere. I found the sales receipt for the van while I was clearing out her home, after she died. She paid for it in full, more than $29,000. My mom did not like to owe any money, so she just wrote a check. That alone boggles my mind. My mom and I are completely different animals where money is concerned. She had all the common sense around it. I have had relatively none.
I inherited my financial intelligence from my dad. Here’s a peek into my dad’s money management skills: when I was a toddler, my father wanted to buy a piano for my mom to play. She had studied piano through most of her life. My father played almost any instrument with ease and skill. He’d just pick up a guitar, or an accordion, or a saxophone, and start playing. But my mom was a gifted keyboard player. She had dedication, long years of practice, and passion. My mom put the kibosh on the piano idea, though, saying we couldn’t afford it even with both parents working. A mortgage and expenses involving two adults and three children ate up any discretionary income our family might have had. But my father NEEDED to get that piano for my mother. It was an idea that would not let him rest. He had a vision of all of us making music together.
He convinced a woman friend of his to pose as my mother, accompany him to a piano store and to purchase a piano on credit. The friend signed the paperwork with my mother’s signature. The piano, golden brown wood gleaming, ivory and black keys seeming to smile devilishly, was delivered while my mother was at work, and when she arrived home that day she not only had a piano, but she had more debt and a cheat of a husband. It’s a good-news, bad-news sort of story…
My mom played the angst out of that piano, though. One of my most poignant memories of childhood was watching and listening to my mother play ‘Moonlight Sonata’, her back bowing and straightening to the music she pulled from the depths of that instrument. She gave lessons to me for a short time, using beginner’s piano song books. She wrote a poem about trying to teach me to read music. I refused to learn that language, instead picking out every song by ear. That highlights another fundamental difference between my mom and me. She studied EVERYTHING before attempting something new. I jumped in, with no plan or forethought. We are both charming in our methods, although she was more disciplined than I ever shall be.
When she passed away in 2007, the van had about 40,000 miles on it. I bought out my sibling’s share of the vehicle, and have kept it. My brother sounded so surprised when, a few years ago, I told him that I still had mom’s van. Her grandkids still call it ‘Grandma’s van’, even though I’ve now owned it longer than she did. Knowing myself as I do, I thought that it would be a good investment to have a vehicle that I could comfortably sleep in, ‘just in case’.
In the eleven years I’ve owned it, it has proven to be a good investment. It’s served as a work vehicle for remodeling, major gardening projects, and moves to new addresses. It’s acted as a sort of storage container for all sorts of items. It’s been a vehicle for out-of-town visitors to utilize while visiting, or friends who need a temporary means of transport while theirs is in the shop. A friend who was visiting the States for an extended period of time used it as their primary wheels for many months. I’ve camped in early Spring in the Mojave and stayed at a variety of State Parks, sleeping in the van rather than pitching a tent. I’ve learned how to make it comfortable, and being in it helps me feel more connected to my mom, whom I believe to be one of my soul mates.
The van is a luxury that could become a necessity. I’ve tried to take good care of it, as my mother did, but the white paint has begun to peel, and occasionally the windows will stop rolling up. Usually right before a rainstorm. For a while, it would lock and unlock its own doors at inconvenient moments, once locking Rachel out at 11pm while she was camping at Emigrant Lake. A few years ago, the computer in it died and it instantly became a 3,000 pound paperweight. A thousand dollars and a new computer put it back to rights.
I decided to put stickers on it, after I moved to Ashland, OR from Santa Cruz. I’ve been adverse to bumper stickers most of my life, and I am also usually opposed to wearing articles of clothing that boast brands, words, or ideas. I don’t want to be anyone’s billboard…but I’ve softened in that area, these last few years. As Emerson said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” So some hiking and environmental advocacy stickers, a few civic-minded stickers, a gay pride sticker, a grateful dead sticker and an American flag sticker have all been applied to the van in the last few years. The van has character. I’m hoping that it will soon have even more, as I’ve offered it as canvas for a 7/8th grade painting project.
It’s no secret that Rachel and I have not been getting along well lately. Health challenges that I’ve begun to experience around Parkinson’s have caused ‘the other woman’, Finance, to rear her Medusa-like head. But a couple who has relationship longevity in mind cannot avoid Finance’s gaze for long and expect to have a healthy, communicative experience.
Last Monday, we hit a breaking point in our ability to maneuver all the changes that Parkinson’s’ is wreaking in our life together. I knew it was time to hit the Pause and Reflect button before irreparable damage was done. So I took one of the rear passenger seats out of the back, installed my fold-up cot, packed some camp kitchen gear, some reading material and clothing, and went up to Mt A for the week, driving down into town for business and work, as needed. I’m grateful to my friend Paul, who just weeks before purchased a portable RV toilet that I’ve been keeping in the back of the van. If we can send a human into space inside a suit that can handle their waste, I surely am ok driving around with a contained waste system in the back of my van. I’m always ready for a new experience.
One of my favorite teachers, Richard Rohr, states that Transformative education is not asking you to believe or disbelieve in any doctrines or dogmas, it is saying “Try this!” Then you will know something to be true or false for yourself.
I set out to learn if I could live in my van, if I could be transformed again as I have been before, and what it means to be unhoused. But that’s not really what i’m writing about here. I WILL write that story, later, but today, this is what is pouring out of me…
I took Stella with me for company, and also to get her more used to traveling in a vehicle. She’s a little more timid than I’d like, but such a good companion. We spent a lot of time walking trails, and snuggling in the van. I had no access to the internet as I stopped paying for a data plan phone a few months ago. I spent meals actually paying attention to my chewing, to the taste and texture of the food I was putting in my mouth. I spent more time in meditation, prayer and writing than I have in months. I watched the sun, moon, planets and stars travel across the sky. I performed yoga stretches in the morning, and took Stella out for 2:30am pee breaks, which always entailed a rousing encouragement speech of “There are no monsters outside the van. You are safe and you can deal with anything that may occur in the next 15 minutes”, before I turned on the running lights, unlocked the door and actually set foot outside. I’m saying right here, the news of the woman who was attacked and killed by the cougar in northern Oregon last week wasn’t really helpful to me in working up courage to step outside my little metal can into the dark, with my eight-pound cougar-snack of a dog.
Memorable Experiences Abound
I had the experience of driving away from Grouse Gap at 5:00 am Friday morning, on FR 20, rolling slowly past trees, bushes and rocks with only my parking lights on. As Stella and I moved through the pre-dawn landscape, I listened to Eddie Vedder sing “Guaranteed”. As he sang the lines Wind in my hair, I feel part of everywhere/Underneath my being is a road that disappeared/Late at night I hear the trees/They’re singing with the dead/Overhead, a star shot across the sky and fell straight down in front of us. Magic.
A few minutes later, now traveling down Mt Ashland Road with my lights on, still moving slow, we listened to Cloud Cult sing the song “Purpose”. I love this song as I love most Cloud Cult music.
There must be forgiveness here ’cause most of us have our weaknesses
(Tell me what are your weaknesses)
I don’t know myself and I’m afraid of you
I’m happiest on chemicals
The goings come and the comings go
Forgive me I’m just an animal.
Just as I began to sing the last line, I rounded a corner to find a deer walking across the road. I was driving so slowly that I didn’t need to brake. The deer continued its leisurely walk and I forgave us all for being ‘just animals’. Cloud Cult continued:
There must be healing here ’cause everybody here has been damaged
And we’ll wear it like a tattoo
Every scar is a smile
To hell with the going down
There must be afterlife here ’cause we all pray for resurrection
You see the end comes quick as a bullet
My end is coming, and I don’t know from what direction. But until it does, I’ll remain open to living life as it suits me.
What I Learned…
Being homeless is daily hard work. I have a friend who has lived in her van for two years, although she just picked up keys to an apartment of her own this week. I’m exhausted, having done it for only 5 days and 4 nights. I realize that Parkinson’s and a hermit’s soul makes this just a little more work for me. But still, a lot of energy is expended just trying to find a place to peacefully, privately rest for a while.
While driving to a doctor’s appointment last Wednesday morning, I thought about the journey I have been on since birth, to have ended up living, albeit temporarily, in my van. And there is no deep profound meaning to any of it. Rather, it’s just a series of choices and turns and events and diagnoses that put me there. There is no Celestial Indictment of goodness or badness. It quite simply is where I am at this point in time.
I am no more a success or failure than any of my friends who rent a home, or own one or more homes. I am just as they are: human. I was born, I will die, and in between those two events, I hope that I do something that made another being’s life easier and more meaningful. If not…oh, well…
In the huge scheme of time, history, and humanity, I’m not even a silent pffft. But I’m glad that I am alive, in this earthsuit, having this experience.
And the luxury is this:
I moved out of the van back into the duplex I share with Rachel and Jorge, due to a ‘procedure’ that I’m going to have on Monday. Prep for the event requires some dietary restrictions and access to good plumbing for an extended period of time. I could have gone to stay with a friend, but chose to go to the home where I’ve paid rent for the month. Stella is happiest there, and in truth, so am I.
Rachel and I will work through our dis-ease with each other. I don’t know what it’s going to look like. But I do know this:
a) I can live in my van, somewhat comfortably.
b) I am taken care of, at all times and in all ways.
c) I have a glimpse of what it feels like to be unhoused.
The privilege that the housed population enjoys is beyond imagining. I see people differently because I chose to move into my mom’s van for a brief period of time.
My mom is still my greatest teacher and mentor. In 1986, she gave me the book titled “Necessary Losses” by Judith Viorst. I was 28 years old and had just had a hysterectomy. No more children for me, although my then-husband and I had tried for several years to bring one into existence. I read the book, and a bit sunk in, but I was still drinking pretty heavily and wasn’t ready to take in the thought that life means loss. And most of all, Love. Life means Love.
Years later, I came across this poem in the New Yorker magazine. It summed up loss quite fully, for me:
The Goddess of Despair
Against such cold and mercurial mornings,
watch the wind whirl one leaf
across the landscape,
then in a breath, let it go.
The color of the opaque sky
Seems almost not to exist.
Put on a wool sweater.
Wander in the leaves,
underneath healthy elms.
Hold your child in your arms.
After the dishes are washed,
a kiss still warm at your neck,
put down your pen. Turn out the light.
I know how difficult it is,
always balancing and weighing,
it takes years and many transformations;
and always another loss to stop for,
to send you backwards.
Why do you worry so,
when none of us is spared?
The journey continues…