I arrived home from the island this afternoon feeling wistful and half-asleep. The sun, ready to set, left warm light filtering through the fence, making a glowing pattern on the van door. This week has been full: heady, sweet, new.
Listening to Romance of the Telescope by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. Over and over. Maybe feeling a little unsettled being back in the van’s solitude. Reading early creation stories from a text on Jewish mysticism, Antwerp by Roberto Bolaño and The Gospel According to Christ by Jose Saramago. Drinking mineral water and organizing my dirty laundry.
I’ve kind of been in a slump lately. It’s been hard to keep routines with the wet weather and feeling confined. I’m trying to stay positive, stay thankful. Last week I learned about the Jesuit tradition of the Examen. The Examen is a daily meditation during which one reviews (with gratitude) the day that has just passed, assesses areas of discomfort and looks hopefully toward the next day. I’m working on my own version of this – looking at my days with gratitude, looking to the next day with hope, anticipation and a feeling of possibility. I wanted a simpler life – living in a van is a step toward this.
Today was a good day. My sister Sarah and her husband Rodney came to eat and visit in the van. The intimacy of sitting together on the bed in the low light reminds me of scenes from my childhood – a kind of closeness and familiarity that, until now, has been lacking from my adult life.
Today I took the bed frame out. I felt a little like I was living in two vertical feet. Now the mattress is on the floor. I’ve been sitting on the bed reading tonight (The Lake), listening to loud music.
I’ve been sick with a cold the past week. Sometimes it feels like my bedroom takes on the bland frustration of these moments and becomes a sick place. In a space as small as the van, this feeling was overwhelming – I had to move things around to make things feel new and less ingrown.
When I wake up damp and cold, I remember other mornings like this from my childhood: waking up in a van tucked close to the lake’s shore. We would drive less than an hour (up a mostly dirt road) to the forestry reserve, set up a small tent, make a fire. Days spent here comprise the bulk of the nostalgia I hold for the washed out scenes of my childhood. Wearing a navy coloured sweatshirt that smelled like smoke; hands sticky with sap from gathering firewood. Playing on the rock beach or running into the trees, moss dangling.
The air held a quality of stillness and at night the lake would wash angrily against the shore. Even as a child, I knew these qualities would form affective memories that would remain with me well into my adult life.
More than just a sense of place surrounds these memories – they are also woven with a strong sense of family. For most of my childhood, my three brothers (and, a few years later, two sisters) were my sole companions. We would spend time with other children – but it wasn’t something I cared for, often finding these outsiders a source of frustration. As an adult, I share strong feelings of closeness with my brothers and sisters. We are united by our common experience. We speak the same language – the language of our particular family culture.
A central part of my family narrative is the van. Each of my siblings holds special memories of the family van. This van spans a fifteen year chapter of our family story, tied to memories of camping trips, beach days, trips to the market on humid summer days or mundane moments waiting, all together, in traffic.
I’m always taking snapshots of my home and the things inside. It’s almost an act of indexing: I capture the minutiae of my immediate environment, and the documentation frees me to change it… again. So, I have all these records of my environment as it changes, day-to-day.
Here are some images of my bedroom at the laneway. A few of the containers, lamps and other objects have made it through to the van. The laneway has two bedrooms – one, about 200 square feet; the other around 70. For about two years I lived in the larger room and eventually ended up in the smaller one. It’s strange to think that my entire living space is now smaller than my old bedroom.
When the news crew came this morning, the reporter said, “boy, it’s so tidy.” I felt good about this – I want people to see that living in a van apartment doesn’t have to be visually linked to a lot of the stereotypes we hold around unconventional living.
As a result of some of the press I’ve been getting, I receive email from others in unconventional living situations. The common thing that unites us is a willingness to live creatively.
Photo: Natasha Wheatley, 2013
I’m becoming more and more a part of the alley. Last night – the past few days, really – it’s been foggy here. The air is thick. Yesterday, late, a drunk couple were fighting in the alley for almost an hour. The pace picked up after they paused their angry fight to smoke crack. Together. The things that unite us… Eventually, they moved their fight up the street. I’ve never smoked crack to reconcile a relationship – but, before I sobered up, a cheap whisky (the bottle…) sure didn’t hurt to smooth things over. Now, I have to face what’s in front of me.
Edie (the bottle lady) came by again. I forgot to save bottles for her – she was understanding. She gave me a cigarette, I sat in the doorway and smoked it with her. She’d clipped the filter off and the stubby cigarette was wet from the rain – but I didn’t mind.
Edie told me her story. She was a welder, I think, in a shipyard; she became ill and found herself out of work. Today, she supports herself with her bottle findings. She lives in an SRO in the Downtown Eastside – but she’s quick to say, “I’m thankful I have a place even though I share a bathroom – I keep it clean.”
She tells me she doesn’t drink or smoke drugs, but that it’s been a problem in the past. I tell her about a recent AA meeting I attended. We seem to be on the same page. She looks the part of someone from the Downtown Eastside – but, she’s lucid and I like talking with her. I’m happy for Edie’s visit. I tell her she can knock on my window any time. She says she’ll come again, is there anything I need? This humbles me. I ask her if there’s anything she needs. “I’m just fine with what I have”, she says and rolls her cart away.
Natasha, Gemma and Kyle came today to shoot footage of my first weeks living in the van. I demonstrated how I was using the space and shared certain routines I have developed. It will be interesting to see how these systems change over time – especially as the weather changes.