Today my new boss asked me the question. She asked it hesitantly. I could tell she did not want to offend me, but she did want to know.
Why do you live in your van?
I gave her the most basic answer first, the one that is most honest, but that tends to make people uncomfortable and stops conversation.
I was homeless, so living in a van was a step up.
Should I not say that to people, even though it’s true, because they don’t know how to respond? Should I not tell my new boss that I used to be homeless? Should I be ashamed that I was homeless? Should I be ashamed to live in a van?
I went on to tell her the other reasons I live in my van, the ones most van dwellers and rubber tramps give. I like to travel. I don’t like paying rent. The van is enough for me. I don’t need a big RV because I am by myself. I told her, I don’t have any kids. I don’t have a man. Or a woman. (Did I come out as bisexual to my new boss? Is that more or less risky than admitting I used to be homeless?)
She seemed to understand that van living might be an ok way to live for a person who likes to travel. I told her I sometimes wish I had more space, but I’d probably just fill more space with junk I don’t really need. She seemed to understand that part too.
Then the conversation turned (as it so often does) to being a woman traveling alone and safety and being brave.
I told her I pay attention to what’s going on, I stay alert. I told her I don’t drink or party or use illegal drugs (good information to work into a conversation with a new boss) so I can be aware of what’s happening around me. I told her if sketchy people start doing sketchy things, I put the key in the ignition and drive away.
I told her, I’ve had shit (should I have not said “shit” to my new boss?) happen to me in my own home (and by own home, I actually meant other vans, cheap motel rooms, and under bridges) with someone I loved. Bad things can happen anywhere.
The other woman in the conversation piped in with Yeah, something bad could happen to you walking out of Vonn’s (the local supermarket).
When I was in college in New Orleans, I worked in the French Quarter. I didn’t have a car, and I couldn’t always get a ride, so often I’d take a bus home at midnight. There was no other way home. (A $10 cab ride? Give me a break!) I needed to work to support myself, so I stood at a bus stop in the French Quarter in the dark, and I walked from where the bus dropped me off to my house in the dark. One day I realized if I could be out at night because of work, I could be out at night to have fun.
What I’m saying is if my own loved one caused me harm, why should I be scared of strangers? Are stranger scarier than what I’ve already been through? I’m sure some of them are, but I try not to be an easy mark for people with bad things on their minds. Besides, someone could just as easily break into an apartment in a city and “get me,” as break into my van in the woods. (The one better chance I might have in a city is that maybe people would hear me scream and maybe those people would try to help.)
I don’t think what I do is so much braver than what millions of women do every day all over the world. Is traveling alone braver than walking miles to haul water and firewood, cooking and cleaning and having too many babies? Is traveling alone braver than living through war, seeing your loved ones die, having your home destroyed by bombs? Is traveling alone braver than taking a beating so your kids or your siblings won’t get hit? Is traveling alone braver than carrying on after being raped by soldiers or sold into a life of sex slavery? Is traveling alone braver than living in a city among poverty and violence, worrying that you or someone you love is going to be killed by a cop or a gang member with a gun?
When I look at it that way, my life seems good, and I seem really safe.
If I’ve done anything brave, it’s not living alone in a van, traveling, working as a camp host in a forest. If I’ve ever done anything brave, it was finally walking away from a bad situation (even if by walking away, I really mean sneaking off in the night) when I thought I had no friends or family to help me, when I was convinced I was a bad person and the universe was going to deal with me accordingly.
I’m just like so many other women in the world, doing what I do to survive, to help others, to find a little beauty in my life.