Holiday living in a van down by the river

van greeting card
van greeting card

I’d rather be a hammer than a nail.
Yes I would.
If I only could,
I surely would  ~Paul Simon, from El Condor Pasa

As I pull up and park, “he ain’t heavy, he’s my brother” by the Hollies drifts out the speakers. Stopping his busy trash raking, he offers me an inquisitive-smiled greeting. Listening wholeheartedly as his verbal threads unwind, it’s easy to see myself as him, living in a van down by the river this holiday season. Son of a career military father, educated and expecting to do well. But after parents died unexpectedly the floor dropped out from under him. As attention deficit disorder got worse, he was prescribed evermore powerful meds and struggled with the side effects. The government denied his eligibility for assistance and survivor benefits despite branding him as “not all there.” Now he sees himself as a hustler, and needing to do so to survive. “As long as I do 50 percent, God does the other 50 percent”, he says. Together with his partner, who suffers from multiple personality disorder, they live off of $200 a month she gets for her disability meds. Occasionally they are able to find a day or odd job around town to buy food and heating fuel. Another van, parked next to them, takes refuge, and together they refer to themselves as “a vamily.” Looking out for each other’s basic human needs of survival.

Living is not easy being homeless around here, even with the luxury of being in a van down by the river. This river is dry without a foreseeable prospect to the end of drought. Others who would temporarily park along here have been unkind. Perhaps they are young partiers or rival campers who have thrown bottles at their vans. A few weeks back during the deep freeze, a fire was deliberately started at night in the grass next to the vehicle’s engine, which he fortunately noticed and stomped out in time before his van and the hillside went up in flames. Yet, despite the harassing, they endure, as options are limited. Several neighbors who live up the road are friendly and wave when they drive by. Some offer some food, water or money for gas. Others provided a shovel, rake and other tools which they now use to clean-up garbage along the road and dry tributaries. Making this place more beautiful is their way of giving something back while living on the edge. I’m touched inside, recognizing how we are of the same humanity. Their condition is not separate from mine. What simple twist of fate could literally have me here, too; spending holidays, and perhaps the rest of my days living in a van down by a dried up river?

The insight of inter-being will help remove discrimination, fear, and the dualistic way of thinking. We inter-are — even suffering and happiness inter-are — and that is why the insight of inter-being is the foundation of any kind of action that can bring peace and brotherhood, and help remove violence and despair. That insight is present in every great spiritual tradition. We need only to go home to our own tradition, and try to reveal that, to revive that. ~Thich Nhat Hanh

30 Replies to “Holiday living in a van down by the river”

  1. You brought angst, sadness but also hope at the end in this post with the quote by Thich Nhat Hanh. I hope that one day we all realize that we have to help each other in this world in order to survive. What one has, someone else does not…and that someone has something that the other needs. The yin and the yang. I hope you feel the spirit of Christmas with you and know that God is with you even in our darkest hours.

    1. Thank you for kindly commenting and offering a blessing. Having insight of our interbeing nature offers guidance on how to behave with other people and all of nature. Yet, when minds have wrong view, we fail to live with gratitude for this gift of life. May you be well and happy. May we all be well and happy 🙂

  2. It has struck me that when choices are made to look up to the elite, we must necessarily turn on back on those who represent our greatest fear. Lack of jobs, homes, healthcare are the sword of Damocles used to keep us in line. Thank you for this all too timely tribute.

    1. Thanks for your insight, Jeff. I understand how we go running after victimizers while leaving victims un-cared for. May all feel protected, safe and well this holiday, and everyday.

  3. I often have the urge to take off and live in an old airstream; follow the sun.
    Sure, there are hardships, however, hardships are part of the experience of sentient beings.

    1. wonderful idea, Genie! wind at your back, hair swirling out the open airstream window 🙂 a pilgrimage, a joy, a privilege. I like the idea, myself. being connected to community, feeling those roots and connections call me, also. may we know our true home. may others have a home, if only in their heart.

  4. I’m reminded of the author (unfortunately, I cannot remember his/her name) who said that we often do not help or want to make eye contact with homeless people because we fear becoming committed at a level we cannot handle. I felt that fear rise in a knot along with other thoughts and feelings as I read your post. Living can be very complicated, can’t it? Or very simple, of course.

    1. appreciate your reflection, Kelly!
      a story comes to mind.
      once upon a time
      there were fewer people.
      they experienced themselves as connected
      feeling safe, offering each other support for their shared human condition.
      perhaps being rugged individualists
      doesn’t offer as much freedom as we believe.
      wishing you joyful holiday moments 🙂

  5. It is too bad most of us only care to help others once a year. You write very powerfully and I thank you for letting me see these people as people. Nothing more or less.

  6. Thank you for this sobering and at the same time inspiring post. I take my hats off to these people, I really do, surviving at the edge and, it seems from this post, responding with no harm or resentment for the misfortune and unkindness that has come their way. Yes, there’s something appealing about this kind of freedom, and at the same time I am under no illusion that it has it’s own challenges and, in their case, it seems it wasn’t a conscious choice but forced on them by circumstance. I wish you a blessed and peaceful holiday season and may those who share their smiles, and tools and food encourage others to do the same and share abundance generously and fearlessly – there is always enough, if we honour our interbeing. Love and gratitude, Harula xxx

    1. I appreciate your taking time to read, understand and comment so kindly and insightfully, Harula. Many of us understand that caring for each other is most natural. Wishing you special holiday moments 🙂

  7. Thank you reminding me of this teaching today at Christmas time. I am not a Christian in any orthodox sense but right here right now ‘ do unto others as you would be done by’ is a lesson of inter-being, love and compassion. Last week i went to a Christmas party in a palliative care ward and it was a joyful occasion. I looked in a room and I saw a man of about 30. He was sleeping and i thought he may not have any more sleeps to Christmas. For a moment I felt both one with him and compassion and gratitude. I have also been listening to Bernie Glassman of Zen Peacemakers and he reminds us that we inter-are also with the the guards of the concentration camps. A less joyful thought but a reminder of the capacity we all have also to do terrible things. Love and hate inter-are within us all. From one moment to the next. May i wish you a joyful new year.

  8. I don’t know what to say, I wished to be a real angel or fairy. But I do believe there are… I wish the best for the New Year, Angels and The Sun be with you. Thank you, with my love, nia

  9. This is such an upsetting thing for me…every time I see someone who is homeless in a wealthy country that we live in. It just breaks my heart. It is my desire to one day in my lifetime to be fortunate enough to build a home for a few homeless people and even then I know it would be like a drop in a bucket. But I am so full of faith and believe that if everyone would do something, even the smallest thing to help someone who may be a little bit less fortunate than yourself it could make a difference and that we should all help each other to survive and make it and really do whatever is in our power to do. I will also pray for these two individuals you write about here. Thanks so much for sharing this. I really wish the government would do more to help to make sure every homeless person is off the streets and has a home of their own. Just like the dream of everyone having health care and no one being hungry. Well thanks so much for stopping by my blog at and for liking the cute dog reblog. Do stop in any time. Happy Holidays and a blessed New Year to you and yours. Betty

    1. thank you for sharing your deep compassion for others. may swords be turned into plowshares and everyone be cared for with dignity. I look forward to seeing more of your creative posts. 🙂

  10. Wonderful reflective, & the quote at the end. Like the photos too.

    I’ve never understood people attacking homeless people, or harassing (lighting the fire). I just do not get it. I’m glad some people offer them food. I hope they can get a step up. I like his quote on God doing 50%. Very optimistic!

  11. Interesting blog you have here. I noticed that you have lots of references and videos -connected to videos of Thich Nhat Hanh. I am a Christian, and I believe in Jesus Christ and the Holy Bible. However, I found that his (Thich Nhat Hanh’s) method of finding peace does help one concentrate on the present moment. I went to see Thich Nhat Hanh in Lincoln Center , in NYC, once . That was an interesting event. The silence was awesome, like none that I have ever heard in the middle of New York City. Interesting at the very least. I have read ac couple of Thich Nhat Hanh’s books long ago. They are each , (each book) so different even though they are on the same topics. . Ahh.. and yes, I would not be complete if I didn’t mention my most favorite book -by a different author, the Holy Bible. Reading is a hobby of mine. I will be back to read more of your blog sometimes.

    1. I appreciate your honest sharing. Nice that you’ve actually experienced the silence inside and with a large group. Thich Nhat Hanh has been a monk for over 70 years. He does not suggest that non-Buddhist become Buddhist. He helps people find the healing benefits of mindfulness and recommends that they stay with their root religion and practice mindfully, with joy. May your exposure to Thay’s teaching help you touch the beauty of your faith 🙂

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