LIFE LESSONS FROM A VAN – A STORY OF FAITH, COURAGE, LOVE, HOPE AND REDEFINING HOME


This article has been recognized in the 84th Annual Writer’s Digest national competition in the magazine category. It first appeared in the national issue of Spirituality & Health magazine March-April 2015 issue. I drew on everything I learned studying personal growth and spirituality, much of which I wrote about in my international self-help book Diary of A Modern Day Goddess. I want you to know that it was faith, courage, love, prayer, meditation, taking intuitive action and God’s grace that helped us through it.
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Cover2015-Spirituality&Health_Magazine_Pg1 spirituality, health, magazine, national, life, wisdom, lessons, homeless, santa barbara, prescott
2015-Spirituality&Health_Magazine_Pg3 Contributor2015-Spirituality&Health_Magazine

The online version of this article can be viewed on Spirituality & Health Magazine website. The online version text is the same as the magazine print version above, but with different graphics and it does not include the above contributor’s biography.

The following is a longer version of my story – a shorter version appears in the article above:

In America, one-third of the new homeless are living in their vehicles with laptops, tablets and cellphones and my husband and I were two of them.

We were living in a 1,600 square foot rental home in the beautiful, yet expensive, town of Santa Barbara, California. Then my husband’s health began to decline, he couldn’t continue in his profession and he was soon out of work. Next our savings dwindled from the high costs of ongoing medical bills, treatments, medical insurance premiums, food and housing. While I earned some money from my work as a freelance lifestyle journalist, wellness author, life wisdom advisor and performer, it was not enough to cover everything to keep us in our home in the midst of a medical challenge while also tending to my husband’s care. It would take three doctors before my husband was fully diagnosed as missing the GSTM1 gene which renders his liver to clear environmental toxins such as pesticides, exhausts and heavy metals (including mercury he was exposed to during his 25 years as a dentist). Our situation was a health challenge that turned into financial challenge that turned into a housing challenge. Eventually we ended up living for 2 years in a converted Chevy cargo van, slept in a church parking lot at night and showered at the YMCA.

Looking back, the decision I made to stay connected to our faith, love, trust and courage kept us sane in the midst of challenges and produced miracles along the way. As a result we felt closer to each other, ourselves, and God’s grace and humanity. My husband is more scientifically minded and I’m more intuitive. I joke that I finally got him to meditate more consistently and go to bed earlier, while he got me to go camping!

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Although we have now secured housing, we decided to keep our van as a sometimes storage unit and sometimes recreational vehicle – and I’m so glad we did!

As a result of downsizing, for which we are now grateful, we eventually moved to a more affordable state and into a 935 sq. ft. fixer upper in an eco-planned community.

In Santa Barbara, we were part of an innovative “Safe Parking Program” for people in transition that started about 10 years ago and other towns are now implementing. It is run by the non-profit counseling center called New Beginnings. There were about 150 people who receive pre-approved parking permits to sleep in their vehicles (cars and RV’s) at night in about 23 public and church lots (about 5 vehicles per location). It was there we witnessed people, from with or without college degrees and even doctorates, using their vehicles as shelter as they attempted to figure out the next phase of their lives. Many were there due to a job loss or medical health challenges. Even though some were still working, the high cost of food, housing and even school tuition led to financial challenges. We got to experience first hand the need for healing affordable housing, affordable nutritional organic food, clean air, adequate water and a sense of belonging, all while yearning for an uplifting connection to the divine in the midst of a dark night of the soul.

The point is this is continuing to happen everywhere, which is why I am sharing my story hoping to bring light to the situation and to impart some wisdom and hope that might help you, a friend or an acquaintance in a similar situation.

What I learned:

The Greek philosopher Epictetus once said “Its not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”

I agree with Epictetus, its all about perspective and we get to choose how we want to think about it. We chose to let go of any shame and to believe that we were still good people with gifts, talents and wisdoms to offer the world regardless of whether we had a house to live in or not.

So was what we went through camping or glamping (glamorous camping) because we had a nice white Chevy van with our double bed, carpets and curtains, and battery operated candles. However, we only stayed once at a an actual campground in another town due to the cost. Or, was it middle class homelessness. Or was it a Walden Pond experience of a simple life – or a mixture of these?

Not everyone is forced to downsize. Some downsize because they seek a more simple way of life. The tiny house movement’s (houses around 400 sq ft) philosophy feels “small is beautiful and freedom.” It is a chance for people to get into attractive affordable housing. Some towns are seeing tiny homes as affordable housing for the homeless. For others a tiny dwelling on wheels is recreation. We met a couple from Europe in their 20’s who paid $3,000 to rent a van outfitted like ours for two weeks to tour the States. Our van was not for a trip around the states but for temporary dwelling.

The night before we left our house, I stood in the kitchen making minestrone soup wondering what was ahead and when I would be able to cook in my own kitchen again. It was then I fully “let go and let God” and felt my perspective about the situation changing. I decided to see it as a living experiment through the eyes of a journalist, life wisdom coach and a married couple in love finding out what its like to live in a van with limited financial means and off-the-grid without electricity, running water, a shower or a stove. I already had a spiritual practice of prayer, meditation, and affirmations and it was my intention that my husband and I could somehow overcome this challenge by increasing the spiritual principles of love, persistence, faith, courage and inspired actions to keep one’s spirit and thoughts in a good place. The same concepts that I wrote about in my women’s wellness book Diary of A Modern Day Goddess had helped others and now the wisdom returned to help us. During our time in the van there were definite moments of challenge, but through self-effort and our spiritual practices our grace increased and we did prevail!

Each day we would exit the lot at the required time of 7am and returned no earlier than 8pm. It was difficult at first, but we got into a routine of connecting in nature at a park, meditating, and asking for inner guidance. Next we bought a small amount of food to eat during the day at a local, healthy grocery store and got ice for our cooler. Then a shower at the YMCA (they offer a sliding scale membership), and off to library or our storage unit where I had a small card table to work on. I also saw other vehicle dwellers in the libraries, storage units and at grocery store lines. To look at any of us you would never know we were sleeping in our vehicles at night since we were decently groomed. Once situated for the day, I answered emails, wrote, filled out applications or handled the medical paperwork. When I wasn’t in a nearby town at the doctor’s office with my husband for his intravenous chelation treatments, I was earned a little money signing my book or offering life wisdom sessions at a local spiritual bookstore on discovering one’s life purpose, overcoming adversity and how to have a good relationship with oneself and loved ones. Many a day my spirit was lifted when women mentioned my book changed their thoughts and life for the better.

Each day I called a national affirmative prayer line (Silent Unity), which prayed for my husband and I and again over the phone and the following 30 days. They affirmed that my husband and I were “Safe, whole and healing,” and “That God was guiding us to the right doctor and a healing home and community,” which he did in his divine timing. When did find doctor #3 the referral came from a former nun! This compassionate doctor we went to in the nearby town of Ojai specialized in environmental medicine and did testing that showed Jim was hit harder by toxins than others because he is missing a gene which normally clears toxins from the body such as heavy metals, pesticides, exhausts, petrochemicals, etc. Before learning all this when I heard the words heavy metal I thought of a rock band. Now I know it is something much more. It turns out my husband Jim had mercury toxicity from 25 years of repeat exposure of working with mercury ‘silver’ fillings as a dentist. This explained why he was affected more than others dentist who have been exposed. His symptoms ranged from fine motor tremors in hands, twitching at night, cognitive and nervous system issues, and an inability to focus and handle stress. He left his profession before he might slip with a drill. At first he thought it was just burnout but a year of rest didn’t make it better. We are grateful to the new genomic testing knowledge that Doctor #3 utilized and on how our environment (toxins in our home, air, food, water, soil, cleaning agents) affect us. I also believe that the mind-body-spirituality connection is also important. The good news is with this testing we can all see what needs some assistance and what we can do to have better health. It is different for each person. Jim’s treatment included 3.5 years of IV chelation treatment to get the metals out of his body (needs to be done slowly and with properly trained doctor) and taking a supplement, liquid glutathione, that helps supply his liver with what it isn’t capable of making. Gratefully, my beloved is now on the mend with the help of this physician who fully diagnosed and treated him. I also believe his healing was aided by a combination of grace, prayer, our love and following an eco and healing lifestyle that includes stress reduction, avoiding toxins and eating an anti-inflammatory Mediterranean diet.

While in the van, we increased gratitude and an appreciation of the simple things like a roof over our head, clothes on our back, food in our lunch bags, a local rose garden park walk, the beauty of nature, warm soup, warm clothes, a warm bed, sunshine on our face, warm showers, a hug, holding hands with my husband, watching a free inspirational or comedy DVD from the library on my laptop in the van (for our weekly date night), hearing encouraging and kind words from a friend and each other, a smile from a stranger, an uplifting book, and listening to uplifting music on my iPod before going to bed. All these were big things and they cost next to nothing.

While it may have been possible to live temporarily with others in the Santa Barbara area – we chose not to since privacy and quietude for rest helped after my husband’s medical treatments and we didn’t know how long the treatments or our living situation would continue. When funds permitted we did try spending a few nights in a motel. We soon discovered our own bed in the van was our favorite place to rest and actually preferred the one time we went to a campground to cook eventhough we didn’t have much camping equipment.

Some nights on the way to our church parking lot, we would drive along a tree-lined street and see the golden glow of lights on people inside their warm houses eating together, cooking or just reading. We yearned to be inside a warm house of our own someday and continued to pray and affirm, “God is guiding us to our healing home and community,” and he did!

There were days when I thought about my ancestors (Italian-Greek) living in a small village helping one another, eating wholesome food, connecting with the land and their spirit. The same way Native American and other cultures do. Taking more care of one another is my hope for society than choses community over hyper -individualism. My husband and I decided we wanted more of a village feeling in our next housing situation.

Our prayers were answered when things began to improve so we began to think about moving to a more affordable town to live in and found that Arizona could offer that to us. At first it wasn’t an easy decision since I had lived in Santa Barbara for 14 years and my husband for 52 years. But we were delighted to be able to secure affordable and healing housing – a 935 sq foot fixer-upper in a planned eco-minded community. It also had the same view I had seen in my mind when meditating in the van! In our new neighborhood we get to experience general helpfulness of neighbors with a weekly, healthy community meal, a community organic garden, a water-catchment system, solar-derived electricity, and even a chicken coop for organic eggs. Of course, living this way doesn’t suit everyone. For us it is an enriching experience to be here as we heal, rebuild our lives and I continue my quest for creating a soulful healthy life and an attractive, healing and environmentally safe eco-home to live in. I also get to cook, once again, Mediterranean inspired meals in my own kitchen!

As we transition into housing and out of our van and storage unit, I’ve become even more aware of the lessons we’ve learned: connection to nature, persistence, intentions, meditation, courage, love and sharing of one’s challenges and vulnerabilities with others that can open each others heart and also provide solutions. These elements were the framework that helped us overcome this life changing challenge. It became even clearer when in the midst of moving and unpacking into our house we fell initially out of balance, but are now getting back into balance with these simple things. As we clean out our storage unit, we are giving items to a thrift store that gives vouchers to low-income peoples and the homeless with which to shop. Clothes and warm items are needed as are blankets, gloves, and kitchen items. Food is also a big gift to someone and uplifting books. When we left the church lot we bought gift certificate food cards for the other appreciative vehicle dwellers. While in the van we volunteered at an organic soup kitchen where we served others and got delicious healthy soup for ourselves. Now I cook food once a month with my neighbors for a local women’s shelter. We also lend our insights to a local organization working on shelter issues.

As my husband continue his treatment – we focus on ways to rebuild our lives which includes prayer, meditation, and God’s grace. The point is we never thought it would happen to us, but it did. And it is happening to others in these uncertain financial times, many just a paycheck or health challenge away. Here is what one can do to help oneself, an acquaintance or a friend going through something similar in life.

IF YOU HAVE A MINUTE:
When you are thinking about a friend or acquaintance and wondering how they are doing. Visualize and send them good thoughts and the loving kindness prayer “may you be well, may you be happy, may you be peaceful.” Tell them that you are doing this when you see them. Or If you see someone you know is going through a stressful time, a smile can go a long way to lift a person’s spirit. For those on the street who are asking for money I often give a dollar or two and ask them their name. They seem so grateful that someone has acknowledged that they exist. They are after all human beings so look them in the eye – which helps them feel connected to people.

IF YOU HAVE TEN MINUTES:
The extra grace from groups of people praying can definitely make a difference in one’s life. It did for us and research has proven the power of prayer. You can request prayer for a friend and then tell them that you did. You can do this by putting your request in the prayer box at your local church, making a request online or by calling a National Prayer line that will pray confidentially for your friends and family and some will continue praying for up to 30 days. If your friend in need is open to the idea give them the info so they can for themselves. Many local churches offer this as well.

The New Thought Churches offer affirmative national prayer lines by trained ministers and prayer practioners, such as Silent Unity, which has been praying with and for people for 120 years. They have a 24/7 1.800.NOW PRAY phone line or as an online request at silentunity.org. There you can also get a free Upray app for cellphones which offers affirmations, prayer request and meditations.

World Ministry of Prayer from the Centers for Spiritual Living. Csl.org
Make request online World Ministry of Prayer has been providing loving support to individuals all over the world for more than 80 years. Affirmative Prayer is used to help you to turn away from the condition causing distress and realign your thinking with the Spiritual Truth that you are never alone and are always provided and cared for in Life.
Agape Prayer Ministry – agapelive.com by calling 310-348-1270 24/7.
Or any spiritual group, group, or ministry that can send provide good thougts and prayer.

IF YOU HAVE AN HOUR:

Pick extra fruit, or food from your garden that doesn’t need to be cooked like fruits or carrot vegetables and give it a friend who could use the extra wholesome snacks. Of course home cooked meals are golden!

Take your friend out for lunch or dinner or make them dinner at your home and ask them what they need. Perhaps you can help refer them to a counselor, job, or give them some odd jobs you need done that they might enjoy or to other resources. You can make a difference by uplifting their spirit by affirming that they are a worthy and valuable person with skills regardless of their situation.

Contact a local eatery – preferably one that serves healthy food -about an idea I thought of that could be called “Feed it forward” or “soup it forward” at your local eatery. I heard this was being done with coffee in Europe – where a person in line pays for the person behind them to have a cup of coffee. In California soup can be pricey – from $4.95 for a small cup at a natural foods store to $1.50 at a local hospital organic café. They way it could work is that a person in line who want to can pay for a cup of soup or $5.00 or $10.00 toward food for someone who needs it. In exchange they get a token which is put in a jar on the counter and a person in line can discretely take a token and hand it to the cashier. Homelessness and Hunger is also hitting educated, professional people who may be too embarrased to tell others.

Get a few neighbors to cook for a local shelter on a monthly basis, do an annual food drive, a clothing drive, a drive for uplifting books, grooming essentials etc.– and give to an organization or directly to those in need.

Clean out your closet and bookshelves and donate unwanted clothes and uplifting books to an organization to distribute to those in need or allow your friend to choose before you donate. Libraries also accept book donations which they sell to raise money.

Read about this social challenge and see what you can do online at the National Alliance to End Homelessness at endhomelessness.org or at the NationalHomeless.org who envisions a world where everyone has safe, decent, affordable and an accessible home.

Cook with friends to bring food, or bring any extra food from everyday life or a special event to a local shelter or a friend who would welcome a warm meal.

IF YOU HAVE TEN DOLLARS

Buy a $10 gift certificate card at your local natural foods store that serves hot food and give it to your friend directly or an organization. Food is a basic necessity and is always appreciated. For us healthy wholesome food was extra appreciated. Gas gift certificate cards are also a plus for people in their vehicles.

Donate to the YMCA’s Open Doors Policy – An income based membership rate offered to those who could use financial assistance.
The YMCA is a charitable, non-profit organization, whose purpose is
to seek to improve the quality of community life by promoting the physical, mental, and spiritual health of people of all ages. Being able to go to YMCA to shower, use a sauna and exercise helped us a great deal with stress reduction and peace of mind.

Donate to FeedingAmerica.org – The World Health Organization defined food security as existing “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a health and active life.” Feeding America.org says 1 in 6 Americans struggle with food insecurity which mean people ranging from children, individual families to seniors, vets, and the even those employed with bills don’t always know if there will be enough food to eat. Feeding America This is where extra food from food banks through Feeding America help.

Donate to a Safe Parking Program in your area or start a fund to help start one. Of course, this works better in warmer climates. The program that helped us was administered by the non-profit Newbeginningscounselingcenter.org

Donate the money to your local library – which is a place people can go to during their day to uplift their spirits.


IF YOU HAVE EXTRA LAND IN YOUR BACKYARD, EXTRA DRIVEWAY SPACE OR GOING OUT OF TOWN
– If it’s a friend you trust and have extra land, unused driveway space for them to park for a certain amount of time or you are going away and need a house sitter – offer it to them. You will have a trusty friend watching your property and they will get to experience a shower, a kitchen, and a warm house. It’s a win – win. We had a couple with children who invited us to house sit when they went they all went away and we were so grateful.

LARGER BOX:
Experience the Zen Enlightenment of Living Small in your own Van or Camper. Give it a try if you want an attitude adjustment or the experience of llving a more simplified life.

We’ve kept our van, which has helped us move to another state, and we even took it to visit relatives who were short on space and at night enjoyed being in our own bed in the van. A wise coach said to us – if you feel your life is too much or you feel you don’t have enough, spend a night in your van! Its all about your perspective. In our van in the quietude of the night in our bed with black out curtains we often felt a direct connection to the divine. For some an outfitted van, camper, RV (a bit more costly with gas) parked in nature can be a zen like experience. There is something about not having any clutter physically or on the brain. Of course, milder climates make it easier. Contact me if you want some tips on how to outfit your van. There are ways to make it comfortable. There are also the 400 sq. ft. tiny houses on wheels – these can be solutions for those living temporarily in crowded situations with friends and family or those who need an affordable and healing space.

Background info:
Cynthia Daddona is a national wellness author-speaker, freelance lifestyle journalist, life wisdom advisor and storyteller with a conscious comedy performing background. Her book “Diary of A Modern Day Goddess” is a lighthearted Women’s Wellness Book that helps women connect with their divine feminine and courageous spirit. (Published by Health Communications, Inc. – publishers of Chicken Soup for the Soul) She is also the creator-host of ModernDayGoddessWisdom.com. Cynthia enjoys sharing wisdoms learned from her own life and love laboratory, nature, inner journeys and ancient and modern cultures that contribute to longevity, wellbeing and ways to create a happier, healthier and more soulful eco-life and home. (Often with a Mediterranean twist.) She is currently working on a sequel to her book, inspirational talk and a one- woman show about her experiences called Life Lessons from a Van: one woman’s journey to increased faith, trust, love, courage and redefining home. She can be reached at Cynthia@ModernDayGoddess.com.

Additional ways to help:

There are many people helping humanity at this time. Food insecurity is a real issue with 1 in 6 people worrying about not having enough to eat each month and half of them are working. You can read more and donate to FeedingAmerica.org

The David Lynch Foundation was started for to help Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace to ensure that every child anywhere in the world who wanted to learn to meditate could do so. Now, the Foundation is actively teaching TM to adults and children including the homeless. Your donations can help.”




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