Maggie, an amazing young woman from Cornwall, did her degree whilst living in a van in the college car park. Well, most of the time. I got to know Maggie in her final year of a product design degree while I was working at the same college and studying my Art Foundation there too. We became friends and I shared in one or two of her fun trips. In addition we occasionally swapped homes, my flat for her van.
Maggie’s van was a self-converted old transit style Mercedes with a small wood burner and my first jaunt was two weeks in Cornwall. It was wonderful! Freedom, fresh air, lots of time and places to draw. As well as staying in isolated places with an occasional stop on a campsite to have a shower. Yes, I did say occasional!
The wood burner was also a great novelty which due to my childlike enthusiasm nearly saw the end of Maggie’s home. One evening I stuffed it with so much wood that the cast iron exterior started to glow red! Doors, windows were flung wide open, blankets, anything flammable, which was about everything, were thrown outside until it was safe to get in again. Actually, with hindsight, this was a warning of things to come in my own van!
What I also learnt being in Maggie’s van, was that being taller than Maggie, every action that required standing, which was a lot, meant I was stooped – resulting in back ache. Now you can see why getting a van I could stand up in was a very seductive requirement when it came to buying my own, especially as vans with the required height cost more than I could afford.
There is also something else about vans or even cars. From a young child I loved being in them, they felt safe. As a passenger I fell asleep very quickly and still do. (Actually, I’ve also fallen asleep driving only to be woken up by the bumping and rocking of the car going onto the grass verge!). I’ve had some of my most important or difficult conversations in cars, also some of my funniest. I’ve even been on long distance overseas journeys in trucks, twice going to Iran. All the trips were with my first son, Simon, who was 4 on the last adventure. If you’re a parent, close your eyes and imagine being asked numerous times in a day ‘mummy, when will we get there?’
There was and still is a sense of being in a protected bubble in a car, a metal womb if you like. In a car or van I seem to relax, daydream, partly because I’m cocooned and therefore unable to do any of the tasks or deeds I feel I should be doing.
So, there I was in London, in my flat, lying in bed, determined I would do nothing to sustain living until The Universe or God came up with a darn good reason why I should. You see all the ‘What Happens If …’ I’d been trying up to then all led to one big conclusion, the way I was living just didn’t work! It was a mess, I was a mess!
Friends were patient and very kind. My eldest son, Simon, was wonderful but didn’t know just how bad things had got in my head. Well, I think he got a clue when I bought for his future wife, as a wedding present, a place on a weekend Forum to work out issues she had about her father, as I was convinced if she didn’t my son was in for a very difficult marriage! My younger son, who I was still getting to know, with the help of Simon and friends, also may have found me a little odd. Mind you, to him, I was already an enigma based on having left him and his father when he was just two.
The only places during that time where I found any clues to how life could be, or how I’d like to be was when I attended the Quaker, Society of Friends, meetings and the Buddhist Monastery of Amaravati in Hertfordshire, where I’d go for retreats and learn meditation. The common elements to both are Silence, Love and Acceptance.
The only certainty I had to go on at that time was this; if there was any truth in some of clues I was being shown in the Meetings and Amaravati then I had to stop the antidepressants and stop smoking marijuana in order to find out if the things I was discovering were real or just another symptom of my mental and emotional state. I described to my GP that I felt as if I was a clay pot that had just been ‘thrown’ and shaped but still very vulnerable until I had been ‘fired’ and made solid and that staying in my flat I felt at risk of that not happening.
I also decided that this ‘new pot’ had to reclaim her name Johan. I liked it but hated that at school no one said it how I thought it should be said (phonetically JoHan) so everyone called me Jo. My mother had the same name and my father, a determined man who was a dangerously physically abusive husband when he’d had a drink, had insisted on my having it mainly, I was told, to upset my mother’s remaining family.
Therefore, what better reason could there have been than to get a van and to leave London than to go in search for the origin of my name! Plus, my amazing GP supported the idea, though she was concerned at my stopping the antidepressants.
The van was bought, a Renault Traffic, and with the help of friends and my brother it was cleaned, lined with sheets of plywood, a bed built with storage, fitted with cupboards, sink and equipped with a small portaloo, essential when staying in villages or towns! Sadly no wood burner but I used candles for lighting in the evenings and a couple battery operated lamps.
However, what it also needed was an engine!
No, it did come with one, I got the van home, just! So, again with the help of Simon’s friends a reconditioned engine was fitted at further expense.
If this all sounds ‘easy peasy’, well it was and wasn’t. It was frustrating to the point I started to question if I misunderstood the answer I felt was given to me by The Universe or God. So who better to ask than one of the founding Buddhist Monks of Amaravati.
The day I went was a special gathering due to the auspicious visit of this Monk. I, with many others, queued for a long time to either receive his blessing or ask his advice. My turn eventually came. I bowed and asked: “I’ve bought a van to make a special journey to find my name but things seem to be going wrong and I’m wondering if this just a test. Should I persevere or take it as a sign I shouldn’t go?’
The answer: ‘You will know when you know.’ I leave it to your imagination what I felt.
However, that experience and many more became the seed which grew into one of my personal philosophies called ‘knock three times’. More on that much later.
In spite of this advice, or maybe because of it, I left my job (though I hadn’t been able to return to work since the morning I awoke not recognising my own hands because I couldn’t even choose what to wear let alone get to work). I told the Director of my Fine Art Programme what I had decided to do (continuing my fine art course was the only thing my GP encouraged me to stick at all through my Breakdown/breakthrough), packed up my flat and rented it to an ex-boyfriend, said goodbye to family and friends and drove to Amaravati, took my Buddhist precepts and pointed the van northwards to start zigzagging across the UK. I also wanted to explore my own country as part of this adventure.
I knew my great grandmother had the name Johan too and she was Scottish, so I chose to make Scotland the final destination before I headed back. I was convinced that once I had found the origin of my name and got to the very top of Scotland I would know exactly what I was to do, I would be ‘fired’.
One other major decision I did make was not to buy a mobile phone as I didn’t want to be contacted. Instead I arranged to ring my brother weekly to check in and see if there was any news from my sons or problems with the flat etc.
For my first stop I planned to visit my younger son Peter who by then was living in Nottingham. I got about 20 miles up the road when I had the first of many vehicle malfunctions. What did I know by then?………buy a better van!
Next time, hopefully 1 week’s time;The drummer, garages and WWOOF…….