What #vanlife has taught me about grief, boundaries, Saturn and letting go

Recently I took a break from my regular column. While I’ve been gone I moved into my camper; worked through big time grief and rebuilt my life through some traumatic transitions. Through it all I’ve been setting some difficult but rewarding boundaries, getting to know Saturn’s energy and learning over and over how to let go gracefully. This post is one piece of the story of the last year of my life. If it resonates with you you might be interested in my upcoming online course Hawthorn Heart – protection magic and boundary skills for fierce femme witches and healers. There’s payment plans and BIPOC scholarships to help folks with the cost of participating. For this round, sign ups end in the morning on July 22nd 2017. There will be other rounds though, and you can get a sneak peak of the course content when you visit my site.

A little under a year ago I lived in an old three floor farmhouse on a six acre farm.

I had two gardens, a spacious attic bedroom and a home office/apothecary. The central chimney in the house was built by hand by the original owner, with rocks from around the property. My goats and cat followed me into the woods to read poetry on a forested cliff side over looking the river. My life was busy and sprawling.  Behind the house a mountain rose up to the sky, covered in cedar trees, wild roses and liberty cap mushrooms. Down the hill below the house, a turquoise river wound its way through the valley, filled with fish and swimming docks covered with moss and wildflowers.

Living in such a beautiful place, swimming in that river: I had never felt so at home.

In many ways my life on the farm was literally picturesque. So when I left, people were very confused. Why would I walk away from such a beautiful life?

People accused me of many things. They told stories to keep themselves entertained. They told stories so they could feel like they understood. They told stories so they could feel like they were above the wreckage and something so hurtful wouldn’t happen to them. They told stories to protect themselves from looking at their shadows.

They said I had abandoned my previous partner, who was pregnant at the time. They said I got overwhelmed with the responsibilities of my life and I just ghosted. They said I was cheating and had committed a deep betrayal. I even received an aggressive and threatening facebook message where someone called me a leech and told me I ruin entire communities.

None of this was true, but all of it was painful to hear. The truth was that the situation was much more complicated than anyone could see from the outside. I’ve told the story of why I left in many different ways. My ex has told their version(s) too. So have our friends and the people who love us, as well as the onlookers who simply wanted to be part of something dramatic and painful.

Any story as complicated as our break up will inevitably have many different sides and many different ways it can be told. No one, not even the people who lived it, can truly understand all the details of what happened. It’s one of those moments where if I was religious I might say “only god can truly know what happened here”. And even so, I have my own truths to hold on to, the things that I am certain of.

What I do know is that we were both in pain and the land could feel it. Our relationship was transforming and we responded to it changing in really different ways. My ex didn’t want to grieve or accept our love breaking down. They described it as holding onto a glass so hard it breaks and not being able to release your hand and the blood just dripping everywhere. I wanted us to move into a new way of loving each other – something we had always talked about being able to do, when we first fell in love. I was falling in love with someone else, it felt good but it wasn’t easy. For months, from way before this new love arrived on the scene, I had been working on setting better boundaries around the care I was offering my partner. They felt betrayed and lashed out at me. I was overwhelmed, heart broken and exhausted. We were both scared and struggling.

In the end I chose to leave because I thought that would be the best choice for everyone involved, especially the baby who didn’t deserve to grow up in a home where their parents were fighting every day. I didn’t want to go. I still wonder if I made the right choices almost every day, but I know I made the best decisions I could with the information I had at the time.

In the months that followed I got hypothermia living in a yurt on a northern coastal island. I couldn’t see or speak properly. I wasn’t able to use my hands, walk or regulate my body temperature normally for weeks. My truck Burtha broke down as we were leaving so we had to leave her behind and come back for her later. She had my camper on her back along with all my disorganized belongings inside, many of which were molding and covered in broken glass. They had been retrieved in the mid-morning equivalent of a midnight move and never properly unpacked. Back then I was never grounded enough to truly unpack.

After the yurt I lived in my mother’s basement, something I hadn’t done since I was a teenager. She loves me, but we fought. We fought over homophobic comments from my step-sibling. We fought because she didn’t protect me in the ways that I craved. We fought because she was grieving and overloaded and I was grieving and struggling to get out of bed and we both wanted more from each other than either of us was able to give.

I eventually moved into my camper, recently retrieved from hypothemia island. With help, I spent weeks painting and cleaning and preparing it to be this perfect little home. A refuge away from all the chaos. My dad sent me articles about #vanlife. My mother yelled at me for getting silicon on her newly hand crafted drive way. I didn’t realize hand crafted drive ways were a thing that even existed until this fight.

People often think that living in a camper, tiny home, bus or van is this glamorous thing. They think you are embracing minimalism and that you are “breaking free”. Strangers often tell me their life plans to live like me. They tell me how much money they’ve saved up to buy and van and where they want to go. For the longest time I had to hold back laughter whenever this happened. These people are sweet, but the ways they glamourized my life felt ridiculous to me.

They see living in a camper as a bastion of freedom. A spiritual level up. That’s not what living in a camper was for me.

To be honest, living in a camper was something I felt forced into. I couldn’t afford nor did I have the desire to live in the place where I grew up. It was becoming heavily gentrified with no hope of long term housing security for young people like me. I didn’t feel welcome in the place I’d left behind because as far as I know my ex’s stories had made that space hostile territory. There was a noticeable lack of care extended to me from the community I left behind, so how could I go back? I still have no idea where I want to land after all of this. Even my cards were reluctant to offer direction or assurance, constantly telling me to wait or giving me cards that felt irrelevant to my questions.

The only option for housing security I had at the time was a camper on the back of an old farm truck.

At first my new partner, pup and I spent nights sleeping in Walmart parking lots. In the mornings, looking disheveled and desperate, we’d run across the massive concrete yellow grid, past the early morning pick up trucks and mini vans, through the sliding doors, past the friendly greeters who gave us a wide berth as we ran into the bathrooms, spinning around the doors as fast as we could manage. One time I was wearing one of each shoe from the only two pairs I had on either foot.

We tried parking in other places but quickly we realized that lead to middle of the night arguments with security guards. We tried camp grounds but they would usually either be closed, full or they didn’t have any service, which I needed to be able to keep up with my online business. We stayed at friend’s houses but eventually we’d always get the cops called on us by over zealous neighbourhood watch people who were concerned about people “living in their car”. These calls were odd because we rarely slept in the camper. It was too disorganized and it felt stressful to be in there.

In a way I was rejecting #vanlife because the glamorization of it bothered me. Something about being miserable when I was supposed to be getting free felt more authentic to me than an instagram ready, hashtaggable, corporate sponsored spiritual level up.

I didn’t feel like I was free. I felt like I was homeless: because I was.

It felt like I was grieving and there wasn’t room for all my pain in this tiny space. Plus we had way too much stuff in the camper for it to feel good. You couldn’t see the floor. It was like that game I’d played as a kid where you couldn’t touch the ground because it’s made of lava. If you put your feet to the floor you’d crunch or break something under foot. We didn’t start out this way, but stuff adds up when you’re moving from place to place.

You carry things, even if you don’t start out meaning to.

And then one day I ended up in the hospital. I’d been struggling with suicidal ideation pretty consistently since I left the farm, but on this day I realized I actually needed to ask for help from someone other than my partner. My counselor was away, my mother and I were not speaking. My closest friend was also in the hospital. Even though I don’t trust doctors, it felt like a better option than codependtly leaning on my partner.

You see in this past year I had lost or renegotiated my relationships with literally everyone in my life. In the end I was left with my partner, my dog and one solid friend. I was lucky to have them, and still I felt profoundly alone. Living felt impossibly difficult and dying seemed cruel to the few remaining people who cared about me. And as a friend pointed out to me, in a way: I had died. I was walking around in a body but I was vacant. Loosing everything you love is it’s own kind of dying. It’s a kind of death that feels impossible to talk about because it’s really hard to feel like anyone will understand.

Most people either didn’t believe the grief I was experiencing was genuine, or they didn’t believe that abuse played at part in my life collapsing. Emotional abuse is very hard to see, especially when it happens largely in private between two charismatic people who most of the time appear to love each other (which we did). Even more people just didn’t want to see my pain at all because most of us aren’t very well equipped to look so directly at such immense brokenness.  A good friend told me she had heard so many different stories about why I left that she just needed to believe me because it was too confusing and painful not too. I can feel all these stories people are telling. Even after having left and moved far away I can feel them. I do magic and it helps me feel more free, but I still feel the hooks grasping at my skin, wishing they could make home anew in my body. Even as I write this I can hear the whispers that will follow in the wake of publishing it.

At the hospital the doctor asked me what I needed and I said “I want my family, especially my mom, to understand how much pain I’m in and I need housing security.”

And it was true. Those were the things I needed. So I left the hospital and I wrote my mother a long letter explaining to her that I don’t have the capacity to take care of her right now. I told her how much I love her and that I wanted her to love me too. I told her that I know my family struggles to love me because of my queerness and my gender. I told her that I’m stepping away from doing emotional labour in our relationship, for now, to learn how to take care of myself. I told her that I know I’m in a transition from receiving her care to taking care of her and that I’m not ready. That I need time to fill my cup so I can offer it back to her.

I’ve felt lighter ever since.

I’ve written many letters like this once in the past year. I divorced my friend wife and now we’re working on ushering ourselves into a new kind of friendship, one we can both feel safer and more free in. I wrote a long letter to my oldest friend explaining that I needed space after a heated conflict. I wrote a letter to my friend group telling them I needed space from all of them when I heard rumours flying that they didn’t believe me that my previous relationship was abusive (luckily the majority of them came forward to say they did in fact believe me, but still I needed space from the they said/they said back and forth). I wrote a letter to my former boss who fired me from a team I loved working on because my ex (who was also technically my boss) did not want to see me. I explained to her that this was not only unfair (we would not have to work on the same shift) but also illegal (I was not being fired because of incompetence) and is technically sexual harassment.

It’s not easy but with each boundary I set, each time I spoke my truth and stood up for myself things got clearer. Where I am wanted and where I need to be makes more sense, even if I still feel lost.

People keep telling me I’m in my Saturn return, but I’m not.

It doesn’t start until winter solstice of this year. Saturn is dancing and prancing all over my first house though, back and forth and back and forth in and out of retrograde. As a many times over sag I’m definitely feeling his presence. I see this work as preparing me for my Saturn return. My hope is that Saturn will see how hard I’ve worked to get real with myself, and enjoy making his way into Capricorn so much, that he grants me some much craved structure and solidity when my return does come.

In between sitting down to write my mom that letter I set up our solar panel for the first time. I was able to power my computer inside the camper, from the sun. It was the first time I’d done something off grid. Shortly after that I went through all my belongings and downsized, again. My partner and I cleaned the camper from front to back. We burnt herbs in it and suddenly it started to feel homey. While visiting friends we looked at renting a house in the middle of a massive canola field, underneath an enormous prairie sky. I’d spent so much time missing and craving home that I was surprised when the two-bedroom house felt like an eerie empty haunted mansion compared to the tight little nest of our camper.

What I’ve realized from all of this is that I wasn’t actually able to appreciate my camper, even though I had put love and time into making it a dreamy little space, because I wasn’t letting go of my attachment to my old life. I wasn’t done grieving in a way that could create space for something new.  And sure, I was setting boundaries with people when they weren’t treating me the way I deserved but my grief was so heavy and so full that I was making it manifest with stuff. Disorganized, molding, cluttered stuff. Stuff I could hold onto. Stuff I could cling to and not let go of, unlike all the people and places I’d lost and missed so deeply.

I was making my outsides like my inside: stuck and holding.

You see, a space that small doesn’t have space for hoarding my grief and my ghosts, but it does have space for my heart and my dreams.

A few months into this journey I shaved my head and burnt my hair in a bird’s nest my ex had given me. When it was done burning I threw the ashes in the ocean. I shaved my head because I wanted people to see that I had changed. I wanted them to see that  I was grieving. I made myself miserable in my camper because I wanted people, especially my mother, to see how unhappy and broken I felt. Because I was broken, and in some ways I still am. I don’t think I’ll ever not be broken from this, I’ll just learn ways to live with the broken and make lanterns from the cracks where the light gets through (much like the hermit I have tattooed to my arm).

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E2F9FR195xs]

I’m also learning slowly but surely that there is a grace to all of this mess.

I talked to an astrologer early in this process about what-the-fuck was happening to me if I wasn’t in my saturn return. She told me that saturn helps bring out the gold in all of us. And she’s right. Saturn has been weaving gold through me. Where I used to be sprawling, now my sense of home is warm and tightly held. Where I used to give myself away I am now turning my energy inward to create a sense of love and security that is self generative. I trust myself more now than I did before. I trust the people I keep close to me more than I’ve ever trusted my loved ones. I have often described this descent as similar to being on a trampoline. I know I’m pushing down hard on the elastic, so hard I can feel the dew on the grass below. And I had to get this far down to launch as far up as I’m about to go.

I’m running a business where I get to write and make magic as my work. I power my laptop from the sun. I’m in a relationship with someone who really truly loves me – flaws and all. My dog is about to have puppies. I live in a camper and I love it.

I know that learning how to grieve this deep, learning to have compassion for myself when I am broken, learning to be supported by my partner when I feel this raw, learning to let go so I can allow myself to transform: these are powerful, magical skills.

This is how I am becoming the bomb-ass, astoundingly powerful witch I am meant to be.

I know that all this chaos and grief and brokenness is giving me more humour and humility, a lighter heart and a more fierce ability to trust in spirit. I’m a stronger person with deeper gratitude than I had before. I’m more real and I have a softer heart.

So really, as cliche as it sounds, I guess I got the #vanlife spiritual level up after all.

The images in this post come from: Rebeeca at Imaging Witch (the farm and animals) and Kendra at Love Tree Photography (the camper).

Like this post? Please share it!


  1. KD says:

    andi, it is so good to have you back and to read about your journey over the past several months. This resonated and empowered me in ways I really wasn’t expecting and I’m going to need some time to process these insights. I look forward to reading more from you soon!

  2. Thank you for sharing your messy beautiful journey with us. Sending you understanding and care. Your line about hanging onto moldering stuff gave me an “aha” moment. Real love and emotional abuse were intertwined in my childhood, just as in your past relationship. Saving useless things somehow filled the void where genuine good nostalgia would have been, till I only recently turned the corner on that grief and could get rid of it. Glad you are on track now with a good partner and a strong sense of your self-worth. I will take your class when work eases up. Blessings!

  3. Olivia says:

    Thank you so, so, so much for sharing this! I have a story that echoes similar truths where I fired my job and moved into a camper van… also trying to reconcile the responses of the people around me who thought I was “Living the Dream” when I was really searching to see what was left inside me after, what felt like, everything had gone.

    Your insight into your own continuing journey has allowed me to cast light into my own dark spaces and not feel so along… thank you giving that. Hard truths can be so difficult to share, especially in a public space. Keep on casting the light and be blessed.

  4. Bryhre says:

    This was so lovely and courageous to read Andi. I am very happy for you and appreciate a little bit how hard such work is.??

Comments are closed.