The Lessons and the Gifts

Updated: Mar 25, 2020

Earlier this year I wrote an article for a magazine called The Seasonals, which features stories of people who are travelers, nomads, adventurers, those living alternative lifestyles, and working seasonal jobs.

The story that I wrote was themed around a birthday ritual that set for myself a few years ago, so I figured it would be fitting for me to share it with you all today, on my 25th birthday.

Van Lefan playing her kao wood Taylor GS Mini in her van

Birthdays: a time to celebrate another trip around the sun, an excuse to eat cake, receive presents, spend time with family and friends, or a great reason to throw a party. My birthday is not only a time for me to reflect on growth of the year, but also an occasion to set intentions for the year to come. It’s an opportunity to check in with myself and ask questions such as “what do I want?” and “how can I create that in my life?”. Within the last couple of years, I’ve also developed this tradition to give myself a big present, whether it is an item I’ve been saving up for, or a big move that I’ve been wanting to make.

The year I turned twenty-two I allowed myself to follow my heart’s calling for an adventure: a three-month solo backpacking trip in Mexico. It was spontaneous and irresponsible, considering I was halfway through my last semester in Counseling school. Thankfully my school was understanding, they allowed me to take a break and agreed to let me finish my studies whenever I came back. A week after my arrival in Mexico, I lost my bank card, leaving me in a foreign country, barely speaking any Spanish, with about $300 worth of cash in my pocket. This was exactly the push I needed to get out of my comfort zone and be resourceful. I quickly found myself joining a group of local musicians and started to busk on the streets, which led to me getting gigs in the restaurants and bars in town. Even though I had played music since I was a young child, making a living out of it was never something that I had considered as a possibility.

Returning to Vancouver after that trip was quite a shocking experience. My roommates decided to relocate while I was away, so I came home to a new apartment and all my belongings in boxes. By the end of that summer I found myself needing to move out due to some interpersonal and financial reasons, so I ended up moving in with my partner at the time. A few months after that, the relationship came to an end, and once again I needed to find a new place to live.

This was around the same time as my 23rd birthday. When I asked the question, “what do I want to give myself this year,” the answer was clear: I wanted a space that was my own. All the travelling and moving left me feeling ungrounded and uncertain where ‘home’ was. I wanted stability in my life, a space that was my own and not affected or dependent on anyone else. This resulted in me buying myself my first home: a camperized Ford Econoline van. It’s name - Vanwise Gamgee. This was the first time in my life that I have lived alone with no family, no roommates, no landlord. My intention was to take this opportunity to further explore who I am as an independent, autonomous person, and gain financial freedom by not having to pay the rising monthly rent prices in Vancouver. However, things did not exactly go as I planned.

Vanlife views of the beach at Tofino, BC

About three months after I moved into the van, someone stole it. I was visiting a friend and had parked it outside on the street, when I came outside hours later the van was gone. I went through the emotions of shock, anger, sadness, fear. How could this happen? What am I going to do?

Days after the incident the police found it abandoned on the side of the road, empty. Everything I owned including my clothing, guitar, ukulele, the flute I’ve played since I was nine years old, art supplies, gifts, crystals, stones, souvenirs, a stuffed frog I’ve had since I was four, every bin, basket, box, drawer that was inside was gone.

So, there I was at the tow yard, sitting inside the wreck that was left of my little home. I took a few deep breaths allowing the scene to sink in and let out a laugh. A wave of excitement, gratitude and relief rushed over me. This is my opportunity to let go and start fresh.

I believe that physical things such as our possessions hold energy from memories and meaning we assign to them. When I immigrated to Canada with my family at age eleven, my possessions gave me a sense of safety, belonging, and identity. As I got older and gravitated towards a more minimalist lifestyle, I started recognized that a lot of these things were only remnants of my past, shadows and echoes. Now I have silence, a clean slate, wide open space to fill with anything.

"Mother Earth" by Van Lefan

What would my life look like if I were to consciously choose each piece of it?

I had plenty of time to ponder this question while my van was in the tow yard and mechanic shop. For two months I couch surfed with family and friends and slowly gathered essential pieces to build my new life. Many who had heard what happened reached out and offered help in forms such as housing, clothing, hugs. A musician friend even gifted me the flute that he travelled the world with decades ago! I learned important lessons about detachment, letting go, asking for help, receiving, and most importantly human kindness and the true meaning of abundance. Although all my instruments were taken, I never stopped playing music; and even though all my things were gone, I still had everything I needed.

It wasn’t easy. I struggled with grief for what I lost, the memories attached to it, and also the releasing of the care-free road trip plans I had for that summer after graduation. I faced the reality that in order to restore what I had (such as a repairing my electrical system for the van and replacing my music gear), and also save for future travel plans - I had to work hard. So, I kept going, finishing my practicum, graduated from counselling school, and started two new jobs. I spent the next six months working four jobs, picking up other gigs whenever I could, and made enough money to not only rebuild, but also saved up around ten thousand dollars.

During this time, it became clear to me how important music is to me. It is how I share stories, remember, express myself and move through emotions. One of the first thing I purchased after the incident was a new guitar, and in some of my most difficult moments I often played a song that I wrote the previous year called

The Lessons

I asked the eagle for advice today

about how to spread my wings and fly away,

throw all caution to the wind, take a leap of faith and jump right in.

I heard a mother whisper to her babe "the first steps are the hardest ones to take

it's okay if you shake, get up and try again you'll find the strength"

So be mindful, be brave, don't be afraid of change,

you'll find the reason for your pain in time.

Be grateful, be great, and don't forget to play,

go out and find what makes you feel alive,

and do it for the rest of your life.

I still have some questions for the ocean tide,

like how to come and go and fall after I rise.

Learn to sway and ride the waves,

let the moonlight lead the way.

So be mindful, be brave, don't be afraid of change,

you'll find the reason for your pain in time.

Be grateful, be great, and don't forget to play,

go out and find what makes you feel alive,

and do it for the rest of your life.

The less I speak the more I grow,

The more I learn the less I know,

Cause I don’t know anything at all.

I don’t know anything at all but to

Be mindful, be present, and live in every moment

don’t forget compassion and be kind.

Remember the lesson that every day is a blessing

go out and find what sets your soul on fire

and do this for the rest of your life.

Van Lefan Playing flute in Gastown, Vancouver. Photo taken by Arek Photography

This song served as a way for me to re-center and remember what values are important to me, what I was working towards, and reminded me of some of the most important lessons I have learned over the years. I knew that I was working hard for a reason, and that my schedule at that time was not meant to be sustained in the long run. After months of working a full schedule as an employee, I was feeling restless and ready to make another big shift. As I approached my 24th birthday, I started asking myself:

What is the gift that I will give myself this year?

Freedom. I set the day of my birthday, November 12th as my last day working as an employee and gave all my employers plenty of time to find someone to fill my hours.

Similar to the process of filling my van with new objects with intention after it was emptied, I created space in my life to allow music, art, connection, experiences, and creativity to flow in. I wanted to open myself to all the possibilities that life will present me and have the freedom to decide my response with nothing attaching me to any person, place, or thing. I want to have time and space in my life to be able to dedicate myself to connections, adventures, opportunities, and to dive into creative projects fully. I asked myself “What are the things I’ve always wanted to do, and what are the reasons for me not having done them yet?” I wanted to play music, write, record an album, create art, dance, perform, collaborate, travel. Although my lifestyle of working multiple jobs in this city provided me with financial security and stability in the form of a routine and central location of Vancouver, was also starting to feel restricting. I had very little time to get into my own creative flow, and it was difficult for me to schedule more than a few days off at a time. It dawned on me that I no longer wanted to be on anybody else’s schedule and had been craving change for a while but kept procrastinating because I was comfortable and safe doing what I was familiar with.

Suddenly my calendar became wide open. Anything was possible. Now what?

I decided to first go on a road trip down the west coast in my van with my dog Captain Kirk from Vancouver to southern California, blogging and creating YouTube videos along the way. After that trip I flew down to Mexico again to reconnect with friends from my first trip, couch surfing and playing music which covered most of my living expenses. The last two weeks of my trip I volunteered as a facilitator at a plant medicine retreat, gaining some valuable connections, learnings, and also covering all of my accommodation and food costs while I’m there doing work I am passionate about. After that experience I returned to Vancouver for a week to work a week as a translator/interpreter to make some money to fund the next leg of my adventure- nearly two months in Nicaragua.

My intention for this trip was to learn how to surf, develop skills in my circus arts, work on music, creating more online content and work on my branding.

My first time being published! Here's a shot of a page in The Seasonals Quarterly Magazine

I spent the first month there in a small surf town called Popoyo, rooming with a good musician friend from Vancouver, most of our days consisted of surfing, jamming, and attending local open mics. After that, I did a two-week Digital Nomad Circus Artist residency with the Momentom Collective, attending daily workshops in various subjects such as acro, circus, meditation, marketing, flow states, sound, and movement. I was growing amongst some of the most inspirational and creative people I have ever met, playing in flow arts and music daily. During my time there I collaborated with a music producer and videographer to record the track and music video for The Lessons, featuring many of the other talented residences that were there. The team of us went on to record two more songs and three other videos with our time together.

It amazed me how much can happen in such a short amount of time when I really put my mind to the vision, and commit my whole being to it. I would have stayed there for the full month if it wasn’t for the fact that I had another journey to embark on: my first international tour. For the entire month of April I was joining my favorite Vancouver band Buckman Coe on their tour in my home country of Taiwan. How this dream became a reality is a long story – but the underlying theme is alignment and clarity into what I wanted, and an open schedule that allowed me to say yes without any reservation.

Life flowed with one moment leading into the next seamlessly. Opportunities presented themselves and I intuitively knew what actions to take. It took a lot of faith at times, some of these were big decisions that felt terrifying. There were challenges that I had to overcome within myself, to move past limits that I’ve set on myself, and expand into unknown edges. More has manifested in these months than I could have imagined possible when I took that first leap of faith to open myself to the unknown.

There’s still half a year between now and my next birthday, I have no idea where I will be by then or what I will be the gift I give myself, but I am sure when the time comes, so will the vision.

*This article was first published in The Seasonals Quarterly Magazine which you can pur