A stranger who lived in a van gave me money - and some incredible life advice

I’d never done a reverse park before, and in the empty train station car park, my instructor directed me to reverse in beside the only other car in the area – a grey van.

Reverse parking is horrible. I don’t understand why anyone would do it when they can forward park. As I squeezed in beside the van (the equivalent of sitting right next to someone in an empty train carriage), I noticed a hand adjusting the curtains in the back window.

“Someone must be living in there,” I said to the instructor.

I squeezed out, paid for the lesson, then walked to the station to get a train home to the next town.

I noticed a person walking near me. It was the woman from the van. She would have been in her 70s, white hair, an old jumper and skirt, sandals.

“That was my first reverse park!” I told her. “I’m going for my licence in eight weeks and if I don’t get it I will be the oldest learner driver in the world.”

The woman smiled, then did something truly odd. She came close to me, held out her hand and said, “Take this.”

She was trying to hand me a $50 note. Oh no. Please don’t. I once found a $50 note on the ground but no stranger had ever walked up out of the blue and tried to give me money. Particularly not someone who looked like they might need it themselves.

“I’m good, thanks. But thank you very much. That’s very kind, but I don’t need the money.”

“Please just take it," lei disse. “Take it.”

I took the money and felt a powerful charge. It seemed to be not just the exchange of cash between two strangers but like something important and elemental had taken place. But I was also baffled – and felt a bit guilty for accepting it.

I sat waiting for the bus and started talking to the woman. She was from outback New South Wales and had travelled to central Victoria.

She had tried to give money to other people – strangers – “but people don’t want to take it”. She mimed someone putting up their hands and backing away from her like she was crazy. But she just wanted to give people cash.

I asked her why she gave money away to strangers and she said that giving made her happy, and that the secret to a good life was not to want more than you have. “If you are satisfied with what you’ve got, you’ll have a good life," lei disse. “Too many people want what they don’t have, so they spend their whole life working so they can get the next thing. But that doesn’t make them happy – so they never get satisfied and they are always after more money to get the next thing that might make them happy.”

“And it never stops,” I said, getting her drift. “The treadmill. The person is actually never satisfied. I guess that’s capitalism …”

She nodded. “I’ve always been happy with what I’ve got – so I’ve never wanted more.”

More was surplus, and so she gave away what she didn’t need. And she didn’t need the $50 because she had been sleeping in her van at the station for three nights and so had saved money from van park fees.

“You can use the money for your next driving lesson," lei disse.

We sat in the sun and she told me a bit more about her life. She was travelling around Australia in her van – had been for a few years now – but was getting old, and she was finding being on the road more difficult as she aged. She avoided the big cities, took her time and travelled slow.

“The most important thing is your health,” she told me. “You realise that when you get old. You can have all the money in the world but you can’t buy good health. You have to look after yourself. There’s no point having a lot of money if you make yourself sick and stressed trying to get it.”

My bus came and we wished each other luck. She walked back towards her van, taking it slow.

On the replacement bus service, I became completely undone.

The day before I had come back from a three-day silent meditation retreat where for hours in the deep silence in a forest, in the high, clear air, I had money on my mind.

I am lucky. I have more than enough – but sitting in silence for hours on end, money thoughts flooded through my mind and refused to recede. There was the car I would buy when I got my licence, and an expensive holiday I wanted, and Sydney property, Sydney property, Sydney property – the mantra that thrummed between my ears, all day, and into the night, when I was meant to be getting clear.

Adesso, as the bus wound up the mountains, I couldn’t stop crying – but couldn’t really tell you why.

What happened at the station didn’t feel like a random act of kindness, but something more akin to grace. The money transcended the material and had become totemic, carrying something in it – character, kindness, a way of being in the world that I see so infrequently that the encounter felt holy.

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