What I’ve Learned After a Life of Instability

The sense of security and equanimity only comes from within

Shanti Bright Brien
Moms Don’t Have Time to Write

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Our family dogs, Harry and Candy, in front of the beautiful home where I have lived for fourteen years

Over the course of my life, I’ve called almost forty places home. Dirty farmhouses, midcentury-modern boxes, muggy warehouse spaces, and suburban homes with beautiful bones.

My mom and I moved a lot when I was a kid. Not my father — he left us when I was only two years old. My mom was a twenty-three-year-old part-time college student and baker. My father was handsome, with long black hair and a strong jaw. He was brilliant, with dual master’s degrees in math and linguists from Berkeley. But he wasn’t the stable type. He suffered from severe depression and anxiety. I only remember seeing him two or three times in my childhood. In his wake, I developed my own insecurity and instability, which have compounded over the years after so much uprooting.

My first memory is from the country farmhouse surrounded by orchards of peaches and almonds on the outskirts of Modesto, California. One day, my mom and I returned to the house and found a giant rat perched on a stool in the kitchen. The rat was as big as a dog and gave us a look like “What the hell are you ladies doing here?”

Our second house in Modesto is the scene of one of my most vivid and haunting childhood memories. I got off the bus from kindergarten one damp gray day and walked the long block from the bus stop. I wore my brown leather boots over my mismatched socks and the worn-out jacket bought at Goodwill the year before. I arrived at the small cottage on the corner, relieved to be home— I needed to pee. I hurried up the front steps to the splintering wooden door. Locked. A wave of worry washed through my little body. I ran around the side, through the broken gate, and threw open the screen to the backdoor. Locked. Where was my mom? I stumbled down the brick steps, out into the yard of weeds and rotting leaves. I looked into the gray sky, and with despair and loneliness, let the pee flow down my legs and fill my boots.

At that house, my mom met Rudy. He had a good job as a nurse, and their marriage allowed us to move to a nice neighborhood, where my parents befriended doctors and lawyers who took their families to Hawaii on vacation and drove Volvos. We lived on a tidy cul-de-sac. We had a swimming pool. These were the most stable and normal years of my childhood.

When we left that house, I was thirteen; I would move every year thereafter — sometimes two or three times a year — for the next twenty years.

The “modern” house we lived in for a year in the orchards of Modesto

When my mom and Rudy divorced, we moved to a small cottage near a middle school. She could only afford a tumbledown house in the neighborhood with her divorce settlement. The next year, we moved into my grandma’s house after she died. It was a midcentury “modern” home with glass walls, folding doors, and white carpets. It had years of dust and little passels of cockroaches in the bathrooms. My mom and aunt sat by the decrepit pool all summer crying with grief. And then we moved yet again to Highland Avenue. It was a place of calm amid some turbulent teenage years. My mom decorated my room with a lot of pink and floral chintz. It was perfect for 1988.

College required moving at least once a year, usually twice. Dorms to summer homes to a sorority house to abroad to a friend’s sofa back to the sorority house. A summer internship in D.C. A house in San Francisco, where five of us shared the rent and our friend Glen lived in a closet. Another flat in San Francisco, on the Panhandle. We made a sofa out of an old mattress and a tapestry. Law school brought three or four more places, including two studios barely bigger than Glen’s closet.

I moved to New Orleans to marry my husband. He played in the NFL and was compensated for lack of job security, so we bought a cool warehouse apartment. For the first time in my adult life, I owned a sofa and a dining table. I remember every detail of buying our first dresser. The apartment often smelled like grease due to the famous diner in the building next door and the incessant humidity of the bayou air.

The year our first child was born, the New Orleans Saints cut my husband from the team and we moved another six times. I begged him to buy us a “home base” in the Bay Area where we had family and friends. We split the next four years: half the year in Oakland and the other half in Minneapolis, then New York, then Chicago. As a young mom of babies and toddlers, I lived the whole of those years in a haze of sleep deprivation and loneliness. Sure, my husband was physically there but he was siloed by stress, pressure, and the grief of his dad’s unexpected death. We shared the same cheap apartment and rental furniture, but we really spent all of our energy surviving.

My favorite quiet corner

When my husband finally retired, we bought our family dream house: an old white Spanish Colonial-style home with a large yard. The woman we bought it from had lived there for sixty years, raising six kids. I remember thinking as we moved in, I’m not leaving this house until they take my body out on a stretcher. The linoleum floors, cracked and peeling, a lava rock fireplace, and those accordion doors looked terrible, but we lived through them while rebuilding the third of the house that was at risk of collapse due to termite damage. After nearly fourteen years here, we’ve now renovated the entire house and yard in small projects. Early on, I stuffed my old, deep-seated insecurity and instability into the freezer. You can’t just discard emotions that have been with you for so long. But I was able to keep some distance from them for a time.

I should feel secure. This is the stable home and family I’ve wanted my whole life. I am generally happy and I have an objectively stable life, don’t get me wrong. I recognize the extreme privilege of owning a home and having the resources to pay the mortgage, even during a pandemic and economic collapse. I have three healthy kids and a job I like. But, slowly, those feelings have started to seep back into my life.

The global calamity of the pandemic has triggered the fear of my world being precariously perched upon a cliff and the people I love soon leaving me. Those fears have flooded my family, too. My husband was already in the throes of an unnerving midlife crisis and one child’s anxiety has since ballooned.

And yet, if my life of instability has taught me one thing, it’s that the sense of security and equanimity only comes from within. I remind myself of this every single day. A twenty-three-year marriage, a healthy family, and even a big beautiful Spanish-style house cannot give them to me. I must build my own foundation. I remodel until it feels right, until it feels solid and true. Home is not where the heart is. The heart creates its home.

Shanti Bright Brien is a litigator with expertise in constitutional principles as well as the procedural intricacies of the U.S. criminal justice system. She has handled prisoner civil rights litigation and parole cases. Brien has taught at Berkeley Law and Mills College Graduate School of Business and Public Policy. She received a Bachelor of Arts degree with honors in Ethnic Studies from the University of California, Berkeley, and a JD from Stanford Law School.

She grew up in the Central Valley of California — Modesto to be precise — and has written extensively about her upbringing. Brien is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) tribe, now located in Oklahoma. Her book, Almost Innocent: From Searching to Saved in America’s Criminal Justice System, is out now. She lives in the East Bay with her husband and three children.

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Shanti Bright Brien
Moms Don’t Have Time to Write

Author of Almost Innocent. Lawyer to criminals, mother of mayhem, daughter of cowboys and Indians. Champion of equity and fairness.