Stability is something that has been a bit elusive for me, ever since I turned ten years old. It comes in sprints, but does not stick around. It tends to run off.
When I tell my story, it sounds to some like a telenovela. But it’s my story, so here it is.
In 1992, the day before we were to celebrate my first double-digit birthday, we watched the BBC 6 o’clock news cover Hurricane Andrew’s devastation on the homes of south Florida. Unfortunately, ours was one of those homes. As the cameras panned out from the debris and rows of broken timber where our neighbourhood once was, we recognised local landmarks. Anguished, my father flew back to Miami and my mum and I stayed to attend her sister’s wedding, which was the reason we had been in the UK in the first place. It was a bittersweet event: I was a flower girl, with a pretty dress, but meanwhile: my father was searching for temporary housing for us to move into, and breaking the news to mum that her beloved photo albums and my baby clothes hadn’t all survived the water damage.
Five months later, and we had moved two more times. First to a temporary one-bedroom apartment around 90 miles from our old home, a two hour drive from my school and their workplaces each day. My dad had been lucky to find it: our insurance was paying over the odds for us to be there, as desperate families gazzumped one another on rent. I slept in a closet. Then, to a more suitable house, a larger three-bed which had stairs: I was made up. My sunny yellow room at the front of the house had a view onto a manicured cul-de-sac as you might see in a stock US high school movie. The happiness and relative stability we felt there lasted just a few months, because in January 1993, on twelfth night, my father passed away. It was sudden, unexpected, and utterly crushing.
My British mum had left the UK in the late 70s, and had no family to speak of in the US. She decided we were to “return” to the UK to seek comfort in the bosom of family. For me, it was an alien land I had only been to during two weeks of summer breaks. I was just finishing elementary school. I didn’t want to go. I wanted to be the all-American kid I thought I was. I wanted to be able to learn to drive at 15 and go to my high school prom. I didn’t want to start secondary school. I felt the loss of everything, in the way that only a ten year old can.
The culture shock, for us both, was enormous. Mum had left 18 years previously and remarked on how little people chatted with ease compared to the more garrulous Americans we were used to. Mum had to look for work and a home for us, so we lived with my grandma at first. It was 1993 and we had arrived during a severe economic downturn. John Major was prime minister, and I remember watching Spitting Image caricature him as a grey puppet. I missed the colours and the tropical plants and birds of my childhood. I couldn’t get used to the concrete brown and grey buildings, or cloudy June skies. Everything here is grey, even the people, I remember thinking.
Almost 18 months in, we had a new home. Mum had a job in the NHS, and I didn’t hate school quite as much as I had in the beginning. We had gotten to know our family much more deeply. Slowly, we adapted. We learned (and re-learned) about dark humour and cups of tea and rich tea biscuits and watched Red Dwarf and marvelled at Crufts. We realised that Britons love a chat, but they need time to warm up to strangers. We made friends. We missed my dad terribly, but we morphed into the close unit we still are today.
That particular period stability sprint lasted then for around 5 years. I did A-levels, and went to university. I started working in academia, met a guy, and stayed put in London for the next 10 years. That sprint was a long one. 18 years after arriving in England, the grey once again bore down on me: I have always craved my return to sunshine. So an ex and I moved our entire lives to Barcelona to try working remotely, learn Spanish, and try our hand at running an airbnb. That particular stability sprint lasted a year, and did not remain stable, but when I look back on it, my life subsequently became even more of a whirlwind.
Since then, I’ve lived in four more places in three more countries, and I’ve also changed careers twice – from university work to schools, career counselling to working with education innovation startups. And yet: as my career path is less stable, I feel more empowered. I’m back in Barcelona now, a place I continue to love and feel happy to return to. Still: I told you, stability for me has been elusive. Each time I’ve moved, I’ve both lost and gained. The gains outweigh the losses for me. I see friends with children and mortgages and cars wondering at how I can be how I am. And yet: here I am, stable in my instability, filled and fulfilled by my losses, and resolute that life for me will be anything but grey.