If someone told me 15 years ago, that by the time I turned 60 I would have sold my Queen Anne home, moved aboard a sailboat, bought property in Panama, and begun a new career as a freelance writer I would have laughed. “That’s someone else’s life,” I would have thought. “Someone more daring, adventurous and trusting, than I.”
But that is exactly what has happened. And not because I suddenly found that I was daring, adventurous or trusting. Not at all. My life, which I had fought so hard to drive in the direction I thought it was meant to go in, got sick of waiting for me and headed off on its own path without looking back. I continued to look for detours and side roads, screaming, “Wait up! You’re going the wrong way!” But to no avail. This thing had a life of its own.
The same could be said for my decision to leave New York for Seattle so many years ago. Tired of disappointing relationships, I had decided to live my life as a cool, independent, single woman in a city where no one knew me. Within a year of arriving in Seattle, I was married, living in a house on Queen Anne and days away from giving birth to my elder daughter. That was not the plan!
Or was it?
We think we know best. Based on what we hear and read and the comparisons we make with others who are living life a certain way, we begin to mold ourselves into what we think is the right shape. We choose the familiar because it’s easier, more comfortable. We try as hard as we can to stay in the box. Because once we step outside people start telling us we are crazy! And we believe them!
Selling our house and living at the marina, both of which I resisted mightily, forced me to let go of material possessions and live in a milieu with values of simplicity, nature and camaraderie at its forefront. The benefits to my psyche were unexpected and abundant. Even the chore of going to the Laundromat had a positive result. When I expressed my frustration to a friend, she suggested I use the time to write — something I had always wanted to do but never found the time for. Thus the birth of this column and its title.
I couldn’t imagine buying property in Panama for either retirement or vacation. But eventually I agreed to that, too, based in large part on how well the other things I had resisted turned out. I learned Spanish, wrote a popular blog, established a successful rental business and experienced first-hand the culture of a tiny island village off the coast of Panama City. I began to understand that leaps of faith could turn out pretty well. I shed my fear and shut down my internal dialogue that so often tells me, “No.” I stopped taking things at face value and began to look deeper for the messages and lessons that always emerge.
This newfound way of thinking came just in the nick of time. An unexpected turn of events during all the turbulence described above was the painful ending of 25-year career at a hospital in Seattle where I had run cancer support programs among other things. I was unprepared for the toxicity that crept into my heretofore-amiable department following the departure of a long-time boss. The situation became untenable and I left, albeit wounded and unsure of what to do next.
I began writing more earnestly because that was all I really was able to do. I met with success once I healed, regained my confidence and began submitting pieces. And I am proud to announce that this month, the April issue of Real Simple magazine is publishing an essay I wrote for its Life Lessons Essay Contest. Check it out! It should be on the stands by the time this column is published.
It was only when I took my hands off the wheel and let my life drive itself that my direction became clear. When I stopped thinking so hard and let go of my paralyzing fear, things began to open up and make sense. I learned to trust the process and trust the things that life threw my way. Even the seemingly bad stuff has its purpose. And ultimately, there are lessons and advantages no matter which road we take. We just have to look up and start walking.
Irene Panke Hopkins (irenehopkins.com) is a freelance writer and essayist. Her prize-winning essay can be read in the April issue of Real Simple magazine, on the stands now.
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