Irene Panke Hopkins

Freelance Writer & Editor

Hands Off the Wheel

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.”

Home

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 my column, Musings From the Laundromat in Seattle’s Queen Anne / Magnolia News.

Isla Taboga, Panama

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 a twenty five 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.

Portable Career

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 as I write this (March 2017) the April issue of Real Simple magazine is on the stands with an essay written by yours truly. I entered the essay in the magazine’s Life Lessons Essay Contest and won first place.

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.

12 Comments

  1. Just read your essay in Real Simple and was moved to tears when you talked about your yard sale and giving away the red parasol. My husband and I own an old house surrounded by our beloved collections. I often think about getting rid of the stuff and downsizing, but like you, I am resistant! I thank you for the inspiration to simplify! Yard sale here I come!

    • Hi Erica,

      Thank you so much for writing! I’m glad the essay was helpful. I think we all need a little bit of guidance when it comes to the process of simplifying after so many years of living in a home and accumulating meaningful, familiar, comforting objects. It’s hard to start, but my experience was exactly as I wrote – it got easier and I felt so much lighter for having let go of attachment to “things.” Good luck!

  2. I just read your article in Real Simple and loved knowing that someone else is taking the journey I am choosing. Leaving a high stress Los Angeles job, sold the family home of 40 years and headed to a farm in Oregon. I too feel that by simplifying I will be clearer and freer. Thank you for sharing your story!

  3. Just read your article in Real Simple, from my tiny 400 sq ft. studio that I share with my husband. We live near you, in Ballard, and I could relate so so much to your story. We relocated out here from the midwest, where we lived in a huge lower duplex with more space than we knew what to do with. Our belongings and ‘stuff’ were spread all over – in our basement, garage, spare bedroom, and yes, our parents basements. Moving here a few years ago was a shock, to say the least. We have spent the last year downsizing (begrudgingly and slowly at first, now weekly and methodically), and the process is better than any therapy session money can buy. It is amazing how little we actually need!

    Related: Getting to see the snow-capped Olympics from our living room on clear days > Big apartment with lots of things.

    Thanks for the lovely article, I look forward to reading more of your work!!

    • Thanks for writing, Katie. Nice to hear that my article resonated with you. I agree – it’s great therapy for body and soul to detach and divest ourselves of things. Way easier said than done, though! ~ Irene

  4. Hello Irene:
    I so enjoyed reading your article in this month’s real simple magazine. Because you are such a great writer, I was courteous to read more articles posted on your website. I will definitely visit again and read more of your writing. I love that you are persuing your passion for writing. Congratulations! Keep on living your dream.

    • Thank you, Brenda.

      I will be posting more work on my website so stay tuned! I also have a blog about my experiences in Panama: lifeontaboga.wordpress.com.
      And I write for the Queen Anne/Magnolia News in Seattle (queenannenews.com), if you are curious to read more.

      I appreciate your comments and am glad that you liked the essay!

      Best wishes,

      Irene

  5. Thanks so much for your honesty and wonderful writing in this month’s Real Simple. It was so inspiring and wonderful to hear about your experience. For us, part of the experience included moving from the Bay Area to Oregon. Downsizing in the sense of pace and busy-ness. Take care and thanks for your writing!

    • Dear Christine,

      Thanks for writing and I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Yes – you are right – there are more ways to downsize than just getting rid of stuff. So true.

      All the best,

      Irene

  6. Dear Irene,
    I haven’t made the dream come true yet, but I’m forming it and your story has inspired me. Im asking the wiser universe to assist me to move forward. Presently living in Canada, don’t know where to go, but I know I don’t belong in this kind city that has helped me so. A new location awaits. I have a vulnerable adult daughter who requires care, that’s makes things harder, but not impossible. I, also, am a support worker and have worked as a theatre in the past.
    Thank you for your honest , beautiful and hopeful story in Real Simple. It has given me inspiration and courage.

    • Dear Maggie,

      Thanks so much for writing and I am truly happy to know that my story inspired you and bolstered your courage. We get so stuck in our patterns and our lives because of many things. Some more understandable than others. I think fear and those people who discourage us (however well-intentioned they may be) are the most powerful deterrents.

      Good luck with your plan and your move, wherever that may be. Draw on your strength and conviction and you will be okay! Let me know what happens.

      ~ Irene

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