At the end of January I left Fun Palaces, the organisation I co-founded in 2013 that has been my part-time work for the past eight years. Almost three-quarters of a million people in 15 nations have taken part in Fun Palaces and they tell us it has changed their lives and their communities. During those eight years I also wrote three novels, two plays, published a collection of short stories, directed a few plays, served on the steering committee that created the UK's Women's Equality Party, made dozens of keynote speeches, ran hundreds of workshops, and had breast cancer for the second time.
As any freelancer will know, saying yes to work is how we pay our bills – especially when there is no sick pay, compassionate leave, holiday pay. I have always loved working this way, from gig to gig, saying yes far more often than I ever whispered no, but I'm changing how I work. I'm changing how I live.
In 2015, at the height of Fun Palaces' annual weekend of community and creative action, as the Women's Equality Party really took off, while writing (I'm always writing), four surgeries down and with one more to go, I kind of collapsed. I was exhausted, frenetic, furiously active – and I was scared. I asked for help and, after a stop-start process, was assigned a therapist for eight sessions, courtesy of the cancer unit where I was treated. That therapist was an Existential Psychotherapist, not common in the NHS, ideal for someone experiencing a crisis born of a love of creating, too strong a belief in my ability to change the world and the slap in the face of a second cancer at 50.
I've had other therapy; after my father died suddenly when I was 25, and to deal with chemo-induced infertility in my mid-30s. They were both helpful, but existential work is grounded in the truth that life is always limited. Not just that we will die but that we are all always dying – now, as you read this, dying. It is centred on the understanding that we make our lives through our own choices and, crucially, that we are responsible for those choices, for ourselves and for others – our choices affect those around us just as theirs affect us. To live a life true to ourselves, we need to reaffirm our choices – or make new ones – every day. After my second cancer I became aware I was living based on choices I had made many years earlier.
In the past few years I've made some new choices, based on who I am now, not who I was at 20, 30, 40, 50. I stopped drinking, one of the most self-affirming choices I have ever made. I trained to teach yoga so I could offer yoga-for-writing workshops. I love yoga and know it supports my writing, I figured it might do so for others. I now run monthly online workshops, all sold out long before the event, with returnees every time. I'm training in Existential Psychotherapy and last year started seeing clients in placements. I love the work, it is challenging and a joy to work with people on issues that matter most to them. I've started a doctorate, researching postmenopausal women's attitudes to womanhood. My training is a minimum of four years and I will be over 60 when I graduate.
There have been other times in my life that I have been similarly scared and excited, moving into a new me – leaving Tokoroa for Wellington at 17, leaving Wellington for London at 23 with a one-way ticket, meeting my wife at 27. Now though, I am making changes without the useful courage of youth. Change is scary for many of us. Most days I am a little shaky and unsure, underlined by the pandemic. The enforced stillness has, however, been a great time for introspection, for listening to my heart.
I know too, that change is cyclic rather than once-and-for-all. Even as I welcome these current changes, I know there will be others, harder to accept. Change will come whether we want it to or not, choosing change feels more realistic than fighting it. It also feels more hopeful.
I have given up my old roles and my new ones are not yet formed. Right now, I feel like I'm heading into the last quarter of my life with no props and an unwritten map, the path revealing itself one step at a time. It's terrifying and it's great.
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Stella Duffy's latest book is Lullaby Beach (Virago Press, $35).