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Leonora Fitzgibbons

A Self-Portrait

My self-portrait is structured around the seven chakras which ancient Asian cultures saw as human energy centres. I only have a very elementary knowledge of chakras, but there is something about the colours and the energies that they symbolise which struck me as an interesting way of ‘painting’ my story. I have always liked colours. In my view, they mirror the variation, complexity and magical plurality of life.

Sound: 'La'
Body: Root
Theme: Survival/Primal Life Force
Colour: Red

I didn’t really know the meaning of survival until last year. Death had not loomed large in my life. Of course I knew of old and young people who had died and I had shared in the collective sadness about various deaths mourned by society. Yet, none of these caused me to confront the subject of death beyond a brief and superficial ‘carpe diem’ surge of emotion which never lasted long enough to dull the practicalities, obligations and ‘to do’ lists that also competed for my attention. But, in January last year, I became captivated by a fear that I was going to end my own life. At the time it seemed as if this fear came from nowhere. However, for the previous few years I had immersed myself in Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and Goethe and had started to write a book about someone committing suicide. In retrospect, there were some signs! I continued to semi-function: to write papers, to meet people, to eat toast with butter and honey and to take my brother’s dog out for walks. Yet, I was paralysed by this fear. Life became about survival, one minute after the other, one day to the next, hoping, fearing, with time suspended, trudging under Pluto’s darkness.

I still don’t really know the reason for this foray into the underworld. Did some hidden inadequacy, difference and sadness I felt (but did not admit to feeling) during my childhood come back and haunt me in the form of a thunderous life and identity crisis in my thirtieth year? Am I genetically hardwired to suffer from mental health problems? Or is this something less personal and less dramatic: a normal, human coming-of-age crisis that everyone might go through if they weren’t so busy stuck in traffic jams? It was probably a combination of all three. All I know is that in fearing death I think that I was asking myself the difficult question: why do I want to live if I don’t have to. This question reached an intensity and gravity that overwhelmed and dwarfed every other aspect of my life. It was a subtly different question from the ‘why am I here’ one that I had spent much of my 20s looking for an answer to and which had resulted in an increasing absorption in books.

If I am in a good mood, I see this extreme existential angst as a gift which has forced me to take a hard look at my life and to make some difficult changes. If I am in a bad mood, I wonder why so many other people seem to live their life happily without these questions swirling feverishly around in their heads. I am still very much trying to come to terms with all this and I would say that I am at a moment of quite dramatic transition in terms of my life philosophy. My recent discussions with death have mellowed me considerably. When I become overwhelmed, I take a blindingly hot bath or walk in Hyde Park tracing the path that I took when I was a child or get into weird, contorted positions in a yoga class or sit and watch the candles in church, or play hide and seek with my niece and somehow I know that I am supposed to be here.

Sound: ‘Ba’
Body: Abdomen
Theme: Sexuality/Emotionality
Colour: Orange

I am a very emotional person. Indeed, I have been told all through my life that I am too emotional. I cry the whole time and it shocks me to meet people who can never cry. When I cry, there is a pain at my core that seems to vibrate. Something is touched and I can’t do anything about the resulting waterworks. When I was at boarding school, I used to have a good cry most weeks, under the duvet, surrounded by chocolate and sweets to diminish ever so slightly the sharpness of those emotions. I seem to feel things quite intensely, not only stuff that happens to me but also the emotions of those around me. This makes me empathetic and open but also quite vulnerable. I have difficulty relating to unemotional, rational people. My father is a business man and is quite rational. He is a pragmatic realist. For most of my life we have clashed on this. When he came home from the office with stories of how incompetent this or that person was and how he would have to fire them, I would pester him saying that this was unkind, that they would feel sad, what would they do? I imagined their sorrow. I saw it all from their side and not from my father’s side! I think that I still exasperate rational people and vice versa although I am trying to become more balanced and understanding. I can’t help but believe in mystery and delight in emotionality. This is partly why I feel so at home in Italy. I have lived in Rome, Florence, Bologna and Stromboli. The Italians’ provinciality, poor taste in leaders and defiant obsession with fashion can all be forgiven because they openly laugh, cry and argue with each other.

My difficulty with rational people has made it harder for me to understand men. I have tended to choose quite emotional, intense boyfriends and to be friends with and work for women. I used to be rather cynical about male intentions. In the last few years, however, I have made many quite good friendships with men which I think are largely innocent of ulterior motives. This has really enriched my life as it would be a shame to continue to have problems connecting with 50% of the planet. I still think that men suffer from limiting images about what they should be and how they should behave. I know more amazing, courageous women then I do amazing, courageous men. However, I am really hopeful about having a life-long relationship with a wonderful man. Since many of my friends have got married and started to have children, I have been contemplating the nature of marriage. Why is the divorce rate so high? Why is society being fed these ridiculously happy romantic tales that don’t seem to conform to reality and which create false standards? Are we that scared of the reality of imperfect people in imperfect relationships?

Sound: ‘Rah’
Body: Solar Plexus
Theme: Power
Colour: Yellow

For many years I was repulsed by the concept of power. I associated it with domination over others and a Darwinian world view. I saw power as something evil, nasty and abusive. Yet my relationship with power has never been simple. I am cowed by authority. I rebel passively and I do not confront. I am tyrannised by the very power that repels me. Which is why I have not made a good leader. I worked in a management consultancy for five years and found myself increasingly caught up in power games. In particular, I worked for a new CEO who had performed a spectacular coup d’état against the prior head. The back-stabbing and bickering at the highest levels was incredible and, well, repulsive. I am afraid of power and greed and I have always found it easier to escape than to confront. I left consultancy and have been searching since for a more pleasant work home. I became quite anti-business and imagined that academia or non-profit work was somehow higher or more noble and that those who were engaged in such activities were ‘better people’. I am now slightly embarrassed at how judgemental and naïve I was. I have come to terms with the reality of power and politics and I no longer think that I am going to find a perfect place devoid of these. Yet I do wonder whether our system based on self-interest and greed has not created and licensed many power-hungry people.

These days, I do not uniformly reject power. I see that powerful people can be a force for good. But in my heart there is still the sneaking suspicion that you have to stamp on other people and compromise your principles to be ‘powerful’ in the world today. Perhaps this fear derives from my own fear of success. If powerful=bad then I can be excused from being powerful. I have also noticed that I myself am not absent from negative urges for power. I have often wondered why I have spent so much of my life achieving. I am sure there are many reasons for this, but I think that whatever success that I have had has given me a sense of security and power over others, even if that was all subconscious and unintended.

Although I still fear power, I do hope that I can be a strong force for good in society. I feel that I have a lot to give, but I am not sure that I have found the right channels yet. I had a difficult time deciding to do a Doctorate since I knew that I could initially contribute more by working on contemporary policy issues or social problems for the government, an international organisation or a charity. Many people said to me: if you feel that so much needs to be done in the world, go and do it and don’t just sit and fester in an ivory tower. They had a point. However, I reconciled my social conscience with my academic pursuits by reminding myself how important ideas and teaching could be in creating positive, if longer-term, change. I dreamed that during or after my PhD I would write a book that would be ‘transformational’ – that I needed the Doctorate as both a platform and safety net for this agenda. I didn’t have the courage to go ahead and just write this book, even though in my heart that was what I really wanted to do. (What would my family and friends think about me? What would happen if I was a failure as a writer?)

Two years of doing a Doctorate and suffering from depression has modified my views on what I should do. I am still confused although less concerned about the confusion. Academia feels very far away from positive social change. It has been hard for me to sit in archives and libraries and feel that I am contributing anything to anyone, despite my deep interest in history. I wonder who on earth is going to read a book on Socialist thought in the 1920s if I end up turning my thesis into a book. I wonder whether my academic path has been guided less by my social conscience and more by my insecurities, such as the need to prove to others that I am clever, the wish to create an intellectual identity which I can be proud of and the safety of relating to books rather than to people. None of which are good foundations for a happy career and life. Even writing seems to be questionable as an endeavour for me. After what I have been through, I want to spend more time with people and less time with myself and books. I also have to be careful not to push myself too hard again with responsibilities and ambitions and fuse the wires in my brain! My depression has often made me feel exhausted and I can do so much less in a day than I used to do. It will be a delicate balancing-act determining what I should do but I will find my way through.

Sound: ‘Yom’
Body: Heart
Theme: Love
Colour: Green

The Darkness’ song, ‘I believe in a thing called love’ is great to sing along to. As is ‘All you need is love’. I could sing with all the love crooners endlessly, despite having a terrible voice and only tuning into ‘Magic’ or ‘Heart’ once in a while. I have been blessed by much love in my life and I know that it is about the best thing in the world to give and receive love. My sunny side and my idealism start to emerge when I talk about love. I think that love is the best antidote for fear. I think that you can do anything when you are surrounded by love. I think that love makes smiley, happy people.

I have found love in many different places during my life. Let’s start with my family. I have a very loving mother. Sometimes she has been too smothering and bossy but she has always been full of love. I have a father who loves me (although our relationship is a bit complicated). I have a brother and sister whom I adore so much and who have been unimaginably important in supporting me, helping me and giving me self-belief. Our family does suffer from being too close, to the extent that it is quite difficult for each person to protect their individuality and hard for people to move away without being seen to reject or to turn their back on the family. Everyone knows everything about what is going on in each family member’s life. The strong love that binds us can sometimes be clouded and muddied by possessiveness and over-controlling behaviours.

My romantic relationships have been very loving. I have gone out with extremely nice, kind men. I have been in love once. The relationship lasted for two years but it took us about four years after that point to really put an end to it. I sometimes worry that I may never find that kind of love again and that I will end up lonely and a spinster, bitter and twisted by all the love I see around me but which I am not part of. But I am glad that I am not married yet. My depression has caused me to reevaluate many things in my life, a process that is still ongoing. I think that I will be looking for quite a different relationship and person when I feel ready for ‘all that’. I am excited by everything that is ahead of me.

I have increasingly found love in my friendships. I have several good friends who make me feel very happy. There is often a tussle in these friendships and I can get concerned that I am putting more into them than the other person, or become afraid that they don’t really love me or value me. My insecurities flare up. I have always needed a lot of love and I try to dampen this slightly so that I am not like Mozart who always asked his audience, ‘do you love me?’ But I know that love is the key to a good life.

I would like to think that love is quite a pure emotion. I believe that the excess problems that you encounter along the way in love, for example possessiveness and jealousy and the desire for the person whom you love to be exactly what you want them to be rather than who they are, stem from our flaws and our darker sides. In my opinion, these less salubrious emotions are a frequent but not a necessary part of love.

Sound: ‘Ha’
Body: Throat
Theme: Expression
Colour: Sky Blue

I haven’t really found an avenue for expressing myself. When I was younger I was quite a creative person. Each Christmas I made something for my parents, usually involving felt or tapestries. I stayed up late and woke up early in the morning, labouring on these ridiculous things which were soon consigned to the dustbin! I also acted in all my school plays and at one point I was thinking about applying for drama school. Most impressively, I was very much into dancing as a child, spending hours in my room on dance routines and prancing around in a leotard. When I went to see 42nd Street aged about twelve, I just knew that I wanted to be a tap dancer. All this dancing, sewing, drawing and acting have disappeared from my life and I must admit that it is the poorer for it. I am not quite sure what happened. I arrived as an undergraduate in Oxford and my time was monopolised by playing sport, getting to the library and doing the occasional good deed. I would like to resurrect some of this old creativity but, as always, it is a question of time.

I am not sure whether my Doctorate is a creative enterprise. I sometimes feel that with all the academic rules and etiquettes there is not that much room for creativity. One can be innovative and creative in an argument. However, the academic style of communicating is quite dry and formulaic. My prose has been stripped of anything colloquial and it sounds boring and even at times pompous and unnatural. I think that there is more freedom to write directly, conversationally and informally in popular history books. I would like to see this style filter through to those dusty academic tones.

Sound: ‘Ah’
Body: Forehead
Theme: Indigo
Colour: Purple

It is easy for me to look to others for wisdom and hard to believe that I have any of my own. In the past, I felt that I found most wisdom in books. I remember saying to a friend about five years ago that I much preferred to spend my time with books rather than people because I learnt something from books. I am now sad that I thought like that. I think that there is still wisdom around, but most people I know are so wrapped up in their own worlds of achievement, mortgages, nappies, hair-colouring etc. that they don’t have time to stop and reflect. I would like to believe that everyone has some wisdom, some hard-earned thoughts on life and that there is a huge untapped collective wisdom residing in people. I love to talk to older people and to hear what they have to say about life. It is sad that we have always been taught to look to intermediaries for wisdom (priests, rabbis, gurus, sages) and that we don’t realise that there might be some knowing, some wisdom residing within us.

I am not sure what my wisdom is. I still balk at the concept that I have some wisdom, despite professing the thought that everyone has! Surviving and managing my way through my depression has certainly given me a changed perspective on life that might generously be called wisdom: ask for help, let go, listen to your intuition, take care of yourself and then you will better be able to take care of others, don’t judge others and keep your mind open, don’t try and control what you can’t control in life, unpeel all those self-protective layers and try to find out what lies within, don’t numb yourself and your sadness with drink, drugs, eating disorders, spending or whatever other addictions you might have. There are a lot of don’t’s! I find it difficult to know whether these bits of wisdomhave really sunk in and have become part of me or are merely adopted mantras. My behaviour is certainly suspect and I still fail miserably to do much of the above!

Sound: ‘Om’
Body: Crown
Theme: Spirituality
Colour: Violet

I have gone to Catholic mass every Sunday since I was about two years old. As a child, my Irish Catholic Bostonian father tempted us with sweets as a reward for sitting through services. But I have never really needed to be persuaded. I am considered the most ‘religious’ of the family, mostly because unlike the others I sit through the whole mass rather than turning up for church after the sermon and leaving right after communion. My parents have, at times, panicked that I am becoming ‘too religious’, particularly if I go to church during the week. There are quite rigid rules about ‘how’ one can be religious in our family. I have always felt that our observance was quite superficial and not spiritual and that has sometimes bothered me. Left to my own devices in my 20s, I have sought out priests and churches in the various places that I have lived (France, Italy and the United States). Yet, I have never wanted to become very involved with the church. I go, sit, listen to the bible and the mass and then leave. I am afraid of the institution itself. I know the dirty history of religions. I believe that there is only one God rather than this God with these rules and that God with other ones. Sometimes, I have a hard time even believing in God and have suffered from various crises of faith common to those on an intellectual path. Most of the people I know and love are atheists. Somehow, I have always had rather a resilient faith in God. 50% of the time I know that God is there, 25% of the time I am partially convinced that he is there but I am still riddled with doubts, and for the other 25% I live in tremendous fear that the nihilists are right. I can have all these feelings in the same week! When I first suffered from depression, I was worried that I was being punished by God. I could not understand what I had done wrong. Now, I often feel that this horrible, dark time has happened because it was supposed to and that it is for the best. There was a story that affected me deeply when I was younger and which still rings true. A man is looking at his life as a set of footprints in the sand. He sees two sets of footprints for most of his life, but when he was really struggling the two sets become just one set. He turns to God and asks why God deserted him when he most needed him. God said: I didn’t desert you, I was carrying you.

December 2004