At the moment my new house is only an eight-foot-deep hole lined with concrete. But over the next two months, as the wooden frame goes up, I'll be asked, after 43 years of apartment life, to make decisions about such things as sillcocks, gas lines, light valances, backsplashes, sizzle strips, upgraded padding, and 42-inch-high cabinets. So, I figured, in the interest of good fortune and well-being, why not invest in the Latin School's two-hour course in feng shui, the 3,000-year-old Chinese philosophy that says the floor plan of a dwelling, the layout of a room, and even the arrangement of furniture can affect one's career, wealth, reputation, and family?
"I truly believe in it," our instructor, interior designer Patricia McCloud, told us, explaining that she does consultations in feng shui in addition to traditional interior design. "But I only feel responsible to tell people about it who really want to know. No one in Chicago knows about it. Even in Chinatown they don't know what it is. But big business uses it."
One of the first things I learned in McCloud's class is that I'm lucky. My soon-to-be house is a rectangle. Dwellings configured other than in a square or a rectangle can cause real problems.
Here's why: Feng shui practitioners analyze the layout of a house or apartment or room by superimposing an octagonal guide called a Ba-gua over the floor plan. Each of the sides represents an aspect of life (i.e., money, kids, fame). Parts of the dwelling that don't overlap with the Ba-gua mean trouble for the aspects of life represented by the empty part of the octagon. The more unusual your domicile's configuration, the more parts of it aren't going to overlap with the Ba-gua.
Trouble having kids? Looking into your house from the front door, check out the right and left middle sides of the building, which correlate with the family and children sections of the Ba-gua. Is there an unusually shaped room in this spot? One with ceiling beams? (More about this later.) Just general bad planning? If you're having marital problems, check the back right of the house, the part having to do with marriage and partnership. The middle of the back of the house is to blame if your reputation goes to hell, and the left front if you're having trouble with self-cultivation.
McCloud told the class about a client who loved his Lego-like apartment layout. But so many parts of the octagon didn't overlap with the dwelling that the previous tenants' whole array of misfortunes suddenly became clear.
So McCloud went to work artificially "stimulating" those parts of the apartment that fell outside the Ba-gua by placing in them mirrors, crystal balls, lamps, wind chimes, bells, plants, fish, mobiles, windmills, fountains, stones, statues, air conditioners, copy machines, televisions, and bamboo flutes.
The back of a house is associated with "ruling," so don't put a guest room or kids' rooms there. And the kitchen and bath shouldn't be back-to-back or the abundance and wealth that the kitchen represents will go down the toilet, so to speak. Antidotes include a bowl of raw rice on the tank of the toilet and painting the bathroom green. (One woman worried about what she'd tell guests who wondered about the uncooked rice in the bathroom.)
McCloud also told us about qi (pronounced "chee"), a life force that moves through a house. It's not good if it moves too fast or too slow. Qi moves through hallways quickly, for instance, so placing an office at the end of a long hall could turn its user into a workaholic. Crystal balls slow it down; so do those curtains made of hanging beads.
On the other hand, blocking qi with a dead wall, as in an entryway, isn't a good idea either. It gets stuck. And life beyond the dead wall does, too. It's bad for a desk to block qi from entering a room; a desk belongs in the back of a room (the ruling part). Nor should a bed block qi; it should be off the floor (on a frame, in other words) to allow qi to circulate. (Question from a class member: Will a dust ruffle impede qi? McCloud's answer: No.)
Two participants drew their floor plans on the blackboards. The loft got a seal of approval. As for the apartment with the bay window, McCloud assured the student that the window doesn't protrude enough to cause any problems with the Ba-gua. But the kitchen is so close to the door that the resident may be thinking about food too much.
McCloud told us how to neutralize right angles, which aren't healthy in a living environment; you want as much smoothness as possible. In a bedroom with beamed ceilings, use a canopy as an antidote. Large plants can also be used to cover up right angles that cover duct work. You can stave off the harsh right angles on buildings near yours by shining light on them from your abode. And dead birds in a neighborhood are an omen to stay away.
McCloud rattled off a complicated recipe for attracting wealth that required a mirrored tile, a red circle of fabric, a bowl or dish, a red circle of paper, tape, a new pen, and coins. And she told us a way to get doors whose paths interfere with each other ("arguing doors") to stop causing trouble: tie an 18-inch piece of red ribbon from one to the other, then cut it off and sleep with it for a night.
McCloud passed out nine little red envelopes with Chinese characters on the front to each participant, and at the end of the class she asked everyone to put a coin into each one of them and turn them in. She explained it's not appropriate to explain the mysteries of feng shui for free. (Thank goodness the Reader is paying me for this story.) The $20 tuition fee went to the Latin School's scholarship fund, so McCloud kept the little-red-envelope take: anywhere from nine cents to nine half-dollars per person.
My classmates obediently handed McCloud the envelopes in ritualistic fashion, as they were instructed, using both hands. And she collected them with both hands. When everyone was finished, there was a good-sized mound of red envelopes.
"I'm going to sleep on them," said McCloud.
That's feng shui.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Charles Eshelman.