Everything in your environment affects how you feel and function, whether or not you're consciously aware of it. Feng shui helps you harmonize your home and office to work with you instead of against you. Learn how!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Conquer the Xmas Time Crunch: 2 Steps to Save Your Seasonal Sanity

Don't let this be you!
Does December trigger feelings of dread and doom, as the holiday season--with its endless to-do lists--approaches?  Or have you already been panicking for a month, because Xmas in the world of retail started the day after Halloween?  Your time can get even more cluttered than your space at this time of year.  To steer clear of the holiday hectics, keep in mind:

1) Everything doesn't have to be exactly the same every year.
2) Doing it all isn't really an option--and never was.          

Right now, before total chaos sets in, take a few minutes of quiet time to prioritize which holiday traditions are the ones that matter most to you.  It's a good idea to discuss this with your whole family, so no one's favorite tradition gets unwittingly abandoned and you don't bust a gut over stuff nobody cares about that much.  Ask everyone to make a list of their top three traditions and then compare notes.  Your family members' favorites may surprise you. 

Christmas Cake - Marzipan StollenWhen my grandmother died, we all missed her homemade stollen at breakfast on Xmas morning.  (Stollen is a German yeast-raised sweet bread with dried fruit, nuts, and icing.)  Even though my whole family loves to cook, none of us felt we had the time to bake stollen on Xmas Eve.  For a number of years we tried different bakery or store-bought substitutes, but they were never as good as Grandma's. 

Eventually I started to wonder if the time we wasted seeking out disappointing store-bought stollen could be better spent dividing up the labor of baking stollen among ourselves, so no one person had to do it all?  In feng shui--and life in general--it's OK to experiment.  There will be another Xmas next year, if you change your mind.  The fact that Xmas comes every year helps too when favorite rituals collide: I remember a period in my childhood when our Xmas tree did or didn't wear tinsel garlands in alternate years, so as to accommodate everyone's wishes. 

Now I mix and knead the dough early in the morning on Xmas Eve, so it can rise during the day while we all do other things, such as wrap presents and attend a holiday tea party hosted by family friends.  When we get home, the stollen goes in the oven while we grab a quick dinner of turkey-chestnut soup (left over from Thanksgiving and de-frosted).  Then I dash off to my singing gig, and when the stollen's done baking, my brother makes the icing and decorates it, then heads to church with Mom.  When we all re-convene, after midnight, there's fresh homemade stollen and sherry awaiting us. 

The time trade-off is we don't put up as many Xmas decorations as we did when I was a kid, but then my parents probably had enough Xmas decorations for three houses, so it still looks plenty festive with only a fraction of them on display.  We don't have a Xmas tree either, and while we do miss that glorious smell and the colored lights reflected in the bay window, none of us has the time or the inclination to decorate a Xmas tree--not at the price of store-bought stollen, stress, and sleep deprivation.  And we've got breakfast taken care of through New Year's--Grandma's recipe makes a lot of stollen.

Little House in the Big WoodsJust as it's OK to let go of old traditions, it's also OK to start new ones--and it's OK to let those go too, when the thrill wears off.  The year I read Little House in the Big Woods in school, we actually did decorate our Xmas tree at home with strings of cranberries and popcorn.  I still remember how exciting it was to re-enact one of my favorite books, so I'm glad my mom made that happen for me.  But even as a child--and we all know how kids love to do the same thing over and over again--I realized stringing popcorn and cranberries together with a needle and thread wasn't something I wanted to do every single year. 

No one can or should try to do everything.  It's much easier to let go of less-loved rituals when you're clear that you're doing so not because you're a failed Martha Stewart, but because they don't mean as much to you as the traditions you do choose to spend your time on.  Before you get sucked into full-on holiday season, take a feng shui time out to re-focus on what matters most to you and yours, so you can channel your time and energy in that direction.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Eat Pray Love Move--But Not So Fast. 
Use Feng Shui to Move with Purpose, 
Not Panic.
[2007 PAPERBACK] Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia [2007 PAPERBACK]

It's that time of year again: all those leases turning over at the end of August + back to school = moving season!  If you're not spending every spare minute packing or unpacking this week, and you're in the mood for a movie, keep your eye out for the scene in Eat Pray Love where Julia Roberts' character, prior to embarking on a year-long trip to Italy, India, and Indonesia, puts what little stuff she has left after a painful divorce into a storage unit.  As the door rolls down, she says sadly to the guy in charge of the storage facility: "My whole life in a 12 x 12 box."  His reply?  "Most people never come back for their lives."  Or wait so long to do so, they no longer recognize that life as theirs.

When I moved to Boston for grad school, I had no idea where I'd be living afterwards, I only knew it would not be Boston.  (If you're from New England this probably makes no sense; if you're from New York, it probably does.)  The master's program I was enrolled in crammed all the coursework of a two-year master's degree into one year.  (Word to the wise: this saves you big bucks on tuition, but your sanity will suffer.)  I viewed my stay in Boston as temporary and saw no point in moving everything I owned there, only to move it all somewhere else a year later.  My plan was to live on the cheap in an apartment share, bring with me only what I could cram into my compact car, and put the rest in storage. 

Sound plan, right?  Here's what went wrong:

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1) Pack in haste, repent at leisure.  We've all done this and regretted it.  The summer I moved, Boston was tied with San Francisco for the tightest rental market in the country.  My apartment search went on for months.  A week before classes started, I still had nowhere to live.  Did I pack in a hurry?  You bet!  And learned the hard way that you can't really save or waste time.  You can only choose how and when you spend it.  No matter how much of a hurry you're in, you're still choosing between the minutes it would take to label those boxes now, while you can see what's in them--vs. the hours you'll waste in future rifling through unlabeled boxes.  No sound investment adviser would recommend choosing small, short-term, present gains at the expense of large, long-term, future losses.  Bad time-management decisions, like bad investment decisions, tend to be based on non-existent options.  Housing prices won't rise forever, and unless you have X-ray vision, you won't magically, instantly know what's lurking inside unlabeled boxes.  

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2) Even when you think you're taking less than you'll need, you're still taking too much.  I knew the apartment I'd be living in was already furnished except for my bedroom-to-be.  I knew I'd be sharing a tiny kitchen with three other people who had already equipped it with all their own kitchen stuff.  I remember deciding the only housewares I really needed to bring with me were my trusty teapot and tea strainer.  (My grandfather came from Barrow-in-Furness, U.K.--a place so cold and rainy you'd probably die if you didn't drink tea all day.)  Yet there was still a pile of unopened boxes that sat in the middle of my bedroom floor for nine months because there was nowhere else to put them.  To this day I don't know what was in all those boxes, because I never got around to opening them.  Clearly I did not need whatever was in them as badly as I thought I did.

3) Don't unpack too fast.  Right after I moved in, I bought a desk.  As soon as I got it home, I parked it in the corner, up against the wall.  Then I immediately unpacked and put away all my desk stuff.  I was a student, classes had already started, I needed to set up my desk ASAP, right?  Wrong.  There was no reason my desk had to sit in the corner or face the wall.  That was just where my desk had been everywhere else I'd ever lived.  And now that it was too full and heavy to move, that's where it would stay here too: in a spot where there was no relief from eyestrain, making it harder for me to stay focused.  (You can't rest your eyes by looking up from your computer screen into the middle distance when there's a wall all up in your face.)  If I'd taken the time to experiment with different furniture arrangements--instead of being so rushed I used the layouts of past rooms as default settings--I would've learned this sooner.  You won't have the chance to play around with your rooms like this again till it's time to repaint, so make the most of it.  Several moves later and wiser, my desk now faces a view of the Empire State Building--from Brooklyn.

The Sonnets (Shakespeare's Sonnets)
Shakespeare's Sonnets
4) Work with the space you have, not the space you used to have.  If you have trouble fitting everything into your new space, you may be trying too hard to replicate the look or feel of your old space.  Whatever you had before or happen to be used to isn't always the best choice.  When I was in the process of moving to a brownstone in Brooklyn, some family friends who were downsizing offered me all kinds of free furniture from their split-level in suburbia.  But my apartment was tall and narrow and their furniture was low and wide.  Hand-me-downs can be a life saver when you're moving on a tight budget, but in this case would have cost me more in space than I saved in money.  It's no coincidence Shakespeare wrote the best poems in the English language within the confines of sonnet form: structure stimulates creativity.  You'll find more and better solutions working within the limitations of your space than you will banging your head against it.   

5) Go bare.  Live with your rooms bare of everything but the basics for a while.  You may find you sleep better in a bedroom that's all about sleep because all that’s in it is your bed.  When it starts to feel too bare, re-introduce things slowly, as if you're testing for food allergies.  Notice how what you add can change how restful your bedroom feels.  Inhabiting a room through diminishing degrees of empty will give you a clearer sense of how much that room can hold without feeling too full.  You may discover it's not the same amount of stuff--or the same kinds of stuff--you kept in that same room where you lived before.

6) Make sure you're movin' on up, not just movin' out.  Who says you have to put up all the same artwork and decorations in the same rooms or positions you had them in before?  It's OK to give your favorite things a rest sometimes.  The art we keep around us affects us in much the same way as the people we keep around us, so it’s worth finding out whether or not you still want to see the same art all the time--or at all.  When you look at your old favorites again after living without them for a while, you may find your taste has changed without your realizing it.  It's the difference between friends you feel just as close to no matter how much time elapses between visits, and friends you outgrow.

7) Really?  Seriously?  As in, "I kept this?  Does it even belong to me?  What was I thinking?!"  When I eventually cleaned out my storage locker, there was some stuff I still remembered and still wanted (books mostly, and my kitchen stuff) but there was more I had no use for and had forgotten I even owned (the gigantic desktop computer I didn't bring with me because it was already obsolete, posters from my college days that I no longer liked, a papa-san chair mice were nesting in by the time I retrieved it).  I wasted a lot of money storing stuff I now had so little connection with it felt like it belonged to some other person.  (It did: the person I used to be.)  Instead of paying a monthly storage fee to get perspective on your possessions, imagine yourself reclaiming them from storage in the future.  Then subtract everything else you could have spent that much money on in the meantime from that vision.  Are you still as happy to see those things again as you thought you'd be?

8) Don't sweat the small stuff.  (No, I’m not going to pretend the entire contents of your home is all small stuff.)  Cocktails work well for this.  When you’re done with the heavy lifting, put your feet up with a tall, cool glass and some bags of books or boxes of odds and ends to sort.  

Moving will always be a lot of work, but it doesn't have to be a cause for panic.  Practice the feng shui principle of purposeful observation to make your next move more manageable in terms of space and time. 

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

What Feng Shui Isn't: 3 Most Common Misconceptions about Feng Shui

Feng shui is expensive.  
Feng shui is Asian minimalist.  
Feng shui is New Age.

Do any of these sound familiar?

I can't afford to do feng shui.  Actually, you can't afford not to.  Most of us spend much of our time in environments we can't control that may be unpleasant, uncomfortable, or even unsafe.  Ignoring the flicker of fluorescent lights in the office all day, tuning out express trains clattering past the platform, tensing up from sitting still for six straight hours at your desk--all this takes energy.  Even if you do it all subconsciously, the constant strain of blocking out your surroundings takes its toll in fatigue, stress, and poor focus.  That's why it's so important--especially for city dwellers--to make sure the one environment you can control--your home--is a place that refreshes and invigorates you--not another awkward or uncomfortable space that further drains you.  You don't need to spend big bucks redecorating.  Once you start practicing feng shui, you're likely to find you have too much stuff, not too little.  Or that you have all the right things in all the wrong places.  Reassessing and rearranging what you already own costs time, not money.  Feng shui is a cost-effective way to invest in yourself by investing in your home that's an extension of yourself.

Pearl River, SoHo
Asian minimalist decor is not my style.  That's OK, it's not mine either.  (But if you do like Asian accents--or kitchen gadgets--and you live in the New York area, you can get your fix at Pearl River.)  Feng shui isn't about any particular style.  It's about unlearning how you've been taught you "should" react to different styles, and re-learning how to respect your own taste.  People often ask me if they should paint their front door red, because they've heard red is a "power" color.  But that's not unique to feng shui--that's just how our eyes work.  We all know red has the power to attract attention: that's why stop signs, stop lights, fire engines, and danger flags are red.  But red will only be a powerful color for your front door if you like red.  Anything you like to look at lifts your mood and energy level when you look at it.  So if you like red, a red front door will improve the energy of your home by improving the energy you bring with you every time you enter.  If you don't like red, you won't like having your attention drawn to a red door on a daily basis, and your mood and energy level will reflect this.  Bottom line: go with your gut reaction.  Feng shui is a tool for tuning into that, not for determining what it should be. 

Fire Truck! Fire Truck! Fire Truck!
I'm not New Age-y.  You don't need to be.  Feng shui has more to do with your central nervous system than with New Age philosophy.  At the end of the day, we're all mammals--and our limbic systems are more like reptiles.  Since you can't change that, it makes good sense--and good science--to work with it, instead of struggling against it.  Notice which seats get taken first the next time you enter a room with a group of people.  Whether you call it feng shui, office politics, or etiquette, executives position their desks to face the door for the same reason men traditionally offer women the banquette seat in restaurants: it feels safer to sit with your back to the wall, facing the door so you can see any potential danger that might come through it.  You may not even realize you're doing this, but you still do it--and so does everyone else.  You can't always choose your seat at meetings or in restaurants, but trying to ignore things in your home that feel unsafe is asking the impossible of your nervous system.  You may think you don't have time to fix that chair with the wobbly leg or clear away the clutter blocking the stairs, but do you really have the energy to keep pretending it's not there?  Your reptile brain knows better and won't let you forget it--if not consciously, then by not letting you concentrate, relax, or fall asleep.  Our five senses have evolved to protect us, and feng shui helps us hear and heed them.  You can't fight evolution, but you can use feng shui to give your inner reptile a break.

 Next Post: Moving?  Don't Unpack Too Fast

Monday, August 16, 2010

I never intended to practice feng shui. Now I'm a feng shui consultant. What happened?

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Basically, I stole my mom's Xmas present.  I know, sounds awful--but I gave it back eventually and I had my reasons!  Namely, spending Xmas in the house I grew up in--the house my parents and grandparents lived in with four generations of stuff crowded into one family's space.  Some of it was worth keeping (they really don't make hand tools like they used to), but some of it belonged at Good Will (no one needs that many "spare" blankets) or at the county recycling center (back issues of National Geographic, anyone?).  Growing up, I never knew if I'd be able to find my piano music in time for my lesson--let alone in time to practice beforehand.  When I moved into my first apartment in college, I didn't have to buy any dishes or kitchen utensils because there was already three or four of everything I needed in my parents' basement.
Clear Your Clutter With Feng Shui So it was not entirely surprising that my brother gave our mom a book called Clear Your Clutter With Feng Shui for Xmas.  What surprised me was wanting to read it.  At the time I knew nothing about feng shui and had no interest in finding out.  And after wading through disorganized guides to getting organized and 400-page tomes on how to simplify your life, I'd had it with self-help books.  But this one practiced what it preached: it was compact, concise, spare, and straightforward--in other words, uncluttered! 

When I opened it to a random page on organizing your closet by color (as opposed to by category, with all your shirts together, pants together, etc.) my immediate reaction was: That'll never work!  Followed immediately by: I've gotta try it!  Opening my closet door to a rainbow of color instead of a confusing jumble was irresistible enough for me to ignore the stubborn part of my mind insisting it was impossible because clothes of different lengths wouldn't clear the stuff on my closet floor if they were mixed together.  Turning off that voice of habit masquerading as the voice of reason allowed me to hear the more creative, more experimental--and ultimately, more reasonable--voice hinting I could also move that stuff on the floor around if necessary, or even move it out of my closet altogether. 

Just as my inner skeptic predicted, some of my clothes did not fit into the new color system.  But these turned out to be clothes that didn't fit me either.  They were the wrong size, or shades that made me looked jaundiced, or unflattering styles I no longer wore.  You can see where this is heading, right?  By the time I got all my clothes rearranged by color, I'd cleaned out my whole closet without even realizing it, because I was having so much fun throughout the process. 

Wait--did I just have fun cleaning out my closet?  If that's feng shui, then sign me up!  My mom's (temporarily) stolen Xmas present turned out to be the gift that kept on giving.  Now it's a pleasure--instead of a pain--to open my closet door, and I can find my clothes much faster than before.  How come?  Our minds may think in categories, but we look into closets with our eyes, not our minds--and our eyes see colors, not categories.  By opening my eyes to color, feng shui opened my mind to possibility. 

Stay tuned for more in future posts about re-thinking how you think...

Next post: What feng shui isn't.  What this blog isn't.