Photo James BunoanI. WHAT I BELIEVED BEFORE TODAY
Among other outrages to reason, I didn't believe in ETs, ghosts or spirits; the power of crystals, burning sage or salt; transmigration of souls; transubstantiation; reincarnation; a God of the Old or New Testaments; swapping spit; the reanimation of the dead; virgin births (Greek, Mesopotamiam or Jewish); mountains that come to prophets; the healing properties of crystal singing bowls or magnets; life after death; the Kryon; angels; dream catchers; witchcraft; astrology; numerology; breatharianism; the inherent moral superiority of tribalism; Gaia; Atlantis (except as a Garden Grove theme park); the predictive capacity of Ouija boards and Tarot cards; graphotherapy; touch therapy (including but not limited to Reiki); chakras; the medicinal power of drinking my own urine under any circumstances; aromatherapy; baptism (infant or otherwise); praying before meals; alchemy; or drumming. I remain skeptical of such words as "ancient," "traditional," "pre-modern," "primitive" or "mystical" when used as approbative adjectives in any conversation about the preceding categories.
I did not believe in feng shui.
I did not believe that psychics can talk with the dead or "pick up" "vibrations" or "read" "energy."
II. HOW WELL I KNEW FENG SHUI PSYCHIC SHARI CLEMENS BEFORE THAT FIRST PHONE CALL
Not at all.
III. THE LOGISTICS OF THAT FIRST PHONE CALL
I called Shari Clemens from the world headquarters of OC Weekly in Costa Mesa, California. I used a Plantronics headset driven by two Eveready AA batteries while dialing an Executone phone. Clemens answered on a cell phone of unnamed manufacture and reasonable voice quality.
IV. HOW LONG WE SPOKE BEFORE CLEMENS BROACHED A VERY PERSONAL SUBJECT
As long as it took to ask why she believes my friend's house is built atop an ancient Indian burial ground.
V. THE VERY PERSONAL SUBJECT SHE BROACHED
"Have you and your wife been arguing a lot recently?" she asked.
We had, I admitted. The words felt like broken glass in my throat.
"And you've been having headaches," she said. This wasn't a question.
"You've got a new knife or a letter opener or something," she said.
I patted my desk like a blind man. "No," I said. "Not here."
"Not on your desk," she said. "At home."
I thought for a moment. Knives? Letter openers? At home?
She was insistent. "Someone recently gave you a gift, a knife, something sharp," she offered.
[. . .]
"Within the last few weeks, someone gave you a knife," she said.
"Yes," I told Clemens, suddenly remembering that in mid-June, my dad came by my house. He had just returned from scattering his Uncle Jim's ashes in the chiaroscuro mountains around Seattle. He handed me Uncle Jim's silver pocket knife and, in a kind of 30-second ceremony, said he knew I'd loved Uncle Jim.
I related the story to Clemens.
"Get rid of the knife," she said. "There's a lot of sadness associated with that knife. I don't know why exactly—I might if I look at it—but . . . I don't know whether your uncle hunted, cleaned a fish with it or whatever, but that knife is the source of trouble between you and your wife. Get rid of it."
I did not require more convincing on this matter. That night, I moved the knife to a remote spot in my garage, handling it like plutonium.
VI. OTHER THINGS CLEMENS SEEMED TO KNOW ABOUT ME, THOUGH WE WERE TALKING BY PHONE
After the revelation of the knife, Clemens asked me to close my eyes and imagine myself at the foot of my bed at home. I did. She proceeded to make the following observations:
• That I sleep on the right side of a king-size bed.
• The precise construction of my wife's nightstand ("a small table with a round on top and fabric draped over it").
• What my wife was reading at the time ("Tell her to get rid of the self-help book").
• When I denied that I was reading horror, she kept at me, insisting that the book on my nightstand was too dark for bedtime reading (I was reading Isaac Babel's complete short fiction, including stories about the rise of Bolshevism, the decline of Soviet Jewry, and dark foreshadowing of Babel's own arrest and brutal execution by Stalin's Cheka gunmen).
Clemens soon pointed out that: (a) Uncle Jim lived in Seattle; the knife causing marital discord had come from Seattle, too; (b) I have a friend whose troubled relationship to a house in Seattle had just ended (I do). That my aging wooden desk in my office at the Weekly fit the Seattle pattern, too. (Indeed, I bought it because it was, according to the seller, a desk belonging to a long-dead editor of the Seattle Times.)
VII. SYMPTOMS IMMEDIATELY FOLLOWING CLEMENS' SEEMING TELEPHONIC AWARENESS OF PRIVATE DETAILS OF MY LIFE
Freaked-out, sweating, nausea, headachy, creeped, rubbing my throat to relieve the muscular tension, at which point Clemens stopped talking about a wooden lamp and said:
"What's wrong with your throat?"
"Whaddya mean?" I asked.
"I'm picking up that there's something wrong with your throat," she said.
I looked over my shoulder to see if, by chance, someone had installed a micro-camera in my office. Nope.
VIII. OTHER EXPLANATIONS I CREATED TO ACCOUNT FOR CLEMENS' SEEMING TELEPHONIC AWARENESS, ETC.
That she was in the pay of my wife, colleagues or friends; that she had been tipped-off to my call; that she had surveilled my office, my home and my distant relatives, including my father, my dead great-uncle, friends and colleagues; that she had mastered "cold reading," the art of hearing hints about me in my questions about her.
Every explanation I created was more cumbersome than Clemens' own (she reads "energy") and, so, violates what philosophers of science call Occam's razor, after the Englishman William of Occam (1284-1347): simple explanations are best.
IX. WHO THE HELL IS SHARI CLEMENS, ANYWAY?
Clemens is an interior designer and a psychic—both subjects that lie well outside the Baltimore Catechismand Apollo space project I grew up with. (See Roman numeral I above.)
Clemens was born 49 years ago in the oil fields of New Mexico. She moved to Dallas, studied architecture, married, had children, divorced and fell into a pit of depression, a black hole of claustrophobic self-hatred. She wandered through psychiatry, waited for healing to come courtesy of Pfizer or some other pharmaceutical miracle worker, all in vain: the meds availed her nothing. A skeptic, she nevertheless caved into her mother's request that she see a psychic healer. Three days she lay beneath the healer's hands, not really caring whether she lived.
And on the third day, she rose again—you'll pardon the Biblical allusion—to find herself standing on a Dallas street corner. Clemens woke up—or, to use the passive voice, was awakened. Clemens says she suddenly knew there was something beyond the merely concrete, glass and noise of the city, something deeper and more resonant, like a tap root of pure thought that anchored her in a city she couldn't see. "A dam was broken," she says. It was 1994.
"I went through a series of my own healing, hearing voices," she says. She recalls the most articulate of these voices told her repeatedly, "Sell it all."
The "it," she understood, was everything she owned.
"It was like Kevin Costner's Field of Dreams," she says. "'Sell it all. Sell it all. Sell it all.' And I did sell it all, right away. Just jumped off the abyss and then thought, 'Well, now what the hell do I do?'"
Photo by OCW staff
Today she knows that voice brought her the first of many powerful revelations: that each powerful emotional event generates its own nuclear reaction, releasing energy that is absorbed by the things around the event, even lingering in the very air, waiting for someone unsuspecting like you or me or Shari Clemens herself to stumble into it and feel vaguely—or even profoundly—ill.
Clemens says her post-divorce emotional dip was the result of the bad energy stored in the things around her—furniture and keepsakes from her troubled childhood and from a difficult marriage. "I couldn't get well because I was still living with all this hand-me-down furniture," she says. "There was a lot of bad energy trapped in these things."
Looking back, Clemens says, she can see that it was always thus: "Even as a young child, I hated antique stores. Now I know why: I felt the good with the bad in everything around me."
So, Clemens sold everything she owned, the good with the bad, and answered the next question—"Now what the hell do I do?"—by visiting Seattle and deciding to stay there. She attended a feng shui workshop conducted by a monk and, within weeks, was hosting classes of her own.
X. WHAT IS FENG SHUI ("fung-SHWAY")?
Feng shui is an ancient a-aesthetic aesthetic, the central premise of which is that the placement of objects in space—on your desk, in a room, in a housing tract or even a city—affects the flow of "energy." It is an a-aesthetic because its central design concern is not your eyeball, but some kind of internal gyroscope with which we're all equipped; "energy" rides in quotes because, well, what the hell is it?
"Feng" is Chinese for wind; "shui" is "water." I've been told "energy" is like water (to the extent that it flows), like electricity (because it energizes), like wind (because it gusts and bends around objects). It's like the feeling you get when you fall powerfully in love or experience real terror. Once, an American businessman in Hong Kong told me his multistory office building had been gutted and redesigned at a cost of many millions of dollars. The reason: an archway in a building across the street would "suck"—his word—many millions of dollars more from his company. Did he believe this? "That's not important," he told me. "What's important is that my Chinese customers do." On another occasion, I called a feng shui practitioner in Hong Kong. He looked at an Orange County map I faxed him and told me that all of Orange County—its mountains and roads, cities and ocean—were oriented toward material gain and spiritual loss. Wow! Had he been here? I asked. "Only now," he said, "only in my mind."
XI. WHAT WE HAVE DONE TO FENG SHUI
Clemens notes that Americans have done to feng shui what we've done to virtually every other Eastern spiritual import: "We've McDonaldized it," she says, exorcised its soul and repackaged it in ways consistent with a life built around consumption—commodified it as classes, videotapes, clothes, furniture, candles, soaps, incense, lectures, retreats and books such as Feng Shui for Dummies, which is redundant because the American practice of anything remotely spiritual is almost invariably for dummies. Most of the fast-food feng shui is about the hanging of mirrors and wind chimes.
XII. WHAT CLEMENS HAS DONE WITH FENG SHUI
Clemens says her design instinct is "more about taking things out of the environment than what we put into it—that's why the voice told me to sell everything." And that "environment includes everything—not just the furniture, but the entire planet. Everything we do, think and say shifts the consciousness of the planet. When we pollute—even a polluted fountain in our home—it's pollution nonetheless."
Feng shui is based upon the straightforward observation that we are not only what we eat with our mouths, but also what we eat with our eyes—and with our other senses. Clemens recalls a girlfriend whose lifelong devotion to the Virgin Mary led her to collect every blessed icon she could wherever she traveled and to hang around her home each of these ladies of Lourdes, Guadalupe, Medjugorje and Perpetual Help.
"I asked her, 'When was the last time you got lucky?'" Clemens says. Her friend hadn't been laid in so long she couldn't remember. They laughed—and then boxed up the virgins. Luck soon followed.
On assignment, the things Clemens removes first are the things that give her the creeps. She says her most profound case of the creeps came in West Texas. She and a client went to an antiques store. The owner asked them out to his warehouse in the back. "The moment I went in there, I saw these immense doors, and I practically threw up," Clemens says. "I mean I just turned around and got out of there—and my client, too." It's easy to imagine these two Texas gals barfing under a bleached-out Texas sky out back of an antiques store. Clemens asked the store owner about the doors. The store owner explained that the rustic-looking doors had come recently from Mexico, from a ranch where the local caudillo had overseen the summary lynchings of many, many men. Clemens flew back to California and was sick for a week—"diarrhea, vomiting, the whole ball of wax"—before she called the antiques store owner to tell him what she knew about the bad-mojo doors. He said he was sure sorry, but the doors had been sold.
To whom? Clemens asked.
Couldn't be sure, he said.
You can't remember the names of somebody in West Texas who bought two very expensive doors from you?
Nope, he said.
I'm telling you that those doors made me sick after a second, she told the man. Can you imagine what they'd do to two kids who went in and out of them every day?
I don't know who bought them, he said.
It's your karma, she said.
XIII. HOW I CAME TO CALL CLEMENS THAT VERY FIRST TIME
I met Clemens through my friend, Daniel, and his partner, Damon. They had invited Clemens to feng shui their Laguna Niguel interior-design store, Christopher Lee. It's interesting enough that the feng shui seemed to work—Damon kick-started a stalled fountain inside the store and (water being money) sold more the next day than he had in months. You and I might call this classic post hoc ergo propter hoc illogic and conclude that the ostensible result (high sales) had nothing to do with the ostensible cause (water fountain), but Damon was sold for other reasons. While standing in his showroom, Clemens paused and began to describe a "vision" she was getting about the home he shares with Daniel.
XIV. WHAT CLEMENS "SAW"
Clemens had never been to Daniel and Damon's house, but standing in their store, she told Damon exactly what it looked like when you walk in the front door, stand in the alcove where stairs to your right lead upstairs and a short hallway to your left leads to a bathroom and garage.
You've got spooks, she told Damon.
Really? Damon was excited.
Yes, it's a portal for Native Americans, she said. You've been hearing a lot of activity there, haven't you?
They had, indeed. Since they moved in a couple of years ago, Daniel and Damon have worried about that little hallway. At night, they'll be reading upstairs and hear the unmistakable, sibilant suck of the door to the garage opening and closing—suck, click. On other occasions, their dog will run, unbidden, to the hallway and begin barking. At nothing. Add to these quantifiable sucks, clicks and barks Daniel's non-quantifiable sense that the little hallway simply gives him the creeps.
It's clear to Damon that Clemens knew all this—that she wasn't merely guessing or spitting generalities. The question is how?
Clemens struggles for metaphors, playing with the idea that the process is like radar, and then settling on something else: "It's like my radio receiver picking up the radio waves of his sister and the property," she says. "Sometimes it comes in as an image. It used to come in as voice or a thought. Now it comes as a knowing. It's the hardest thing in the world to describe. I just know. It took me a long time to accept that these things, I just knew."
XV. DO-IT-YOURSELF CLEMENS
You could pay Clemens $180 per hour (two-hour minimum) to figure out whether your house and furniture and objets d'art have what she variably calls "cooties," "bad mojo" or "bad energy." And/or you could take her advice and become a psychic yourself. In something as mundane as "buying furniture, we all have to use other senses that we have in our bodies besides the five main ones. We need to cultivate those other senses—sort of like a sixth, seventh or eighth sense."
Everyone can access these senses, she says. "Most women use them but aren't even aware of it in our culture because they're not taught it," she says. "Our culture has become so left brain that if we can't prove it in current scientific terms, then it doesn't exist."
And it's important to note that not everything "has cooties. There are certainly things that have loving and caring energies."
How do we know which things have cooties and which do not?
For you and me, it ain't easy. "We need to shut up, sit down and be quiet," she says. "We're in front of the TV, the radio, video games, sports events all day long. We're not quiet. We need to learn to just be. We can't hear, see or feel anything until we're quiet."
When we're quiet, Clemens believes—and away from electromagnetic fields produced by electronics (microwaves, cell phones, and TV sets, for instance, but also emanating from the omnipresent electrical wiring in your home or office, alarm systems in stores and the battery-operated watch on your wrist)—we can begin to "experience the stillness. That takes a while because we're uncomfortable not doing. We're triple-A-type personalities—do, do, do. But there's a lot of need to not do. Only then can we start using those other senses.
"Just like dogs can hear higher vibrations and cats can see at night, humans can tap into the universe—or be the universe. We are the universe."
Somewhere in there, Clemens says, somewhere in the gaps between our breaths, in the slow space that yawns open when one thought trails off and the next one hasn't appeared on the mental horizon, somewhere in there our true humanity begins. And we can figure out furniture, too, which is nice.
Clemens says buying new is no guarantee. Along with steep profits, sweatshops (for example) produce great sadness—sadness (if you believe Clemens) that weaves itself into the very fabric of virtually everything we wear, that is hardwired into most of our electronics, that courses from the hands of stooped pickers and onto the strawberries of the field.
XVI. CONCLUDING NOTES
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
One nuclear-hot afternoon in late July, I stood out front of Daniel and Damon's house with Clemens. The wind—like a gust from a hair dryer—lifted her kimono of searing blue, blue matched by her eyes, eyes framed by dark hair and fair skin. We stepped in the house (comps in the neighborhood suggest the market value is approaching seven figures); Clemens removed her shoes. I imagined her little white feet as energy receptors, the psychic equivalent of a blind person's hands.
The high point was low-key, no more dramatic than adjusting a thermostat: Clemens invited the spirits to leave, stoked the salt to a blue flame, and told Daniel and Damon they might have to repeat the process now and then.
Out back, it was like the inside of a convection oven. When Clemens put her hand on my chest and told me not to worry about the son I was worried about—worries I'd uttered to no one—I was finished. By that time, I was craving the arctic certainty of slide rules, the company of atheists and engineers, the zeroes and ones of a computer programmer. I was falling into a crack between doubt and faith, between science and what seems like magic, into the uncertain space between my breaths. We said nothing else. For a moment, it was quiet.
Research by David Kirkendall.