Lack of Decorum

I sat in our apartment’s living room in a state of stupor. A woman had just left, and with her went all the air in the room. I felt asphyxiated and paralyzed, except for my hands and knees, which shook and had gone cold. What the woman had said to me was this : that she knew — categorically — the cause of my illness. Our bed, you see, was tucked under the rafters of a converted loft space upstairs and an exposed beam on the ceiling was inconveniently — and possibly fatally — positioned just above my abdomen, the location of my disease. And because we lived across the street from Père Lachaise cemetery, we could either permanently shutter the living room windows with red curtains or, preferably, we should move.

I didn’t react when she was still there. I had welcomed her into our home, I had invited her and I was incapable of processing the violence of what she had said. My psyche seemed to be trying to temper the message, to take it with a grain of salt. I think I may have even thanked her before she left.

But now I was being consumed by anger. And though I felt frozen in place, my thoughts chased after her. They tore down the stairs, pursued her on the street and shouted : How dare you?

The woman, I’m sure, would say that she was just doing her job. She is an expert in Feng Shui, the millennial Chinese art of balancing energies to harmonize the architecture and organization of a given space. The woman was a friend of a friend. She is apparently well known on the Paris design scene and when our friend suggested we contact her, I figured it couldn’t hurt.

I have always been receptive to alternative approaches to healing. I dillydallied around yoga for years before I fell ill. And when I was diagnosed in 2005 I embraced healing arts — yoga, meditation, qigong, homeopathy, acupuncture — with a dedication that I now recognize was close to desperation. It took me a long time to begin to accept the cliché — but ultimately true — wisdom that what matters most is the journey, not the destination. My destination was to be well again. I wanted to sign a deal with the Universe : if I meditated for X length of time, if I perfected such and such yoga technique, I would win my health back.

There are, of course, no deals to be made. And the teachers that I have had have never promised me anything. They have guided me to moments of stillness and quiet centeredness. Moments that — no matter how fleeting — have offered a temporary but startlingly clear intuition. The world is suddenly self-evident. And in that moment, everything is okay.

It is ironic, then, that the only person to paint things in black-and-white (life-and-death) came from Feng Shui, the tenets of which I respect but consider superficial to the work and transformative effort required of meditation. Feng Shui, for me, boils down to decorative common sense. What I wanted from this woman’s advice was a new direction to point our couch. Not the equivalent of a spiritual eviction notice from our home.

In illness, our apartment had become my sanctuary. I practiced yoga there, I healed there. I lay on the floor and cried there. And almost every day — and especially after every chemotherapy treatment — I crossed the street and walked in Père Lachaise. The traffic and crowds of the city suffocated my post-treatment brain, but in Père Lachaise — the largest green space in Paris — I found solitude, air and rejuvenation along its cobbled, tree-shaded paths. Yes, it is a cemetery, but as my homeopathic doctor says, Père Lachaise is a place of history. A place of poetry.

About a week after the woman’s visit, I went to a consultation with a nutritionist in the 14th arrondissement of Paris. He had been, in fact, recommended to me by the Feng Shui woman and I had made the appointment before she came to our apartment. I decided to keep the appointment because in the vulnerability of illness I didn’t have the strength to completely disregard what she had said.

What she had done was unconscionable and irresponsible. I wanted to dismiss it as inconsequential bull***. But what if what she said — even just a little bit of it — was true?

And so I went, wary but willingly to meet her nutritionist, a doctor she had longwindedly lauded as a sort of Messiah of cancer care.

He was an older man of Eastern European descent (Hungarian, I think, judging by his accent) and though he lived on the top floor of his building, his apartment felt like a cavern. It was dark and crammed with loose-leaf piles of paper. Bizarre pencil drawings of geometric shapes and elongated, skeletal forms hung on the walls. The apartment, and he himself, oozed a mustiness, as if he hadn’t been outside in a very long time.

I listened to him but I took no notes — I felt no confidence in or affinity for his theories. But I couldn’t help but smile and I was happy that I had come.

Because across the street from this man’s apartment building — this man that the Feng Shui woman so obviously admired — was the green canopy of trees and quiet solitude of Montparnasse Cemetery.

  1. Wow. You have summed up so well for me how I feel about alternative (or non-western) medicine: much of it can be comforting, helpful, and even possibly truly healing, but there are a lot of so-called healers out there who use people’s fears and needs for help to support their lazy thinking and power plays. And it’s amazing how dogmatic some of these people can be – and how un-attuned to people’s actual experience (like your experience of finding peace in the cemetery). I honestly think you could write a whole book just on this subject – you’ve certainly run the gamut of various healing practices in the last 7 years!

    Thanks for yet another thoughtful, honest post.

  2. MDBlogs said:

    Very interesting. When my daughter was sick, a friend who studied Feng Shui made a reference to the beams in our apartment and how they crossed near where she slept. At that time, I was looking for any kind of a cause, and it troubled me, but what could I do? I was busy attending to her care and visiting the hospital daily and very quickly it slipped away from the center of my thoughts. Years later, when this friend (a lovely woman) became certified to do Feng Shui, she offered a discount to us to survey our apartment. I declined. What what I do with this information from her? Change our apartment? Tear something down? I didn’t have the finances or the ambition to follow up on any of her recommendations so I thanked her but opted out. Was I burying my head in the sand? Or trusting my own instinct? I’m still not sure. I’ve thought about it since, without any conclusion. Except that in matters like this, maybe it’s belief that can override information.

    What strikes me is the lack of decorum, as you note, of this specialist. I think part of the training of any professional who consults people about “problem spaces” is to do so thoughtfully and carefully, so as not to alarm but to encourage. I can think of a dozen other ways she could have brought this to your attention. I wonder was she just insensitive or was this a way to use shock/fear as a way garner additional time and attention from you to “fix” it? Who knows.

    I’m a pluralist when it comes to healing options, and like ms. wampamuse above, have dabbled in different methods of homeopathic and wholistic care, but always in tandem with the allopathic medicine which has helped me as much as the others.

    Anyway, here’s to beautiful views of green, peaceful cemeteries and the certainty that there are always many sides to a story, and in a situation like this, what *you* believe might be more important than any other piece of data.

    • acktaber said:

      Thank you, Wampamuse and MDBlogs, for your thoughtful comments. I think you showed a lot of strength, MDBlogs, in the midst of a very tough situation to turn down your friend’s offer to do a survey. And I certainly agree that what we believe/feel to be true should be the decisive factor in making those sorts of decisions. As I alluded to in the piece, I truly believe that personal-development paths (yoga, meditation, etc.) can lead to a heightened intuition. And if your intuition is on, your own internal Feng Shui should be too. As my qigong teacher told me — quite sternly — when, in a state of extreme vulnerability, I intimated that I wanted a guru (him) to tell me what to do : “No. You have to be your own guru.” I think I’ll print that on a T-shirt :]

      Thanks again to both of you for reading me and for all your supportive feedback!

      • Karine et manu said:

        Je me souviens de cette rencontre avec cette adepte du Feng shui, tu nous en avait parlé et tu paraissais bouleversé de son “diagnostic”. C’est fou combien les gens qui évoluent dans ces univers alternatifs ont le sentiment d’avoir en eux LA Vérité et faire partie du monde des ” demi-dieux”. Ils deviennent malheureusement très sectaires…avec les déviances dont tu as été l’une des nombreuses et parfaites cibles. Je ne suis que trop d’accord avec toi quand tu dis ” qu’il faut être son propre gourou”. Je me souviens d’avoir lu dans un livre sur l’histoire de bouddha, qu’il disait à ses adeptes: “ne croyez pas tout ce que je vous dis, faites vous votre propre jugement”. Et tu as senti instinctivement que ce pseudo spécialiste n’était qu’un charlatan car rien en lui ne dégageait une bonne énergie. Car cela, c’est universelle, on sent quand quelqu’un dégage une bonne énergie, donc une positivité.
        Je trouve que ce blog est une démarche très courageuse et très positive et je ne peux que t’encourager à continuer! On vous embrasse bien fort, karine et manu.

  3. brynn71 said:

    Your voice is so strong and clear and evenly tempered…I am so glad you are writing YOUR story and the way its all being incorporated flows so well as well. Keep it up my friend! Kristen

  4. Dale Andrade said:

    Good to see you exercising your writing skills, Andrew. I haven’t been in touch with you lately, but I’m glad I can now track some of your progress (or at least your thinking and observations) here.

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