My Four Pillars chart is weighted heavily toward Fire. Anyone schooled in feng shui would be alarmed at its extreme skew after performing the requisite set of calculations with my gender and date and time of birth. Fire is associated with red, green, triangles, and rectangles. These colors and shapes in my environment will bring out Fire. Being “born of Fire,” as it’s called, I am susceptible to ailments of the heart and tongue and might seek to improve my health by consuming mushrooms and apricots. I’m likely to become a great musician, artist, actor, or writer. I may also have a passion for antiques or electronics. However, experts consider a chart so consumed by one element to be undesirable and dangerous, and I should surround myself with representations of Water, Earth, Wood, and Metal for balance.
I learned some of this from special guidebooks and some of it from Gregg Nodelman, a feng shui consultant who says he has a karmic responsibility not to use his privileged knowledge to tell fortunes. He worries that people may unconsciously work to fulfill negative as well as positive prophecies and he would prefer not to mess around with that. He calculates Four Pillars charts, which are also called Pillars of Destiny, but applies them only to his clients’ physical surroundings. He used to do this by hand but now uses special software.
“The way I work is, I’m really literal,” Nodelman says.
Nodelman is a Metal, so his lungs, nose, and large intestine are prone to sickness. He is slim and tallish, with neat, close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair. When I first met Nodelman, he was wearing a forest-green shirt and striped button-down with skillfully matched dark green slacks. Nodelman strives for balance by surrounding himself with Earth tones like these. He does not smoke. He wears hexagonal spectacles with transitional lenses that are clear inside and shaded outdoors so his eyes are at home anywhere.
Officially, Dancing Dragon Feng Shui is based in Nodelman’s home office in Branford, Connecticut. There, he calculates Four Pillars charts, which determine clients’ mingua, or favorable directions independent of their domiciles. Feng shui is an ancient Chinese system for determining auspicious arrangements of manmade space. It deals not only with rooms, but also with their inhabitants, whose individual needs—as revealed by their Four Pillars charts—require differently arranged environments. Nodelman also can pin down lucky spots in a particular building using its location and age, a process he calls “flying the stars.”
Most of Nodelman’s work happens on-site, at homes and businesses to which people have summoned him. He shuffles around seats at businesses—a town hall, a hair salon—to manipulate the firms’ power dynamics. He has found that people who ask him to rearrange their homes often have bigger problems they wish he would solve. Clients break down. They tell him about infidelities and impending foreclosures. Nodelman was once asked to rearrange a family’s home and wound up intuiting that one son had a drug problem. He later found the son’s stash in the ceiling of his bedroom.
Nodelman always asks clients for their specific goals in seeking his services. When I asked him to view my apartment, I wasn’t entirely sure what to tell him. I was curious to hear his recommendations but couldn’t rationally conceive of a problem that flown stars could solve. I don’t believe in feng shui—or even, really, in interior decorating. I have a high clutter threshold. I never unpack suitcases and tend to leave papers and jackets and plates strewn about my space. After my parents divorced, I grew up stuffing clothes into a navy blue duffel bag in one temporary bedroom on Friday evenings and emptying them onto the floor of another, even more temporary bedroom, only to restuff them two days later. Nodelman wonders of his clients, “Does their room look like this as a manifestation of their life, or is their life like this because of the way their room is arranged?” I think, “I just live here.”
But this was no reason not to see what Nodelman would do to my apartment. I gave him my time, date, and place of birth, as he requested. I managed to come up with a worry about my future career. He said that was enough to go on. “The feng shui leaves people with their own to-do lists,” he added. “Whatever changes I suggest would have to be done by you. I’m not going to move your desk.” It’s sometimes necessary to move desks because poorly placed objects can affect the energy, or chi, of a space. A few days before he visited my apartment, as Nodelman and I were taking a walk around the New Haven Green, he stopped and told me to point my pen at my eye.
I maneuvered my pen and looked at him.
Nodelman corrected me, pulling out his own pen to demonstrate. I had to really point it. I placed the pen’s business end a few inches from my right eye and stared it down.
He asked me how I felt.
“Bad,” I said.
“That’s a poison arrow,” he said triumphantly. “That’s what’s coming off your pen. You know you’re not going to stab yourself in the eye. It’s energetic.” He gestured expansively at a building overhanging Chapel Street. “You know that building’s not going to collapse,” he said, “but standing under all that concrete and glass, you’re going to feel a little bit off-balance.”
I pocketed my pen and looked slightly askance at Nodelman. He was standing with his back to a blinding mid-afternoon sun. I had trouble looking directly at him. “I take things really literally,” he said finally.
Under the Shang dynasty, which ruled China from 1600 to 1050 BCE, diviners burned luminous, prophetic oracle bones; under the Sung dynasty, which reigned from 960 to 1126 AD, they practiced the first professional feng shui; over the intervening two thousand years, a series of sages yoked the common wisdom for choosing sanitary burial grounds to the aggregated beliefs of Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, ancestor worship, and elemental and yin and yang energies—and came out with feng shui, which means “wind water.” Many Chinese homeowners and businessmen still seriously consult its rules.
When feng shui attained fad status in the West during the 1990s and 2000s, its focus shifted from exterior space to interior design and from placating ancestor spirits to solving personal problems. Practitioners in the West have generally exaggerated the astrological component of feng shui because of their clients’ seemingly bottomless need to control what lies ahead. Western feng shui guidebooks promise that expertly arranged homes guarantee love, fulfillment, and financial success. Initiates write letters like this to the agony-aunt column on World of Feng Shui, a British online magazine founded in 1998:
I have placed a raw amethyst crystal geode under the marital bed and I am sleeping on the right side of the bed and my husband should sleep on the left. I have also placed mandarin ducks and a couple of married toys on the table next to my bed too with red table lamp on each side. But my husband is still committing infidelity. He asked for divorce and is ill-treating our children. He is a Rabbit and I am a Dragon. He is planning to see the lady in July, Aunt Agga, please help, I need your advice on how I can bring his heart back. I have also placed a Rooster with Fan and Amethyst in the North of the living room. Please reply soonest possible, as my husband is planning to see the lady very soon. Please help, I am very sad and desperate for help and advice to mend the situation. Thank you.
Aunt Agga replied with horror, sympathy, and the suggestion that the writer double-check that the crystal geode under the bed was clean and tied to the bed with red thread.
In some ways, Nodelman and Dancing Dragon Feng Shui are products of this craze. Nodelman studied feng shui at the Metropolitan Institute of Design in Syosset, New York, whose Universal Feng Shui Practitioner Certification Program was the first in the country to be accredited. However, Nodelman found the program too “watered-down” and “Westernized.” He notes that feng shui was not yet wildly popular when he founded Dancing Dragon in 1992. While many Western practitioners orient a house using its front door, Nodelman insists on using the lo pan, the traditional Chinese compass with dozens of numerals, characters, and I Ching symbols ringing its magnetic needle. He considers many Western feng shui consultants to be quacks. He says that some carry suitcases filled with wind chimes, crystals, and mirrors to sell to gullible clients. “There’s a certain practitioner where everyone, whether they need it or not, gets a bamboo flute over the doorway,” he said.
“We Westerners, we like a quick fix. We like that sort of magic pill. ‘I need a job; tell me where to hang the crystal,’ ” he said. “Some people say crystals and mirrors are the aspirin of feng shui… I mean, look, I’ll use crystals or mirrors as cures, but I just won’t use them every time, and I’ll be cautious about it.”
As a boy, Nodelman tried to hypnotize his friends on the playground at recess. He would spin in circles to make himself dizzy, developing an interest in “altered perceptions and how your environment affects that.” He found kits for strobe lights at RadioShack and assembled them in complex patterns of light and sound. “I’d fairly regularly blow fuses in my parents’ house as a kid,” he said. When he got a little older, Nodelman began to experiment seriously with meditation. Decades later, he still can’t help scrutinizing the world around him and imagining it differently composed. He never sees anything whole without also grasping how its parts could combine more elegantly.
Nodelman grew up in New Haven, like his father, Stewart, and grandfather, Otto, who founded the New Haven Chair Company in the 1950s. Nodelman worked there summers in high school. After Otto died in 1967, Stewart bought the business. Nodelman says he inherited his father’s eye for design and aptitude for construction, though Stewart is skeptical of feng shui. Nodelman doesn’t blame him. “Some people are seekers, and they’re always looking for a new awareness,” he said. “Some people are just happy with the awareness they have.” Nodelman considers himself a seeker. After studying industrial design for a couple years at Syracuse University, he transferred to Southern Connecticut State University to be nearer the factory. He dropped out of college halfway through his junior year in order to work there full-time, secretly relishing the act of rebellion.
By then, the business had moved to a new factory. Nodelman told me the original factory near Fair Haven was demolished by Richard Lee, an ambitious New Haven mayor who sought to renew the city by manipulating its spatial arrangements in the sixties. As Nodelman remembers, his family was told that the land was needed for a new school, which was never built. Dick Lee’s infamous failed experiment in spatial planning was the Richard C. Lee Highway, also called the Oak Street Connector. The low-income Oak Street neighborhood was razed to make way for this highway. The displacement of an estimated two thousand five hundred eighty-seven people and two hundred fifty businesses haunted their former community, which sank further into decay. The highway was never completed.
As his hometown absorbed these structural dissonances, Nodelman developed an interest in harmonious design. He eventually started his own business repairing furniture. His wife, Sandra, an engineer with an open mind, introduced Nodelman to various alternative practices—t’ai chi, acupuncture, herbology—and these experiences led him to feng shui. He felt an immediate affinity for the trends his wife had tested; he has used a naturopathic healer whom Sandra once visited as his general practitioner for more than twenty years. “I had this hot moment,” he explained, “when I realized that the chi that you’re working with in your body is the same as the chi that you’re working with in a space.” When the interior designers Nodelman knew through his business learned about his interest in feng shui, they began to solicit his opinion. He decided to seek more training and charge for his services. Nodelman is now certified to perform space clearing and clutter clearing ceremonies in which he uses candles, incense, and special rites to exorcise lingering, negative “predecessor chi.”
“The earth has energy,” he told me. “The earth has memories.”
Nodelman has always lived around New Haven. He says he has hometown pride for this city, which has always been peculiar in its physical space. While other colonial cities like Boston grew organically around geographic features—streets twisting crazily to follow the course of rivers—its original nine square blocks made New Haven the first planned city in the colonies. The ancient Chinese used feng shui to plan cities that would fit into the existing natural landscape, but nothing in nature takes the shape of a three-by-three grid. Chi tends naturally to spiral—as in seashells, or tornadoes.
Westerners usually expect feng shui consultants simply to shuffle sofas and mutter mysticisms, but in fact practitioners have always applied their art to larger canvasses than interior design. Beijing, Nanjing, Luoyang, and Xian, four major ancient Chinese cities, were chosen for their lucky locations and laid out carefully along axes that run north to south. Rules for auspiciously arranging cities were so well codified that a Chinese emperor ignored them at his own risk. Planned cities are often the places where the human desire to control the environment reaches its fullest potential for success and for failure.
The Air Rights Garage on York and North Frontage Streets is a gargantuan parking garage built to straddle the Oak Street Connector. Instead, the highway dead-ends right before it. A section of York Street lined by a bodega and a couple of fast-food places bisects the garage. It is always dark there because of the cement mountain overhead. Nodelman and I recently walked to the Air Rights Garage and looked down into the cavernous pit underneath, where the highway was supposed to run. I wanted to know how Nodelman could account for his hometown’s predicament. “They weren’t thinking about people and nature when they were doing this,” he said. “They were thinking of engineering and construction and traffic flow.”
Dick Lee began to raze the Oak Street neighborhood in 1957, three years before Nodelman was born. Nodelman recalled that this area—past the parking garage, beyond the unfinished highway’s premature end—remained an unused no-man’s land for decades, wracked by sha chi, or negative energy. Now, the area between North Frontage and Legion Streets is a parking lot that seems to stretch from Dwight Street to the horizon. I had the sense that the massive lot is never completely filled.
Residents of the former Oak Street neighborhood reunited years after its dismemberment at Anthony’s Oceanview Restaurant on Lighthouse Road. City lore considers the area a battlefield where a residential culture was mowed down by a mayor’s unthinking hubris. As Nodelman and I stood at the brink of the great paved-over expanse, I asked him whether the parking lot between Dwight and Orchard Streets could use a space clearing ceremony. “I would say it does,” he said, “but that’s called earth clearing, and I don’t do that. I have a friend in Seattle who does earth clearing, and I usually refer people to him. He can do it on-site or remotely.”
I knew before he rang my doorbell that I was not Nodelman’s ideal client. He likes to help people who are desperate for his help. “I actually appreciate that they’re as open as they are,” he said of these clients. “I tell people, the more you tell me, the more I can help you. If you tell me your most innermost desires, then that’s what we can work on.” Nodelman recently graduated from a program in marriage and family therapy at Southern Connecticut State University and is licensed as a drug and alcohol counselor by the state of Connecticut. He works as a counselor a few hours a week at West Haven and Milford Youth and Family Services.
Unlike some of Nodelman’s clients, I dislike talking to strangers about my problems. He told me not to clean before his visit, but I couldn’t resist kicking a heap of dirty laundry into my closet. Still, it’s hard to get my apartment entirely neat. My roommate is similarly cavalier about our living space. At the time, she and I were flummoxed by our kitchen sink’s failure to drain. A mud-colored liquid speckled by coffee grounds had welled up there for a few days. (Later, I rolled up my sleeves and plunged in an arm to loose debris from the drain. My roommate came home and shrieked with joy. “What did you do?” she asked.)
I sat Nodelman at my kitchen table, so he could not see the liquid in the sink. He found my kitchen to have good chi, although he recommended that I move the toaster next to the microwave in order to bundle together the Fire energy. Its current position next to the fridge created an undesirable juxtaposition of Water and Fire elements.
Along with my completed Four Pillars chart, Nodelman brought along the tools of his trade. He keeps the colorful lo pan tucked under his arm, in a soft brown leather case. He also has a small black box that detects electromagnetic fields in volts per meter. He uses two metal dowsing rods, L-shaped and about a foot long, to trace geopathic stress lines. He holds them loosely in front of his hips and watches them bend apart or inch closer together. After he’s finished, he tucks the rods into a pouch of crushed red velvet. Nodelman said he can often intuit the needs of a space without any instruments. He was born with a cleft palate and retains a cut in his mouth that never completely healed. He said this slit is sensitive to air quality and smoke. “It’s like my built-in meter,” he said.
Nodelman can spend three or four hours on a consultation. Because we were short on time, he focused on my bedroom. He checked for electromagnetic fields around my pillow and recommended that I unplug a nearby lamp. “You can’t put a price on a good night’s sleep,” he said. He turned next to my overstuffed bookshelves and recommended that I thin the books until someone with two glasses of water could set them down. “This can be a cure for allowing new possibilities to come in,” he said. “The bookshelves are bowing from the weight of the books, so you could feel like there’s a lot of weight on your shoulders.” Taking in the stacked tomes that loomed like thunderclouds over my bed, I felt as though I’d caught myself complaining about a particularly arduous homework assignment.
Before he left, Nodelman told me that he once consulted a massage therapist who couldn’t work because her hands were red with eczema. He discovered moss growing up an exterior wall and recommended she power-wash the house. “It cleared right up,” he recalled.
Nodelman’s faith in small changes was catching. Not long after he visited my kitchen, I decided to move the toaster next to the microwave. I needed to shuffle around a few things, squishing the olive oil, vinegar, and knives closer together. I wedged in the toaster. Its sides were sticky. It occurred to me that the sides of our toaster—like the strip of floor under our couch—are a part of our apartment that my roommate and I have neither touched nor cleaned in the year and a half we’ve lived here. I wiped my hands and looked at the toaster and the microwave for several minutes. The larger, sleeker microwave reclined powerfully, leonine in its corner. The toaster stared back at me, small, white, and spunky. Eventually, my roommate came home.
“Do you notice anything different about the kitchen?” I asked finally.
“The toaster is in a different place,” she said.
“Do you like it?” I asked.
“I like it,” she said.
I asked her if she felt anything more.
“I like it a lot,” she said. “Is there something else different that I missed? It looks very nice. Is there something else?”
I recently returned without Nodelman to the Air Rights Garage and made my way to its roof, nine stories up. It was warmer there than at street level. I took off my jacket. There was nothing between me and the sun.
The rooftop parking lot is concrete, and the few pebbles lying around are concrete, and a pockmarked concrete wall about four feet high rims the whole space. I stepped over crusty old snow to the edge. I looked downtown, over the cardboard-colored AT&T building, over the Walgreens where once I overheard a man say in Spanish that he got his black eye in a fight. I could read the time on the clock atop Harkness Tower, the Gothic icon of Yale University, but the tower was very far away. My apartment was blocked by one of the twin high-rises on Crown Street. It seemed far away, too. Ambulances wailed on their way to the nearby hospital. A breeze was chasing away the smell of car exhaust. Dust-colored birds alighted on the perimeter wall, chirping shrilly. I looked down on the spot where the Oak Street Connector pools into a roundabout planted with unflowering shrubs. This complicated mess of roads is always clogged with traffic. I thought some more about a people’s continuous efforts to control the land I was looking at. I imagined the primordial New Haven, a low, silky swamp. I wondered whether the city was doomed to failure, or whether its leaders simply needed to be more thoughtful and meticulous in planning their space.
Through the tall buildings of the Yale School of Medicine, past a few smokestacks that billowed chemical steam, I could make out a sliver of blue. I once asked Nodelman about the damage this city incurred by cutting itself off from the sea. “Water is a really strong life force,” he said. “If you cut off the water energy for people, it’s going to create a problem for them.” I asked him how he would fix New Haven. “For something this major, you could hang all the mirrors and talismans in the world and it wouldn’t do a thing,” he said.
I braced myself against the low wall, letting the unfinished cement scratch my palms, and looked straight down. I knew I wasn’t going to fall, but I still felt queasy from the height.