Clustered around two tables at a Chinese restaurant, I am one of 12 women ostensibly here to have lunch and to learn more about feng shui, the Chinese art of rearranging your possessions to change your life. In reality, it is the promise of a personalized forecast for the Chinese New Year that inspired most of us to ante up the $40 fee.
The predictions are nested in little boxes of tokens left at our place settings, like gift bags at a birthday party. I bypass the red silk ribbon, jasmine candies, and the fake coins to reach for my reading.
I was born in the Year of the Snake, I discover. It is unappealing by Western standards, but then the woman to my immediate left was born in the Year of the Rat. Is that any better? We Snakes are the most beautiful women in the world my reading claims. How can that be true? I glance around the table, wondering who the Snakes are
The workshop leader is wearing red, which suits her warm smile, while I am wearing black, which I’m pretty sure is not the best feng shui color to have on, but I think I look better in it.
Look, I’m a Black Snake, I joke to the Rat.
My companion doesn’t respond; her focus is riveted upon our hostess, who explains that everything in the material world rests spatially next to something else. Therefore, where I place each object in my home impacts the energy flowing to me. The result? Proper arrangement of my belongings can facilitate the realization of my dreams.
Many of my dreams have already come true: my dog, who was once prescribed Prozac, has never actually bitten anyone. My children’s father has 1) become a gourmet cook who 2) thinks cooking for others is fun! But if feng shui is both art and science, I have one nagging question. Where can I place the past so that it does not interfere with the present?
What if now I want to say yes to being “Room Mother?” No to working all weekend? Yes, to taking Advanced Conversational French with Mrs. Proccacini?
What if I wish I’d gone on more vacations when the kids were young, danced at my own wedding? Been braver, less self-absorbed? What if I want to do it all over again—career, being a parent, a sister, a friend, being human– knowing what I know now?
Our instructor can’t hear what I’m unable to ask, so she offers more specific instructions. I should put something gold in my prosperity corner and add a plant with friendly round leaves. I’m advised to keep water near my fireplace and to aim all sharp-cornered furniture away from my bed.
Servers arrive laden with bowls of steaming, brothy soup. Silverware and china clatter as the restaurant fills with the bubbling conversation of other diners. A water feature in the lobby creates the sound of perpetual rain, and I lean forward in order to hear as our instructions continue.
I should bury a red string in the front yard and write down everything I want to bring into my life and everything I need to release. My gift box includes two small pieces of paper on which to do this. They are thin and delicate, emblazoned with gold leaf symbols and red Chinese lettering I cannot decipher. When this task is accomplished, I’m to burn them.
I start to write. I want my children to remain happy. Healthy. I want to do good work in this world. I want to live with transparent authenticity. I want to be instinctively generous. Compassionate. Thoughts come faster now as I suddenly feel as if it’s all true: I can change the past and forge a bright future, so it is imperative that I leave nothing out. I want to live up to my potential, to know that love honors our intentions, forgives our mistakes, that a benevolent force is at the heart of the universe.
The woman next to me glances over as I cover my second paper’s surface. “Is that all?” she asks dryly, but I’m not finished. Rotating the page, I write in the tiny margins.
I want to know that I am not alone, even when I feel alone; that in some way we have yet to rightly imagine, all is well.
At home, I step outside. Pulling the two small pieces of paper from my pocket, I kneel against the winter wind. A match flames against each fragile corner, and I lift them skyward. As I watch, regret disappears, at least in this moment, and all I still long for ascends like hope in the pristine air.
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.