Managing a demanding career and caring for her mother with dementia and her husband with a serious illness, Carole Stein said she drew strength not only from her religion but from her practice of the ancient Chinese philosophy of feng shui.
Stein, who downsized from a large family home in Indianapolis to a 900-square-foot apartment at Palo Alto's Moldaw Residences following the death of her husband, recently opened her apartment to fellow residents of the senior housing complex to show her colorful, feng shui-inspired décor.
"There's nothing simple about this 3,000-year-old philosophy," Stein told about a dozen fellow residents assembled in her living room. "I know it's complicated, but I made a definition: feng shui is a complex body of knowledge that reveals how to balance the energies of any given space to ensure the health and good fortune of anybody inhabiting it."
The hour-long session, in which Stein discussed how she tries to express clutter-free and color-minded aspects of feng shui in her home, was part of a three-year-old "Share the Art" program at Moldaw Residences, in which residents have opened their apartments to neighbors to share everything from African art to folk art, Judaica, modern art and Picassos.
"What's most interesting are the stories behind the art," said Nancy Rossen, a co-organizer of the art-sharing program. "Everyone is so individual as to why they picked this piece, what was the circumstance under which they got it."
One resident told how she lost the contents of her home in the Holocaust but years later spotted one of the lost items at a Dutch art auction. "It was such an emotional thing she bid on her own painting," Rossen said of the former Moldaw resident, who has since died.
"She told the story of getting that particular painting back. The Dutch government was not so willing to return it, but it so happened that the wife of the artist was still living and was able to testify that the artist had done that painting for her family."
In another art-sharing session, a resident recounted how her husband had surprised her when she was ill with an etching by Camille Pissarro. The breathtaking gift, she said, made her "feel better right away."
Another resident, who was involved in building bridges all over the world in his civil engineering career with the Bechtel Corp., shared his collection of bridge photographs.
Stein, who is president of the Moldaw residents' council, said organizers of the art-sharing program approached her after they had run through all the "really fine art apartments."
"I said, 'I don't have any Chagalls and I don't have any Pissarros and I don't have any Picassos,'" Stein said. "I don't have anything to show except my life, and they said, 'That's good enough. Show your life.'"
Stein explained to fellow residents how her use of the colors and principles of feng shui has helped her gain a sense of balance, peace and personal growth.
"Energy is embodied in everything, living and non-living," she said of her understanding of feng shui. "All living matter and inanimate objects are connected, and change is constant.
"The easiest way to get your life moving by using feng shui is to bring the energy of colors in order to connect with your surroundings to be healthy, peaceful, balanced and joyful in them," she said. "Look to these emotions and see if you can develop your environment to fit that. Do your colors make you feel that way? Does your artwork make you feel that way?"
Stein chose the color red expressing the "fire energy," she said for her small kitchen near the apartment entrance.
"When my kitchen night lights are on, the glow of the color warms my whole apartment, and I sense a feeling of calm looking out from my bedroom," she said.
Her bedroom is butter yellow, and the bath carries the deeper of the yellow tints. "My area rugs all came from my Indianapolis home and recognize the value of the yellows and golds to bring warmth to my rooms."
After tiring of the original beige in her den, Stein repainted the room a vibrant green the "color of renewal and fresh energy," she said as a backdrop for over two dozen treasured mementos hanging on the wall, including a framed invitation to her 1954 wedding in Brooklyn.
"For me, this space became a room with dimension and personality," she said. "When I walk into the apartment I see a wide expansive space from bedroom to den all inclusive and giving me a feeling of a whole home in balance with my life."
Broken items, clutter and furniture with sharp points represent "negative energy" and are to be avoided, Stein said.
Though small apartments pose challenges for de-cluttering, "no amount of wind chimes or plants will negate the low, depressing energy of clutter," Stein said.
"Your home is your sanctuary," she said. "You get to decide what you live with, what you love and what you want out of life. At this time in our life when we're limited on space, we have to surround ourselves with things that really speak to us."