Cleaning More Than Cobwebs
By Penelope Green, NY Times, June 5, 2013
It turns out that Bhakti Sondra Shaye does windows. She also scours microwaves, refrigerators, dishwashers and closets.
Recently, she arrived at my front door, swathed in a pale pink pashmina, brandishing an empty pink spray bottle. Slight and pixieish, she looked like a New Age fairy, as played by Anne Hathaway.
Ms. Shaye, 49, who has an M.F.A. in creative writing and practiced for years as a corporate lawyer, is no mere clutter buster. She is what is known as a space clearer. And she was there to perform a really deep spring cleaning of my apartment, beyond anything the vacuum might reach—way, way beyond. The dust bunnies were safe; it was bad vibes she would be Hoovering up.
Beloved by reality television show producers and Manhattan real estate brokers, space clearers like Ms. Shaye barely garner a raised eyebrow anymore. The shamans and healers, mystics and mediums of the last century’s not-so-New Age have become indispensable exterminators for certain homeowners in New York and other big cities, who summon these psychic scrubbers to wash their apartments and town houses (as well as their offices and even some events) with ho-hum regularity. They get more publicity than most decorators and architects, and have armfuls of testimonials from brokers at companies like Core and Corcoran.
Uncertain times, it seems, call for unorthodox housekeeping—or “that extra advantage,” as Desiree Gruber, a founder of “Project Runway,” put it.
Jeff Sharlet, who has written extensively about faith and religion in this country (his last book, “Sweet Heaven When I Die: Faith, Faithlessness and the Country In Between,” came out in 2011), would argue that woo-woo ablutions are no longer merely a coastal practice. “It’s in many ways a small-town Midwestern phenomenon, a red-state phenomenon as much as a blue one.”
Fair enough. But why clean so, ah, thoroughly?
Why not? asked Dominic Teja Sidhu, 31, a curator, creative director and art adviser who said he calls upon Ms. Shaye for all his projects, including photo shoots, gallery shows and art installations. “It’s very affordable, the cost of a car service, and the money is going to such a good place,” he said. (Regarding the money: Ms. Shaye charges $50 for a project clearing, $250 for a remote home clearing and from $350 to as much as $1,000 for an on-site zhoosh of an entire house.)
Consider it internal redecorating, said Miriam Novalle, a perfumer turned tea purveyor who has her Harlem brownstone cleared by Barbara Biziou, a wildly well-publicized Huffington Post blogger and executive consultant (or “global wisdom keeper and agent of change,” as she calls herself), every year for her birthday. “And I just had a big one,” Ms. Novalle said, slyly ducking a question about her age.
"Think of how you get stuck at home and you can’t move a pillow," she continued. Space clearing gets rid of that stuck energy, she said, adding that after one session with Ms. Biziou, she stayed up all night repainting her house.
Like Ms. Shaye’s Web site, Ms. Biziou’s erupts with testimonials, including those from marketers at Coca-Cola and Coty, as well as a founder of the spin studio SoulCycle and a former ambassador. What has changed in her 20-year practice, Ms. Biziou said the other day, is her client base, which in recent years has widened from those mostly in the entertainment industry to those in “the straighter professions,” as she puts it, “doctors, lawyers, Wall Streeters.” Another growth category, she said, is divorcing couples and the post-divorce house clearing.
In her early days, in the 1990s, Ms. Biziou recalled clearing the sets of the more obstreperous talk shows. “The skinheads would leave and everyone would say, ‘I need a drink,’ “Ms. Biziou said. “I’d say, ‘Let’s just clear the energy.’ “
Anyplace that sees a lot of traffic, she said, “you really have to do it, just like you’re going to clean your carpets. You have a party, and you feel drained. Now we can explain it; we understand quantum physics.”
In a flurry of metaphor, Ms. Biziou went on to compare space clearing to personal hygiene. “The bottom line is, we spend so much time trying to look good, whether it’s clothes or rugs,” she said. “To me, it’s as if you’re getting all dressed for a black-tie event and you forgot to take a shower.”
Faith is a powerful motivator, as psychologists and religious leaders will attest. Clearers claim they have no unhappy customers. There are no bad reviews on Yelp.
And as I watched Ms. Shaye spin slowly in my living room, transfixing the cat, I thought, what’s not to like? Who wouldn’t want a gentle pink fairy to bless the house? Or a mischievous elder, like Reggie Arthur, 69, the music industry veteran and former actor who arrived two days later?
I hired them because they had the most press, particularly in the tabloids, and the most broker accolades. I had toyed with the notion of inviting Ms. Biziou as well, but she was in Florida taking care of her 95-year-old mother, who had broken her ankle after a chair-yoga class. (Ms. Biziou reported spritzing the hospital room with essential oils.)
As it happens, clearers also work remotely. One group in England specializes in pets (another niche, like the post-divorce home, is the badly behaved pet), and I considered hiring it to treat my irritable cat. But its service required multiple sessions, and I feared a misdiagnosis or, worse, some kind of boomerang effect: a collision of everyone’s mojo in my tiny apartment. Two magicians seemed safer.
I gave Ms. Shaye a specific assignment: to make my living room bigger. (Yes, she said she could do that.)
She was not the first to tackle this awkward space, which is rectangular and made more so by a room-long set of built-in bookcases. It’s a bummer of a room, and nobody sits there except the cat. It had been feng shui’d years ago and then “tweaked” by a decorator who corralled all my knickknacks and moved them around. More recently, it was worked over by a designer friend who rearranged the furniture and then dejectedly moved it back again. Really, it needs nicer stuff, a paint job and that bookshelf ripped out, but who can afford such things in these uncertain times?
Ms. Shaye offered to discount her services to her “remote” rate of $250, which was cheaper than a paint job, and she promised to do the entire apartment. Her equipment was minimal: just the aforementioned pink spray bottle, which she filled with tap water and “blessed” by saying a few prayers over it. She also blessed her coffee.
"I’m raising its vibrations," she said shyly. "Clearing it of negativity, making it much healthier."
Does it taste better?
"I don’t know," she said, "because I do it to everything I eat."
Ms. Shaye, who grew up in a family of lawyers, told me she left the law to join a “mystery school” more than a decade ago. Mystery schools, she said, are graduate schools for folks like herself, who are initiated into various practices, including space clearing, which she turned out to have a gift for. Her first mentor, she said, taught her to push all the bad energy out through a client’s front door, into the yard (or the hall, if it was an apartment). “But that didn’t make sense,” she said. “So now I just remove it.”
Like vacuuming instead of sweeping?
It took three hours to suck all the bad vibes from my apartment, a process that included standard services like windows and closets, and a few extra flourishes, like opening a healing vortex over my bed. “Just a gentle one,” she said, noting my alarm.
Most of my surfaces received a spritz from her pink bottle, spooking the cat. “They do hate it,” she said, explaining that she used to work with a bowl of water and her fingers, but everything got drenched.
The final flourish was in my living room.
"I’m going to push these walls out energetically," she said, pivoting like a ballerina in an old-fashioned music box. "I usually do this in small rooms, or those with low ceilings. In New York, it’s a very big deal."
Two days later, Mr. Arthur appeared. I received him with some trepidation, for he had left a phone message that made me feel like the human equivalent of Three Mile Island. “I’ve never seen such energy,” he said. “I have to talk to you before I see you!”
I forgave him in person. Charming, dapper and slightly profane, he recounted anecdotes from his years in the music business (“Marky Mark couldn’t wrap a sandwich”).
He also told me about how, a few weeks earlier, he had been thrilled to be called for an office clearing by someone he thought was Rachael Ray’s assistant. (Ms. Ray’s proclivity for such things was reported last year on Page Six in The New York Post, which ran a report about a “wacky exorcism” of her new studio space; the show’s publicist cheerfully dismissed it as “a silly rumor,” but directed this reporter to a store on East Ninth Street called Enchantments, if she was looking for such services.)
When Mr. Arthur arrived at the appointment, he said, the subject turned out to be Rachel Roy, the fashion designer. But he was still happy to oblige, and predicted that Ms. Roy was on her way to becoming a global brand. (Ms. Roy’s publicist said she declined to confirm their encounter.)
Mr. Arthur comes by his current career naturally, he said. His grandfather was a Seminole who used to clear the house on New Year’s Day by burning tobacco leaves. For his part, Mr. Arthur favors sage and jasmine, which he ignited in a censer and wafted through my apartment, after inundating the front door. I worried about my neighbors, and the smoke alarm.
"I usually bring flowers to a clearing, but I sense that you are blooming," he said.
"Spring cleaning begins with you," he added pointedly, before offering all the usual blandishments: Love! Advancement! Money!
For what it’s worth, my living room won high marks from Mr. Arthur, who pronounced its energy “Oriental and creative,” though he thought it did need to be “popped with colors of orange and persimmon.”
And his was not the only positive review of the living room. When my 16-year-old daughter came home from school the day of Ms. Shaye’s visit, she said: “What happened? It feels bigger in here.”
"Get out!" Ms. Shaye exclaimed when I mentioned it to her later. "I say no more."