When Helen Ho was laid off from her urban planning job in the spring of 2020, she knew she wouldn’t be looking for another full-time job anytime soon. The pandemic was slowly consuming every bit of our public and private lives, and eradicating many job prospects for the unemployed.
“Even if I wanted to look for a job,” she said, “nobody knew what was going to happen. There was nothing to do.”
Instead, Ms. Ho, 42, took the time to pursue interests she had always wanted to delve into: reiki, a form of energy healing with origins in Japan, and tarot reading.
She soon enrolled in a reiki training course organized by the NYC POC Healing Collective. She studied videos (“Mostly teen girls on Instagram,” she said with a laugh) that taught her how to interpret the 78 cards in the tarot deck she had only ever used as a “party trick.” She also volunteered with a small farm in New Jersey, helping them to start a flower CSA. (This community-supported agriculture project allows people to pay up front for a weekly bunch of flowers and pick them up at several locations in New York City over the six-and-a-half-month season.) While she was consciously giving herself a professional makeover, Ms. Ho didn’t realize it would eventually lead to a design makeover for her apartment, as well.
Ms. Ho is a Queens native who grew up in Flushing and Elmhurst. She has lived in Astoria for 16 years, and in her two-floor, three-bedroom house for 10. She estimates that 10 to 15 people have cycled through the other two bedrooms throughout the years. Chris Kearns, 33, a mixology consultant, currently rents the downstairs bedroom; they’re receiving a pandemic discount from their landlord.
Ms. Ho has taken over both rooms upstairs. Last summer, she moved her bed into the smaller bedroom and turned the larger one into her office, which leads out into a backyard where hydrangeas bloom in the summer and grapevines tangle around a pergola.
In the spring of 2021, Ms. Ho began seeing reiki clients over Zoom, and would occasionally practice with her training cohort in her home office. She also began offering tarot reading services for a fee, and took a paid role with the flower CSA she had helped start.
Through the flower CSA, Ms. Ho met Anna Doré, who was running an Astoria-focused Instagram account and hired Ms. Ho to do tarot readings at a party she held last fall. At the party, Ms. Ho met Lindsay Colby, an interior designer who was interested in trying reiki. The pair decided to enter into what Ms. Ho calls a “friendship trade,” wherein Ms. Colby would come over to Ms. Ho’s home for reiki sessions, and in return would offer some design tips for free.
$2,980 | Astoria, Queens
Helen Ho, 42; Chris Kearns, 33
Occupations: Ms. Ho is a reiki practitioner, tarot reader and entrepreneur; Mr. Kearns is a mixology consultant.
Her newfound office mate: “In the office, I have a large Buddha I drunkenly bid on at an auction for Chhaya NYC, a nonprofit that has been working to legalize basement apartments so they can be brought up to code.”
Her favorite room: “The bathroom, because it’s so small you can’t put any junk in it. I think my landlord tiled it himself: There are six different types of tiles in here.”
After each reiki session, the pair would attack one room in the house. The living room came first. Ms. Colby suggested that Ms. Ho move her sofa to the adjacent wall, and Ms. Ho assumed it was a suggestion, not an invitation. But then Ms. Colby said, “Well, let’s move it — when else are you going to do it?”
So began a home makeover that has unfolded over the past six months. They have now spiffed up the living room, the office, the kitchen and the dining area. The main effect, Ms. Ho said, has been a shedding of unnecessary furniture and objects, and a relocation of some choice pieces, including a Noguchi lamp and a set of shelves made from discarded scaffolding. She hasn’t bought anything new for the apartment, although she did inherit a new sofa from a friend and found a lamp on the street that now sits next to it.
This process has also helped her appreciate the objects she has lived with for so long. Ms. Ho’s walls are lined with art: some by friends, some bought through local nonprofit fund-raisers. Much of it comes from Flux Factory, an arts community space in Queens, and reflects Ms. Ho’s passion for civic engagement. In a painting hanging over her dining table, a pizza hovers above two voter registration cards; it was painted by a friend with whom she had volunteered to register voters years ago. A print in the living room, which looks like a taxonomy of Legos, is actually a collection of silhouettes of New York City public housing buildings from Elizabeth Hamby, an artist. Next to her television lies a hand-painted protest sign from 2020 that reads “City Workers Demand Justice.”
Before the pandemic, Ms. Ho often held fund-raisers in her backyard for local politicians like City Councilwoman Tiffany Cabán, State Senator Jessica Ramos and City Councilwoman Julie Won, a former roommate. Switching her office and bedroom means that when she can once again throw these parties, guests won’t have to navigate around her bed to get to the backyard.
The upgrade has been especially meaningful during the pandemic, when Ms. Ho has spent most of her time at the apartment after years of being out in the city for most of her waking hours. Now she’s able to appreciate and make the most of the home she has built for herself.
“It’s really magical,” she said. “And it’s still all my stuff. I never knew my things could look so nice.”