Some believe that Sarasota is a mystical place. Along with senior citizens seeking retirement, our city also attracts New Age healers and holistic practitioners from around the globe. Many of them claim that our famed quartz sand is actually the powdered remains of the mythical city of Atlantis and that spending an afternoon lying on Siesta Beach or participating in the Sunday night drum circle there will align your body with the stone’s psychic vibrations.
It’s hard for me to swallow the spectacular claims of the spiritual world, but I want to believe. I know that somewhere inside we are more than just a fortunate accident of the mechanical workings of an indifferent universe.
Where to begin? Could I find the beginnings of enlightenment in my hometown? The first annual Mystic Bazaar, hosted by The Spirit University (fortuitously located between two other centers of higher learning, New College and USF Sarasota-Manatee, off U.S. 41 right behind Primo’s) seemed like a place to start.
The fair was at the Municipal Auditorium, the same place where I went to the Booker High School prom with my friend/date Hali. I remember she wore a clingy red dress and I ate from the fountain cascading warm, molten chocolate. The poster outside the auditorium promised “A day of fun and mystical connections and experiences!” Beneath it was a cartoon image of a genie’s lamp.
It cost $5 to enter, and inside the auditorium I was greeted with the smell of burning sage and icy AC, which mixed into a pungent sting. It looked like my middle school science fairs. There were 10 rows and something like 60 vendors of varying wares and services. Perhaps one of these booths could show me the way.
There was Howard the Psychic, along with readings by Oraca, an animal telecommunication class, henna painters and artisan jewelers. Inside a large balsa wood box was a young woman dressed like a Halloween gypsy, who read your fortune with a thick and woolly foreign accent. The theme was “Arabian Nights,” so there were cardboard cutouts of camels and minarets on stage. A woman with a laptop and a digital camera took your picture and read your aura.
Another woman sketched your “spiritual portrait” for $30. I watched as she put pencil to paper and added Indian headdresses or monastic garments to the images of her eager clients. Another booth offered you the opportunity to speak with your dead pet.
Of the 60 booths, 27 provided the chance to be “read” by psychics and reiki. There was only one reader with a crystal ball, Masami Kolbenshlag. She dressed the part and had tissues on her table in case things got emotional, so I chose her. It was $25 for 15 minutes.
She told me my energy “zapped” her. I sat across from her, not knowing what to say. She smiled and told me about my dead grandfather, who is in fact dead, and said he approves of what I am doing. Maybe that’s true; I never met him. She talked about the “girlfriend…or boyfriend” who is in my life and said I was creating blockages between us. I don’t have a girlfriend, but I figure I am to blame for something.
She told me I had a book deal, which was true, but I had already told her I was a writer. Then she looked into her crystal ball and told me that she saw an expensive camera. I don’t have one, but I wanted to give her an out and suggested that maybe someone with an expensive camera would be taking my picture for the cover of my book. I didn’t want to see her fail or prove her wrong. She was only saying nice things about me, and whether or not she was telling the truth, I felt that she wanted the things she was saying to come true for my sake. The digital clock buzzed, which meant our time was up. I gave her a $20 and a $5 and left.
I decided to go to one of the free lectures—there were eight throughout the six-hour bazaar. On the main stage at 2:30 p.m. was Connect with Angels, Faeries, Animals and Nature. Perhaps I would find the spark here.
The speaker wore wire-rimmed and purple polyester stretched fairy wings and a large, orange daffodil, which may or may not have been plastic, pinned to her collar. She asked permission to perfume us with her homemade “joy spray” that “helps raise the vibration of the room.” We consented, and she skipped up and down the rows and squirted us. The spray smelled like lemongrass, and it was pleasant.
The mission of her class, she explained, was to help us discover ways to feel more love and joy throughout the day. She would often punctuate a statement by singing the last couple sentences.
The speaker, like everyone else I met at the bazaar, was disturbingly nice and held prolonged eye contact. Just about everyone was female, and just about every female wore some kind of turquoise jewelry. There was probably one man for every nine women. That made sense, because men pride themselves on practicality, and not much here could be described as practical.
The Mystical Bazaar is the work of Victoria and George Ackerman, who own The Spirit University. George was dressed in a blue and brown velour outfit with plastic jewelry and a felt cap. I asked him what he was supposed to be. “I don’t know. I was just told to put this on,” he said with a smile. “King George, maybe?”
Victoria wore a gypsy gown and had laced golden beads on top her head. “I am an A+ type personality,” she told me. “I owned a company and I was successful, but stressed.”
Her stress nearly took her life, Victoria explained. She became very ill and was bedridden for a year and a quarter. “The doctors told me to put my affairs in order, that I wouldn’t last long, but then December came, and then April and September. By November I had an NDE [Near Death Experience] and was put on a breathing machine,” she said.
But she kept on going and began to feel a growing connection to the energy of the world. Soon she overcame her illness and began taking classes to become an “evidential medium”—someone who helps you overcome any skepticism you might have about spirit communication. And 4½ years ago, Victoria and her husband, George, opened The Spirit University.
The bazaar wasn’t all about spiritual health. There were people who had solutions for your ailing body, too. They spoke of phytochemicals and the battle against free radicals and how we’ll soon figure out how to live forever.
In one corner a company was promoting its amethyst crystal beds. I went up to the saleswoman and asked, “What is amethyst?”
She looked at me sternly and said, “It’s a crystal.”
I asked what it did.
“It was actually developed by NASA. It is full of negative ions that sink about three to four inches into your body.”
“What are negative ions?”
“You know when the beach and the sea meet—it’s that feeling. Would you like to try and lie on this bed? It’s filled with 25 pounds of amethyst.”
She put an eye pillow over my face and I lay on the bed. It was elevated, and my feet hung about a foot off the end. The bed was electronically heated, and in the cold AC it felt good. I overheard the other salesman tell someone, “Amethyst energizes the enzymes in your brain to make you better.”
The saleswoman had not told me how long I was supposed to lie on the crystals. I started to sweat from the warm mattress. I wondered if she’d forgotten about me, but maybe I’d ruin all the good work of the purple crystals if I got up too soon.
A little kid ran around the bed and screamed into my ear. I had to zen out to not grab him by the scruff of his kitten neck. I got up and the woman asked whether I had liked it or not.
“Sure,” I said, not wanting to be cruel. This is one of the logical inconsistencies of modern-day mystics. They want to reject the data-driven and peer-reviewed world of Western empiricism, but then they want to cherry-pick the findings that support their beliefs and inject scientific-sounding words to describe them.
I was about to leave, my spirit unmoved by the bazaar’s attractions and my search for enlightenment unfulfilled, when I noticed the last lecture of the day: Laughter Therapy.
A small Filipino woman stood at the front of the class. She had a few purple stripes in her chin-length black hair. She greeted a dozen of us with a big smile and an even bigger laugh. She could cackle on command, and it was contagious. Even those of us who were originally uncomfortable could not resist her silly joy.
For the next hour she had us partner off and do different exercises. One was to hold the hands of the person next to you and look into his or her eyes and try not to laugh. Everyone failed.
“You see,” she said. “It is very hard. Our nature is to laugh at everything, even when it’s nothing.”
Then she had us look into another partner’s eyes and make baby noises—I could make about one “goo” sound and then I’d laugh myself into tears.
At the end of the hour-long class she had us each perform our best laugh, and the best laugh would win a “prize.”
I won after some hysterics that had the side of my face brushing the floor and my legs up in the air. The prize was an orange, 9-inch-by-12-inch laminated poster of a laughing Jesus.
I walked out of the first annual Mystic Bazaar with a pleasant soreness in my stomach and a gentle smile on my face. I had just laughed for nearly an hour straight at absolutely nothing in particular. If some psychologist tried to explain to me what was so funny, it might have ruined the joke, so who I am to lecture anyone on the legitimacy of what they experienced inside that auditorium?
I laughed for the sake of laughter, and something about that nonsense felt a little bit divine.
Isaac Eger has written about sports and travel for The New York Times and GQ Magazine.