Saturday, May 28, 2005

My Sedona or My Sherona

Originally uploaded by chrisbreitenbach.
According to the March calendar I found in the living room of our Sedona lodgings, we missed attending the following classes- Angel Do You Have A Message For Me?, and, even more irresistible, Spirit Horse Readings- both then being offered at the Center For The New Age and taught by a woman named Angel Lightfeather. Lightfeather, according to a blurb found on the calendar brochure, receives “messages from the other side” and is available for phone readings.

Surprisingly, during our brief stay in Sedona (Population: 10,192, Elevation: 4,326 Feet) I saw little evidence of its reputation as one the capitals of the New Age movement. There was a small New Age bookstore (which smelled, as do most stores with similar leanings, excessively of lavender) where I stopped to buy a New York Times and where one of the clerks recommended the vacations first and only group hike along the Brins Mesa trail.

Making fun of New Agers is bargain-basement cheap and easier then shooting fish in a barrel but I admit to having made it known while in Sedona, with appropriate regularity, that I had been looking forward for sometime to getting my Chaka Kahn aligned. It’s an easy, highly compulsive, shtick, this- you may groan or roll your eyes in mild contempt if you feel it appropriate and it satiates your own need to consistently disavow the many merits of such banter. Me, I simply can’t resist. And I hasten to add that getting your Chaka Kahn properly aligned is nothing at all like getting your Chaka Wrath of Khan properly in order. Forgive me.

What are some of the more enduring clich├ęs of New Agism? Its healing crystals, its hodgepodge arcana of purloined neo-paganism/shamanism/Native-Americanism, its astrological (and highly synthesized) music and, perhaps most damagingly, its connection to the 1980’s as a nascent and supremely loopy boomer/Yuppie spiritual movement inexorably linked to a decade that spawned parachute pants, Reaganism and Cabbage Patch Kids. But the seriousness of its reach is not to be shrugged off as a trifle when one recalls that Nancy Reagan relied on the astrological readings of Joan Quigley to dictate her husband’s schedule.

A case could be made that beyond actually inadvertently helping a great many people (few of whom, I admit, I’ve ever met) the only aspect of the New Age solar system to break free of its air of fraud and hooey and resonate with the mainstream is its appropriation of Yoga. Our culture’s increasing tolerance for homeopathic medicine could also be said to have found its catalyst in those New Agers who evangelized the curative effects of Echinacea, Ginseng and Kola Nuts. But so-called holistic medicine has yet to take on the normative glow Yoga enjoys in the humdrum of the mainstream, where just about anybody can sign up for a class free of New Age trappings, its philosophy palatably diluted and its focus on the practical, down-to-earth benefits.

In his great book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James wrote, “The words ‘mysticism’ and ‘mystical’ are often used as terms of mere reproach, to throw at any opinion which we regard as vague and vast and sentimental, and without a base in either fact or logic.” Which is another way of saying we have contempt for such things. But to quote the tweed acerbity of H.L. Mencken (whose A Menken Chrestomathy is a must for any bookshelf): “I believe that quack healing cults set up a selection that is almost…benign and laudable. They attract, in the main, two classes: first, persons who are incurably ill, and hence beyond the reach of scientific medicine, and second, persons of congenitally defective reasoning powers. They slaughter these unfortunates by the thousand- even more swiftly and surely than scientific medicine (say, as practiced by the average neighborhood doctor) could slaughter them.” Which is another way of saying Concetta, who in addition to having the power to “speak with loved ones who have crossed over” is also a pet psychic. This is all good and fine provided she’s a licensed canine clairvoyant.

It’s easy to understand the spiritual allure of a place like Sedona. The surrounding red rock cliffs, mesas and buttes (fossilized sandstone over 270 million years old) rising up into a lazuline sky do inspire something preternatural, even venerable. And cartoonish. This is the landscape of countless and fruitless Wild E. Coyote Road Runner chases. I can’t help but wonder, however, if Sedona’s many vortex, defined by Lonely Planet as “points where the earth’s energy is focused,” aren’t actually New Age equivalents to what we commonly refer to as “Scenic Lookouts.” Such panoramic views, and Sedona has many, produce various grades of preprogrammed awe and celestial whimsy in addition to hackneyed photos of setting suns.

The place we stayed in had all the modern accoutrements you might hope for (wireless access, satellite television with over 500 stations) as well as stunning 180 degree views of the surrounding sandstone that impressively formed the backdrop to our living room, taking on greater and lesser shades of salmon, rust and vermillion in accordance to the position of the sun. Enjoying a bowl of Life cereal in the morning out on the deck while contemplating such a spectacle is a sublime way to kick off your day, especially if that bowl of Life is topped with a sliced banana.

This whole vacation, when you get down to it, was all about the excellence and persistence of rocks. You better believe we took the 2-hour drive in our rented Monolith, a Ford Excursion (their largest SUV) up the tortuous, vertigo inducing roads of highway 89-A with its frail looking guardrails and fearsome drops to the astonishing geological wonder of the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. And whereas I can understand the devotional attitude affected by Sedona’s more intimate 270 million-year old crimson sandstone, even contemplating the age of the wonderfully titled Vishnu basement rocks found at the bottom layer of the Canyon walls and estimated to be 1.68 to 1.84 billion years old draws you toward the presence of something primal and unfathomable.

We spent the bulk of our time in Sedona. There’s not much of a downtown and what does pass for one is marred and endangered by a highly invasive species of stores that prey on a particular breed of tourist hungry for garish landscape tableaus to adorn their Winnebago’s walls with. This area felt a little like those gone-to-seed beachfront promenades found along the coasts where you can buy yourself an Elephant Ear, a bong and while away a couple hours visiting a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum. Cathy and I went exploring one afternoon and lasted roughly ten minutes before the sheer accumulation of knickknack and trinket debris overwhelmed us and sent us fleeing.

There are tonier aspects to Sedona, replete with posh resorts and, in our case, lavish rentals. Expendable income is, after all, the town’s bread and butter. There are numerous high-toned art galleries, too, with a special emphasis on pseudo-classical sculptures of muscle rippling nudes and horses. I’m not at all sure just whose equine esthetic tastes these works excite, but from what I saw I’ll hazard that the final outcome is probably just as tacky as the oil painted fable screwed to the wall of the Winnebago.

Here’s what I’ll remember most about Sedona: One night, after most of us had imbibed a couple very potent Margaritas, my sister-in-law accidentally said Schmuckers instead of Smuckers and scored probably the weeks biggest laugh. As with any reticent family gathering, alcohol invites much needed lowering of inhibitions, slips of the tongue and eventual descent into the ribald.

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