This handbook might come in handy in deciphering our Mayor
In trying to understand the one-time organic farmer who now wears the Mayor’s Chain of Office in Vancouver, you have to go off-shore about 150 kilometres north to an isolated community near the top of the Strait of Georgia. There you will find Cortes Island, where Gregor Robertson and his principal financial backers Joel Solomon and Carol Newell all own residences, and where exists the exclusive private retreat known as Hollyhock.
Hollyhock was founded in the early 1980s by then Cortes resident Shivon Ravensong and Greenpeace activist and author Rex Weyler. The island retreat serves multiple purposes, but the most well-known are its spiritual healing retreat, and its social change leadership programming where education and collaborations happen. Today, Hollyhock is run by Joel Solomon’s wife Dana, with Joel sitting as board chair.
Most of what one reads about Hollyhock are reviews from guests who appreciate the relaxing atmosphere, the sea air & beautiful scenery. At one time the business prospects for Hollyhock were not so certain, which might explain why the owners consented to invite a reporter from the Georgia Straight newspaper to profile them back in 1996.
Shannon Rupp is a journalist with 20 years experience, and she’s admired for her work for many publications, including the Straight and TheTyee.ca. To get an idea of Shannon’s writing style today, read her fantastically funny and edgy review of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided. You can tell she doesn’t suffer fools easily, probably making her precisely the wrong person Hollyhock would want to write about them.
Rupp was assigned by the Straight to cover Hollyhock’s biannual Wellness Retreat. Her report, titled Hollyhock Blends Salt air and Spirituality Lite (now archived on her blog), for the first 600 words or so reads like a typical travel feature:
Hollyhock bills itself as a provider of healing holidays, but it might be more accurate to call the business New Age tourism…
The 25 shareholders who own and manage Hollyhock – a for-profit business – are anxious to raise the retreat’s profile so they’ve been inviting journalists to sample Hollyhock’s “magic,” which is how I came to be stretched out on the floor visualizing my body’s flaws.
At this halfway point the article the writer becomes much more critical of her hosts and her surroundings. By using her rational thinking, and by asking nosy questions, Shannon quickly made herself unwelcome at Hollyhock.
Rupp’s wellness session at the retreat was led by "therapist" Torkin Wakefield:
Most of the dozen participants in my workshop seem enthusiastic about what seminar leader Wakefield calls her smorgasbord approach to wellness. Anyone can call herself a therapist, so her title offers no clue to her background. But she includes smattering of eastern philosophy and Native traditions, with some art therapy, meditation, and massage thrown in for good measure. She makes references to the Goddess and commands us to get in touch with our feminine side.
I’d call this eclectic combination spirituality lite – some of the taste but one of the substance of a spiritual discipline – but no doubt my fellow participants would admonish me for using my rational mind…
Given their dislike of rational thought, I’m tempted to ask if they’ve come here hoping to achieve irrational thought, but I have warned-off thinking like a journalist. After 24 hours, I’ve already asked too many nosy questions.
Shannon was invited for five days, and eventually she felt herself succumbing to the atmosphere:
After three days, I’m willing to accept almost everything. After all, my fuzzy-minded new friends are pleasant, they aren’t hurting anyone (except, possibly, themselves) and if New Age thinking fills a niche in their lives, I’m happy for them. It’s probably no worse than taking Prozac, and I suspect it fills a similar need.
But I’m not about to be bullied, and that’s what seminar leader Wakefield (who is also a Hollyhock shareholder) seems to be attempting. We have a chat over a breakfast of fresh fruit, muffins, and whole-grain cereal during which she “shares” her concerns about what I may write. She is having second thoughts about inviting a reporter in their midst and wants me to promise not to write about her workshop.
I point out that I came to Hollyhock – at their invitation – to write about a typical experience, and Wellness Week is often described as one of their most popular offerings. We’re at a stalemate so Wakefield tries a personal attack. She talks about how unhealthy it is for me to identify so strongly with my job and how I need to experience the healing powers of Hollyhock. And she adds, “Anything you write, of course, could have implications for karma.”
I can’t be certain, since Wakefield’s tone is so smooth, her words so even, but I feel I’ve just received my first New Age threat. And as they say here, trust your feelings.
Her hosts were adamant that she "shared" her true feelings with them. She finally decides it’s not worth resisting anymore, and concocts a convenient answer for the group:
…I’m still worried about my karma, but I have more pressing problems. The other participants readily come up with the correct response to questions such as, “What did you see when you did a visualization on the health of your body?” My responses, when they surface at all, are suspect, but Wakefield insists I participate. Desperate, I invent some red and yellow stars spilling out of my solar plexus.
Like a fortune teller who has finally cracked a disbeliever, Wakefield pounces on this, telling me it’s my “power chakra” and that I need to have my chakras balanced. Quick to pick up on the idea, one of the other participants comes over to tell me how important this discovery is. She sounds envious. I feel guilty.
While it’s clear that Rupp is not someone who easily grooves to New Age thinking, it’s amazing how intolerant a place Hollyhock feels to those who do not accept their way of thinking. She sums up her story in a way that almost sounds like she’s prepared to blame herself for not having a good time:
I assume this artificial feeling of love and acceptance is what people are paying for, but I have to admit I find these get-togethers oppressive. Perhaps the most annoying aspect of Hollyhock is its culture of conformity – Goddess forbid anyone should question anything. After five days here, I’ve found Hollyhock is really two places: the site itself is delightful, but the half-baked spiritual and psychological concepts it peddles make me uneasy.
If you read Rupp’s review of Bright-Sided from a couple months back, she hardly sounds apologetic anymore. She condemns those who practice positive thinking, like our New Age friends, suggesting that it is an oppressive "Ayn-Randian" tool for social control. "Positive thinking gurus," she writes, "keep the masses mollified."
Like others writers from the Straight and The Tyee, Rupp has a no bullshit approach when it comes to matters of social justice. To her, the New Age movement and their practitioners have no business foisting themselves – and their politics – upon us:
Magical thinking is a lot like smoking: what self-destructive twits do in the privacy of their own homes is their business, but they don’t have the right expose the rest of us to their life-threatening habits.
She might as well be talking about our New Age Mayor and his acolytes.
– post by Mike. More to come on Hollyhock, Cortes Island and the agents of social change in the days ahead.