Call it a beacon of light in the dark, a tuned voice in a chorus of discord, but don't call it new age.
Sure, at the Celebration Metaphysical Fair you'll find carved-crystal skulls, magic wands, medicine pieces, fetishes, symbol-strewn trinkets and sage smudges. But these days, you can pick up many of these items at Whole Foods, or every other tourist shop in Manitou Springs.
Face it: Metaphysics is no longer a fringe preoccupation. As made most obvious by the organic and beneficial food movements, all things earthy are mainstream. Not only does everyone do yoga, they compare yoga styles. Tai Chi, feng shui, healing touch and Reiki are household words. Hell, you probably know someone who wears a cape and fat pentagram necklace on the weekends.
""New age' [eventually] disappeared because those ideas [became] part of the milieu of our society," says CMF organizer Shanti Toll.
The CMF lures thousands of people from "waitresses to truckers," in Toll's words to the City Auditorium twice each year. "The unifying theme," he explains, "is they are interested in exploring conscious living."
Some people search for spiritual outlets, others shop for an accurate psychic to prognosticate their next six months. Everyone chases improvement and self-realization in a form they feel comfortable with.
Though there've been intermittent murmurs of conservative dissent, CMF and metaphysics at-large have gradually seeped into the fabric of Colorado Springs. And here, the patient service of Shanti and Coreen Toll has been as important as any cultural shift.
Colorado Springs' Celebration Metaphysical Fair, now in its 28th year, currently stands as the oldest continually running conscious living fair in the nation. That's a lot of tarot decks shuffled and dreams interpreted.
The Tolls originally moved to Colorado from New England. They raised two children here, both of whom now live in Denver and have taken decidedly more conventional career tracks: one is a lawyer, one is an engineer.
It was in 1978 that Shanti and Coreen launched the New Age Network Coop, an all-ages group of like-minded individuals who came together for potlucks and social events. They soon created a goal of holding holistic fairs in the community.
"We felt it would behoove the community to have a more alternative expression around spirituality," says Coreen. "It was a cozy time."
"Our biggest hurdle was the negative stereotypes," says Shanti. "It was OK to talk about Native American things, but not Wiccan, when they are both about being part of the Earth."
The conscious conglomerate threw its first fair in Bancroft Park, later in '78. Coreen remembers several hundred people attending, which was enough to plan another fair, and then another. In 1988, the group grew into the Colorado Springs City Auditorium.
Along the way, Coreen opened Celebration Conscious Living Store on Colorado Avenue. Shanti adopted full parental responsibilities for the fair.
"The reason I started the store was because there was no place in this town that you could buy a book on astrology or anything like that," says Coreen, who ran the store for 21 years before selling in 2001. "You had to go to Denver back then ... before Amazon and the Internet."
She cites a few short-lived protests and a recurring incident of people slipping Bible passages into her store's books most of which were found by employees before sale as an examples of her modest trials.
A more positive memory of community integration involves a church group who came to see the store. "At first, five men in black pants, white shirts and crewcuts came in, and when they became comfortable, the women and then the kids followed literally in stages," she says. "Their biggest concern was, "How to know what to believe when there's so much choice?' [In the end] I felt we diffused their sense that we were bad people."
Looking for answers
"Since I was a teenager, I've been thinking over the meaning of life and cycles of time and consciousness all the good stuff," says Shanti. His early interests and initial years with the coop inevitably led to what the practicing Buddhist describes as a "leap of faith" roughly 12 years ago. Shanti left public school work behind to focus solely on the fair for his livelihood.
He has kept it true to a niche market. Take, for instance, this weekend's keynote speaker, a renowned pagan, healing facilitator and author of Gay Witchcraft, Christopher Penczak. (Talk about a man on the frontline of two societal prejudices ... ) Penczak, who trained in shamanism and holistic health, will lecture on "Protection Magick and Psychic Self-Defense" on Saturday and "Magickal Healing" on Sunday.
But attendance at the fairs goes beyond niche: These days, the spring and fall CMFs see upward of 4,000 visitors in Colorado Springs and up to 7,500 in Denver.
"I think that the fairs hold an opportunity for people," says Athene Raefiel, a local psychic who has participated in CMF for 18 years. "People are looking for answers and a place to feel accepted for who they are. We've become an empowering support network for people just trying to handle their daily lives. [We're] trying to help people see that you can overcome challenges in life. People want to believe that there's a purpose to life. We're not religious, but we're very spiritual."
"A lot of people don't resonate with organized religion, but rather with spiritual energy," Shanti says. "The fair creates a social institution that empowers people. We see the self in a bigger context, as part of something much larger than our ego concerns. To see the self as part of the whole gives real sustenance."
It's a different approach to spirituality than one usually associates with this area.
"The fair is a good outlet for people to get a different view of what Colorado Springs is really like," says Joe Swansen, a local 13-year CMF vendor who adds that he sees a wide variety of people, including local figureheads and community leaders. "Shanti is a sincere individual who knows how to put together a good show. He really looks out for the community."
In addition to his fair duties, Shanti has always been involved civically around town. He started Red Rock Canyon Foundation, and for three years ran it as president. After the city's purchase of the land, Toll started the Garden of the Goddesses Club, which showed up with more than 100 volunteers to help carve what the city named the "Contemplative Trail," the only non-multi-use trail in Red Rock Canyon. Toll believed the city needed this open space for its citizenry, rather than its tourists.
Barbara Will, a minister of a spiritualist church in Thornton, who's been doing readings at the fair for over 20 years, says the fair is really about local citizens, and helping them help themselves. "It gives other voices in the community a chance to come out," she says.
Shanti maintains a strict zero-proselytizing policy at the fairs and insists that free will is at the core of CMF's structure. He trusts the public to ask for what they desire; they'll choose what's valid. The jovial, yin-yang top hat-clad organizer says it's not uncommon for people to return in six months saying, "This person [a healer, reader or body worker] changed my life."
"A lot of people use us as a vehicle for making choices in their lives," he says. "One thing that works for people is finding a personal ritual. Ritual is a way of dealing with the subconscious in a concrete way. People become un-stuck and proactive, and it changes their lives for the positive."
Margo Roberts, of the local Laughing Willow Creations, has vended at CMF for 10 years. She says Shanti ensures that the readers, body workers and vendors at the fair are knowledgeable. "The people that come here are looking for answers and information. Shanti makes sure that whatever information is going out will be informed from experience."
It is not uncommon for many traveling vendors and readers to speak of greedier, oversized fairs where the quality control lacks CMF's standards.
A psychic who goes by Santi, out of Cotopaxi, is now in his fourth year with CMF. He travels to many fairs nationally, citing that each has different intensities. "CMF operates from their heart to be of service. It's unique to Colorado to have this kind of integrity, without the flim-flam crystal ball-gazing stuff. I think this is important because anything that allows the opportunity for spiritual growth in individuals is bound to be beneficial to the community."
Celebration Metaphysical Fair
Colorado Springs City Auditorium, 221 E. Kiowa St.
October 6-8, Friday, 1-9 p.m., Saturday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Admission: $5; Readings: $15-$20; call 634-1810 or visit celebrationfair.com for more information.