Carrie Fisher on Seeking Enlightenment in the Canadian Rockies
Originally published in January 2005.
I am a veteran of what was once known as the intensive workshop. I suppose you could even say I was a workshop junkie and not be inaccurate. It was the era of “est,” and Actualizations and Lifespring. It was the moment in time for Brugh Joy's two-week retreats, complete with verbal- and food-fasts and walking over hot coals and sharing. In short, it was the late seventies, and the task at hand was to follow in the footsteps of the sixties' "tune in, turn on, drop out" streak across a psychedelic sky. In place of the love-in, we "sat in" rooms, listening to trainers teach us how to take responsibility for our feelings, our choices, and ultimately our lives. At that time, I was an intense person, and those brief blasts of confrontational, nonstop, self-help-all-the-time workshops suited my disposition to a TNT. I was cramming for enlightenment. I was trying to be a better person, or at least I'd die trying. And after 18 or so workshops, I felt I had reached my goal.
I don't know if I got there, though I got somewhere. But that was then. Lately, I've had the feeling I need a tune-up. Nothing dramatic, but you can't be too "all right," can you? You can be too thin (see Karen Carpenter), and for the most part you can't be too rich (that one you really have to take case by case). But too all right? I missed my short 2-, 5-, even 14-day blasts of self-improvement with other like-minded travelers. So when I needed a spa break and someone suggested a new wellness retreat in Canada, the seventies part of my soul wanted in on it.
The Alive Resort for Wellness & Longevity is not your average spa, but it is an homage to those workshops I missed so much. Hidden in the forest high on a hill outside of Lumby, the tiniest of towns in British Columbia, the "resort" is housed in what looks like a wooden farmhouse with views of the Mabel Valley as far as the eye can see. From the first moment, you feel as if you're arriving at some relative or friend's house: you walk inside and are asked to take your shoes off, then you're immediately seated in a dining room and fed the first of many scheduled meals. (There's really no snacking in between unless you feel comfortable raiding what is a replica of your mother's kitchen. I sure did.) Afterward, you carry your bags upstairs to your room and find that there's no TV, no phone, and limited closet space. There are two twin beds or possibly even a queen in case you wish to share with a spouse or friend, but you'll get the same feeling you've had when you've come home for the holidays to your parents' place, only to discover that your old bedroom has now been converted into a generic guest room.
Outside the lodge, you find yourself nestled inside a healthy hush of glorious scenery, surrounded on all sides by tall trees covering rolling green hills, leaving a few generous patches for small farms, where herds of cows graze peacefully. There are hiking trails and waterfalls and vistas you can explore by yourself, with the resort's dog, Chance, or with a group. Initially, I found all this disorienting. Beautiful scenery, though charming, and fresh air, though novel, are no substitutes for a really good cigarette after a healthy meal. In Los Angeles, I live enveloped by a constant hum of dusty white noise. Noise is a fundamental part of the air I breathe. There's no noise at the Alive Resort, dusty white or otherwise. Does this sound like your typical resort? Not to me. What we have here is an honest-to-goodness retreat: a place one goes to reflect on whatever is dogging one at that particular moment in time.
I don't know about you, but enforced reflecting makes me nervous. I've decided that this is because when I was young, my brother and I would have dinner with our mother (what am I talking about — this still happens!) and at some point she'd say, "All right, dear, after we all have our nice meal, we're going to sit and visit." Visit?! My eyes would search for my brother's eyes. Isn't there a horror film called The Visit? I love my mother (if you don't believe me, ask me where she lives. Ready? Give up? Next door! So we can "visit" anytime!), but to visit right after dinner is like swimming after eating. In any case, I, or you, or lots of people come to Alive Resort to reflect and transform the health of our lives, which includes abstinence from caffeine, smoking, alcohol, and recreational drugs. We also come to disconnect from e-mail and phones, or, more precisely, from the entire outside world.
But how did you get here from there, you might ask, while smoking and drinking liquor and caffeine, or simply eating your red meat and white sugar and not exercising?
I certainly wondered this myself, having arrived with my friend Kim and an extra suitcase of diet soda, after reading in advance that there would be an eerie absence of caffeine at the Alive Resort, and that perhaps I should wean myself from the substance a few weeks prior to my stay. Somewhat of an impossibility for me since I ingest the substance constantly. Other than that bit of essential truancy, however, I was willing to place my chemical-laced body into the capable, holistic hands of the small, committed staff.
These hands had begun their work 18 years earlier alongside the original owners, Phil Brewer and his wife, Eileen, who is also Alive's head chef, chopping, mixing, baking, steaming, and whipping up ingredients from their own garden. At that time, Alive was called the Silver Hills Guest House, and for many years was run on a by-donation basis out of Phil and Eileen's home. Something like 1,000 guests from all over North America came through their doors, many staying for long periods of time, others returning year after year. But it was difficult to stay open with very few of these donations coming in, and, to be honest, Phil Brewer is too nice. Someone needed to get him to a "tough businessman" workshop — and that someone was Vic LeBouthillier, publisher of the health-obsessed Alive magazine.
Not that Vic is tough; he's just able to rearrange things so that Phil and Eileen can finally earn a living. But I bet that isn't easy, because Phil loves his message. He loves the stuff he's learned about living longer and feeling better so much that he wants to give it away, as though it belongs to everyone. Vic's mission, albeit with an eye for turning a profit, was much the same as Phil's: teach guests how to prolong life, increase physical health, and reduce daily stress. So Phil and Vic combined their forces, added an Aveda spa and renovated the house, and, last year, the groovy, neo-hippie Alive Resort for Wellness & Longevity was born.
Wilbert was here, as far as I could make out, because he was at a crossroads. He was 83 years old, his wife had died a little over a year ago, and he was having a crisis of faith. He had prayed his partner wouldn't be taken, but she was. And now when he prayed, often there was silence. Many of the other people here were in their seventies or eighties or were younger and sick (by sick, I mean 37 years old and dealing with cancer). There was one woman who was very close to my age but looked considerably older, as she was being brutalized by osteoporosis. Several of the 14 guests were young, and had come just to jumpstart a healthier lifestyle. Can this stuff be treated with Hot Stones in Heaven or the Wellness & Longevity Detoxification Wrap? I'm not sure, but both of these, and more, are offered at the resort by three therapists, who might be the busiest employees on staff.
In a way, I was the perfect person to visit a place like this. Not young, but not exactly old either. Not dying, but on the other hand, I could never be accused of living well. Having been a substance-abusing, smoking meat eater, I'm everything the good people at Alive want to help heal. To that end, after I arrived and put my bags into my room, I was rushed in to have a consultation with the resort doctor as he scanned my medical history. "I see here you take rather a lot of medications," he said, looking up quizzically through wire-rimmed glasses. I exhaled deeply. "Perhaps the people here can find you some healthy alternatives to one of these mood stabilizers." Before the first of my five days was over, I got word that Vic was determined to save me; I had been earmarked for a visit. Somehow I managed to successfully avoid a one-on-one with Vic for a few more days.
Most of those days began with breakfast — a feast for a vegan god and his loyal acolytes — followed by a moderate hike with either Vic or Phil, who'd guide us through the trees, around rocks, or up to a small alpine clearing. And the group would talk (visit!) as we meandered there. In the afternoon, we'd either attend a lecture or have one of those tempting treatments on the spa menu.
"Today we are going on a rafting jaunt down the beautiful Shushwap River," Vic said over breakfast on the second morning. "Who's ready for it, eh?" Most of us were eventually rounded up by Vic's boundless enthusiasm and then herded into two blue rubber rafts to float slowly down the clear, cold river. The sun broke through the overcast sky every so often. We sang songs and even spotted an eagle soaring over the trees. It was like camp for retirees. It was even joyful.
Another day, we all gathered in an upstairs room for a group session with a local therapist. "Are you ready to have fun?" she asked. She pulled out a bag of plastic clown noses and passed them out to us. I rolled my eyes and groaned. "We're going to begin with a simple laugh," she told us. "And then we'll move on to something a little more challenging." Kim and I looked at each other, baffled. Challenging laughter?That's not even an oxymoron. It's just oxyoddness. "Now do what I do." Suddenly serious, she filled her diaphragm with oxygen, breathing through her nose. After holding a beat she exploded in measured, artificial laughter. "Now you try," she cheered. "Sure!" roared Wilbert, ready to jump on the happy wagon (one of my favorite haunts, as it happens). "First we inhale deeply," she advised. "Here we go! Now hold it and release." "HAHAHAHOHOHOHEHEHE." I am sitting on a couch in the Canadian hinterlands, I thought, wearing a plastic clown nose, learning to fake laugh from, presumably, Lumby's only accredited artificial laugh therapist.
After a few tries, most of us were laughing in earnest. I had never felt like that big of a, well, I suppose the word would be dork. The rest of my memories of the evening are a bit hazy, but I have a sneaking suspicion that we danced around the room with our red noses firmly on. There may even have been some hugging. You have to love a bunch of people long past the blush of youth dancing around a room wearing red noses and noisily chanting "HAHAHAHAHA," some slick with sweat, acting like special-needs kids. We all collapsed in exhaustion, flushed, most of us wondering what had just happened. Whatever it was, it was sure fun to do.
Still, I found myself reluctant to embrace the entire program — because once I gave everything up, I'd have nothing to reward myself with. (Look, I finished writing a book! Surely now I'm entitled to a cookie?) Or maybe because I thought I'd fail — it's just too difficult, dammit. But if anyone had a shot at shaking me out of my dancing boots, it was Vic.
So, yes, eventually I let Vic have his visit. He suggested replacing medicine with herbs, vitamins, and a better diet. Unfortunately, though it may take an apple a day to keep the doctor away, it'd take a whole orchard to keep away a psychopharmacologist. Okay, I must admit: I was not the resort's star guest. On top of bringing in the contraband caffeine, I sneaked down to the kitchen late at night and ate their soy ice cream. I also sneaked off campus to "town." What I wanted from Vic and this spa experience was some sort of epiphany that would blast me with an all-powerful light and make me a changed person — with little effort. But I fear that my conversion will be more the gradual sort.
I think I am in the process of courting change, of getting around to acting and eating my age. There will be effort involved and slip-ups and self-recrimination. Fewer niggling little pills rolling their blue, pink, or yellow eyes at me. The last time I was put on a "medication vacation," after all, I stayed awake for six teeth-clenching days; this will not be such a simple affair.
In the end, I can't say I'm a transformed person since my visit, but, more than ever, I plan to be, and that counts for something, doesn't it? I drink a little less caffeine and a little more water and I have a standing appointment with a Pilates instructor, and every time I eat red meat, I feel really bad about it. So, though it wasn't exactly a success, it was a failure in the right direction. And that's all because of Vic and Phil and the Alive Resort for Wellness & Longevity. And the truant in me will never forgive them.