Southwest Florida came crashing into the 21st century right along with everyone else, clinging to the coattails of technology to forge our way into the future. It's a future that seems to have more in common with science fiction and revolutionary advances in science and machinery than with mysticism.
But in that hustle and bustle, and along with the onslaught of growth and changing demographics in South Lee County, there is a growing interest in spirituality. While computer stores and high tech industries abound, and everyone from teenagers to grandpas carries around Blackberries, there are stores like Planet Earth Book Center, and people like Helen Warkus, to offer an antidote to the technology bug.
"As science improves and people realize there is much more to life than what they have been taught, they begin to search for answers that resonate with them," said Warkus, who owns Planet Earth Book Center. She doesn't like the term "new age," saying it is too encompassing, and has a much too flamboyant connotation. Instead, terming the focus of her business as "metaphysics," Warkus explains the eclectic mix of products and services as spiritual self-help.
Offering everything from books on the use of crystals in healing to tarot cards, incense sticks and Feng Shui classes, Planet Earth is a source where area residents can find the tools, education and guidance to improve their life through spiritual means.
"We offer anything that has to do with taking a person into a spiritual mode in their mind, she said. "If you are dyed-in-the-wool against it, you won't connect with anything here, but if you are looking for answers, something will resonate with you."
Dissuaded by the implications of newt's eyes, broomsticks and hocus pocus, many people shy away from exploring the realm of the spirituality beyond organized religion, but Warkus says magic is not something to be feared.
"There is magic. It is in everything," she said. "There is even magic in Christianity. When a person is saved, when they go through the salvation experience, that is magic. It changes their lives."
Magic, or mysticism, is often based in a much more solid foundation than is clear at first glance, she said. The use of candles to enhance creativity, conjure love and increase wealth is not so much magic as it is affirmation, she said.
"When we make a candle for someone and put oils in it and they take it home and light it, it's not the candle that is doing anything," she explained. "It's that every time they pass that candle as it burns, they are reaffirming in their mind that this is going to work. The idea behind the candle is to keep its purpose foremost in their minds."
Even the most supernatural-seeming offering of Planet Earth, the services of psychic medium Alan Arcieri, is less abracadabra and more living room chat. Except some of the guests happen to be residents of the spirit world.
"Anything that I do, or that John Edwards or any of the more recognized mediums do, anyone can do," said Arcieri. "It's a discipline like any other and requires practice, but we're all born with the same power, the same ability and the same tools."
While Arcieri claims to be a conduit and pass on messages from relatives and friends that have passed on, he sees it as simply another form of communication.
"I was born Catholic and taught to pray, which is talking to God," he said Sunday to the group of 14 people gathered to have a chance to speak with their mothers, grandfathers and children who are no longer living. "They never taught us, however, how to meditate, which is listening to God. It's like getting on the phone and talk, talk talking and then hanging up before God can answer."
Arcieri said that skepticism is still common, and that he, in fact, encourages skepticism, saying it keeps people protected from the frauds and charlatans that, unfortunately, still do prey on those seeking connection with loved ones. But he says there is precedent in organized religion for practices that are now termed "alternative," or "new age." Arcieri pointed out that many religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, are filled with mysticism, and that even Judaism, or ancient Christianity, was filled with mysticism.
"I'm not saying religion is bad. What I'm saying is that we need to look beyond the walls of fear and guilt and dogma that they build around us that keep us locked in."
Arcieri believes organized religion is similar to the belief that the world was flat. People thought the world was flat and if you went out far enough, you'd fall off, he said. He said it was that fear-based false belief that kept people from growing, and says that is what western religion does now.
"It wasn't until someone pushed at that boundary that they found out it wasn't flat, and we wouldn't fall off," he said. "It was a discovery that changed life forever, and we have to keep making those discoveries."
Academics, and the scientific world, were resistant to ideas such as communication with the dead and reincarnation because they are locked into a box of logic and reason, said Arcieri. But he said that is changing.
"We are on the forefront, on the cutting edge of science meeting spirituality," he said. "Science, the study of quantum physics, is coming to fit in with metaphysics and mysticism."
Arcieri said he doesn't know how his communication with spirits works, just that it does.
"It's like a cell phone. I don't have to understand how it works, I just have to know how to push the buttons and know what number to dial," he said. "It's just communication at a different rate of vibration."