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Shanti and the Self: A Californian Love Story

Yesterday, my aunt emailed me about this blog. She told me about her time studying in Santa Barbara in the 1980s, and the warning she was given repeatedly as an incoming foreigner: “You’ve come to California. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re in America.

I don’t know if it’s true (is it true, Americans?), but it did bring one of my favorite Californians to mind. Let me tell you about her, then you tell me whether the Californian Republic should formally secede from the Union.

I myself am Californian enough that I regularly visit a massage therapist to get thoroughly rubbed. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to call my masseuse “Shanti.” A lovely and vibrant person, Shanti is scary-good at her job.

How to describe Shanti? If she were a drink, she’d be homemade kombucha. If she were food, she’d be an activated almond harvested by moonlight and exchanged for a reiki session from a dear friend. If she were an item of clothing she would be a unique garment comprising a kaftan with built-in yoga pants.

Shanti has a lot of interests, and loves to talk. Last week she chose to wax lyrical on a familiar subject, The Dangers of the Modern World. Among the things Shanti knows are killing us are:

  • hair dye
  • microwaves
  • anything non-organic
  • Apple watches
  • the internet.

She’s a loving being, Shanti, and she really does want to protect me from these evils. She’s been known to go through the refrigerator in my house, uninvited, and discard anything that doesn’t meet her standards. “They are really hurting you, Ro,” she’ll tell me, citing her favorite evidence for the damage I’m doing to myself. Looking at me gravely, she likes to intone ominously: “There are a lot of studies out there.”

If Shanti were an animal, she’d be a llama.

But you know, I have to confess that even when she’s throwing out perfectly good food while I sit quietly and fume (it goes worse if you argue), there’s something deeply caring about my daffy masseuse.

She was the first American to sincerely and unironically welcome me into the world of self-care. “Learn to receeeeive, Ro,” she would croon, week after week, as she rubbed the kinks out of my bad shoulder. And I realized how foreign that idea was to to me.

Bilbo does not struggle with self-care.

Self-care is something that Californians take very seriously, and none more than Shanti. “Girl, you need to dedicate time every day to yourself,” she says, adding with another familiar unironic Californian pop-psych flourish, “Time to escape your worries and your codependency.”

Keep rubbing me, I would think in the early days, and I won’t even snort at this.

See, where I come from, it sometimes feels that the very word “self” is borderline taboo, unless you’re using it in deprecation of some kind. Case in point: not long after I came to live in California, I was on the phone with a friend, and described a plan to spend a couple of days with friends doing some navel-gazing.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Sounds kind of self-indulgent.”

Part of me completely agreed.  There’s an instinctive cultural resistance in me that has trouble finding the line between self-care and self-indulgence, but California has been helping me learn to relax… and receive.

Bask in it.

They say America is the culmination of individualism, and at least on this coast, taking care of yourself is a serious business. Shanti knows it. Shanti’s so into self-care that if she were a scented candle, she’d be Ylang-Ylang and bergamot. Seriously.

So yeah, I’m learning to bask a little in California’s self-care. It lets you have a massage every week. And to forgive yourself for wanting one.

Shanti tells me to receive, and I let my body melt into her strong and earnest hands. I no longer snort when she tells me that the CIA is tracking me on my smartphone. I let her care for me, and in doing so I care for myself.

As she rubs me and my shoulder finally begins to let go, it occurs to me that if Shanti were a chakra, she’d be the heart.

Questions for Americans: Is California really that far out? Or was my aunt just caught up in just those crazy ’80s in Santa Barbara?

{ 14 comments… add one }
  • Carol 6 July 2018, 5:33 am

    Rowan, this is gorgeous writing, I want to be this good.
    Living in NZ is similar I think to OZ in the respect that ‘self’ is almost a dirty word, it is almost always used with words like, ‘toughen up’ and ‘get a backbone.’ The ‘self ‘ in this part of the world has yet to be discovered in relation to compassion I think. Xoxo

    • rowan 6 July 2018, 8:13 pm

      I’m so glad you agree with me on the point about the Antipodes, Carol. I’m sure NZ and Oz are very similar. And framing it in terms of compassion feels spot on. Thank you!

  • River LaMoreaux 6 July 2018, 5:41 am

    Yes, California really is that far out.
    I’ve lived in several places in the US, including California, Florida, Utah, Hawaii, and now Idaho.
    What I believe is that all of the places are far out in their own ways. California has the self care and magical culture you speak of, Georgia has a weird combination of hospitality and deep hatred of the other, Utah is just on another planet (Kolob perhaps?) which was reinforced by my recent visit there, Hawaii has Mormon temples and Christian influences that are trying to overwrite the indigenous culture (STILL), and Idaho is clearly Mormon-adjacent but not as climatically demanding as Utah, less obviously Mormon, and has the lottery (yay!) in addition to state liquor stores (a weird cultural thing borrowed from Utah).

    I’m not sure that you could define many things that are “American”. I used to illustrate this in my classes when discussing culture, by showing them a slide of apple pie, the flag and a baseball bat – but past that – regional influences are strong.

    Still, I found echoes of places within other places – a plant in Georgia that smelled like sage, and sand dunes (next to peat bogs) covered in opuntia and rattlesnakes. In Utah they have a section called “Dixie” where cotton was grown like in Georgia. Much of the rugged pioneer individualism in Utah is also in Idaho (I have ancestors who settled both).

    SO, as you’re looking for the quintessential “American” stuff in your travels and explorations, also look for the overlaps in the differences. I guess my best answer to your question is “yes, but it’s complicated.”

    So says the Geographer.

    • rowan 6 July 2018, 8:12 pm

      Geographer, I love your points. The idea that every place has its own “far out” is very appealing to me. The examples you give are fascinating.

      I have definitely been struck by how strong statehood is here, far more than in Australia (where we only have a handful). Bureaucratically as well as culturally, the state feels like the basic unit of affiliation — beyond that it’s “I pledge allegiance…” and the high rhetoric of the nation. Which is harder to relate to in some ways (I’m guessing).

  • Christina Lawler 6 July 2018, 10:23 am

    Wait until you visit Connecticut! That’ll give you some perspective on how widely different the two Coasts are. I am Oregon born. Have you ever been to Ashland? Lots of “Shanti’s” there.

    But if you want a taste of diversity and to be your tribe, you’ll have only to head to P-Town, Massachusetts (Provincetown). I had a massage from a Shanti like woman there, in a place called Namaste Spa. If light writing were a massage that’s what this would
    Have been. I had just finished Be the Truth, and travelled into the Abyss with Dante and Martha. I was in need of sun, sand, libations, and relax. I told the woman I had been through a lot emotionally. The entire massage felt like she was infusing every inch of my body with love. It was a spiritual experience.

    I miss the West Coast dearly. However the senses have never had such a feast as Fall in New England. So we have that going for us. After that you’ll pretty much have to survive the weather until the next one 😉

    Welcome 🙂 keep writing. I’ve really been enjoying.


    • rowan 6 July 2018, 8:04 pm

      This is awesome! Thanks, Christina. I’m so excited for Fall in the Northeast!

  • Sarah Cloyd 6 July 2018, 1:35 pm

    I think CA is leading the way! People are tired of being sick and tired and are discovering that the remedy for that is self care. If we don’t do it for ourselves, no one else is going to do it for us. Other parts of the country still choose to believe this is kooky hoo ha and has no basis in reality…these are the parts of the country you will still find “smoking sections” in restaurants and fresh (let alone organic) food is hard to find. You won’t find massage therapists there, unless they’re also waiting tables and cleaning houses to make enough money to live on, and no one will have ever heard of a “Naturopathic physician”…so, CA may be “far out” but I think Californians are redefining what it means to be “self centered”.

    • rowan 6 July 2018, 8:03 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Sarah. I am certainly very grateful for what California has taught me!

  • Cami Pack 6 July 2018, 8:19 pm

    Best ending line. <3 And enlightened Portlanders might declare we led CA toward this whole-hearted, slowing down business, and they still has a lot of catching up to do! 😉 (But then Portlanders seem to have it in for Californians, and Shanti sounds like one of us.)

    • rowan 6 July 2018, 8:56 pm

      Thanks, Cami! I give Portland its due. We were actually thinking of moving there before we decided to go East.

      • Cami Pack 7 July 2018, 6:45 am

        *gasp* tra.ge.dy … and so excited for you! 🙂 Such a thrill.

  • chani 7 July 2018, 1:43 pm

    Love this Ro, the structure of your writing is so satisfying! self-care is something i talk about on the daily with postnatal women. you got to do something loving for your self when you’re in a highly giving state (mothering!) so important and you’re right, self is a taboo word particually self love, which i guess is why self care is so hard for us as thats admitting self love!!!!

    • Rowan 7 July 2018, 5:56 pm

      That is such a great point, Chani! I’m so glad you talk about this with the women you work with. I don’t know why we as Australians are so reluctant to embrace “self-care” (however we word it!) but hopefully this is changing. x

  • Eliza Tipping-Smith 9 July 2018, 8:48 pm

    Oh my goodness I love this! & makes me miss California so… keep them coming Roey! X x x x

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