Unsurprisingly, I came to work spent that morning, like the cash from the registers I stuffed into sad brown leather bags the night before. Through grimaced teeth, I “gladly” accepted my manager’s “request” of flipping an entire pad’s worth of plastic hangers for wooden ones. Usually, I would let a job of this annoying magnitude trickle down through the entirety of my nine-hour shift: I was on commission. A minute expended fumbling with armloads of wooden hangers was a minute lost selling to potential customers. This day, though, I didn’t want to make any money.
My foresight was clouded then, as only a few days later I found myself spending that cash on kitschy gifts at some tourist trap in Traverse City. I had no qualms blowing it as leisurely as I could. Working retail is a cruel little game for which we voluntarily sign up, having so much currency travel through our hands only to take home the tiniest fraction of it at the end of the day. These dollars felt a stain, a hex on my being I needed to expel — the same feeling about myself I felt working my final days in that store.
Like most retail employees, I was never thrilled upon coming into work to interact with people all shift long. Yet, I forced myself into a seemingly normal routine: Get up early (or roll out of bed late) and force myself into the driver’s seat of my car. I would hook up my phone with the aux cord, mindlessly searching for something to drone out the intrusive thoughts — Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy,” the new Playboi Carti album, an EP from some band named Snail Mail recommended to me.
On this morning, silence reigned. I was in a state of jittery lethargy the whole drive to the mall, like I was behind the wheel of a hearse powered by caffeine. I desperately hung onto each second in the parking lot before I was scheduled to start in the same way one waiting in the gallows would cling to the floor. And there I was, kneeled over on the shiny tile floor, throwing up into a toilet intended for normal use by the same customers I was supposed to be helping.
I honestly don’t expect a lot of people to have sympathy for me once you look past the florid language and figure out what was objectively happening: One month into my first ever retail job and I already wanted to quit. I won’t name the place of employment because in hindsight it actually wasn’t the worst place in the world — this time I was the problem, my nervous trainwreck of a self who consistently left their comfort zone every day they were there. I can be an introvert in the most crippling sense of the world, so naturally the best thing for me was having to interact with people in an environment where the only way I made money was by constantly interacting with people and hawking everything from Burberry coats to overpriced band shirts.
In the month before, I would constantly check my totals when I was on the clock and calculate what 5.75% of my net sales was. That day, however, I could care less if I sold $50 or $5000. When someone came in with hundreds of dollars in returns I had sold to them a week ago, I processed that transaction with a wide smile. Numbers didn’t matter when I was preoccupied with a paralyzing sense of imprisonment clinging to that recently-cleaned-yet-dirtied-with-my-puke toilet. I wanted to crawl out of my own skin, but there was no automatic glass sliding door in sight.
My exit, fueled by antsy hand gestures and facial expressions rather than intelligible words, wasn’t graceful. Leaving the mall parking lot almost seven hours earlier than expected, I vowed to never set foot in that store again. (I did return, only to cut another shift short on the verge of fainting). I’m not proud of how I quit, over the phone after previously putting in my two weeks, but I think one more shift would’ve literally killed me.
I was a dramatic mess left feeling absolutely worthless that I couldn’t handle a low-level retail job, and so I did what anyone teetering on the edge of a mental breakdown would do and got as far away from the problem as possible. A few brief texts with my roommate and my girlfriend later, I had arranged a solo voyage to Northern Michigan then Grand Rapids to see the two, departing the next day.
Like any road trip, I was in need of music, but did not have the liberty to exploit streaming’s endless search results due to a lack of data for the remainder of the month. I couldn’t mischievously shuffle to my heart’s content, I had to be purposeful with my choices. I wanted meaning to blast through my car speakers at full volume after I had hours of club muzak droned into my head on the salesfloor. While the loudspeakers at work would occasionally play I song I enjoyed, they were quickly beaten to the point of satiation. I will never forgive whoever it was that chose the music for trying to make me hate “REALiTi” by Grimes or “On Melancholy Hill” by Gorillaz.
I needed things both novel and unfamiliar to ease my overwhelmed head, so I hobbled together an unorthodox summer playlist and downloaded a few choice recent releases. The one that soothed the most was Snail Mail’s Lush. This abundantly vigorous tenfold labor of love quickly became the unforeseen guide through the blurriest part of my summer.
Although I have no ancestral ties to Michigan and have only lived here for the back half of my teenage years, the drive up through the Lower Peninsula is one of the most serene things I’ve experienced. (It has to be alone, of course.) I waited until I passed Flint, when the forested suburbs were traded for expansive hills and grasslands, to put on Lush. All those listens to her few songs on her Spotify page on the drives into work made me a quick convert to the church of Lindsey Jordan, so I knew this album had the potential to deliver one hell of a homily.
What I got was my adolescent ennui perfectly encapsulated in 10 tracks, 10 tracks that were replayed three or more times on the way to the tip of Leelanau Peninsula after the initial 38-minute runtime ran its course. Lush is an album about being stuck, and while Jordan’s lyrics mainly take you on an odyssey through stagnant, frozen love, they stray away from the specific and convey a sort of instantly relatable summation of the most formative years of our life. Years we shouldn’t spend wasting, whether in an unhealthy relationship or a dead-end job. Journeying through this jungle of emotion while simultaneously never leaving the comfort of my own car culminated in me crying along to “Pristine” while rounding Grand Traverse Bay, the light of golden hour gleaming against the untroubled waves.
There I was, in all my anxieties, undergoing catharsis brought upon by a little undemanding music sung by someone almost a month younger than me. Part of the reason for the sea of tears was the realization that Jordan seemingly has it all figured out, but I’m here sent falling through life by a month of working on commission. Yet, I was not envious. Instead, I approached her message as gospel. “Speaking Terms” was an acceptance of my unceremonious exit and the fact that sometimes what’s best for us doesn’t present itself as a clean path. The final two tracks, “Deep Sea” and “Anytime,” made me realize I am not the sum of my failures and always have the ability to better myself. When you’re at rock bottom, the seafloor, the only way to go is up.
The most powerful song off Lush and perhaps my favorite of 2018 is “Let’s Find An Out.” Call me biased, but the coincidence it queued up when I was reaching my personal favorite moment of the drive had something to do with it. I had driven to Charlevoix the summer before, albeit with family, and the vista that became ingrained in my mind was this luscious, terraced hillside, almost mistakable for something in Tuscany, that reveals itself after you wrap around some impenetrable trees. This time, the soundtrack of snores and chatter which accompanied my first short glimpse at that panorama were traded for the opening strums of “Let’s Find An Out.” There was a soft rain, not enough to obscure the sky, but enough to make the song’s curt quatrains all the more gut-wrenching.
This June was glowing, not “red” from the “strawberry moon” like the song suggests but from the subdued shimmer of sunlight. “Let’s Find An Out” is a reminder of those tender, infinite moments where the mist from life’s troubles has cleared, if not for a moment, and we can see into our beyond. It has no chorus, no real structure and is a baker’s dozen seconds over two minutes, but if it was any longer its impact would be exponentially diminished.
On that listen (and every subsequent one up to writing this), I hang on to each and every note and wish I could be enveloped its distant warmth forever. Yet, I cannot linger perpetually because it would completely tarnish the song’s point. It implores you to “find an out,” to “start anew” and was the calmest representation of the feeling of wanting to claw out of yourself from the inside, the same feeling I invisibly felt pacing the fake sheen of the salesfloor.
My out was a literal drive up north, and by the time the sun was on the cusp of setting and I pulled up to my roommate’s house, I’m pretty sure I was at the closest I’ve ever come to finding inner peace. I did a lot of hiking in the few days of my visit, from short treks up the hill near his house to romps through fields and along cliffsides accompanied by a caravan of new acquaintances. I traded in my breath for scores of spectacular natural views. Not to sound trite, but I think what I needed was the simple pleasure of being outside, something being cooped up between sale racks of pants for hours couldn’t afford.
The best steps I took that trip were up the primary face of Sleeping Bear Dunes, a natural phenomenon touted for years by my native Michigander friends as the most beautiful place in the state. I didn’t fully understand this until I stood mouth agape and gaze affixed to the imposing elevation in front of me, plucked straight out of the Sahara. “First one to the top wins,” a mutual friend yelled in the direction of me and my roommate. We made eye contact, then unwieldy contact with the dunes as our feet scrambled to climb up them. Naturally I lost (high school soccer star beats high school quiz bowl nerd in a race any day) and wearily tumbled onto the squishy ground.
I sat up, then threw up, but this time it was through laughing, a hearty plate of huevos rancheros expelled rather than a few hurried bites of frosted mini wheats. Apologies to the other two friends who were greeted by this sight when they finally got to the top, but sincere thanks to all of them for helping me up and carrying me to an unsullied spot to lay down. The cool, shimmering sands made for much more accommodating seating than the hard bathroom floor. Yes, this story begins and ends with my vomit, but perhaps this second spew was a manifestation of all the interior anxieties I needed to purge, which couldn’t find an out the first time around.
A purge doesn’t imply one stays clean forever, sadly. While I wish the prescription for depression, anxiety or any other mental health issue that wracks me and so many others was a road trip and a big ol’ dose of the Great Outdoors, you and I both know that’s far from the truth. When I was writing this piece in the dregs of the fall semester, I often wished to return the peaks of those dunes, indulging in the idyllic sunset for as long as I could and channeling that inner peace once again. But when I find myself wrought and wanting to escape, I put on “Let’s Find An Out,” and silently sink into the world around me. The momentary serenity has become a way to ground myself, and, if only for a second, my wobbly apartment bed feels as plush as the Northern sand.
It’s funny how we go great lengths to arrive at the same destinations. Aided by a few choice words from Lindsey Jordan, however, I learned it’s not about where our journeys take us, but the triumph of putting ourselves in forward motion in the first place. And sometimes it can be the hardest thing to do when we are stuck, to move.