The transition between sleeping and waking is the closest we come to genuine human frailty and nakedness. It’s when we glimpse our deaths and shrink from them, cowering before the bathroom mirror. It’s when cliches fail me, and the disconnect between what I would and what I should is at its sharpest–between my insecure but curious will and the daily routine; between what’s projected by me, easy as a rose unfolding, and what’s expected of me, immovable as a granite wall. Within an hour-and-a-half, the former has either concretized or melted, but in either case is set aside; the latter, however, can be avoided no longer. My workday is beginning.
This morning’s psychopompic escort up I-65 is My Morning Jacket’s 2002 EP, Chocolate and Ice. It was my transport across the divide, though the journey doesn’t feel complete–I’m still acclimating to work. Along the the way, the trees stood mute and gray in their rank beside the interstate–the trees a soft backdrop, the interstate a hard intimation of movement. The effect of that combined visual–trees and road–is numbing, but also comforting. Maybe both feelings grow out of familiarity.
Everybody transitions from bare consciousness to daily routine somehow: some with prayer and holy book meditation; some with exercise; some with TV news; some with reading, writing, painting, or music; and some with the day’s first beer–often it’s a blend of two or more of these things. But one thing I now believe: there’s no remedy for the human condition. Those morning rituals we depend on to buoy ourselves for the time we must spend out in the world, those nightly rituals that help us to be okay with the trappings of our individual existences–it’s all just a quick-fix–daily pills to buffer that bare-boned state of insecurity that confronts us first thing in the morning.
A few days ago, from my vantage point on northbound I-65, the look of the morning sun on the roof of the mall reminded me of a notion I formed several years back and one to which I still hold today: that there’s a comfort in the bland commercial aesthetic of well-kept retail spaces. By well-kept I mean clean and free of blemishes: if the floor tile is dingy or the carpet soiled, or there’s a hole in the drywall, or if there are water stains on the drop-ceiling panels, the common charm is lost. Of course, most retail spaces in the CoolSprings Galleria aren’t so basic: a sheetrock wall is hardly to be seen, because they’re concealed behind designer paneling; commercial-grade vinyl floor tiles, a la Kroger, have been eschewed in favor of hardier, better-looking ceramic tiles. At heart, though, all these spaces, whether banal or beautiful, serve the same basic function, and that is to sell stuff, and there’s just something ordinary about the whole enterprise of retail–a denominator to which we’re all pandering.
It’s comforting to buy stuff. The least self-conscious among us make a show of their retail habits, whereas the more self-aware may seek to transcend so-called retail therapy (that phrase makes me cringe), but at heart, everybody likes getting new stuff. In Don DeLillo‘s novel, White Noise, the narrator is an academic who, though he understands that hanging out at the mall is a taboo thing for people like him, can’t deny his urge to shop. He talks about walking through stores, “puzzled but excited by [his] desire to buy.” He’s just been insulted by an old friend he ran into in a hardware store, and his reaction is to go shopping. And while there at a mall with his family, he summarizes the experience in sensual and self-empowering terms:
“People swarmed through the boutiques and gourmet shops. Organ music rose from the great court. We smelled chocolate, popcorn, cologne; we smelled rugs and furs, hanging salamis and deathly vinyl. My family gloried in the event. I was one of them, shopping, at last. They gave me advice, badgered clerks on my behalf. I kept seeing myself unexpectedly in some reflecting surface. We moved from store to store, rejecting not only items in certain departments, not only entire departments but whole stores, mammoth corporations that did not strike our fancy for one reason or another. I shopped with reckless abandon.”
He heard music and he smelled good smells. He exercised his illusion of autonomy by choosing one thing over another or by choosing nothing at all. He even felt a closer bond to his family for having gone shopping with them. But doesn’t all this sound ridiculous on the surface? How American, in the less savory way, to make spending money on things we don’t need into a noble act. Yet I won’t knock it. I have to be honest, or rather I’ve reached a stage in life where it’s easier just to admit I like hanging out at the mall than to pretend it’s below me somehow. I’ve enjoyed the CoolSprings Galleria for all the same reasons mentioned in that paragraph above and more: the people-watching, the smells, the deliberately designed mini-environments of individual stores, even catching unexpected glimpses of myself in cleverly positioned mirrors.
Speaking of mini-environments, Journeys shoe store has a very different feel from the gleaming white makeup and jewelry displays of Belk, but I appreciate them nearly equally. It doesn’t matter if the spaces are selling anything I want or would ever buy–I like to see them anyway. And if I happen to find the perfect flannel shirt on sale in Express, then all the better.
What is at the back of this enjoyment? It’s become one of those things I wonder about. I wonder if it’s class-based, as in because of my humble ancestry, it feels good to be able to spend money inconspicuously, even if it’s never very much at one time, because that makes me uncomfortable. Just a little bit here and there–a new pair of shoes on one visit, and then a Yankee Candle a couple of weeks later. Does it make me feel I’m doing okay if I’m able to go out and buy a random thing once in a while?
Then there’s the fact of comfort. The mall has skylights, yet it is gloriously climate-controlled, meaning I can appreciate the sky in July without ever breaking a sweat. And there are good smells, many of which come from food, although there are many others that are harder to identify–general kinds of retail smells, clean and elusive. There are phone-charging stations and free wifi; coffee, ice cream, and comfortable chairs. And nobody expects anything of you. Everybody’s minding their own business, which makes it an ideal place for an introvert who sometimes craves the presence of other humans but doesn’t want to interact with them.
Perhaps going shopping is simply such a staple of American life that I’m performing my patriotic duty in some perverse way–doing my part to grease the system’s wheels. It doesn’t matter if I buy something every time I go, I’m paying homage just by showing up.
Roadside trees show us nature’s indifference. It wasn’t always this way. Was a time when I could watch the trees fall away as I drove by and imagine all manner of stories unfolding just inside the treeline. Meaning was inherent in the trees, as well as magic, mystery, and beauty. But lately, they’ve become constant reminders that wildness waits at the edges of civilization for its chance to retake what has always been, and will be in the end, hers. She knows that for all the roads and skyscrapers and shopping malls we may build, for all the fields we may pave and the clouds we may pierce with our flying, silver tubes, our time is limited. We will return to her. And when we do, she’ll swallow us up. I’d add that she also will forget about us, but that would imply she knows us in the first place, and I’m not sure that’s the case: we don’t personally know the buzzing flies that slip into our open doors and harass us; we merely swat them away so we can go about our day less annoyed. Is nature not more indifferent than us?
I talk about nature like it’s a person, using feminine pronouns and attributing human actions to it. Sometimes she does feel like an adversary, with predators and viruses and hostile conditions. Other times she sustains us, both with beauty and with food. Anyway, this will become tiresome if l continue, for the roadside trees tell me that there are no groundbreaking ways to write about nature. Everything I might write has been written before, and better.
Roadside trees don’t just spread their message from the shoulders of the interstate, of course–they’re much more thickly present on country lanes, where people are less distracted from their own mortality. As an undergrad, I was enamored of the movie Braveheart, and by extension, its soundtrack, which I still think ranks among the top movie soundtracks for its depth of feeling, and for its ability to convey human pathos via its dark and beautiful themes. Once I was fishing with my dad at some pond out in the country near Reelfoot Lake in northwest Tennessee, close to where I grew up. I was probably twenty-one, still obsessed with Braveheart, so that soundtrack was often playing in my head. Dusk was fast-approaching, and a warm, glowing pink had begun to form opposite the setting sun. The pink was bracketed by the trees on the other side of the road–it was the kind of sky one only sees in summer. To my youthful, idealistic mind, with that bagpipe-heavy music playing in my head, the scene seemed to have so much meaning. I couldn’t tell you what it meant in any concrete terms, but it held something of destiny. Back then I believed in destiny–destiny and beauty were inseparable.
Now I’m okay with things just being what they are, and that includes roadside trees. I still create meaning, but in different ways: it’s not as simple anymore as assigning meaning to a natural setting, with nothing more than a song and a fuzzy feeling to back it up. There’s no more facile forcing of narrative onto my surroundings. The trees along the interstate no longer reflect my mood; they are not a manifestation of me. Yet they are no less beautiful. In fact, they are newly beautiful, because now I allow them to just be (like they needed my permission). They never needed my influence, even when I needed to project it onto them.