By Amber Robbin
Normally, Whole Foods is a place that brings me joy, boasting a “guilt-free” hot buffet that smacks of buttery goodness and free samples galore left unattended in generous heaps. It’s a veritable playground for the sometimes-vegetarian (that I am) with yoga mats and fancy lip balms that make the yuppie lifestyle almost desirable. The only downer, normally, are the last few minutes anyone ever spends inside the store, when it becomes all-too-apparent that a more befitting name for the place would be ‘Whole Paycheck.’ Other than that, I associated Whole Foods with perfectly lovely memories – until one night in March.
On that night, my soul collapsed over a brown box of marshmallow encrusted sweet potatoes. I felt myself being consumed exactly as I was meant to be doing the consuming, eaten alive by my inner swarm of lacking purpose, lacking sense of self, and lacking desire to wake up the next day and go to work – a full eight hours before that task even needed to be confronted. I made my way home in a state of muddled madness, panic and anxiety lurking around every corner. I called for help as soon as I reached my apartment and received the exact advice I didn’t want to hear: “Suck it up till you find other work.” Finally, after much tortured inner-debate, I advised myself to do the exact opposite, because only I could know in that moment that anything but quitting was a seriously unhealthy, non-option for me.
A week later, I sat with my slightly more inflated self, jobless and soul searching in a Lincoln Park cafe. I still felt a bit weighed-down, surrounded by drip coffee that cost four bucks and yuppies with million-dollar homes, dogs, and babies. And there I was – wondering what was wrong with me that I didn’t share in their oh-so-obvious secret to success, attempting to beat what seemed impossible odds as an ex-theatre major with no idea what she wanted to do in life. So I made lists. Lots and lots of pretty lists…
Retrospective lists – of things I liked about my past work.
Introspective lists – of what my strengths and weaknesses were.
Angry lists about everything I didn’t like about anything, ever.
Hopeful lists with affirmations like…
I am a resilient and positive person who will find her purpose.
Also mental lists, just to entertain myself, like…
Today I will visit Dairy Queen and Jimmy John, because I need my friends right now.
The lists kept coming, and as my self-inflicted two week break from the real world to do nothing but search my heart and drink over-priced mocha lattes came to a close, I had only one calling compelling me: to travel. I didn’t know what else to do. I only knew that no other idea got me excited about life again. And that was enough reason for me.
Through all of my list-making, I’d discovered that desk jobs made me far less fulfilled than any other sort of work I had ever done. I’d rather talk to a thousand people a day and touch every one of their dirty plates than ever work reception again. And with my newfound determination to backpack in Europe and serious need to save money, serving tables suddenly didn’t sound all that bad. So I went to a cattle call in my neighborhood for a stuffy, yet beautiful rooftop bar. Next thing I knew, I was spending two-weeks attending tastings of every wine and cocktail on their menu, getting buzzed at 11am with thirty other young, attractive (albeit, at all times club-ready) twenty-somethings.
The anxiety eased up, although never completely left my side as the big day neared for my lone departure abroad. I suspected I might get lonely. I battled between an undeniable urge to extend my trip and an ever-present fear that that might be the worst decision ever. In order to save up, I pushed myself to adhere to a completely ridiculous budget of $7 a day. I would either walk a half-block to the grocery store in the afternoon to buy three ingredients tops, concoct an almost-lunch out of them, and then gorge myself on employee meal to get through the rest of the day, or I would need my $7 to buy something burdensome like conditioner, so I would have to hike to my dad’s apartment just to eat. Those were my options in my one-track mind, stupidly adding to my distress while simultaneously giving me purpose.
That summer of living off $7/day while making $200/night, I had an encounter late in the season that finally made me feel like I was on the right track. After months of crazy 2am bottle service, I spent a beautiful, low key Sunday with dear friends. My friend’s sister came to town. As soon as I saw her, she told me how she’d heard about my “heroic” job quitting (I’d sent an e-mail – the only time I‘ve ever done that), and how it had inspired her to quit a job that was making her similarly miserable. No other event or result of my actions in ages had made me feel as useful as her story. I remembered my last week at the firm – how one of the youngest, yet most talented assistants came up to my desk and notified me that she’d just given her two weeks notice. She was brimming with self-satisfaction at her newfound ability to take charge of her life. She said she’d always wanted to travel solo in Europe, and now, she was finally going to do it. The attorneys were attempting to lure her back after her trip, about which she said, “I’ve worked here for two and a half years. I’m going to Europe. I have no idea what I’m doing when I come back, but no way in hell am I working here!”
I had been part of a pay-it-forward, a contagious trend of much-needed workplace abandonment. She’d given her notice. Then, before she could even get out the door, I was gone – quitting the same night as my buttery-buffet-breakdown. It had taken everything I’d had to send that resignation e-mail. Why? Why did I think I owed so much to those people, so much of my happiness, so much strife? I needed to do what was best for me, simple as that. Why couldn’t I give myself permission to make that choice earlier? I don’t know. What I do know is that it will never be that hard for me to make that choice again. Because by taking the initiative to find my own happiness, I was part of a chain reaction that enabled others to do the same – and I can think of nothing more important than that.
The day finally came for me to leave. I had a giant, bright blue backpack with a fake yellow flower clipped on for flair and an electric energy equal parts excitement and nerves building up inside of me. On the way to the airport, I busied myself amongst my things, preparing for the adventure of a lifetime. My father looked over from the driver’s seat every once in a while with a face full of trepidation and amusement. Those moments leading up to goodbye were so strange, as if I’d already become a different person just in my journey up to leaving. We pulled up to the curb. I hopped out, threw my pack over my shoulder, and stood there in my red rose-patterned dress, looking like the poster child for a new style movement – backpacking couture. I stared expectantly at my father, waiting for him to say something, thrilled to the verge of tears. He looked me in the eye and said wryly, “I have two words of advice: watch out for wolves in sheep’s clothing…and have fun.” I embraced him tightly and walked away, keeping with me his second piece of advice and safely packing away the first for a rainy day…but that’s another saga entirely.
Amber Robbin is the creator of Tumbleweed Diaries. She is passionate about languages, world travel, and currently working on a book about her adventures in Italy.