I feel it’s my time to tell part of a story I’ve been holding next to my chest for years. I will not tell you all of it, as there’s more to it than I can name, but I will tell you a length of it, a length that felt like a conclusion at the time, but was in fact in media res. It’s about the hum and family and terror. It’s about laughter and faith and Mr. Pickering.
College was not an easy time for my family. There were the usual horrors of a humming life: my grandma’s death, my mom’s cancer, family mental illness. However, there was something extra, a certain kind of surprise my brother and I had to face together and alone. At the time this thing we faced, hand in hand, this thing born of mental illness and fear and anger, was insurmountable. I couldn’t even really name it for a good while. It was just that bad thing. I won’t tell you too much more now about the bad thing.
Before and during and after this insufferably unnameable thing happened I was taking a class about American nature writing. This tall, spindly, silver-haired, bouncy, gibbounous old man taught the course: Samuel Pickering (he hated when I used too many adjectives). Sam is Huck Finn if Huck sublimated all that trauma into pure life essence. Sam is a glittering smile shining despite the gray day. Sam is one of the few men I’ve met that could walk through a hall of horror and find the humor in it, and like, the real life giving humor, not the cynical washed out kind. I always ended up describing him as the character Robin Williams was based on in Dead Poet Society, because he was and is the character the late Robin was based on; except Robin couldn’t come close to Sam’s energy. Sam (he preferred Mr. Pickering, but my memory of him has seemed fit to let me be casual) illuminated the lines of a world I felt weary of in ways I could not expect. Most of the class was him telling stories (that he probably spit shined up a little). He did not give a single shit about polite social convention no matter who got embarrassed (he of course was gleefully shameless). I was once walking in a hermitted shoulder shrugging way across a UCONN quad when I heard some daft, southern accented voice yell, with increasing fervor, “It’s a Banana! No! It’s an APPLE! NO! IT’S MR. MANGOOOO.” I loved Sam. He could find that film that covered everyday absurdity in conventional wisdom and he’d rip it off every time he did. I brought my brother to meet Sam. Both my brother and I loved talking to him, about the woods, books, stories; we each forced him to reluctantly watch some YouTube videos he’d then yell about in the hall (search for the Turtle Man to see a favorite). Sam showed me and my brother why someone like Thoreau was worth reading, worth coveting even. Not because Henry was some dynamo of personality, but because he was so tenacious in his desire to feel what life might be if we let ourselves imagine it such. One of the small good things of being an American is the fact that wanting more, when put modestly and imaginatively can yield bushels of fecund life if we open ourselves to it.
After the bad thing I decided to keep a promise that my brother and I had made. I decided to drive up to Walden Pond while reminiscing about Sam Pickering. It was a cold February day. Sleet and gray slate skies. And I’d kept the promise in that I was heading to Walden. The kind of driving that covers the windshield in spray. I broke it too, the promise. I was going without my brother. For a few months now, after the bad thing, I’d felt cut off from what I’ve discussed as the hum, or rather, I forgot about it, or maybe it was never alive in me, ever. I was in the car alone in some ways. My chest and stomach had been opened and filled with fine cement and left to set. As I drove, feeling the distance from my house and my brother growing, I felt a new kind of emptiness. One in which nothing in the world meant much at all. My homegrown nihilism, that feeling state, had a real place to roost after the bad thing left much of me and our relationship deeply complicated. I did not stop to question why I still wanted to keep that promise to head to Walden.
Sam didn’t put up with my know-it-all shit in his class. I might act bored or sullen or both (it’s easy to do when you’re depressed) and I remember once, after Sam read out a journal entry from Emerson in which Emerson said he’d discovered a new instrument by bouncing a rock off a block of ice in the woods I commented—with the knowing air of any buffoon–something like, “it sounds like he’s making light of it as if he’s better than everything around him” to which Sam, quite appropriately responded, “Mr. Mango you didn’t understand a damn lick of this.” I hadn’t. I think what Sam never quite realized that while he might have put himself in a Romantic or Transcendentalist tradition, there might have been more Nietzsche there than anything else. I think at the time I’d failed to realize this. When Nietzsche said “The maturity of man—that means, to have reacquired the seriousness that one had as a child at play” he could have simply been describing Sam. That play was in some way essential to moving through the world, that it was in fact simultaneously a very serious silly business. I think this is what my brother and I loved about Sam the most especially because I thought everything was oh so stupid or oh so serious at the time, the twain never meeting. Or maybe this if you’re inclined (like I was) to melancholy “Perhaps I know best why it is man alone who laughs; he alone suffers so deeply that he had to invent laughter.” Sam was always fond of telling me something his friend had written, that Sam was the only man that could come out a pile of shit riding a silver horse, something of the like. For Sam near senseless embrace of the moment was kind of self-overcoming, Sam was indeed a man who loved his fate.
I wanted to love my fate too. But at the time it had seemed to me as if I’d gotten in the shit too deep and I’d lost that held hand from a person I love dearly. I couldn’t hear their hum or any hum any more. All movement lead to static and all stillness forced me to listen to it. Then I opened the door of my 2000 silver Honda civic after I pulled to a stop in the near empty parking lot of Walden pond. I was already sniffling. I didn’t quite know what I was doing there. I was in between serious and silly, or both of them, or nothing. It was cold and my cheeks were read and my nose and eyes were runny and the coal in my throat was thick and chalky. When I saw Walden Pond I had the delightfully dull thought, “Why didn’t they call it Walden lake” The almost iron drab sky pressed on my head with the kind of pressure only deep ennui and buried fear can bring. The pond was big. It had sandy beaches, I was almost talking to myself beneath the sound of pond waves crashing and shushing onto land. The sand was cemented frozen. And in that moment that place of pure cement in me that could not pick up the feel of any hum at all (some much so that there was a kind of screaming sound in my head [and it was almost like the inner killer chorus calling out, bleating out the name of my brother so he might return to me somehow]) and I heard music. It was rhythmic, but not on time, not in step. And it was as if someone had laced the sky about the clouds with chimes and with the kind of gentleness you’d use to touch the face of a child, let the chimes sing. And I looked up, up from my trudge on the cement inside myself and under my feet and I saw on the pond that I’d come to a place where the ice had started to break up into little icicles, as if the edge of the ice on the lake there was a jigsaw of intimately close chandelier pieces, and I saw as they wafted out and in and the chimes were in fact the water and the ice, and that the hum of nature here was one of delicacy, the insides of the cold water a place of play and I collapsed and I wept with delight at how serious it was and how soulfully silly. I missed my brother, but he was here now in these sounds. I knew the kind of joy this would bring him and believed I’d need to see this alone to remember my connection to him transcended any confusion of the bad thing. The hum is always there.
You see, I forget that a lot. When I wrote about the hum earlier, and written about it in a much more dejected manner, I’d forgotten something so important. I’d forgotten Wallace’s reminder to remember the water. More importantly, I’d forgotten any thought that the water always changes no matter how stolid or thick it seems or for how long it stays that way. I’d forgotten that that deep seriousness of play and laughter was so important because it was and is an invocation of the fact that all things change. That in playing, singing, we make that change human.
It’s been years since the bad thing. My brother and I care about each other as much as any brothers could and I often think of how far we’ve come, and Samuel Pickering, and Thoreau, and Nietzsche, and the chimes in the pond, and when I do I am forced to remember something that would be gross to say in polite company because it demands I talk of faith. My faith, in ever changing waters, demands I believe in an impossible God. My God lives in contradiction and nonsense and perhaps the greatest nonsense of all is that there should be such a thing as kindly laughter and mature play and unprovoked selfless kindness. I am forced through having lived long enough, to believe that actual faith has much more to do with living on the very edge of time, open and undefensive to each moment, and much less to do with finding pure tranquility; that, in fact, to be able to have the negative capability to hold two different feelings simultaneously–there is no hum and I hear the sky’s chimes–my brother is not here and yet he is here–this is all so very silly and very serious—has much more to do with faith than any actual certainty of belief. That is the story I want to tell you now. That is the story I hope I always tell you, in a thousand different ways with different words and changing meanings but the same single soul. I know I will forget again and again the sound of the chimes and the buzz of the hum, but they will always be there for me to return to when I remember I can and I trust enough to do so. All things I need are both effervescent and eternal. And I am silly enough to believe so.