I wrote the following passage during a Covid-19-induced fever. It was intended to be the start of a young-adult piece of fiction. I recorded the voice of the computer reading it, then set the entire thing to a musical backdrop of acoustic and digital sounds. I have since written more of this story, but decided to limit the musical piece to this initial section. I like the unfinished nature of the passage, because it leaves so much up to the reader’s imagination. This story could go in many different directions.
I had expected to find glass, rusty metal, and rotting plastic. No surprises there. What I hadn’t expected was the paper. That was a surprise. But the sentence on the paper was more than a surprise. It was the first line of my new story, my new life.
We’d moved into the old farmhouse just after my fifth birthday. I turned fifteen in November, just a few weeks before I pulled that paper out of an old blue seltzer bottle. Apparently, the people who used to live in this house had a taste for Bromo Seltzer. I only learned later that it was probably because they suffered from frequent headaches like mine. When I found out that Bromo Selzer wasn’t just some sparkling water, but an old-fashioned medicine people used to take for all kinds of reasons, including soothing headaches, I made the connection.
Headaches. I’d been waking up from my headaches for months by the time I dug that bottle out of the hillside in the gully beside our little white house. My mom worried about them constantly. I didn’t worry. I just hated them. They made it impossible to think, and they’d robbed me of the sleep I so desperately needed. All my teachers said teenagers needed more sleep than other people. I couldn’t speak for all teenagers, but I could speak for myself, I definitely needed more sleep.
It was a frosty Saturday when I slid out of my bedroom hammock in the dark before dawn. I’d been awake longer than I wanted to be, twisting, thinking. My full bladder was all the pressure I needed to give up on sleep altogether.
By the time my mom joined me at the kitchen table, her bleary-eyes and frizzy hair complementing her “I Love Sleep” pajama pants and her “Coffee is Life” mug, I had already finished breakfast, cleaned the bathroom, and read the local sales ads from yesterday’s mail several times through.
“Garbage bags are on sale, Ma.” I announced.
“Uh huh” she grunted, cradling her mug to her like a tiny newborn.
“Can we get some?”
“Don’t we have some?”
“I just used the last one in the trash can this morning,” I replied. I’d recently taken to being productive in the early morning. It gave me a feeling that made up for being awake before daylight, a small, satisfied feeling that made the tiredness and the frustration just a little more bearable.
“Buddy don’t feel like you have to do all that cleaning in the morning. I really appreciate all you’ve been doing, but you need to try to sleep more—”
“I do try, Ma. I just can’t.”
“Maybe if you take a Melatonin and lay on the couch in the morning—”
“I’ve tried. It doesn’t work,” I retorted.
Mom always did this. I knew it was because she loved me so much and because my recurring headaches worried her, but, in the moment, it irked me.
She stared, motionless, at the curling wisps of steam rising off the surface of her black coffee as they disappeared into the shadow of the window sash bisecting the kitchen table. After a few minutes she said, weakly, “I’m sorry, V. I’m hoping the test results from the MRI come back soon.”
V, for Victor. My dad was the first one to call me that. He disappeared when I was ten. One day I came home from school to mom crying in the driveway. To be honest, I felt embarrassed when I saw her from the window of the bus, curled up with her face in her knees. The bus driver even called out to ask if everything was alright; I told him not to worry as I ran out the open door.
I’m ashamed that my first feeling was embarrassment. Wouldn’t a better person first feel concerned if his mother were crying in a heap in the driveway?
When she told me Dad wouldn’t be coming back, I didn’t understand. I knew what the words meant, but I couldn’t imagine it. Never coming back.
“I’ll go to the store today,” she added, gently. “I’ll get garbage bags, Okay?”
“Thanks.” I replied.
I felt bad for being so testy. I couldn’t help it recently. It wasn’t just because of the headaches—at least, I didn’t want to blame it only on the headaches. Everything felt like a disappointment all the time. School being boring and irrelevant wasn’t because of the headaches. My baby sister’s uncanny ability to intrude on anything private and important to me wasn’t because of the headaches. Mom’s new swing shift job wasn’t because of the headaches. Dad. He didn’t leave because of the headaches.
I decided I’d go outside. It had a way of clearing my mind that I needed right about then.
I stood up from the table and pulled my coat off the hook in the mudroom. After slipping it on, I walked over to mom and held out my arms.
“I’m sorry, Mom.”
She looked up at me. I could tell she was holding back tears as she placed her mug on the table and wrapped her arms around my waist. I stroked her hair.
I loved my Mom more than anything. Things were difficult right now, but I wanted her to know that. I just had a hard time saying it. I found it easier to show her.
We stood for a moment, mother, and son, still and quiet, while the morning sunlight draped its warmth over our embrace.
“I’m going to go outside for a bit,” I said. “Maybe explore the gully again, clean up some of the trash down there.”
“That sounds good,” she said with a sniffle. “Maybe you can find some more cool old bottles for your collection.”
“Yeah. Did you see the old milk jug I found the other day?” I asked, taking a step back and drawing up the zipper on my coat.
“I did! That’s such a cool find, buddy.”
Our house was built on a wooded hillside above a creek around 1930. The couple that built the house were a product of their time. For much of the early 20th century it was common for people to toss their trash over hillsides, along roadsides, beside waterways, anywhere, really. So much trash ended up in the creek winding past our house that, by 1970, it would have been more common to pull a shoe out of the water than a fish.
The practice eventually stopped, but not before a good five feet were added to the surface of the hill in bottles and cans alone.
I’d really began exploring the hillside after Dad left. Mom had never let me go down there on my own before then. But in the weeks after I came home to her crying in the driveway, things began to change. At first it was just a change in the way she talked to me. She’d bring up things she must have reserved for Dad before. Her job searches. The mechanic’s bill. Day Cares that might be good for Rachel.
Rachel was not quite two when Dad left. Mom needed my help with her more than ever. That was another thing that changed in those early weeks and months. I started to crawl into bed with Mom in the night whenever Rachel woke, crying. Really, I wanted her company, but there was also part of me that expected to find Dad there. It was during one of those restless nights, Rachel bawling as loudly as ever, that I realized Dad wasn’t going to come back. My face burned. My ears rang. I was so angry. In time, though, that passed.
Some songs are prompted by a phrase you think or hear, or a chord progression you like, or fully formed statements you want to craft into lyrics. Other songs are puzzles–narratives you want to piece together, loosely connected observations you’re convinced fit together, or points you want to work your way towards. This song was a gesture, a spontaneous movement of the mind, saying something I needed to hear.
It didn’t take much time. It started with a satisfied sigh–the first I’d expressed in ages–and ended in quiet gratitude.
Finding What's Enough Your hands warm in your pockets— A nickel and a dime Left over from a conversation With a friend wrought out of time. The trees stain the sidewalk As their leaves give up the ghost In an afternoon spent lost Finding the long way home. There might be a message Under every stone, And if you leave it for your children They’ll never be alone. 'Cause the story in the soil And the story in the bone Are woven by the sinew Of the will to grow. So, if you hold your lover Later on tonight Don’t be afraid to give her all that You’ve ever held inside. That small act of courage In the arms of one you love May be all there is to Finding what’s enough.
Yielding is timeless. Every other song on this EP drew from a definable historical element. This one came from the stones–the things we don’t have to know or control, things we are better for leaving–and accepting–as they are.
Zach was the friend in this song with whom I had a long conversation, catching up on a decade of life in a few hours. I wrote this song after a meal at a diner. I pulled it out shortly before a gig we had, and I knew when he added the keys it was done.
After I write a song it doesn’t take me too long to get to the point where I can barely stand to hear it again. That hasn’t happened yet with this one. I think it’s the beautiful piano part at the end. Take a listen to Zach’s playing on this one–isn’t that enough?
Depression. We talk about it like it’s a hole, a swamp, a muddy trench. The “slough of despond,” the “pit of despair,” a “ditch” we fall into. For me, in 2018, depression was an all out war, and I was losing.
It wasn’t the first time I’d found myself in the trenches and it’s not likely to be the last, but it was real and devastating. And I know that others are there, in that same place now, too.
I walked a lot that year, as I had for several others. It was part of my job growing plants: checking row after row, house after house. Watering here, scouting there, repairing this or that, refilling and applying nutrients, planting tray after tray after tray of seeds.
Plants don’t make great conversationalists, and as I rarely found myself working alongside other sentient beings I took to thinking a lot, and listening a lot.
Audiobooks, music, podcasts. I listened for hours.
During that time I happened across a history podcast called Hardcore History by Dan Carlin. For about 25 hours one work week I immersed myself in the story of WWI while I went about my daily tasks.
I hadn’t written a song in months. I couldn’t muster the will to give voice to anything. It was all I could do to simply stay.
There was something in the misery of that first World War that gave me a way to think about my inner war.
In it the past met the future. No matter how gallantly a young soldier may have ridden his horse into battle, he was not made for a new war built on freight trains of metal–metal in tons–bullets per second, and poison gas.
The nihilism that seeped from the WW1 trenches felt like my own in that depression.
“What can it mean? Is there a reason for anything? The dead have a glory fit for altars and for flames.”
Feeling is elusive then. Meaning is oppressively absent. Glory is an obscenity. There is not even grief–there’s…nothing. Life feels like no more than a cruel game we’re all forced to play.
“There’s no room for grieving in all of this noise, there’s no room to bury the soul with the joy. This war’s just a game, this life’s just a game, it’s a cruel kind of game that we all have to play.”
In those deepest moments it felt like the best I could do was nothing. Not anything…just don’t do anything.
No Man’s Land was the space between the trenches of WW1. The space a person went only once.
From the misery of a trench soldiers would hear the delirious ramblings of the injured in No Man’s Land. They had to listen to their desperate cries, and they could not forget the sound.
There was only one way out of the hell of No Man’s Land, and there were times when the misery of the trenches made that way out seem like a gift.
I am thankful that my mind is better as I write this today. I can offer no prescriptions to the hosts among us, like me, who fight in such a war–my pain is not theirs, is not yours. I simply acknowledge that the struggle is real, and I sense today what I could not sense then, that the glory of living is not obscene.
Then it sounded like a cannon. I flinched at it. Hid from it.
It felt like the mud I could never clean off.
It reeked of decay; of ends, not beginnings.
Now it is quiet.
It is new growth.
Now it buds and blooms.
I know it was there all along. Somewhere. But I also know I could not see it as such.
I grieve for those who suffer, though I could not then. To be well is possible.
It is. Some scars may remain for a time, but life renews. Hope can return in time.
May we care for each other, even in this war, when all seems naught. Even more than our own ambitions. May we care. There are more people in those God-awful trenches than we may see.
Depression is not sadness. It is something else entirely. And to those who would suggest that it is a feebleness of mind or will, or a moral failing, I say nothing.
But inwardly I wish that you would be silent. Sometimes silence is best. You don’t need to say anything. You don’t need answers. And if you think you have them… you. don’t.
Sometimes it’s best just to listen, be present, and wait.
The World Was Naive The world was naive in 1914. All glory and gallantry muzzles and manes. The horse and his rider, all red in the rain meet man’s big achievement in metal and pain. The soldiers march on, no one quite knows why, while the war to end all wars illumines the sky. And the mud in the trenches, the dead in the trenches The fear in the trenches digs into the mind. What can it mean? Is there a reason for everything? The dead have a glory Fit for altars and for flames. I’ve been naive and I’ve tried hard to please the major above me who looks out for me. But I slipped and faltered the day that I found My brother’s torn body alone on the ground. There’s no room for grieving in all of this noise There’s no room to bury the soul with the joy. This war’s just a game, this life’s just a game. A cruel kind of game that we all have to play. ‘Cause only the dead Can ever reach the end. And, when life thrives on stealing all of the living that’s been spent I listen to the cries in no-man’s land And consider whether I should lift my head. I listen to the cries in no-man’s land And consider whether I should lift my head.
Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
Luke Carton was eighteen years old in 1848; a young man in a world of revolutions: “The Springtime of the Peoples.” Likely born in Wexford, Ireland around 1830, the spirit of the age took hold in Luke’s life as more than nationalism uprooting an old order and replacing it with a new–his entire life was rootless.
When an unforeseen potato blight eviscerated Ireland in the late 1840’s, those that didn’t die of starvation or sadness took to the sea to find a new life in a new world. In 1851, at 20 years old, Luke did the same, boarding the Samuel in Dublin, bound for New York.
He and the hundreds of other Irish aboard endured an Atlantic autumn on the Samuel, and arrived at Ellis Island on November 25th.
He found work as a laborer in Duchess County, NY, and in 1857, at twenty-six, met Eliza Eagan, a young single mother from county Cork, Ireland. In her late twenties, she suddenly found herself a widow, caring for two young children. She couldn’t read or write, but she could undoubtedly see Luke’s interest in her.
She was a faithful Catholic her entire life, and when she feared she was pregnant, she married Luke at the local parish. Rev. Denis Sheehan, himself an Irishman from county Cork, and a strong advocate of temperance, officiated at St. Mary’s in Channingville, later known as Wappingers Falls.
In September of 1857, well into Eliza’s pregnancy, Luke was arrested and charged with assault and battery–a portent of things to come. On December 14th, however, only three months into his sentence, he was pardoned. His first son, James, was born that month.
The restlessness of the world had touched the young United States by then. America was on the edge of a fissure that would rend its union from head to heart, pitting brother against brother and north against south.
In 1861 America was divided, and soon after the first shots on Fort Sumter, Luke and Eliza were battling their own disunion. Luke’s grandchildren much later recalled their parents speaking of him as a “belligerent drunk,” and the records don’t seem to dispute that.
On July 4th of that year Eliza gave birth to a boy. As the story goes, Luke, believing her to be unfaithful, lashed out two weeks after the birth. In his perhaps drunken rage he threw enough black pepper in the infant’s face to cause suffocation.
After his arrest and trial, Luke was sentenced to two years in the state penitentiary at Sing Sing in March of 1862.
Eliza endured, taking in boarders for income and raising her children in times that would have been hard for anyone. When she died many years later, in 1904, she was mourned by a wide circle of friends and all her living children.
Luke, however, served his two years in the state penitentiary, where he evidently became caught up in the spirit of Irish nationalism voiced by the Fenian Brotherhood–a not-so-secret society set on compelling the British Empire to grant Irish independence by attacking Canada.
If it sounds like a tenuous plan, it’s because it was. The movement would ultimately fizzle out by 1880, but in 1864 when Luke came out of Sing Sing, it was the movement of the Irish underclass–a populist rallying cry that gave hope for a free Ireland and a better future.
Luke no doubt felt little reason to return home right away after prison. He found a branch that he could carve into a suitable traveling cane and, departing from Sing Sing in NY, rode the ever-extending rails of newly-industrialized America.
In the towns he visited he doubtlessly found other disaffected Irishmen casting their lot in with the ambitions of the Fenians. He made an effort to preserve these travels–whether for himself or posterity–by carving the names of each town and many railroads along the shaft of his cane according to the years he visited them.
In 1864 he recorded more than 26 names, including many critical cities to the Fenian project.
By the winter of 1864 he had returned home to Eliza. Why they reunited is a mystery. Did Luke convince her? Did he need money and a place to stay? Did she want him back? Whatever the reason, young Henry Carton was born in August of 1865.
Henry died before his first birthday, in November of 1865. This was a tragedy all too common in the 19th century world, and one which then, as always, disproportionately afflicted the lower class.
Two months later Eliza was pregnant with another baby boy who would be born John F. Carton, October 1866.
1865 was a year of roving for Luke. He logged the names of 9 railroads and 14 cities, mountains, towns or boarding houses along his cane, including the picturesque Crawford House in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
It’s quite possible that, when the Fenian Brotherhood held their convention in Chicago in 1865, Luke was there. At the very least he was almost certainly traveling among like-minded Irish nationalists who shared the hope of inflicting a wound on Great Britain great enough to loose their homeland from imperial subjugation.
Was this his new identity, his new defining ambition: a fighter for the Irish cause? He’d left a crippled home at 20, worked as an underclass laborer through his prime years, and killed an infant (his?) in a drunken rage at 27. Had he now found a purpose? Was this cane a record of his resolve?
There were few more important cities for Fenian ambitions in North America than Buffalo, NY, Niagara, NY, and ultimately the city of Montreal in Quebec, Canada. In the spring of 1866 they would attempt a series of raids into Canada which engaged as many as 7,000 Fenian Irish who had ridden the rails north to mount their attack along the border.
The 1866 invasion was a failure for the Fenians. The US federal government, which had, up till that point, enabled the Fenians to gather steam, and gone so far as to sell them arms and munitions, now foiled their plans under the leadership of Generals Meade and Grant. The Irish were repelled by both the Canadians and the Americans, their arms were confiscated, the border was effectually closed, the leadership was arrested, and the bulk of the remaining hopefuls were sent back on the same rail-lines they’d ridden north.
The 1870 Census finds a 40 year-old Luke Carton, a “laborer” from Ireland, “insane” in the Utica Asylum. There he would likely have been confined to the euphemistically-dubbed “Utica Crib.”
After the failure of this new-found purpose, did he find no more reason to live? No more reason to stay sober?
In 1875, Eliza is 45 and as strong as ever. She owns her home, has three children in the house, and, for the first time, she is listed as widowed.
I would not have learned any of this were it not for the cane, which my father inherited from his grandmother, Elizabeth Carton, the daughter of Luke and Eliza’s son, John F. Carton.
Now, I should say that the Fenian association is all my theory of Luke’s three-year travel project. I’ve gathered a lot of data that makes a strong case, but as yet it is all circumstantial. There’s a possibility that the cane could have belonged to someone else, but no candidates have emerged, and the personal nature of the cane makes it more likely to be an heirloom that stayed within the family.
Nevertheless, I see this cane as potentially central to the last meaningful project of Luke Carton. There’s no doubt that he is an anti-hero in this story, but the cane remains a vestige of an obscure corner of a time ripe with historical significance.
When I wrote the song, “The Cane,” I had almost no knowledge of the family history surrounding this cane aside from the notion that it belonged to some distant relative on my dad’s side.
In preparation for writing this post, I borrowed the cane from my parents’ and began to document it and research my ancestry. In the process my father put me in touch with a distant cousin of mine without whose help I’d have been unable to piece these connections together. She has done extensive genealogical research documenting her family lineage. Where our lines overlap, her research proved invaluable.
Even without this family connection the cane still represents a glimpse into some years of American history that have much to offer the history books. I made reference to a few of these in the song:
- The spirit of revolution, both political and industrial, that characterized the mid-19th century
- “when the world was waking up…”
- steamships and riding the railroads, etc.
- “the lords of the revolution built a nation from the ground”
- Lincoln’s assassination, and the end of the civil war in 1865.
- “Little Taddy Lincoln wished his papa home again.”
- Tad Lincoln was the president’s youngest son
- “Little Taddy Lincoln wished his papa home again.”
- The nascent Christian Science movement with Mary Baker Eddy, which, ironically coincided with the assassination of Lincoln
- “Mary from New Hampshire learned to heal a wounded man…”
- Jesse James’ first robbery, which presaged his larger-than-life status as a legend of the reconstruction-era turmoil
- “Jesse James robbed a bank and he bought himself a name”
The point of the song, however, is the line:
“Legends are made of wax and flame, of an obscure hobo’s cane.”
That is, the stories that loom so large in our imaginations grow by transforming fragments of truth into fictions which dwarf and consume them.
Lincoln, Mary Baker Eddy, Jesse James, the origin stories of nations and individuals–they’re often more than the truth.
Studying and researching this cane confirms that notion for me.
It almost matters little whether it did belong to Luke Carton.
The Cane Mama had a baby When the world was waking up. He left her on a steam ship Bound for North America. Where the railways Riding dynamite Made the mountains Bow on down. And the lords of The revolution Built a nation From the ground. He carved a cane of maple With the names of every town From New York to Chicago From Detroit to Portland, Maine on down. While little Taddy Lincoln Wished his Papa home again. And Mary from New Hampshire Learned to heal A wounded man. Jesse James robbed a bank And he bought himself a name. Legends are made of wax and flame, of an obscure hobo’s cane. Riding the New York Railway Riding the Hudson River Line Riding the Erie Ontario Riding the Vermont Central Line Riding the Sullivan Railroad Riding the Indiana Line Riding the Northern Railroad Riding the Great Western Line Daddy was a young man When the world was waking up. It found him on a steam ship Bound for North America.