Conversations at the Wartime Cafe

I just returned from reading a short piece I wrote for inclusion in my fellow McSweeney’s alum Sean Labrador Y Manzano’s anthology, Conversations At the Wartime Cafe. A few of us east-coast scribblers included in the anthology got together and read at Bluestockings Books on the LES here in New York. Our pieces centered around our experiences as writers during the War on Terror. It’s not the kind of thing I like to glamorize often by talking or writing about. My life as an adult has centered around New York City, and I have been against the wars raging in the Middle East since day one. I saw the towers fall here and it shaped my life, and it still does. But it seems almost disrespectful to talk about it that way sometimes. Commodifying the experience of terror. Sentimentalizing something that is real. Making ceramic plates and conservative mantras on the pain and confusion of that day. Building wars of aggression on the backs of the suffering.

But writing the pieces for Sean’s anthology and tonight reading them in a room full of New Yorker’s on the almost-ten-year anniversary… I came to realize just how much the twin towers falling and the aftermath that continues to drag itself along on blood-stained feet has shaped me. The images of bodies falling from a hundred stories up when I’d just learned to call New York City home ten years ago–I hadn’t realized until now just how burned into my memory those silhouettes are. How much my reality as an adult has been the constant reference to that one moment.

I’ve felt for a long time that we were crybabies about the whole thing. Not that it wasn’t horrible; it was. Not that I don’t mourn those who died; I do. But the number of lives our country has taken away from the rest of the world in retribution, holding up that attack ten years ago as a shield against blame for the wrongs we have committed… it makes me sick to think of it. And so I often don’t. I avoid thinking about the profound influence that these things have had on me and my life. But right now, sitting here alone and running a fever and somewhat confused, it’s washing over me. This is my reality and has been since I was eighteen: that there is nothing just here. There is and never has been an easy black-and-white in war or in politics. There is always that grey cloud of asbestos and fear, even in the brilliant fall morning light, because simplicity was lost long ago, sometime before we knew how to write it down. I often feel that my generation is diffuse, dissolute, disillusioned. That we lost our sense of magic on that morning. But really, I don’t think we ever had it to begin with. Really, I think every generation must find this truth in one way or another. We simply have a moment in our collective memory to point to as the root of our childhoods falling away into ideologies clashing, stock markets flopping like dead fish, religions exploding. But what’s funny is that in the world we live in, where we are at once more connected than ever and yet further from one another, separated by each other by the screens of our gadgets while tethered to the realities of what our military is doing abroad displayed on those same screens… that we have chosen to largely avoid banding together under that moment. We are too cool, or something. We see the grey in it and we can’t figure out how to stand side by side, hand in hand, to find a common emotion here. We clutch our smart phones and can’t look each  other in the eye, having come of age in a time when there is no common ground that is sure footing. It’s all slippery, it’s all subjective, it’s all relative, and there is no real comfort there. But is adulthood a place where there can be comfort?

I’ll read again tomorrow afternoon, with Sean Labrador Y Manzano, Nick Johnson, Britt Melewski, Keely Hyslop, M.G. Martin, Annie Wilner, Molly Kat, Soumeya Bendimerad, and Tess Patalano. Unnameable Books, 600 Vanderbilt Avenue, Brooklyn. Would love to see some friendly faces.

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