In the final chapter of my favorite book, Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, the character Newland Archer reflects on his late wife May, a society beauty “so incapable of growth, that the world of her youth had fallen into pieces and rebuilt itself without her ever being conscious of the change.” It’s the same way I feel about many family members, ex bosses, and politicians. Martin Scorcese’s film adaptation of The Age of Innocence is also, to me, a masterpiece, and a movie that all three generations of my family could enjoy. But surely we must like it, or be heartbroken by it for completely different reasons. My dad takes an interest in things I like, he likes Scorcese, and I imagine he sees a bit of himself in the model citizenship and quiet devotion to literature and art of Newland Archer. My grandparents, and I can only guess at this, probably enjoy the sense of wholesomeness one tends to feel watching restrained period pieces. They are May and they are being indicted before their eyes and they don’t see it.
We talk about boomers a lot but I got lucky with my parents. We’re far from similar politically, but they’re not ignorant or closed minded. With my grandparents, the gap is so wide that it incites that terrible, sinking realization that you’re talking to someone but never communicating. It’s bizarre to see the wealth building-above-all, love of rules, and trust in institutions of the Silent Generation. A few months ago I remembered them getting worked up about unions when I was too young to understand what a union was. I told my mom, “the idea that anyone my age would be loyal to a job is kind of inconceivable.” I think they will spend the rest of their lives unable to see that the world of their youth, or even late middle age, has fallen away. Of course, they have complained many times about the softness and ingratitude of Millennials.
It’s lame that we don’t get cool generational nicknames anymore – Lost, Greatest, Silent. If we could have one, it might be The Betrayed Generation. We simply don’t have the luxury of ignoring the way the world has rebuilt itself – always in the wrong ways – in our lifetimes. I think it’s hard for older people to understand our mindset; the utter despair of having your basic understanding of how things work ripped from under you again and again. The oldest among us can tell you about the trauma of being a young adult when we crossed over into a “post 9/11 world.” For younger Millennials, the financial crisis hit when we were graduating high school or in college, changing or amputating a lot of the options we assumed we could have. All of us had to watch a large portion of the population abandon any concept of morality in 2016. We aren’t sure if we should have children, even if most of us could afford to. Is it ethical to create life that will be ravaged by climate change? If that question was still up in the air for some of us, we’ve probably put it on hold indefinitely, because we’re once again on the threshold of the world looking completely different, if we live to see it.
My actual favorite line in The Age of Innocence, that I think about constantly, is “It was the room in which most of the real things of his life had happened.” I think about how precious it is to ever find that room. Or maybe it’s a sad line about how so many important things leave no trace, can’t be real and in a room. It’s taken on a blackly comedic weight in my mind now, too. This is also the room where the only things in my life happen. Every time I hear an ambulance from my window in Brooklyn, I wonder if someone is being rushed to the hospital with COVID-19. I also wonder if this is the sameish amount of ambulances I usually hear but my anxiety is so high that I’m attuned to every sound – horns, children playing (surely too many children’s voices for them to all be from the same household?), a church service that is for some fucking reason still happening. I’m lucky to be here with my boyfriend, who I love in a deep, life-changing way. We were planning our wedding for the fall and it’s now more like “whenever we can.” But I also cry a lot thinking about my parent’s house. A lot of us have a really bad “run home” response because what we were told about adulthood wasn’t viable or real anymore. Sometimes I hate this place, but I’m grieving the sudden loss of my relationship with New York. There goes the second ambulance in this paragraph, by the way. I’m watching the world crumble away in real time. The president doesn’t seem to care about the fate of the greatest city in the world now that he’s not spending most of his time and money here. Third ambulance. I promise this isn’t a gimmick. Some church bells also just rang, which is too horrifyingly normal.
Anyway this isn’t like, an essay. I’m mad at older people who helped create this *gestures* situation. I’m mad that people keep calling us weak and lazy – even when they aren’t forgetting that none of us are teenagers. Fourth ambulance. I hope future generations are existent, for one, and able to have fun studying us. I think my generation will go down in history as a uniquely depressed and psychologically burdened group that struggled to have a decent life even with too many odds stacked against us. Another one I like from that chapter: “Looking about him, he honoured his own past, and mourned for it.” I just don’t think you’re supposed to do that in your 20s.