An Italian Restaurant and Recollections

Pandora is my friend.

I was late onto the bandwagon, mind you, but I’ve been an enthusiastic fan ever since. Almost all of the time I use Pandora, I’m re-visiting old favorites from my younger days (and let’s pretend that statement didn’t make me sound as old as it did). I like to think that I have good taste in music, because good music takes you somewhere. It helps you realize things about yourself on a good day. It can assist in epiphanies.

That’s exactly what happened recently as I was listening to a song that I had heard on Pandora, experienced the “I haven’t heard that song in forever!!!” (while still knowing all of the lyrics) reaction, purchased it soon after, and listened to it repeatedly on the commute over subsequent weeks. The song is Scenes From an Italian Restaurant by Billy Joel, and this musical masterpiece has walked me through a huge realization about myself.

The song opens with two old friends who haven’t seen each other in a very long time, agreeing to meet at their old favorite Italian restaurant. Joel tells the different parts of his story with pointed musical changes, and the tempo picks up as the old friends begin to catch up, telling each other about their lives today. The music becomes more upbeat and begins to swing into a jazzy, New Orleans style as they begin to re-count their high school days “hanging out by the village green.” The friends reminisce about their glory days as we are moved into a musical interlude, and the tempo shifts again, this time accompanying a shift in the narrative to third person as we begin to be told the story of Brenda and Eddie.

Brenda and Eddie “were the popular steadies, and the king and the queen of the prom” in this story, whose high school relationship exemplified everything that these friends thought that they could ever want in life. This couple dated through high school, knew and loved everyone, and decided after high school to get married. We’re told in the song that they were advised against it by their friends, but married any way, because they were in love. The marriage began wonderfully, until financial stress begins to tear the relationship apart…leading us to a more tumultuous rock and roll interlude.

When we come down from Joel’s great keyboard work, we find out that Brenda and Eddie divorced and gone their separate ways as friends. A sad end to the couple that had been role models for all of their friends, and who suddenly find themselves without the life that had defined them for so long. So, they attempt to go back to their old friends and lives, only to find that those lives were no longer there and that their friends had moved on. The line that gives us this is, I think, the thesis of Joel’s thought here:

“Then the king and the queen went back to the green, but you can never go back there again.”

Brenda and Eddie had to keep moving forward.

The song shifts back to its slower roots, back to the friends meeting for dinner at the Italian restaurant, remembering great days (and I’m sometimes left to wonder, are we seeing Brenda and Eddie years later?).

As I said, this song is a masterpiece of rock n’ roll storytelling.

Now, about that epiphany.

When I graduated from high school and went to college my freshman year, I did not have a wonderful experience. In fact, it was quite terrible. I couldn’t adapt to everything…and I mean everything…changing. I had worked hard to be successful in high school, academically, socially, and artistically. Now, my friends were gone, I had no connections and no respect among my peers yet, my environment was completely foreign, and I was struggling.

I visited home often during that first year, nearly every weekend. I had had friends a grade below me when I graduated high school, and I ended up hanging out with them in my home town. I remember thinking that I had difficulty letting go of high school, that I wanted to hold on to that lifestyle longer. I think that maybe I lived vicariously until those friends a year behind me graduated. Then, I had let go and could move on, but damage had been done: I had been un-focused, I had landed myself on academic probation, and I had dropped out of school altogether. It took me a semester to get myself in order again, and then I transferred to the school that would become my alma mater, graduating dean’s list most semesters. I was successful, but it was a difficult road to get there.

When Karen and I moved to the Boston area in August, I had anticipated some difficulties, but none of them were ones of emotion or of acclimating to a new environment. We were familiar with the area, were more than ready to move on from where we had been living, and had prepared and planned the move. I would be in school again for a few months, and we were shifting back into the mode of living that goes with that.

I couldn’t have anticipated the emotional roller-coaster that ran over me when we arrived. I wanted our life from two months before back again, a sudden and irrational desire. I wanted our friends back, I wanted the city in which we had lived and with which I was familiar back, I even wanted our old jobs back. I wanted our apartment back, because I found myself¬†inexplicably¬†attached to the memory of that place. We had, after all, brought our daughter home to that apartment for the first time, and there were emotions tied to that place that I could never have predicted.

I want to tell you that I’ve moved through this, that school is successful, and that I have learned from experience. I can’t. I think that all of those things will be the case, but for the past three months (at least), I’ve been an emotional wreck on a regular basis, clinging to anything that feels remotely familiar and pining for what is behind us. I’ve been homesick, while recognizing that where we had lived is no longer home. That’s a feeling that is very out of character for me.

At least I thought that it was, until I remembered that freshman year of college from so long ago.

At the height of my angst, I was ready to make the impulsive decision to pack up everything and move back, even though I knew that would mean starting over professionally and that re-establishing ourselves in that area, even with friends, would have proven difficult to impossible. Just as in the thesis of Joel’s song, we could never go back there again. We had moved on, and so had life. The only direction to go is forward.

So I guess that I’ve had moments in which I’ve been trapped in the past, unable to move forward. It’s done harm to me both times, and it’s been very difficult to overcome. I’m not certain why, because I usually embrace change openly. I think, though, that there’s a theology of place…that where we are is not just where we are, but has a profound implication on our spirits and lives. Sometimes its a poor fit, but we find ourselves having to work through it anyway, because moving backward is never an option.

And so, I find myself in a spot where I’m struggling…a lot…to move forward, but inching in that direction. I don’t regret our decision to move when I’m thinking rationally, because I think we are, in fact, moving forward. I’ve tripped and fallen a bit along the way, but I’m pushing through now.

And, one afternoon, years from now, perhaps I’ll be sitting in an Italian restaurant with friends from the Southeast recalling those days that we hung out together.

We all have our own scenes, and the play never, ever goes backward. Here’s to the future…

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