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  • Reverend James Squire

The Hotel California

The Hotel California by the Eagles was the record of the year at the 1977 Grammy Awards. It was performed 2204 times by 167 artists by the end of 2021. What made it so popular was the poetic nature of the lyrics that contained the oft quoted line, “I had to find the passage back to the place I was before. “Relax,” said the nightman. We are programmed to receive. You can check out any time you like. But you can never leave.”

Its popularity was due to the many interpretations of the song. People interpreted it based on their experience. Because the cover was a picture of the Camarillo State Mental Hospital, many saw the Hotel California as a mental institution. Some saw the hotel as representative of people housed there who had too much American decadence, too much money, arrogance, greed and little humility. The writer of the lyrics, Don Henley, was said to have the last word when he commented that, “The song was about our journey from innocence to experience.” That was where I landed as my interpretation.

The song is framed the same way as the story of Adam and Eve familiar to many when they are wrestling with good and evil and are forced out of the Garden of Eden. It is referred to as after the Fall. Those of you who have read my memoir, The Times of My Life, recall that the central theme that I think that all people should reflect upon to bring meaning to their life is to answer the question that a woman friend raised to me. Ironically no one had asked it of me before so she caught me off guard. We were on the deck of my home on the Chesapeake looking at a beautiful view of the sunset and the movement of the waters on the Bay below. She knew that I came from very humble beginnings so she looked me in the eye and asked, “Jim, how did you get here from there (a struggling blue-collar town).” I didn’t know how to respond. I was stumbling to find the right words as I had not thought enough about that important question. A reflection on that question searching for an answer within me led me to write my memoir.

You can check out any time you like. But you can never leave. Like most people whose stories are familiar to me our young days in the metaphorical Garden of Eden were a mix of good and bad. I knew that the time was filled with times with my friends in the evening not worrying about danger or evil. Like the fish that only knows water, you assume that your life of innocence is like the air you breathe. I made the assumption no matter how silly it sounds that everyone’s childhood was like mine. We leave the Garden when we learn that truth that everyone’s life may be different from what we are experiencing. That is the central message when we gain that awareness that all is “not right with the world.”

In the same way that the grief process focuses on the good things about a person’s loss, we tend to see all of the good in our youth when we were growing up. We idealize our experience. If the Garden was so innocent, why did I check out?

After the Fall in our wake-up call about the challenges that come more into focus, we enter the land so aptly put by John Steinbeck as East of Eden. What I learned from some painful reflection is that the older you get, the more you find kindred spirits on the journey as Don Henley put it in that famous verse of his famous song. All experiences of innocence and lack thereof are valuable to the process, and it is different for each of us. The blue-collar world is about survival and money. You have money on the brain when you leave the Garden and find yourself after the Fall or East of Eden, with thoughts of money that are not far away. They are like a shadow that is always connected to your every choice and movement. It is the world of the “have nots.” When you come from the world of the “haves” you have other issues that are just as important or perhaps more important than the money. They are still as challenging but different on our respective journeys.

Two anecdotes should suffice. One of the wealthiest people in our school community came to me for counseling. His presenting problem was he couldn’t go on vacations and this was limiting his desire to be a great family man. He came to me because he knew of my background and my fondness for his family. He grew up in a family that was far more challenging than my background. When I said that I have the same problem, you could visibly see him relax. We knew how to outwork people, but we were challenged in the area of how to play. Fortunately, our spouses were the “life of the party” and had a good balance between work and play. We focused on how to claim what we needed to about that shadow but to enjoy life more. We committed to learning how to play. Our wives could be the teachers. He is now enjoying time away with the family. Both of us had a “depression era” mindset so you could give us a billion dollars, and that shadow would still be there. If we are walking in the light, the shadow never goes away. They never leave.

Second, I always require students to write about their core interpersonal values that are what they value in relationships or what “makes them tick.” The responses are always deeply personal as the students know that I am the only one who will read them. This student came from a very wealthy family. His father had recently informed him that he will be able to do anything that he wanted in life because he would always be given enough money to make any wish come true. It was well intentioned on the father’s part, but it was the worst thing he could say to this student. “Will people like me because of my money or because of who I am?” His shadow was not to hurt his father’s feelings but to live a life of his own choosing. He wanted the joy of the journey and the struggle. He never had to think of the shadow of money, but he had a shadow of wanting to live life on his terms which was very challenging to see that shadow always behind him. He is now doing what he wants to do. His desire for independence is always with him as well as the shadow. They never leave.

Don Henley wrote a brilliant verse, “You can check out any time you like but you can never leave.” Checking out is the easy part for, as was true in the Garden of Innocence, our journey through life forces us to live East of Eden. But leaving is another story. What I have learned is that everyone has their own shadow. Some are aware. Some are not. Awareness allows us to shine a light on our past and the values and character that was formed there. The light does not include “if only(s).” Those who want to thrive will look at those “if only(s)” of the shadow of the past and focus more on that question that demands an answer, “How did I get here from there?” All of life provides an answer on our journey. We are driving the vehicle of us, you and me, on our journey looking out through the front window of the present and future as we periodically look in the rearview mirror to guarantee a safe journey to our destination.

If it wasn’t for a woman friend on my deck looking at a beautiful sunset, I would not have thought about the importance of the question.

Below is the song, The Hotel California by the Eagles:

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