How A Commercial Changed My Life
Updated: Apr 1, 2022
It happened one Sunday afternoon right after I’d first started dabbling with writing again.
My 17-year-old son was watching a football game in the living room. (I’m using the term ‘watching’ loosely here as he was also playing a hand-held video game, checking his phone, and occasionally glancing at the TV all at the same time).
As an avid football fan myself, I sat down to watch with him, hoping for the chance to share a brief bonding moment over our shared love of Peyton Manning.
A car commercial came on, a song playing in the background I knew all too well. It was The Rolling Stones singing “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”. Stunned by the counterculture Stone’s decision to finally sell out to The Man, I idly asked my son if he knew who was singing the song.
He shrugged, not lifting his gaze from the device in his hand. “I don’t know. Aerosmith?”
I’m telling you people, if I’d had pearls on, I would’ve clutched the hell out of them at that moment.
“It’s not AEROSMITH! It’s THE ROLLING STONES!!” I exploded, glaring with contempt at this boy who only moments before had been the most brilliant, beautiful creature I’d ever laid eyes on.
He tried his best to ignore me as I huffed and grumbled and fanned myself with outrage. But I kept up my veklempt-ness for so long he finally had to acknowledge me.
“God, mom calm down,” he said with a withering glance. “It’s just a song.”
My mind immediately flew back to a boy I knew in high school. A boy who would’ve been just as upset as I was by the wrongness of that sentence.
“Well,” I said indignantly, “I knew someone once who would’ve been very offended by you calling ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ just a song.”
By that time my son was already way too immersed in his phone watching skateboarders getting their balls crushed to even ask who I was talking about. But that was OK because I wasn’t on that couch anymore. I had been whisked back 35 years, to a car roaring down a dark gravel road, Mick Jagger’s voice blasting in my ears, a black-haired boy smiling his sweet smile at me from the driver’s seat.
An impulse came over me in that moment that was so strong it was like something outside of myself had possessed my body. I didn’t fight the urge. I just gave over to the dreamlike state and followed my body up the stairs, where it pulled out an old scrapbook and a box of folded notes. Then I started pouring over the bits and baubles of my past like The Little Mermaid on her rock surrounded by her gadgets and gizmos a plenty.
As I gazed down on the memorabilia, I whispered a soft thank you to my 15-year-old self that had somehow had the foresight to keep this all stuff. I blessed her for being so boy crazy that she’d documented her high school love life with all the care and detail of a National Geographic reporter.
As I flipped through the pages of the scrapbook, I cringed, seeing it from my grown-up perspective. Instead of photos of my athletic accomplishments or school dances or friend group, my scrapbook was devoted solely to boys. Each two-page spread featured one lucky guy’s name in crudely drawn bubble letters at the top. Robert, Joe, Steve, read the long roster of boyfriends. Underneath each name were pages filled with various scraps of memories: pictures, notes, beer labels, maps. God, what would my strong feminist daughter think of me if she saw this book? I’d basically defined my entire existence solely on what guy I was dating at the time. Oh, the innocence (and ignorance) of a young girl growing up in the 1980s.
The opening layout of the scrapbook was what I’d come upstairs to find. I’d dedicated it to my first love, the boy in the car with the Rolling Stones obsession. I smiled as I looked over the carefully curated memories. The notes, the poems, the cards. They were all so vivid, so dramatic, so… well, passionate. It was silly, wasn’t it? I mean, we were so young and stupid. First loves weren’t supposed to mean that much in the long run, right? So why was looking at all these old memorabilia making me feel so many things?
Then I remembered when my daughter had her first heartbreak when she was sixteen. I’d called my mom, who was a marriage and family therapist, for advice. She’d told me not to diminish my daughter’s pain. That to a grown-up, who now had a much broader perspective, a high school break up might seem like a mere blip on a screen. But my daughter didn’t have that perspective yet. I needed to remember that first love was just as real and valid as the long-lasting love we’d all experience later in our lives. In fact, sometimes teenage relationships are even more intense because it's the first time we’ve ever felt emotions of that magnitude before. That’s why people remember their first loves so richly, she said. That introduction to a whole new world of love and adoration and pain and loss is an experience that becomes seared into our hearts forever. It becomes a part of who we are.
I thought of her words as more and more memories flooded back; as I realized my first love was no ordinary relationship. At the time, I was young and unsupervised and had become involved with an older boy. A boy I idolized and adored and who (according to the notes I was now reading), adored me right back. It was exciting and intense and ended almost as fast as it had started, but I’d learned a lot from that relationship. Now, seeing it from the perspective of a mom with kids of the same age, I wondered if there was anything in my experience that my kids could relate to. Was there something in my story that could somehow touch someone else’s life?
Ideas came out of nowhere, music flooded into my ears. I clicked on iTunes and listened to endless loops of Rolling Stones songs from my youth. And with each guitar strum, each Mick grunt, each suggestive lyric, I was transported further and further back in time.
Eventually, a story formed in my head. After that came a structure for that story: The Rolling Stones songs would provide the scaffolding on which I would build the entire framework of scenes. I decided it would be fictional, but still inspired by the essence of all those intense, first-love emotions everyone can relate to. It would be a coming-of-age story of a girl growing up in a small town in Indiana in the ‘80s and all the struggles and lessons that came along with her scandalous first love. The flame had been lit, and from that point on it only burned brighter.
Looking back, I often wonder what would’ve happened if things had played out differently that Sunday afternoon six years ago. What if I hadn’t sat down on that couch at that moment? What if that Rolling Stones song hadn’t come on that commercial at that exact time? What if my son hadn’t been so stupid and had known who was singing the song and I hadn’t had a reason to get so mad at him? What if I’d been logical and practical and hadn’t gotten up and followed the strange impulse that led me upstairs? The one that led me to the inspiration that has now grown into a full-on calling, a love affair with my writing life.
I’m so glad I listened to myself that day. I’m so glad I got off the couch, even though it seemed like an awfully strange and indulgent thing to do at the time. One tiny step led to another tiny step, to another tiny step. Which keeps leading me on this continuous journey of self- discovery. And thankfully back to the place of my ultimate first love: writing stories.
So now I’m asking you to start noticing those small impulses that seem like nothing that come into your life. The urge to call a friend, or drive a different way to work, or pop into that store real quick. I’ve noticed the decisions that have changed my life weren’t huge, earth-shattering directives from God above. They were tiny whispers to do something so simple, so easy, something that felt so good I couldn’t say no to them.
I guess what I’m trying to say is I believe this is all much easier than we’re making it out to be. The world wants the best for us. It’s trying to tell us that all the time. All we have to do is listen for the whispers. And when we hear them, GO.