Some nights, especially as San Francisco nears its typically, lovably perverse summer in September, the fog doesn’t quite make it in or falls apart and retreats, and a few puffy clouds are left scooting across the night sky, low enough to distinctly reflect the city light. When I see them, my mind leaps to a particular, unlikely place.

Panama City Beach, Florida. The Riviera of the South. A white-sand strip of bucket-drink beach clubs, pirate-ship restaurants, mini-golf, and stilt-walking summer homes where a friend and I fled to from Kentucky for two vacations in the late ’80s, finding brief refuge from our deteriorating work situations in a free house whose topside deck had a view over an undeveloped sandy lot to the gently lapping sea just a few blocks away.

When the white night clouds spark that flash of place, a cluster of moods pile up to race through me.

Beacons and depths

Arriving first is the remembered joy of good times in new surroundings: my first extended stays by the ocean. My first real tastes of seaside life. My first encounters with puffy clouds floating low off the ocean. They were a new kind of beacon — reflectors held close below the high scattering of stars, including those of my supposed birth sign, Scorpius, mirroring me as we drank each night on the deck, after days of beach and water adventures and seafood. The stars and the clouds, and the breeze and booze, made us both able to contemplate our dim-looking futures without, at those moments, being depressed by them.

Then in sweeps the ghost of that depression: the awareness of the depths beneath our buoyant little vacation rafts, the remembrance of troubled times. I can look back on them now and think, things weren’t really that bad. But I also see that in a way they really were, crushing me slowly but surely from within, but hidden so thoroughly I couldn’t even recognize them. They hurt at the time, even if they don’t any more because—

The third mood crashes in.

Mapping the past

A few weeks ago, a reflexive chain of linking and thinking — the modern stream of consciousness — led to Google Maps, where I was moved to try to locate the house we stayed in during those vacations. I don’t remember the address (maybe Sunset and Dolphin? Or Tarpon?), but it shouldn’t have been that tough to find. Yet, as much as I recalled about how to get there, how far we drove up Thomas Drive before heading inland, how far off the ocean it was, the house is not to be found, by map or satellite or street view.

And it hit me like a slap. Look at how crowded it is. All those resort hotels and subdivisions where there was only scrub. All the paved side streets. Not only is that empty lot behind the house certainly long filled, but the house itself probably no longer exists, certainly not the way it looked then.

Because this was twenty-effing-five years ago.

A quarter of a century.

With that realization, lost time and creeping mortality try to smother me like darkness.

Fooling heaven bit by bit

Thankfully, I’ve made good use of at least some of that time. I finally grasped those weights and learned to lift them, making myself stronger, escaping an entropy of the soul that I could once face only through a murky lens of Long Island Teas.

I’ve made a now that makes the distance of the then meaningless.

Here’s a relevant song lyric, not from my youth or the past or nostalgia, but from now, an album released just last year by a new favorite band, YACHT:

Accumulating cumulus in our backyard
My puzzle pieces fooling heaven bit by bit

Those white clouds that instantly evoke so much in my overly introspective brain aren’t the ones of the past. They’re the ones of the glorious present that I’m lucky to have, but also that I pushed ahead to make.

In the end, what’s most remarkable about that scary-vast passage of time is that my present is better than everything back there.

If that’s not true for you, do everything you can to fix that. Learn, scrape, seek, play. Don’t let it matter how far back certain pasts are. Fill that long-vacant lot with a new home of the heart. Find those puffs of light in the night, and bask beneath them.