PANAMA CITY BEACH — A tropical front moved across the beaches early in the week, and I had the fortune of taking our dogs for a late night gallivant just as the clouds broke.
Stars like diamonds stood out against a deep black sky behind billowing cobalt thunderheads. I watched the creeping pinpoint light of a satellite or high-flying jet cutting a slow arc among them, and felt filled with childlike wonder.
I vowed in that moment not to fall prey to the ever insistent specter of self-reflection and recriminations that I felt building up as my lifeline rolled closer to marking its fifth decade. That long on the planet makes it easier for a brain like mine to look back and ponder all of the things I regret, all of the things I didn’t do and never will, all the people I miss.
Instead, I promised to do the more difficult thing, to spend these next days peering ahead, focusing on all the alternative timelines yet to be created, the infinite possibilities, events and accomplishments that still could happen, stories yet to be told, the people still with me and those I have yet to know.
To stare past the cloudline and into the deep unknown, where stars sparkle and uncharted worlds spin, and even my bad eyes can view with the power of hope and imagination.
On the morning I sat down to write this, I learned that Ernest Spiva, a man I considered a friend — though in truth, we barely knew each other — had passed away. He was 77, which meant he was 27 when I was born and nearly 55 when our paths first converged.
Before he retired, he liked to call me up on any given day and open with, “This is your conscience speaking.”
I had the opportunity recently to read the stories of Ernest’s youth in an unpublished manuscript he called “Growing Up on Grace.” And while he enjoyed looking back and telling funny tales, he never failed to encourage those around him to think about their futures. I think that’s the takeaway he’s left me with, at least in this moment.
I joke about having outlived my own “sell by” date, knowing I should have paid for the extended warranty when I had that cardio bypass, or looking in the mirror and seeing only bad hair days in my future. I toast to absent friends and loved ones. I tweet to anyone who will listen to “tell those punk kids to get off my lawn.” But all of that’s a front, and especially hollow when exposed before the vault of heaven.
When I was a kid, I watched a black-and-white sci-fi/monster film called “The Thing From Another World.” Produced by Howard Hawks, it starred James Arness as the “intellectual carrot” (i.e., alien plant monster) terrorizing soldiers and scientists at a remote arctic station.
The film ends with a reporter broadcasting the story of their harrowing adventure and exhorting other reporters: “Tell the world. Tell this to everybody, wherever they are. Watch the skies — everywhere. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies.”
It’s good advice, even if you don’t expect to catch an invasion of walking plant creatures. Maybe you’ll spot a satellite or a shooting star. Maybe you’ll see something even grander.
Keep watching the skies. Keep looking up, not back. The past will take care of itself. The future needs your attention.
(This is my Undercurrents column for PanamaCity.com and The News Herald this week.)