The morning after my father passed, my aunt opened every window in the house. She said it was to let his spirit escape.

So, I peeked my head outside.

All I saw were my uncles' two beat-up motorhomes rolling into our driveway. They parked in the tall grass, strung power cords into the barn, extended awnings.

That night, they built a campfire, then sat looking at the stars. Now and then, one uncle would stab the fire, sending a spray of sparks into the night.

Instead of conversation, someone brought out a guitar. In his raspy voice—which sounded like a bloodhound with sinus issues—my uncle sang, “Amazing Grace,” and, “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder.” When he sang, “Will The Circle Be Unbroken?” he was nearly overcome.

I didn't understand the song, or what kind of circle he meant. I'm not sure he did either, because when I asked about it, he lit a fresh cigarette and said, “It's the mystery of life, boy.”

Mysteries.

Like the way clouds keep reproducing out of thin air.

Or: what makes a heart beat—and what makes it stop? How a fire works, and why politics feels like a poke to the eye with a number-two pencil.

A boy can go his whole life without knowing these things.

Years later, I took a college biology class. For our final project, the professor charged us with reporting on an everyday mystery. One student chose childbirth. Another: tidal waves.

One girl, whose mother had died, chose life itself. As part of her report, she picked a guitar, singing, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?”

You've never heard anything so hillbilly.

“...You can picture...” she sang, rounding verse four. “...gatherings, round the fireside, long ago...”

The teacher, an adamant scientist, closed his eyes.

“...Of tearful partings, how they left you here below. Will the circle be unbroken?...”

The truth is, I don't know if the circle…

I'm looking at the bay water right now. A storm is blowing in. It looks like heaven is fixing to open up.

Vacationers in the cabin to my right are doing the same thing I'm doing. The man is on his porch, wearing a bright red Georgia Bulldog T-shirt, smoking a cigarette.

Watching.

The family in the cabin to my left is from Auburn, Alabama. The back of their truck, smeared with pictures of tigers and eagles. He's on his porch, too. He's sipping a cup of something that's supposed to be coffee. But I'd bet good money it's hair-of-the-dog.

“Good morning,” says Georgia.

“Good morning,” I'm saying.

Auburn says nothing—his morning isn't so good.

Well mine is. And I'm just going to come right out and say it: I feel grateful. I don't know why, to tell you the truth. I suppose a man can't control the way he feels, sometimes.

Neither good nor bad.

Anyway, it's not because my life is wonderful, or because I'm naturally happy. My life hasn't always been

so wonderful. And I'm not exactly the giddiest little sailor God ever created.

But I'm grateful for things. Things like puppies, geckos, and stocked coolers. For comfortable shoes, stiff breezes, and clouds that catch the light just right. And for this penny a cashier handed me, dated 1909.

I'm grateful for fellas who get up early to go fishing because they can't wait until after breakfast. Right now, I see four boats in the bay. And the only thing missing out there is me.

I'm grateful for people who find the courage to quit unhappy jobs. For people who lose. For worriers, and the self-conscious. I'm grateful for beautiful girls who think they're ugly. I'm grateful for good athletes; more grateful for bad ones who try.

I thank God for ice machines, shade trees, and oyster shells so deformed they're magnificent. For rural people, who try…

Our air conditioner went out. And if I were to tell you that it's hot, I would be making a gross understatement. It's not hot. It's sweltering—that's what my mama calls it.

Our bedsheets feel like they're made of industrial wool. I smell like the raw side of a mule. My wife has sweat rings under her sweat rings. Our dog looks suicidal.

I don't know how the old-timers did it, before window-units. I remember my grandfather saying, as a boy, he'd sit beneath his house with his dogs. He'd practice guitar; they'd pant.

His mother would lower lunch through the loose floorboards—crumbled cornbread in a jar, doused with buttermilk.

“All food ought be cold during the dog days," he'd say. "Tea, tomatoes, cucumbers, potato salad, watermelon, slaw...”

Summer food.

And then there were summer Sundays. “Church was awful," my grandfather said. "Cramming a bunch of folks into one hot little chapel, everybody sweating. It's enough to make you believe in Hell."

Even so, Hell happened to be his favorite season of the year.

I asked him how this could be, when only hours earlier, I'd seen two trees fighting over a dog.

He said, “We didn't notice the heat, we just enjoyed the outdoors. Air conditioners only made everyone stay inside.”

I suppose he's right. Before artificial air, the best place in the world was the porch. Summer was a season for cooking outside—cooking indoors would've melted your face off. When everyone got together for fresh tomatoes, and red-and-white checkered table cloths.

It was a time when young folks like my grandfather visited the honky tonks on the edge of town. There, he'd pay fifteen cents for all-you-can-drink hooch, sweat through his hat, and smile at girls in cheap cotton dresses.

That's why he liked summer.

It's a season when the world becomes overrun with possibilities. Good ones. Anything can happen. On any given night. On any dirt road.…

Raleigh, North Carolina—Adam is a six-year-old whose life hasn't been the same since his mother passed. Nobody could coax more than a sentence out of him.

And then came Parent-Day—a school-calendar day for parents to visit children in the classroom.

Someone found Adam crying in a bathroom stall.

One teacher had an idea. So, the following Friday, when Adam arrived at school, she led him to the gymnasium.

"SURPRISE!"

There were decorations, movies, snacks, dance-contests, and games. And I understand cake and ice cream got involved.

When Adam saw this, he explained it must've been a mistake, since it wasn't his birthday.

But it was no mistake.

His classmates declared it: National Adam Day.

Tallahassee, Florida—Phyllis tells me her neighbor, Gene, has been power-blowing her driveway for years now. Whenever clutter from trees falls in the yard, Gene shows up with his blower, and (voila!) life is beautiful.

Gene got sick. He wasn't able to do much, let alone do outdoor work.

One morning, three teenagers from across the street showed up, unannounced, to cut Gene's grass. They also took good care

of Phyllis' driveway. No charge.

For eight years.

Lawrenceville, Georgia—when Myra put her cat to sleep, it was the hardest thing she ever did.

“He trusted me,” Myra said. “Even though I was taking him to the vet to be... You know.”

Yeah. I know.

The procedure was fast and painless. But not for Myra.

“I felt so lonely," she says. "You know, you spend fifteen years with an animal, it becomes your kid.”

One night that same week, Myra heard a racket on her porch. She went to check. It was a dog. He wore no collar, and stole cat food from the bowl. Myra shooed the dog, and took away the food.

But, food or not, the dog returned the next day. And the next. And then one morning, she found him asleep on her doormat.

I was seven. I found a pocketknife buried in the mud. We were on a fishing trip, in the middle of the sticks. I saw something poking from the ground with gold studs and a wooden handle.

It was a Buck knife. That might not mean anything to you. To a seven-year-old, it's the Cup of Christ.

Another particularly good moment in my life:

My cousin gave me a bicycle. It was purple—my cousin was decidedly female. The bike had pink tassels on the handlebars. The feminine contraption would've humiliated any self-respecting boy. But it was my first bicycle.

I rode eight hours on gravel roads. I zipped down a

steep hill. I wiped out, busting my jaw. It should've hurt. But I was too giddy to feel it.

My uncle's farm: acres away from his house. A junkyard dating back to the Confederate Army. It was a place where rusty things went to die in the weeds.

Iron plows, oxcarts, and hay rakes. There were old Chevys, Model T Coupes, and wrecked trucks. I'd sit in their front seats and spend all afternoon driving across the United States.

It's a wonder I didn't die of tetanus.

Here's another:

A…

Here I am, sitting in a library in mid-Alabama. It's nearby to where we're staying, and it's a swanky place. You ought to see it.

They even have espresso machines.

I'm am at a desk now. When I first sat here, I planned to write about God-knows-what. But, midway into the third paragraph of what was shaping up to be the most boring piece of literature mankind has ever seen, I saw them.

An older couple. She's small. Her slacks look four-sizes too big. Her tall husband is holding her hand.

“I wanna rent a movie,” she's saying.

“Sure thing, baby,” he answers in a thick drawl.

He lends her his arm like they're promenading onto a dance floor, and they shuffle toward the DVDs.

Libraries have changed over the years. Long ago they were books, desks, Dewey decimals, and unpleasant beehive hairdos. Now, modern municipalities like this place have aquariums, WiFi, soundproof playrooms, and Spanish-English classes on Tuesday nights. And you should see their DVD collection.

She grabs a movie and hands it to him.

He reads aloud, “Species: a government scientist intercepts

an alien transmission, and...”

“No,” she says.

He reads another. “The Exorcist: when a twelve-year-old girl becomes possessed by a demon, she...”

"No!"

They do this a few more times until she begins to yell. “I don't want to watch THAT! God, I hate it here! And what am I doing? Where is this place?"

"The library, honey."

"WHAT?"

“Don't yell, honey,” he says. “How about we read something in the sitting area?”

"DON'T TOUCH ME!"

He just smiles.

"HANDS OFF ME!" she says, limping to the lounge. He's following her. He helps her into the chair. She winces in pain when she bends her knees to sit.

“That's it," he says. "Just relax.”

Her eyes are closed. "I hurt. My body hurts all over."

“I know it, darlin', you want some coffee?”

She shakes her…

“Used to,” she went on, “my favorite thing to do was camp with my friends. Mama didn't even worry about safety back then. We girls camped by the river, we'd get so dark-tan we looked caramel.”

If you grew up like she did, you'd call yourself a tomboy too. She has the attitude and the antique pictures on her wall to prove it.

“When I was a girl,” she said. “After school, we'd spend the afternoon catching frogs, fishing, climbing trees. A tomboy like me didn't know HOW to be comfortable indoors. I was nothing like my other sisters, I wanted to be outside, in the mud."

Muddy childhoods like hers are foreign concepts to modern-day kids. Things like climbing trees, throwing pocket-knives at pine trees, or catching frogs are forms of cruel and unusual punishment now.

Today, it's video games, texting, or songs

about getting naked and drinking enough tequila you forget your limo-driver's name.

And folks have the gall to call it country music.

While we chatted in the kitchen, her eight-year-old grandson laid on the sofa, playing with his phone.

“Used to,” she went on, “my favorite thing to do was camp with my friends. Mama didn't even worry about safety back then. We girls camped by the river, we'd get so dark-tan we looked caramel.”

Her grandson waltzed into the kitchen, his sneakers squeaking on the floor. Without taking his eyes off…

"This is a real funeral. Your loved ones aren't coming back, you're all alone. You'll forget to eat. You'll sleep for thirty-six hours on end. Welcome to the worst day of your life. You'll grieve until you're eighty-two."

"The Lord is my shepherd," he's saying, slowly. And it takes him a good three syllables just to say the word, “Lord.”

He stands beside the casket, sweating through his suit. His white hair looks nearly perfect.

This is Brewton, Alabama. The family of the deceased sits motionless with swollen faces, dabbing their eyes. He's old, he talks with a drawl that won't quit. He has the Bible open, but it's only for show. He could recite this passage from memory.

For the life of me, I don't know why anyone—myself included—bothers to pick up a pen and write anything. Everything you'd ever need to know; he's saying it.

“He maketh

me to lie down in green pastures...”

The sound of a bird chirping competes with the preacher's voice. Someone ought to shoot that bird.

"He restoreth my soul..."

I once knew a girl whose husband died when his tractor rolled over. At the funeral, she sat beneath the big tent, stone-faced while the preacher spoke. Her two children beside her.

That morning, she told me, “I'm too stunned to cry. I keep expecting it to hit, but every time I try to cry, nothing comes.”

That day, she didn't…

When we reached the church, it was a little white building with only one truck out front. The Sepulga congregation consists of nine people who all pronounce the word, “power,” like, “par.”

We got lost on the way to Sepulga Baptist Church. We ended up wandering through forty miles of Alabamian countryside to find it.

"Honey," said my wife, after an hour driving. “We've passed that same barn ten times now."

So, I pulled into a squatty general store, next to a forest overgrown with kudzu. A dilapidated place where you can buy everything from Red Man chew to Georgia Pacific toilet paper.

I asked directions. The lady behind the counter spat dark spit into a Styrofoam cup, saying, "Go 'bout a quarter mile d'rectly up yonder 'til y'all hit a fork, hold right a few miles furr' an' y'all're smack-dab

at Sepulga. Got it, darlin'?"

Not really.

She sent me away with a Ziploc of pecans—no charge.

When we reached the church, it was a little white building with only one truck out front. The Sepulga congregation consists of nine people who all pronounce the word, “power,” like, “par.” And on this particular day, the crowd was a few shy of a baseball team.

Once folks found their seats, seventy-nine-year-old Brother John called from the pulpit, “How're you feeling today, Ricky?”

An elderly man hobbled to his feet, thumbs hitched in…