Today is your cotton-picking day. I hope you don't blush easily, because you're about to get the biggest fanfare this solar system has ever seen.

I see a single mother loading four children into her dilapidated car in the Walmart parking lot. They're pitching a fit, screaming bloody murder.

I'm writing this to her, and to everyone like her.

Also, to the unrecognized, who think they're nothing. People you'll never hear about. The unpopular, unknown, and under-appreciated.

The woman who takes her kids to school early , then cleans motel rooms. The waiter I met at Waffle House—who's been sleeping in a recliner ever since his mother died.

To the man in Piggly Wiggly, helping his eighty-eight-year-old daddy shop.

The blind boy I saw on the beach, who said, “Mama! Listen to that water! It's hypnotizing!”

I closed my eyes and sat at the water's edge for thirty minutes. I'll be damned if that kid wasn't right.

To the lady who feeds animals at the no-kill shelter. She might not be famous, but to the dogs she's a Messiah.

I'm speaking to the man whose wife committed suicide. To Raquel, the rape victim who lives in a halfway house. To the immigrant

Mexican boys who pooled money together to buy a bicycle—then gave it to an old man.

To the girl who's pregnant illegitimately, who doesn't know what comes next.

To all underdogs.

To worriers; those who can't stop thinking about money. To the lonely, widows, widowers, orphans, and caregivers.

To the arthritic, the injured, and those who can't remember life without aches.

To addicts, who are clean. To addicts who aren't.

To people who quit believing in Santa. To people who're bad at math. To anyone who likes John Wayne.

To the child I met, who works after school so he can afford food for his little brother. To the girl I know, who decided to be a teacher. To my friend, Charise, who wonders where her dead little girl is.

To you.

You who aren't certain if anyone sees you. Who hopes…

...be your own animal. Wear your bright-colored, funky clothes, scribble your name catty-wampus. Wear your silly hat, and don't take it off until Mama says it's time to shower.

Kids, before I say another word, you should know that I don't give advice—because I don't have any. In fact, I'm still trying to figure out what the hangy thing is in my throat.

But if I DID have advice—which I don't—I'd say this to you, my adolescent pals:

Be who you are.

You might think that's easy. You're wrong. Lots of folks ask you—beg you—to be someone other than you. They don't mean any harm. They've just got deadlines, goals, grand ideas. Or: perhaps they claim to know what's best for you. They don't. You'll have to trust me on that one.

You weren't made to please them.

You were created for everyone—meaning, all mankind. In fact, that's why you're alive. And you aren't any good to humanity if you're pretending to be what some narrow-minded bucket-brain thinks you should be.

How about I say it like this:

I believe everyone is their own sort of animal. Me? I've always been a red squirrel. Squirrels are meant to climb trees, sleep all day, avoid

residential dogs, and let all other woodland creatures feed them. It's how we're made.

Squirrels are NOT meant to tow wagons—like pack mules. They aren't meant to swim rivers, burrow in dirt, or fly south for winters. And we're certainly not meant to write. But some of us do.

Anyway, we're squirrels. We have fat cheeks, beady eyes, and poor timing when it comes to oncoming traffic. It would be a crime to pretend we were, say, Labradors. After all, dogs don't climb trees. Just like monkeys don't balance checkbooks. And raccoons can't operate my barbecue grill—even though those little hellions have tried.

Thus, be your own animal. Wear your bright-colored, funky clothes, scribble your name catty-wampus. Wear your silly hat, and don't take it off until Mama says it's time to shower. Love the people you love—also the ones you don't. Be kind. And…

“Honestly, I didn't understand what white trash was.”

“When you're a kid, you don't know you're white trash," he said. "You don't think about things like that. Hell, I didn't even know we's poor until high school.”

Well. Poorness is all relative. He might've had less than the folks living in Antebellum estates. But his family was wealthier than, say, most raccoons.

“It finally clicked in my brain,” he went on. "Got home from school one day, Daddy said he'd come into a lotta money.”

He laughed.

"Turns out, it was only a few-hundred bucks. He strutted like he was a millionaire. Told me he was gonna buy me a new bedroom, since I's sleeping with my little brothers in the same bed.”

The next thing his daddy did was drive to Montgomery to a family friend's mobile-home dealership. On the rear lot were rusted single-wides, ready for the dump.

“We walked through'em,” my friend said. "Looking for the nicest one, they were disgusting. Rat nests, mildew, just gross.”

After selecting a dilapidated single-wide. His daddy's friend let them have it free—only

charging a few hundred for towing it.

That same evening, when his daddy got home, he invited his work friends over.

He went on, “Daddy and his buddies got drunk and cut one whole side off our house, with chainsaws, while Mama's in the kitchen fixing supper.”

Two nights later, the new trailer arrived. They sandwiched both homes together, connecting them to make a double-wide.

"Having my own room felt like being rich,” he said. “I still had no idea it was so trashy until a kid made fun of me at baseball practice. Honestly, I didn't understand what white trash was. Still, it made me cry.”

Years went by. He grew up. Moved away. He went to college. He did well for himself. He bought nicer clothes, some dental work. Eventually, he was working a pretty good job, making a decent living.

As a grown…

“Gimme a break,” he said, playing on his phone. “You're like everyone else, getting all sappy about the good old days.”

The kid behind the bar asked what type of beer I wanted. It was a fancy place, so I asked what kinds they had. It was a mistake. There were nine hundred varieties—not a Budweiser in sight.

The kid handed me an iPad with a menu on the screen.

And before he filled my glass with fifteen-dollar suds, he said, “Sorry, we don't carry Budweiser. This world has changed on you, bucko.”

Bucko?

As a matter of fact, you're right, kid. You want to know how much it's changed? My school bus used to drop me two miles from my house after ball practice. Miss Lynn, the driver, refused to go down the hilly dirt roads for fear she'd get stuck. And I don't want to get cliche here, but what I'm saying is: I walked to school, uphill, both ways, on gravel and mud. A lot of us did.

Go ahead, laugh.

In the summers, the canopies of live oaks, and sugar maples covered our roads. I know this because Daddy

gave me The Pocket Tree-Encyclopedia. And for each new tree-find, I'd earn a pittance for my piggy bank.

Piggy banks. We had those. They were filled with coins. Anyone below twelve used silver pieces to buy salt peanuts, Coca-Cola, or taffy. Do I sound like a bumpkin yet? Good.

We got sunburned a lot. We sweat even more. Our shoes wore out, quick. We got poison ivy whenever the wind blew. We plucked so many deer ticks from our bodies we quit counting. Our dogs followed us off-leash, and we've been drinking coffee since before we had armpit hair.

Our girls could ride horses and shoot rifles. We spent weekends loping trails and open fields. There were no smartphones, only baseball, fishing, frog-gigging, and racy jokes. We didn't know about kidney-rotting narcotics, only strawberry moonshine. The worst sins were Red Man chew, unfiltered Camels, necking, and beer.

Beer.

If there's a tougher girl out there, I've never seen one.

Little Sidney Woznicki has spent her life in and out of UAB. She's a solid kid with a will of steel, and a smiling face. She has a bad liver.

When she was a baby, she turned yellow, they knew something was wrong. Doctors did operations. Her mother quit her job—just to manage Sidney's medication list.

Life's been hard. While most eleven-year-olds sit in class, slaving on schoolwork, Sidney prepares for her second liver transplant.

During Sidney's last invasive procedure, her anesthesia didn't work. They say folks heard her screaming from the waiting room.

If there's a tougher little girl out there, I've never seen one.

But you won't find this family complaining, even though their money is disappearing, along with their energy. In fact, according to the Woznickis, “We are so thankful...”

Thankful.

Josh Clem is a Marine. Also tough. He could crawl through acres of mud with a rifle between his teeth. A few months ago, he married Brianna, and since then, they've been glued at the hip.

Last week, on their way home,

Josh had to stop the car. His head hurt. They rushed him to the ER. Doctors discovered blood vessels in his brain were rupturing.

Yesterday, surgeons finished a risky brain surgery. Josh is laying in bed right now—Brianna by his side. This has been a long few weeks. Not much sleep, lots of worry.

The couple says they're grateful.

Jasper, Alabama—Mitch Murray is like any crimson-blooded Alabama man. He likes big trucks, football, fishing, and thinks Bear Bryant is a member of the Holy Trinity.

But he's different now.

After a car accident and a brain injury, Mitch can't walk, eat, or talk. To make matters worse, his insurance company dropped him. His wife, Tracy, is perhaps the most hopeful, cotton-picking woman you'll ever meet.

"All things're possible," she says. “I let him know how much I love him, and will always be here…

...I don't know what happens when people die. I'd like to think we go to a big party up yonder. A place with rodeos, big symphonies, kids born into normal families.

I knew a man who lived in a tent with his twelve-year-old son. He was plumb crazy. The real kind of crazy. He camped in the woods and wouldn't accept money from anyone.

Sometimes, his son would wander into the church next door during potlucks.

The kid's daddy had a heart attack. The last day we saw the boy, a few of us gave him a Tupperware container full of cash—since we didn't know what else to do. The boy just looked at us. I've never felt so pathetic.

He finally said, “God bless you, guys.”

If he's still alive, that child is a man today.

Another fella I knew: he was a rodeo king. We'd drink beer together. I'd ask him about the old days. He'd tell me about the steel pins in his hip, plate in his skull, neck fusion, and spinal surgeries. God, could he rope.

When they diagnosed him with prostate cancer, he retired from the circuit and started working at a hardware store.

Once he told me, “The hardest part about

dying is wishing I could'a done a few things different.”

Hardly anyone came to his funeral. I sat beside his daughter. They put his ashes in a saddle bag.

His daughter said to me, “I thought more people would'a shown up. God bless you for coming.”

My friend Davey and I painted houses. But he wasn't a house-painter. Long ago, he taught music at Auburn University. Symphonic composition. The man had orchestras playing in his brain.

He was bad to drink.

Sometimes, I'd visit his one-room apartment and find him face-down in his vomit. He told me once, “It ain't me who drinks, it's my demons. I just can't kill them.”

He was purple when the paramedics found him.

His landlady and I stood watching the ambulance taillights disappear. “God bless poor old Davey," she said.

Look, I don't know what happens when people…

When she finishes trimming my hair, she spins me around and says, “Sorry, I feel like I talked your head off. I gotta big mouth.”

She has long pink hair and a ring in her nose. She's only been hairdressing a few years—the money is awful. But she's got a way with folks, and a healthy sense of humor.

“Turn your head to the left,” she'll say. “That's good. Now cough for me.”

Cute.

There's a photograph tacked to her mirror. In the picture: a heap of kids seated on the steps of an old home, grinning. There are so many in the photo, the picture is busting at the seams.

“That's my family,” she says, pointing. “We're a hot mess.”

As it happens, only one of the children in the picture is her own—another one came from her husband. The remaining five are adopted.

I ask why she adopted five.

“Fosters,” she says. “If you only knew how many kids need homes, breaks your heart.” She taps the photo. “See him? His daddy used to beat him with a mop stick before we got him.”

That's nothing.

The tallest child's mother overdosed in a public park—they found him sleeping in a

twisty-slide. The two black sisters: rescued from a crack house. The little fella with fat cheeks: he has cystic fibrosis and uses crutches.

She didn't mean to adopt them. It just happened.

“Most days,” she says. “All I'm doing is running from point A to point B. I want'em to play sports, have friends, but it keeps me busy.”

It's hard. Her husband works for the utility company, she cuts hair while the kids are at school. Afterward, she rushes home to make supper and ensure nobody sets the sofa on fire. They're poor as red clay dirt, but they get by.

“Can't remember what it's like to have money,” she tells me. “All we do is work. And we just found out I'm pregnant again.” She laughs. “I'm three months along.”

Congratulations.

When she finishes trimming my hair, she spins me around…