This world is an ugly mess, you've seen it for yourself. You've fought a good fight, but you're losing.

May you kiss a baby today. A fat one. Maybe press your nose against a soft, newborn scalp and smell heaven.

And I hope you eat—food, not the baby. I hope you shovel in so much Christmas cooking it makes your vision blur and heart race.

Afterward, take an after-dinner stroll with someone special.

Maybe look at stars and think things like: how big is the universe? What color is happiness? Or: how many cups of sugar does it take to get to the moon?

Find someone to kiss; you'll have your answers.

Today, I pray you look over your life without pain. May you remember things that shaped you—good and bad. Things you lost—great and small. People who hurt you—friends and greasy pricks.

May Nancy feel the spirit of Mitch, her late, Cajun husband of fifty-two years. And may the family of the deceased two-year-old believe in goodwill toward men.

May under-confident boys discover fishing. May over-confident ones discover catching jack squat.

May your television stay off. And I pray your smartphone spends the holiday on a nightstand—unless,

of course, you're talking to someone important.

Each year on Christmas Eve, my father used to open an address book. He'd make phone calls to distant family, old friends, plumbers, electricians, coworkers, neighbors, enemies.

I attempt the same thing during the holidays, but I'm terrible at it. I'm not good on the phone.

Last year, I texted an old fishing buddy. We weren't close. The response was: “This is his son. Don is no longer with us. Merry X-mas.”

That hurt.

I also texted my old boss. He replied: “Thanks for reaching out, Sean! You were always my favorite employee!”

Favorite.

I'm touched. Maybe his favoritism is what compelled him to give me two pay cuts and buy himself a brand new, showroom-quality, one-ton truck.

May you accept things. Happy things. Unhappy things. Simple things which confuse you. The sorts of…

I tried the newspaper to cure my loneliness. Bad choice. Nothing good happens in Atlanta news. Stabbings, rapes, murders, economic downfalls. That's on a good day.

I had to work in Marietta, Georgia two days before Christmas. It was god-awful. The money was good,—real good—but that was the only thing good. It was Christmas Eve. I was far from home, cold, tired.

Lonely.

They gave us complimentary motel rooms. It was a dump. It's the first and last time I've ever stayed in a motel that smells like eggs. The place was a sheep pen off the highway.

I went to my room and called my wife. There was something sticky on the phone handle. She didn't answer.

I cussed.

Thus, I laid in bed and watched Andy Griffith. One of my favorites was on. Aunt Bee makes pickles. They're so bad Andy switches them with store-bought. You know the rest. Andy learns a valiant life-lesson about truth, justice, and the Mayberry way. Everyone hugs. Roll the credits.

I was hungry. Nowhere was open on Christmas Eve. Even the Waffle House had its lights off. I drove to the gas station for supper. Pork and beans, salt peanuts, Budweiser.

“Merry Christmas,” said the cashier.

Sure it is, lady.

Back at the motel: my coworker was smoking in the breezeway, talking to his kids on the phone. When he saw me, he wiped his face.

I shut my door and cried on the bed.

When did people start working on Christmas? Why in the hell would I leave my wife on a holiday? All for few extra bucks?

My uncle once said, “Only an idiot wastes his health making money so he can waste his money on health insurance.”

But nobody put stock in what he said. He worked in a fertilizer plant. Folks in the family called him a loser. Maybe he was, but at least he was home on Christmas.

I dialed my wife again. No answer.

More cussing.

I tried the newspaper to cure my loneliness. Bad choice. Nothing good happens in Atlanta news.…

"...He reached in his pocket and handed me his own knife. A Case knife. Old. Yellow handle. Double blade. "

Christmas afternoon. I drove my truck down a familiar gravel road. It's a road I can see in my sleep. I hadn't made that drive in many years.

I pulled over on a small bridge, flipped on my hazards. I crawled underneath the bridge. It was muddy. Creek water flooded my boots. I dug with a hand shovel.

This was ridiculous.

My childhood Christmases were simple. Each member of my family received three gifts—which was a rule of Daddy's. Growing up poor changes a man.

One gift was practical. Blue jeans, slacks, or, God forbid, underpants. The other two were fun.

One year I got an LP record,—“Stardust,” by Willie Nelson—a cap gun, and khakis.

Mama opened her gift. It was a booklet I'd made from colored paper, entitled: “Mama's Coupons.” Inside were various pencil-written discounts. “One free kitchen sweeping,” or, “Seventy-percent off hugs,” and my personal favorite, “Free ice cream supper.”

She never cashed in on the last one.

Daddy's gift was was a bathrobe. Mama made it. It was a sweet gesture. Except, of

course, my father didn't wear robes. He crawled out of bed fully dressed with boots on.

He slid it over his clothes, anyway.

Our gift-opening took ten minutes, tops. Then, I ate so much at lunch my feet swelled and my ears rang.

After lunch, Daddy asked if I wanted to go for a walk. I'd expected him to say that. Daddy couldn't sit still for more than a few blinks, not even on holidays.

So we walked. We followed the creek. The small water cut through through the woods. We marched through the undergrowth until we came to a concrete bridge.

We sat on the railing, legs dangling. I reached into my coat and handed him a wrapped box the size of a butter stick. The gift-tag, covered in my sloppy handwriting.

“To: Daddy,” it read.

He made a face. "What's this?…

I squinted at the chapel in the distance. Headlights filled the parking lot. Half of Brewton, Alabama was attending the wedding.

The day of our wedding, it was a blizzard. And in North Florida, that means: fifty degrees and overcast.

I was supposed to be nervous—that's what everyone told me. They said I'd feel sick, that my knees would shake.

But no shaking.

The chapel was within spitting distance of the beach. I had time to kill, so I parked near the Gulf. The sun was setting. The sky looked like orange sherbert.

I squinted at the chapel in the distance. Headlights filled the parking lot. Half of Brewton, Alabama was attending the wedding.

A few nights before, my pal asked if I wanted a bachelor party. No, I answered. I hated bachelor parties worse than bachelorhood.

“What about a cigar?” he'd suggested.

I don't care for them.

So he gave me a pouch of Red Man chew and a racy Congratulations card. They both sat on my dashboard, unopened.

I don't chew. But, since I had nothing better to do, I tried a cheek-full. It had been a long time since I'd touched the stuff.

As a boy, my father

gave me my first pinch while we sat on his tailgate. It made me dizzy, but not sick—which impressed him.

Few things impressed him.

"Whatever you do," he'd said. "Don't swallow your spit.”

Times have changed. A father could go to jail for doing such today.

I spat on the sand. I wished he were alive. I wished someone would've been around to toast me at the reception, to show me how to tie a bowtie.

Wedding-time: I arrived at the double doors and saw the preacher on the sidewalk. The first thing he did was straighten my tie and remind me not to lock my knees.

“No matter how tough you think you are," he said. "Everyone's knees shake.”

Not me. Mine were oak limbs.

I stood at the altar— it was decorated with lit Christmas trees. The piano…

These children aren't disabled—no more than a catfish is disabled for not being able to use the internet. These are just babes playing stickball.

Atlanta, Georgia—these kids are playing baseball in the community park. They've lost their minds. This is winter. It's forty outside.

They're wearing yellow and red T-shirts, running the bases. These little athletes come in different shapes and sizes. High-schoolers, grade-schoolers, boys, girls.

One boy has an undersized leg. Another has an implanted device behind his ear. The pitcher looks like somebody's father.

A few parents sit in the bleachers, bundled in coats. I ask a lady nearby what we're looking at.

“Special needs team," she says.

One coach yells, "GOOD HUSTLE!" It's the familiar way ball-club managers have been hollering since the dawn of Cracker-Jacks.

The lady says, "We started this team for Downs kids. But other kids started asking if they could play, too."

She points to her son who's punching his mitt. He's a freckled boy with Downs syndrome. The shortstop fires the ball to him. He drops it.

“GOOD HUSTLE!” comes the onslaught of shouts.

The lady goes on, “We got one player with CF, one with polio, you know, we're open for whatever.”

And whomever.

Like the

girl exiting the dugout. Her woven hair hangs from underneath her batter's helmet. The lady tells me this girl has no special needs, but her middle-school coach told her she was too overweight to play.

Well, not here.

This is an inclusive group. Informal. No championships, no trophies. Only Goldfish and Gatorade.

This community baseball diamond is well-used by Little League teams during the summers. During the winters, the yellow and red shirts get to use it.

“It's our fourth year,” she says. “It all started because a few of our boys wanted to learn baseball."

PING!

We're interrupted by an aluminum bat. It's the girl. She hits a bloop to left. The ball bounces. You ought to see this child run. Her dreadlocks wave behind her. Her helmet falls off.

She's magnificent.

“GOOD HUSTLE, Adriana!” people shout.

She…

"I wasn't being rebellious," said Murdess. "I'm not even religious. But Christmas trees, Santa Claus, that stuff is a part of MY heritage. I'm a Southern American.

“I'm not allowed to say, Merry Christmas at school,” she said. “It's harder than it sounds. You grow up saying it, it's part of you.”

She's an elementary teacher in Middle Alabama. I can't tell you her name, so I'm going to call her, Murdess—since I love that name.

I had a hillbilly aunt named Murdess Delphinia. She used to sign stationary with: “Dietrich, M.D.” Everyone got a kick out of that.

Anyway, Murdess—not my aunt—usually begins rehearsing her Christmas pageant in August. It takes months to teach kids how to dance and sing.

On the second week of December, her class performs in a musty gymnasium for several hundred parents.

Her students come from all backgrounds: African, Korean, Mexican, Hindi, Islamic, and average suburban Southerner.

Because of this, the school had outlawed Christmas. Sort of.

"There're all sorts of Christmasy words I can't say,” Murdess went on. “Can't talk about mangers, wisemen, shepherds, or even Santa.”

Some consider Saint Nicholas a symbol of Christianity.

There's also a list of blacklisted songs. “Silent Night,” was first to go.

Also: “Noel,” “O Come All Ye Faithful,” and “Here Comes Santa Claus.”

The authorities decided Murdess should call her production, “The Winter Festivity Concert.”

And instead of using characters like Saint Nick, they encouraged her to use one named, Mister Winter. A jolly young man with a brown mustache, who stuffs children's stockings with hand sanitizer and recyclable water bottles.

Murdess followed the rules. Her children sang songs nobody's ever heard. She paid tribute to Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Solstice, and read a passage from the Quran for her Muslim students.

At the end of the production, she sent her children to their seats. The lights dimmed.

And she recited:

“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them,…

Why am I telling you this? You know why. Because I just shook open my newspaper to see mass-shootings, nudity, and politics on the pages.

Huntsville, Alabama—last year Briana was sick. Real sick. Her adoptive parents took her to the doctor. It was bad. Her liver was shutting down.

“The specialist said that Briana might not make it,” said her mother. "That was tough."

Tough, yes. But Briana, is cheerful to a fault.

She told her parents outright, “You gotta believe, guys.”

They promised they'd try.

Surgeons operated, it was a Band-Aid procedure. Things were bleak. What Briana needed was a transplant. Her adopted parents were not donor candidates.

So her father tracked down Briana's birth mother. The woman came to the hospital the next morning. For the first time since giving birth at age fifteen, she met her cheerful child. I understand many tears were shed.

Anyway, Briana and her birth mother now share a liver.

Jackson, Mississippi—Doug Lasher fell off the back of a truck. He was riding in the pickup bed while his coworker bobbed down the highway. The truck hit a bump, Doug hit the pavement. Two cars struck him.

He survived.

In the hospital, his friends brought so many flowers, the room looked

like a jungle.

Two weeks ago, Doug began responding to stimulation. A few days thereafter, he made his first joke.

He said: “It's a good-frickin' thing I ain't allergic to flowers.”

Good thing.

Yulee, Florida—she was the foster daughter of a seventy-four-year-old couple. A loving duo with big hearts who had fostered over a hundred kids in their day. They adopted her.

They both died a few years later.

So, the girl went to live with the couple's biological son in Tallahassee. Kindness must have skipped a generation.

He made the little girl sleep in the garage on an air mattress. His wife ignored her.

One day at school, the girl's counselor gave her a casual hug. When the woman tried to let go, the girl wouldn't.

The girl remarked, “Please hug me a little longer. It's been…