We didn’t have much to talk about, since we weren’t actually friends. But we remembered getting through a math class together once. And we remembered that beer.

DEAR SEAN:

I heard you tell story about not being a high-school grad, I am not one either. I was too embarrassed to come talk with you after the show. I am in my second year of GED stuff and this crap is hard, man. How do I get through it? I want this, but I don’t know if I got what it takes.

Thank you,
HOPELESS-IN-HOOVER

DEAR HOOVER:

The scene is a community college parking lot, years ago. It’s nighttime. I’m sitting in my truck, doing math homework for a high-school equivalency class.

I hate math. Math is bad. Math was invented by Satan. I do not understand Math and I do not want to.

Professionally, I began my life as a “grunt.” On a construction jobsite, that’s what workers called young men like me.

“Get my tape measure, and make is snappy,” a Grade-A dipstick might say to a young grunt.

Or he might say:

“Sand this drywall joint!”

Or: “Go to McDonalds and get me

an Egg McMuffin with extra cheese and a Doctor Pepper.”

Survival. That’s REAL life. It is about having money to make rent. Survival is real. Math is not.

Be as it may, a drop-out like me had to take high-school equivalency math courses out the kazoo before I could take college courses.

I loved literature. And art. And music. I had a love affair with English.

But math.

I almost quit school. But then I met him. On my way into class. I will never forget. We were going to the same classroom.

He had silver in his hair. He was smoking a cigarette in the breezeway. He wore filthy clothes. His work boots were covered in stucco mud. He had books beneath his arm. He was all smiles.

He said in a heavy accent, “How. You. Are. Doing.…

He finally broke the silence by telling a joke. It was a joke about a priest, the Pope, and a Labrador. It seemed like the wrong time to tell a joke. Still, I forced out a phony laugh for his benefit.

DEAR SEAN:

My stepson lost his father when he was ten. It’s a long story, and a traumatic one involving suicide. And he’s been coping with it okay, I guess. But the thing is, he makes a joke out of everything, it’s hard to get him to take anything serious.

And the other thing is, I don’t know if I should encourage him to keep acting funny or not. I know he’s hurting inside. I want him to feel like he can talk to me if he needs to, but I can’t get through to him when everything is a big joke.

Sincerely,
CONFUSED IN NASHVILLE

DEAR CONFUSED:

I was twelve the first time someone said I was funny. My father had taken his life only a few months before someone told me that.

I’ll never forget the day someone used those words. I was telling one of my all-time best stories to a group of friends—a tale about wetting my pants in the third grade. It’s a real crowd pleaser.

After my story, Lynn—a girl who the seventh-grade boys considered to be hotter than an oven mitt—told me I was “SO funny.” I almost passed out.

Her words stuck with me for a long time. In fact, you could say they’re still with me.

As it happens, my father had been a funny man before he died. He had a horrible childhood. To cope with this, he became a class clown, a prankster, and a joke-teller.

He was lightning with a joke. He memorized thousands. He could tell stories that made people laugh until they dehydrated. He was the life of parties, jovial, giddy, wild, irreverent, and funny.

But he was none of those things in private.

At home, often he was quiet and sad. Sometimes, he would curl into a ball and cry like a ten-year-old.

Once,…

You are pretty dadgum special, you know that? As a matter of fact, on a scale of 1 to 10 you’re a 68. You have a lot to offer, friend.

DEAR SEAN:

I’m a 27-year-old guy, and I want to tell my neighbor that I’m in love with her, and I don’t know how. We’ve spent the last three years always together, walking dogs, and hanging out. She’s helped me through some tough times.

We have tons in common, and she likes my foot massages—that has to be a good sign, right?

Now she’s started seeing this new guy and I’m afraid it’s too late to tell her how I feel. He’s better-looking than me, and more successful... I’m 70 percent deaf, with health issues, including one run in with cancer, but now I’m in remission, I know I’m no prize catch.

I get that you’re busy, but I’d really like some advice,

HEARTSICK-IN-MONTGOMERY

DEAR HEARTSICK:

I’m inside the DMV right now, writing you on my phone. I’ve been here one hour. I’ve taken a number and I’m standing in line. My number is 68. They are now serving Number 07.

Seven.

Anyway, you did the right thing coming to me. I have extensive experience in the field

of being a big, fat, frightened chicken. Which is exactly what you are. Welcome to the club, Colonel Sanders.

I once spent four weeks building up courage to ask Anna Moody to the movies.

“You wanna go to the movies?” I asked.

She said, “Hey, that sounds fun!”

I almost passed out.

Then she added, “Oh, you mean with YOU? I thought you meant as a group. Sorry, I gotta… Um… Clean the… Um… Freezer...”

Ever since then, I’ve been famously opposed to freezer cleaning.

But enough about me.

You like her, and it’s keeping you up at night. You lie in bed, replaying memories of massaging her sweaty, clammy feet.

It’s time to be courageous.

Now look, I’m no expert, but if you ask me, you are pretty…

Once, I helped deliver puppies. Once, I had macaroni and cheese and a Budweiser on top a water tower. Once, I tied a necktie on a raccoon that was named Levon.

DEAR SEAN:

My sister sent me some of your writings, and I don’t mean to be a jerk, but you’re not much of a writer… Now, I’m not saying that you’re awful, but your stuff needs work.

... I have a master’s degree in English, I have written three books, and I know what it means to be a writer.

Again, I’m not trying to be cruel, I’m just offering a healthy dose of reality. Simply posting content on social media doesn’t make someone a writer.

P.S. I’m pretty sick of hearing about your dumb dog, and I’ll bet others are too. Word to the wise.

Regards,
I-JUST-DON’T-GET-IT

DEAR DON’T-GET-IT:

A week ago, I attended a GED graduation ceremony. I was invited by Miss Terri, who teaches the general education prep classes.

I wish you could’ve been there.

We could’ve used you. It was a small room, there were only about twenty-five in attendance. Most in the audience had just gotten off work. Some wore neckties. I didn’t.

The recipients were from different backgrounds. One man was

in his seventies. You would’ve liked him. Everybody did. He cried through the whole ceremony. He clapped hard for each graduate.

He’s worked construction most of his life. He walked across the stage to receive his diploma. His smile could’ve set the woods on fire.

Another graduate was late-forties, a recovering alcoholic who almost committed suicide three years ago. He was grinning like he’d just discovered teeth. He broke down crying, too.

The word “beautiful” comes to mind.

The next graduate was a woman who’d sustained a traumatic brain injury at age seventeen. She is fifty-three. She posed for a photograph with her two sons, and well…

Niagara Falls.

The reason I’m telling you this is because these people are me. I am them. We are the same.

When I was…

DEAR SEAN: I will babysit your dog (Ellie Mae) if you ever need. I would do it for free. I’m ten and mature.

DEAR SEAN:

I’ve worked in a hotel, cleaning rooms off and on since the eighties. I’m approaching sixty-four. I’ve been working all my life for my kids…

My kids are grown and finished with college, but I didn’t know what to do with myself when they left, so I still work even though I don’t have to.

I keep working so I can encourage young people that they can make it through the same crap I went through.

DEAR SEAN:

My son died six years ago… In the middle of my grief I started volunteering at a place that delivers groceries to local families who are low-income.

I don’t know why I’m writing you, but I want parents to know that there’s life after your child dies.

DEAR SEAN:

I work in a grocery store. A woman came through my line and told me about your website. I wrote your name on receipt paper. When I emptied my pockets that evening, I saw the receipt, and figured it couldn't hurt to check out your website.

I got inspired to write a poem about my late big brother. He

passed on Christmas of 2017.

“...My brother.
You are gone, but you are not far away.
At the end of each day,
You are my last thought.
You are on the other side of my fear,
Therefore,
I have nothing to fear...”

DEAR SEAN:

I will babysit your dog (Ellie Mae) if you ever need. I would do it for free. I’m ten and mature.

DEAR SEAN:

I’m getting my GED this year. Dude, I’m almost forty, it’s harder than I thought.

Someday I really want to go to college, but I look at all the work ahead of me and don’t know if I have what it takes.

I’m not a kid anymore, I hope this isn’t a dumb…

Well, it doesn’t matter what I think, but there are enough overachievers in the world, busy BEING things.

DEAR SEAN:

I’m embarrassed to be writing you, but I'm so confused with life. All my friends know what they want to do and I don’t know what I want to do with my life. I’m in my second year at Troy and am lost. Help me.

BOY-WHO-DOESN’T-KNOW-WHAT-HE-WANTS-TO-BE

DEAR BOY:

I know what you can be. Be you.

This world puts big pressure on you to BE something. They’ll tell you to BE successful, BE studious, BE punctual, BE a straight-A student, BE involved. Be this, be that.

Well, it doesn’t matter what I think, but there are enough overachievers in the world, busy BEING things.

We need more folks who take time to smile. Waiters, waitresses, pipe-fitters, hair-stylists, neurosurgeons, bartenders, line cooks, cops, Episcopals, musicians, architectural engineers, grass cutters, stick welders, and custodians. People who enjoy life.

I met a man named Paul. Paul is cleaning hotel rooms while I write this. I ran into him in the hotel hallway, ten minutes ago. Paul was pushing his cleaning cart, singing to himself.

Paul is skinny, with a voice as country as

cornbread. He cleans hotel rooms every day, even weekends.

He starts early and works late. He runs on energy drinks and granola bars. He makes beds, wrestles dirty towels, scrubs toilets.

And he’s singing.

Paul came from Georgia, eighteen years ago. He has taken jobs washing dishes, doing stucco work, laying concrete, mopping floors. He has a wife and six kids. All healthy.

Paul doesn’t want to BE anything. He’s already something. Paul is happy.

You can be, too. You can also be kind to kids, to your girlfriend, and to yourself. You can be kind to elderly women who unload trunks of groceries. You can visit people in nursing homes.

You can be the one who delivers a gift-basket to a family that just had a baby.

And while you’re at it, be sweet to the child…

I believe in the old woman I once knew, who said: “If you REALLY wanna love someone, give’em something good to eat.”

DEAR SEAN:

What things do you believe in?

ELEVEN-YEARS-OLD-IN-CHAPEL-HILL

DEAR ELEVEN:

I believe in fried chicken. The kind made by every granny you’ve ever known. The kind fried in black iron skillets.

I believe it is powerful stuff. Which is probably why you see it at funeral receptions, baby showers, and churches.

I also believe in hand-rolled biscuits made from flour, fat, salt, baking powder, and buttermilk. To add additional ingredients to this mix would be like drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa.

I believe in teaching young men to clean fish. I believe in kids who ask too many questions. And I believe in girls who are gutsy enough to be themselves.

I believe girls have it harder than boys. And I’m sorry for that.

I believe in giving money to the homeless—not once or twice, but every time I see someone down on their luck. Every single time. I believe in giving more than I should.

I believe in old-time country dances. Long ago, before TV’s, smartphones, and twenty-four-hour news channels, I believe people threw more parties.

I believe in bowing heads to say grace. I believe in crickets, loud frogs, and places where you cannot hear busy highways.

I believe in magic tricks. And in teenagers who haven’t found themselves yet. I believe in all golden retrievers, Labs, bloodhounds, some Jack Russels. And marriage.

I believe in Marie, Lorena, and Nadia—living at a battered women’s shelter in South Georgia. I believe in high-school dropouts, and kids who miss their daddies. I believe in nurses.

I believe in music made by hand, fiddles, upright pianos, and the poetry of Hank Williams. I believe in Willie Nelson.

I believe in the memory of grandparents, and keeping them alive with stories. I believe in making lowly people famous, and famous people lowly.

And I believe this world is better than most give it credit. I believe that if folks…

You are a soul, and souls can be all sorts of things. They can be thoughtful, hardworking, ambitious, easygoing, understanding, or Southern Baptist. Souls have the power to be kind, or to be hateful. 

DEAR SEAN:

I don’t like your writing because you are a dumbass.

Thanks,
I DON’T CARE IF YOU USE MY NAME

DEAR I’M-NOT-GONNA-USE-YOUR-NAME-COME-HELL-OR-HIGH-WATER:

Let’s go back in time.

Now, of course, I don't know your story, but let's be theoretical here. Pretend your mother and father just met. The circumstances which brought them together don’t matter. Your parents probably feel something for each other.

This feeling is something I want to talk about. A feeling that gets stronger with each heartbeat. A warm, happy, thick, dripping, hot feeling.

Scientists might call it “energy.” We common folk call it “love.”

Whatever you call it, it is an intelligent thing, programmed into the body. A force greater than even your parents.

So one day, inside the dark and hushed womb of your mother, a fertilized embryo floats the white-water rapids of her insides. That loveable little egg manages to attach itself to a uterine wall.

Then, the Little Egg That Could, starts producing NEW CELLS. Each cell the SAME SIZE as its original zygote. And this eventually becomes you.

I know. This is

almost too boring to stand.

So let’s use simple language here: one small act of love made YOUR cells appear out of NOWHERE.

In other-other words: you’re a miracle. And it was love-energy that made you.

You are a walking-talking collection of organs, a central nervous system, a conscience, and a receding hairline. Because of love.

You are a soul, and souls can be all sorts of things. They can be thoughtful, hardworking, ambitious, easygoing, understanding, or Southern Baptist. Souls have the power to be kind, or to be hateful.

But as we just discovered, hatefulness goes against your very anatomy. Every cell in your human corpus is made with love.

Every last drop of hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, calcium, phosphorus, and interstitial fluid. Love. Love. And more love. You sir, are a steaming pile of love.

The love…

Wood planks were sucked from the boardwalk. I saw a bass boat flying through the air. Lawrence’s face was pink with blood and dirt. My T-shirt had been blown clean off. The sand was slicing through my bare skin. 

DEAR SEAN:

I want to write a love letter to my girlfriend, but I’m not good with words, so excuse the typos, there are probably all kinds in this message!

My Tori walked right into my life after my wife left and she's helped raise my two sons and one daughter like they were her own. She became a mother right off, my lifesaver, and she has always been more than just a girl to me. She’s my angel, I want her to know how much I love her. Oh, and we’re getting married.

Thanks for helping me in advance!
JASON 

DEAR JASON AND TORI:

I have seen a hurricane up close.

I was younger, braver, and infinitely more stupid. My friend, Lawrence, and I parked at a beach. We walked toward the angry shore like a couple of young men with dangerously low IQ's. We watched white water churn in the Gulf.

The windblown sand stung my face and nearly ruined me eyes. I leaned headfirst into the wind and let the force lift my teenage body upward.

Like I said: stupid.

The gusts hoisted me an entire foot off the ground, throwing me backward.

I won’t lie, it felt exhilarating.

That day, the water screamed loud enough to cause deafness. It looked like the world was getting ripped apart.

My friend looked at me and shouted. He was only inches from me, but I couldn’t hear his voice. The roaring water made my eardrums throb.

The sand cut my friend’s cheeks and made blood streaks run across his face. The air became pure saltwater. And though we were standing close, we couldn’t see one another.

The pressure sucked air from my lungs.

Lawrence and I traded excitement for flat-out fear. We’d made a grave mistake. We'd been foolish enough to think we could survive a few minutes in Hell.

Only this was not simply Hell. This was…

I have no answers. And I don’t want any. Because people who are fortunate enough to know it all tend to act like it.

DEAR SEAN:

I’m not certain where you stand with Jesus Christ, and that concerns me. I read the things you write and I hear you say things about God, but then you say things about dying and coming back to earth as a squirrel? Uh, what?

That is paganism, sir, and mistaken beliefs like that tell me that we probably aren't going to spend eternity together. I know where I’m going, do you?

If you’ve got questions, I want you to know I have the answers that your heart is searching for.

I HOPE SEAN OF THE SOUTH REPENTS

DEAR I HOPE:

This comes as no surprise to me. I’ve always suspected I’d be going to hell.

The first time I realized this, I was working part-time in a Southern Baptist church—long ago.

I spent my days doing construction. On Sundays, I helped lead singing at church.

One Sunday, I brought three of my Mexican coworkers to service. Let’s call them Shadrach, Meshach, and Vincente Fernández.

The boys wore tattered jeans and paint-splattered T-shirts. They sat front row, watching me sing.

After service, the pastor asked

me not to let those boys sit up front again—he thought their appearance was disrupting.

I never sang in that church again.

I’ve got missionary friends, too. My missionary compadres spent three years on a Native American reservation. My friend was there to help a poverty-stricken, heathen tribe.

He was a seminary grad, with answers—all twenty-nine years of accumulated wisdom.

His first weeks, the elders of the tribe showered him and his wife with gifts.

The women brought hot breakfasts, homemade casseroles, fresh vegetables. They brought handmade jewelry, blankets, clothing.

My friend asked the elders why they were being so gracious.

The elders said, “Because we want you to know we love you, even though you tell us we are going to hell.”

I know a man named Jim. He’s almost eighty-three today. He’s…