It’s high-school culinary teachers who give a damn. It's neighborhood barbecues. It’s animal shelters. Old folks. It's volunteer uncles who live in spare bedrooms.

Colton, Texas—they moved Holly’s mother to a nursing home. It was time.

Her mother couldn't recognize her friends or family. She'd forgotten names. Dates. Hygiene.

They placed her in a place they could afford—which wasn't much.

Holly asked her daughter’s boyfriend to visit the center with his guitar.

“I'd heard music could stimulate brain stuff,” she said.

It didn't work. What happened was a group of patients in wheelchairs gathered around the boy's singing. They made requests.

He played for several hours.

“He really got into it,” she said. “It meant so much to me.”

And when he played “You Are My Sunshine,” Holly’s mother wandered into the seating area.

The old woman sat in a chair. She sang along with the others, word for word.

When the music ended, she looked at her daughter and said, “Oh, there you are, Holly.”

“Hey Mama.”

Jacksonville, Florida—an at-risk school. He wasn’t a good high-school student. In fact, he was failing. But he liked food and cooking. His English teacher discovered this.

She bribed him.

“I told him, ‘If you study your butt off, I’ll teach you how to cook.’”

Deal.

She started an after-school culinary program in a local church. She got a restaurant chef to volunteer some of his time. Six local kids signed up for class.

“It was great,” she said. “Everyone had so much fun. It kinda gave us something to look forward to.”

It gave them more than that. Today, four of those students are working in commercial kitchens.

Arthurtown, South Carolina—Jason was single. Young. A CPA. He drove a quick car, he stayed out late. But standing at his brother-in-law’s graveside changed everything.

His sister’s husband died, leaving his sister with four kids. She was a mess.

“I had a job to do,” Jason said. “I just knew it. Those kids needed somebody. My sister needed me.”

He quit his job. He moved across the country…

It’s all around us—whatever you call it. I suppose it's always here, hanging in the air like potpourri my mother would make on the stovetop.

Cracker Barrel, 8:17 P.M.—it's busy tonight. There’s a boy in a wheelchair at the table beside me. His father is spoonfeeding him cooked apples.

When the boy's sister says something funny, the boy claps and laughs.

His father wipes his face with a rag and says, “You’re my special boy.” Then, he kisses his forehead.

A nearby girl wanders toward the boy. She is four, maybe. Her hair is in dreadlocks. She stares at him with her hand in her mouth.

“Is he okay?” she asks.

The boy leans and gives a big “HELLO!” There are apple bits on his chin.

The girl gives a smile brighter than a Christmas tree. “HI THERE!” she says in return. Then, she skips off.

Three tables from the boy is an old man. He is wearing a ball cap, Velcro shoes. He’s sitting at a two-top. He orders chicken-fried steak and potatoes. He has no cellphone to occupy his attention. No reading material. He sits.

He and I share a waitress. Her name is Blanche—it’s embroidered on her apron. Whenever he speaks

to her, he holds her hand. Something you don't see much.

He has a voice that sounds genteel enough to predate the War Between the States. It's a wonder he's all alone.

Behind him is a table of Mexican workers—men, women, and kids. They sit covered in paint and grit. They speak rapid Spanish. Lots of laughing.

One Mexican boy crawls into his mother's lap. She strokes his silk hair with her paint-spotted hand, saying, “Cariño mio,” over and over.

And though I don't know Spanish, I imagine this, more or less, means: “You're my special boy.”

To their left: a teenage couple. He weighs a buck ten, she is a foot taller than him. They hold hands when they walk out. They kiss. They look drunk on each other. What a feeling.

When I pay my tab, Brooke is my…

Listen, you have no reason to trust someone like me—I'm an average fool with a mortgage and a high-mileage truck. But so help me, this place is more than sex, drugs, and politicians.

Pensacola, Florida—downtown, early evening. He had a long beard and smelled awful. He sat on the sidewalk strumming a broken guitar.

A young girl stopped and asked, “Can I sing with you?”

The homeless man said, “What'cha got, honey?”

Without hesitation, the girl sang “This Little Light of Mine."

This drew a crowd. A big one.

Afterward, the man hugged the girl, and her parents. He told her she reminded him of his own daughter.

Then he cried.

Folks filled his guitar case to the brim.

Forest Park, Georgia—a Burger King, a bad part of town. She wore a gray hotel-maid uniform, standing in line with her toddlers. She counted quarters and dimes on the counter.

Later, when she found a seat, a few teenagers asked the cashier. “Do y'all sell gift cards?”

“Yes," the cashier said, "We have Crown Cards."

They placed wads of twenties on the counter. “We'd like to buy a card for that woman, would you give it to her?”

Then, they left.

Mobile, Alabama—a man at the bar next to me had his face in his hands. His clothes

were covered in paint. The bartender asked him what was wrong.

He said, “My wife's car broke down. It's our ONLY car, and my phone JUST DIED!”

His face busted wide open.

The bartender asked if he knew where the car had broken down.

"Yeah,” he said. "At my wife's school, she's a teacher. I just need someone to give me a ride."

The bartender said, "I can do better than a ride, honey. My brother owns a towing company."

She clocked out early.

This morning, I turned on my television. And I'm sorry I did. Because the America on my screen was not the place I know. On TV: rapes, suicides, stabbings, mushroom clouds, sex scandals, and senseless acts of politics.

Reporters in eight-hundred-dollar outfits talk about mass-murders while wearing half-smiles.

Listen, you have no…

The truck was ugly, painted gray to hide rust. The bumpers were missing, the interior smelled like oyster stew.

It was a classified ad in one of those nickel newspapers. It read:

"Gray Ford. Half-ton. Stick-shift. Some rust. Needs TLC. Sneads, Florida. $800."

My pal called about it. He needed a truck in a bad way. His old one had gone to be with Jesus, his wife was pregnant, and he'd just lost his job.

And in the days before texting, the only way to do business was to use the interstate.

Before we left, he went to the bank. He liquidated his account into a wallet-full of eight hundred dollars.

I gave him a ride. We stopped at a gas station outside Cottondale. He filled my tank, then paid inside. He bought two sticks of beef jerky, two scratch-off lottos.

Thoughtful.

After a two-hour ride we hit a dirt road leading to a farmhouse that sat on several acres of green. Out front: an old man, smoking. He was bony, friendly-faced, tall.

The truck was ugly, painted gray to hide rust. The bumpers were missing, the interior smelled like oyster stew.

“Runs good,” the man said.

“I'll take it,” my buddy answered.

He reached for his wallet. And that's when it happened.

His pocket was empty.

My friend went nuts. He retraced his steps. We tore apart my truck, dug through seats, and cussed. When he finally gave up, he sat cross-legged on the ground. He cried until his face looked raw.

The elderly man sat beside him. He wrapped his arms around him. It had been a long time since a man had done that sort of thing to my pal. He was a fatherless orphan, like me.

When things calmed down, the man's eyes were red and puffy. He wiped his face and said, "C'mon, son, nothin's THAT bad."

My pal didn't answer.

The elderly man removed keys from his pocket and placed them in my friend's hand.

He said, "Listen, that thing's gonna need an…

I'm a person who believes in something. In miracles. Small ones I've seen with my own eyes. In people.

Freeport, Florida—my friend found a car stuck in a muddy ditch on a secluded road. It had just rained. The ground was soft. The thing was buried up to the bumpers.

It was full of Mexican women who didn't speak English. My pal asked if they needed help—he happens to speak fluent hand-gestures.

All they could say was, “Please, yessir, thank you.”

They were a cleaning crew. Each of them had taken turns digging around the tires. Their uniforms were covered in mud. They had wet eyes.

My buddy strapped the vehicle to his hitch. It wouldn't budge. He tried everything. No luck. So, he called some friends with trucks who lived nearby.

I was one such friend.

Three of our trucks lined up, side by side. We strung tow ropes to the vehicle, then hit the gas at the same time. Seven strangers, eight shovels, two Chevies, one Ford, and many years later...

My pal married one of those girls.

Quincy, Florida—Walmart. An elderly woman in the checkout aisle. She didn't look good. She walked with a bent

back, hunched shoulders, and carried a cane.

A manager helped her unload the cart. Then he paid her bill. A girl waiting in line videoed the whole thing on her cellphone.

The manager said to the girl, “Please turn off your camera, this doesn't belong on Facebook. Show some respect, please.”

She put the camera away.

Then wrote me a letter about it.

Jonesboro, Georgia—he used to be a preacher. A good one. Then he had a wreck. It damaged his back. He got hooked on painkillers and whiskey.

The church fired him. He lost his wife, kids, and ambition. Which made him drink more.

One day, the church janitor showed up on his doorstep. He treated the former pastor to breakfast. Together, they ate too much bacon, drank too much coffee, and laughed too much.

He showed up again the…

Don't get me wrong, this thing isn't always petunias and soap bars. This thing can be hard as nails. Sometimes, it causes the greatest pain you'll ever feel. Even so, it's a pain worth feeling. Don't ask me why. I don't know.

It's too big to write about. But, I'm not going to let that stop me. That's because it's a pretty big thing I'm referring to. The biggest.

Jaden owes his very life to this thing.

Jaden was an abandoned infant born with crack-cocaine in his bloodstream. After his mother's arrest, he was adopted by Claire—sixty-eight-year-old single woman who heard about his situation through a friend.

Claire said, “I know I ain't got forty years to give'im like some young couples, but I'm a good mama, he can have every year I got left.”

Consequently, this "big thing" is the same thing that killed Bob Cassidy.

First, it compelled Cassidy to pull over on Highway 10 to change a woman's tire. A car struck him. It killed him on impact.

I know what you're thinking, "What a senseless tragedy." It wasn't senseless. All thanks to this thing we're talking about.

This thing also prompted Betty to adopt three rescue dogs from a kill-shelter. She brought them home and turned them loose on her twenty-acre farm.

“That's when it hit me,” she said. “I knew had enough room for lots'a dogs.”

So she drove back and adopted several more. Then a few more. Soon, the shelter started giving them to her.

Folks thought Betty was nuts. But she's not. She only looks that way to people who don't know about this thing—which often makes normal folks look like their a few bricks short of a load.

Don't get me wrong, this thing isn't always petunias and soap bars. This thing can be hard as nails. Sometimes, it causes the greatest pain you'll ever feel. Even so, it's a pain worth feeling. Don't ask me why. I don't know.

Something I do know:

this stuff is the fabric the universe. It's the only real thing out there. It's what makes average people sparkle, and ugly skies look pretty. It gives purpose to death.…

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…

Anyway, we talked with her. She told us her husband had died. She missed him. Then, she asked if we’d be interested in helping her with odd jobs.

She looked like someone's sweet granny. She stood on her porch watching me paint the house next door. Her hair was flawless white. She wore pearls, lipstick, and a holiday sweater with sequins.

And since God gave me the natural gift of running my mouth, I found a way to break the ice.

“Chilly weather we're having,” I said, using laser sharp observational skills.

But she didn't answer, she just went back inside.

“Geez,” said my pal. “You must'a scared her.”

“I was just being friendly.”

“Yeah well, friendly or not, you look like an escaped convict with all that hair.”

But as it happened, I hadn't frightened her. A few minutes later, she returned holding a thermos of hot cocoa.

It took exactly two seconds for the ex-convicts to slide down their ladders. She poured two Styrofoam mugs. The hot cups felt good in our cold hands.

The first sip was god-awful.

Her instant cocoa tasted like chalk-water and baked pickles. The packets must've been sitting in her pantry since mid 40's.

Anyway, we talked with her. She told us

her husband had died. She missed him. Then, she asked if we'd be interested in helping her with odd jobs.

“No ma'am,” my partner said. “Our boss wouldn't let us do that. We only do renovations.”

She went on, "All I want are some limbs cut and some Christmas lights hung.”

My partner drained his cup. “Sorry.”

We thank-you-ma'amed her, and got to work.

When the sun lowered, I cleaned paintbrushes at the faucet and looked through the the woman's lit up window.

She was clipping coupons at her kitchen table.

That night, my wife asked how my day went. So I told her about the woman, the instant cocoa dating back to the Second World War, and how lonely she looked.

“And you didn't offer to HELP her?” my wife said.

The ex-convict shrugged his dumb, hairy shoulders.

Sara came out of the womb with an umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. It wrecked the development of her heart and brain. Doctors said she might not make it. She did.

Nobody told Sara what she could and couldn't do. Because she'd prove them wrong when they did. She'd been doing that since birth.

Sara came out of the womb with an umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. It wrecked the development of her heart and brain. Doctors said she might not make it. She did.

From the beginning, Sara's parents were honest with her.

"We didn't want her unprepared for complications that might be coming," says her mother. "We were honest with her. Sara deserved to know how lucky we were to have her."

Sara's young friends would say things like, “What do you want for Christmas?”

“I want to keep living,” she'd say cheerfully.

Kids.

By the time Sara was five, teachers noted how slow she was compared to her classmates. She was no less intelligent, mind you, but things took her twice as long.

“We tried to deemphasize school,” her mother says. “I mean, we didn't see the point stressing when nobody knew how long she had.”

But Sara felt differently.

By age twelve, Sara

was rock-solid determination, wrapped in pigtails. Once, at a youth camp, kids participated in a tight-rope walking game. The camp counselors requested Sara sit it out.

Sara requested everyone back off.

Counselors tried to force her to wear a helmet. But since none of the other kids wore such things, Sara wouldn't either. It took her twenty minutes, two falls, and a busted lip. But she made it across, by God.

“I've never seen such a fighter,” her mother says. “I don't know where she got it. It wasn't from me.”

Age eighteen—Sara applied to several major universities like her friends had. One by one, each rejected her. It was a blow. But not enough to make her surrender. She applied to a small local college. She got in.

“You would've thought she'd been accepted into Harvard,” her mother says.

Sara graduated. Though…

"I learned a long time ago, you only get one shot at making a kid feel important, so you'd better go big."

His first Christmas was in the neonatal intensive care unit. His mother was an alcoholic. She brought him into this world premature, then abandoned him.

He spent his first months in a Plexiglass box.

They say he was a strong kid, cheerful. Much smaller than others his age. He was a cracker-jack at school, smart, respectful toward foster parents—he's had several.

Early on, they discovered he liked animals. Dogs and cats, especially. When he turned fifteen, his foster parents, Michael and Debbie Gaynor, let him volunteer at an animal shelter.

“Basically,” said Michael. “We just wanted him to do what he loved, no matter what that was.”

A shelter volunteer remarks, “We gave him all the not-so-fun chores, because he made them fun. He'd talk to animals like they were people, he really cared.”

He cared, all right. One day, somebody dropped off a stray. The dog was uncontrollable, with a bloody gash, bearing its teeth at anyone who came close.

Except him.

In only a few minutes the kid managed to calm the dog

and guide it into a kennel. He sat with the dog a few hours, soft-talking.

That was when the shelter manager contacted her friend, a veterinarian. She told her about the exceptional teenager. She arranged a meeting.

The next morning, the doctor stopped in. They hit it off. She offered the kid a job at her clinic. It was a paying gig.

He spent two years helping vaccinate rowdy cats, rubbing the tummies of sick puppies.

Christmas was around the corner. So was college. His foster parents conspired to make the holiday a good one.

In secret, they signed him up for federal tuition scholarships. They called the veterinary clinic where he worked. The doc pulled a few strings at a local university and managed to get him accepted into an animal science program for freshmen.

For icing on the proverbial cake: Michael put money…