I just finished an informal rehearsal for our live Christmas show. The bluegrass band will be in top shape. So will the trained elephants, the trapeze act, the fire breather, and the guy juggling Broadman Hymnals. And if things work out, I might even do some clogging on camera.

No, I’m only kidding. There are no elephants. And I can’t clog, not unless I’m at my cousin’s wedding reception and the band starts playing Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride” while I’m in line at the open bar.

It’s been a long time since we’ve done our live show. A long, long time. Almost a year now. I can hardly believe it’s been so long. Because at this time last year we were on the road. We’d done 160 shows that year, and my wife and I had crossed almost 40 U.S. states in our little plumber’s utility van. It was just what we did.

Don’t misunderstand me, ours was not a glamorous career. Many times I’d perform before crowds of four or five people who

often wore malfunctioning hearing aids and kept shouting, “What’d he say?!”

Like the time my elderly uncle attended one of my performances in Tennessee, and after what I considered a great show, in the theater lobby, my uncle’s first words to me were, “I forgot my hearing aids.”

So I hugged him and laughed, and I told him “I love you.” Then, in a brief moment of sincerity, which only shows you the affection between us, he answered, “What the hell did he just say, Eulah?”

But anyway, after all that performing in different places I had become exhausted inside and out, right down to my internal organs. Cheap hotel continental breakfast food had become the affliction of my existence. I was sick of riding in vans. There were definitely downsides to life on the road, but altogether it was a blast. And it’s a shame…

It seems like a hundred years ago. But it was only last year. I can’t forget it. There I am, at a restaurant. I am playing Christmas music on an accordion with a band. There is no virus, no social distancing, and everyone is happy. I am out and about in public. What a notion.

I play accordion because my granddaddy played it before me. This instrument is in my lineage. And it’s in our history as a civilized race. Thus, I believe that as long as we have young accordionists, there is still hope for humanity.

A few children approach our stage.

“WHAT KIND OF INSTRUMENT IS THAT?” asks the redhead.

“It’s an accordion,” I say.

“WOW! IT’S SO HUGE AND DORKY LOOKING!”

“That’s not very nice...”

“IT SOUNDS LIKE A DYING TOAD!”

“NO,” says another. “IT SOUNDS LIKE AN ANIMAL GETTING RUN OVER BY A CAR!”

“Hey kid,” I say. “Santa told me you’re getting nothing but underwear and deodorant this year.”

This kind of accordion shaming is nothing new. I’ve been ridiculed since my childhood. I have heard

all the classic jokes.

Such as: What do you call a successful accordionist? A guy whose wife has two jobs.

Or: What are the first words an accordionist says after he knocks on your door? “Pizza delivery.”

But I don’t care. When I play accordion, I play for my mother’s father—the man who fought in Europe, and won a Purple Heart for his valiance. He was a farmer, a storyteller, a wood carver, a musician who could sing in Italian, German, French, Spanish, and Cajun. And when he played “Lady of Spain,” it was magic.

Of course all this accordion business can be embarrassing to admit at, say, dinner parties. Like a party I was at a few years ago. The attorney sipping gin remarked: “I’m learning guitar, I got one for my birthday this year.”

“Yeah,” added the…

Dear Peyton,

I received your mom’s email while sitting in rush hour traffic today. She wrote that you have COVID. She also told me that you’re terrified of this illness even though the doctor says you’re going to be perfectly okay.

Still, I was determined to do something about your situation, so I called my physician friend for some medical advice.

“He has COVID?” said my friend.

“Yes. What should he do?”

“Hmmmm. Has this child been to a doctor?”

“Yes, the doctor did tests and told his mom he would be fine. He barely even has symptoms.”

“Hmmm, is she monitoring him?”

“Yes.”

“Look, if the physician says he’s okay, then your friend really needs to relax because managing anxiety is one of the big problems we’re seeing in COVID patients.”

So I said to my friend, “Don’t tell me to relax, you luxury-sedan driving punk!”

My friend went on to explain that many COVID patients are experiencing crippling fear about their illness because of things they’ve heard in the news. And here’s the thing, Peyton. In some cases this fear is

doing far more harm than the actual sickness. I’m not saying this is what’s happening to you, but according to your mom and your family physician, you need a happy distraction right now.

“Make him smile, get his mind on something else,” said my doctor friend, empathetically, as he tossed his golf clubs into his Lexus.

Well, I’m always one to heed medical advice, so I thought I’d use this opportunity to tell you the story about the only time in my life when I won something. Maybe it will make you feel better, Peyton.

I promise, I’ll try not to make this a long story, and if you believe that, then I also have a suspension bridge in New York I’d like to sell you.

It all began one day at the grocery store when I…

The first day of Advent arrived and I attended church, which was a little weird. I haven’t been to church in ages. An elderly lady greeter in a pink facemask God blessed me when I entered.

I slipped into service to see an old priest offering a homily to five socially distanced people. I was sitting in the back pew as an observer.

Pink Facemask guarded the door and smiled at me with her eyes whenever I looked back at her.

“Hi,” she would say.

Hi.

I bowed my head at all the proper times, and mumbled when I was supposed to mumble. But I’m not a liturgical guy, so I was basically just reciting the lyrics to “Louie Louie” behind my mask.

The message was short. The gist of the clergyman’s Advent sermon was an old classic: “find the good in the world.”

And I couldn’t help but think that at this exact moment our world is dealing with 1.46 million COVID deaths. Not to mention 266,000 in the U.S. Where’s the good in that?

Sometimes

this humble writer asks himself where the heck is all the good? Heaven knows, if you look for good in newspapers or cable news it won’t be there because journalists sure as Shinola aren’t digging any up. Many news persons wouldn’t know “good” if it jumped up and bit them in the Associated Press.

But I’m not criticizing here. Neither am I throwing rocks at modern journalism. I’m simply saying that for almost an entire year the majority of reports you always see are about pure horror.

Now here it is Advent, and this old priest is pleading with a bunch of weary people to take a few moments to think of something other than how the word is crumbling.

So I did.

The first thing I thought about was an email I got this morning from a guy named Joe. He told…

I am watching the Iron Bowl. It’s drizzling outside. I’m sitting in my living room, eating cheese dip, the game is on low volume.

All my fellow Bama fans in this house are fast asleep from eating way too much saturated fat and refined white flour. My dogs are snoring. My wife is drooling on my shoulder.

This is the calmest football game of my entire life. Nobody is shouting “ROLL TIDE!” There are no high fives, no pom poms, no body-painted torsos. No nothing.

Welcome to 2020.

This is very different for me. I’m used to watching the Iron Bowl in lively joints that smell like stale yeast and armpits. Places where, whenever it’s a third-down situation, 12 guys leap to their feet and spill five-dollar pitchers all over your lap while screaming, “WAR [BLEEPING] EAGLE!”

I’m accustomed to fights breaking out in the parking lot between Auburn and Alabama fans. In fact—this is true—the worst fight I ever saw happened in 2013, after the “Kick Bama Kick” Iron Bowl game, when Auburn’s

Chris Davis sprinted 109 yards and won the game with only one second remaining on the clock. The beer joint came unhinged.

A fistfight between an Auburn guy and a Bama guy exploded into a multi-man brawl, which soon included everybody within nine counties. The fracas had to be broken up by the police. I’ve never seen an altercation on such a grand scale. My cousin and I both sustained injuries when trying to exit the establishment. It was awesome.

I’m not saying I miss those rowdy days, but I do miss being with other people in public places.

Before 2020, I used to get jolts of excitement simply by being in minor crowds. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I want to be in any biblical-style multitudes, but on special occasions it’s nice to pile up together.

For almost a year we’ve been avoiding…

I strolled through an old neighborhood at sunset like a stranger. My old neighborhood. I used to live here.

I weaved through the streets on foot, walking my dog, exploring old places, greeting invisible old haints. The ratty humble homes were no longer ratty, nor humble, but instead were all fixed up by homeowners who must watch a lot of HGTV. Christmas decor was everywhere.

I still remember when my family lived in this place, when it was nothing but modest homes, not far from the beach, with backyards full of sandspurs and dollarweed.

When I passed the house we used to call home I stopped walking. There was a guy on a ladder, stapling Christmas lights onto the house.

The little old place had changed so much. The house had a porch swing, a fence, and a lawn with actual grass. Unbelievable.

The man saw me staring. “Can I help you?” he said in a slightly aggressive tone.

“No, I was just admiring your house.”

He didn’t answer. He seemed annoyed.

So

I kept strolling the loop. I passed kids on bikes, people going for jogs, and puppies out for nightly walks.

Another old house on the corner had also been redone by young ambitious homeowners. It looked superb. Even so. No matter how they gussy up this area, I still associate this neighborhood with a freckled kid who had telephone-pole legs, big teeth, and no dad. Who entertained himself with a clunky old manual typewriter.

I finally exited the neighborhood and made it to the old beach access. Ah, yes. The Gulf. The water was loud, and my face was covered in seaspray. You never get tired of the feeling the Gulf imparts. It will always be home.

I saw a teenage couple walking the shore. Arms hooked. He wore a Santa hat, she wore his jacket. I don’t know what their story is, but I know this…

For Thanksgiving today, Shannon did a video call with her elderly mother, who lives in a nursing home. They are not seeing each other because of the virus.

The old woman was seated in her room, dressed in holiday finery. She wore a scarlet blouse and pearl earrings. Even her wheelchair looked snazzy, her nurses decorated it with ribbons.

Shannon could see her mother’s food tray on her phone’s video screen. On the plate was turkey, green bean casserole, mac and cheese, and a wad of mashed potatoes bigger than a regulation volleyball.

This has been a hard year. Shannon’s dad died after routine surgery. And these are her mother’s first few months in an assisted living facility. Shannon has had to make many difficult choices lately.

“I miss you, Mom,” said Shannon into the phone. “Love you!”

“Love you,” said the old woman.

“Love you so much!”

“Love you so much, too!”

They must have said I love you 300 times.

Meantime, in Sacramento, Stewart’s entire family ate a holiday meal in the public park with Stewart’s

parents. Stewart’s wife, Ameliea, is a recent breast cancer survivor. She wore a bandanna to cover her bald head and kept her distance.

Everyone sat at picnic tables spaced 20 feet apart. Each family brought their own food in coolers. There were no embraces, no handshakes. Just pantomimed hugs.

Yet again, the phrase of the day was “Love you!”

And thanks to modern technology, Stewart’s mom could reportedly hear everyone’s words from miles away because she wears a new pair of hearing aids that cost more than a Mercedes-Benz-S-Class.

In Missouri, Tiffany and her husband, Marlin, went for a walk on a trail, in the cold, crisp Midwestern air. It was 39 degrees, but they were happy because, even though a coronavirus is inhibiting holiday activities for millions, they have each other.

The couple packed a lunch and ate on a blanket.…

This is Maria’s story. Why she entrusted it to a hapless boy columnist like myself is beyond me. Either way, our story begins in a humble cafeteria, filled with homeless people.

They are all here for the free annual holiday meal. All who enter are given sanitizer, surgical masks, and optional vinyl gloves. Temperatures are taken at the door.

Maria volunteers here. She has been helping serve hot meals all week, and she volunteers here year round. This volunteering tradition started many years ago. It’s a long story.

When she was a kid her late father was an alcoholic. But when Maria hit age 13, he got sober. Her father started attending AA meetings and won his life back. The main thing her father learned from these support group meetings was that (a) each meeting had donuts, which increased your pant size considerably, and (b) helping others is the only thing worth doing with your life.

Oh, how she misses him.

The mess hall is overrun with people who are dressed in raggedy

clothing. Some suffer from mental illness, some are addicted, others have breath that is 190 proof.

Maria stands behind the sneeze guard, dressed in facemask and hairnet. She serves them all steaming helpings. She is cheery, fun, and she flirts with the old guys because they get such a kick out of this.

One elderly man smiles at her. “Maria, I wish I were twenty years younger, I’d marry you.”

She throws out a hip and says, “And just what would YOU know about marriage, Mister Dan?”

“Hey, I know a lot. I’ve had three very successful marriages.”

She cackles. She gives him an extra helping of green beans and reminds him to behave.

Another old guy shuffles toward her. He wears a leather hat and a large backpack. His pants have gaping holes, he reeks of ammonia and body odor. She dishes his plate. The man’s…

People always said there would be no tears in this place. When she was still living on Earth, everyone said this. Preachers said it. Sunday school teachers said it. There were songs written about it.

But she’s here now. And she definitely sees people nearby who are having some tearful reunions. Interesting.

What a beautiful place, this heaven. It looks like a scene too grand for Hollywood to produce. Nobody could capture this. It would be like trying to fit the glory of Hawaii into a single postage-stamp. And, hey, Hawaii looks like a municipal landfill compared to these digs.

She’s been imagining heaven ever since she lost her husband. She hasn’t seen him in 30-some years.

When she first met him she was a girl. It was World War II. He he was skinny, handsome, and his smile was 2,300 watts. It was a big dance. She wore a nice dress. The band started playing something uptempo and the young man asked if she would do him the honor. He presented

his hand. She took it.

Her first words to the gentleman were, “Can you Jitterbug?”

He laughed. “Can I? You’d better believe it.”

That man. That beautiful man. They were married forever. Then he died and left her alone. After his funeral she spent the rest of her life wondering about this divine realm.

Now she stands in a single-file line of souls, they are all waiting to get in the gates.

Funny. People on Earth used to call them “pearly gates.” And she always assumed they would look like the entrance to one of those snobby private neighborhoods. The kind with the golf courses, fitness centers, and electric carts. But these gates are made of marbled light. The actually glow.

Something else she never realized was how dark Earth is compared to the brightness of heaven. Although it does make sense when you think about it. Earth…

DEAR SEAN:

My mom shared what you wrote about angels. I wish I could see one sometime so I knew they were real, but I really don’t know if they are.

Thank you,
TWELVE-IN-LOUISIANA

DEAR LOUISIANA:

Have you ever seen radio waves? Go ahead, turn on a car stereo. Hear that noise? Where is this sound coming from? The answer is very high frequency radio waves which are invisible. But, hey, you’re listening to them. So they must be real.

These waves can travel up to 62 miles across land or sea, unseen by the human eye, imperceptible to human ears, they are devoid of solid matter, but quite real. Radio waves have assisted EMTs in saving lives, aided policemen when finding bad guys, they have helped win wars, and made modern pop-country into the most annoying art form known to mankind.

What about gravity? Can you see THAT? Let me answer for you. No. You can’t. But gravity must exist because if it didn’t you’d be floating somewhere near the asteroid belt of Jupiter and Mars.

Can you

see oxygen? Nope. But it’s all around you. And without trusty old O2 you would be on the floor right now, flopping like a suffocating goldfish in a sandbox. Oxygen is real because, obviously, here you are, alive and everything, listening to VHF radio waves.

Just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not real. The most wonderful things in the whole wide world are invisible.

Love is one of these things.

DEAR SEAN:

I go to school on computer now and we live on a farm, and with the virus out now, I have a lot to help with my dad every day and with my brother. But I’ve been writing letters in cursive so I can get better at writing. Do you think I’m good?

Thanks,
EIGHT-IN-ALABAMA

DEAR ALABAMA:

Thanks for your letter. You are awesome!…