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."


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.


"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…

In line ahead: a young woman with two kids. She's dressed in a fast-food uniform, holding a baby.

Walmart, 5:04 P.M.—this place is a nuthouse. There are so many folks here it looks like the walls are buckling. Nearly sixteen thousand shoppers with full carts, elbowing for a place.

There are two checkout aisles open. Two.

I'm standing in a line that stretches back to the Czech Republic.

I stopped in this hell-hole to buy more cheap Christmas lights for our tree. Our current lights are junk. Every time a bell rings a strand of lights goes out on our tree.

In line ahead: a young woman with two kids. She's dressed in a fast-food uniform, holding a baby.

Her infant is screaming. She's rocks the child back and forth, whispering. The baby locks eyes with me. Her crying stops. She smiles, then laughs.

The mother says in a thick, Alabamian accent, “Reckon she likes you.”

The young woman smiles her few teeth at me.

"Maybe she just smells my dog," I say.

She brings the baby closer. This child has the biggest brown eyes God ever made. Bigger than Barbara—our childhood Arberdeen heifer, who had eyes like


I didn't expect to feel this way while staring at a child, but something's happening to me. My voice is high-pitched. I'm making mouth-noises like an outboard motor.

The woman says, “You wanna hold her?”

“Me? No, that's okay, ma'am..."

At this stage in life, I've discovered that people like me weren't intended to hold babies—we're meant to watch everyone else have them.

But it's too late. The girl hands the baby over.

So, here I am, baby against my chest. She's light. She smells like flowers. Honest-to-goodness flowers. Her bald head is the softest I've ever touched.

The child locks eyes with me again. When she does, the world disappears. She smiles and it's summertime. She lays her head on my shoulder and falls asleep, drooling.

I was a wiseman in my grade-school pageant. Supposedly, three of us…

Yesterday, I saw a live nativity scene in front of a Methodist church. A small choir of kids stood by the manger, singing. Pedestrians gathered to sip cocoa and watch, talking about what a terrific season they're having...

Help that boy, God. You know the one. The kid who wore hunter's camouflage in the Mexican restaurant. Who sat in the booth behind me.

He was there for a birthday party with all his towhead friends.

A girl his age asked him, “Have you ever even BEEN hunting, dork?”

What a first-class snot-bowl she was.

The boy answered, “No. But one day, my dad's GONNA take me."

"Oh yeah?" the girl said. "My mom says your dad lives in Tennessee, and that you've never even met him."

"So?" he said. "He would take me if he knew me."

Look God, I don't ask for much. But for the love of you, find someone to take that child into the woods.

He's already got camo clothing.

Also: if you have time, don't forget about the girl I saw outside the department store. She had crutches—the kind strapped to her forearms.

“Go shopping without me, Mom,” the girl said. "My legs hurt. I'll wait here.”

“Don't be ridiculous,” the woman answered. “I'm not leaving you. I don't have to shop, let's

go home.”

The girl said, “NO MOM. You NEVER get to do anything fun because of ME. Please go?”

The mother reluctantly agreed and went into the store. The girl sat on a bench and cried.

I know you saw that, Lord.

Listen, I know you've got a lot going on this season—especially with the Peach Bowl coming up. But please do something for her. Anything. You can send me the bill.

Something else before I leave:

Help the grandmother who kicked her rowdy granddaughter out. I'm sure she feels guilty about it, but she had to. The girl's mixed up in hard drugs and harder living.

Heaven knows where that kid will end up. But then, I guess you do know. Just give her a quick miracle or two, that's all I ask. Do it because that poor grandmother…

I sat in an empty bar before business hours... The giant television was broadcasting I Love Lucy reruns, a waitress was pushing a vacuum.

“Sure, I read what you wrote about me,” he said over the phone. “You made me sound more impressive than I am.”

Not really.

When I first wrote about the Alabama-born bartender, it was before Thanksgiving. I met him in a Pensacola sports bar. He's a widower, father of two boys, built like a defensive tackle.

Heart bigger than a residential king bed.

A month ago, he was leaving for Texas to meet his girlfriend's Mexican family. She's the first woman he's dated since his young wife died suddenly.

He and his boys planned to ask her to marry him. He packed neckties, khakis, the whole dog-and-pony show. He was nervous.

After I wrote about him, I tried tracking him down for a follow-up. I stopped by the bar where I first met him. He wasn't working. I tried a few days later. Someone said he'd moved to Texas.

A cook told me, "Hey man, I got his number. Let's call him."

So that's what's happened.

I sat in an empty bar before business hours, holding a cook's

cellphone. The giant television was broadcasting I Love Lucy reruns, a waitress was pushing a vacuum.

A voice answered. I reintroduced myself.

"'Course I remember you," he said. "My mom printed out your story and passed it around to her bridge club."

We small-talked. I asked how his marriage proposal went.

“Well, um,” he said. “Not at all like planned.”

Say it ain't so.

“I was nervous, man, I screwed it up. I guess I was just sick of wondering if she'd say yes or no. So I went for it.”

On the way to Texas, they pulled over in Louisiana for the night. They all stayed at a cheap motel. The next morning, she went to the lobby for a complimentary, room-temperature breakfast. He was already there, eating with his boys.

When he saw her, he knelt in the dining room.…

Mama and I delivered the paper each day. Rain, sleet, or World Series. Weekends, black plague, holidays, Christmas Eve, even her birthday.

We delivered newspapers together. She'd drive the car. I'd fling. I'd aim for doorsteps. Seldom did papers land on doormats.

Sometimes, I'd hit cars parked in driveways so hard I'd set off burglar alarms.

Mama would laugh until she choked.

It bears mentioning, that in my life I've shoveled cow pies, cleaned chicken coops, baled hay, and unclogged septic tanks. Throwing papers remains the worst damn job I've ever had.


Before the sun came up, Mama and I would arrive in an empty parking lot. A truck would deliver a pallet of newsprint with a forklift. After I signed for them, the delivery man would give me a look of sympathy.

We'd deliver roughly seventeen trillion papers to half of Florida. On Sundays: triple.

In the winter, Mama and I would sit in the vehicle, the heater blasting, stuffing newspapers into plastic bags. Often, I'd have a pissy attitude.

Not Mama. The woman could detail outhouses while whistling Dixie.

Thus, we'd canvas the city with a vehicle so packed with newspaper, the rear bumper scraped the


Our route: four high-rise condominiums, three subdivisions, two trailer parks, a hundred newspaper vending machines, churches, whorehouses, space-stations, and one partridge in a pear tree.

When we'd finish, we'd watch the sunrise, eating donuts, drinking coffee. Then, I'd go back to my apartment and sleep for eight years.

Mama and I worked each day. Rain, sleet, or World Series. Weekends, black plague, holidays, Christmas Eve, even her birthday.

On her birthday, the roads iced over. And just when I thought things couldn't get any worse, I locked the keys in the car. My first reaction was to beat on the windows—I don't know why.

The sheriff deputy got a kick out of that.

Our deliveries were all late, the boss was fuming mad, he threatened to let us go.

We ate lukewarm fried chicken in the Winn Dixie parking lot. I sang…

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.

Weaver's Department store had one such railing. At Christmas, Mama would turn me loose in Weaver's with three bucks in my fat little hands for holiday gift shopping.

I saw my old college professor in the supermarket, shopping. It was awkward. He never liked me.

“Heaven is a lie,” the venerable professor once said during class. “Just like Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.”

Then he explained that God wasn't real. Neither were angels, nor Christmas, Easter, Elvis, or Beulah Land. He claimed the future of every human was to die and become, more or less, worm poop.

I disagreed with him in the middle of class. He asked why. I told him that I'd been to Graceland. Twice. He disliked me thereafter.

But I'm not sorry.

My first interest in heaven began when my father died. Once, I stood in an open hayfield, watching a gray sky, hoping for a glimpse of it.

Desperate boys do desperate things.

I prayed for a miracle, a sign. Nothing. If I'd been smart—like my professor—I would've given up on the idea. But I'm a slow learner.

My granny believed that when people died, they got sucked into the clouds. There, they could lean over a brass railing and see

the world below.

Weaver's Department store had one such railing. At Christmas, Mama would turn me loose in Weaver's with three bucks in my fat little hands for holiday gift shopping.

The first thing I'd do was clomp upstairs, taking two steps at a time. I'd lean over the second-floor bannister and people-watch—while resisting an urge to spit.

I still do this in airports, hotel lobbies, restaurants, and Walmart—the watching, not the spitting.

Take, for instance, yesterday. I sat outside Target, waiting on my wife. Busy folks rushed in and out of sliding doors. A little boy sat on the bench beside me.

His father dug through his wallet while the boy hummed to himself. The man handed the boy a twenty and told him to buy a gift for his stepmom.

"But Dad," the kid said. "Can't we call her Mom?"

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.


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…