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

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-DON’T-CARE:

Let’s go back in time.

Now, of course, I don't know your personal story, but let's be theoretical here. Pretend your mother and father just met two minutes ago. 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. And to tell you the truth, I know about as much about science as a blind mule on a field trip to Dollywood.

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, kind, and certain souls are even lucky enough to be born as Cradle Episcopalians.

Souls have the power to be good, or not-so-good. Nice, or hateful.

But as we just discovered, hatefulness goes against…

I’m crazy about small towns. The world has gotten so big. Shopping malls are bigger. Interstates have swallowed rural routes. Small churches are disappearing. The women’s groups of my mother’s generation have become a thing of the past.

Nothing, and I mean nothing, feels as good as a hug. This month alone, I’ve spoken at a handful of places and I have received roughly—this is no exaggeration—five trillion hugs from people.

Including two hundred grade school students this morning.

Hugs do something to a person. After ten hugs, a fella starts to feel warm inside. After two hundred, his heart is raw. Right around four hundred, he forgets every evil thing he ever saw or heard. People need hugs. And by “people,” I mean me. I love a good hug.

I also love baseball. It’s a beautiful game. While I write this, I am listening to a radio. The Milwaukee Brewers are doing battle with the Dodgers. I want the Dodgers to eat mud.

And, I love football. I was born during the third quarter of Coach Bear Bryant’s farewell game. My father was watching the hospital-room television during the exact moment the doc smacked my hindparts.

I’m crazy about small towns. The world has gotten so big.

Shopping malls are bigger. Interstates have swallowed rural routes. Small churches are disappearing. The women’s groups of my mother’s generation have become a thing of the past.

But not in small towns. In small towns, Little America is still alive and well.

Which reminds me: I love little things. I love them even more than I did when I started this article.

The small Chevette I learned to drive in. The small coin I bought at a gift shop atop the mountain where my father is buried—I carry it everywhere. I like little trucks from yesteryear. Little farmhouses. Little billboards painted on the sides of barns.

Little upright pianos in my aunt’s den—the kind she only plays at Christmas.

Speaking of holidays, I love them, too. Each and every one. Christmas, Turkey Day, Labor Day, and Halloween.

Last year I spent…

“Do you solemnly swear,” I began, “to tell all sorts of stories about anything and everything, even dumb things?”

Selma, Alabama—I am in a school gymnasium, staring at bleachers filled with kids. I have no idea why I’m here.

I don’t know why 140 students are staring at me. I don’t know why I have a microphone in my hand. I don’t know what I’m doing with my life.

I have spoken in a lot of schools in my time. Sometimes it goes well, sometimes it feels like having your soul sucked from your body.

Nevertheless, I am trying to deliver tales the best I can to these kids who are smarter than I am. But I’m struggling.

A few months ago, I told stories in a school in Lower Alabama. The children gathered into the gymnasium and stared at me for sixty minutes while I spoke. Not single child even blinked—not even when I told my top-shelf jokes.

But there was a little boy in the front row who listened with both ears. And I’ll never forget him. He laughed at everything I said. Even things that weren’t

funny.

He was 8 years old. He wore hunting boots, blue jeans, and a stained T-shirt. And even though I was a flop that day, he clapped like we were at Carnegie Hall.

When storytime was over, I wanted to hide beneath a rock and only come out for Christmas dinner. But before I could leave the gymnasium, the kid came galloping toward me.

“Hey!” he said. “I wanna shake your hand, man!”

His hand was clammy, he was missing two front teeth, and he was as cute as a duck in a hat.

He said, “How do I be a storyteller guy like you? Is it hard to learn? I wanna do what you do.”

The truth is, I don’t actually know how to tell stories, I just pretend to. Furthermore, I don’t know why anyone would listen to them.

I…

In the food court is a merry-go-round. There is a single-file line waiting to board the carousel. First in line is an older man. He has white hair, and he walks with an uneven gait. A young woman is holding his arm.

It’s a sunny day. The Birmingham Galleria Mall is busy. There are hundreds of people beneath the tall atrium. They have places to go and things to buy.

I am here with my wife, who is shopping for blue jeans at Old Navy.

Shopping for jeans with your wife is a dangerous gamble. In the Western world, the leading cause of divorce is shopping for blue jeans at Old Navy with your wife. Ranking second is chewing your food too loud.

It goes like this:

Your wife locks herself in the dressing room with eighty-seven pairs of jeans. While she tries them on, you, the husband, go to the designated detention area with other husbands.

Intermittently, you wife emerges from her room, modeling jeans that look exactly like the jeans she wore when she entered the store.

Then, she glances at her reflection and begins speaking in foreign tongues. She asks things like: “Does this chino inseam appear too constricting?”

And: “Do you

think these boot-cuts too are too roomy on the calf region?”

We husbands have no idea what our wives are actually asking. This is why we often mumble. Because we know our words don’t really matter when it comes to blue jeans. Our wives will make their own decisions.

We know that by the end of the day our wives will have at least two emotional breakdowns, and likely leave the store without a single pair of blue jeans because they hate blue jeans and they wish blue jeans would’ve never been invented and they hate anyone who wears blue jeans including members of Congress, anyone below age thirty, and Cher.

And instead of buying jeans, our wives end up getting something like a “cute little cardigan that was on clearance.”

Then everyone goes out for ice cream. The end.

The best thing a guy can do…

The back half of her body was shaved bald, covered with bruises, stitches, staples, and dried blood. It was a curious site to her eyes. She tried to lick her wounds, but the people in scrubs wouldn’t let her.

She was lost. The old girl had traveled this trail before and it always led back home. But this time she couldn’t find the right smell.

It wasn’t for lack of trying. She kept her nose to the ground for something familiar. But there was nothing.

After all, she wasn’t exactly a young pup. Her nose wasn’t as good as it had been. Long ago, she could sniff a man’s pant leg and know exactly which denomination he was and which party he voted for. But now she was lost.

She followed the smells until she found a highway. Big machines shot across the highway so fast it made her ears hurt.

She lost all sense of smell and sound. This place was not familiar. This was a world she didn’t belong in. This place belonged to the big machines on wheels.

Across the road was what looked like a neighborhood. She could see rooftops through the traffic. The homes looked familiar. Or did they? Maybe that’s the neighborhood

where she lived. She couldn’t remember.

Besides, all she could feel was hunger. She needed food. That’s why she’d left home in the first place. Her owner wasn’t very nice. He would often go days without feeding her, and it had made her skinny. Sometimes, he wouldn’t give her water, so she would drink from ditches.

Early that morning, she crawled beneath the fence and left. She was only looking for food and drink. What she found was a highway.

WOOSH! WOOSH!

Big machines rocketed past her. She should’ve turned around and gone toward safety, but hunger made her cross the highway.

She pranced on the pavement, hoping that the big machines would avoid her. One machine sped by so fast it almost lifted her from her feet. Then another. And another. And another.

That’s when it happened.

She heard…

Over my bed hung the painting of a mother and son, saying grace at a crowded cafe table. It was right beside my all-time favorite painting: elderly musicians, playing music in a barbershop.

I love flea markets and antique stores. This is because I like old things for which there is no use.

Antique pocket knives, porcelain cowboy figurines, hundred-year-old snuff tins, arrowheads, and tin coffee pots.

I am holding one such coffee pot. A percolator just like this used to sit in my father’s garage workshop on an electric hot plate.

I had my first coffee from a tin pot. It tasted like ditch-water and aluminum. But it didn’t matter because in that garage my father and I talked about things.

Things like: fishing, batting stances, the proper way to clean fried chicken bones, and God.

“Is God real?” I once asked.

He smiled. “Have you ever seen a little sign from above? Something that just sticks out, and seems like it means something?”

I shrugged.

“Well I have,” he said. “I see’em everywhere, every single day. Once you start looking for them, you see all sorts of little things that prove there’s someone Upstairs.”

I miss his simple explanations.

At this flea market, I find a Norman Rockwell compilation book.

You probably won’t care about this, but as a boy I had this exact book. My father gave it to me.

My father handed it to me and said, “Old Norm sees the world in such a happy way. I think you’ll like old Norm.”

Norm.

After my father died, I cut out the pages of that book and tacked them to my bedroom walls. They were reminders of who my father used to be.

Over my bed hung the painting of a mother and son, saying grace at a crowded cafe table. It was right beside my all-time favorite painting: elderly musicians, playing music in a barbershop.

I once visited a Norman Rockwell exhibit. I drove to Birmingham to see it. I was first in line at the museum. The lady who took my ticket said, “Oh, you’re in for…

The woman who cleans our room this morning brought her daughter to work with her today. Her daughter is in sixth grade.

Guntersville—we are hurricane evacuees in upper Alabama. The destruction from Hurricane Michael is all over television. It’s sobering to see. If the storm would’ve moved a few miles west, it would’ve ruined our home on the Choctawhatchee Bay.

The woman who cleans our room this morning brought her daughter to work. Her daughter is in sixth grade.

“My name’s Samantha,” says the girl. “I’m helping my mom clean today.”

Samantha holds a basket of cleaning supplies. I introduce myself, but before I can finish talking she says in a shy voice:

“I already know who you are. My friend reads your books.”

And it takes all I have not to cry in front of this sixth-grader. Maybe it’s becasue I’m a softy. Or maybe it’s because of the storm. Or maybe it’s because in this child’s eyes I am a writer.

A real writer.

About me: I wanted to be a writer ever since before Samantha’s age. And it was a ridiculous idea for a kid like me to hold.

After all, I didn’t have the confidence God gave a

turtle. I was shy, lazy, slow, I made terrible grades in school, and I was a lousy first-baseman.

As it happens, Samantha and I have a few things in common. My mother was a cleaning lady many years ago. She toted vacuums, carpet cleaners, laundry bags, and spray bottles by the metric ton.

She scrubbed toilets, washed windows, mopped floors, and emptied crumbs from toaster ovens.

My mother was our family’s champion. She was a college graduate; a hard worker; she could grow anything in container gardens; she could make quilts from old clothes; she could bake fresh bread that attracted people from four counties; she could read an entire novel in two sittings; she could memorize entire passages of scripture—mostly pertaining to being nice to your sister.

She was above no task, and beneath no one. She taught me…

When my haircut is finished, I bid these men goodbye. I wish I had a good joke to tell them, or a good story, but that would only spoil it. Today, I am here to listen.

I’m in North Alabama, far from the aftermath of Hurricane Michael. Long stretches of the Gulf Coast are trashed. But by a divine miracle, my family is safe, alive, and accounted for. So are my friends and neighbors. A miracle.

So I’m getting a haircut.

I almost went for a haircut yesterday, but I couldn’t pull myself away from the televised hurricane coverage. It was high adrenaline stuff.

Gone are the days of sedate news reporters who look like your father’s dentist, seated behind news desks. Today, we have a breed of brave journalists, fearless, with the courage to risk their lives for breaking news, public safety, and six-figure incomes.

Yesterday, I watched one such reporter stand on a beach, enduring gale force winds that were strong enough to ruin most reproductive organs.

He screamed into the camera: “It’s windy out here, guys! Super, super windy! Back to you, Bob!”

I shudder to think of what could’ve happened if he hadn’t told us that.

Anyway, my mother texted me

today and told me the lethal storm passed over her home yesterday. Today, she is enjoying sunshine, crocheting a scarf.

Like I said, a miracle.

So getting back to the barbershop. When I enter the shop, a bell on the door announces my arrival. This is your average clip joint. There is a barber’s pole out front.

Inside are men who gather for no particular reason. They pause their conversation when I enter.

I greet them. They are quiet. But soon, they go back to telling stories like before.

I am grateful for their stories. I’m tired of hurricanes, storm surges, and reporters with death wishes. I need something to take my mind off the anxieties of Hurricane Michael. And that’s exactly what I get here.

Soon, I am sitting in a barber’s chair overhearing stories of all kinds.

Nobody says a word at first. Not because we can’t think of anything to say, but because we are strangers.

Hurricane Michael is making its way onto shore while I write this. Michael is 350 miles across, 90 miles in diameter, and very ugly. This is a storm that’s roughly the size of South Dakota, arriving on Floridian soil like an unwanted houseguest.

I am miles away, watching a television while this storm batters Franklin County, Gulf County, and Bay County.

The big TV in the corner of this restaurant is tuned to the Weather Channel. The joint is nearly empty, the lunch rush is over. A few people gather around the screen, arms crossed, eyes unblinking.

We are a varied lot of strangers.

There is a woman with her hand over her mouth, watching TV. Her name is Ellen. Her mother lives in Gulf County, and she can’t get a hold of her.

Gulf County is a war zone right now. The live-coverage proves this. And Ellen is a mess. The TV shows palm trees bending forward, 100-foot waves swallowing boardwalks, flooded highways.

Mexico Beach is devastated. Port Saint Joe is waterlogged. Apalachicola is covered.

Between reports of tribulational destruction, the TV rolls commercials which advertise: Metamucil, Capital One credit cards, chocolate-flavored laxatives, Quaker Oats, and how to get a good deal on a reverse mortgage.

But when the commercials are over, we who gather at the television remain silent while the monster makes landfall.

I recognize the places shown on TV. One reporter is perched only fifteen miles from my front yard. I can sympathize with Ellen, worrying about her mother. In fact, I have been sick about my own mother—who decided to stay behind and weather out the storm.

I texted my mother a few minutes ago.

She texted back: “The wind has gotten bad, we’ve moved to the back room, but we’re okay. I love you.”

Then, I texted my sister—who also stayed behind. She wrote: “I’m scared, please pray for us.”

So while I write…

With eyes still closed, he says, “I’m gonna make this coin turn from heads to tails by resting my hand on it.”

Waffle House is full of people who are fleeing a hurricane. While I write this, Hurricane Michael is circulating in the Gulf like a Margarita in a cheap blender. I’ve seen TV footage of this storm filmed from outer space. This sucker looks angry.

Hurricane Michael slowed down last night, but meteorologists tell us he’ll get meaner when he hits warm Gulf water.

Satellite images on the national news projected the eye of the storm making landfall around 7:00 PM. Then, computer models estimate that Michael will gain strength and run directly into my garage door.

So this is what everyone's talking about at this interstate Waffle House. This one-room building is alight with nervousness in the air. We are all evacuees, eating waffles and hash browns.

“You think the storm will hit our house, Mom?” says a boy behind me. He might be six years old.

His mother is tall, lean, and wearing a service uniform. A hotel maid, maybe. Or perhaps she works in dry cleaning.

Her hair is a mess. Her eyes are baggy like she hasn’t slept in ten years.

“Hush,” she says. “And eat your dinner.”

But the boy is becoming anxious. He’s hardly touching his waffle. “What about our house?” he says to his mother. “What’ll happen to it?”

“Eat, I said.”

“When will we be able to go back home?”

“I don’t know, now quit worrying and eat.”

“I’m scared.”

Join the crowd, kid. You and two million others. Michael is a storm that threatens to suck our houses from the foundations and launch them into orbit somewhere near Jupiter.

Behind the boy is an old man seated on a stool at the counter. The man wears a cap with “Massey Ferguson” embroidered on the front. He overhears the boy and his mother.

The man wipes his mouth, leans over the divider,…