This street is lined with dozens of houses decorated with Christmas lights in mid-November. I wish you could see them. There is a whole row of homes, glowing multicolored in the night. My wife and I are on a joyride hunting for lit-up houses this evening.
Decorations abound. We see plastic Santas in front yards with electronic arms waving at us, which is creepy. There are enormous plasticized snow globes with artificial blizzards. Fiberglass reindeer, grazing in yards. And oh, the bright, twinkling, blinking, flickering lights.
I never knew Christmas lights in autumn could bring me such joy. Never.
That’s 2020 for you.
People are doing festivities earlier this year. Everyone’s getting in on the action. I know a guy who put up his tree three weeks before Halloween. And I know a lady who let her kids open some of their presents this week.
This pandemic has changed everything. And everyone.
Take me. When I began writing this column years ago, most of my writings were intended to be funny. I love humor. I was always the clown in school, and I could make milk exit the nostrils of even the most hardened fourth graders.
But then along came a pandemic and I turned into a big sack of blubbery emotion. Being humorous just felt irreverent in light of mounting death tolls, mortality rates, and sad headlines. It would have been like bringing a whoopee cushion to a Saturday night prayer meeting. Which I have never done.
The COVID era changed me as a human being. But also as a writer. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad. And I shudder to think about what my current critics might say about that last sentence.
Because, heaven knows, that’s another thing that’s changed in this world. Some people have become hyper-critical. I receive a handful of nasty emails each morning from disgruntled people I’ve never met who, for some inexplicable reason, keep reading my stuff.
But I can’t hold it against them. Because it’s been a hard year for everyone. Including me.
When the pandemic hit, I basically lost my job, same as millions of other unemployed people. If it weren’t for this column, I would be a mental shipwreck. This small stretch of whitespace on your screen became my sole occupation. And you became my primary friend, whoever you might be.
I’ve been writing about COVID for the better part of a year now. And what a bizarre and oddly poignant year for being a writer.
I wrote about a 100-year-old man who flew planes in World War II, and managed to beat coronavirus. And about an elderly woman who survived the Dust Bowl, but died from the virus.
I wrote about nursing-home residents, sheltering in place, who started an internet radio station so they wouldn’t feel like prisoners.
And about a guy in Michigan who stood outside a gas station and offered to buy free gasoline for medical workers until he drained his bank account. And the total stranger who joined him in this because she thought this sounded like a good idea.
I vigorously shook hands with men who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. Then we smeared sanitizer all over our palms.
A few days later, I visited 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, and met a homeless man who had memorized a few of Doctor King’s sermons. He preached one for me.
I received hordes of letters from kids, trapped in isolation, who were so desperate they wrote to an average middle-aged Floridian (yours truly).
And I’ve interviewed dozens of mental health experts only to realize that this nation has a dedicated army of professionals who are willing to fight tooth and claw for the well-being of your brain.
And just when the year couldn’t get any weirder, one summer day, while rummaging through my attic, I found a cardboard box containing an infant’s baptism gown and a certificate stating that I’d been baptized in the Catholic church as an infant.
I almost passed out. This was staggering news. My parents raised me as a Southern Baptist, even though my father had been raised Catholic. I took the gown out of its shrink-wrapped plastic and I felt warm all over. I have no experience with Catholicism, but this is one more valued link to my dead father.
Since then, I have been to confession a few times, for journalistic purposes. The priest assures me that, if I keep my grades up, Saint Peter will consider letting me in.
I watched a baseball game played by Latino children who formed their own underground league in the middle of COVID.
I saw the sunrise over the Appalachian Mountains on a bicycle with my wife.
I fell in love with my little hometown library again, and the people in it. God bless the Walton County Library system.
What a year.
My mother used to say that you can’t change your circumstances, but you can change yourself. And I think that’s true. I have really changed this year. I’m not the same person. Neither are you.
I get more excited about tiny things than I once did: a greeting from a dog, nice weather, a new pair of brake pads, a conversation, a postcard from my dear friend, Helen.
And I never knew how much I loved people before they became off-limits. I never realized how much I enjoyed seeing their wide open smiles, free and unhidden. I can feel that I’m a different person inside. Slightly more damaged than before, but also a little less judgmental.
I only pray that I’ve changed for the better. I hope I’ve become more grateful. Grateful for life. For other human beings. For you. For all this. For the wind in my lungs.
And for all these twinkling Christmas lights.
oldlibrariansshelf - November 22, 2020 7:30 am
This household usually waits until after Thanksgiving to have any Christmas displays. However, the oversized wreath has gone up early and some lighted figures will be on the lawn soon. Thank you, Sean, for savoring the early celebration. Your thoughts today make me happier about the season.
Darlene Meader Riggs - November 22, 2020 10:44 am
And I’m grateful for you and Mrs. Million Dollar Smile. (I love seeing y’all on the IG!) Keep the faith, Sean. You’re a treasure! Merry Thanksgivingmas!
Susan Johnson - November 22, 2020 11:03 am
I decorated for Halloween for the first time in years this year (since my kids moved out). And did candy (in pre-packed bags set on a TV table on the porch). In a neighborhood where Halloween had dwindled to 5 or 6 kids, this year we had 25. Plus parents and dogs in costumes. We all waved and grinned happily at each other through the glass door. In this year of sadness, it seems more important than ever to celebrate the heck out of whatever there is to celebrate. I only have my window candles up so far, but there will be LOTS of little lights up soon! Thank you for what you do, and for being a balm for sore hearts.
Joan - November 22, 2020 11:05 am
Again – Thanks for starting my day with positive thoughts. Sharing this column with family and very thankful for them and their continued good health. You are part of my family.
Te Burt - November 22, 2020 11:29 am
I may be one of the few people who has remained unchanged by the whole COVID mess – other than to become angrier, but that’s a different matter about the election. I did my research early on, saw what the truth was, and never wore a mask if it wasn’t absolutely mandatory. In fact, all the women I associate with, a group of over-65s who are mostly single or act like they are, have had our lives only mildly affected by covid. None have caught it. I retired and, for one of the few times in my life, can stay at home and not feel guilty about it! Not having to go anywhere is a joy. Not having to see people is a blessing. I never get bored, and I never lack for things to do, read, watch, or pound out furious fb postings. (Why haven’t I been banned from fb? By their rules,I should be permanently off it!) So I consider myself singularly blessed to be the exception to the rule. Good thing i’ve never paid much attention to the rules!
Ann - November 22, 2020 12:20 pm
Sean, you have been the twinkling lights throughout this strange, frightening year…you have kept us grounded…laughing, thoughtful and hopeful. You make us all see many of our own thoughts and feelings…right in front of us…and that makes us realize we are not alone or weird in our thinking because we are human! You organize random thoughts which helps and you provide an outlet for tears and laughter…so thank you
….and no I’m not putting my Christmas lights up until the turkey is done!
joan moore - November 22, 2020 12:30 pm
It is a gift to get these thoughts each day. Keep that in mind when you doubt your work. Thank you for threading them together in a memory chain that I can take and then make one of my own, similar, but mine.
lisaweldon - November 22, 2020 12:43 pm
My wreath went up last night…I just couldn’t wait any longer! I also brought out the Christmas floor mat my children made when they were 1, 2 and 4. Their little red and green handprints made me cry (they are now 27, 28 and 30). I love Christmastime!
Amanda - November 22, 2020 12:55 pm
Amen, Sean! I knew I would change. The only question was whether it would be for the better. I really think the changes have been positive for me, if only by a few degrees. And as every sailor knows, even a few degrees of course change can make all the difference in the world! I consider all of my decisions a bit more carefully and I appreciate the little things even more than I did before the pandemic knocked us out of our comfort zones.
Kate - November 22, 2020 1:07 pm
Putting up Christmas today
Brenda - November 22, 2020 1:18 pm
Sharing your humor and compassion is a bright light in a dark time. Keep on shinning!
Judy Sears - November 22, 2020 1:22 pm
Sean, you are the light…shine on.
Jeannine Underwood - November 22, 2020 1:25 pm
I can’t tell you how much I look forward to reading your stories every morning. I’m suffering from depression and it was my doctor who asked if I had heard of Sean of the South. I thought at the time it seemed strange that he prescribed anti depressants with a side of you. (He did this ever so casually) I left his office wondering if he also needed counseling and medicine
I googled you upon returning home and wondered about my doctors recommendation, but there I was looking ar you on YouTube
The rest you can guess, every morning there you are and I appreciate my doctor even more
Jan - November 22, 2020 1:28 pm
I am so very grateful for you, Sean! As Judy and Brenda said, you are the light shining in a sometimes dark world. You shine on all things beautiful but also you show us how so many people can take something or someone unloved and make them shine as well. You are the morning light to many on days when the sun is covered with clouds. As Judy says … shine on.
Theresa Collins - November 22, 2020 1:30 pm
Thank You for your wonderful stories/editorials/narratives…whatever you call them. A dear friend introduced your writing and I am so happy she did. Just wanted to say thanks and keep up the good works!
SIncerely, Theresa in Georgia
Myra - November 22, 2020 1:38 pm
Thank you Sean. We discovered you during this pandemic! We (I am the 24/7 caregiver for my parents who are in their upper 80’s) read your column every morning after breakfast. You have started our days and we are grateful. Thank you for the reminders that we are not alone and that we should endeavor to put on an attitude of gratitude each day. Keep up the great work!
RCK - November 22, 2020 1:43 pm
I, for one, am not happy about having the holidays all mashed in together….and starting right after the 4th of July. I would much prefer that each have its own dedicated time. I love them all and feel each is unique and special until they’re all crammed together and overlapping with Jack-o-lanterns and reindeer competing for space. I feel heat rising inside my ears when I walk into Walmart in August when it’s still 100 degrees outside and see lighted Christmas trees. Rather than putting me in the right mood, it turns me into an uncharacteristic Scrooge muttering, “Bah, humbug.” The older I get, the more angels are replacing Santa Claus in my Christmas decor as I turn toward the spiritual and away from the commercial. More and more, I try to give my family smaller, more personal gifts and shared memories (….very difficult to do this year).
Janet Williams - November 22, 2020 1:48 pm
Sean, I suspect there are many, many more of us out here who read your posts faithfully, grateful for your words and how they always touch our hearts, but who rarely comment. A wise man once told me to take a careful look at any criticism that I received, learn from the good, and discard the rest. I have found that to be easier said than done because I remember criticism far longer than praise. Just know that I read you every day, usually before anything else in my inbox, including the NYTimes briefs.
Jenny Brannan - November 22, 2020 1:52 pm
I read your column first thing every morning when I open my email. I used to open my newspaper first to Lewis Grizzard and you remind me of Lewis in many ways. But you have more substance. Keep up the good work.
B - November 22, 2020 1:53 pm
Twinkle twinkle Sean.
R H EUBANKS - November 22, 2020 1:57 pm
David Jones - November 22, 2020 1:58 pm
Thank you for being you
Donna Loughridge - November 22, 2020 2:02 pm
I don’t believe in coincidence. My cousin Steve passed in December 2018 when I was gathering my household to relocate from Colorado to Alabama. He was a simple man, taking joy from his farming and his dogs. You look a lot like he did when he was young. You also take joy in life’s moments. God has a plan for everything. He led me to your blog as a bright, shining star of hope in the midst of all this darkness. I’m not a social media fan, but I’m thankful that you are enough of a risk-taker to have expanded your former humor-slanted column to one that is more emotionally vulnerable, filled with humility. 2020 may have changed us all in positive and negative ways. You are our role model for compassion and servant-oriented empathy that we can extend to others, not just at Christmas, but all year going forward. Keep on making us aware of the blessings in each moment.
Pamela Mills - November 22, 2020 2:05 pm
You are a lifeline to so many during these crazy times! You allow us to see the world the way we want it to be. Uncomplicated and loving. You show us the “good” in everyday circumstances. Thank you for being who you are and sharing that with us. You are a blessing!
Sharyn - November 22, 2020 2:07 pm
For the first time in 20 years I’m putting up a tree. Small, ceramic, but a tree never the less.
Cindy B. Stevens - November 22, 2020 2:38 pm
Thank you for this. I’m a poet and have been unmotivated; undisciplined to follow my usual “schedule”. Maybe it’s because my Fridays , my main writing day, doesn’t start with my crowd at Hillsborough Cup of Joe during this pandemic.
Susan Sloan - November 22, 2020 2:41 pm
Sean, I am pretty much a newbie. I found you during Covid. And I have read some dark columns from you. But I have also read some funny columns, some thought provoking columns, some memory dredging columns. I look forward to sharing time with you every morning. I hope to hear you in person one day when this is all over.
Susan in Nashville
Barbara Vallejo - November 22, 2020 3:06 pm
Thank you for being part of my day. The first column of yours I read was about the child going to heaven. I will always remember that. It’s been a rough year. The virus, politics, even my library was closed for a time. Poor health and a cancer diagnosis. But even now I realize my main emotion is gratitude–for my life, my family, for books, for life as long as I have it, and for you.
Mary - November 22, 2020 3:40 pm
Thank you again for writing about your wonderful thought and experiences. I look forward to your letter every morning!
NancyB - November 22, 2020 3:41 pm
Sean–I am going to admit to never having heard of you (sorry) until a friend started sharing your FB posts “post–Virus.” I have faithfully read them since that first one showed up on my page. When I took a several weeks self-imposed “FB fast” because the postings were becoming so vicious, one of the few things I knew I was going to miss were your daily thoughts. So she shared where I could sign up to receive them directly to my email box. I enjoyed your musings during “the Trail ride.” Even though I am now a “cat mama,” I love the ones about dogs cause I grew up with farm dog family members. The ones about children touch this teacher’s heart. The humorous comments make me chuckle. And many have simply made me ponder circumstances and blessings in my own life. I have written a few comments, one in particular when a reader was hyper-critical of one short sentence in a very touching column about the life and subsequent death of a Southern lady. (No one deserves that kind of criticism. Plus I researched her concern–she was wrong.) But mainly I comment with appreciation for your thoughts and insights. Thank you for enriching my life during the past several months. I anticipate many more years of columns and eagerly look forward to when you once again believe you can share humor. Thank you—-
Amy - November 22, 2020 3:43 pm
Sean, I am so grateful for your words. The humor is more necessary now than ever! I am missing touching people more than anything else. I am a hugger, a patter of hands and shoulders. My family has been hugged way more than their fair share. Older ladies do this sort of thing you know and I’m really missing that connection, that expression of support and reassurance to kids and moms and friends. I pray for an end to all things Corona Virus.
Margaret - November 22, 2020 4:00 pm
I don’t think you could be a successful writer if you hadn’t changed this year, and reflected that change in what I read each day. Actually, I find it hard to believe that anyone who is aware of what has gone on in 2020 hasn’t changed. Some have changed for better and some for worse. Adversity and hardship tend to have that affect on humans. I have lived through WW2 and the polio epidemic. My generation seems to be much better equipped to deal with what’s happening right now. With faith, hope, and charity we will come out of this a more thankful, less materialistic country and with stronger Americans. Keep on keeping us grounded!!!!!!
Denise Walker - November 22, 2020 4:03 pm
I’m proud to be considered a friend. Just keep doing what you’re doing….your writing is inspiring, funny, thought-provoking and interesting. It never fails to touch my heart.
Linda - November 22, 2020 4:08 pm
Hey Sean, I’m a born and raised Catholic and my brother was too and then married a Baptist and became a Baptist . We are all praying to the same God…and you are welcome anytime, anywhere.
Don’t ever worry about Saint Peter letting you in. Jesus was walking around heaven and noticed a few people who He didn’t think should’ve have been there yet. He went to Saint Peter and asked what was happening…. Peter told Him with a sigh….” Well, Lord , they come here and I tell them it’s not their time yet and they need to go back to Purgatory for a little while…. they leave and go around to the back door and Your Mother , Mary lets them in.”
Take care Sean, Hi to Jamie. Keep on writing…..
Suzanne Moore - November 22, 2020 4:27 pm
Yet another thoughtful, heartfelt offering with which so many of us can identify, Sean. Discovering your blog has been a precious gift in these most difficult times. I met you in Thomasville just over a year ago, and have read your books with relish, but there is something so special about these daily offerings. I feel that you are reaching out, as you did when I met you at The Bookshelf in Thomasville, GA. Because of the long flight of stairs, a disabled friend and I could not attend your talk. When you had finished, you took the time to come over and speak to us. You reached out, and I feel you doing so again every time I open these daily offerings from your blog. I accept the gift and celebrate the giver every day. I pray that you and your family receive even more than you give.
Glenn - November 22, 2020 4:31 pm
I can’t imagine the dark lonely people that would send you of all people hate mail, that would go to such effort to criticize. My suggestion is don’t give them oxygen, don’t read them, don’t reply to them, don’t mention them, certainly don’t consider anything they say. I’ve made a pact with myself to stop reading comments on Facebook from people I don’t know. What’s wrong with people that have so much hate and nothing better to do than attack others.
You’re the bright spot in so many lives, most of them don’t post comments. Keep thinking of them, starve the oxygen from the trolls.
Barbara Weldon - November 22, 2020 4:35 pm
Absolutely beautiful article! I believe God is trying to teach us the value of human interaction,something I truly believe we forgot about and became complacent with! God has a way of stopping us in our tracks and making look at what’s really important to our lives! A hug, a smile a kiss on the cheek, the little things in life are so important! Love your articles but never forget your sense of humor! God gave us all one, we just forget to stop sometimes and see the truly valuable things in life!
Liz Bishop - November 22, 2020 5:14 pm
As we approach Thanksgiving this coming week, let us all be a little more grateful!
God bless you, Sean!
Linda Moon - November 22, 2020 5:31 pm
I wish I could see those lit-up houses this evening. Joy and humor are my story…even cracking jokes during the 30-hour delivery of my first-born. COVID changed life for someone I know and love whose lungs got messed up. He has often been described as “bigger than life”. But no one is bigger than LIFE, itself. Grateful is better than bigger, and I’m so very grateful for you, writer. Joy To Your World, friend!
Dorothy - November 22, 2020 5:42 pm
I’m an old (84) woman living alone and enjoying it. Reading, birds, trees, fresh air fill my days and nights. Your thoughts each day lift me even higher—and when it’s time “ even higher I will go”.
jstephenw - November 22, 2020 5:55 pm
Once again Sean, thanks for being the voice of the average person. You have a way of expressing the feelings, fears and frailities of the average person’s uneventful life, making great observations when that life is interrupted (like COVID-19 smacked), then setting out those wonderful feelings of hope that we ALL will get better in the future. It is my hope and prayer that after the inauguration on January 20, 2021, many of the good, decent average folks of all races, sexes, nationalities and political affiliations with slowly but surely find our way back to each other and start to build the wonderful nation we know that lies just beneath all this anger and animosity. We will need a leader, a Pied Piper if you will. It just may be someone like you. Thanks again, and “hey” to Jamie, especially from her Martin kin in SC.
Octothorpe - November 22, 2020 6:06 pm
Thank you for sharing. Are you, or have you considered, posting on Gab.com or Parler? They’re interesting spaces. Again, thanks for sharing your gift. Have a blessed Sunna’s-day.
Amy Spurlin - November 22, 2020 6:14 pm
Thank you, Sean, for expressing how many of us are feeling. We are all changed and, I hope, for the better. We will all celebrate when you are our amongst us again. In the meantime, we become even greater friends through your daily writing. I look forward to seeing you in Andalusia for the third time when the Covid cloud lifts.
Hugs from the former English teacher who first met you at the Episcopal church.
PS. Drive through Andalusia when the Christmas lights are on to welcome you. It will warm your heart.
Ann Mills - November 22, 2020 8:21 pm
Ignore the haters. You’re helping keep the rest of us afloat.
jeanne kelley - November 22, 2020 8:31 pm
Sean…..you are one of those twinkling lights! Everyday!!
Alicia G - November 22, 2020 8:32 pm
Thank you, Sean Dietrich. You are a bright, twinkling multi-colored light in this surreal year. Keep worrying. There are multitudes of smiles behind the masks. Alicia in Alabama
Tammy S. - November 22, 2020 9:46 pm
Pat L. - November 22, 2020 10:30 pm
Thanks again – I look forward every day to your column!
Anne Arthur - November 22, 2020 10:50 pm
I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. Sometimes, when reading your column, I thought to myself, “He sounds like a Catholic despite all the lovely Southern Baptist stories.” And here you are, brother, a cradle Catholic at that! It’s apparent that the Catholic Baptism Water can never wash off, or whatever else you think you’d do to appear other-denominational. Welcome to our Jesus Fan Club, Sean. But please, keep writing again about the lovely church ladies who sweetened your childhood with their fellowship cook-outs and casseroles.
Linda Gray - November 23, 2020 12:17 am
I look forward to reading your words every day. Thank you.
Ernie Kelly - November 23, 2020 1:51 am
Wow. Thanks for continuing to share. You’re us. We’re you. But you say it better.
Judy Tayloe - November 23, 2020 2:10 am
I’m grateful that I got a big bear hug from you in Dothan, Alabama in February 2020…just before Covid 19 changed our lives, changed the way we greet each other, and altered our comings and goings. I pray that you and Jamie can resume those delightful one man shows again sooner than later. In the meantime, thank you for keeping us laughing, and sometimes crying, each and every day with your musings. Signing off from North Carolina with a great big virtual hug!
Mariette VandenMunckhof-Vedder - November 23, 2020 2:12 am
Aha, being a Floridian makes your Catholic baptism a lot more understandable! What a treasure you found on the attic. Wish I had that, knowing that I got baptized in a borrowed gown… no pictures, nothing! But I’m more than middle aged!
Guess that the positive thing amidst lots of negatives is maybe that people have become more home bound and are also preparing meals at home more frequently than before. That is the base for a good family life…
Sending you hugs from a Catholic transplant from the deep South of the Kingdom of The Netherlands. The Province of Limburg looks also more or less like an appendix, just like Florida does to the main land…
Nancy M - November 23, 2020 2:19 am
Your writing is the perfect mixture of joy and sorrow, humor and soul-searching. You brighten my day with your columns, and I am so sorry that some people only want to criticize for no reason.
I fondly remember many of the columns you mentioned here. I listened to the amateur radio station, but failed to make a note of the URL. If you or any of your readers could provide it again, I would be grateful.
Happy Thanksgiving, Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year to you and to all of us!
Jean P. Stone - November 23, 2020 2:22 am
You and your column are two new things I will add to my list of Things to be Thankful For. I can’t imagine not having my dose of “feel good” each day, with tears or without.
elizabethroosje - November 23, 2020 2:54 am
Yeah, it really HAS changed us all! I am sorry for the unkind emails you get 🙁 Keep remembering that it’s really NOTHING about you but only speaks to the email writer’s pain and brokenness. I’ve said it various times now, but ever since a friend put one of your posts on FB this summer, I am reading your posts ever day. And your blog posts/essays are ALWAYS a highlight of my day and something that when I see it on my feedly reader, I am excited to see what you had to say. Wow, that would be a real surprise, finding out that you were baptised Catholic. I am glad you have that link with you Dad. God really works in mysterious ways I find. I love how you see things to be thankful for or something good out there. You really encourage us, encourage me. Yeah, Christmas is coming earlier this year but I think that’s great. I changed our 2 card tables to Christmas table cloths (I use one table as my writing letter table and the other is my computer (well chrome book anyway) table where I am tying this. My Husband says I am slowly (or maybe quickly in new inventive ways?) taking over the house 🙂 LOL. However, he does have his office room almost fully to himself (I have a labtop slow as frozen syrup in midwinter in a desk nook that was a closet in the office). Day after Thanksgiving I will get my tree up. I have inside white lights up in the living-room year round and our Christmas (IKEA) star is always up too… 🙂
Susan Kennedy - November 23, 2020 3:02 am
Bugs the heck out of me that people send you nasty emails. It’s not like they’re being forced to read your stuff! Just keep doing what you’re so good at! We need you!
Paula Massey - November 24, 2020 3:14 pm
Thank you for bringing “comfort and joy” to this world!
Nellie Tipton - November 27, 2020 11:04 pm
Because of that ‘small stretch of white space,’ we are friends. Glad to be your friend.
Julie - December 15, 2020 2:34 pm
What a Beautiful Gift you found! Your Christening Gown and Baptismal Certificate…your Catholic Father’s Legacy! I always sensed that there was some Catholic in your writing, and now I know! And I have always wanted to attend a Southern Baptist service, and now I know…I can also be a part of both✝️