DEAR SEAN:

I can’t sleep. I am sixteen hundred miles from home (Alabama), and my grandmother isn’t doing well. I’m not mentally prepared for her to leave this earth. I’m having a hard time...

She and I are very close. If you could give me some comforting words, I would really appreciate it.

Thank you,
PRAYING-FOR-GRANDMA

DEAR PRAYING:

I wish I had words, but I don’t. Because nothing I could say would make things any better.

Sure, I could say, “You’re stronger than you think,” or something. But why should you believe a guy like me? I’m just an average Joe with crummy car insurance.

But.

I DO have something special. And before I tell you what it is, you have to promise you won’t laugh.

Promise?

No. I mean really promise.

All right.

I have a magic lamp.

Now, hold on. Before you shut off your phone, I’m serious. I bought a brass lamp at a flea market in New Orleans. When I saw it, I had to have it. It cost thirty-nine

bucks—you can’t put a price tag on genies.

Though, I haven’t used it yet. In fact, until just now I’d forgotten all about it. The thing has been in my garage.

Tonight, I’m going make a wish.

I know exactly what I’ll wish. I’m going to wish for everything go back to normal for you.

If you ask me—which you didn’t—there is nothing better than normalcy. Life has a way of screwing up normal, and it leaving everything abnormal and funky.

So if this magic lamp is the real deal, you and your granny are going to get plenty of normalcy back.

Also, I’m going to wish for the University of Alabama to win the Orange Bowl on my birthday, but whatever.

Growing up, my life was anything but normal. I…

We were going through the motions, doing what regular people are supposed to do during December. Gifts, festive music, cheap decor, blah, blah, blah.

DEAR SEAN:

My husband died three years ago this February, and I know you grew up underneath the same shadow with your father. My son is fourteen, I’m afraid he will never have any joy whatsoever again.

More than anything, I want his Christmas to be awesome, but I am at a complete loss. Does it ever get any better?

GRIEVING-AT-CHRISTMAS

DEAR GRIEVING:

Decades ago. The downtown was decorated with tinsel and little plastic bells hanging from streetlamps. Santa and his reindeer were strung across the rooftops of Mainstreet.

The fiberglass Santa had his right hand outstretched in a perpetual wave to passerbyers. Though, something was very wrong with Santa. Very, VERY wrong.

But more about that later.

Anyway, I was in town with my mother. We were shopping for the holidays.

My father had died a few years earlier. My mother was not the woman she used to be. She was sad. So was I.

Also, I had gained roughly fifteen pounds that year

because I was, and still am, an emotional eater. This is why football season continues to wreak havoc on my body. Also, I have had a lifelong love affair with Chili Cheese Fritos.

That holiday season felt like torture. Everyone else was happy, but not us. We couldn’t laugh, joke, or crack smiles.

We were going through the motions, doing what regular people are supposed to do during December. Gifts, festive music, cheap decor, blah, blah, blah.

That day in town, my mother turned me loose in the department store. I had fifteen dollars to spend on friends, foes, and kin.

Oh, how times have changed. Today, fifteen bucks wouldn’t even buy an iPhone charger.

I wandered through the store with no idea how to spend my money. After all, why should I care about stuffed animals, jars of pepper jelly, barrels of popcorn,…

That’s what I’ve always believed good writing feels like. Like it was written by a nice person.

DEAR SEAN:

I started reading your blog last month because some of my students follow you on Instagram and said you were “cool,” but honestly, sir, you disappoint me somewhat.

Some of your writing is nothing but flippance and poor attempts at humor that is sometimes inappropriate, and even sacreligious...

The purpose of this email is to encourage you to abandon irreverence and cheap teenage humor, and stop using fragment sentences!

Do yourself proud, Sean. Emulate the great American authors of our time, and really put yourself into it. And just like I tell my students, “If you continue to work hard, you might even get a book published.”

I’m sorry if this offends you, but I tell the truth for a living,

ENGLISH-TEACHER-IN-AUSTIN

DEAR ENGLISH:

I’m afraid you’re right about me, ma’am. I’ll admit, I’m not much of a role model. But I’d like to think I’m a nice guy. And maybe that counts for something.

You’re not alone in how you feel about me. I have a long track record of disappointing teachers.

Once, my

kindergarten teacher was leading the class in singing “America the Beautiful,” and my bladder was suddenly filled with the Holy Spirit.

I raised my hand.

My teacher said, “You’re gonna have to hold it.”

So I squeezed my thighs together and prayed. But by the time our class had started singing “I’ve Got Peace Like a River” I had already made a peaceful river all over the floor.

There’s more.

When I was in fifth grade, my teacher told me I was a hopeless writer. I won’t go into details because they don’t matter. She suggested I give up the craft altogether. So, I followed her suggestion.

I believed this woman’s opinion of me. That’s part of the unspoken agreement between educators and students—students trust those who stand before chalkboards.

And when an…

There are kindhearted people. I have seen them. I have shaken their hands, hugged their necks. To find them, you have to know where to look, but they’re around.

DEAR SEAN:

What things do you believe in?

ELEVEN-YEARS-OLD-IN-CHAPEL-HILL

DEAR ELEVEN:

I believe in fried chicken. The kind made by every granny you’ve ever known. The kind fried in black iron skillets.

I believe it is powerful stuff. Which is probably why you see it at funeral receptions, baby showers, and churches.

I also believe in hand-rolled biscuits made from flour, fat, salt, baking powder, and buttermilk. To add additional ingredients to this mix would be like drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa.

I believe in teaching young men to clean fish. I believe in kids who ask too many questions. And I believe in girls who are gutsy enough to be themselves.

I believe girls have it harder than boys. And I’m sorry for that.

I believe in giving money to the homeless—not once or twice, but every time I see someone down on their luck. Every single time. I believe in giving more than I should.

I believe in old-time country dances. Long ago, before TV’s, smartphones, and twenty-four-hour news channels, I believe people threw more parties.

I believe in bowing heads to say grace. I believe in crickets, loud frogs, and places where you cannot hear busy highways.

I believe in magic tricks. And in teenagers who haven’t found themselves yet. I believe in all golden retrievers, Labs, bloodhounds, some Jack Russels. And marriage.

I believe in Marie, Lorena, and Nadia—living at a battered women’s shelter in South Georgia. I believe in high-school dropouts, and kids who miss their daddies. I believe in nurses.

I believe in music made by hand, fiddles, upright pianos, and the poetry of Hank Williams. I believe in Willie Nelson.

I believe in the memory of grandparents, and keeping them alive with stories. I believe in making lowly people famous, and famous people lowly.

And I believe this world is better than most give it credit. I believe that if folks…

Chaperoning, I discovered, is brutal work. We spent nearly nine hours in a church van, driving Interstate 65. There were eighteen boys, ten girls, and three adults.

DEAR SEAN:

I believe our youth group would enjoy your company. Would you ever consider chaperoning with our youth leaders? This year we’re taking our kids to day-hike parts of the Appalachian Trail. Any interest?

Sincerely,
YOUTH-LEADER-DANNY

DEAR DANNY:

Years ago, my minister friend, Bill, and I chaperoned the First Baptist youth group to Dollywood.

Chaperoning, I discovered, is brutal work. We spent nearly nine hours in a church van, driving Interstate 65. There were eighteen boys, ten girls, and three adults.

The ride basically went like this:

Boys took turns making aromas that were strong enough to stop a grown man’s heart—then rated their accomplishments on scales of one-to-ten.

The girls all huddled and sang songs which all contained pretty much the same lyrics:

“Baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, baby…”

Bill was our driver, Miss Sandra was our acting warden. My job was to make idle threats and prevent unnecessary sinning.

I was good at my job I would threaten with things like:

“Quit touching him!”

Or: “Switch

seats with Allen!”

Or: “Roll down the windows before we all gag!”

Miss Sandra engaged kids in “constructive activities.” Drawing upon her training as an English major, she explained the finer points of poetry, meter, and literary symbolism to the kids. Then, we passed around notepads.

When the kids finished writing their own poems they recited them.

Miller Watkins recited:

“Roses are red,
Violets for the masses,
These youth chaperones,
Don’t know their heads from their…”

Thomas “Taterlog” Matthews also read his poem:

“The Lord is my shepherd,
I am his sheep,
Now pull this van over,
I have to take a major pee.”

When we arrived in Pigeon Forge, we stayed at a rundown motel that appeared to have been built during the late 1970’s.

I went into…

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…

We talked about how sad we felt. And about things that made us happy. She liked the Four Tops. I liked Willie. She wanted to be a hip-hop dancer. I wanted write for a newspaper.

Dear Mary,

I got your letter in the mail this afternoon. I read it aloud to my dogs while sipping an iced tea on my porch.

It was a nice surprise, receiving a handwritten letter. I don’t get many.

Even though we are strangers, I was glad to hear about your life. Your new job, your newborn son, and about how much you like Willie Nelson. You’re in good company, Willie Nelson is very special to me, too.

I am sorry your father died. I don’t know exactly what you’re feeling, but I know what it’s like to lose a father. I know you will never be the same.

Not that it matters, but when I was fourteen, I found an ad in the back of a magazine, it advertised a pen pal agency. I responded to the ad, requesting a pen pal.

My assigned correspondent was from Atlanta—keep in mind, this was before the age of the internet. The most advanced form of communication in our day was homing pigeons.

My pen pal’s name was Bee Bee. She was fifteen and wrote in purple ink. She dotted her lowercase “I’s” with little hearts, and I accidentally fell in love with her.

We only wrote each other a handful of times, but we talked about our lives in our letters. She told me about her parent’s divorce. I told her about my father’s suicide.

We talked about how sad we felt. And about things that made us happy. She liked the Four Tops. I liked Willie. She wanted to be a hip-hop dancer. I wanted to write for a newspaper.

She closed each of her letters with:

“Your forever-friend, Bee Bee.”

And well, I’d had never had a forever-friend. Especially not since my father’s death. In fact, I didn’t have many friends at all.

I wished I could end…

We didn’t have much to talk about, since we weren’t actually friends. But we remembered getting through a math class together once. And we remembered that beer.

DEAR SEAN:

I heard you tell story about not being a high-school grad, I am not one either. I was too embarrassed to come talk with you after the show. I am in my second year of GED stuff and this crap is hard, man. How do I get through it? I want this, but I don’t know if I got what it takes.

Thank you,
HOPELESS-IN-HOOVER

DEAR HOOVER:

The scene is a community college parking lot, years ago. It’s nighttime. I’m sitting in my truck, doing math homework for a high-school equivalency class.

I hate math. Math is bad. Math was invented by Satan. I do not understand Math and I do not want to.

Professionally, I began my life as a “grunt.” On a construction jobsite, that’s what workers called young men like me.

“Get my tape measure, and make is snappy,” a Grade-A dipstick might say to a young grunt.

Or he might say:

“Sand this drywall joint!”

Or: “Go to McDonalds and get me

an Egg McMuffin with extra cheese and a Doctor Pepper.”

Survival. That’s REAL life. It is about having money to make rent. Survival is real. Math is not.

Be as it may, a drop-out like me had to take high-school equivalency math courses out the kazoo before I could take college courses.

I loved literature. And art. And music. I had a love affair with English.

But math.

I almost quit school. But then I met him. On my way into class. I will never forget. We were going to the same classroom.

He had silver in his hair. He was smoking a cigarette in the breezeway. He wore filthy clothes. His work boots were covered in stucco mud. He had books beneath his arm. He was all smiles.

He said in a heavy accent, “How. You. Are. Doing.…

He finally broke the silence by telling a joke. It was a joke about a priest, the Pope, and a Labrador. It seemed like the wrong time to tell a joke. Still, I forced out a phony laugh for his benefit.

DEAR SEAN:

My stepson lost his father when he was ten. It’s a long story, and a traumatic one involving suicide. And he’s been coping with it okay, I guess. But the thing is, he makes a joke out of everything, it’s hard to get him to take anything serious.

And the other thing is, I don’t know if I should encourage him to keep acting funny or not. I know he’s hurting inside. I want him to feel like he can talk to me if he needs to, but I can’t get through to him when everything is a big joke.

Sincerely,
CONFUSED IN NASHVILLE

DEAR CONFUSED:

I was twelve the first time someone said I was funny. My father had taken his life only a few months before someone told me that.

I’ll never forget the day someone used those words. I was telling one of my all-time best stories to a group of friends—a tale about wetting my pants in the third grade. It’s a real crowd pleaser.

After my story, Lynn—a girl who the seventh-grade boys considered to be hotter than an oven mitt—told me I was “SO funny.” I almost passed out.

Her words stuck with me for a long time. In fact, you could say they’re still with me.

As it happens, my father had been a funny man before he died. He had a horrible childhood. To cope with this, he became a class clown, a prankster, and a joke-teller.

He was lightning with a joke. He memorized thousands. He could tell stories that made people laugh until they dehydrated. He was the life of parties, jovial, giddy, wild, irreverent, and funny.

But he was none of those things in private.

At home, often he was quiet and sad. Sometimes, he would curl into a ball and cry like a ten-year-old.

Once,…

You are pretty dadgum special, you know that? As a matter of fact, on a scale of 1 to 10 you’re a 68. You have a lot to offer, friend.

DEAR SEAN:

I’m a 27-year-old guy, and I want to tell my neighbor that I’m in love with her, and I don’t know how. We’ve spent the last three years always together, walking dogs, and hanging out. She’s helped me through some tough times.

We have tons in common, and she likes my foot massages—that has to be a good sign, right?

Now she’s started seeing this new guy and I’m afraid it’s too late to tell her how I feel. He’s better-looking than me, and more successful... I’m 70 percent deaf, with health issues, including one run in with cancer, but now I’m in remission, I know I’m no prize catch.

I get that you’re busy, but I’d really like some advice,

HEARTSICK-IN-MONTGOMERY

DEAR HEARTSICK:

I’m inside the DMV right now, writing you on my phone. I’ve been here one hour. I’ve taken a number and I’m standing in line. My number is 68. They are now serving Number 07.

Seven.

Anyway, you did the right thing coming to me. I have extensive experience in the field

of being a big, fat, frightened chicken. Which is exactly what you are. Welcome to the club, Colonel Sanders.

I once spent four weeks building up courage to ask Anna Moody to the movies.

“You wanna go to the movies?” I asked.

She said, “Hey, that sounds fun!”

I almost passed out.

Then she added, “Oh, you mean with YOU? I thought you meant as a group. Sorry, I gotta… Um… Clean the… Um… Freezer...”

Ever since then, I’ve been famously opposed to freezer cleaning.

But enough about me.

You like her, and it’s keeping you up at night. You lie in bed, replaying memories of massaging her sweaty, clammy feet.

It’s time to be courageous.

Now look, I’m no expert, but if you ask me, you are pretty…