A retired professor sent me a letter. He told me that some of my stories were “too plain,” and “needed more work.” Then he went on to tell me many more unsavory things about myself. I was afraid he was going to grade my work and give me a C minus.
I’ve admitted this before, but I have a noted history of getting C’s. I once set a longstanding academic record for earning the most consecutive C’s in my weight division. The record was later broken, but my picture still hangs in the community college trophy case.
Although not all the messages I receive are bad. For example: This morning I got a message from a man in Tallapoosa County, Alabama. He started with the words, “I sincerely love you.”
It was Niagara Falls after that. I can’t think of a better way to start a day.
Then, the man went on to tell me about something that happened to him once.
Years ago, he was standing in a supermarket line. He was trying to pay for his groceries, but his card was declined. His bank account was in the red. A woman in line paid for his items. She was a complete stranger. He’s never told anyone about this.
“That woman probably didn’t know it,” he wrote, “but I was a single dad, at the time I was broke and we were going hungry. She put food in my kids’ mouths.”
Oh, and there’s the letter I got from the woman in Chattanooga.
She got pregnant when she was seventeen. Her family kicked her out of the house. She almost gave the child up for adoption because seventeen-year-olds can’t afford babies. She wanted her child to have a good life, even if this meant letting it go.
But then a neighbor woman stepped in. She invited the girl to live with her for as long as the girl needed. She offered to babysit her child, and to let her use her car. The woman’s only condition was that the girl stay in school.
That was ten years ago, today the girl has a nursing degree and a nine-year-old.
Here’s another. A man named Trevor, from Missouri, sent me a story about his dog that went missing a few years back. The animal was gone for a week. Trevor thought the animal was forever lost. He checked nearby shelters and neighborhoods. He even put up posters. Nothing.
One night, he got a call from a woman in Southeast Kansas. She had his dog. He broke down crying on the phone. The dog had traveled twenty-four miles across a state line and showed up on her farm. When the woman found the animal she dialed the number she found on the dog’s collar tags.
Trevor made friends with the woman. Today, he regularly brings his dog to her property to let the dog run free.
At Cracker Barrel last night, I watched an elderly woman in the busy dining room. The woman was eating alone. Have you ever watched an old woman eat alone at Cracker Barrel? It’ll bring a tear to your eye.
But then something marvelous happened. A waitress struck up a conversation with the woman. They laughed a lot. The server was in the weeds, but she never acted too busy for her elderly customer. The old woman seemed so grateful to have someone to talk to.
And when I saw the large tip the old woman left, I did the whole Niagara Falls thing again. It just makes you feel good to see something like that.
So anyway, I get a lot of letters telling me stories like these. Most messages I get are nice, but I also receive my share of nitpicks. Someone called me “a misguided Pollyanna.” Last week, one highly educated person called me “grammar slob.” I don’t even know what that means, but I ain’t too sure it’s good.
Another religious guy once told me I’m probably “going to hell.” Well, all I can say is, at least it’ll be more tolerable than the current heat index in Walton County, Florida.
The truth is, I don’t love negative emails, but everyone’s opinion means something to me, even the crummy opinions. In fact, that’s one of the things I love most about writing. I love seeing people’s feelings in print. And as it happens, I also have a few feelings to share. So here’s mine, if I may:
What I am about to say, I say to both friends and critics. I say this to the happy, and the disgruntled. The glass-half-full people, and the gloomy realists who think I’m a whack-job Pollyanna. I say this to the surly professors, and their C students.
I also say this to those who help teenage girls raise their babies, to sad elderly people at the Cracker Barrel, and to the waitresses who keep their wings hidden. To single fathers who can’t afford groceries, and to the strangers who make sure they can. I say this because it was recently said to me, and it meant a lot.
I sincerely love you.