To the thirty-four-year-old man with severe autism. I’ll call him Bill. Who was abandoned by his mother. The woman dropped him at an ER and said, “I don’t care what you do with him, he’s not coming back here.”

To the man whose son has cancer. Who sat with me in the public park while we watched his boy swing on monkey bars.

The man who said:

“My son’s cancer turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to us. Made me see how good people are.

“When you drive through your hometown and see banners with your son’s name on them, it changes you.”

To John—the man who adopted five dogs. Whose wife, Mindy, was taken too early. The same man who once encouraged me to keep writing at a time when I needed encouragement.

He probably doesn't even remember that.

To Jennifer, who says most people call her, “Jellybean.”

Jellybean is epileptic. She walks to work since she can’t legally drive. She says that her past relationships haven't lasted because of her condition.

Well, she is on top of the world this week. Her boyfriend is an EMT. He knows how to deal with seizures, and isn’t afraid to help her through them.

He asked Jellybean to marry him last Tuesday at his son’s middle-school band concert.

She

said yes.

To the thirty-four-year-old man with severe autism. I’ll call him Bill. Who was abandoned by his mother. The woman dropped him at an ER and said, “I don’t care what you do with him, he’s not coming back here.”

And to the nurse who adopted Bill. Who didn’t just give him a room in her home, but signed papers to make him family.

He now refers to her as "Mom.”

And to my mother. The woman who worked harder than any female I’ve ever made eye-contact with. Who didn’t just raise me, but grew up beside me.

Who endured a husband’s suicide, financial ruin, double shifts, single-parenthood, and late bills. Who survived a disease that almost ruined her.

Who still goes for morning walks with her dog, Sunny, who still says thank-you prayers under her…

She was standing before a bunch of children, pointing at a chalkboard, teaching them about Noah’s Ark. I slipped in to the room and sat in the back row.

We hug before she leaves to go grocery shopping. I pat her on the back when we embrace.

I always do this—the love-patting, I mean. I cannot give her a hug without gently patting her shoulders.

Long ago, during church services, I used to watch married men sit beside their wives. During the sermon, they would all do the same thing. They would place an arm around their spouse and give her a little “love-pat” on the shoulder.

And I remember the first time I ever got my chance to give a pat like this. I sat beside her in church, she was wearing a magnificent perfume. It was grapefruit, or tangerine. Her hair was shoulder-length, she had so much personality it leaked out of her smile—she has always had a slightly devious grin.

So there I was, listening to the sermon. I feigned a yawn. I put my arm around her.

Then, the preacher locked eyes with me. I choked. I chickened out. I

withdrew my arm and aborted the mission.

The next Sunday, the pastor was preaching about sin. He always preached on the subject of sin. Even when he was preaching to the elderly women’s missionary society.

That service, most folks within the congregation were wearing looks of remorse on their faces. Some were saying, “amen brother.” Others were nodding in agreement.

But not me. I was wearing the same look Muhammed Ali’s opponents wear after they sustain serious head trauma. I was so nervous beside this girl. My heart was pounding, my throat closed, I forgot my own Social Security number.

After service, I asked the girl: “You wanna go to lunch?”

“Sure,” she said.

“With me, I mean.”

“That’s what I thought you meant.”

I took her to a place where they served greasy sandwiches, wrapped in tin foil. We sat on…

When I began storytelling for a living, I had no idea what I was doing. I told stories at Rotary clubs, Kiwanis meetings, Baptist fellowship halls, fairgrounds, and cattle auction warehouses.

Selma, Alabama—county sheriff deputies have blocked the streets with barricades. Blue lights flash. Cars park along the road. This is a storytelling festival. I am here to tell stories. After all, I have lots of them.

I arrived early. I’m carrying my guitar—a 1950’s piece of junk that has survived six major hurricanes, and one disagreement with a truck tire.

A large banner hangs over the door of the Carneal Cultural Arts Center. The sign reads: “Kathryn Tucker Windham Tale Tellin’ Festival, with Sean of the South.”

All of a sudden, I’m the richest man alive.

You don’t get over seeing your name in print. No matter how old you get, no matter how many lower back surgeries you succumb.

The first time I ever saw my name in letters, my baseball team had won the Little League Championship. I was ten. I was a chubby boy with an overbite, and big feet. My picture was in the paper.

The caption read: “Peavelers

boys pull off a miracle. Sean Dietrich (1b) completes double play.”

“1b,” that was me. I was a round first-baseman. I was not a particularly attractive child. I was long-limbed, and some said I looked like a Herman Munster with cleats.

My mother clipped the photo from the paper and l flashed this photo to all her Bible-study friends. Her friends would usually remark: “Aaaaawwwwww.”

This is not the reaction that manly first-basemen hope to get from the fairer sex. But we are what we are.

I arrive backstage. I am waiting here before performing. It’s a brick room with a picture window. There is a view of the mighty Alabama River. Straddled over the river is the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge where Martin Luther King completed his five-day march and changed the world forever.

I peek at the audience. The chairs are starting to fill…

After the bishop’s brief sermon, he tells us to stand in a circle. Eighty folks join hands in the chapel. A woman plays piano, a man plays guitar. People sing. The woman next to me is singing with eyes closed.

A pretty day. An Episcopalian chapel. I am seated beside my friend, Tonye. We are singing along with eighty other people who hold song books. Everyone is smiling. Big, cheesy smiles.

“Would y’all turn to page one forty-one?” the bishop says.

This is the first time I recall hearing the word “y’all” used from a pulpit. The Deepwater Baptists of my youth mostly used King James English. But then, this is not a Baptist church. The bishop, for instance, is barefoot, wearing shorts and T-shirt.

I was not raised anywhere near an Episcopalian church. In fact, I couldn’t even pronounce this word until I was twenty-four.

Still, I write about Episcopalians a lot. Not on purpose. I do it because I like them, I guess. And more importantly, I do it because I like their parties.

My people did not party. I was raised around foot-washers who knew all the lyrics to “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and tuned into Lawrence Welk.

But there

is no Lawrence Welk here at Camp Beckwith. This place is a primitive lodge in the woods of Baldwin County where Episcopalians commune, fish, camp, laugh, boil crawfish, and of course, throw shindigs.

The noseeums eat your flesh, the mosquitoes commit immoral acts upon your skin. There’s music, dancing, and a long line outside the women’s bathroom. It’s great.

Camp cabins are filled with couples and families from South Alabama and Northwest Florida. These are people who use the word “y’all” liberally. They all know each other. And they all actually LIKE each other.

What kind of church is this?

Last night, I was on a porch with thirty of them. We sat on rocking chairs and lit the woods on fire with laughter. They sipped longneck bottles and told stories.

Katie told a funny story about her senile granny. One woman talked about surviving cancer.…

I wasn’t going to publish the stories. After all, who would really care about things I had to say? So, I decided to give up and let the book gather dust.

I was driving home. A Georgia interstate. It was dark. I heard a loud explosion on my passenger side. I almost lost control of my vehicle. I muscled the truck to the shoulder.

A blowout.

“Well, cuss,” I thought to myself. “Just what I need, a flat tire.”

But it gets better. I checked my undercarriage only to find I had no spare. That’s when I remembered: I had removed my spare and used it on my wife’s vehicle.

Double cuss.

I was interrupted by headlights behind me. It was a truck. The man driving was a Methodist music minister.

He gave me his spare. And—I’ll never forget this—while I changed my tire, he stood in the highway, shining a flashlight at passing cars so I wouldn’t become roadkill.

Here’s another one:

I was a kid, six years old. I was lost in a crowded shopping mall. I had never been to a “mall” before. The biggest place I’d ever been was the neighborhood supermarket

where cashiers said things like: “You want me to put this on your mama’s tab?”

But a shopping mall. This is a terrifying place for rural children. I was lost within a sea of people until a complete stranger approached me. He was a nice man, wearing a corduroy jacket with arm patches. He asked if I was lost.

I was afraid, and he seemed to sense this. He told me to follow him. So, I did. I tailed him across a busy mall the size of six city blocks, keeping my distance. The stranger led me to my mother, then he sort of disappeared.

And after all this time, I still can’t figure out how a stranger knew where my mother was.

Then there was the time I dropped my cellphone in the toilet. I’ll spare you gory the details. I will simply say…

Today, I dumped a five-hundred-piece puzzle on my kitchen table. I found the corners first. And I’m thinking about the way our lives went.

I bought a jigsaw puzzle at the grocery store today. The box features an ornate cathedral with red roses and blossoming foliage. The cathedral is in Germany. The puzzle cost two bucks.

My mother and I used to do jigsaw puzzles. Big puzzles. We did them together. I was no good at jigsaws, but she was an expert.

Long ago, puzzles cost seventy-five cents, and provided hours of distraction. We needed distractions back then. We welcomed anything that took our minds off my father’s untimely death, and the gloom that came thereafter.

My mother looked for distractions that made us laugh, things that made us smile, games, puzzles, crafts, or road trips.

Once, she took us to Branson. She took me to see a Dolly Parton impersonator. The show was spectacular. After the performance, the woman in the blonde wig hugged me so tight she nearly suffocated me with her enormous attributes.

When my mother saw me locked with the buxom woman, she shrieked and

started praying in tongues. She yanked me by my earlobe and drug me away. And I have been a lifelong Dolly Parton fan ever since.

Anyway, my mother loved doing things with her hands. She made large quilts from old T-shirts, she gardened, she did puzzle books, anagrams, crosswords, cryptograms, she knitted, crocheted, and painted.

She played cards with me, sometimes checkers, and she was a Scrabble fanatic. But jigsaw puzzles. Those were our thing.

My mother started each puzzle by saying the same thing:

“We gotta find the corners first, that’s how you do it.”

The idea was that once you found the corners, the rest of the puzzle would come together. Thus, we would sift through twenty-five hundred pieces, looking for four corners. Once we found them, we’d dig for the edges.

We’d place pieces into piles, then link them together. Piece by piece.…

I approach slow. And even though I claimed the exact place where he sits long before Lincoln was sworn in, I ask the boy if he minds letting me fishing next to him.

He is in my fishing spot. A kid. Blonde. Freckles. He is eating Doritos.

The kid fishes with frozen shrimp from a Ziplock bag. His cellphone is beside him, blasting modern country music.

I’ve been fishing this wooded grove since before the earth cooled. And I’ve always called this “my spot” even though it doesn’t belong to me.

The kid is sitting in a dry-rotted plastic lawn chair I placed here years ago. He is sort of smiling, cranking his reel.

The Choctawhatchee Bay has strange powers over boys.

I approach slow. And even though I claimed the exact place where he sits long before Lincoln was sworn in, I ask the boy if he minds letting me fishing next to him.

This is a custom among fishermen. You would never fish next to a fella without asking. Such barbaric behavior would be worse than taking your buddy’s mother to prom.

We shake hands. We introduce ourselves. We talk.

The kid says, “Did you hear they caught a GATOR in this bay?”

This is male conversation at its best.

Murderous creatures with jaws big enough to crush average-sized Buicks. Men in boats, wielding heavy artillery.

“It was HUGE,” he adds. “Like sixteen feet, I think.”

“Wow,” I say.

Actually, the gator he is referring to was only twelve-foot long, but who’s counting? The thing was caught months ago, and it was a big deal because gators are not common here.

Though, in my youth I heard plenty of gator stories. I never put stock in any of them.

I once knew an old-timer, for instance, nicknamed “Snoopy,” who claimed he caught an eight-foot gator. I never believed him because Mister Snoopy also claimed he invented the first pay phone.

The kid asks, “You ever seen gators in this bay before?”

“Nope,” I say. “But upshore from here, about twenty years ago, my cousin and I saw an elderly couple skinny…

He was tall, white-haired. He wore a tattered cap. He was older, mid-seventies, with shoulders broader than an intercostal barge.

She is a waitress here. She has white hair, and a habit of winking when she smiles. Her name is Mary. I know this because it’s on her nametag.

I don’t know Mary—today’s the first time we’ve met—but I want to be her forever-grandson.

I just watched Mary get dog-cussed.

It happened when she swiped a young man’s credit card at the register. It was denied. She was quiet and discreet with him.

He shouted at her, “Run it again, lady!”

This made everyone’s ears perk up. It’s not every day you see some punk yelling at Barbara Bush.

She swiped the card. Denied.

“Do you have another card?” she asked in a soft voice.

The man shouted, “Another card? Don’t treat me like I’m @#$ing stupid, lady!”

Her mouth fell open. So did everyone’s.

The young man didn’t stop. He went on to say things which I can’t repeat—my mother reads these things.

The air in the restaurant went stale, like in old Westerns, just before John Wayne pumps some desperate bandito into the everlasting abyss.

The customers in the restaurant looked around at each other. The man in

the booth beside me stood. So did I. We walked toward the register.

But another man beat us to it.

He was tall, white-haired. He wore a tattered cap. He was older, mid-seventies, with shoulders broader than an intercostal barge.

The old man said, “What seems to be the problem over here?”

The angry kid spat, “My card won’t work.”

The old man let his eyes do his talking. Hard eyes. The same eyes I’ve seen in a hundred Westerns, just before the hero draws a greased Colt Single Action Peacemaker and opens the gates of Armageddon.

The old man was calm. He reached for his wallet. He said to Mary, in a syrupy voice, “I’d like to pay for this gentleman’s meal, ma’am.”

Then, he placed a large hand…

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…