I’m sitting on porch steps with my cousin. We are people-watching in a town about the size of an area rug.

A man is blowing leaves off his driveway. The leaf-blower is filling the neighborhood with noise. They say he’s addicted to yardwork. Poor man.

Miss Elvira is walking her Labrador, Webster, on the sidewalk. The dog is stronger than he looks. The leash looks like it’s about to snap in two. He’s pulling Elvira like Twenty-Mule-Team Borax.

She waves at us. I haven’t seen Miss Elvira since I was nine. My cousin and I picked pinecones in her yard long ago while singing an anthem by the Oak Ridge Boys about her.

Hi-ho, Silver, away.

Peter Stepnowski is poking in his garage. Peter has white hair, thick glasses, and wears tube socks with sandals.

Please Lord, no matter how old I get, don’t let me wear tube socks and sandals.

A delivery truck. A FedEx man jogs the sidewalk, up the steps to the Delanie’s porch. He’s carrying an odd-shaped box that makes every elderly busybody within a six-mile radius become curious.

Take

my aunt, for instance, she is curious.

Four girls walk the sidewalk wearing soccer uniforms. School is out. They have backpacks on shoulders. They’re deep in conversation. Faces serious. They’re solving world problems.

One of the girls is Karin. I remember when her parents announced in Sunday school they were expecting a third baby.

Karin waves. She calls me “Mister Sean.” Those words sound ancient.

Life is moving slow today. That’s how it works in little places.

I was in the big city last week. I rode through five-o’clock traffic, gripping my steering wheel so hard my knuckles popped—I’m lucky I survived.
I watched a transfer truck amputate a Nissan’s side-mirror. I saw two near-accidents, fifteen cop cars, and a whole bucket of middle fingers.

Big places aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

My…

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…

Now we’re on paved roads. We are approaching Pensacola. I have errands to run today. Nothing major, just little things. And Pensacola is our version of a big city.

The windows are down. The weather couldn’t get any prettier. My dogs are leaning out the passenger window, tongues flapping in the wind. They are happy.

The dirt roads are like a large, interconnecting maze. Choose one road, it leads to another, then another, and another. Soon, you’re in No Man’s Land, and you’re the only truck around for miles.

I pass barns in open fields, and cattle pastures, and a John Deere, combing the peanut fields, dust rising behind it.

I stop when we reach my friend’s farm, located on the edge of the world. I kick open the door and watch Thelma Lou and Otis run for parts unknown. They shoot into the distance. Lots of running. Lots or barking. Lots of eating piles of cat poop.

I sit on the porch with my friend.

My friend is old, he has dementia, but he was self-reliant once. Long ago, we worked together. He was strong, and he swung hammers with the best of

us. Today, he wakes up and needs a nurse. Still, sometimes he feels good enough to go feed his cats, or is fortunate enough to go for a walk. But mostly, he naps, or watches TV with his nurse.

Before I leave, I give him a hug. He tells me to, “Stay outta trouble.”

He has always said that. Most old men do.

I load my dogs into my vehicle, and we’re doing forty, going down more dirt roads. We pull over at a filling station.

I’m pumping gas, and I meet a man who is driving a transfer truck from Nashville. We have a short conversation.

He’s been driving for thirty-two years. He started an online business last year with and the project took off. He started earning more with the online venture than he did with his truck.

“Got three more shipments…

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…

Ask how old she was when she lost her first tooth. Ask about her dog, and where it sleeps.

Boys, I’ll make this short: treat her good.

Real good.

Treat a girl the way you’d treat the most valuable human you’ve ever touched. No. Treat her like the most rare human you’ve NEVER touched.

Try to think of the most priceless creation on earth. A Rembrandt painting, an 11th century Bible, the Cup of Christ, the Stetson of Willie Nelson.

Treat your girl like that. Times a hundred.

Treat her like she’s been removed from a bullet-proof case and hooked to your arm by Billy Graham himself.

Open every door for her, pull out every chair, hold her pocketbook when need be. Admire her like a painting—not a magazine.

When you spend time together, look straight into her eyes. After all, her eyes lead to her mind, which leads to her heart, which leads to her soul.

Above all—and I am governmentally serious about this—do not look at your god-forsaken phone. Not even once. I mean it. Don’t hold it in your lap, don’t set it on the table, don’t keep it in your pocket, don't make trips to

the bathroom to send texts.

When you’re with her, leave your smartphone in your glovebox. Then, place your car in neutral, lock the doors, set the vehicle on fire, and push it into the nearest muddy ditch.

You’re in public with a famous Rembrandt painting—on loan from the Louvre. Don't waste time.

See how the light hits the angles of her face. Watch the way she wrinkles her forehead when she laughs.

Listen with big ears. Let yourself drift upon the harmonics of her voice like you’re tubing down the Blackwater River with a cooler full of Budweiser and Doritos.

Ask questions. But don't ask common ones. Be original.

Ask how old she was when she lost her first tooth. Ask about her dog, and where it sleeps.

Would she rather hang-glide or flea-market? Winn-Dixie or The Pig?…

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…