Thank you for this lovely honor. I couldn’t be prouder to receive an award named after a bookseller who, I know just from talking to her daughter, believed in the power of books. In this age of shrinking library budgets and downsized librarians, it’s a comfort to know we all share the belief that books matter; that reading matters.
I’m especially thrilled that you’ve chosen to honor Grounded. This is a book that makes some people uncomfortable. A PTO mother in New Jersey asked me not to discuss this book when I visited her children’s school a few months ago. This mother and the principal felt that a book that begins with the death of three characters would be too disturbing for kids.
But a few weeks later I visited a school in Richmond, Virginia, where I was greeted by a crowd sixth graders. They were waiting for me outside the school. As I was getting out of the car, I heard someone say, “That’s her! Go!” Someone hit “play” on a CD player, and 281 sixth graders started dancing The Hustle. This is the dance that Aunt Josie teaches everyone at Uncle Waldo’s living funeral. But to see almost 300 kids dancing The Hustle? If I do nothing else in my life, I can die happy knowing I’ve inspired an entire class of sixth graders to learn The Hustle. And how do you think they learned it? From YouTube, of course.
I met a sixth-grade boy at this school in Richmond who told me he’d read Grounded and that he liked it. And then he added, in an almost incredulous tone, that it was about death, but it was funny.
That line stuck with me because it’s a good description of life, isn’t it? It’s about death, but it’s funny, too.
Like my narrator in Grounded, my father died when I was young. I think there’s a secret club for those of us who lost a parent at an early age. We all eventually join the club. But it doesn’t take the death of a parent to teach a kid about death.
What kid hasn’t found a goldfish floating lifelessly in a fishbowl? Or a gerbil eating its young? Even losing a helium balloon when it slips from a small hand: there’s a kind of death there. Or how about splitting your pants wide open when you’re doing a back-walkover in acrobat class? Am I the only one whose childhood memories are filled with such humiliating scenes?
I first learned about death from my mother, who is still alive and well in Peoria, Illinois. But it was my mom who took me to a district tennis tournament when I was in grade school. Now I was a park district tennis player. We weren’t country club people. We played tennis in parking lots and hit balls against brick walls. But in my park district group lessons, I guess I was lucky enough to win enough games to make it to the district tournament. I received a trophy for getting that far, and I remember thinking as my mom drove me to the to the district tournament how I might redecorate my bedroom with a trophy theme. And when the trophies started spilling out into the hallway, I’d talk my parents into buying a trophy case. Of course these were the dreams that turned to dust during my first real tennis match. The final score was 6-0, 6-0, and this doesn’t accurately reflect the extent of my defeat. I not only lost every game, I lost every point. I didn’t return a single serve. I stood there as this girl rocketed the ball at me, thinking, “What game is this? I’ve never played this game before in my life.” And before I knew it, I couldn’t breathe. It was my first anxiety attack. Like everyone who suffers from anxiety, I thought I was having a heart attack. And so I quit. I walked off the court in the middle of the second set.
Of course I didn’t die that day. But I sure felt like I was dying. There was death in the air. The death of dignity. The death of hope. The death of the dream of filling my bedroom with trophies.
It’s a feeling every kid experiences sooner or later. But you know what else I also remember from that day? On the long drive home in the Country Squire station wagon, my mom stopped at Dairy Queen and bought me an ice cream cone. For me—the kid who had quit the tennis game. The kid who thought she was dying. An hour later, I’d arrive home with ice cream on my breath. Wouldn’t my sisters be jealous?
When I look back on that day, I see that it was about death, but it was kinda funny, too.
My second lesson in death came from my dad, who was quite dashing, as you can see from this photo. Unfortunately, I look nothing like him.
It was my dad who took me for my first professional haircut. I should back up and say that I come from a long line of do-it-yourselfers. We never bought Halloween costumes or Christmas gifts. We made everything—from Valentines to prom dresses. My high school prom date is now a Catholic priest, if that tells you anything about the success of my mother’s homemade prom dresses.
But when I got to sixth or seventh grade, all the girls in my class started getting salon haircuts. Feathered haircuts. Farrah Fawcett haircuts. And here I had a homemade Mom haircut.
So for my 12th or 13th birthday—I can’t remember the exact year—I asked my mom if I could have a salon haircut. I assumed she would say no. But she said yes. Yes! Immediately my head began swelling with dreams of curling irons and Aqua Net hairspray and, yes, the Farrah Fawcett haircut. I grabbed our meager stack of Seventeen magazines—my sisters and I had a small stack of magazines that we studied like sacred texts—and I boldly started cutting out the pictures of hairstyles I liked. I had to hide the pictures because I didn’t want to incur my older sisters’ wrath for desecrating our prized magazines. They were already jealous that I—not them—was going to get a Farrah Fawcett haircut.
I was all ready for my haircut until the day arrived. My mom told me that my dad would be taking me for the appointment. Dad? What did Dad know about Farrah Fawcett? Of course I couldn’t object to this arrangement because I didn’t want to risk losing my salon haircut.
So, I climbed in the station wagon with my dad, who drove me to the place where he got his hair cut, Rafferty’s Barber Shop on Main Street in Peoria. I climbed up on Mr. Rafferty’s stool, my Farrah pictures still in my pocket. And before I could say Bosley, I felt the cold blade of Mr. Rafferty’s scissors against my neck. And the haircut? Suffice to say I walked in dreaming about my Farrah future. I walked out looking like Shawn Cassidy.
There was an undeniable smell of death in the car ride home that day. The death of dignity. The death of hope. The death of slumber party invitations for the next year.
But I also remember what my dad told me on the drive home. He said, “You know, pal, I bet we could talk Mom into letting you get your ears pierced.”
What? Get my ears pierced before my older sister Sarah?
Of course Mom said no. No one—not even the girl who now looked like Luke Skywalker—was allowed to get her ears pierced before the age of 16.
But I got a lot of reading done that year. And a lot of writing. I spent a lot of time in my room that year, which isn’t a bad place for a shy kid to spend her time.
And when my dad died a few years later—he was 50, I was 15—I wrote my first short story about a family shopping for a coffin and the mortician’s slimy used car salesman-like tactics.
I didn’t know what to do with the story, so I gave it to my sister Sarah to use in her high school creative writing class. She got an A on it. The teacher wrote across the top of my story: “Terrific use of black humor.”
I had to look up “black humor.” I learned that it meant, in effect, about death, but kind of funny. Not unlike my Luke Skywalker haircut.
I want to tell you one more story about death and hair. This one begins right here in Los Angeles.
Twenty-one years ago I arrived in Malibu in the Honda Civic I’d spray painted myself with white Rustoleom paint before the long drive from Peoria. I came with the intention of getting a master’s degree in educational telecommunications from Pepperdine. The dream? To write for educational television. To win trophies. To have good hair. Can you see how at this point in my life, all roads led to L.A.?
I didn’t last long here. I discovered that Pepperdine—a school I’d never seen until I pulled into town with my suitcases and typewriter—wasn’t the right fit for me for a lot of reasons, including the fact that I was the only grad student with a spray-painted Honda.
For those first few weeks of school, instead of going to class I spent my time in the Pepperdine library, reading magazines and newspapers. It was there I found a real estate ad in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for a 40-acre farm in southern Missouri that cost exactly what I was spending for one year of grad school.
And that’s what I did. I dropped out of grad school and spent my refunded tuition on a farm in the Ozarks. I’d never really envisioned myself on a farm. But I wanted to spend a few months—maybe a year—reading good books while I figured out what to do with my life. So I bought an abandoned dairy farm out in the middle of what felt like nowhere.
I should also mention that twenty-one years ago I was in love with a guy I’d met several years earlier in New Orleans. Bill was a medical school dropout who, like me, was looking for something or someone to soothe a quarter-life crisis. For me, it was reading. For him, it was travel. So we traveled together to a place where I could read.
At the time my mother told me: “If you’re not going to get married, for God’s sake don’t buy property together.” On that advice, I bought the farm alone. My money. My name on the deed. It was the first legal contract I’d ever signed.
The property cost just under $25,000 because the house was a wreck and the rocky soil was unsuitable for farming. But there was something lovable about the scruffy little valley. Back then the barn was in better shape than the house. So for many months Bill and I slept on the second floor of the barn in a bed he built from trees cut on the property.
We worked every day, fixing up the house. At night I read Henry James while Bill planned his next trip. I also started substitute teaching at a local school—forty dollars a day—and writing on a freelance basis for newspapers in Kansas City and St. Louis. This was the money we used to buy lumber, Sheetrock, ramen noodles, and cheap wine. When I wasn’t working on the house or substitute teaching or writing for newspapers, I started writing children’s stories—not that I had any kids or knew any great stories to tell them. It was just something fun to do. More fun, certainly, than taping Sheetrock seams.
We moved from the barn to the house the morning I awoke to see a black snake five-feet-long slithering along the hay rail above my head. Old farms are snaky. That’s one thing I learned during my first year in the country. Before that, I had never seen a real snake other than in the reptile house at the zoo. Now I was seeing snakes every week. My money. My reptile house.
Looking back, I’m shocked that I didn’t pack up and leave. I can’t explain why I stayed except that I’ve always liked a good story. And I wanted to see how this one would end. So instead of packing up I unpacked my typewriter and started writing about it. I discovered that if I could write about my new life, I could also see the humor in it—even the snakes. The day I saw three snakes was the day I started calling my farm the Valley of Tears.
Of course that name made even better sense when Bill left. After we finally finished fixing up the house, we found we didn’t have much to talk about. Or what we did talk about—people, politics, the future—ended up in a disagreement. So he left—or to be more accurate, I asked him to leave—on friendly terms and with what I thought was a generous check from me for payment on the work he’d done on the property.
And then I crawled into bed and cried for a month.
It wasn’t the right relationship for either one of us. We both knew this. Still, it was hard to end it. I spent the first few months alone reading self-help books. I listened to old Joni Mitchell tapes. And whenever I had the urge to call Bill, I remembered how crushed I’d been the night I heard him refer to the children’s books I was trying to write as “Kate’s little stories.”
Endings are always hard. This is as true in writing as well as in life. But just when I thought I’d come to the end of my life in the country, a funny thing happened. I was standing on my porch one summer night, looking at the reflection of the sunset in the pond, realizing how utterly alone I was.
And dare I say, I found the idea thrilling? And ridiculous? And tragic and funny at the same time?
It was that black humor thing all over again.
Of course I still had the snakes to contend with. But with time and a good lawn mower and an energetic dog and two cats, the snakes began to retreat. To my horror, they were soon replaced by the groundhogs that hibernated under my house. And then there was the oddball farmer who wanted me to teach him to read. I found him one day, also under my house. With a drill.
I’ve had my share of calls to the sheriff. But I also read a lot of books, which was my original intention when I signed that property deed. And I had time and space to write.
I also had the opportunity to meet people I never would’ve met had I stayed in grad school in Malibu. I’m thinking of Debi Baird, whose hair salon I stumbled into not long after I moved to the country.
Like me, Debi’s father died when she was young. Her older brother died, too. Her mother went back to work as a hairstylist and manicurist in the family funeral home, which is where Deb learned to do hair.
For years I told Deb she should write a book about her life. But she always waved away the idea. “You’re the writer,” she said. “You write it.”
So I tried to write her story. But a funny thing happened on the way to writing the story of my friend’s life. It’s the same funny thing that happens whenever I try to write a book. Another book invariably comes out.
I started with the idea of a small town girl receiving hundreds of dolls after a family tragedy. And the next thing I knew, a cremator named Clem was moving to town and carrying on with the aunt who owned the boarding house.
I didn’t know how to explain this to Deb. I worried she’d be disappointed that I was changing her story. I considered not telling her. But as we all know, trying to keep a secret from a hairdresser is pointless. So one afternoon when she was cutting my hair, I just blurted it out. “The weirdest thing is happening with your book,” I said. “The character who’s supposed to be you is now named Daralynn. And she’s turning into a combination of you and me and God knows who else. And I added a cremator and something called ‘living funerals’ and an uncle named Waldo who I just completely made up.”
But Deb smiled and said something like: “Oh, good. I was hoping it wouldn’t be just about me. It should be about both of us.”
Deb likes to tell people that she got me to read the Bible, and I got her to watch “Sex and the City.” But wisdom is everywhere.
This is what I wish I could tell the PTO mother who thinks kids shouldn’t read books about death. Death is everywhere – from the fish bowl to the tennis tournament to the night you find yourself alone in the middle of nowhere.
But so too is love. One dream dies so another dream can be born. So you don’t win the tennis trophy. You get ice cream instead. The haircut is a disaster? Don’t worry. You can use it later in a book. One relationship ends. Another begins. A woman who left Los Angeles twenty-one years ago feeling like a quitter comes back and wins a trophy—or at least a medal.
It’s all about death. But it’s kinda funny, too, isn’t it? And it’s lovely. And even if we could have it any other way, I don’t think we’d want to change it. The secret, I think, is simply to remember to laugh and cry and to be kind to one another and read and do the Hustle. And to say thank you for every single solitary minute of it.