Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. As you met Helen Ellis’s childhood friends, what did you observe about the traits that have kept the group together throughout the decades, even though their personalities and experiences are so varied? Did they remind you of anyone in your world who has sustained you with a lifetime of adolescent humor?
2. When Helen and her friends rallied around Vicki during her treatment for breast cancer, what did they demonstrate about the best way to confront fear, including the fear of mortality?
3. Helen regales the reader with an appreciation for “characters.” In other parts of the book she shares a more strict view on manners. How do these two philosophies coexist in the book?
4. Helen offers observations about myriad intriguing sex lives in this book. What are the author’s attitudes about sex and aging?
5. What would you have said to the receptionist who had never heard of Gloria Steinem in “She’s Young”? Describe a time when you had to explain a person, place, or thing to someone from a different generation.
6. What wisdom did you glean from the Bridge Ladies regarding women’s health (both physical and mental)?
7. When Helen explained why she’s scrupulously cautious about technology, did you find this relatable?
8. When you read about Michelle’s experience in labor, how did you react as Helen gracefully played the role of second fiddle? What truths emerged about the many forms of female friendships that sustain us? What do you predict for Bella Madeline and the world she will inhabit when she is a grown woman herself?
9. What are the most interesting things you learned about Helen’s family by observing the offerings at the last garage sale? How did her parents shape her sense of humor, and her powers of observation?
10. If you could host a cocktail party for five people mentioned in “My Kind of People,” which ones would you choose, and why? What do your choices say about your kind of people?
11. Which lines in Helen’s creed resonated with you the most? Over the next week, jot down your own “I Believe” observations as they come to mind, crafting your personal collection of tenets.
12. Woven into Helen’s essay on her relationship to bus travel is a glimpse at her relationship with her husband. What does she illuminate about the process of selecting a traveling companion for life?
13. In what way does Helen’s skill as a poker player reflect her skills in everything else?
14. In the closing scene, Helen describes making a revision to her body, culminating in her Doubleday chin. What does the book ultimately say about our perceptions of our bodies and the way those perceptions change (or stay the same) as we grow older?
15. Discuss the book’s title. What are the most significant and most entertaining items in your personal baggage? As she a girl growing up in the South during the 1970s, how was Helen’s history imbued with a particular flair? What are the key elements that shaped your own history? How does storytelling help you carry your baggage?