“Gloria Steinem is my favorite guest author…ever!”
Bill Petrocelli co-owns Book Passage with his wife Elaine. In an era of closing bookstores, they opened their third location— a cozy literary haven along the docks in Sausalito— earlier this year. Several friends and I met there this past Saturday afternoon, seeking inspiration from the spoken words of a few legendary travel writers.
After the program, a friend introduced me to Bill. She told him that I would join an intimate dinner with Gloria Steinem on Sunday evening.
That’s when Bill shared his high praise. I couldn’t wait to hear his story. In 40 years of bookstore events, he’s seen a lot of authors.
“Tell me more!” my friend and I exclaimed in unison.
Bill couldn’t remember the year or which book Gloria had come to promote. But he remembered the lively Q&A that followed her talk. A girl of about 13 years old stood up and bravely shared some frustrating experiences she had with boys at her school. As Gloria dispensed some wisdom, a second girl of the same age stood up and shared her concerns.
Gloria paused. She asked the second girl if she knew the first girl. They both shook their heads no, explaining they attended different schools.
“OK, here’s what I want you to do,” Gloria said. “I want you to exchange contact information, organize your friends at your respective schools, and meet here once a month to talk about these issues. So, Bill, are you good with that? Do you have some meeting space to loan these young women?”
“Sure,” Bill quickly answered. You don’t say no to Gloria.
The two girls and their circles of friends met many times at that same location. Because you don’t ignore advice from Gloria.
If you’ve followed Gloria Steinem, you know she has long encouraged “talking circles,” an intimate form of storytelling she learned while traveling in rural India in her twenties. Now 82, she’s used the technique in hosting women’s forums across the U.S. for decades.
In fact, our dinner wasn’t just a dinner; it was a talking circle.
We were 14 women, ranging from 28 to 82 in age, gathered around a dining table. We individually shared what gives us hope and where we have chosen to invest our energy during a uniquely divisive time in history. We listened to each other. Gloria listened to all of us. And she occasionally offered perspective— from history and from women across the country and the world.
In the presence of a modern feminist icon, we talked a lot about gender and race. In the presence of a leading journalist, we talked about truth in journalism and media literacy. And while I’m passionate about all of these issues, it’s a shared belief in the importance of travel that most connects me to Gloria.
Gloria Steinem’s 2015 book My Life on the Road had been on my nightstand; my dinner invitation moved it to the top of my reading list. While I loved Gloria’s countless stories from decades of travel, I most enjoyed the first chapter, which spoke to why she travels.
Gloria is regularly asked why she still has so much hope and energy after all these years. Her answer is simple. “Because I travel.”
Travel pulls us “out of our heads and into our hearts.” It makes us “fully alive in the present.” A commonly cited quote from the book’s first chapter:
“As Robin Morgan wrote so wisely, “Hate generalizes, love specifies.” That’s what makes going on the road so important. It definitely specifies.”
In my talking circle, I shared that it’s the lessons of other countries that make me most hopeful. If citizens can come together post something as horrendous as genocide, we in the U.S. can certainly bridge political divides. If other countries can achieve gender parity in government, the U.S. certainly can, too.
Yes, I have committed to being more engaged in local issues. But I feel I have a responsibility in helping alleviate fear and increase empathy by sharing the stories and ideas I collect from around the world.
Community is important. But communities don’t only have to be local. Some of my most important communities are global.
That said, gathering places are important. Gloria’s own living room of her Manhattan Upper East Side apartment (take a tour) has been a gathering place for women for over 50 years. How might she preserve the space for posterity?
Gloria also told us about a much larger gathering place for women and girls being birthed in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. The former Bayview Women’s Correctional Facility, a women’s prison known to have the highest rate of staff sexual abuse in the U.S., is being restored and redeveloped into The Women’s Building. It is dedicated to liberation, equality and justice for all women and girls. Formerly incarcerated women play a central role in its refurbishing.
As dinner ended and we collected our coats, I felt the need to share Bill’s bookstore memory with Gloria. Did she remember the Q&A with the two teenage girls? Was she aware that the girls took her advice to lead their very own “talking circle?” Did she know how personally memorable that evening was for Bill?
Gloria remembered the evening. She didn’t know that the girls continued to gather. She does now.
And like the former prison, a memory has a new legacy.
Photo Credit: National Post. AP Photo/Seth Wenig