Returning Home

While preparing the Spirit & Place website with book, film, music, and other suggestions related to HOME, I was struck with how the notion of “returning home” is both ancient and contemporary.

The original and ultimate “I just want to go home” tale, Homer’s classic The Odyssey, recounts the efforts of Odysseus (aka Ulysses) as he fights to make his way back home to Ithaca after the Trojan War.

The Odyssey (and its prequel, The Illiad) resonates so strongly with the human condition, it has inspired artists, composers, and writers for almost three thousand years.

(Disclaimer: If you’re not sure you are up to reading ancient Greek prose, check out the Cohen brothers’ adaptation of The Odyssey, “O Brother Where Art Thou?” You’re welcome.)


Then, of course, there is the childhood story that taught us all, “There is no place like home,” L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Like Odysseus, Dorothy struggles to make her way home and in the process faces danger, moral dilemmas, flying monkeys, and witches.

Okay, Odysseus didn’t meet any flying monkeys, but he did outfox the witch Circe.

Dorothy also discovers the importance friendship, family, and love . . . and manages to find her way home in far less time than Odysseus. (Twenty years, Odysseus? Seriously?)

Not all characters in literature are able to return though. In You Can’t Go Home Again, Thomas Wolfe’s main character, George Webber, writes a novel about his hometown and is then driven from his home by family and friends who feel betrayed. (Real life Hoosier author Dan Wakefield can speak to that kind of reaction towards a book.)

The struggle to figure out where we belong and to put down roots, while also not wanting to turn down opportunities for travel and new experiences, pulls at many of us. Odysseus, Dorothy, and George Webber certainly felt that tug. I find satisfaction in knowing this tug-of-war on our sense of belonging—our sense of home—is old and even common to the human experience.

And I find even more satisfaction in exploring the art and literature that has been created out of this experience. Check out our reference page and share your suggestions on HOME-related books, films, plays, music, or whatever (!) at




Can you talk to your friend about RACE?

Each week on our blog we highlight personal risk stories of our partners, collaborators, and friends that illuminate diverse perspectives of risk-taking. This week, Julia Whitehead, shares her story about the risk of discussing the topic of ‘race’ with personal relations.

Although Julia’s story is her own,  many others have experienced a similar risk when broaching a subject as potentially controversial as race.

Join us on Nov. 1 at IMA for our opening night event where more in-depth conversation on race will take place. Four innovators will compete for a $20K award for a daring idea to reshape notions of race in Central Indiana.

Jeannine Murray & Julia Whitehead

Jeannine Murray & Julia Whitehead

By Julia Whitehead, Executive Director, Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library

My friend Jeannine is amazing. She is a working mom with a family that people envy. Her loving husband is a fireman. Her kids are great students, great athletes, and great citizens. She is close with her entire family… distant cousins, aunts, even neighbors of these family members. There is a great amount of love floating around her family… never a fear of loneliness among that crowd.

My friend is a great worker, often sharing stories with me that show her commitment to her work and her respect for other people in her workplace… her ability to speak up when necessary to make sure things work efficiently.

My friend does the right thing. I can always count on her judgment when I need to get her opinion about something in my life. I can always count on her to listen well and to be wise with her advice.

I’ve asked Jeannine for favors, and we have had each other’s backs when it comes to our children’s classroom, soccer practice, chess club, and other activities over the years. And after all of these years of friendship, I have never taken what I consider to be the biggest risk in our friendship… asking about race. Jeannine is black, and I am white. I don’t know how to bring up the topic. I want to know if any of her ancestors were slaves, but I also anticipate feeling a sense of guilt if they were. What do I do with that guilt?

“And after all of these years of friendship, I have never taken what I consider to be the biggest risk in our friendship… asking about race.

I was recently asked to work on a civil rights-related project for the Vonnegut Library by my friend, Dan Wakefield. During our discussion on this, Dan and I both forced back tears as we talked about injustices against African Americans in the past and injustices that still exist today. Race relations and civil rights are a concern now more than ever. When legislators attempt to remove voting rights… when an innocent like Trayvon Martin dies when someone fears his appearance, African Americans and so many others ache with sadness.

I don’t know what conversations my friend Jeannine has had with her kids about being black in America. And the reason I don’t know about these conversations and her experience with racism is because I’ve been too cowardly to raise the topic with her. I have not taken the risk. But now I think it’s time.

Writing the Body: Authors that Make You See and Understand Others

Writing the Body: Authors that Make You See and Understand Others More Clearly  By Julia Whitehead, Executive Director,  Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library 

Ophelia. Holden Caulfield. Billy Pilgrim. Moby Dick. When I read or hear these names, I call to mind an image of a body or an idea of the intellect that resides in one of these bodies. We each create a slightly different image, depending on the particular features we make more prominent in our imaginations after reading the writer’s words.

Writers’ words have had a lasting impact on me, and we at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library are so happy to be included in this year’s Spirit & Place Festival. The festival was the brainchild of three great writers: John Updike, Dan Wakefield, and Kurt Vonnegut. They were “thinking out loud about Indianapolis” 16 years ago, and the product of these thoughts is this dynamic festival, which brings together the best this city has to offer. This exciting time each year is when the entire city pulls off a grassroots operation that exists nowhere else in the United States. We all should be very proud of our Spirit & Place Festival.

This year, the festival runs from November 4th through November 13th, with events taking place all over the city. The festival’s theme changes from year to year, and this year’s focus is The Body. The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library’s event is “Vonnegut on The Body.” We are bringing Dan Wakefield back to town and showcasing Vonnegut’s descriptions of the body through words and art.

Thanks to the abilities of great writers, we can imagine Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, Harper Lee’s little Scout, and Orwell’s Winston or Julia. Just as the Spirit & Place Festival delves deeper than the surface of Indiana’s unique creative organizations, writers that we love to read take us far deeper than the surface of an individual.

Someone recently asked if we will be considering the mind as part of the body in our descriptions of Vonnegut on the Body at our November 11th event. We agreed that the mind must be included as part of this theme, but we conceded that this incorporates more complexity into the discussion.

Consider Faulkner’s Benji, Bukowski’s Chinaski, Camus’ Meursault, Crane’s Private Fleming, or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In some cases, the writer actually gives a description of the individual. In other cases, the writer provides very little descriptive information but the reader creates an idea of the character based on his or her words or actions. Who are some of your favorite characters and why?