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?

Keeping ‘Humanity’ in Human Anatomy

Keeping ‘Humanity’ in Human Anatomy By Ernest Talarico, Ph.D., IU School of Medicine – Northwest , Associate Director of Medical Education and Course Director of Human Gross Anatomy and Embryology

If, as Madonna once sang in her hit song “Like a Prayer,” life is a mystery, then death is the proverbial mystery wrapped in an enigma.  But does it have to be? At IU School of Medicine – Northwest  in Gary, our first-year medical students are introduced to the human body with the understanding that death need not be an impenetrable riddle. Through the generosity of those who donate their bodies to medical science and the respectful cooperation of their loved ones, medical students in our innovative gross anatomy program have the rare opportunity to communicate with the family members of their “first patients,” anatomical body donors.

This interaction, while perhaps initially awkward, often turns into something beautiful.  From family members, students learn more about their patients’ lives than what is traditionally practiced at other medical schools, and learn more about becoming better physicians.

Ms. Rita Borrelli, wife of donor Russell, attends a memorial service at the IU School of Medicine – Northwest in recognition and remembrance of her husband

Knowing details like their patient’s nickname, their profession, and their favorite sports teams or foods, students’ understanding of their donors transcends the physical facts of their anatomy and grants them greater appreciation of their patients as people. This knowledge gives students additional insight into their donors’ previous ailments or causes of death. At many other schools, these issues are not thoroughly researched, and newfound information is not shared with the family.

My students and I see the value in this communication—it helps to develop smarter doctors and pushes them to research conditions that might have been unknown to them. Just as importantly, interaction with families teaches students lessons not always found in a textbook:  empathy, compassion, and respect.

Nor is this two-way communication merely self-serving; we have found the process often becomes an essential part of helping family members work through their grieving process. Through tears and laughter, the donors’ families share precious moments from their loved one’s lives. Teachable moments like these show medical students that their donor is not just a specimen but once was a father, a daughter, a friend.

The Body, the theme for the 16th annual Spirit & Place Festival, November 4 – 13, is a wonderful opportunity for issues like these to be discussed, debated, and challenged.

And, while I respect that human anatomy may be taught in many ways, I strongly believe in keeping ‘humanity’ in human anatomy.  At the end of (your) day, wouldn’t this be your preference?

The Body: A Diverse Unity

The Body: A Diverse Unity

The Body—theme of the 16th annual Spirit and Place Festival, November 4-13, 2011—got me thinking about “body” in my religious tradition. One of our earliest leaders used “body” as metaphor for community to teach the church how to live together. The people kept trying to value some of their members’ social status above others, as was the custom of their larger culture. In contrast, this leader wrote, “Now there are a variety of gifts…for the common good…the body does not consist of one member but many… If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be?…” (1 Corinthians 12:4a, 7b, 14b,17). In this metaphor, diversity is valued as an important and necessary aspect of unity.

Community as body is a powerful metaphor. I have seen it in action. “Randi” stood up during the weekly service in one congregation. She was moving out of town and wanted to say good-bye. I wasn’t sure what to expect; I knew some in the congregation were very uncomfortable with Randi’s appearance and some of her behaviors. To my surprise, Randi thanked the gathered community. She said she never felt so loved and accepted in her life until she joined this little congregation. Somehow, the body worked. Imperfect people with a variety of gifts managed together to demonstrate the love that we claim is at the center of our faith.

A few years later Randi moved back to town and rejoined the congregation. Her appearance and behavior weren’t any more socially acceptable, but her gifts were added to the body, for the common good. Randi eventually developed a terminal disease and the congregation was able to care for her, however imperfectly, until the end of her life.

What if we could embrace this body metaphor, not just to serve one religious tradition, but to serve the community of Indianapolis? How shall we live together as people from many backgrounds and gifts, bound together by a common geography and a shared humanity? It wouldn’t be easy to see ourselves as a body functioning together for the common good. We’d have to admit to ourselves and to each other that we really do need each other. We’d have to agree that at some level there is a common good. But, can you imagine trying?

Anjeanette Perkins
Christian Theological Seminary
Site host for “Growing Food for Growing Bodies: Healthy Choices for Hoosier Children”  November 10, 7 pm