The sun is still low in the sky, so the lake sparkles. I’m hungry for breakfast, but I want to walk along the water for a while to study the shape of the hills on the far shore. A quarter mile on the promenade and I can’t keep myself away from the farmer’s market. It’s an garage, open from 7:00 am until 11:0o am. I tasted yesterday’s coffee cake and it was spectacular. This morning, I want to try a scone before they’re all gone. Local strawberries, too, because the season doesn’t last long enough. Walking back to the town square, I grab a Daily from the news hawker—he’s probably fourteen years old, wearing a flat eight-panel cap, canvas bag drooping from one shoulder, shouting something unintelligible as if he’s been at it for decades.
Like yesterday, today is going to be a busy day.
Yesterday afternoon was busy with reading on the Hotel Atheneum’s wraparound porch, studying the lake, selecting the perfect rocking chair, becoming distracted by what sounded like a full orchestra nearby. Wandering is what folks do on a summer’s day at Chautauqua, so I followed the music to the amphitheater where a rehearsal of Madame Butterfly kept me and perhaps two hundred other people busy for an hour. On Saturday night, the theater will be filled with nearly four thousand people, mostly residents who either spend their summers here, or, at least, several weeks each year. I was reluctant to linger: I wanted dinner before heading to the theater. Back at the Hotel Atheneum, I wanted to sit outdoors and watch the lake while eating my local trout, and that was best accomplished by taking a seat at a community table where the conversation was both lively and reminiscent of first days at college when everybody I met was a potential buddy.
Off to the theater. It’s a standalone building on what amounts to a square mile of campus, passing hundred-year old houses whose facades were painted with bright colors, almost always adorned with bright flowers, a celebration of Western New York’s relatively short—but absolutely fabulous—summer season. Crossing the town square, noting the location of the bookstore for later on, I made it to the theater with minutes to spare (nothing new about that, not for me, anyway). A few hundred seats in a purpose-built structure with exposed beams and seeming endless depth on the stage, the Bratton Theater is everything a summer theater ought to be. The play: A Raisin in the Sun, which I had just happened to watch as a movie in June. The stage setting was so striking, there was an article about its design in the next morning’s Daily. It’s the story of a low income family trying for the American dream, a story that seemed dreary in high school, but here, consistent with Chautauqua’s mighty arts tradition, the play was both compelling and provocative. And, as is so often the case in this tiny summer town by the lake, it was the subject of rocking chair conversation for the next few days.
My first full day began, once again, at the farmer’s market, then at a brief spiritual ceremony—every morning offers a choice of several (Zen Buddhist, Episcopalian, peace)—followed by “Morning Worship”—in essence a few announcements, a few hymns, and a crackling good sermon from The Reverend Raphael Warnock, a brilliant fellow who now fills the job that Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. once filled, in his official capacity, at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church. He talked about Adam and Eve, and the existence of God. What began as a relatively calm and thoughtful lecture became a sharp, energetic jolt of intellectual and spiritual power—very much in the style of Chautauqua at its best.
There was no reason to leave the amphitheater because the 9:15 am session ended more than an hour later, and at 10:45AM, the morning lecture was set to begin. Curious title: “For Cod and Country.” It was about fish. Which fish to eat. Which fish we shouldn’t eat. To be honest, I confuse what I learned from this lecture, by National Geographic’s Barton Seaver, with the one I attended on the next day, by the University of Minnesota’s Jonathan Foley. That’s what the programmers intended. Both are part of a week-long lecture series on closely-related topics about feeding everyone on the planet. Several interesting points: there is a lot more food available on the planet than we choose to eat, but our decisions about what to eat and just how far we are willing to ship that food is more than a little crazy; we need to eat more mussels, clams, oysters, herring, anchovies and sardines, and less salmon, tuna, and swordfish, and now I think I understand the reasons why. Fortunately, many of the Chautauqua speakers—there seem to be about 200 per season—have written books about their life’s passions. A good reason to spend an hour browsing in Chautauqua’s bookstore, if you can find a moment to do so.
Me? I’m off to Sol Messinger’s “Yiddish Language Conversation” back up near the main road at the relatively new (few Chautauqua structures are new) Emerson Jewish Life Center, built in 2009. Sol is sitting at a conference table with four or five people, interviewing each of them, each of us, about our family history. He is speaking in Yiddish. I understand only a bissel—the tiniest portion—but just the act of listening is joyful. Here and there, one of the people at the table translates key ideas for me. The conversation drifts in and out of English. The people are not young. I wonder what will happen to Yiddish, but only for a moment. My head is filled with ideas, but the yellow broadsheet—the detailed schedule for this Chautauqua week, contains far too many things for me to do, so I keep moving, grab a quick quiche at the informal lunch place above the bookstore (not wonderful: Chautauqua’s food for short-term visitors is a weak link), and manage to get to Philosopher’s Hall in time to get a seat just on the perimeter. It has been raining, so some seats are wet. I sit on my Daily, my bun is a little wet for a while, but I quickly forget my personal issue when the speaker begins. He’s compelling—John Hope Bryant, advisor to U.S. presidents, another brilliant guy, this time focusing on financial literacy, improved credit scores, the end of payday loan stores, and a realignment of neighborhood banks to provide services for the lower-middle and lower-classes. There is tremendous power in his idea—and a strangeness that feels unique to Chautauqua. Bryant is a passionate Black entrepreneur, not so distant from the Reverend we heard this morning—but the vast majority of his audience are white, and no longer the successful businesspeople they may have been a decade or two ago. No matter: Bryant’s presentation is digging deep into their souls, and they will carry the word. He mesmerizes. They listen attentively. The reason to go to Chautauqua is to learn, to take notes, to remember what was said, to learn because learning is a productive activity that makes life worth living. That spirit runs deep in Chautauqua’s soul: it’s part of the complicated set of reasons why this Institution was founded in 1874. And it’s the reason I visited: to get a sense of how recreation, learning, culture, and time to sit on a rocking chair might, in their way, be a better way to spend a summer afternoon than reading blog posts on the internet.
No time to linger. A Chautauquan keeps busy, does not lollygag (except when the day is beautiful and there is a book to be read under a century-old tree while children are racing around on bicycles and otherwise living a perfect small town American life). That glimpse of what America might have been is just that—a glimpse—for there is music to be enjoyed in one of the old churches. An hour of art songs performed by students from Chautauqua’s music school on the north side of town (no time to visit, but I understand practice sessions and rehearsals are open, and a bit like Tanglewood). Then, at 5:00PM, I wander back to the hotel for a daily wine tasting. I was invited by my new friends at last night’s Community Table. Mostly, my contribution to the table of six chatty people was recommendations of novels by Reynolds Price because one of the women was interested. Then, we headed down to dinner in the hotel’s main dining room. Steak dinner. Fresh cut.
Finished up just in time for the concert. Big concert tonight: a July 3 pops concert. Big fun! The 80-piece orchestra decked out in Americana, red white and blue everywhere, and because I was a solo act this time around, I got to sit right in front. Guest conductor Stuart Chafetz was a marvel, a musician so completely enthralled by the music, so joyful, so in touch with the orchestra and the audience… The first half was the stuff you’d expect from an Independence Day Pops Concert—Sousa, a few movie themes, a Beatles medley (which felt remarkably modern here). Second half: a song-and-dance team, husband and wife, Beverly and Kirby Ward. Selections from the American Songbook (“Cheek to Cheek,” “Johnny One Note,” etc.) and MGM musicals. Kudos to Kirby for his step-perfect recreation of Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain dance routine, not easy to do without (a) water and (b) much space to dance.
And it’s late. The stars are out. The lake is dark and a nighttime promenade is the only possible way to end the day. And then, sleep.
Next morning, it’s up at 7:00 am for the Farmer’s Market, then a spiritual bit, then a visit to the Methodist House (many religions, many houses, used for residents and for small events) for a July 4 lecture about the specific wording of the Declaration of Independence. I intended to stay for just a few minutes, but stayed for an hour and learned a lot about what Thomas Jefferson wrote and what Richard Henry Lee wrote. Half of the people in the audience seemed to know the speaker as a friend. I suspect he was a long-time Chautauqua resident or visitor, and that revealed one more piece of this fascinating puzzle: the people who attend Chautauqua are not just visiting because the lake is pretty in July. They attend because the combination of leisure and learning, family and fellowship, curiosity and creativity is, for nine special weeks every summer, available here and almost nowhere else.
There is so much to learn, to be learned, about this way of thinking and experiencing the world. I wish there was more time. I wish it was nearby. I want to see the constitutional law professor Akhil Reed Amar on July 21, and the opera, The Ballad of Baby Doe, later that week, and the author E.L. Doctorow on August 7, and my list goes on. But in terms of both space and time, Chautauqua seems too far away—it clings to parts of the 19th century as it figures out what its 21st century life might be. I know one thing Chautauqua ought to be: more accessible to me. I want to carry a part of it with me all summer long. I can’t help but wonder whether the magic of the internet might make that possible, someday.