It’s 1874. I’m a Methodist Sunday School teacher. I travel by steamship on the calm waters of Chautauqua Lake in southwestern New York and arrive at a small shoreline settlement for a vacation learning experience. I’ll hear speakers on the Bible, teaching methods, science, and social issues. The roads rise gently from the lake and are only wide enough for one horse and carriage.
Wait—it’s 2019, and I’m one of several thousand knowledge and culture seekers arriving by car at Chautauqua Institution. With six of my women friends, it will be a vacation week of thought-provoking lectures, excellent dance, music, vocal and theater performances, and animated political and philosophical discussions. Oh, and a tap dancing lesson to bring back my fun days of hopping to a beat and flexing my ankles.
Chautauqua has greatly expanded its offerings over the years. The roads are still narrow, but driving is strictly limited. We drop off the luggage and scoot off campus to park about a half mile away. Shuttle buses bring us back to our two-story rental house. It was built around 1895—updated since then by adding bits and pieces of modernity and dividing the rooms to make more, smaller ones. But just like all real estate, location matters, and the location is fabulous. We enjoy short walks to all the activities and venues.
Chautauqua is a beloved summer community to the many who return year after year. As historian David McCullough puts it, “…it is a small town, a college campus, an arts colony, a music festival, a religious retreat, and the village square.” Multi-generational family groups own some of the houses and lovingly take care of beautiful flower gardens that decorate their tiny front yards. I can’t stop taking photos of the huge hydrangeas.
We are there for Week Seven of the nine-week season. Each week has a theme; ours is Grace: A Celebration of Extraordinary Gifts. The many speakers, authors, artists and entertainers explore the theme from different perspectives, going beyond the religious meaning to look at how we experience grace in everyday life.
Krista Tippett, author and host of the podcast, “On Being,” is the featured speaker for the daily morning assemblies and she interviews a different luminary each day. My favorite is the poet Richard Blanco, who reads from his new book about the immigrant experience; he combines humor and pathos. The book title is How to Love A Country. One thought tickles me: Blanco says, “You move from Miami to Seattle—you’re an immigrant.”
My friends and I agonize about which of the dozens of events to attend that run from morning to night. We can choose from interfaith services and lectures, bird walks, readings at the literary and scientific circle, the daily five-minute outdoor prayer for peace, concerts, and chamber music. Then there’s the farmers market with Amish pastries, cheeses and veggies. I can’t resist a walk on the grounds, just to appreciate the cool weather and architectural styles of the old buildings.
Everyone in the community is friendly. They wave from the ubiquitous front porches, where sitting and wine-sipping is a fine art. They recommend good local restaurants. But most nights we painstakingly develop our dinner menus from groceries we brought in, and fortunately we have two super kitchen-organizers who make everything come out perfectly. We carefully manage to make the chocolate supplies last until we go home.
The week flies by. We dodge a few thunderstorms, but we still appreciate the outdoor amphitheaters where the main lectures are held. We stay up late to gab and rise early to see if I finally got the coffee to taste just right: not too strong, not too weak. We play a few hands of bridge, we read, we laugh.
I go home, fairly exhausted, but glad I had the experience. Next year’s themes are already published, including “Climate Change: Prioritizing Our Global and Local Response” and “Art and Democracy.” You name it, you can have it at Chautauqua.
Good tap dancing news: I came out unscathed; nothing broken, no falls. Tap shoes are back in the closet.
Linda Schatz retired from a writing and editing career, but still loves writing for the OLLI catalog. She also volunteers for Head Start and for RESULTS, a non-partisan citizens lobby to create the political will to end poverty. She and her husband Ken lived in their RV for five years before moving to Tampa in 2008.