Chautauqua is a lake and a place and an institution. There are brick walkways where streets might have been, but there are no cars in Chautauqua. Along the walkways are front porches with white wicker tables that hold vases full of gladiolus. Low walls made of slate and stone border flower gardens of purple hostas and bright pink cone flowers and black-eyed Susans. Window boxes on wooden ledges spill red geraniums and trails of ivy. The walkways are crowded with people walking to or from a lecture, book discussion, performance, or class. Beyond the snippets of debate and conversation, you hear abstract noises hidden behind dark window screens of houses– oscillating fans, the clang of dishes and flatware, and the animated talk that follows a lecture. Sometimes you hear piano scales, or a soprano, and sometimes in the distance, you hear a symphony in rehearsal.
I first went to Chautauqua when I was six weeks old. My memory does not go back that far, it just feels like it does. That happens when you are born to a couple of storytellers with a bent toward memoir. You somehow start thinking, or at least feeling, that you were witness to your parents’ lives before you were even born. My father often told me of wheeling me in a baby carriage to the symphony’s dress rehearsal in the large wooden amphitheater at Chautauqua. He held up this moment like a puzzle piece, so I could see it and look for the spot in my own memory and story where it might fit. He told me how we settled in; he read the paper and I slept. As he read, he listened to the tiny changes suggested by the conductor, and watched in amazement as those suggestions made something beautiful even more beautiful. He said from that moment on, he’d rather see a rehearsal than a performance. He loved the process of something good becoming even better than before.
My mother’s family introduced my father to Chautauqua, but the truth is that he was already a native to the philosophy of the place: renewal through arts, education, recreation, and spirituality. He was all about all of those.
I have childhood memories of our intermittent visits to Chautauqua. I remember wading into the children’s section of the lake and feeling the the smooth sand against the soles of my bare feet. I was six. Later, I remember sailing for the first time at Girl’s Club and being terrified. I remember a family reunion at an old wooden hotel. I was twelve. My great-aunt Shotty took me for a walk around the amphitheater, and with kindness and purpose, she told me she had a story to tell me. She told me about her brother and my grandfather, Rogers Elliott. He was a naval officer and had been killed in the second world war. They all grew up minutes away from where we stood. She said she wanted me to know him. It was my first inkling that someone can live through story.
I have had other visits there. My husband was the Episcopal chaplain at the Church of the Good Shepherd for a few summers, a week at a time. We were inspired by the themed lectures, readings, music, and discussions. We were energized by the speakers at the Hall of the Philosophy. I made a point to take the morning paper to the dress rehearsals at the amphitheater. In the clear sunlit air, I embraced all of it, responding to an invitation that had been presented to me through the tiny story of my first visit.
I haven’t been to Chautauqua for a few years. And I won’t be going this summer. But here at the beach, I have found we bring a little Chautauqua with us: spiritual renewal, recreation, a chance to tackle something new, a good reading list, and time with people we love. If I want an actual Chautauqua lecture, I can hear one. And so can you. They are available online here. The good news is that most of them are free.
Chautauqua is a lake and a place and an institution. It is also a concept and an approach and a state of mind. For me, it carries the personal reminder that the tiny stories of our experience are often puzzle pieces looking for a spot in a larger narrative. In the classroom we call those small moments seeds. The writing teacher helps children to isolate the small moment and then to write from it. And then the teacher prompts, “What is this really about?” Themes emerge and children learn to write and love their lives. But the true writing teacher has to be willing to write and love his or her own life, and be willing to ask the most reflective question of all: What is this really about? The answer, a puzzle piece, falls into place. Like a conductor of a symphony, a writing teacher knows and believes that with a few tweaks, something good can be better than before.