Week Nine Column from the President

Welcome to our final week of this 144th Assembly. Whether you’re joining us for the first time or have been with us all nine weeks, we are grateful for your presence and participation in the life of our community.

This week is unlike any we’ve done in recent Chautauqua history, as our programming under the title of “At the Table: Our Changing Relationship with Food” literally spills out across the grounds, into private homes and in our traditional programming spaces. It’s a veritable smorgasbord for the mind … and the stomach!

The way we interact with our food is changing, from fast food to farm-to-table. Food is tied to our well-being, our sense of community. Joined by world-renowned chefs, leading food journalists, and other experts, we look at the value of food across the socioeconomic spectrum and learn what it is about our meals that bring us together. During this week, our celebration of food moves beyond the Amphitheater stage to several venues throughout the Chautauqua grounds, with cooking demonstrations, food fairs, master classes and much more.

Our companion Interfaith Lecture Series celebrates that faith and food are often intertwined in our spiritual celebrations. Eating is essential for life, but it is so much more. All cultures have developed rituals around food and eating that shape the life patterns and rhythms of family and communal life, and religions also use food for spiritual nourishment in sacred meals, religious dictums for self-discipline, and for the formation of communal identity. This week will be a rich and full exploration into the relationship between food and faith.

And while this culinary curiosity will be explored in traditional ways, we’re extremely excited that Bestor Plaza will come alive with delicious food, craft beverages and entertainment during our first-ever Chautauqua Food Festival. This is the start of our experimentation with using the entire resources of the grounds to explore our weekly programs. I hope you enjoy this partnership with food providers near and far.

And while Week Nine may feel like a large party celebration, I also know that it marks the close of our traditional summer season and with that comes the sad realization that we will say goodbye to many in our community as they return to “their other homes.” As I write this column reflecting on our 144th Assembly, I also find myself mulling over a draft of my closing Three Taps of the Gavel address. It seems like just yesterday I was offering my very first words with that very special gavel. The time has certainly flown.

I told a porch gathering on Thursday of our media week that it’s not lost on me that we are fortunate to get to spend some time in the “Chautauqua bubble,” where we seek out the best in human values. The tragic events in Charlottesville and the terrorist attacks in Spain reminded us all that our human values are still being tested in the world. I know I have been enriched by spending these nine weeks with so many who came to Chautauqua seeking the answers to the profound and important questions of the day.

But what we do when we leave these sacred grounds and this special grove is more important. How might we take what we’ve learned out to our home communities? How do we stand up for a muscular civil dialogue when we aren’t surrounded by other Chautauquans? How can we objectively look at information and not run to our respective echo chambers, hearing only what we want to hear?

Chautauqua’s power is certainly in our gathering, but it is equally if not greater expressed when we hear the closing “tap-tap-tap” that concludes our assembly. As we break bread together during this special final week at Chautauqua, I’d ask us all to think about how we can take what we’ve learned — whether we were here for only a day or the entire season, or whether we participated in person or online — out to a world in need of ambassadors of the Chautauqua ideal. Then and only then can we realize the vision set forth by our founders more than 140 years ago.

Welcome to our final week of this year’s assembly at Chautauqua. I will spend these remaining days during my inaugural season counting my blessings for all of you.

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Michael E. Hill

The author Michael E. Hill