“Nothing makes the earth seem so spacious as to have friends at a distance; they make the latitudes and longitudes.”
— Henry David Thoreau
I have been thinking a lot about our friend Thoreau since listening to a podcast that looked anew at his seminal work Walden. Critics, historians and writers alike have been fascinated by Walden ever since its publication, seeking out its various meanings and drawing conclusions as diverse as can possibly be. But the podcast I recently enjoyed struck a chord with me when I heard, “Walden is not about going to the pond. Walden is about coming back from the pond and engaging in the world with all you’ve learned from the escape.”
Whether you were with us for a day, a week or the entire nine weeks, I know many of you came to Chautauqua this season for an escape: an escape from your busy day-to-day lives, an escape from the heat (we mostly gave that to you!), or an escape from the division and rancor felt in too much of the world. We’ve shared quite a season, you and me. From “difficult to define” or “difficult to discuss” topics such as “American Identity,” “Russia and the West” and “The Ethics of Dissent” to the lighter but still substantive weeks “The Art of Play,” “The Arts and Global Understanding,” and our celebratory closing week on film and food, I hope you’ve enjoyed the journey as much as my colleagues and I have in presenting it with and for you.
There are so many highlights for me this season: getting to introduce Straight No Chaser, the timeliness of our week on Russia, getting pinched by Yo-Yo Ma (ask someone if you weren’t here!) and having two wonderful days of conversation with Ken Burns, Dayton Duncan and Geoff Ward. Our arts ensembles – from the sheer power of the Music School Festival Orchestra and Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra’s combined performance of Shostakovich to the searing message of An Octoroon — and the incredible artists who comprise them brought us great beauty and portals into grappling with things we couldn’t put into our own words. Our new “Interfaith Fridays,” which probed commonalities among major religious traditions, and the wealth of literary authors whose poetry and prose challenged us, delighted us and made us think. And, as always, our young people, who were truth-tellers when their adult counterparts debated the very definition of truth itself. The visit by the 5-year-olds from Children’s School to the President’s Cottage told me as much about our future as anything could.
We listened a lot this summer — a lot. Through our 15-plus strategic planning listening sessions and town halls, Chautauquans shared what was on their minds as we create a new strategic plan for the Institution. In vintage Chautauqua fashion, your desires and thoughts were as wide-ranging as the people who animate our community: the diversity of our grounds, how to attract more young people, the health of the lake, balance on our platforms and the role you hope we play in the world, among many, many others. Thank you to any and all who shared their thoughts. If you didn’t get a chance to participate in one of our sessions, we still welcome your voice at essence.chq.org.
These nine weeks have been, in many respects, a glorious escape by the lake. But the metaphor of Walden holds true for us at Chautauqua. Our time here was only well spent if we take all we’ve learned from this “escape” back out into the world to make our other home communities a better place to live. It only makes sense to explore the best in human values if we put those lessons to work.
For the many who do not live here year-round, we send you off to the corners of the globe with our thanks — thank you for animating our assembly and bringing it life. And we send you forth not with sadness, but with the joy of knowing that you populate our latitudes and longitudes, and with the full anticipation and sweet delight of welcoming you home to Chautauqua either for our second Winter Village or for our 146th summer assembly.
May God, expressed by many names and through many traditions, bless each of you until we are reunited.
All my best, Michael E. Hill