Week Six Letter From the President

Welcome to Week Six of the Chautauqua Summer Assembly. This is the first column I’ve written this summer where we have already concluded more of our season than what lies ahead. I so often marvel at how fast our time together goes­ — but before I can get melancholy about that, a new and interesting question pops up for us to explore, and this week’s question is unlike almost any we’ve looked at this summer: What happens to us and our world after the sun goes down each day? 

From our homes and cities to flora and fauna, each night brings with it a markedly different landscape than the day that preceded it. Nighttime is full of contradictions: It provides cover for all manner of illicit activity, but also for safely creating community; it is the domain of both heroes and villains in our favorite cultural touchstones; it is a period many of us spend largely unconscious, yet during which our brains are ablaze with creative energy; it engenders paralyzing fear and also incredible beauty. It’s a critical period every day for our economies, including for night shift workers, and provides essential protection and opportunities for many in the animal kingdom. This week, we look to understand the mysteries of nighttime and, through a variety of other programs on the grounds this week, celebrate the possibilities of Chautauqua after dark. 

Chautauqua has long been blessed by its partnership with National Geographic, and our colleagues there bring us the opening lecture on this fascinating topic with photographer Jim Richardson. Few capture the mystery of our planet more than the artists at National Geographic, and Jim is certain to set us on a good path at the beginning of our week. From there, we dive into the “stuff of dreams” with Sidarta Ribeiro, author of The Oracle of Night: The History and Science of Dreams. This is followed with depictions of light and dark in storytelling with Maria Tatar, the John L. Loeb Research Professor Emerita of Germanic Languages and Literatures and of Folklore and Mythology at Harvard University. We then have the potential of the nighttime economy with Sheena Jardine-Olade, co-founder of Night Lab. We close our exploration with award-winning mystery and noir writer and social commentator Walter Mosley. 

From dreams and mythology, we move in the afternoon to looking at “Embracing the Dark: Fertile Soul Time” as the focus of our Interfaith Lecture Series. “Dark Night of the Soul” is a 16th century poem by Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross that narrates the journey of the soul to mystical union with God, the unknowable. Life, however, often leads us into darkness and fear, and to a feeling of failure and the notion of impossibility. Can we contend with these forces by seeking out ancient wisdom, light within our souls and mystical renewal, both spiritual and secular? We will look to contemporary wisdom teachers to show us how to embrace the dark as fertile soul time, for renewed hope and trust. 

Mark Nepo, author of The Book of Awakening: Having the Life You Want By Being Present in the Life You Have, kicks off our exploration. This is followed by Mirabai Starr, author of Wild Mercy: Living the Fierce and Tender Wisdom of the Women Mystics. Monica A. Coleman, professor of Africana studies at the University of Delaware, then speaks to Chautauquan audiences, followed by Rabbi Rami Shapiro, senior adviser and co-director of the One River Foundation. The series concludes with Katherine May, author of Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times. If you’re curious how those experts fit together as a group, you won’t want to miss the ways they weave an exploration of our souls into a compelling narrative. 

We also welcome as our chaplain of the week Rabbi David Ingber, founder and senior rabbi of Romemu, New York City. Bishop Gene Robinson, our immediate past vice president of religion, started the tradition of including a rabbi among our weekly chaplains-in-residence. Ever since, our rabbi preachers have been among the most compelling leaders of worship each summer. I have no doubt that Rabbi Ingber will continue this trend, and we welcome him. 

Our evening entertainment in the Amphitheater is truly a feast for the senses this week. If you’re a lover of jazz, as I am, we start your week off in swinging fashion with Carnegie Hall’s National Youth Jazz Orchestra, NYO Jazz, with special guest Jazzmeia Horn. This duo is followed by the Stars of the Peking Acrobats one night and the renowned Ballet Hispánico the next. Our own Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra performs with the incomparable mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, followed by country music icon Brett Eldredge. The week concludes with our own Chautauqua Opera Young Artists regaling us in an evening of “Opera Pops.” Truly, what’s not to love?

One of the most special things we do each summer is to award The Chautauqua Prize, our national prize that celebrates a book of fiction or literary/narrative nonfiction that provides a richly rewarding reading experience and honors the author for a significant contribution to the literary arts. Each year, hundreds of titles are submitted for consideration and an army of volunteer readers spend months helping us whittle down the list. The short list and winner are featured in an advertisement in The New York Times Book Review. The undertaking is monumental; the winners are true artists. On Friday of this week, it will be my honor to present the 2022 Chautauqua Prize to Rebecca Donner, author of All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days. If you haven’t read it yet, I encourage you to purchase a copy from the Chautauqua Bookstore. It’s a stunning work that is worthy of celebration. 

On a personal note, The Chautauqua Prize brings mixed emotions for me, as its muse, Michael Rudell ­— for whom our director of literary arts position is named — passed in 2021. This is the first year we’ve been able to celebrate the Prize in person since that loss. Mike was a dear personal friend, and he loved this prize. I’ll miss having him as a part of the celebration this year. 

As I close out this week’s message to our community, I wanted to share two reflections in the spirit of not ducking the hard conversations we are called to have. I offer each as food for thought. 

First, we have received more than a few requests to address the frequent clapping and cheering that some in our audience have taken to during our Chautauqua Lecture Series when a speaker says something with which the audience member agrees or supports. If you’ve been coming to Chautauqua for some time, you may recall that we used to ask audience members to not do so, as it may have the unintended effect of making someone with an opposing view feel silenced or marginalized. As we seek to hear disparate viewpoints each week, I share this as food for thought as a community that is designed to value all perspectives. Some others have shared with us that even when they, too, agree with the applauded line in the Amp, it is starting to make our lectures feel like political rallies and takes away from the seriousness of the thesis being presented. I share this for your consideration, and to chew on, as we begin the week. As a community that values the varying opinions of others, I hope you’ll mull over your own response to this feedback from some of your fellow Chautauquans. 

Lastly, while I don’t normally call out any program not directly sponsored by the Institution (to do so would be nearly impossible given the wealth of riches our community groups curate each week), I want to acknowledge the abundant chatter — some positive, some not — about our community group LGBTQ and Friends at Chautauqua’s sponsorship of “From Mama with Love 2022: A Fabulous Drag Show” to be held at Norton Hall on Monday night. In my time at Chautauqua, there have been few other events that have sparked as much conversation. I was verbally berated over the event in the post office last week, and I’ve received more than a few notes of appreciation from others that the event is occurring. I don’t write to pick any side in this. I do tell you, however, of a lecture on “Drag as Performance Art,” at 12:15 p.m. Monday, which will be held in Smith Wilkes Hall. While many have applauded the show itself as Chautauqua acknowledging the modern era, others have wrestled with its appropriateness. When those who love Chautauqua disagree so deeply about something, our tried and true approach of seeking to understand one another has always been through the lens of education. For many in the LGBTQ community, drag is a central part of queer culture. Whether one agrees or disagrees, there is an opportunity through the lecture to learn about one another’s perspectives. I hope you will do so if you’re curious about how this cultural reflection fits into a diverse American narrative, and that if you go, you’ll engage across differences respectfully. Communities that wrestle with issues together are stronger for it, and not acknowledging this tension seemed disingenuous to me. 

Welcome to Week Six, Chautauqua. May our conversations of all kinds propel us to a more hopeful future. 

Tags : From the President
Michael E. Hill

The author Michael E. Hill