Week Seven Letter From the President

At the start of every Summer Assembly, I have the privilege of welcoming Chautauquans “home.” We deeply cherish that so many consider Chautauqua the place where their hearts reside, even if it’s not where they spent the majority of the year. We have grown fond of asking folks, “Where is your other home when you’re not at Chautauqua?” I marvel that, for many, it only takes one visit to Chautauqua to put this sacred place on the list of places one counts as “home.” 

How fitting then that we explore this week’s theme, “More Than Shelter: Redefining the American Home.” We have heard so much about home mortgage prices in this era of economic uncertainty, and this week we’re asking a fundamental question: What is the 21st-century American home? Home ownership has long been considered part and parcel of the American Dream, but trends are rapidly shifting: More and more homes are multi-generational, rentals are up and home ownership is down, and gentrification persists while the nation’s unhoused population increases. We are also redefining the idea of “home” — it can be a house, an apartment, a tiny home, a trailer, an RV — and this redefinition, in many ways, is driven by forces both in and out of our control. How can urban planning, banking practices and local policies move the needle toward creating a sustainable market in which everyone is able to have a home of their own, and of their choosing? 

Chautauqua never shies away from the “story behind the story,” and this week, our guides take us underneath this major shift in our cultural landscape. Helping us to unpack all of this is The Washington Post’s Megan McArdle; celebrated author Matthew Desmond, who penned Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, which is a 2022 Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle selection; Rahwa Ghirmatzion, executive director of PUSH Buffalo, a group that mobilizes citizens to create a fairer way of addressing housing issues; Giorgio Angelini, producer and director of the documentary “Owned: A Tale of Two Americas”; and Booker Prize-winning author and founding president of the International Parliament of Writers Salman Rushdie with Henry Reese, co-founder and president of City of Asylum. I know these provocative speakers and your questions will help us to reframe this timely question, and I’m excited to see how our conversations change our attitudes and perspectives — not only about Chautauqua, but also about our “other homes.” 

In our companion Interfaith Lecture Series, we dive into “Home: A Place for Human Thriving.” “Home is where the heart is” is a sentiment that has been repeated for more than a hundred years, known to mean where our loved ones are. In reality, it is also the place wherein family, in its many forms and contexts, is created, and wherein each member can thrive if the nurturing elements of shelter, security, caring, nutrition and love are present. In the afternoon, we will look at the essentiality of “home” from multiple perspectives and insights to perhaps see more clearly into our own lives and histories. 

Heartfelt thanks to Sandeep Jauhar, author of Heart: A History; Kelly Corrigan, host of PBS’ “Tell Me More with Kelly Corrigan”; Dave Isay, founder of StoryCorps (by the way, am I the only one who regularly cries listening to StoryCorps?); Alia J. Bilal, deputy executive director of Inner-City Muslim Action Network; and Jillian Hanesworth, poet laureate for our neighbors in Buffalo. 

Our chaplains in residence have inspired us all summer. I know you’ll want to join me in welcoming the Rev. Teresa “Terri” Hord Owens, general minister and president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada, to our pulpit this week. The richness our invited chaplains share is a cornerstone of Chautauqua for many; we welcome Terri to this lineup and look forward to her shared wisdom. 

While these parallel conversations will do so much to enlighten our view and definition of home, there are so many things that remind me of my own definition of home this week. On Monday, Seraph Brass, winners of the 2019 American Prize in Chamber Music, provide a starting soundtrack. As a lifelong trombonist, I have a very special place in my heart for brass-centric performances. You may see me geeking out there! 

We’re also honored to welcome back to Chautauqua one of our most beloved writers in a very special way. On Friday, we will share a public reading of Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street, but this time as a new opera. The House on Mango Street was a CLSC favorite, and Sandra has become a true kindred spirit and artistic partner with Chautauqua. Based on the novel, the opera is a dramatic rendering of the coming-of-age story of Esperanza Cordero. The two acts present a musical retelling of a year in the life of Esperanza, a Mexican-American teenage girl, whose challenges assimilating into her new neighborhood on Mango Street in a barrio of Chicago have enthralled more than 6 million readers in 25 languages. After a weeklong workshop, this special project is to have a public reading at Norton Hall, followed by a conversation with the creators. Before that reading, make sure to stop by at 3:30 p.m. on Thursday to the Hall of Philosophy to hear Sandra in conversation with Sony Ton-Aime, our Michael I. Rudell Director of Literary Arts. 

I had a truly emotional and wonderful opportunity last week to greet Julie Kent and my old friends from The Washington Ballet, where I was fortunate enough to be in leadership almost 15 years ago. I have vivid memories of stopping into the studios from my office and feeling so fortunate that this artistry was a part of my daily existence at work. A few of the dancers I worked with remain a part of TWB, and many other new faces join Julie in animating a new life for the ballet company of our nation’s capital. For me, this company is personal. I was overwhelmed to greet them this week, and I hope you’ll join me in celebrating them at Wednesday’s performance, and again on Saturday, Aug. 13, if your stay runs through that evening. TWB is a part of my personal narrative; I hope they become a part of yours. 

One final note of gratitude for two events last week. We were able to fully celebrate Old First Night, Chautauqua’s birthday, in Week Six. I want to thank all of those who worked hard to honor its many traditions while breaking it open in new ways to welcome those who are brand new to Chautauqua. Chautauqua belongs to all those who seek its gift to make us better humans. It meant so much to celebrate another year of life for our beloved Chautauqua, given all that has occurred in our world. I extend my heartfelt thanks to the organizers and all who participated. And as a graduate of one of our longest and most impactful programs, the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle, I had the honor of handing out 58 diplomas to new graduates on Wednesday. In so many ways, it connects us all to the entire history of this great place. At the Recognition Day ceremony, Sony Ton-Aime read a poem crafted by the Class of 2022 to mark the celebration. It’s moving and worth reprinting, so I close this week with this: 

“Step Over the Threshold”  

by the CLSC Class of 2022  

I remember toes wiggling in the cool lake,  

its oval shape and sandy shore inviting me.  

I remember bells arcing in the quiet air,  

nerves falling away, doubts fading  

and friends old and new welcoming me.  

 I remember meeting the author whose work  

I treasure, the moment of silence, of recognition,  

we shared. Knowledge to last a lifetime.  

I remember the parade of white-clad readers’  

and my spouse’s face at the golden gate.  

The challenge that still resonates,  

“only 12 books, dear.”  

 Chautauqua, I want us to take on this challenge,  

encourage debate in laughter and love,  

embrace our differences, feel, and sit with the peace  

between our disagreements, amaze  

at the perspectives of a stranger.  

 I want to imagine a place where the arts guide 

us through the red brick walk from the library  

to the Hall of Philosophy, the path of learning  

and growth. As the phoenix erupts from what was  

and emerges to new dreams, Chautauqua,  

know the future is in our hands.  

 So, please, continue to spread your arms wide,  

seek truth in all things, welcome those who  

step over your threshold. As we discover together  

new ideas, new beliefs, new traditions.  

 Chautauqua, I dream of a place of reunion,  

of connection, memories in timeless setting. 

I dream of ways to bridge the gaps, of gates  

turning into gateways, of a time when our grounds  

will mirror our diverse country.  

 Please, be a place to celebrate joy, music,  

jubilation, dance, and enlightenment. Be a  

sanctuary, a beacon of hope, of rest.  

 Chautauqua, I dream of you, of your streets changing  

during the seasons, bustling, teeming with wonders,  

thoughts and insights mimicking falling leaves  

colored bright as ideas, as chimes  

from the Miller Bell Tower on Bryant Day  

ringing in a new reading year,  

celebrating new books and new commitments. 

Thank you and congratulations to the CLSC Class of 2022. Happy Week Seven, Chautauqua, and welcome home.

Tags : From the President
Michael E. Hill

The author Michael E. Hill