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Contemplating Chautauqua: Salman Rushdie and More

I can imagine the scene. The amphitheatre is filled to capacity.  The ushers wearing their beige aprons are standing at their posts scanning the gate passes of the few latecomers.  There is a rustling of quiet conversation as the clock nears the 10:30 AM mark.  The moderator for the morning’s lecture enters the stage and walks to the podium.  The esteemed guest speaker is escorted to his chair and offered a bottle of water.  Anticipation is in the air.  And then, all hell breaks loose as a young man jumps onto the stage and begins stabbing the guest speaker and the moderator, and a stream of audience members follow suit and immediately respond by holding down the perpetrator and attending the now wounded men who had not even begun to speak.

How could this happen in “my” Chautauqua? My “safe place,” the haven I return to again and again in my imagination, in my dreams in my memory when I want to recall a feeling of deep relaxation, serenity, all situated in the most beautiful of locales on the shores of Lake Chautauqua.  I was in the middle of writing the piece below for my slowtravelsblog.com on a recent vacation spent at the Chautauqua Institute when I heard the news of the attack on Salman Rushdie.  I share with you the post, so that  you can get a truer sense of what the Chautauqua Institute is really all about.

Sunrise over Lake Chautauqua

The room lightens and stretching in my bed, I take a peak out the window to the shimmering waters of Lake Chautauqua as they greet the sun.  An hour later we decide to drink our morning coffee on the front porch overlooking the tall green trees because the reflection of the sun on the water actually hurts the eyes if you sit on the back porch at this hour. We watch the early morning pedestrian traffic on the street below, slow travel indeed.  It is quite heavy this early in the morning as many residents choose to take their constitutional, often accompanied by a canine friend along Lake Drive, as vehicles are banned from these roads.  Passersby often look up as they pass the landmark Gleason Hotel where we stay (built in 1896) and nod or say good morning.  Thus begins a typical day at the Chautauqua Institute in upstate New York.

The Chautauqua Institue, an eight week festival of the arts including music, dance, literature and most of all good conversation, is a convivial gathering that takes place every summer along the shores of Lake Chautauqua.  What began as a summer camp for bible school teachers in the 1860s has morphed into “…a community of artists, educators, thinkers, faith leaders and friends dedicated to exploring the best in humanity,”as best described on the Institute website. Attending morning and afternoon lectures by leading movers and thinkers, afternoon chamber music concerts, and evening  symphony, ballet and modern dance, keeps us busy and moving all within the few square miles of this active village. Movies and  classes in Torah and Judaism (sponsored by the welcoming Chabad House of Chautauqua) complete the lineup. Two weeks of summer vacation that come as close to perfection as possible, and fall squarely into my definition of slow travel.

The Ampitheatre

There is something about arriving in Chautauqua, and we have been doing it on and off for the last twenty years, that invites one to sigh deeply, and let go of the accumulated stress of the previous year.  Is it the tree shaded streets, the exquisitely well maintained Victorian houses and gardens, the absence of vehicular traffic, save bicycles and scooters? Perhaps it is the vibe of living among people, most of whom are on vacation and are here to relax and enjoy.  One of the hallmarks of Chautauqua is the ease of striking up conversation, whether it is while standing on line to enter the 4000 seat outdoor ampitheatre or waiting for the chamber music ensemble to strike its opening note in the more intimate Lenna Hall. Talking with a weaver from Cleveland, Ohio, or a farmer from rural Texas we find much to compare notes about. We talk about the events of the day, our lives, where we hail from and much more.  Cellphones are shut off, left in the pocket or even back in the room, so as not to disturb that strong sense of being truly present for the lecture, the concert, or the conversation. At Chautauqua it is easy to shut your phone off and leave it in your room for several hours of the day. Liberating indeed. The true source of information at Chautauqua is “The Daily Chautauquan,” a newspaper printed six days a week during the eight week season, and sold on street corners by kids hawking the headlines.  In it you can find a detailed schedule, a round up of upcoming events, and reviews of what we have heard and seen the day before.  It is a local paper indeed, with no reporting on world or national events.  It mirrors what most Chautauquans feel: the true life is what is happening within the few square miles of this gated institution.

Transportation in Chautauqua is for the most part non-motorized. Because there are distances to cover, and walking is the slow way to go, I ride my ancient green Schwinn (no gears and no handbrakes) over to the library and leave my bike unlocked leaning against a lampost.  There really is a sense that we have time travelled back into a simpler age.  The lending library is open to all and filled with the latest in fiction and non-fiction, and is always a hub of activity.  Chautauquans still pride themselves on reading books, and reading on the back porch of the Gleason Hotel overlooking the sparkling lake, is one of my true joys of this vacation.  After choosing a book, I amble over to the gazebo and order that perfect cup of coffee made the way I like it-strong, no milk, and sit down on a bench by the central green to enjoy the brew and the view.

Porch Conversation at Chautauqua

Looking forward to this evening’s symphony orchestra there is still enough time to stroll along the lake enjoying the view, have a glass of wine on the back porch, and breathe in the air that rolls off the lake as the colors change and twilight turns to night. Describing the simple pleasures of Chautauqua, I submit that this is a vacation without adrenaline surges yet the complete package of beautiful scenery, relaxation, meeting up with new ideas and people and hearing wonderful music is simply unbeatable and slow travel at its best!

And so, the attack on Salman Rushdie rudely brings the 21st century into the Chautauqua Institute, a place where time has stopped, and the simpler pleasures of life are savored.  My prayers are with Mr. Rushdie for healing, and to the Chautauqua Institute as well, in the hope that this most special of places will not be changed forever.

About the Author
Naomi L Baum, Ph.D., is an international consultant in the field of psychological trauma and disaster with an emphasis on resilience. She is a published author. Her most recent book, "Isresilience: What Israelis Can Teach the World," was written with Michael Dickson and published in October, 2020 by Gefen. Earlier in 2020 she published "My Year of Kaddish: Mourning, Memory and Meaning." Her other books include: "Life Unexpected: A Trauma Psychologist Journeys through Breast Cancer," "Operational Stress Management," and her most recent book, "Free Yourself from Fear: Coping with Coronavirus," which is offered for free on her website: www.naomibaum.com . All the other books are available on Amazon. She is the mother of seven and grandmother of 21.