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Chautauqua Institution: For the Heart, Mind and Spirit

July 9, 2012 - Phyllis Sigal
Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

That word could sum up my week at Chautauqua Institution in Chautauqua, N.Y.

According to Julie Andrews, who was a part of that week, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” is a “wonderful word that sums up all things wonderful.”

Although, according to the film, “Mary Poppins,” “it’s a word you say when you have nothing to say.” But lots of people had a lot to say during this “everything wonderful” week I spent with my son, Leland, at Chautauqua.

Literary arts took center stage, thanks to Roger Rosenblatt, writer, essayist, humorist, playwright and professor. He hosted five morning lectures, each one featuring his writer friends. This is his third year (2008, 2010) on the amphitheater stage, and he keeps threatening that he’s running out of friends. I hope he doesn’t. I doubt he will.

At the end of the week, he had racked up an unprecedented 24 appearances on the amp stage — which even outnumbered John Heyl Vincent, the institution’s founder more than 100 years ago.

In fact, Rosenblatt is so at home at Chautauqua that he thanked his fellow Chautauquans during a Monday afternoon discussion of his book, “Kayak Morning: Reflections on Love, Grief and Small Boats,” which deals with the death of his daughter Amy in 2008.

“I want you to know, Chautauquans, to be able to come to a place that is safe to talk about this and to know the sympathy in all your faces ...” has meant the world to him, he shared.

THE AMPHITHEATER LECTURES:

Rosenblatt’s friend on day one was Norman Lear, who produced such beloved shows that changed the face of television as “All in the Family,” “The Jeffersons,” “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” and “Maude,” to name a few.

At 90, he’s accomplished a lot and had much to share.

He told us he originally wanted Mickey Rooney to play Archie Bunker, and that the voice of Archie came from a New York cabby. The first title of the show was “Justice for All,” and Archie Bunker was originally Archie Justice.

Lear’s advice to writers?

“Write.”

Day two started with an announcement from Chautauqua Institution President Thomas Becker: “Man plans, God laughs.” This day’s “friend” was supposed to be Jules Feiffer, writer and cartoonist. However, Becker explained, weather delayed and eventually canceled his Monday night flight from New York City. An early Tuesday flight had been set to bring him to the western side of the state in time for his lecture, and everyone showed up that morning — except for the pilot. I thought something was up when I arrived at the amphitheater and saw three chairs on the stage.

Instead, we heard from Derek and Sissela Bok, who had originally been scheduled for Thursday. An attorney, he served as the 25th president of Harvard from 1971-91; she is an ethicist and philosopher and the daughter of two Nobel Prize winners. Two. (A bit much, noted humorist Rosenblatt.)

After a lengthy list of their contributions and accomplishments over the years, what got the biggest applause was this: They’ve been married for 57 years.

They spoke of happiness, both having written books on the subject from different points of view. Hers is “Exploring Happiness: From Aristotle to Brain Science.” His is “The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn From the New Reserach on Well-Being.” She referred to reading the essays of Michel de Montaigne to help her get back to writing after 9/11 — she was writing about happiness at the time, and noted that the al-Quaida attacks stopped her in her tracks.

Day three we had the pleasure of meeting Meg Wolitzer, a writer and funny, funny lady. However, she and Rosenblatt had just gotten word the night before that their friend, Nora Ephron, writer, producer and director, had died of leukemia at the age if 71. Ephron is known for the films “Sleepless in Seattle,” “When Harry Met Sally,” “You’ve Got Mail” and scores more.

It was a hard morning for the pair. When they mentioned Ephron’s passing, the audience gasped, many of whom had not gotten the Associated Press alert that Leland and I had gotten the night before.

Wolitzer’s best advice to her audience was, “You have one life, and you really want to do something you’re really passionate about.” She said she was lucky to have a mother who was a writer, and who never once said to her, “You should be a lawyer.”

Because the Boks switched to Tuesday, we had assumed Feiffer would be Thursday’s guest. That didn’t happen, however, which disappointed Leland who wanted his favorite childhood book, “The Man on the Ceiling,” signed. But to my excitement, my favorite poet (and Leland’s, too), Billy Collins, filled in on the lecture platform with his good buddy, Roger. Collins was already on the grounds because his book, “Horoscopes for the Dead,” was the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle’s selection of the week. His reading had already been set for Thursday afternoon.

Leland and I also enjoyed attending a two-hour master class taught by Collins. I’m a Collins groupie from way back, and will go see him any chance I get. I was on cloud nine with three doses of Billy, but especially because of the intimate master class.

This is what I learned most from him: “A pen is an instrument of discovery, not a tool to record.” And this: “Creative people monitor their stream of consciousness.” And Friday, the week wrapped up on a sweet note with Dame Julie Andrews and her daughter, Emma Walton Hamilton. The two have collaborated on a number of children’s books for the last 15 years. The amphitheater buzzed with excitement as they walked on stage to a standing ovation — before either of them even said a word.

They were wonderfully entertaining — reading stories, telling tales, answering questions.

My favorite story was one told by Emma. She recalled being about 3 years old, shopping in a big department store with her nanny. There was a display from the movie “Mary Poppins,” which had just come out. Little Emma excitedly pointed to the cardboard character and exclaimed, “Look, it’s Mommy!” Emma overheard a nearby older lady saying to her friend: “Isn’t that cute. She thinks her mother is Mary Poppins.”

During the Q&A part of the morning, an audience member asked Andrews if she would say “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” — backwards.

And she did: “Docious aliexpilisticfragicalirepus.”

AND EVERYTHING ELSE WONDERFUL:

And in between all of that — as if that weren’t enough? — were concerts, conversations and cocktails, theater, ballet and book signings, walks, meditation and mantras, along with writing on the porch, reading by the lake, visits with friends and figuring out how to make palatable meals in a microwave.

While food is normally a priority in my everyday life and even more important on vacations, it is food for thought that is the focus during a Chautauqua getaway.

I’ve written about Chautauqua before, but I can never share enough about this magical place.

I’m in a different world when I set foot on the gated grounds, and always hope to be a bit of a different person when I step back into the real world.

This year, my goal was to figure out how to take Chautauqua home with me.

How, indeed.

It’s a place where everything creative is stirred.

It’s a place with a gentle soul and a vibrant face.

It’s a place where you can run to a morning lecture or stroll by the lake in the afternoon sun.

Evenings are filled with ballet, opera, theater, concerts — from pop to country to jazz to classical.

The Hall of Philosophy is the place for the daily interfaith lecture series. There’s a golf course, a labyrinth, sailboats, hundreds of classes, a camp for boys and girls, church services in just about every denomination from Baptist to Baha’i. There are workshops, garden tours, bird walks and brown bag lunch programs,

There’s ice cream. And a book store. And a fountain in the center of Bestor Plaza, a square inhabited by dogs and children and singers and readers and loungers. There are birds and butterflies and bats. And the most gorgeous gardens you ever did see.

The iconic Miller Bell Tower tolls, and the historic Chautauqua Belle blasts its breathy, steamboat whistle.

So how to take all that home with me?

I decided to start with my two new habits: morning meditation and morning pages.

Leland and I attended a yoga meditation each morning at 7:15 a.m. — a great way to start the day. Also each morning, at Leland’s urging, I adopted an exercise that he’s been doing based upon a book he’s reading, “Walking in This World.”

The exercise entails writing a few pages in a notebook each day as early as possible, the point of which is to unclutter your mind to make room for creativity. He bought me a notebook and presented it to me on our first day at Chautauqua, so that I could start right away.

In fact, both of us liking to write, we actually had a notebook throwdown. I think we each had five or six of assorted shapes, sizes, colors and most importantly, assigned uses. One for journaling. One for taking notes at lectures and classes. One for jotting down a quick thought to save for later mulling.

After a trip or two to the bookstore, my inventory increased even more.

It’s going on a week since I’ve come back to real life. I’m still meditating and writing my morning pages.

And the rest of it? The bell tower, the lake, the walks, the talks, the lectures, the friends, ... and most important, spending an uninterrupted week with my 24-year-old son ... it’s all right here — in my heart, in my mind and in my spirit.

And fortunately, in my notebooks.

 
 

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