We all know that human beings are tribal creatures and that we suffer when we don't have a neighborhood to live in. Even "deviants" like academics and bishops need to have a community. Still, knowing this and feeling it are substantially different experiences and I was reminded of this during my recent two day visit to Chautauqua in western New York. Plenty of people have written about Chautauqua and tons of really important people have gathered there over the last century and far be it for me to claim any special insights about this remarkable gathering place. All I can say is that I have seldom beheld so many intellectually curious and kindly people in one location. From the visiting artists and thinkers to the staff who maintain the generous grounds to the very children of the families who come to the lakeshore to engage with the arts and sciences, everyone was humanely awake. People were curious about each other. "By God," I thought, "this is the America that Walt Whitman once hoped we might create." We are in this life together and living it must be a collective celebration if this social experiment is to work.
I am by nature a mildly suspicious man and so I kept thinking that some odious and officious little person would appear and tell me that I obviously didn't belong there. I imagined that some guy wearing an Odd Fellow's fez would turn up and yell at me for walking with my dog on the grass. Or maybe someone would say that my books are "too wordy" or "too dirty" or someone would say that I obviously buy my shoes at the discount warehouse.
But as far as I know, no one wearing the "fez of bureaucracy" followed me about.
I was impressed by all kinds of events: Peter Gelb spoke about his experiences as the new managing director of the Metropolitan Opera. Daniel Levitin talked about his career as a rock musician turned neurologist--he's the author of a terrific book entitled "This is Your Brain on Music". I got to hear the contemporary Israeli composer Yinam Leef talk about time and its role in the composition of his work. I met Mary Rogers, the composer of the signature Broadway musical comedy "Once Upon a Mattress" and Connie and I had the opportunity to see and hear a wonderful production of that famous show.
Still, the signature moment for me was when a pre-teen boy, maybe around 11 years old, stopped on the sidewalk because he heard Connie and I talking with a couple who were walking their Wheaton Terrier. We were saying that we've thought about getting one of these dogs someday. This boy stopped in his tracks and turned and with evident joy encouraged us to do it. You see, he also has a Wheaton Terrier.
In an era of besotted video game kids who mostly mumble, well, this was a moment of Chautauqua mystique: even the kids are encouraging of others and fully awake.