This, my 9th summer in residence at the Chautauqua Institution has felt very different, even awkward to me and I have struggled to figure out the reasons. My first thought was that Michele joined me here for the first week instead of our norm which would be my second week here. As most people who know me will attest, I do not do well with change in patterns. I believe another part of the difference is due to my having to make 3 round trips back home to Buffalo. And of course, the death of a good friend contributed as well. Other possibilities are out there but I believe they are minor.
This morning Anna Deavere Smith spoke on creativity. For those of you who are not familiar with her performances, she is perhaps best known for her work as the National Security Advisor on "West Wing" and now stars in the series "Nurse Jackie". She postulated that we we are taught that we need peaceful, supportive settings to foster our creativity as well as good mentors. Yet, in reality, we are most creative when we are not comfortable, when we feel in a place of vulnerability, are alone and feel a lack of safety.
This year, Chautauqua has been for me a place of non-comfort, or even ill-ease. Perhaps that is why for the first time in many years, I am well ahead on my preparation for my High Holy Day sermons.
Discomfort, though, is a relative term. It seems obscene to even consider not being at peace and serene here. I have always had some of these feelings here, but this year they seem to be deeper.
When I look around at the homogeny of the faces, I feel as I did when I attended my first pro ball game in a major West Coast city. Having grown up in Cleveland, the faces in the stadium seemingly represented every race and nation. At that game on the West Coast, everyone looked like me. It was odd. That same sense infuses me here.
It also exists here on a deeper level. A colleague whom I first met outside of Chautauqua is here. A former military chaplain, he is now the pastor of a church here on the grounds. The Chautauquan Daily (the Institution's daily paper) listed him as teaching a course on Christian views on violence. Given his experience as a Chaplain, I felt that it would be a different perspective than what I normally hear here at Chautauqua. His presentation was masterful. He was able to present an honest overview of Christian tradition, which like all religious traditions has inspired violence internally and externally. It was masterful because it was honest, complete and yet did not alienate the majority of the listeners for whom, based on the comments and questions, pacifism is not only the ideal but seems heroic. When even a hint of dissent from another listener began to peek through, the other listeners were quick to decry the dissent and at times even actively condemn those who might hold a different view. And while I agreed with much of what the listeners were saying, the room became so stifling to me that I could not bring myself to return for more sessions.
As I wrote above, I don't deal well with changes in patterns, however, too much sameness wears on me as well.
On the other hand, as I write this I sit on the UCC porch listening to the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra play beautifully. The air is not too warm and what could be more serene. Shabbat services were filled with spirit and peace. The M family, as always, has provided a home for me here. Seeing their grandchildren growing and maturing, their mother celebrating a 98th birthday and the fulfillment of one of their dreams for Chautauqua come true, warms my heart. The time Michele was here was warm and connected. So I do feel blessed, not only here but in my life as a whole. Even the ill-ease I have felt in my time here is a blessing through the inspiration it has brought to the surface.