August 28, 2015

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Nostalgic living can sometimes be good for the soul

Cynthia DewesThe Bay View neighborhood in Petoskey, Mich., started out as a Chautauqua community sponsored by the Methodist Church, one of many such places scattered across our country. The movement began in the 19th century in the city of the same name in the state of New York as an effort to bring cultural opportunities and religious insights to the largely rural population.

Musicians, poets, authors, lecturers and others traveled around the U.S. visiting smaller towns, where they presented the locals with entertainment and knowledge they would otherwise not have had access to. Mark Twain and Charles Dickens gave lectures and readings, and Swedish singer Jenny Lind appeared on the circuit.

World-famous philosophers, string orchestras and experts on every subject imaginable offered ordinary people the chance to learn and expand their horizons. Happily, vestiges of the movement still exist, as in Bay View.

There are large lecture halls where people would attend the sessions, and dormitories where they could stay overnight during the week or so that the Chautauqua was in town. As time went on, some folks built so-called cottages where they could stay for the summer and be close to the activity. Today, these lovely smaller Victorian homes line the streets adjoining the lecture center.

Fortunately, Bay View is not merely an historic relic, someplace to visit, pick up a brochure and snap a photo. The Chautauqua learning centers are still in use every summer for a season of cultural events, some produced locally and some brought in from elsewhere. Large organizations use them periodically for conferences and the like. A few years ago, we attended an International Hemingway Conference there.

Michigan is a beautiful state, and Bay View does not disappoint, with its gentle hills covered with mature trees and flowers everywhere. The bay is close by, offering endless water activities such as sailing, fishing, swimming and just hanging out at the beach. Shopping and restaurants are close by.

Many of the Victorian houses are available for rent during the summer season. Recently, we stayed a week with friends at one of them. It was a large house with nine—9!—bedrooms, several bathrooms and a long wrap-around porch full of antique wicker furniture. The kitchen, dining and living rooms were ample. We realized that such a home would have been entirely suitable in the days of multi-generational families living together.

Today, large houses tend to be pretentious rather than family-minded. The pace of life is much faster, attention spans are short, and all manner of information assaults our senses constantly. Going to the beach seems to need extreme something-or-other in order to grab our interest. People eat standing up or on the run more often than they read a book.

So it took us a while to adjust, to change our concept of time and just relax. Finally, we spent hours sitting on the porch or the beach basically doing nothing. At one point, all of us were sitting quietly reading in the living room, something so remarkable that we all noticed it. Of course, we were all reading some technical device or other, but we were reading.

For a wonderful few days, we took the time to communicate, to reflect, and to restore our bodies and souls. We could appreciate some of the many gifts God has given us, just as the long-ago Bay View residents must have done. It’s easy to believe that the “old days” were better than now, but in this case I think it may be true.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)

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