On Sunday morning after breakfast, Nanci and I walk two blocks from the Athenaeum Hotel to Art in the Park: a craft show in Miller Park overlooking Chautauqua Lake. Because the show does not open for another two hours, artists are still arranging their goods on tables. There is pottery of all kinds. Ceramic tiles. Hand knitted mittens. Photographic images of the beauty of Chautauqua stretched across canvas. One-of-a-kind knitted handbags. Wands made from pastel curling ribbons with matching tiaras and skirts: attire for the youngest of princesses.
I remember those days: driving long hours to reach Richmond, Virginia; loading a dolly with twenty-five bins; setting up my 10 x 20 foot booth. The hours are long. The work is hard and at times, lonely. Except for the people and the children I encountered, I do not miss the craft shows. But I am thankful, for it led me to my true path: writing for children.
While Nanci admires the handmade mittens recycled from sweaters, I check on the purple martins. The babies that live in house # 4 are braver today. Not one, but two babies expose their full heads. They peer up at the morning sky, their yellow beaks open in anticipation–hungry and helpless. I . . . am in love.
Nanci texts me that she has happily purchased a few gifts and is ready to explore the center of Chautauqua. Up the hill and over the red wooden bridge, we head for the town green. First on our list is the bookstore, then the library, and after that, any small shops that entice us to enter through their doors.
We not reach the library. Or the bookstore. Or any quaint shops, wherever they might be. We get as far as the amphitheatre—a very short, uphill walk from the red wooden bridge. Dozens and dozens of choir members warm up their voices. People swarm through the gates, accepting programs. Others park their bicycles, baby strollers, walkers, and electric wheelchairs. Seats fill. Dogs lay on the concrete next to their owners. Big dogs. Small dogs. Old dogs. Young dogs. One sits between the legs of an elderly man, seated on his scooter. Whispers among the crowd create a buzz like happy bees.
Attending the non-denominational morning service is not on our agenda, but the voices and the whispers and energy beckon. An unseen force pulls us, like the ocean’s current, and we find ourselves in the midst of a crowd, being handed a program, after which, we find a place to sit. “Let’s stay, just for a few minutes,” Nanci and I say, simultaneously.
The few minutes turn into an hour and a half. We are meant to be here, for the music, the inspiration, the enlightenment, and for me, the opportunity to open my mouth and sing with joy. Something I have not done for decades when I, myself, once sang in a church choir, where on occasion, I was a soloist.
The organist, Jared Jacobsen, places his fingers on the keys, his feet on the pedals, and the amphitheatre comes alive. There are no hymnals, no sheet music to read. All I have are words printed in the program. But I remember. My heart remembers, and the words are enough. I sing and sing and sing, as if I may not live through the night.
I have learned an important lesson on my second day at Chautauqua: be joyous. Live each moment as if it were your last. And if ever some unseen force pulls you in an unfamiliar direction, don’t stop to question why. Don’t fight the ocean’s current. Let the momentum sweep you up. Follow. Follow. Allow yourself to let go. Be brave.
We, like our characters, do not always know our needs. Listen to your inner voice. Trust your gut. If you do not, you might miss (as I might have missed that morning) the sound of an angel singing. Paul Robert’s voice is pure and rich, heartfelt and vulnerable.
At the very back of what appears to be at least one hundred choir members, a man in a blue robe clutches the bars of his walker; he pulls himself up, and then begins to sing Mr. Roberts delivers Send in the Clowns like someone being led to a guillotine, allowed to share his gift of a voice one last time.
Now, sitting on my porch, in the early hour of the morning, I hear that baritone voice. The longing in the words of Send in the Clowns intermingle with the songs of the Carolina wren family that lives on our property. A hummingbird flies over my head. A chipmunk peers between the white railings on our porch. Yes, I see you. I smile. I smile because my yard overflows with joyous creatures: finches, cardinals, hummingbirds, dragonflies, bees, moths, insects . . .
Thank you, Mr. Roberts–for opening your heart, for allowing me a glimpse of your soul, and for handing me the crystal ball. Like Dorothy, I stare at the images that whirl past me in the glass, clouded by tiny flakes of snow. I am scared of what lies ahead in my week at Chautauqua, but I understand what I need to do: be brave like the purple martin babies. I will blink my eyes at the sun and open my wings to the light. Inch by inch, I will step further away from the safety of my home to laugh. To love. To share stories. To make new friends. To learn how to improve my writing. To become a little frog, allowing my mentor to turn up the heat in the pot where she puts me to boil. I will allow unforeseen forces to lead me where I need to go.
Be a clown.