Letting Go

Diana Chapman Walsh writes about the decision to retire from a college presidency and the transition to a different kind of life.

July 28, 2010

I had specialized in naming the moment: seeing it coming, feeling its impact, taking it in and making it mine. Then giving it words for others to see, feel … absorb. From thousands of memorable moments we wove a community. The arc began each fall on opening day, the ritual embarking for college, one of the great rites of passage still remaining in modern American culture.

I knew the rhythms leading up to a big transition, the clarity and confusion, the ruptures and repairs. People drew closer together, then pulled further apart, not once but over and over, as if to rehearse an excision they didn’t know how to endure. In the flash of a busy summer that vanished all too fast, incoming students and their families moved through dozens of subtle endings, and as many small beginnings, sensing the familiar wither so the possible might put down roots.

I was a master of transitions. Until I met my own.

The private agony of deciding when and why to step down from a job that I loved ran as an obbligato through the last three of the 14 years I occupied the presidency. Then, at the end of the trustees’ annual meeting in April, I announced my intention to leave. There are cycles in organizations, I told them, as there are in life, and part of the art of leading well — as of living well — is to recognize a new cycle struggling to emerge. It was time for the college to begin a fresh cycle of learning and time, in turn, for me to heed my soul's longing for a change of pace, a more inward rhythm, freedom to relax my attention, flexibility to expand my horizons, space to venture out on unfamiliar terrain, intellectual and spiritual.

This was a full 14 months before I would pack up and go. To leave would mean to surrender it all — my house (well, really, the college’s mansion), my offices, titles, calendars, computers, phones, automobile — all the symbols, addresses, numbers, and accounts that identified me, connected me to others, and located me in time and space. The intricate system of practices and people and preoccupations that had shaped my waking hours, and paraded through my dreams, would vaporize.

I’d say a final farewell to people I loved, colleagues and coworkers who had kept me out of trouble, propped me when I faltered, laughed with me when we stumbled, cried when our hearts broke, celebrated with abandon when the time was right, made every minute of those years deeply real. And I would lose my connection with students, all those ebullient, restless, idealistic young women whose energy kept me going, kept me young as the years flew by.

I would walk away from nearly everyone who had mattered to me over what felt like a lifetime, leaving them to turn their talents to my successor, helping her claim my college as, for a time, her own. For me, the task remaining would be to reclaim my life, or invent a new one, or rescue fragments of an old one, packed in boxes, labeled neatly, piled in stacks awaiting their fate.

At my final commencement, I told the graduating seniors that we were about to leap off a cliff together. In the next breath, I assured them that we were “going to fly.” But from the recesses of my mind (and I know from some of theirs’) I could hear a murmur,

“Sure we are. … Splat.”

Throughout my professional career I had worked in organizations, channeling my energies into goals, and tasks, and schedules, and achievements. As a professor I had run a production line of intellectual products marching down a conveyor belt and onto my curriculum vitae. A colleague had once joked that for academics the act of adding another scholarly paper to our vita was as close as we came to performing a sacrament. As president, I had dutifully filled every hour of every day with obligations to everyone else. Now I would have no structures, no deadlines, no projects, no production line, no duties, just open days to design. Alone, I would have to discern how a worthwhile day might look, or, even harder, how it might feel.

In the spring I had hired a gardener to teach me about the plantings surrounding the new house to which my husband and I would be moving that June. I wanted to learn how to tend them, what to cull and what to add, how to make a garden flourish, now that it would be my own. Some of the flowers and trees in the garden had already blossomed; others were still dormant, waiting to declare themselves. I began to frame my question of how to design a day of beauty and meaning in the larger arc of blooming — early and late — blooming and then wilting, slogging through the mud in fallow times, quitting, sprouting new roots, not once but repeatedly, wintering over for months in the cold and the dark.

Wendell Berry, a poet with a keen eye for the teachings of nature, pointed a way. “When we no longer know what to do,” he wrote, “we have come to our real work. And when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”

I decided to allow myself the luxury of having a mind that is baffled. I would settle into the humility and the fecundity of that place of not knowing, a place of great discomfort to scholars who prize knowing above all else, and yet a place I had known all too well through my presidency. A graduating senior I encountered during my last weeks in office listened to my plans for the future, noticed a certain vagueness, and observed that it sounded as though I was headed for a “gap year.” I liked the idea, and began to imagine what it would mean to be a stream that sings.

“Write it!” insisted the members of the writers’ group I later joined. “What would it mean to you to be a singing stream?”

If I were a singing stream, perhaps I could learn to loll in the water, recline on the surface in daylight, and, in the darkness, dive by myself to the depths. I would slide smoothly over sharp-edged rocks and be carried by swirling eddies into still pools. They would be cool and deep. There I would linger a while, then float back into a current and let it sweep me along, basking in the mottled rays of sun, filtered through rustling leaves.

If I were a singing stream, I would accept — no, I would protect — the reality that there is nothing better for me to be doing right now than simply being here where I am, immersed in one of those baffled periods in my life, living my way into a transition in which I no longer know what to do.


Diana Chapman Walsh served as president of Wellesley College from 1993 to 2007.


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