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Remarks at Ivy Day 2019

Kathleen McCartney at the podium delivering a speech


President Kathleen McCartney, Ivy Day, May 18, 2019; All Reunion Weekend, May 25, 2019

This is my sixth Ivy Day celebration. Each year, I experience anew how moving and powerful it is to see our graduates and alumnae, dressed in white, marching together as one. This is a beautiful Smith tradition.

I am delighted to be here this morning with the great class of 2019…

And with parents, other family members, and friends…

And with the hundreds of alumnae celebrating milestone reunions. The classes of 1969, 1979, 1989, 1999 and 2009.

It is a pleasure to welcome all of you home to Smith College. 

This morning, we gather as a community to celebrate Smith....

…. To celebrate the value of a Smith education.

…. To celebrate the power of the work each of you will do throughout your lives.

….To celebrate your place in the long arc of our college’s history.

Now, to the graduates …

You have worked hard and have earned your place here today. 

Savor this moment.

Make a memory that you can carry with you in the days and months that follow.

You are part of a remarkable community of changemakers and barrier-breakers, artists and activists, teachers and scholars.

In the years ahead, you will gain strength from this community.

You will take pride in your classmates and fellow alumnae as you learn of their successes.

You will contribute to your communities and to the world. 

You will manifest the commitment that all Smithies share—working to make the world more equitable, more just.

You are Smith.

In return, this college—your college—will forever be your intellectual home ...

Last January, I attended a Smith College Business Network meeting in San Francisco. It was a popular event. There were about 140 alumnae there, all of whom were excited to hear Jenn Maer, Smith class of 1993, who is a design director at IDEO. 

To give us an idea about the design thinking process, Jenn included an exercise in her presentation. She began by asking us to work in pairs with someone we didn’t know. I turned around and said to the young alumna seated behind me, “Guess you are stuck with me.” And she was a good sport about it.

Then Jenn asked us to think about the last big item each of us had bought. Our task was to ask our partners five questions about why they had made the purchase.

When it was my turn to share, I told my partner about a new a rug. Her first “why” question was straightforward: Why did you buy the rug? I told her that my husband, Bill, and I were furnishing a new home in Newburyport, Massachusetts.

Why this particular rug? she wanted to know. I told her it was love at first sight for us, a handmade Indian rug with pale blues, grays and creams. As soon as we saw it, we thought, this will provide the right mood for the family room — calm and natural.

Her third question was one several friends have also asked us: Why did you buy the house now when you are living in the President’s House at Smith? I shared that our two daughters live in towns near Newburyport, and each is expecting a second baby this summer. Bill and I want to be able to visit our grandchildren and help our daughters without crowding them and their families.

Why Newburyport? she wondered. I explained that Newburyport is bounded by the Atlantic Ocean to the east. I envision many walks by the ocean when I retire.

Why is the ocean so special to you? she queried with genuine interest. And then a sentence popped of my mouth that surprised me. I confided that when I leave this world I know I will miss walks by the beach.

A good friend of mine recently took a job after several years of retirement. When I asked him what motivated his return to work, he replied, How many beach walks can you take? For me, the answer is simple: an infinite number.

Jenn’s exercise was a great introduction to the creative process of design thinking. I went from describing a rug purchase to identifying an existential practice that matters deeply to me, all in five seemingly simple questions.

After I answered the last question, I began to reflect on why I love beach walks so much. After a few steps on the sand, I feel at peace. I don’t think about what to make for dinner or how many emails are in my inbox. Instead, I am focused on the rhythm of the waves, which breathe in and out in a predictable cadence; the ever-shifting sunlight on the surface of the water; and the ripples in the sand beneath my feet created by the last receding tide. 

Any walk can be a meditation. It isn’t that I had never thought about this before; rather, it’s that my understanding seemed deeper somehow after the design thinking exercise.

Love of nature is a familiar enough concept. Scientists describe the desire for humans to connect with the natural world as biophilia. The beauty of mountains, pastures, plains, and the sea disrupts the chaos of modern life and provides us with what T.S. Eliot called “a still point in a turning world.” [Harrison, p. 42]. 

Last year, while walking by the Mill River near campus, I tweeted a photo with a two-word caption: “forest bathing,” the Japanese concept of immersing oneself in nature. Many of my followers resonated with this tweet. Even if you have never heard the phrase, forest bathing, it sounds renewing, doesn’t it?

There is an abundance of research to support the thesis that time spent in the natural world elevates our mood. Although the mechanism for this phenomenon is unclear, physicians have speculated about it. Neurologist and author Oliver Sacks [2019] described the impact of nature in this way — we find “ourselves simultaneously calmed and reinvigorated, engaged in mind, refreshed in body and spirit.” 

When poets write about nature, they do so with their characteristic wisdom. Here is a favorite of mine by Wendell Berry called “The Peace of Wild Things.”

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of the wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

I love the juxtaposition between peace and wild things, a rhetorical device to highlight the unexpected. We don’t typically connect the words “peace” and “wild”; yet, the wildness of nature engenders peace. 

Humans attempt to create this kind of peace deliberately in their homes when they design and build gardens. Our new home in Newburyport has a very small backyard, so Bill and I have been watching episodes of the British television series Big Dreams, Small Spaces to get some ideas. When I daydream now, I think of what we will plant. Perhaps lilies of the valley, a favorite of my mother. Perhaps wisteria, which graces the President’s House here at Smith. Perhaps holly bushes so we will have color and greenery in the winter. 

Last year, a student taking a course in landscape studies dropped by my office hours to ask me about the new garden by the President’s House. She wanted to know how it came to be. The truth is that I was an easy mark when the former director of the Botanic Garden showed me plans for a formal garden overlooking Paradise Pond. An alumna, who is a noted landscape architect, once referred to the pond as “the beating heart of Smith’s landscape.” Clearly, this view deserved a garden.

From time to time, people stop to tell me how much they enjoy this new garden, which Eliot Chase Nolan, class of 1954, funded and named for her mother Beatrice Oenslager Chase, class of 1928. Beatrice’s nickname was Happy, so Smith now has the Happy Chase Garden, a perfect name for the space. 

When I told the student about how good it felt to have played a small role in the creation of this garden, she recommended I read a book, titled Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition by Robert Pogue Harrison. Harrison argues that cultivation of the soil and cultivation of the spirit are co-natural. 

In April, when my brother-in-law, David, learned he only had weeks to live, he told my husband and me: “I hope I live to see my redbud tree bloom one last time.” Earlier in the year, I had read an essay by Rachel Clarke [2018], a palliative care physician, about life’s last moments. Her advice to the dying and their loved ones is to open a window because, in her words, “just nature is enough.” Her patients yearn for fresh air, for a blackbird’s song, and for flowers — one described seeing “the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be” from his window. Perhaps we yearn for nature when we die as we struggle to separate from the physical world.

And perhaps I was channeling this essay somehow when I confided to my design thinking partner the importance of beach walks for me.  

When I meet with students and alumnae, one of my “why” questions for them is always, “Why did you decide to study at Smith?” For so many of you, it was the beauty of the landscape that drew you here. Smith is defined by a profound sense of place. So many of you use the same metaphor to describe the experience of being on this campus — it grounds you. 

A phrase in the last line of Wendell Berry’s poem is poignant — “grace of the world.” Grace renews us. The peace and wildness of this campus renews us. You sensed this on your first visit, just as you sense it today. 

Students, as you prepare to leave us, I hope you will reflect on your many walks through campus, especially the quiet ones, when you ambled to your house, arm in arm with a friend. 

As the alumnae know, you are always welcome to return to this place you once called home, where the pond, the shaded paths and the mountains will be waiting for you.

Thank you.