A single boot on top of a clif

Lost and Found: Living, Leading, and Teaching Beyond Fear

David SmithLeadership Lab, Leadership Programs, Pedagogy Of Leadership®, Student Leadership

It’s my great pleasure to introduce the second blog in our series by David Grant Smith. Once again, here’s to the joy and pleasure in getting lost, in feeling found, and in taking the long way home, especially after the Leadership Lab. 

It is time to live again.

Emily Tymus Ihrke
Editor, gcLi

Lesson #2: Abandon

by David Grant Smith, Dean of Students at The Roxbury Latin School in Boston, MA

The Irish writer David Whyte has a beautiful poem called “Finisterre” about the final point on the Camino de Santiago where it’s customary for pilgrims to leave their worn boots as they stand on cliffs of the Spanish littoral and stare out into the North Atlantic. The end of one journey; the start of another. 

to empty your bags; to sort this and to leave that;
to promise what you needed to promise all along,
and to abandon the shoes that had brought you here
right at the water’s edge, not because you had given up
but because now, you would find a different way to tread,
and because, through it all, part of you would still walk on,
no matter how, over the waves

What was necessary; what is no longer of use. What we willingly give up. What it’s time to surrender.

Back in November, I wrote about my own pilgrimage, a summertime sojourn to sit among the trees of the Pando aspen grove in Utah. In that post, I explored how Pando taught me about a certain type of attention. I learned another lesson there, one that has proven harder to keep, yet becomes more and more relevant as the school year unfolds. I learned something about shedding. About letting go. At Pando I observed that each paper white trunk of an aspen tree is marred by round, black scars, “eyes” where older, lower branches used to hang. I learned that to grow, aspen trees must channel food, water, and energy to newer, larger branches, gradually letting the old ones die, release from the trunk, and fall back to the earth.

Flowing water under a mountain

It is now March in New England, a suspended season when winter’s gloom still tarries, reluctant to pass us along into sun-dappled evenings and the warmth of vernal delights. Mercifully, the liturgical calendar of school life furnishes a welcome pause, a respite to embrace our exhaustion and, hopefully, to restore our energy. Yet, there is a poignancy to this time of year. March break compels us to stop and take stock. What have we yet to accomplish? What August dreams have faded? What big ideas lay dormant? What personal commitments have lapsed? This is also the time of year when we begin to anticipate change. The annual departures and shifts that announce themselves to our communities. The scramble to fill positions; the unreturned contract; the nagging revisions of roles and assignments. The struggle to anticipate and strategize and tetris our puzzles into place. The discomfort of abeyance and the tenuous hold we have over fixity. And finally, the forced confrontation with the realities of loss – of the anchors, culture keepers, and purveyors of institutional memory who will, in only two months’ time, leave us to figure out how to do this thing without their reassuring presence. 

For all of the renewal that the new season brings, in schools, springtime portends the awful weight of absence. The fear of uncertainty always impels us to cling. To hold on and wrestle into submission the unknowns we cannot control. And yet. These may be the moments that call us to stop and relinquish our clutch over well-laid plans. 

As I look into my own springtime, what I want most to relinquish now are stories. The narratives and expectations for how this whole thing is/was supposed to play out. Not to abuse or blame them. Not to regret or mourn them. But simply to abandon those tattered shoes that have got me this far. To cancel agenda and calm urgency. To let go of the shore and drift a little to places the current takes me. In a beautiful way, I suppose, whether it’s nature’s way of doing this work or the wisdom of the school calendar, I’m forced to recognize that I’m really tired of trying to hold on. My grip – my heart – is mercifully exhausted. I’m a terrible planner anyway, so I might as well stop trying to orchestrate this thing and just live in it. 

Another way to put this, another lesson of Pando: stop. Stop trying so hard. Release. Let life come.

There is nothing profound in this. Nothing new here. But it took Pando for me to hear it, and it took another school year for it to soak in. It took Pando’s way of speaking for me to listen. It’s the most resounding and perpetual lesson of the ancient wisdom traditions. Presence, that is. Deep attention. Yet, fear is so skilled at distracting us from this and numbing us to its truth, isn’t it? If, as they say, the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference, then I have come to believe that the opposite of life is not death, but distraction. And fear surely must be the greatest distraction – or call to distraction – of all. In the woods there is only sunset and sunrise. High alpine wildflowers and cold streams. Only pain and comfort. Only sorrow and joy. Cycles of life and death. Minute by minute. Hour by hour. Breath in. Breath out. Only breath in the wilderness.

A favorite band of mine, The Felice Brothers, offers a little play on words that has captivated me since the first time I heard it: 

You shall live again
You shall live again
This world is ours and all the stars
It’s like the icing on a cake of death
And the only word that rhymes is breath
We shall live again

Death and Breath. While many spiritual traditions envision some form of afterlife, as far as life on earth goes, I’m drawn increasingly to this idea of breath, or spirit, that courses through every wisdom tradition. To the resurrection (or is it rebirth?) of the soul through the death of ego-self. Through the death of plan. Through the death of story. To invite a beautiful phrase from Rebecca Solnit, I’m drawn to the death of control through the breath of a “chosen surrender.” I’m not sure that works in many other languages, but I like that it does in English. Through death comes breath. Living again right here. 

I like the idea that long ago, before we spoiled any of it, there was a still small voice that quaked through the aspen. There was a breeze that rustled through one of the world’s most ancient beings and whispered, simply this: Just be here, now. Release control. Release fear. Sit in the dark. And breathe.

“In my end is my beginning,” writes Eliot at the end of “East Coker.” And so, in March, I offer this. What good and beautiful thing is it time to abandon, to release into the wind so that you may live again? 


“Finisterre” (David Whyte)
“We Shall Live Again” (The Felice Brothers) 
From “A Field Guide to Getting Lost” (Rebecca Solnit)
“East Coker” (Eliot)

David Grant Smith serves as Dean of Students at The Roxbury Latin School in Boston, Massachusetts where he teaches courses in history, English, and health and wellness, and coaches in the lacrosse program. Prior to his time at RL, David taught at Woodberry Forest School in Orange, Virginia, and at St. Anne’s-Belfield School in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he served as Dean of Students and a Grade Level Dean. He participated in the gcLi Leadership Lab in June 2023. Whether whitewater kayaking or fly fishing, David prefers mountain streams to the beach. His Portuguese Water Dog, Binx, doesn’t discriminate, and will splash around blithely in rivers, oceans, lakes, and puddles on city streets, living into his breed. David has given up on trying to keep his truck clean.