OPEN flags are like babies. They change you for life. Just as pregnancy hormones alone started unraveling the do-good school girl in me, causing me to suddenly challenge doctors, stare down speeding cars when I approached a cross walk or stand up to pushy people; so too did the mere knowledge that the OPEN flag was coming. It led me to call for private meetings with local officials, sit down with rural development corporations, and to make cold calls to people I’d never met whose services or support I needed.
One of those people was Jason Becker, Executive VP of our local telecommunications company, Midtel (aka Middleburgh Telephone), a company that’s been in business here since 1897. I couldn’t imagine hanging a flag out stating I was open to the public without providing the internet that so many of my mountain neighbors (including myself) lacked. After one or two phone calls, I found myself sitting across a desk from Jason as we worked to make a fiber-to-the-home project that might be ten years into the future happen in less than ten months. In the process, I began to learn the inner workings of his family’s business. Our partnership deepened. While Jason understood the mechanics of telecommunications: the wires, the fiber, the service boxes, the costs; I understood the words that needed to flow through them. And the more I understood his family’s business, the more I realized they needed words — words to tell the story of how hurricanes Irene and Lee had nearly ruined their family business; words to communicate to a new generation of neighbors conditioned by major telecom corporations the value of a locally-owned public service company; words to help the public comprehend just how much the company had invested in its community beyond simple infrastructure – with private donations, one-on-one help, invisible sponsorships that I felt needed to be made public.
That’s where Jason stopped me. His grandmother Marge, in her nineties and still at the helm, wouldn’t hear of that last part. I pushed. I laid out my case. I explained the benefits. From her distance, Marge wouldn’t hear of it. “She’s 94,” Jason leans across a table at my cafe, his lips enunciating her age as though he were tasting the best chocolate cake he’d ever eaten. “She’s not going to budge on this.” We worked around it while I shook my head at her stubbornness.
The OPEN flag continues to pull back the curtain on a community where I’ve lived my whole life, leading other business owners to walk in my door, with their own plans and ideas in mind. One of them is Justin Behan, owner of Greenwolf Brewing Company, a microbrewery down in the valley whose popular brews are putting the formerly backwater village on the map. Bob and I are sitting with him in the back of his tasting room, talking about using our businesses to build community, to create safe public spaces, and to bring stability and economic hope to a place long regarded as too depressed to support future generations. We talk about cooperative marketing, about adding his beer to the cafe menu. Then Justin, who, as a business owner, has suddenly found himself a lead player in county tourism efforts, broaches the subject of the Middleburgh Area Business Association. Would I make it out to the meetings?
Bob stays quiet and watches me as I stammer and stutter. I look at my feet, look out the window, fiddle with my phone. Finally, I manage the words. “I don’t do group work.” I offer some explanation of how I’m more comfortable working one-on-one, but I don’t give him the bigger picture.
I’ve grounded myself from group work. Things happen when I join boards or organizations. I take on projects, tackle sticky human resource problems, investigate budget shortfalls, donate way more money than we can afford. If there is a battle unfolding, I step to the front lines and fight. If I see malfeasance or mismanagement, I raise the alarms and bring out the bylaws. I get stress knots in my stomach. Our family life is thrown into disarray. I can’t just join, serve a little and separate. I go until the organization drains the quality out of my life, then flee when my body and my family can no longer endure the pain.
I think it’s that last vestige of the do-good school girl in me, rearing her combed head again, waving her straight-A report card in the air who gets me into trouble. I get into a group situation, and I need to show people I’m competent. I need to be the first one to solve a problem, to show how well I can do my homework…seeking approval, always always always seeking approval from the group by stepping up and becoming a leader of it.
Justin nods with compassion at my curt refusal to attend the group meetings. He doesn’t push. But I leave feeling guilty, like I’ve let the class down, like I’ve disappointed the invisible teacher.
A few weeks later, Jason from Midtel shoots me an email. He’s coming up to West Fulton for the afternoon. He’s bringing his grandmother. She wants to meet me. I rush to the cafe in advance. We’ve just taken in a huge delivery, and I worry that there will be too much packing material on the floor for her to step, or for us to get a wheel chair through the door.
He pulls up a few minutes later in his pick up. A beautiful woman hops down from the passenger side and rushes forward to greet me, taking both of my hands in hers. She is the one who measured the pole lines when West Fulton first got phone service. And it’s because of her now that we have high speed internet. She is full of life and joy, as wrapped up in the lives of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren as she is in the life of her business, and the life of her community.
I am smitten. She is instantly a hero in my mind. She’s learned how to walk a balanced life, how to bring about great changes, how to keep herself whole, happy, healthy and vibrant. There is a lot I can learn from this woman.
It starts, I suspect, with that stubborn insistence on remaining private about her community engagement. I don’t know what she does to keep things running. She doesn’t feel compelled to tell me. I only know what she and her grandson have done with their company to bring my tiny hamlet to the bright side of the digital divide. It was a lot of infrastructure, without a guarantee of a return on investment. And in this moment, as we sit out in the sun and she takes in the cafe and asks me about the farm, she is just drinking in the joy of what has happened, the joy of meeting someone new.
And I think about the ego of the do-good school girl. She can help us earn good grades, but she can get us in over our heads. Maybe Marge’s silence on the philanthropic front is like my choice to avoid committees, boards and associations. It’s a way to keep the school girl in check. We keep working. We keep bringing change in the ways that let us stay balanced and happy, without letting our need for approval drown us in over-commitment. For me, that means I avoid the groups. She avoids the publicity. If I’m lucky, someday I’ll hop down from a pick up at the age of 94, still enjoying business and life and community, still hanging out my OPEN flag. And I’ll inspire another young woman to define her own path to change the world.