The Untold Story of a Little Town with a Big Heart and a Lot of Sole

Rural communities are suffering. Highways bypass historic downtowns, big box stores cannibalize revenues from local retailers, and there are limited employment options, forcing young people to leave in search of opportunity. These issues are not unique to rural areas, but are exacerbated there by the lack of a critical population mass, and more piecemeal and sporadic services and resources. In some places, “homecomers” have led the way back to the rural communities where they were raised. Many communities are expanding high speed broadband and e-connectivity resources to improve education, health care, and business opportunities. And some communities band together to painstakingly plan for renewal by focusing on the vital role of their most historic structures in anchoring their past while launching a new future.

The Industrial Revolution spurred the creation out of farmland or forest of many of our nation’s cities and towns. Factories sprung up along the shores of powerful rivers to capitalize on the harnessed hydropower. Immigrants in search of work flocked to what, at the time, were outposts of civilization, eventually building homes and a community around their livelihoods. Homes, churches, performance halls, and other civic institutions emerged from the wildlands.

For a time, the paper industry of Millinocket, ME; the appliance and railroad industries of Fort Wayne, IN; the textiles of Lawrence, MA; the shoes of North Brookfield, MA; and the steel, textile, and tanneries of North Philadelphia, PA, to name just a few, thrived. But then manufacturing practices became more mechanized. Companies found cheaper labor in the southern U.S. or abroad. Demand for paper declined. More modern manufacturing facilities evolved and the original production methods and buildings became obsolete.

Slowly, insidiously, the industries that had built these cities, towns, and neighborhoods shuttered their doors, moving elsewhere or closing entirely. What remains are vacant mill buildings, deteriorating opera houses, empty storefronts – the dilapidated, decaying nucleus of the country’s manufacturing communities. What happens when the primary source of employment evaporates but a community has set down roots and traditions; has built ornate civic structures, but doesn’t have the resources to maintain them? When the city or town itself loses its spark and stagnates? And when it barely recovers from the last recession before the next one begins?

According to the Economic Innovation Group’s 2018 Distressed Communities Report, recovery from the most recent recession has been unevenly distributed. Since the 1990s, there has been an “intensifying ruralization of distress,” said John Lettieri, EIG’s president. The challenges facing rural America are complex and stubborn and difficult to solve. At the same time, our current “period of national prosperity is our chance to reinvest in communities and rekindle the economy’s dynamic forces.” (EIG report)

A new future requires some sort of catalyst to forge forward out of stagnation. What is it that finally ignites revitalization in some communities, while others continue to languish? I have a few theories after two decades working in real estate analysis and community development. One is an engaged and competent local government. Another is a devoted group of local citizens with a strong leader. A cohesive vision and implementable plan, both with short- and long-term goals, is critical. Usually success takes years of coordinated effort between local and state government and committed volunteers. Surely sprinkled in there is a bit of luck and good timing.

In North Brookfield, MA, a rural community of 4,800 people about 25 minutes from Worcester and 60 miles west of Boston, residents and town leaders have rallied around the historic Townhouse as the focal point for their community’s redevelopment efforts. Designed by Eldridge Boyden, a locally accomplished architect, the Townhouse was one of the first public spaces in this country built in the French Second Empire and Italianate styles. The building was constructed in 1864, and served as a hub of political, cultural, and community activity for the broader region.

Then times changed. The Batcheller Shoe Company closed in the early 1900s, and with that and the evolution of retail towards big box stores and online shopping most of the family-owned businesses in downtown North Brookfield also eventually closed. Currently, the almost 14,500 square foot Townhouse is vacant, and the main street is quiet. The Bell Tower was damaged in Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 and determined to be structurally unsound.

But North Brookfield is a small, tight-knit community with a ton of heart. Manufacturing continues on a smaller scale, with Vibram, the Italian shoe sole company, operating the former Quabog Corporation rubber manufacturing plant across the street from the Townhouse. The Friends of the North Brookfield Townhouse, a non-profit group brimming with volunteers, ideas, and passion, was organized over a decade ago with the mission of preserving and renovating the Townhouse to re-establish it as the center of civic, political, social, and cultural activities. The Friends and the town have worked arduously to preserve the building, hiring a local craftsman to replace the Bell Tower in 2014 and, in 2015, thanks to state funding, securing the building from water infiltration by replacing the roof, windows, dormers and gutters.

Among many other initiatives, including applying for and being awarded an allocation of historic tax credits to help finance a renovation, in the fall of 2018 the Friends facilitated the painting of the building’s exterior. They collected donations for all of the supplies, and brought in lunch daily for the workers, a number of whom were prisoners from the Worcester County Sheriff’s office work release program. Townspeople passing by would see what was happening and stop to ask how they could help. Some literally picked up a paintbrush and worked for a couple of days, some gave money for supplies, while others brought chocolate chip cookies, brownies or homemade pumpkin bread to share. There was no cost to the town. The results speak for themselves.

The Townhouse is a building with high emotional content. It has the capacity to stir one’s soul. In the traditional metrics of market conditions, it’s a challenge and the Friends will need financial support from grants to private donations to pull it off. But not everything that is worthwhile in life is quantifiable. In fact, I would argue, that the things that matter most have no intrinsic monetary value – like community, integrity, hard work, passion, and hope. The town of North Brookfield has these in spades. The Townhouse is a center piece of the town architecturally and a vital link between its past and its future. That future is being constructed with vision and dedication, strong leadership, and a plan based in solid fundamentals that will capture the imagination of the town and the region. Maybe sprinkled with a bit of luck for good measure.

Welcome to North Brookfield – the heart and sole of Massachusetts!

“Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be…”
― from William Wordsworth’s Ode: Intimations of Immortality

“Let me tell you the secret that has led to my goal. My strength lies solely in my tenacity.” – Louis Pasteur 

The Unsung Solution to Climate Change

The top solution for reducing climate change probably isn’t what you think. I am an avid outdoorsperson and have been a proponent of sustainable development and living lightly on the land for decades. But I missed one big factor in considering our environmental impact entirely until relatively recently. During all my years thinking about environmental issues and solutions, I thought very directly and narrowly about the more obvious aspects of the environment from pollution to deforestation.

I have had an epiphany in my thinking about environmental priorities lately, as well as long-term solutions. Project Drawdown, founded by author, entrepreneur, and environmentalist Paul Hawken in 2014, maps, measures, and models the most substantive solutions to stop global warming, and communicates those findings to the world. Project Drawdown researchers published a list of their top solutions to climate change. It’s not recycling more and it’s not riding your bike everywhere or giving up your car – though doing more recycling and less driving aren’t bad ideas either.

What is it? It’s educating girls. If you look at their list of solutions, you will see Educating Girls listed as number 6 and Family Planning listed as number 7. If you combine the total atmospheric CO2-EQ reduction (GT) of these two solutions, which has been arbitrarily split in half by the list-makers, it climbs to the top of the list.

By chance, at the same time this solutions list came across my plate, I had just read The Education Crisis: Being in School is Not the Same as Learning. To quote the article, “Global experience shows us that countries that have rapidly accelerated development and prosperity all share the common characteristic of taking education seriously and investing appropriately.”

This data amplifies the power and importance of what I witnessed at the MAIA Impact School in Sololá, Guatemala. MAIA is an incubator of best practices in education from all over the world. The approach is community-based and culturally appropriate. And they are completely open source, sharing their knowledge and experience with 30 local organizations per year.

I am a little late to the party in figuring this out, but it is abundantly clear that education is the fundamental tool to unlocking the chains of systemic poverty and catalyzing positive, long-term change in communities across the world. Incredibly, by investing in something that is intrinsically good, we simultaneously reduce our impact on the environment. For $250 per month (or about $8 per day), a Guatemalan girl can attend the Impact School, becoming a stronger, more empowered and more self-sufficient individual, while leading the way towards a stable and sustainable future for both her country and our world. That is a transformative, life-altering and life-affirming impact. That is the kind of investment that makes the world a substantially better place – for everyone.

“The schools of the future are being built today. These are schools where all teachers have the right competencies and motivation, where technology empowers them to deliver quality learning, and where all students learn fundamental skills, including socio-emotional, and digital skills. These schools are safe and affordable to everyone and are places where children and young people learn with joy, rigor, and purpose.” – World Bank

#maiaimpact #educationmatters #investinpeople

 

Can Your Skin Cream Transform Your Mind?

“Our teachers weren’t kidding when they said we’d take lots of walks and that people in the villages are very content to do nothing. No plans, nothing. I thought I’d handle that well because I, too, like to do nothing. But I only really do nothing for brief interludes during the day, in between finding something else to do. When I sit and knit, read, write letters, make necklaces, etc., I consider that pretty much doing nothing. Here they just sit. It’s not an easy lifestyle to adjust to.” – me, March 2, 1996

I had to laugh when I read this journal entry from my village homestay in Madagascar. In the U.S. we live in a culture that is so go-go-go that I didn’t even recognize that my doing nothing was still doing something. That was true 20 years ago, and it remains true today. I just happen to be more aware of it now. Doing nothing and remembering to breathe are literally things I need to practice. Five minutes sitting still without my mind wandering to a hundred different items on my to-do list is impossible. Truly. Try it and you’ll see it’s not just me! “Monkey mind” is the Buddhist term for the incessant chatter and sense of unsettledness in one’s mind. It looks like this:

Monkey Mind image
This is what a monkey mind looks like; illustration by Lilian Leahy

That phrase evokes images that just crack me up, quite like this Lilian Leahy illustration. The ring-tailed lemurs shown in the following photos that I took in Madagascar also crack me up. They are very Zen. This is NOT what having a “monkey mind” looks like.

When I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis, and finally accepted it (that’s another story altogether), I considered all options for how to live my healthiest life given the cards I had been dealt. Besides doing all the regular stuff my doctor asks – take all the prescribed medications, see her every three months, have bloodwork done at the lab regularly, get exercise – I wondered if there was anything else that would help. I had two very little kids when I was diagnosed. And I love leading a busy and active life. I want to be as healthy as possible and have left no stone unturned in my quest.

Having RA has taught me many, many philosophical but also practical things about life. My diagnosis and subsequent eventual acceptance was like a massive 2×4 smacked across the head saying, “ummm, hellooooo, for real, you need to pay attention.” It has taught me about cherishing the little things in life, and not taking any day or any thing for granted. It’s like a constant anatomy lesson – yes! that pain I was wishing could be solved by a root canal is in fact a jaw joint (too bad for me). It has taught me about control, and that it turns out I am not in it. And, it has taught me about how stress and my monkey mind can be implicated in RA flares and general feelings of being overwhelmed.

After a bit of research and a lot of finagling of schedules, five years ago I enrolled in an 8-week course at the Benson Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine (BHI) at Massachusetts General Hospital. This course introduced me to the term “monkey mind,” not to mention to the fact that I have an extremely active monkey. You may have already figured that out from the sheer breadth of subjects I write about. I am not exactly focused on one thing, rarely one thing at a time, and I am passionate about many!

For the record, I am not one to buy into the concepts of meditation and relaxation easily. The term self-care makes me cringe, as do the words snuggle and cuddle (but that’s an aside). Bluck. All that touchy-feely stuff gives me the shivers. So you could say that I entered BHI skeptical at best. But I figured since I had devoted my time to this, I might as well go all in and have an open mind (pun intended).

Did my life change overnight and was my RA banished for good? No. It takes a long time to learn new habits, and the brain tends to tack back to its well-trod neural pathways. It takes effort and practice to become aware of the mind’s motivation. For me, sitting still and doing nothing were bad words. My inclination is still more towards whirling dervish than calm Buddha.

But I learned an incredible amount about how important the act of doing nothing and sitting still is for the brain. It’s a biological reality that is now backed up with MRI studies and scientific data. The scientifically validated benefits of mindfulness include: decreased stress; reduced symptoms associated with depression, anxiety disorders, pain and insomnia; an enhanced ability to pay attention; and a higher quality of life. Don’t believe me? Check out Harvard researcher Sara Lazar’s TEDx talk on the effect of meditation on the brain.

Or Dan Harris, the ABC anchor who had a panic attack on live television that led him to meditation and eventually to writing the book 10% Happier.

Personally, my most notable takeaway from the course happened on the first night. The instructor flashed a powerpoint slide that read, “If you can’t make room for exercise now, you’ll have to make room for illness later.”

I was already making room, lots of room, for illness. But I wasn’t prioritizing myself. AT ALL. This one quote completely changed the way I viewed my calendar and what was and was not negotiable on it. I began swimming and made it a permanent item on my calendar. I trained myself to take a deep breath every time I come to a stop sign or stoplight. I downloaded a million mindfulness apps (still working on pausing long enough to actually use them).

My message to you is this – skin creams may help with wrinkles and dry skin, but meditation enhances a wrinkled mind. 

Breathe. Deeply. And often. It helps.

Serenity Prayer

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

Reinhold Neibuhr