Dear friends, before you read this, you should know that when I first started this post months ago, it was literally a fluffy little bit about the annoyances of successive household breakdowns. But when I came back to the post today, like a character in a novel under construction, it took me in an entirely different direction.
I once worked with a sweet, genial lady named Betty, who had a fair amount of cryptic wisdom about life, especially when it came to the everyday annoyances that can drive a person bat-you-know-what crazy. When I complained to her that my dishwasher was on the fritz, and the hot water heater was acting up, she said, with her usual understated good humor, “Everybody knows that appliances talk to each other. One goes bad, and then they all go down, like the Queen of Heart’s cards.”
Betty’s life hadn’t been easy—she’d been a relatively young widow—but she was proud of the fact that she’d soldiered through. She adored her family and circle of friends, her little brick house, and her near vintage “Caddy”. When I started at the small performing arts organization, she was probably at least five years past typical retirement age. Her job was selling tickets, produced and numbered at the local printery and sold through the mail (not an uncomplicated process) and to walk-ins. Back then, fully computerized ticketing was nothing but a gleam in Mr. Ticketmaster’s eye. And just so that you know how old school it was, we added a postage meter and a credit card imprinter during my tenure.
In the course of business of any small nonprofit, there are plenty of opportunities for exasperation and more than enough fatigue to go around. With only two full-time employees—Betty was part-time—we were in a continuous and often maddening, state of triage. I remember dragging thirty sacks of sorted bulk mail across the icy street to my car, parked over a block away, in the only spot cleared of snow, to take to the post office. There was constant pressure to sell out the house and keep fragile finances under control. And there were the usual interactions with programs, performers, venues, press, and so forth.
But I digress; this isn’t about me. It’s about Betty.
The thing about Betty was that amidst the chaos, she NEVER got rattled. I often wondered how she kept that collected smile with a veritable army of folks and circumstances always after her time and attention. She never got upset or took exception—with the customer, the staff, the board, or anyone else. At the same time, she was consistently undervalued by board leadership and sometimes dismissed as less than competent. I defended her, thinking it just plain stupid to be dismissive not only of someone so reliable who got the job done, but also one who’d taken it upon herself to know every single major donor, and every single season ticket-holder. And when they called, sometimes from thousands of miles away, to a person they asked for Betty. They thought she was the bee’s knees.
In my last few months with the organization, Betty did decide to retire. The board president, who was to be away on her last day, demurred from doing anything official, so I took matters into my own hands. I ordered goodies, which I paid for myself (possibly with help from others, though I honestly don’t remember) and invited board members and volunteers to come to the office to wish her well. I claim nothing heroic here–it was simply unconscionable to me that her many years of service would effectively have been ignored. Besides, I was already on thin ice because I’d briefly traded my mingling with the donors duty to take over the box office so that Betty could go through the concert hall and say her goodbyes. It should be noted that I was a bit of a maverick in the executive director’s chair, sometimes unwittingly, sometimes intentionally, violating tradition or long held practice with a more pragmatic approach or decision. Still, I had brought the organization around financially, after several years of accumulated deficit.
That afternoon in the office, at Betty’s modest farewell reception, people stopped in to wish her well. Betty greeted them graciously, with her characteristic lovely smile and her calm and open heart.
Betty knew what matters. What she taught me was not to underestimate, in the work place or anywhere else, the value of being kind and keeping your cool. In those days, I was in an ongoing state of frustrated stress, which I mostly internalized. Betty showed me by example the value of letting go, of equanimity (“Keep calm and carry on” is no joke). I wasn’t fully receptive to her uncomplicated wisdom for several more years, but eventually it took hold. Neither I nor science can ever be entirely certain, but my guess is that such a focus probably makes for a happier person, a more productive worker, and perhaps even a longer life.