I gaze out the side window as Mom drives me home from the train station. The girls are in the back. Bob rides with Dad. Technically, I’m still on vacation. I shouldn’t have to think about what she’s saying. I shouldn’t even have to listen to her.
“I think we need to open the cafe on Saturday mornings.”
No. I closed the cafe. We made enough money. It wouldn’t be profitable to try and run it every week right now. And…Damn it, winter is MY time.
“Shannon, if I walked in the door to check on something while you were gone, at least three people would come out of their houses and follow me in.”
“They can get their food at the monthly open houses.”
“That’s not what they want.”
Three people is hardly justification for opening the doors to a business, heating the space, doing food prep, staffing the coffee bar, and then cleaning up.
Those are sound, rational reasons to keep the store and cafe locked up until the Thanksgiving turkeys are ready to be sold. But there’s a bigger reason thrumming around in my belly, pulling at my heart, causing my breath to come in short spurts.
“It’s the novel, Mom.” I finally spill it out. “If I’m tied up with the cafe, how am I supposed to finish the novel?”
She doesn’t laugh. She doesn’t call attention to the fact that I’ve been working on it for three years already. She doesn’t point out that it will likely never generate a dime for our family.
“I’ll run it. You can stay home Saturdays and have your time.”
“You can’t work the espresso machine.” It’s true. She’s tried. But it manages to baffle, burn and frustrate her to no end, sending her running from the coffee bar in fear and disgust.
“We’ll just open the store.”
“Why don’t you do a survey?” I’m home now. Kate is standing on the front porch, her Millennial sensibilities are in gear while I ponder my mom’s argument. “Survey Monkey. See what people want. Then we’ll know.”
Brilliant. So I send it out.
The majority of our customers, as I expected, would only come once per month if we were open through the winter. A few of them mention that they would come twice per month. A tiny handful tell us they want to come in weekly.
The survey is anonymous, but I can name that handful without a second thought. And they want coffee. They’re not coming in to load up on pot roasts and wool blankets.
I spend the next several days thinking about that handful. They’re our neighbors. They need a place to sit on a winter morning, to share a story, to read the paper, to read a book. One of them, Justin, who runs Green Wolf Brewing Company just down the hill in Middleburgh, needs to write a book.
Justin adopted the cafe as his writing home late last summer. The county is relying on him for his beer. It tastes wonderful, the brewery has managed to stay family friendly and provides a much needed gathering spot, and it has given our community something to be proud of. But great beer is a lot more fun to brew and share when a brewmasters’ inner novelist is sated.
We are in a creative conflict, Justin and I. He wants the cafe open to write his novel. I want the cafe closed to write my novel.
And I don’t know if the people sitting at either of our bars are aware just how critical those novels are to the flavor of their beer and coffee, or for the ongoing viability of their local economy.
I couldn’t work in my family’s business without being a writer. I don’t think Neil Driscoll, our neighbor over the mountain who has a perennial and landscaping business, could run his enterprise without painting and playing the banjo. Cornelia couldn’t run Panther Creek Arts without practicing her bassoon several hours a day. Ryan, her nephew, a stone mason ten minutes’ walk from the cafe, is starting a cidery, and is an internationally known Irish musician.
So often we assume that the creative arts are only at home in the cities. I once had an urbanite customer in publishing tell me that my writing career would go nowhere so long as I wasn’t in Manhattan “doing lunch,” investing myself full-time in my craft. If an artist relocates to the country, we often believe it is only because he or she “made it” elsewhere, and now has the luxury of moving here.
But truthfully, I think the creative arts, done in tandem with other businesses, are integral to survival in a rural economy. And while I don’t pull a full livelihood off of my writing, I know that Sap Bush Hollow wouldn’t be where it is today if I quelled that part of me.
My writing keeps me interested in my business. The work of story telling helps me make sense of the conflicts and tensions. It helps me keep learning. It helps me lighten my views, to see business bookkeeping as a puzzle-like reprieve from my more intense creative work, rather than a drudge. The fact that I write makes Sap Bush Hollow Farm feel fresh and interesting every day.
Knowing this, I feel like my winter writing sabbatical is crucially important.
But by the same logic, I now realize that my winter writing sabbatical could jeopardize the future of good beer in Schoharie County. If Justin can’t satisfy this part in his soul, will he be able to continue is passion for his other business?
There is so often talk about every writer’s dream of penning The Great American Novel. Maybe we’ve got it turned around. Maybe it’s the novels that can make America great. They percolate inside us, balancing our lives between creativity and entrepreneurship.
To make sense of it all, I have one more important memory to call on. It was the spring of 2004. Farming and new parenthood and writing felt like more than I could handle. I couldn’t quit parenting, of course. And I wanted more than anything to be a writer. So I tried to quit farming.
In my mind, I broke away. I would be a professional, full-time writer. I would stay close to the family farm, but I wouldn’t be part of the business.
The idea lasted about 4 days before I wound up on the floor of my studio in a weeping puddle of despair, at a loss of how to move forward in the world as an artist, without the substance of my family’s livelihood to inform and inspire it. To write, I needed to link sausages, render fat, wrap steaks, talk to customers.
Sap Bush Hollow Farm needed my writing.
But my writing also needed Sap Bush Hollow Farm.
In that case, I wonder if it’s possible that my winter writing project could benefit from pulling a few shots on Saturday mornings, from chatting with a few more people, from a little extra baking, a little more time spent cleaning floors and wiping down equipment.
Maybe I’m not at creative odds with Justin. Maybe, to finish our latest projects, we both need the cafe to open for a few hours each week.
So I hope I’ll see some of you at the cafe next Saturday morning.