I never anticipated such nasty language erupting from such a nice lady’s mouth.
Her daughter just moved to the area, and they had come in to see what the cafe was like. As I cleared their plates, she told me about the years she and her husband had run a restaurant. “It was fun,” she told me, “I loved the baking and the cooking.” Then she frowned. “But it was just too hard. We worked 17 hour days.”
I stood still, balancing the plates in my hands, listening to every word.
“But it’s not the same for you, is it?” She pushed her memories aside and joined the present, waving her arms around our tiny dining area. “You just do this on weekends. You do it for a hobby.”
That word. My mouth opens and closes like a fish, trying to formulate a response. “Well, maybe not a ‘hobby,’ exactly,” I begin, remembering the last time those words were used in our establishment. It was back in the fall.
One of our veteran customers of over twenty years, Kathy, looked at the newcomers who dared utter it. “Hobby?” She laughed. “You call this a hobby? Do you see the meat for sale in the freezer? Do you see the eggs? This family grew it all. Do you see the blankets and yarn over there? It’s made from the wool of these people’s sheep. Do you see all those things for sale over in the corner? The salves? The soap? The candles? They made all of it from their animals, from their bee’s honey and wax.” She picked up her bags from the counter, turned to leave, and gave one last shake of her head. “No. Just because a business isn’t open all the time doesn’t mean it’s a hobby.”
I wish I had Kathy with me now to explain all this. Kathy has enough distance from the word to keep a cool head when responding to it. I can’t say the same. Hobby is a word that has plagued me most of my life.
From the time I was five years old, Sap Bush Hollow Farm defined my world: how I thought about food, how I thought about the land, how I thought about neighbors, how I spent my time, how I interacted with my family. But when I left the farm gate, something changed. Sap Bush Hollow was referred to as a “hobby farm.” I heard it referenced that way in school I heard it when I started working. I heard it in college and grad school. It was as though the very definition of my life and world view was not to be taken seriously.
Hobby, to me, suggests the propietors of a business give themselves permission to not try so hard. Maybe they even give themselves permission to fail. And that interpretation, naturally, puts my stomach in knots.
I used to think the word “hobby” was used because my parents had off-farm jobs until they built the business up enough to leave them. But when I did my graduate research on farming in the area, I learned that all the farms that I worked with had at least one source of off-farm income. When I tied that finding with historical research, I realized that farms, by their very nature, were basically the family catch-all for a diversity of income streams: crop sales, livestock sales, egg sales, butter sales, weaving, spinning, day work, custom work, craft work. Hence, if the use of the word “hobby” suggests “outside income,” then all farms in our area, from our first settlements forward,would be “hobby farms.”
Maybe people use the word “hobby” when a business doesn’t conform to convention. Maybe, because our county was rife with dairy farms, Sap Bush Hollow was designated a hobby farm because we produced sheep. Maybe when people see a cafe or a storefront, they assume it should be open every day. So if it doesn’t meet that expectation, well then, it must be a hobby, too Right?
I studder and stammer a response to the woman, trying to draw on Kathy’s example by pointing out all that we produce for the cafe, by explaining that I also homeschool my kids, by mentioning that I also write books. I can tell she doesn’t hear me, that she’s already decided what we are. And I hate what I’m saying anyhow. Because I’m trying to justify the cafe’s limited hours by suggesting I’m just as busy as everyone else. It’s a universal justification for an action: to be working just as hard (or harder) as everyone else. And that’s excactly what I’m trying not to do.
I wish I could be more articulate in these situations. I wish I could slide a cup of Joe over to her, sit down across the table, and say exactly what goes through my mind:
This is not a hobby. What looks like a hobby from the outside is actually a carefully considered plan to help re-write the economic foundation of our country. Working 17 hours a day to keep a restaurant or a farm afloat is not a viable business model. And while plenty people do it, I don’t want to, and I want to create a world where that isn’t necessary. I want to create a world where families can stay together, even if that’s in a rural area where there aren’t many jobs. That family should be able to enjoy each other, and have a great quality of life. That family should be able to create their own livelihood from the careful stewardship of the community’s resources, and in that process, they should not feel overworked or economically stressed. They should be able to spend time playing and enjoying each other’s company. The work should be so joyful, it can hardly be separated from play. It should challenge our minds, make use of our creative energy, and excite us so much that we launch out of bed in the morning to pursue it. But there needs to be rest: time to step away, to change our views, to see the world outside, or to just lay still and listen to the sounds of the seasons. And the current economy, with its time-thievery, disregard for the planet, achievement-fixation and obsession with perpetual growth, needs to fall away. I’m doing my part to dismantle it.
I don’t have these words for her. I don’t think she was ready to hear them anyhow. And maybe, truly, it doesn’t matter. Maybe I can let time tell the story. If we stay in business, stay happy, keep having fun, and keep thrilling in life, the lesson can sink in on its own. Maybe next time I can just smile and say “call it what you like. We’re having a blast and life is good.”