My graduate school advisors would not clear me to begin my research on Schoharie County agriculture before I could proficiently discuss the nature of truth. Was I a positivist, one who believes that truth can be known, most often through quantification, and therefore predicted and controlled? Or was I more of a naturalist, who believed that truth exists in the eyes of the teller? Or was I more of a critical theorist, one who believed that truth is the story that we tell based on our interests and agendas?
On this Saturday morning, standing in the cafe weeping as I pull a pan of burned chocolate chip cookies from the oven, sixteen years after defending my dissertation, I am still unsure of where I stand on the nature of truth.
My family thinks this bad day began when I burned the cookies. But it started before that. It started with my inquiry after the truth around 4 am, when I sat down to do payroll and review the farm numbers. Again. There was a time when those numbers looked good… When they seemed achievable, satisfactory. But this morning, at 4am, when I was trying to figure out how the bills will be paid, suddenly the numbers, black and white as they’ve always been, were menacing. At 4am, I became a positivist, studying the quantifiable facts: Employees get paid. Feed bills and butchers and repairmen get paid. Utilities get paid. Farmers don’t get paid. And I promised Saoirse an extra week at summer camp backpacking. And we hit a deer driving home two nights earlier, and the front end of our car went skidding down the road. And my siblings all have six figure incomes and pensions and savings.… And my feet are tired from standing on them for twelve hours the day before, and I face another twelve hours today, and another twelve tomorrow. …And for the last six months we’ve subsisted on our savings. And everyone else seems over-worked, too.
In grad school, I believed truth to be more in the eyes of the beholder. In this moment, truth is hard, objective, and cruel. It is in the numbers, and the numbers are telling me that I’ve made some major miscalculations.
So I burn the chocolate chip cookies. But it doesn’t stop there. I make too much custard for the quiche. I’m full of miscalculations. I try to fit it in the dish anyhow. I open the oven door, lift the quiche to put it in, and it pours out all over the cooktop, down my front, across the floor. No matter how hard I try to stand still, the raw quiche keeps sloshing. Which, of course, makes me cry more, after letting loose a string of obscenities. Tears and invectives incite their own undulation, which, of course, sloshes the quiche more. I make it to the open oven doors, which by now have been open far too long, causing me to fret about the electric bill. I slide the quiche in, only to have even more of it spill out, burning to the door and insides of the oven.
Bob leaves for the farmers market, fearful to abandon me to run the cafe in my state, fearful not to go to the farmers’ market to help our cash flow situation. Soon after he leaves, Justin from Green Wolf comes in to take his seat at the counter. I look up through the pass-through window to see Mom, Saoirse and Ula making X’s across their necks, warning him not to speak, not to call out for anything, not to come say hello to me. I see Ula mouth two words: “Play dead!”
I look back down at the croissants on the counter, and begin brushing them with egg wash, pretending I don’t see, thankful my family has buffered me from the humiliation of crying in front of my friend. I feel stupid. Why didn’t I just take the Ph.D. and get a teaching job with a paycheck and summers off? Why didn’t I go to work for an NGO? Why, at 43, am I standing in the back of a cafe on a Saturday morning, wondering how the hell I’m going to pay for my daughters’ summer camp and the insurance deductible, let alone build myself a nest egg? I was a smart girl. How did I make so many stupid decisions?
The phone rings. I pick it up. It’s a wrong number, and the crabby old man on the other end takes his anger out on me. “You sound dumb!” he shouts over the line before he hangs up on me. If that doesn’t just say it all.
I need to talk myself out of this. I remind myself that this is not a high-profit corporation. It’s merely a subsistence empire. And even if I don’t get paid, my family still eats. We still have a roof. We still have firewood. I remind myself that I’m healthy, that my family’s healthy. That I love them. I remind myself that I don’t want to be anywhere else on a Saturday morning, other than the heart of West Fulton, cooking for my neighbors and friends. I bring Justin’s breakfast and set it in front of him. He doesn’t ask me to explain. He doesn’t ask me to speak. I know he goes through it with Green Wolf, too. He just hugs me, pretends he doesn’t see the tears in the corner of my eyes, and lets me go back to my kitchen.
And a couple hours later, Bob comes back from the farmers’ market. And together we clean the kitchen and wipe down the counters and we talk about our separate days. And it’s all okay again. The money troubles haven’t gone away, but we’re doing what we want. We’re spending our lives with people we want to be with, in a place we want to be in. Money, I think, is the only thing we don’t have. And it’s the thing we need the least.
Sunday at the cafe is lovely. The pace is easy, the cookies are perfect, the quiche doesn’t slosh, the customers are relaxed and happy, and those problems on Saturday morning seem to have disappeared. Some customers who visited the day before figured out who my mystery hate caller was. They went and found him, then come back in to tell me they chastised him for being mean. And he’s sorry. I am able to laugh.
I am back to singing through my day.
A few days later, replaying this roller coaster of emotions, I feel like some kind of manic farm wife: certain all is failing one minute, certain that all is well the next. And I am back to wondering about the truth once more. Which perspective is true: The one where the farm can’t make it? Or the one where we have what we need? I’m trying to get my head wrapped around the conundrum while the four of us wash up after supper one night. Ula, clearing dishes while sporting not one, but two tutus, starts singing that old Eurythmics song Sweet Dreams.
Sweet dreams are made of these
Who am I to disagree?
I travel the world and the seven seas
Everybody’s looking for something…
I start singing along with her, jumping in on the background chorus:
Hold your head up
Keep your head up, movin’ on
Hold your head up
Keep your head up, movin’ on
Soon we’re searching for it over the internet, blasting it on the stereo. Dishes are forgotten. Counters are forgotten. The cafe is forgotten. The ledger is forgotten. We’re dancing. I’m watching her double tutus swirl as I spin and gyrate my hips. I’m happy.
Because, unwittingly, she’s once again shown me the answer. There is no truth. There are only dreams. In some dreams, there is never enough, and there is only failure. In another dream, there is abundance. And each day, each hour even, I may find myself in a different dream on this adventure.
But I’ve chosen the adventure. I’ve turned my back on the steady paychecks, the pensions, the predictability, because I wanted the thrills, the pleasures, the challenges. And without the bad dreams, the good dreams wouldn’t be so fantastic. It doesn’t really matter what I have at the end. What matters is all the dreams I got along the way.
The next morning, I wake up and sit back down to stare at those cold, hard numbers once again. I remember one set of numbers that I forgot to record. I write them down, and suddenly we’re in the black again. Feeling celebratory in this dream, I write myself a paycheck.