Tag Archives: passion

Guest Post: Margaret

In honor of the final weeks of summer, here’s a piece by a good friend and fellow teacher-writer, Jen Haberling.  Enjoy! ~


I didn’t know then how wise this woman was.  I didn’t realize how much her influence would permeate my own mothering.  Her sass is infamous.  Her one-liners, legendary.  And her red bikini, well, that’s another story altogether.  Margaret Ann McPhillamy Schaeffer, the youngest of13 Irish children, runs through my veins.  Her grit, her work-your-hands-to-the-bone mentality, her youthful attitude, her charisma and confidence, her competitive nature.  And sometimes even her flair for the dramatic.  I am proud to call her my grandmother.

Sharing shopping and lunch with Grandma was a tradition that my mom instituted while my sister and I were young, filling my elementary-librarian mom’s two personal days. The three of us would drive from Kalamazoo, after conspiratorily calling in “sick” to school, to meet in Grand Rapids for shopping, mostly at the ever-elegant Rogers Department Store, then head to Arnie’s for lunch, then more shopping at Woodland. I looked forward to the tradition every year, as I knew it would pad my middle school closet with Izod and Calvin Klein and ESPRIT.  That tradition had waned into my college years, though, as Mom’s cancer enveloped and finally defeated her frail body.

Grandma rarely called me, especially in my early married days, but I always looked forward to seeing her and sharing some time catching up.   It had been at least 15 years since Grandma and I had spent the day shopping and lunching.  On this day, however, it didn’t seem to be a leisurely shopping excursion she was after.  “Jen,” she said as I picked up the phone.  “Pick me up.  I have something I need to get at the store.”  The urgency in her voice led me to believe she needed a prescription refilled, or was out of milk– or maybe even out of beer.  She had lost her ability to drive in her early 90s, so I knew this must be an excursion that required a ride.

When I arrived, she met me at the top of her steps, the front door latching behind her.  She had one foot in my car before I could even greet her.  “Let’s go,” she commanded.  “I need to show those ladies at the Y a thing or two.”  I had no idea what Grandma was up to, but this didn’tseem to be about prescriptions or milk or beer.  Whatever she was up to, her competitive nature was clearly in control.  She clutched her handbag and directed me to 28th Street with curt and pointed turns, no time for chit chat.

We pulled into Rogers, walked through the haze of old-lady perfume that hung in the entrance, and headed straight to the juniors section.  This was not where I expected to go with Grandma. “Where are the swimsuits?”  Grandma asked.  I knew Grandma had a funky style all her own, but juniors-sized bathing suits?  The look on the clerk’s face following Grandma’s inquiry confirmed that I was not crazy– though Grandma might have been.  The clerk tried to steer Grandma to the older-woman section, but she would have none of it.  As she surveyed the racks lined up like summer-time soldiers before her, she demanded, “No– I don’t think you understand.  I want a red bikini.  Not an old, skirted grandma suit.  I want a spicy hot, resort-style, red bikini.  I have to show those ladies at the Y that I still have it.”

As she plucked three or four hangers from the rack, she invited me into the dressing room to help her select just the right style.  These were no modest tankinis.  They revealed more about my grandmother than I had ever seen.  As she adjusted her voluptuous bosom into the cups two handfuls at a time, she added a running commentary warning about the dangers of thinking oneself old, mingled with the wisdom of staying in shape.  “It’s all in your outlook, Jen,”  she reminded.  “You are only as old as you think you are.”   This was one of Grandma’s many mantras.  She kept pace with women a third her age, swimming daily and walking everywhere.  Her vanity revealed itself in her Este Lauder skin care regimen and embarrassment when anyone saw her hair prior to a proper combing.

I will never forget the look on that clerk’s face as she up-downed my 93-year-old grandma at the register, handing over the Baywatch-style, ruby-colored scraps of fabric.  I was clearly more self-conscious about this purchase than my grandma.  The clerk’s confused grimace haunted me all the way home, until I had time to call my sister and relay the unbelievable story, celebrating this vivacious woman who was the matriarch of our family, who I would later come to admire instead of question.

The notorious red bikini.  Like Grandma,it’s a story that will live on in the collective McPhillamy history.  It makes appearances at nearly every funeral or cousin gathering.  I’m sure she did show those ladies at the Y a thing or two– probably more than they wanted to see.  And she certainly showed me how to live well, to embrace myself, to walk confidently and to wear the red bikini with flair.


weeds image

A couple of years ago we purchased my husband’s childhood home from his parents. I love the sprawling backyard that overlooks a farm – waking to the pink light of the sun rising over the field, the distant sound of a tractor, the wild turkey that pecks and scurries around our landscape, the old maple trees that stretch and provide shade.

I especially love all this when I’m not distracted by the weeds popping up out of the ground cover and those big patches of dirt where we took out the old shrubs and haven’t gotten around to re-planting anything yet.

One late, summer afternoon my husband came home from work to find me irritable and pulling weeds with my youngest son crying at my ankles. “We’ve got to do something about this yard,” I griped as a warm welcome-home greeting. He looked up casually and calmly said, “Well, our choices are to care or not to care.”

He’s so level-headed, steady, and full of common sense that it sometimes makes me crazy.

During the 10 years I visited this home before it became mine, I never once noticed a weed in the backyard. I once asked my mother-in-law if they were there. They were. They just didn’t torment me until they became mine.

Maybe — as much as I hated to admit it in that hot, irritable moment — Tim was on to something. It is my choice what I get to invest my time and energy in, what I get to care about. I’ve made choices — to parent, to teach, to write — so if I care deeply about those things, what will I have to let go?

I hate the busy game. “Are you busy? I’m busy. Much busier than you.” I fall into this trap so easily, (especially during that precious sliver of time called “prep hour” at school when the students disappear and I’ve got 54 minutes to pee and get my entire to-do list checked off) though it accomplishes nothing and creates stress for people on both ends of the conversation. But as a mom of three littles who teaches middle schoolers and a college class on the side, who really wants to write, and who is also an extrovert struggling with saying no, my calendar most often leans to the full side.

For years I’ve been tucking away wisdom of others on this topics of choices and time. One of my favorites — one I return to when I’m too busy finding excuses to get my butt in a chair and my thoughts on paper —  comes from Anne Lamott. (You’ll want to read the whole article right after you finish with this one; it’s so good.) She begins with:

“I sometimes teach classes on writing, during which I tell my students every single thing I know about the craft and habit. This takes approximately 45 minutes. I begin with my core belief—and the foundation of almost all wisdom traditions—that there is nothing you can buy, achieve, own, or rent that can fill up that hunger inside for a sense of fulfillment and wonder. But the good news is that creative expression, whether that means writing, dancing, bird-watching, or cooking, can give a person almost everything that he or she has been searching for: enlivenment, peace, meaning, and the incalculable wealth of time spent quietly in beauty.

Then I bring up the bad news: You have to make time to do this.”

She then advocates for figuring out what things we’re going to need to give up if we’re going to write or live with any passion. Less social media. Letting the housework go. Skipping the news for a night.

For me, letting go is also an exercise is not being enticed by the guilt about the things I feel like I’m supposed to care about.

For example, as much as I’m afraid to admit this in a public forum (oh, the judgement!):  I rarely put laundry away — retrieving unfolded clothes straight from the laundry baskets next to the dryer works for us. And I sometimes feel shame or guilt when I admit to people that I hire a friend to help us keep up on housecleaning during the school year. But doing this is what enables me to free up the space to parent, teach, and write better.

Recently, I was telling my mom that after a long, frustrating day, my best therapy is often getting into my kitchen, turning on some music, pouring a glass of my favorite red wine, and cutting vegetables. Cooking. Mixing stuff. Making stuff. Concocting. The time passes and the kids stop by to whine and ask for stuff and I just keep going. I don’t mind — it feels worth it. She looked at me with sudden understanding in her eyes and said, “That’s how I feel in my garden.”

If you’ve ever been to my mom’s house, the first thing you’d notice is the garden. The flowers. The pots and perennials and flower beds. The lush colors. The life all around you. She loves this. This is her thing. I water my plants when they look like they might fall over and die if I don’t. She doesn’t just water; she fertilizers daily, people. She can’t pass by a weed without stopping to pull it out. She takes the time to prep and prune and preen. And she loves to give this time. She thinks nothing of it. The time passes and she doesn’t mind.

Here’s the thing: I notice my mom’s beautiful garden, her flowers. No one notices my weeds. Because they don’t matter to me.

But I do hope they notice the things I care about fully, the things I invest in. I hope when they come for dinner they can feel love and warmth from my kitchen. I hope when my students show up in my classroom they feel love and warmth from the teaching. I hope when I put my writing out in the world others from love and warmth from that, too.

When I think of my friends one of my favorite things about them is watching them living out their passions — their passions for dancing, for writing,  for caring for orphans, for parenting, for teaching kids with special needs, for composting, for nutrition, for counseling — the list goes on. That’s not to say that these passions are easy or that the work is always fun, but there’s a commitment to it. There’s time that’s made for it because it not only matters, it fills them up somehow. And it’s so good to watch them give their good to the world.

Part of living into grace is loving those gifts — my own and others around me — and acknowledging that my weeds are fine. I can have weeds because although I love and appreciate a beautiful garden, it’s not my thing. I have other things. You have things, too.

And comparing “not my thing” to “your thing” would be silly.

So, this morning, I’m staring at those weeds in my backyard with love, not contempt. Because leaving them allowed me to get this written.
Now, go and do your thing.