Author Archives: Chrystal Schivell

The Right to Life

The right to life”—we are all endowed with it. It’s in the Declaration of Independence, next to the right to “liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Of course we believe in the right to life. But what if that life will be denied the liberty to pursue happiness? When we stick up for the right to life by trying to ban abortion, do we consider whether the child whom we mandate be born will have the love and care to maintain life? Do we consider whether the three rights are equal? Or whether “quality of life,” as implied by liberty and the pursuit of happiness, should be taken into account? And are we talking about only the unborn lives or also those of the living who will be impacted by each new child? Because I can’t answer these questions for others, I support the availability of abortion.

I know a couple who already had four young children when they found they were unexpectedly pregnant with a fifth. The baby would likely be as beautiful and bright as its siblings, but the parents had neither the money nor energy to absorb another child without jeopardizing the welfare of all five. In a decision that would remain painful throughout their lives, the parents chose abortion. Abortion was not taken lightly. No need for the in utero photos brandished by pro-life supporters. The parents could picture the child whose life they were ending. But they could also picture the struggle for food, bedtimes with too few beds, no time for stories, no room in the car for everyone, and not enough money to be sure that each child would have the chance to experience anythingfrom camp to college.

Not that I prefer abortion. Contraception is my solution. I’m furious when two people, perhaps even strangers, hot for sex, and likely inebriated, have a one-night stand that results in a human being no one wants or is prepared to raise. Furious if a child is conceived to prove its father’s sexual prowess. Furious if its mother spreads her legs so she can boast, “See, he loves me. I’m going to have his baby.” No child asks to be a badge of its parents’ sexuality. Each baby deserves to be the result of a loving commitment to raising a human being. But since it’s unlikely that sex will be limited to those times when adults want to create or increase a family, contraception is the answer.

But contraception isn’t always reliable, affordable, or available—and never in rape. And so I support abortion because I care most about the welfare of the child after it’s born, not its right to a life that could be miserable. To me, abortionlike food, adequate housing, educational opportunity, and, most importantly, the parent’s desire to have a child—must be available to insure that each child born can pursue happiness.

What about the mother’s right to liberty? Without abortion as an option, a woman is forced to carry an unwanted child through birth. Nine months of her life dictated by others—perhaps because the contraception she’d counted on failed. Pro-lifers might argue that the baby can be put up for adoption. More cruelty because once a woman has heard and held her baby, maternal instincts kick in. Giving the baby away is wrenching. And what if the child is not adopted? Right now, more children are eligible for adoption than there are adoptive parents. Even if we believe that life begins at conception, can we recognize that abortion might be a better alternative than lives constrained by whatever conditions caused the request for abortion?

Republicans in Congress, sympathetic to their evangelical base and with no respect for a woman’s right to liberty, champion the right to life of a fertilized egg but show little interest in assuring that the resulting child has a chance at happiness. They’re reluctant to increase support systems such as CHIP, to raise the minimum wage for over-worked parents, or to allow the puny tax breaks for the middle class to extend beyond eight years. Don’t the conditions of life count, too? Who should be the judge?

Your God or My God?

The Supreme Court is hearing the case of the Colorado bakery artist who refused to create one of his masterpiece wedding cakes for a gay couple because doing so would violate his belief that marriage is between a man and a woman. His refusal was a slap in the face to the gay couple; their love was unworthy. Here’s the problem: does the baker’s religion also condone demeaning other people? Or is this a question we forget to ask when sticking up for our religious beliefs?

The baker argues that the Constitution guarantees the right to freely exercise his religion. The First Amendment says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” He exercised his belief. Were the gay couple able to exercise their belief that their marriage was valid?

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are major monotheistic religions. We all have one God, but we evidently don’t share the same rules about how God wants us to behave. So when we stick up for our religious beliefs, we’re like children on a playground taunting, “My God is righter than your God.” I picture God, the Father, looking down and shaking his head in dismay, “Oh dear, the children are fighting again.”

We sing hymns: “With God on our side.” But do we really want God to takes sides? Religious beliefs pit Shiite against Sunni, Evangelical against Episcopalian, but it’s hard to picture God cheering, “Go Sunnis! Get those Shiites!” Or “Homosexuality’s here to stay, Evangelicals go away!” If, as we say we believe, God created heaven and earth and all its creatures, would He take sides among His own children?

The problem with justifying a position based on religion is similar to that of the Supreme Court when deciding how to interpret the Constitution. Some Justices look to the Founding Fathers for their interpretation; other Justices take into account today’s reality. Who is more right? Thankfully, the Constitution is a paper document. God, however, is supposed to be God.

Perhaps instead of concentrating on what religions tell us not to do, we should rely on what they tell us to do. Jesus said, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” The same words appear in Judaism, Leviticus 19:18, and are sometimes called the central commandment of the Torah. I’m no expert on Islam, but I’ve read a quotation from the Prophet Muhammad, “None of you have faith until you love for your neighbor what you love for yourself.”

I have to give the bakery artist credit for fairness because he stopped making signature wedding cakes, even though he lost money. But what if, instead, he had whispered to God, “I’m sure You don’t approve of this marriage, but I don’t want to hurt their feelings and, after all, it’s up to You to deal with homosexuality,” and then had smiled at the gay couple and asked what decorations they wanted on their cake?

Righteousnesssticking up for one’s beliefsfeels good, but it doesn’t lead to peace. And with conflicts raging almost everywherefor power, property, and profitI want peace. “Peace” is stenciled on my Christmas cards and extolled in the carols I’ve sung since childhood. So for this Christmas season, I’ll stick to the Golden Rule and try to respect rather than demean other people.

Musings

I’ve blogged only once since Trump became presidenta blog about white supremacy. Helplessness and fear do not inspire blogging, yet may I share my despair?

Recently I went to a rally in support of DACA. Before the rally even got underway, we were told that the previous night ICE had taken away four Princetonians. I imagine men in black bullet-proof vests, ICE stenciled on the back, pulling up to a house in the Witherspoon/Jackson neighborhood. The house is dark and peaceful, its occupants sleeping. Suddenly the door bursts open and four people are dragged outto detention camps, to deportation. ICE is not the nice Princeton cops who obey Princeton Council’s resolution to protect immigrants and who trust me with the key to the Suzanne Patterson Building, no questions asked nor ID needed. ICE is strangers who invade my town against my wishes.

Can I help? I march and chant with 200 others. I choke up when a Dreamer takes the mic and asks “Couldn’t you have given up part of your Thanksgiving for me?” She’d been on a four-day hunger strike before Thanksgiving to call attention to her imminent deportation. She’d sat, hungry, outside a Congressman’s office and been ignored. She and others had tried to interrupt the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade to state their case. They were removed. Now she’s crying. She knows no country other than the United States. In coming here her father had wished only to give his children opportunity. Is that a crime? Time is running out and she is desperate. With the others I cheer my support. But what clout do I have with the five New Jersey Republican Congressmen who don’t support a clean Dream Act?

Thanksgivingand the Girl Scouts publishes an essay arguing that little girls should not be forced to hug relatives they may see over the holidays. I’m shocked at this attack on family. My granddaughter not hug her grandpa, my husband? And then I remember hearing from friends about sexual abuseabuse committed by inebriated fathers or by that dear old friend of the family whom they’re told to call “Uncle Jimmy.” My skin crawls. How can men do this to little girls? The Girl Scouts are right. But what do we do about those fathers?

During Thanksgiving grace, I give silent thanks that North Korea has not yet fired a nuclear warhead at the United States. If it hit Seattle, I’d lose my daughter and granddaughters. If it hit Manhattan, my son would be vaporized, never saying good-bye to his children. No matter. They and I would have little time to mourn him as radiation drifts across New Jersey. Is it worth treating my melanoma when Kim Jong Un may rain cancer down on all of us?

And then there’s the tax reform bill. Medicare and Medicaid slashed. Deductions for property tax, income tax, and student loans gone. “Personhood” inserted as part of the attack on abortion. Little tax relief for those earning under $70,000which is everyone earning minimum wageand a huge tax break for the 1%. Any attempt at fairness is obliterated.

And so I write the nine Republican senators who haven’t yet agreed to support the bill and beg them, in individualized emails, to vote against it. Beyond signing thirty online petitions per day, it’s all I can think to do. Then on NPR I hear that Senator McCain, the one I counted on, the one who saved Obamacare, has thrown his support behind the bill. And before I can post this blog, the Senate has approved the bill.

The world as I knew it, the world as I wanted it, is being destroyed and I feel helpless to prevent it. Are words enough?

White Supremacy

It’s been a long time since I last blogged, but Trump’s election left me speechless. Then I read the latest Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report on white supremacists and was suddenly struck by how pathetic their beliefs are. I’m better because my skin is white? Skin color isn’t even one of my accomplishments. It’s like little kids boasting “I’m older than you are.” Wouldn’t it be more valid to base one’s worth on something internal? Probably that’s what experimenters realized when they tried to correlate white skin with larger brains, more refined morality, etc. Their attempts, now discredited, are an admission that skin color is a feeble basis for superiority.

Do we need white supremacy to compensate for our individual disappointments? My mother based her superiority on the triple bulwark of race, ethnicity, and religion. We were WASPS, “not Catholic, not Irish,” she often added, to reinforce the point. But mother had few personal accomplishments, and her ambition was to be rich and a member of high society. She was thrilled when I dated the grandson of IBM’s founder, ate steak with his family, and drove around his property in an antique car. She was furious when I turned down his invitation to go yachting because I’d already promised the day to a young man of lower class.

I can understand that she resented my failure to bring her status. I can understand that she was not content with having kept me well-fed, clothed, and educated. I don’t understand what kept her from trying to find herself and to take pride in her own accomplishments. By ninth grade, I had an inkling of what I might accomplish and no longer needed to rely on being a WASP. But perhaps personal disappointmentsunemployment, poverty, and a sense that the American dream is no longer possible lie behind today’s resurgence of white supremacists.

Of course, supremacy denotes power. For our own safety, we’d like to be members of the group in power, and, in America, that’s people with white skin. I’ve certainly benefited, and I’m well aware of the institutional injustices that people of color have been powerless to prevent. It’s natural to fear that people who don’t look like us won’t share our interests and so will trample us if given power. White people, black people, Latinos, Asians, Muslimsall of us want to protect ourselves. Trump’s “Make America great again” was a familiar appeal to white supremacy. But did white people win?

Trump really represents Wall Street, corporate interests, and billionaires. Look at his cabinet nomineescertainly mostly white (and male) but all members of the 1%. Look at his policies. Trumpcare would have reduced by millions the number of people who have healthcare while letting each of the nation’s 400 richest families save $7 million per year. Medicare, Medicaid, and social security are on the chopping block. Investment brokers who handle retirement funds will no longer have to put their clients’ interests ahead of their own compensation or company profits. Banks may risk our savings. The Environmental Protection Agency is being decimated, and global warming, which threatens our existence, is denied.

The 1% is now supreme, the group with power. They do not share our interests, and they will trample us. People of color will be hurt the most, as usual, but so will the rest of us. For all our whiteness, we are watching our social safety nets disintegrate while the richest among us get tax breaks.

White supremacists have been duped. Skin color has nothing to do with values. If we want supremacy and its power to protect, we must band together with people who may not look like us but who share our interests. We’ll need a platform that rises above the divisiveness of race, ethnicity, and religiona platform based on the need for shelter, sustenance, and security. And we must vow to vote in such numbers in 2018 that no elected official dare ignore us. Paradoxically, our success will give each of us a sense of personal accomplishment.

My College Reunion

I’ve just returned from my 50th reunion at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and, as after every reunion, I’m struggling not to evaluate my life in black and white.

Reunions are joyous: catching up with classmates, revisiting Wellesley’s gorgeous campus, and huddling in the dorm with my old roommates until the wee hours, just as we did fifty years ago.

But reunions invite us to take stock of what we’ve achieved. Every five years our class produces a fat record book full of statistics and personal narratives. Reunions invite us to compare ourselves to others, and, compared to Wellesley’s famous “others,” I’m a failure.

Perhaps such comparisons are a hazard of any reunion, but at Wellesley the bar is high. I remember my interview at Wellesley fifty-four years ago. On a table in the admissions office was a Chinese vase given by Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, a Wellesley graduate. As the daughter of a name-dropper, I was impressed. Would some of her fame rub off on me? Today I share the Wellesley name with Madeline Albright and Hillary Clinton, who was a freshman when I was a senior. Perhaps I passed her on campus without, of course, knowing she is likely to become the first woman President of the United States. Being a Wellesley graduate makes for a good game of six degrees of separation.

But there is pain in having known famous women. Cokie Boggs Roberts and I were together in the Wellesley Widows, an a capella singing group, for three years. I adored her. We shared intimacies. She even stayed at my home in Greenwich after the Widows took a spring trip to Jamaica. But we went our separate ways. She became famous, and I know that now she doesn’t remember me. I shared a dorm with Diane Sawyer. Same story. Everyone in the Class of 1966 is proud that one of us became a Wellesley College president and another is a wealthy woman whose generosity built the college’s social center and whose contribution put our class at the top of giving this year. These classmates know me, but they’re too busy, and I’m too intimidated to consider ourselves friends.

And there’s the challenge of Wellesley’s motto: Non Ministrari sed Ministrare. “Not to be ministered unto but to minister” – four Latin words that capture the College’s mission: to provide an excellent liberal arts education for women who will make a difference in the world. Have I made a difference?

After every reunion I must remind myself that I am me, that apples can’t fall far from the tree, that it’s OK to fill the center of the bell curve. Without the bell, there would be no end-points for the famous others. But this year, while I’m consoling myself with clichés, I receive a letter from a classmate whom I don’t know very well. She’s seen my blog and writes, “I was really glad to have made the time to read your pieces, and I respect, too, your long career teaching in an inner city school. You have made a more lasting and positive impact on America than the rest of us put together.”

What an overstatement, but I’ll take it! I needed affirmation of my contribution. I realize, again, that failure is not the opposite of fame. And if fame is recognition, perhaps I am famous. Last week a security guard at the Sun Arena in Trenton asked if I’d worked at Trenton High School. He hadn’t been my student, but he remembered me bustling around the school on student government activities30 years ago.

My reunion doubt is gone. Why make comparisons? Why be a name-dropper? Instead, like my classmate, I’ll write letters affirming the contributions of others who, like me, are neither famous nor failures. We all make contributions, and we all need recognition.

I’m Racist

Recently I was told by a person of color that I’d ignored racist comments made by my white friends at a meeting we’d both attended. I was amazedmortified. Why hadn’t I heard or recognized the racist remarks? How could my friends have made such remarks? The accusation seemed based on a huge misunderstanding.

I asked whether my accuser had assumed we were talking about race. I begged for the specific words used so that I could address the issue. But she replied only that, no, there was no misunderstanding. She hadn’t made assumptions, and she found it disheartening but predictable that I, like everyone else, would not want to lose my position and prestige or to address microaggressions. She advised me to be honest when looking at my friends and to recognize that it’s comforting to look around a room where everyone looks like me and assume they’re not racist. Clearly, she was disappointed in me.

I take seriously the criticism and counsel of a black person. I’ve learned enough about white privilege to realize that I and my friends might unwittingly be at fault. And microaggressions are tricky—sometimes intended to be complimentary to an individual but always demeaning to that person’s ethnicity or race. (“Courtney, I never see you as a black girl.” “ Are you really Asian?” “Are you sure you have the right room? This is an honors section.”) We could have tripped up. I am disappointed in myself.

But was my accuser right? When I’d told a former colleague and friend from Trenton High, a woman who is black, that in retirement I’d been attending a discussion group about race and white privilege, she fairly shouted at me “Why are you wasting your time?” I protested that I was learning from black people in the group. “They’re all victims. Move on!” she said in disgust as she hung up. I felt disappointed in myself then, too.

At Trenton High we rarely talked about race and never about white privilegethough that same colleague laughingly told me that, when I arrived at Trenton High, she’d thought, “White woman…? Probably can’t get a job anywhere else.” At Trenton High, values trumped race; black and white idealists battled the black and white staff members who preferred the status quo. Ironically, after I’d retired and begun attending discussion groups, a second black colleague complained that I thought too much about race. I can’t seem to please everyone, but I’m still more anxious to please black people than white people.

Am I racist? I guess that depends on whom I ask. Some black people perceive racism where others don’t. Some insist “Never tell me to ‘Get over it.’ ” Others cry “Move on.” But black people don’t think alike and don’t have to. White people don’t.

What now? I know better than to continue questioning my recent accuser about her perception of my racism. Such dismissiveness would only bolster her contention that I’m unaware of my privilege. Of course, I don’t want to be racist. It would be helpful to know exactly what alerted her to my friends’ racism, but I will probably never know. I’m grateful to have a diversity of black voices in my life and to have learned that no one black person speaks for all black people. So I will take my accuser’s criticism and counsel seriouslyand move on.

Giving Time

My recent posts have been about giving money, but when a friend expressed awe at my husband’s and my generosity, I felt embarrassed. I hadn’t meant to boast but rather to point out a need. And I know that my friend gives generously of her time. I’ve overstated the importance of money.

The gift of time is, despite the clock, immeasurable. My friend has become a surrogate mother to the mentally handicapped daughter of a friend who died years ago. Each night the young woman calls. My friend listens to the young woman recount her day and reassures her that she cares. It’s tedious but necessary. I know because I get calls from a similarly handicapped fellow I taught almost 50 years ago. I listen to the litany about his trips to Walmart, the mileage on his car, his problems on the job (with nary a question about me). But he calls only once a month. Listening every night is true generosity, and I admire my friend’s devotion.

Another friend has chided me for seeming to belittle the time given by Princetonians who volunteer in Trenton with TASK, “People and Stories,” and soccer. I apologize. Time given to otherswhether individuals or organizationsis time taken from oneself. And driving to Trenton adds more time. Of course, time spent with others can be rewarding. I enjoyed my time teaching so much that sometimes I’d forget it was payday, and the school secretary would have to wave my paycheck to catch my attention as I clocked outbut only sometimes. Nowadays I devote a day each week to visiting my paralyzed friend in her nursing home. Time spent shopping for her and sitting with her eats into time to accomplish what I’d like to get done, but I love our visits. She does too. Time is a gift.

Then I remember her exclamation of joy, “I can look out my window!” For a year, she had lain in bed or been placed in a wheelchair facing the TV. To see outside required turning her head because she was unable to move her chair. Medicare had promised a mobilized wheelchair as long as she stayed in her home, and we tried to keep her there until it arrived. But bureaucracy delayed delivery; money for round-the-clock care ran out; and she had to go into a home as a Medicaid recipient. Medicare doesn’t give motorized chairs to people in nursing homes, and even the appeals of our Congressmen couldn’t produce a waiver. Finally I bought a Jazzya bright-red, motorized chairand unwittingly gave her the simple joy of looking out her window.

My thesis collapses. Which is worth more: the time I spend with her or the time she spends looking out her window and driving independently around the nursing home because I bought her “Jazzy”? I guess the answer is: give time, but, if needed, and if you can, give money too.