2020
September
04
Friday

Monitor Daily Podcast

September 04, 2020
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TODAY’S INTRO

A Monitor tradition continues – online

Soon after the coronavirus halted in-person gatherings, Monitor editors and readers suggested we take our newsmaker breakfasts virtual. Fill up the “Hollywood Squares” of Zoom with reporters and an interesting guest, and have a thoughtful conversation. 

Back in March, I wasn’t ready to go there. But yesterday, we took the plunge, with labor leader Richard Trumka and 17 reporters in attendance. Mr. Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, appears at our breakfast every year, right before Labor Day, and it felt right to keep that tradition going – especially with workplace issues and the presidential race top-of-mind. 

We talked about the “big three” states – Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania – that Democrats are eager to win back and where blue-collar voters are crucial. We talked police and teachers unions. We talked workplace safety. 

I wrote something quick afterward. Today’s Monitor Daily features a piece by Laurent Belsie on work-life balance, with input from the breakfast. C-SPAN recorded the event, and aired it later. Here's our YouTube link. 

Of course, meeting virtually wasn’t the same as gathering in person at the elegant St. Regis Hotel. Mr. Trumka joked that he missed his plate of scrambled eggs. That’s the secret sauce of Monitor Breakfasts, the collegiality that comes from breaking bread together – with a side of hard-nosed questions. 

But I think the Zoom format worked, and we hope to do more such breakfasts. To keep things balanced, our next guest will be a Republican. And we look forward to returning, in person, to the St. Regis someday. 

A deeper look

Why Pennsylvania is ground zero for mail-in voting debate

There’s a lot of fear swirling around Election Day and what could go wrong, especially in states that are expected to have a small margin of victory. But look a little closer and there’s a wide range of people working to avert disaster.

Linda
Leah Millis/Reuters
Supporters listen to President Donald Trump deliver a campaign speech at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, Sept. 3, 2020.

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As states race to prepare for a high-stakes presidential election amid a pandemic, Pennsylvania is coming under particular scrutiny. Leading up to this year’s June primary, the state enacted its most sweeping electoral legislation in 80 years and overhauled voting systems in all 67 counties. Then the pandemic hit, driving a 17-fold increase in mail-in ballots. It took two weeks to certify all the races and more than 37,000 absentee ballots were rejected – not far off from the 44,292 votes by which Donald Trump won the state in 2016.

No one wants to be the Florida of 2020 – with the country waiting on one state for weeks to learn the results of a contested presidential election. In Pennsylvania, a wide array of officials and organizations are doing their best to ensure that their state escapes that fate. They’re working around the clock for a fair, safe, and secure election – with clear and prompt results. 

“We were learning on the fly from February to June,” says Jeff Greenburg, the director of elections in Mercer County until August, when he stepped down to work for The National Vote at Home Institute. “I really think Pennsylvania is in a better position now. ... We have a much better chance of succeeding because we now know what to do.”

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1. Why Pennsylvania is ground zero for mail-in voting debate

The phone is ringing nonstop in Pennsylvania’s Lycoming County.

“Did the November election get delayed?” 

“Can I still vote by mail?” 

“Why did my wife, who died in 2011, get an application for an absentee ballot with her name and address already filled in?” 

It’s the last category that drives county election director Forrest Lehman and his staff especially batty. Various groups, in an apparent bid to boost voter participation, are sending out a tsunami of pre-filled ballot applications based on voter data that is years out of date. And they have Mr. Lehman’s name on the return label. 

“Their first reaction is to call us and ask, ‘What kind of Mickey Mouse operation are you running?’” he says, comparing it to a denial of service attack, which disables a website by flooding it with traffic. “We can’t get anything else done. ... Applications are just piling up while we answer questions.”

Across the country, as states are racing to prepare for holding a high-stakes presidential election amid a pandemic, swing states are coming under particular scrutiny. The tighter the race, the more possible it is that the election could be tipped by a relatively small number of voters who are unable to vote or whose ballots are delayed or disqualified. With a disproportionate number of mailed votes coming from Democrats and studies showing that minority voters experience higher rates of disqualification, such rejections could tip the presidential race to the Republicans. 

Even among the swing states for whom widespread voting by mail is uncharted territory, Pennsylvania stands out. Leading up to this year’s June primary, the state enacted its most sweeping legislation on election administration in 80 years and overhauled voting systems in all 67 counties. Then the pandemic hit, driving a 17-fold increase in mail-in ballots, overwhelming local election officials. It took two weeks to certify all the races and more than 37,000 absentee ballots were rejected – not far off from the 44,292 votes by which Donald Trump won the state in 2016, propelling him to the White House. New polls show Mr. Biden’s lead shrinking to less than the margin of error, indicating a statistical tie with two months to go.

No one wants to be the Florida of 2020 – the one state that the country is waiting on for weeks to determine the results of a contested presidential election. In Pennsylvania, a wide array of officials from local election directors like Mr. Lehman up to Democratic state executives like Gov. Tom Wolf and Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar and the Republican-led legislature are working around the clock to ensure that Pennsylvania’s vote is fair, safe, and secure – with clear and prompt results.

While Pennsylvania’s June primary raised concerns about the state’s ability to handle a greater influx of mailed ballots, some say it may in fact have helped build the state’s electoral muscles for a heavier lift this fall.

“We were learning on the fly from February to June,” says Jeff Greenburg, the director of elections in Mercer County until August, when he stepped down to work for The National Vote at Home Institute. “I really think Pennsylvania is in a better position now. ... To me we have a much better chance of succeeding because we now know what to do.”

Alexandra Wimley/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/AP
Supporters cheer outside of Mill 19 on the Hazelwood Greenway, where Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden was speaking inside the building to a small group, Monday, Aug. 31, 2020, in Hazelwood, Pennsylvania.

Maximizing voter access while ensuring a secure vote

Pennsylvania was the first state to extend absentee voting to soldiers, before the deployment of thousands of troops to the Civil War caused other states to follow suit during the 1864 presidential election. Last fall, the state expanded the opportunity for voting by mail through Act 77, which introduced “no-excuse” absentee voting, created a 50-day window for voting by mail, and extended the deadline for registering and submitting one’s ballot. 

When the pandemic hit, the state was better prepared to accommodate voters concerned about voting in person. But it also accelerated implementation, taxing election staff and raising concerns about everything from denying people the opportunity to vote to diluting legitimate votes through uneven interpretation of election laws and policies among the counties. The challenge is how best to maximize voter access while ensuring the safety of voters and the security of the voting process, and there are partisan differences over how to strike the right balance.

Following Pennsylvania’s primary, the Trump campaign and Republican National Committee (RNC) launched a lawsuit demanding a uniform interpretation of the state’s election code to guard against abuse and fraud, including through unattended ballot drop boxes that were used in more than a dozen counties.

“Our right to vote is one of the most important, if not the most important, right bestowed upon us,” says Republican Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, a plaintiff in the case who served with the Navy in Iraq and says he was proud to fight to protect the right of everyone to vote, regardless of political leaning. In an emailed response to questions, he says a consistent application of the law is the key to ensuring a fair and equal election. “Treating certain areas of the commonwealth differently is an inherent risk to the integrity of our important tradition of making sure every vote counts, and every vote counts equally.”

Many Democrats are also worried about every vote counting, particularly when it comes to minority voters. A lawsuit brought by the League of Women Voters demands that Pennsylvania establish a standardized procedure for verifying voter signatures and to join 17 other states that allow voters whose mailed ballots are invalidated for mismatched signatures to be notified and given a chance to “cure” their ballots by verifying their identity.

The case notes that county staff untrained in handwriting analysis are often the ones to throw out ballots based on a signature mismatch, which can disproportionately affect voters who are disabled, elderly, or less educated. The suit cites a study that found that laypeople misidentify genuine signatures as inauthentic 26% of the time.

Another issue that disproportionately affected minority voters in Pennsylvania’s primary was the consolidation of polling places, driven in part by polling worker shortages during the pandemic. The two most populous counties – Philadelphia and Allegheny, which includes Pittsburgh – downsized from 2,100 polling stations to fewer than 500, leading to long lines. African Americans make up nearly half of Philadelphia’s population and nearly a quarter of Pittsburgh’s.

“I think absolutely this is intentional,” says Celina Stewart, senior director of advocacy and litigation for the League of Women Voters. “It’s a voter suppression tactic.”

“Voter suppression hasn’t gone away,” she adds. “Voter suppression just changes its face based on what’s going on.”

The drop box debate

Esther Bush, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh, which is also party to the League of Women Voters suit,  
cites many previous hurdles Black voters have had to overcome – including election officials in the South asking Black voters to guess the number of jellybeans in a jar, and only allowing them to vote if they guessed correctly. 

Now, amid national protests over racial injustice, a pandemic that has disproportionately affected Black communities, and an unusual election season that has stirred concerns about Black voters’ voices being heard, someone asked Ms. Bush recently, “What else can Black people take? What else is America going to put on us?”

“And I said, if you look at our history, we have handled and managed all of the unfairness that has been put on our shoulders,” says Ms. Bush, whose organization is working with partners to get out the vote in Pittsburgh. “We will get through this as well.”

One option to support Black voters and others looking to avoid long lines, close contact, or mail delays is installing secure ballot drop boxes, which are bolted to the ground and routinely emptied.

“We strongly encourage counties to ... make voting as accessible as possible,” including by using drop boxes, Ms. Boockvar, Pennsylvania's secretary of state, said in an interview. “Do I have the authority to mandate that? I don’t at this time.”

So it’s up to each county to decide whether to use them, how many to deploy, where to place them, and how to monitor them and establish a chain of custody. Amber McReynolds, CEO for The National Vote at Home Institute and the former director of elections for Denver, says the best practice is to have a bipartisan team that’s specifically trained on emptying the boxes and does so on a regular schedule, putting the ballots into sealed boxes and maintaining a chain of custody.

Erie County was one of more than a dozen Pennsylvania counties to utilize the drop box option, installing one at the courthouse where there was lighting and 24-hour surveillance. Chief Clerk Doug Smith says the county was expecting about 8,000 people to vote absentee. Instead it was more than triple that, and about 5,000 ballots came via that single drop box.

Now the use of drop boxes is up in the air due to the Trump lawsuit, which has been suspended until early October pending related litigation on the state level.

The state’s election code requires that each voter deliver his or her own ballot, and the Trump lawsuit argues that unattended drop boxes contravene that provision, since it’s impossible to verify who dropped off the ballots. Local election officials also worry that the boxes could become a political target and the ballots damaged ­­– an irretrievable loss even if the boxes are under constant surveillance and the culprit is identified.

As for concerns about fraud, the number of proven instances remains extremely small and the plaintiffs in the Trump lawsuit were not able to produce any examples from this year’s primary when asked by the federal judge overseeing the case. However, the suit cited examples from the past, including a 1993 special election in Philadelphia that was closely scrutinized because it determined which party would control the state legislature. A federal judge found “massive absentee ballot fraud, deception, intimidation, harassment and forgery” on the part of the victorious Democratic candidate, who was forced to relinquish his seat to his Republican opponent. According to a front-page article in The New York Times, two of the three members of the Board of Elections – both Democrats – “testified that they were aware of the voter fraud, had intentionally failed to enforce the election law and had later tried to conceal their activities by hurriedly certifying the Democratic candidate as the winner.”

“The RNC and Trump campaign continue our fight to protect ballot security and reduce chances for fraud and administrative chaos in November by ensuring campaigns can fairly monitor the casting, collecting and counting of votes,” says Mandi Merritt, national press secretary for the Republican National Committee, in an email. “All voters, regardless of political stripes, deserve to have confidence in their elections system and this lawsuit seeks to restore that integrity.”

Democrats accuse Mr. Trump of making unsubstantiated claims about the potential for widespread fraud to sow doubt about the integrity of the election, and prepare the ground for contesting the results if he doesn’t win.

“The Biden campaign will fight for every Pennsylvanian to make their voice heard this fall, and we’re making sure voters know all of their options to vote: whether it’s by dropping their ballot off at a secure dropbox, voting by mail, or safely in-person,” says Michael Feldman, Pennsylvania communications director for the Biden campaign, in an email to the Monitor.

Secretary Boockvar says in an interview that the greatest challenge leading up to November is the misinformation and disinformation around the voting process. To that end, Pennsylvania has just started a postcard campaign, informing registered voters of their right to vote by mail or in person and pointing them to VotesPA.com, the official hub for election information. In addition, a state interagency group that includes everyone from the police to the inspector general to the Department of State is working to combat false information on social media, and ensure that counties have the knowledge and resources to do so as well. Similar initiatives are in place in the cybersecurity domain.

“One of the reasons why I’m really proud and confident in Pennsylvania’s election security and preparedness for the November election is because of the strength of those collaborations,” says Secretary Boockvar.

State legislature proposes last-minute changes

In the June primary, 1.5 million Pennsylvanians cast their ballot by mail and it took two weeks to certify all the elections. In at least one race, the apparent winner on election night ended up losing. Some are concerned that could happen in the November presidential election. With far more Democrats planning to vote by mail than Republicans – 52% compared to 10%, according to a Franklin & Marshall College poll – that could create a “blue shift” after polls close and mailed ballots are counted.

“In a primary, in a [state government] office, it’s an inconvenience – it’s not the end of the world,” says Dave Reed, former Republican majority leader in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, who now co-chairs VoteSafe PA, a cross-partisan coalition working to ensure a safe and secure election. “When you’re talking about who’s going to be the next president of the United States, we have to be thorough and prompt.”

Secretary Boockvar says she’s expecting about 3 million people to vote by mail in November. A new bill put forward by the GOP-led state Senate incorporates a number of recommendations her office made in an August report on the primary, one of which would be to facilitate quicker results by allowing local election officials to start opening mailed ballots and preparing them for scanning prior to Election Day. Current state law prohibits doing so before 7 a.m. on Election Day. 

The bill would also allow voters to request ballots earlier and “cure” their ballots in case of a signature mismatch – a practice used in 17 other states by which voters whose ballots were invalidated are notified and given a chance to verify their authenticity. 

“The overwhelming and the overriding goal with this [bill] is to ensure security of the elections, access for voters, and to ensure that we get timely results on election day or shortly after election day – that we’re not looking for weeks afterwards to know what the final results will be,” says Crystal Clark, general counsel to the Senate Republican caucus.

Such changes would ease the Election Day crunch, but it creates uncertainty right now for local election officials, by holding up the printing of ballots, poll worker training manuals, and other delays.

“We certainly recognize that there is an urgency with regard to the changes that are in Senate Bill 10,” says Ms. Clark. 

The Senate is scheduled to reconvene on Sept. 8 and Mr. Reed, the former Republican majority leader, says the bill could be wrapped up within a week if the parties stick to key needs. He’s reasonably optimistic Pennsylvania will manage to pull off the election without any major hitches. After all, it’s more of a 20th-century upgrade than a digital revolution, he says.

“This is not text-your-vote-in, this is not Snapchat; we’re using a mail system,” he says.

But perhaps beyond the legal and logistical challenges is a deeper issue of trust – in the system itself, the people administering it, and even of fellow voters.

“The challenge is going to be making sure that we as a people – we have to understand and believe that we have a greater purpose than just ourselves, and that we have to do everything we can to exuberate love and concern for our fellow human beings,” says Kenneth Huston, president of the Pennsylvania state NAACP who also serves as a pastor. “Somewhere along the lines we’re losing that. And what’s very troubling to me is that people who live in communities in the rural areas, I don’t want them to think that because I’m a Black civil rights leader, I don’t care about them, because I do.”

In more than a dozen interviews for this piece, a wide range of people across the political spectrum emphasized a common desire for a fair and secure election. And the people most well-equipped to ensure that, argues Mr. Lehman of Lycoming County, are the dedicated local election officials across the state.

“They’re probably the best asset this state has to maintain the integrity of election,” he says. “It’s not the election code or the 1s and 0s in the software, it’s having people of integrity in the positions that matter. That’s how you protect this process.”

Convenience or dystopia? Work-from-home blend is here to stay.

The pandemic prompted a massive shift toward working from home ​– and early indicators suggest the trend will persist beyond the pandemic. The result is a blend of at-home activities that could redefine work-life balance.  

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The work-from-home phenomenon has been on the rise since at least the 1970s, when a NASA engineer coined the term “telecommuting.” But this year, it’s taken a huge leap. 

Before the pandemic, about 15% of employees worked at least part of the week from home; by April, half were working full time there. That jump makes 2020 potentially pivotal. Many employees are happy to ditch the daily commute, and many companies are looking at paring back office space. That means homes will become family and work centers, where families juggle multiple responsibilities and work-life balance faces new challenges. 

Women, who do the bulk of housework and child care, are bearing the brunt of the new work-at-home paradigm. Will families figure out new ways of integrating work and family? Will companies help their workers adapt – or force them to work longer hours? 

“It’s too early to tell how that will evolve,” says management expert Jeff Greenhaus. But “people are going to look back in history at 2020 and it is going to be a watershed moment of how work and family are structured.”

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2. Convenience or dystopia? Work-from-home blend is here to stay.

This summer, in preparation for an important Zoom teleconference meeting, Ben Snyder put his toddler down early for a nap, hoping he’d sleep through the event. He didn’t. 

Instead, five minutes into it, his son burst into the room, asking, “Daddy, what are you doing?”

“It was embarrassing,” says the sociology professor at Williams College, who is working from home for the first time. But “everyone at this point is, ‘Oh yeah, we know what it is.’” 

It’s a scene that’s been repeated over and over in the spring and summer of coronavirus. Homes once empty during the workday as two-earner families dropped off their children to school or preschool are suddenly bursting with activity as families juggle multiple responsibilities, from inboxes to remote learning. And any semblance of work-life balance has flown out the window.

On the eve of Labor Day weekend, specialists like Professor Snyder who study the evolution of work have a message for Americans: Adapt, because the challenge won’t end with the pandemic. The United States appears to be at one of those tipping points where the old ways of dividing work and family, office time and leisure, are giving way to a new and uncertain era.

“It’s too early to tell how that will evolve,” says Jeff Greenhaus, professor emeritus of management at Drexel University in Philadelphia. But “people are going to look back in history at 2020 and it is going to be a watershed moment of how work and family are structured.”

The stress on family life has flared into public discussion everywhere from parent groups to labor unions. In response to a question at a Monitor-hosted breakfast with reporters this week, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka called for “better child care options for people that work ... and a different flexibility in the workplace.” 

Of course, the work-from-home phenomenon is hardly new, stretching back to pre-civilization humans who planted crops outside their dwellings. In its latest incarnation, as a backlash to the modern office, it’s been on the rise since at least the 1970s, when a NASA engineer coined the term “telecommuting” to describe his remote work. Before the pandemic, an estimated 15% of employees were working from home part of or all the time. By April, according to one study, just under half of U.S. employees were working exclusively from home.

Less stress in the car ... more at home

It is that sudden jump that makes 2020 potentially pivotal. Evidence is piling up that employees and companies are not going back, because the new normal has attractions for both.

Many workers like not having to drive to an office every day, saving them, on average, just under an hour each day in commuting time, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Two-thirds of U.S. workers surveyed in July told tax-and-audit firm KPMG that they wanted to work from home at least some of the time and reported higher satisfaction and engagement with their employer. Some managers, meanwhile, see a bump in productivity or the opportunity to cut costs by reducing office space.

Michael Bonfigli /The Christian Science Monitor/File
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka speaks to reporters at a Monitor breakfast in Washington on Aug. 1, 2018. In a virtual breakfast held this week, just before Labor Day weekend, he said an "inequality of power" between workers and employers needs to be addressed.

As early as April, a survey by research and advisory firm Gartner found that three-fourths of chief financial officers expected to make at least some of their employees full-time remote. In July, the Partnership for New York City found that some 1 in 4 financial and professional services companies planned to reduce their office space by at least 20%.

But remote workers also report they’re working longer hours and have more stress. The same KPMG survey that found workers want to work from home also found that three-quarters of them said the demands of work had gone up. Just under half said their mental health had declined.

“You feel like you’re digging a hole that you will never be able to get out of,” says Heather Williams, a senior policy researcher at RAND Corp. and mother to a 3-year-old daughter who didn’t attend preschool this summer. “What people didn’t understand is that I have few uninterrupted blocks of time in my day – the blocks of time that I might need to be able to think.” So when a manager scheduled an online meeting just to check in with everyone, that represented a major commitment of precious time, she adds.

Women shouldering the load

Women bear the biggest burden of the new work-at-home paradigm. For all the talk about gender equality in housework and child care, the research still shows women responsible for the bulk of it, says Bobbi Thomason, assistant professor of applied behavioral science at Pepperdine University’s business school in Malibu, California. A study published in March found that, prior to the pandemic, wives were spending nearly twice as many hours on child care as their husbands. With many school districts now going to hybrid or all-virtual classes this fall, the added chore of supervising children’s education at home is stretching many mothers to the limit.

Professor Thomason sees it in the decline of submissions to academic journals by female professors. Ms. Williams sees it in the shift to part-time status by many top-performing female colleagues. (The two co-wrote a Harvard Business Review article in April on what the work-life balance would look like after the pandemic.) Traditionally, the move to part-time work holds back careers.

The burden is especially difficult for minority women, Professor Thomason adds. “Black women are more likely to be the breadwinner in their homes and more likely than white women to be the head of households.”

The strains on families extend to the millions of workers who must be on-site to do their job – from firefighters to factory workers – and who are tapping grandparents or other helpers to monitor stuck-at-home children.

But experts say it’s the new horde of teleworkers who, in the coming months and beyond, could be crucial in setting the tone for the era and pushing it toward a more integrated and satisfying life rather than a 24/7 working dystopia. 

“For managers who have been reared in an environment where they’ve been able to see people, to ensure that people are at their tasks, it’s a whole new world,” says Stew Friedman, author of the 2008 book “Total Leadership” and an organizational psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. It’s new for families, too. “The home is no longer just a place to do all those things with your family. It’s also a place where you work and supervise your children’s education. That requires that people who are living together develop new models about how to communicate with each other in terms of what they need to do.”

Workers on unequal footing with employers?

Will families figure it out? Will companies and managers address the new challenges for their homebound workers, allowing flextime during the day, offering resources for the home office, and perhaps most importantly, giving extra time off for their stressed employees? Or will they stick to traditional office norms while at the same time forcing workers to work from home full time?

“If it plays out the way most social developments play out, the best parts of working from home – those privileges – will be laid out for workers who are elite workers,” says Professor Snyder of Williams. “And less appealing types of remote work will be likely to land on those who are struggling economically.”

“When most people talk about inequality, they talk about inequality of wealth,” said Mr. Trumka of the AFL-CIO labor federation Thursday. (It was the first Monitor breakfast ever conducted through Zoom.) “But there are two other inequalities that they don’t talk about that are equally important. One is inequality of opportunity and we’re beginning to talk about that now with structural racism. ... But the one that we don’t talk about so much is inequality of power. Corporations are too strong and they get stronger all the time. ... You can never correct inequality of wealth or inequality of opportunity until you correct inequality of power.”

Organized labor can readjust power at the negotiating table, although it’s not clear how well unions, which typically represent on-site workers, can organize the work-at-home force, even if it does become disgruntled.

“Compassion is what seems to me is what’s needed more than anything,” says Professor Friedman of Wharton. “That’s what 'Total Leadership' is all about: how you can make change happen that’s good for you and the people around you. That requires that you see the world through their eyes.” [Editor's note: The quote was changed to make direct reference to Mr. Friedman's book.]

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our pandemic coverage is free. No paywall.

A deeper look

Travels with Maybell: Looking for ‘normal’ in an RV

For many Americans who longed to vacation this summer, motor homes served as mobile safe harbors. Such travels yielded beauty, solitude, camaraderie, and a sense, if just for a moment, that the pandemic isn’t happening.

Linda
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Salmon-colored rock formations, visible through the windshield of the RV, rise out of the landscape near Dubois, Wyoming.

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At Ashley National Forest’s Lodgepole Campground in Utah, Angie and Justin Woodward have a 32-foot RV. Their campsite is festooned with the right camp chairs for each family member, which includes their four children. There’s also Tiger, a Chihuahua mix who appears to own the forest.

The three oldest children eagerly share their favorite camping destinations across Utah. They’ve done this camping thing before. “But not as much as now!” says Mr. Woodward. “It’s not normal back home,” he says. “But this” – he gestures at the activity all around us – “this is normal.”

Over five days during the pandemic summer of 2020, correspondent Michael S. Hopkins and his wife, Monitor photographer Melanie Stetson Freeman, traveled through four states in the western United States aboard a rented RV, aka Maybell. Their editorial mission was to see what freedom feels like after confinement. To learn what their fellow travelers were doing, seeing, sensing, seeking. To meet people like the Woodwards.

“We wanted normal, but got more,” Michael writes. “We got beauty. We got solace. What we did on our summer road trip was what a lot of Americans sought to do on theirs: For a small time, we got peace.”

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3. Travels with Maybell: Looking for ‘normal’ in an RV

Call her “Maybell,” which is just dowdy enough. She is 22 feet long, and looks like a box stapled on a U-Haul truck. Bed in rear (queen!), another over the cab, “full” bath, stove-top, banquette table, fridge. A sailboat-style miracle of space planning on a platform so jangly you wonder whether rivets will pop on the highway.

True, she is not the Instagram-ready little camper van we’d sought to rent. (Cool, Maybell isn’t. Cool, however, is an extra $100 a night.) But she is ours. And she is about to ferry me – with my wife, Monitor photographer Melanie Stetson Freeman – through four states in five days during our pandemic summer of 2020. We have flown at dawn from Boston to Denver, and now are relieved when our little recreational vehicle is handed to us smelling of disinfectant and open windows. Without fanfare we are given a manual, some pointers, and solitude. We’ll have to sort out our relationship with Maybell on our own. So we wrangle her through surface streets to a supermarket for provisions, then turn west. Which means over the Continental Divide. Which means climbing. Not, it turns out, Maybell’s favorite pastime.  

“Can’t we go any faster?” asks Melanie as we crawl upward, traffic pooling around us. I pin the accelerator to the floor. Maybell’s engine roars. Maybell’s speedometer stands still. We crawl on.

But that gives us more time to look, which is everything. In just hours we pass through four kinds of landscape – from blond foothills to rock-strewn canyons to spruce-blackened mountainsides, and finally, cresting at 11,000 feet, to tender alpine meadows, where streams curl through stands of aspen, their tiny leaves shimmering like sequins. When we emerge from the Eisenhower Tunnel on Interstate 70 an hour west of Denver the world falls away in front of us, the highway clinging to a parapet while far below spreads a vast valley, its grasses lemon-green in the slanting late-day light. 

Melanie and I just look at each other. After all our sheltered-in-place months in the COVID-19-battered Northeast, we are, finally, somewhere else.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Writer Michael Hopkins walks toward his rented RV, aka Maybell, at the Lodgepole Campground in Ashley National Forest near Dutch John, Utah.

A warm welcome

As evening falls, we pull into the Kampgrounds of America (KOA) site in Craig, Colorado, where we have a reservation. Good thing, because the sites are full with everything from pop-up trailers to RVs the size and sheen of Beyoncé’s tour bus. I go to check in and find a smiling, can-do man behind the counter – but none of the acrylic barriers or this-is-what-6-feet-looks-like signs I’d grown used to in Massachusetts. From the doorway I gesture with my mask in hand and raise my eyebrows. “Nah,” he says. “Not here. Not required in our county. Come in!”

This is Chad Hodnefield, owner of the campground with his wife, Kristi. Three years ago he’d been running a poultry farm in Wisconsin (“tough world, agriculture”) when he traded that life for this one. I ask him how business is. “Hard, when the lockdowns came,” he says. Reservations were canceled. New ones didn’t appear.

“Then it changed,” he notes. “August reservations are up 15%, and people are staying longer. Not so many one-nighters, more fours and fives.”

He looks at our registration form. “Massachusetts! What brings you?”

The RV explosion, I tell him. Doubtless he knows about the motor home sales backlogs and waiting lists, the 49% increase in Airstream deliveries, how rental reservations through RVshare had risen 1,000% between early April and late May. Americans have decided to hit the road, virus or no virus, with RVs their mobile safe harbor.

Our editorial mission, I explain, is to join the tribe. See what freedom feels like after confinement. Learn what our fellow travelers are doing, seeing, sensing, seeking. Not to mention, I add, part of our trip overlaps with a camping itinerary I’d experienced 40 years ago as a child. What would that feel like?

“You’ve come to the right place,” Mr. Hodnefield says. He is eager to talk. “We’re seeing all that.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
“I hear stuff like, ‘We’ve been here only a few days and it’s like it’s not happening.’ Isn’t that what we all want?” says Chad Hodnefield, owner of a KOA campground in Colorado, referring to how people feel being free of their COVID-19 quarantines.

I wonder how the guests feel. “Grateful!” he says, like he’d been waiting to be asked. “Relieved. It’s like, ‘Phew, thank you for not going overboard [with COVID-19 measures].’ I hear stuff like, ‘We’ve been here only a few days and it’s like it’s not happening.’”

He grins and shrugs. “Isn’t that what we all want?”

We meet fellow campers Deborah and Richard Lamkin, from Cisco, Texas, with their 40-foot diesel coach and its additional “toy-hauler” trailer, out of which emerge an off-road buggy complete with roll bars and a matching pair of electric bikes. “I mean, if you have to isolate ...” says Ms. Lamkin, waving at her transportable homestead.

John and Sue Pack are isolating, too – but en masse. They and their extended family of children and grandchildren are in adjacent sites, having chosen Craig as the midpoint among various homes around Greater Salt Lake City and Castle Rock, Colorado. After months of distancing, this is how to convene, they’ve decided: in the open air, around a cookstove. They are post-meal and pre-cleanup when we catch them – a dozen friendly people splayed on benches and camp chairs, teasing and laughing, kids appearing from nowhere to jump in someone’s lap and then disappearing just as fast. A regular family, cherishing a regular time. “This is our bubble,” says Mr. Pack.

That night the temperature drops from 90 degrees to 50. The air is delicious. We keep Maybell’s windows open and still she is snug.

The campground is full but quiet. There are drifts of woodsmoke, notes of laughter that come and go, sometimes the sound of a far-off truck. The night is starry.

We are aware of unseen people gathered all around us, poking at embers, whispering, looking at the sky, tucking into bed. It feels magnificent.

Like it’s not happening.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
John and Sue Pack (center) enjoy time with extended family at a campground in Craig, Colorado, that is midway between family members’ homes.

Cows on the road 

On the way to Utah, before passing the town of Dinosaur, Colorado, we are stopped by a cattle drive. A mixed posse of wranglers (one woman, two men), on horseback and an ATV, keep the long stream of lowing cows moving across the road.

At the general store in Maybell, Colorado (no relation), we stop for gas – so much gas. The proprietor tells us about her daughter, a teacher who is worried about returning to school. “I told her, ‘You gotta have schools open; kids suffer without school. You can’t live in fear.’”

In Utah the land is rising again, but either we’ve grown used to Maybell or she’s grown used to us. The rattles aren’t as noticeable, and we let the hills slow us as they choose. We pull in and take the last available site in Ashley National Forest’s Lodgepole Campground. Unlike the cheek-by-jowl arrangements at the KOA and other private campsites, here on national forest land we are isolated among tall thin pines, the other sites scattered out of view along an access loop. No hookups, though – no electricity, water, or sewer connections. No problem, says Maybell. I’m self-sufficient.

We walk the loop, greeting communities of campers in every kind of rig. Among them are Angie and Justin Woodward in a 32-foot RV with their four children plus Tiger, a Chihuahua mix who appears to own the forest. Their site is festooned with the right camp chairs for each family member. Everyone has bikes. On their cloth-covered picnic table lie games, a stove, a cooler, and containers of craft materials and teaching supplies. They invite Melanie and me for s’mores, and the three oldest children eagerly regale us with their favorite camping destinations across Utah. They’ve done this camping thing before.

“But not as much as now!” says Mr. Woodward. The school shutdowns mean schedule flexibility, even if some educating has to take place in the wild. “It’s not normal back home,” he says. “But this” – he gestures at the activity all around us – “this is normal.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Angie Woodward blows bubbles for daughters Lillie (center) and Lucie, while her husband, Justin, watches at a campground in the Ashley National Forest in Utah.

The Woodwards represent two observations that were inescapable throughout our trip. One: The campers we meet are pros. For all the evidence of the pandemic-prompted RV surge, it’s still the aficionados, not the newbies, who dominate the road – and everyone we talk to claims, like the Woodwards, to be camping more than before.

And two: There may be no impulse more unstoppable than the human desire for “normal.”

On the Fourth of July 

From the Lodgepole Campground, we journey north, gliding gradually lower from 8,000 feet over bald mountains and broad canyons. We drive with Maybell’s windows down, the breeze blowing her curtains, our skin smooth and papery in the high dry air. It is the Fourth of July.

We’ve reserved another KOA campground – getting reservations anywhere has been difficult – this one in Montpelier, Idaho, a town on a high plain edged by hills to the north. But before reaching the campground we idle through the community of 2,500 people itself, only to find ourselves suddenly inserted into a stream of vehicles rolling in both directions on the main street. Puzzled, we pull Maybell to the curb and watch.

The vehicles are of every kind: pickups, convertibles, dirt bikes, jalopies. Some new, some old, some seemingly reserved for this purpose only. All are jammed with people – adults, teenagers, children – and most are decorated with flags or banners or signs. Sometimes the drivers themselves are decorated. We see a shirtless Uncle Sam pop a wheelie. Loudspeakers wail.

It seems the town’s official July Fourth parade has been canceled due to virus precautions, so residents have taken it upon themselves, explains a local, to spend the afternoon cruising up and down the main street. Later the Montpelier News-Examiner would report it as the revival of a time-honored tradition: “drag[ging] main as in the olden days.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Residents in all kinds of vehicles and costumes participate in an unofficial Fourth of July parade in Montpelier, Idaho.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Businesses line the main street of Montpelier, Idaho, whose residents spontaneously staged a parade to come together after a spate of suicides.

But back at the campground we learn from Brenda Reno that the revival has sadder origins. In late April, Montpelier suffered a tragic spate of five suicides in three weeks (with two more “possibles” being investigated, according to police). Though Idaho had experienced very few COVID-19 cases up to that point, the economic slowdowns had hit places like Montpelier hard. When a resident launched an ad hoc Facebook campaign proposing people “drag main” to show support for the victims’ families, hundreds of cars showed up. “It helped people,” says Ms. Reno, who is closing the campground snack bar. “Anything to get out finally, to be together even if we couldn’t be. Anything to feel normal.” Two weeks later they would drag main again.

As Ms. Reno speaks, twilight is falling. The campground pool that had been thick with splashing children has grown calm. The rooftop air conditioners of the giant motor homes hum in the heat.

Gradually we notice people emerging from rigs and cabins and shower huts, calling to one another, passing instructions, getting in cars. “What’s happening?” we ask Ms. Reno. “Oh, fireworks,” she says. “Everybody’s going to the fireworks. All my kids are. Not sure if I’m going or not.”

In coming days the News-Examiner would testify that “the fireworks were as good or better than ever, and everyone had fun.”

Inside Maybell, we didn’t hear them.

From ravines to granite cliffs 

From Montpelier to Lander, Wyoming, would be our trip’s longest leg. Also its most beautiful.

We zigzag northeast, gaining altitude. Tawny ravines give way to fir-dotted slopes, then granite cliffs. At the town of Alpine, Wyoming, we pick up the Snake River, swift and chalky in the sunshine, and follow it – the already fresh air now tasting fresher.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Visitors stop at a turnout to admire the serrated peaks of Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
A herd of bison grazes in Grand Teton National Park outside Jackson, Wyoming.

We spill through the mountain town of Jackson, then straight up Route 89 with the Grand Tetons rising on our left, their serrated profile more heart-stopping than any mountains west of the Matterhorn. We pull into a roadside overlook, park, and eat lunch. We have sandwiches and some fruit, and we settle in Maybell’s little banquette and look at the mountains filling our wide-open windows. We sit a long time. We don’t talk. 

Underway again, we haven’t traveled far when we come upon cars and campers and bus-sized RVs inexplicably pulling off the shoulderless road. Then we see why.

Spread before us, from as near as 50 yards to as far as you can see, are bison. A thousand bison. They flood the entire valley, their mammoth heads and forequarters tapering to their laughable billy-goat behinds. A preposterous animal, preposterously beautiful.

And maybe we can be forgiven right then for wondering, Where are we? How did we get here? Just a few days earlier we’d been stuck in our New England home, weary of confinement. And now: this.

The next day, outside Lander in the Shoshone National Forest, we sit by a stream with forest rangers Bill Lee and Del Nelson. They have been working in the area for 41 and 45 years, respectively, and are still coiled with energy. We describe what we’ve seen on the trip so far, and they grin like there is a secret they want to share but can’t; they know we have to learn it for ourselves. Finally Mr. Nelson ventures: “It’s therapeutic, being in nature, isn’t it? It’s medicinal, if you will.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
“It’s therapeutic, being in nature, isn’t it? It’s medicinal, if you will,” says Del Nelson (left), who along with Bill Lee has been working as a forest ranger for more than 40 years. Most of that time has been in the Shoshone National Forest in Wyoming.

Yes, it is medicinal. It is for Melanie and me, at least. Maybe for anyone.

The two men do everything that operating the Shoshone requires – “tickets to toilets,” as Mr. Lee puts it. When they started opening campgrounds on May 20, Mr. Lee bought $3,000 worth of disinfectant gear and cleaned bathrooms in a hazmat suit. Now, their wives worry more than they do, though the men still don masks around people and keep safely separate. Visitation at the national forest is up. At trailheads, the rangers are encountering more people “who don’t know their way around.” Which is a good thing, they say. More people getting the medicine.

We stay two nights in Lander – the first in Sinks Canyon State Park, the second just a couple of miles farther up the road in the Shoshone. That last night we park between canyon walls that frame the steeply falling Popo Agie River, its crystalline waters just 20 steps from Maybell’s door. All night we can hear the river tumbling in the dark. 

Remembering an air show

Our trip is coming to an end, but I’ve left something out. Sometime on the third morning, Melanie and I catch up with my past.

We are herding Maybell up Route 89 through Wyoming’s Star Valley when the highway transforms into the main street of the town of Afton. Suddenly, through the gaps in buildings, we see a paved field full of airplanes – tiny planes, open cockpits, painted like a circus. And I remember: I’ve been here before.

Forty years ago as a kid with my brother, sister, and parents I’d spent an overcast afternoon in this same place during a family trip that took us from our New Jersey home to California. The journey was an awakening – a sudden confrontation with the country’s size, a summons to imagine lives nothing like mine in places nothing like my own.

I remember lying unseen in the “way back” of our station wagon outside a Minot, North Dakota, supermarket overhearing two teenage girls talk about the boys they’d see at the state fair that night. I remember shooting baskets on a dirt court with a cowhand at a dude ranch in Chugwater, Wyoming. I remember a campground where I met an old man traveling solo in a makeshift van, who sat with me under a tree and explained which kind of rod worked for which kind of fish.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
An arch of elk antlers – the “world’s largest” – welcomes visitors to the downtown district of Afton, Wyoming.

Most vividly, though, I remember seeing an air show in Afton – I’d forgotten the name of the place until stumbling on it. A tinny loudspeaker introduced successive “acts”: a hammering old World War II Mustang, a wing-walking woman (who was tethered to a strut but appeared no less daring for it), and little biplanes that climbed straight up before sliding impossibly backward into tumbles and loops and then racing past us upside down just beyond our chain-link fence. I remember everything about the show, but mostly I remember the rapt face of my father, who had learned to fly small planes himself.

And now here Melanie and I are, walking among those planes, taking pictures of them on a quiet, diamond-bright morning. I send the pictures to my dad.

So little has changed, is the point. And maybe that is what we’ve learned as we have finally gotten out, and gotten away, and traveled through landscapes dismissive of a pandemic, among people undaunted by it. We wanted what everyone wants and what so many we met have at least for a moment achieved: Like it’s not happening. We wanted normal, but got more. We got beauty. We got solace. What we did on our summer road trip was what a lot of Americans sought to do on theirs: For a small time, we got peace.

We did not, alas, get to keep Maybell. We had to give her back. “But don’t worry,” we said to her at the depot. “We’ll return for you.” And it may have been my imagination, but I think she was glad.

She wants to go again.

On Film

Even without Mushu, Disney ups remake game with ‘Mulan’

In 1998, the animated film “Mulan” offered a generation of young girls a new kind of role model, one who defied gender norms and expectations. Disney’s live-action remake stumbles in spots but holds true to that legacy of empowerment.

Linda
Jasin Boland/Disney/AP
Liu Yifei stars in “Mulan,” the live-action remake of the 1998 animated Disney movie.
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4. Even without Mushu, Disney ups remake game with ‘Mulan’

After months in limbo, the live-action “Mulan” claims its place as the best Disney remake to date. With so much riding on its success, “Mulan” dared to be different, honoring not one but two source materials – the beloved 1998 animated film and the Chinese folk song “Ballad of Mulan” – and creating an entertaining movie that stands on its own. 

The story will be familiar to fans: When her weakened father, Hua Zhou (played by Tzi Ma), is called to serve in a second war, Mulan (Liu Yifei) disguises herself as a man and joins the imperial army in his place. If discovered, she faces the death penalty. She steals his armor and sword, which in this telling has three words inscribed on the blade: loyal, brave, and true. This becomes the film’s guiding mantra, as Mulan tries to embody these values in a society that makes no room for a female warrior.

The film is a visual masterpiece. Shot in New Zealand, it is full of rich colors and textures from start to finish. Every costume, set, and even prop is beautifully crafted, transporting viewers into a highly saturated version of sixth-century China. In battle, cannons and sword fights play second fiddle to beautifully choreographed martial arts. Characters run sideways along walls, flip head-over-heals on horseback, and dodge arrows à la “The Matrix,” with all the dramatic, slow-motion shots you’d expect from a classic martial arts movie. It’s thrilling to watch, and an impressive accomplishment for director Niki Caro. 

The lack of shot-for-shot fidelity to the animated classic will inevitably disappoint some viewers. There is no Mushu, Shang, or sassy grandma. A training montage scored by an instrumental version of “Reflection,” the hit song from the original film, is an ultimately underwhelming nod to the 90s movie. But that’s OK – unlike her animated counterpart, this Mulan is already a skilled fighter, a natural master of chi, the energy connecting all living things. It’s a quality that is demonized in women and celebrated in men. 

The most rewarding change is the villains; instead of the one-dimensional Huns, this movie sticks to the original legend by centering on a vengeful nomadic group known as the Rourans. The Rourans are assisted by enslaved witch Xian Lang, played brilliantly by Gong Li. In a parallel to Mulan’s chi, Xian Lang’s gifts are feared by men.

Like a sheep in wolf’s clothing, Xian Lang is an interesting mix of enemy and ally. When she and Mulan first meet on the battlefield, she sees right through Mulan’s disguise. “Your deceit weakens you,” she tells her, which inspires Mulan to reveal her identity, helping chip away at that question about loyalty, bravery, and truth. 

Still, the film is far from perfect. A couple of the fight scenes felt hastily cut, attempts at humor rarely land, and, strangely, I don’t recall a single drop of blood in the entire movie. Most distracting for me was the ham-handed bird imagery. Mulan is followed by a multicolored, computer-generated phoenix that acts as a sort of spirit guide, frequently swooping in and yanking attention away from the breathtaking cinematography. Xian Lang also transforms herself into a hawk or flock of crows often. All together, these effects felt a bit overdone.

The opposite is true for the lead actress. While her co-stars were busy emoting, Liu kept Mulan’s face too restrained. There’s nothing wrong with taking a subtle route, but with every other element of this film being so over the top, it was jarring to have the main character maintain such a neutral facade.

Ultimately, the most moving scenes revolve around family, particularly those between Mulan and her father. This movie takes time to develop their relationship, offering viewers insight into the pain of raising a child in a world that simply is not built for her. As the narrator, Hua Zhou puts these family relationships front and center, securing the movie’s status as a timeless retelling of the female warrior folktale. 

And his opening words are a good reminder for “Mulan” fans and new viewers alike: “There have been many tales of the great warrior Mulan. ... This one is mine.”

“Mulan” is available for streaming on Disney+.

Editor's note: While reportedly much of "Mulan" was shot in New Zealand, in its opening weekend, filmmakers revealed that some research was done in Xinjiang in China, and authorities in the region were also thanked in the credits. That is controversial because of human rights concerns about the treatment of the Uyghur population there. Claims that the movie was filmed in the region have followed. Disney had not commented as of Sept. 9.

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The Monitor's View

China’s rulers face a new type of dissent

Two ways to read the story

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This week, an edict from Beijing required Mongolian schoolchildren to stop using their native language in half of their classes. Instead they would be forced to learn in Mandarin, the official national language of China’s ethnic Han majority. A similar draconian effort to impose Han culture – and also official party dogma – already began against the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province in 2017 and the Buddhists of Tibet in 2018.

While some Mongolians protested in the streets – invoking the legend of Genghis Khan with chants like “Mongolian brothers, get on your horses!” – others did something almost unheard-of. An estimated 300,000 students did not go to school, leaving classrooms largely empty. Many teachers also joined the rare boycott, offering to teach children in their homes – in Mongolian. Many Mongolian police who have school-age children refused to go to work so as not to participate in the official crackdown.

Today, many in China are searching for ways that express protest of state violence without hatred. The threat of state violence is designed to establish a prison in the thinking of people in China. Breaking out of that prison requires a courageous step away from both hate and fear.

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China’s rulers face a new type of dissent

Before his death three years ago, Chinese activist Liu Xiaobo left this message for those who would challenge China’s communist one-party rule: “I have no enemies and no hatred.” To counter the regime’s hostility toward freedom and democracy, said the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, one must “dispel hatred with love.” An echo of his approach is now playing out among one of China’s ethnic minorities, some 4.2 million Mongolians living in the northern region of Inner Mongolia.

This week, an edict from Beijing required Mongolian schoolchildren to stop using their native language in half of their classes. Instead they would be forced to learn in Mandarin, the official national language of China’s ethnic Han majority. A similar draconian effort to impose Han culture – and also official party dogma – already began against the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province in 2017 and the Buddhists of Tibet in 2018.

While some Mongolians protested in the streets – invoking the legend of Genghis Khan with chants like “Mongolian brothers, get on your horses!” – others did something almost unheard-of. An estimated 300,000 students did not go to school, leaving classrooms largely empty. Many teachers also joined the rare boycott, offering to teach children in their homes – in Mongolian. A few high school students began a hunger strike.

Many Mongolian police who have school-age children refused to go to work so as not to participate in the official crackdown. “I want to live by my principles,” one policeman told the Los Angeles Times.

The more that the country’s hard-line leader Xi Jinping tries to impose his harsh rule, the more the tactics of dissent in China may be shifting toward Mr. Liu’s approach. In Hong Kong, for example, many pro-democracy activists are asserting their rights in creative ways, such as expressing songs without lyrics or holding up posters without words. The meaning is clear to the millions in Hong Kong who reject authoritarian rule and the imposition of the mainland’s Han culture.

In 1989, during the pro-democracy protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, the use of nonviolent tactics was symbolized by the famous image of a lone man blocking a column of tanks. Today, many in China are searching for ways that express protest of state violence without hatred. The threat of state violence is designed to establish a prison in the thinking of people in China. Breaking out of that prison requires a courageous step away from both hate and fear.

A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Finding another option, when plans go awry

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Convinced that waste is no part of God’s divine economy, a woman turned to prayer when trying to find a suitable place for items that would meet the needs of others. 

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1. Finding another option, when plans go awry

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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My siblings and I had driven in from all over the country. Due to various schedules, we only had three days to accomplish the task of preparing my mother’s home for sale. Before arriving, we had an estate sale planned and four donation organizations who were willing to accept most of my parents’ items. We had a dumpster for everything else.

But on the second day of our whirlwind cleanup, our plans came to a screeching halt. Rules for gatherings were changed due to the pandemic lockdown, and the estate sale was canceled. All four donation places were no longer accepting donations. Yet the house was due to go on the market in five days.

It seemed that the dumpster was the only option for Mom and Dad’s beautiful living room, dining room, and bedroom furniture. But to unceremoniously throw out items acquired over more than a half-century seemed wrong on so many levels, especially since I knew there were people lacking what these objects could offer. One dictionary defines “economy” as the careful management of available resources. Throwing away solid furniture in good condition didn’t seem like a careful management of resources when so many people had a need.

I felt so strongly about finding another option that I immediately reached out to God. I said to myself, “God, You are in charge here, not material circumstances.” I reasoned this way: Because God is good and the creator of the universe, as it says in the Bible, nothing in God’s true creation, the universe of Spirit, could ever be useless or outside of its rightful place. Everyone and everything in this creation expresses Spirit, God, and therefore has a divine purpose that must bless.

This prayer was not about physical things. It’s not that God knows of furniture or other material items. But God’s goodness and love maintain the divine order, or divine economy, which is manifested humanly as we become conscious that this spiritual economy is truly our present reality. And in this economy, “whatever blesses one blesses all,” as Mary Baker Eddy writes in “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” (p. 206).

To me, this idea of universal blessing indicates a source of love, protection, supply, and goodness that is so unlimited and all-knowing, it leaves no one out – not us, nor whoever it was that could benefit from all that we had to share.

These ideas all came to me in the few minutes we had available to come up with a plan. We decided to continue to clean and turn the situation completely over to God. Then, as we were cleaning, one of my siblings took a table down to the road with a “free for the taking” sign. Within minutes, a couple stopped to pick it up! Then they pulled into the driveway. They told us they worked at a large church down the street and knew many people who could benefit from these items. This was our answer.

The next day they came back with a truck and took everything we didn’t want. Mom’s items were driven away to be a blessing for others, and we had a clean house ready for the market. None of us doubted that God had brought the families together. We were so grateful!

But most of all, we were grateful for the proof that God’s care never stops at just one person. Infinite Love is too big for that! It reaches places we may never see or know. Like ripples in a pond, an action or word or prayer that helps one, reverberates outward to help others as well.

This is a simple demonstration of a need being met, but to me it was a beautiful illustration of how turning to God, divine Love, brings to light, and evidences, the divine idea of supply – that God’s always providing everyone with exactly what they need, when they need it.

Viewfinder

Investing in Kenosha

Ann Hermes/Staff
The shooting of Jacob Blake put Kenosha on the map in ways that many local residents never expected. The unfolding unrest has drawn a national spotlight, but there are other reasons to look closer at this Wisconsin city. Many residents have been inspired to get involved, give back to their community, and invest in the change they want to see. Here are a few of their stories.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris. )

A look ahead

Thank you for joining us today. Enjoy the long holiday weekend, if your schedule allows for one. We don’t publish on Monday, Labor Day, but watch for a message from Samantha Laine Perfas about the podcast she’s been producing, “Perception Gaps: Locked Up,” including a look ahead at the season finale.

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