2021
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Monitor Daily Podcast

October 01, 2021
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TODAY’S INTRO

Finding unexpected resilience at the heart of the pandemic

When I was a student learning the profession of journalism over two decades ago, I had to report and write stories on deadline that illustrated such topicless themes as “altered states” or “remembrance of things past” or “overcoming obstacles.” These exercises emphasized the necessary sinews that hold stories together as recognizable human experiences.

They also emphasize the lenses reporters must choose when organizing the facts they find.

In the Monitor’s Finding Resilience series, I decided to seek out the ways some people responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a very personal topic, since my neighborhood in Queens was among those experiencing the highest rates of infection in the world at the time, accompanied by fear and a surreal sense of uncertainty.

A year and a half later, however, I didn’t really “find” examples of resilience. Instead, I found a group of students in the Bronx who had already done the work, interviewing people who, unlike me, could not work from home.

They documented on Zoom the stories of Bronx residents who often lived in multigenerational homes, worked in essential jobs in little-protected conditions, and experienced a crisis in a borough with a long-observed dearth of health care facilities.

As each of them told me, they expected these oral histories to be tales of hardship and woe. To their surprise, they said, they found instead resilience, a word their sources used again and again. 

And as they struggled, too, learning the skills of interviewing and storytelling on the fly in the midst of the disruptions in their own lives, they found a measure of resilience in themselves as well. 

Join me and some of these students next week as the Monitor hosts a free, online conversation on Tuesday, Oct. 5, titled “Overcoming adversity: How the pandemic revealed resilience.” To participate, register for the noon show or the 6 p.m. show.

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With Merkel leaving, is Macron the new leader of Europe?

For more than a decade, Europeans have looked to Germany’s Angela Merkel to lead with unshakeable ethics. Now, as she prepares to leave office, can France’s Emmanuel Macron take up her mantle?

Harry
Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters
French President Emmanuel Macron welcomes German Chancellor Angela Merkel for a last working dinner in Paris before she steps down as chancellor. The French president is vying to fill her shoes as Europe's natural leader.

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Angela Merkel is stepping down after 16 years as Germany’s chancellor and Europe’s most prominent head of state. It’s leaving space for French President Emmanuel Macron to fill the power vacuum left in her wake.

Mr. Macron has been a great promoter of Europe since his early days as the president of France. And it’s been a top priority as of late, amid the pandemic, climate change, and geopolitical tensions with Russia and China. “France has been actively trying to influence the EU’s trajectory,” says Georgina Wright of Institut Montaigne in Paris. “A lot of what the EU is discussing at the moment [are] all the things France has been pushing and decisions close to Macron’s heart.”

But Mr. Macron has not persuaded Europeans that he can lead them. A recent poll found that 41% of European Union citizens would vote for Ms. Merkel versus 14% for Mr. Macron in a hypothetical election for the EU presidency.

“Macron has failed to take other members [of the EU] on board. He is a leader with no followers,” says Jana Puglierin, a co-author of the study. “He has ambitious ideas ... but he needs to be more trustworthy and more inclusive, more like Merkel in this respect.”

With Merkel leaving, is Macron the new leader of Europe?

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French President Emmanuel Macron has been zipping around France at frenetic speed in recent weeks, delivering speeches about law and order, unveiling public art, and promising greener high-speed trains. 

With the French presidential elections looming next June, Mr. Macron is positioning himself for the race – though he has yet to officially declare his intention to run. 

But as he does so, there is another leadership role to fill that is equally pressing. Angela Merkel is stepping down after 16 years as Germany’s chancellor and Europe’s most prominent head of state. That’s leaving space for France – Europe’s second largest country and the other player in a historically close Franco-German partnership – and Mr. Macron to fill the power vacuum she will leave.

But as France prepares to take over the six-month rotating European Union Council presidency in January and Germany enters a period of flux as it works out its leadership coalition, Mr. Macron must bring more than ambition to the table. He’ll first have to contend with filling Ms. Merkel’s formidable shoes. The German chancellor has been lauded for her unwavering ethics, measured politics, and consensus-building ability when it comes to controversial decisions on immigration and the economy.

Having a strong figurehead for Europe “is of fundamental importance,” says Paul Vallet, a Franco-American researcher of European history at the Geneva Center for Security Policy. “One reason people at the local level feel detached from Europe’s role in the world is that they feel detached from official EU leaders.

“So it absolutely does matter how much clout a leader can manage to wield,” he argues. Besides Ms. Merkel, “there are very few personalities that are standing out, so it leaves room for the French president to appear as an extremely competent driver of procedure.”

A French vision for Europe

European cooperation is increasingly important to France, especially amid the challenges currently facing both the nation and the bloc. The EU’s potential for resilience and independent defense capabilities has topped the French agenda in recent weeks, after Australia canceled a submarine contract with France worth $66 billion, choosing instead to partner with the United States and Britain. But the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and geopolitical challenges from Russia and China had already highlighted the value of member state cooperation.

Kenzo Tribouillard/AP
French President Emmanuel Macron (right) is greeted by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg as he arrives for a NATO summit in Brussels on June 14, 2021. Mr. Macron's suggestion two years ago that the alliance was "brain dead" cost him credibility in Eastern Europe.

Mr. Macron has been a great promoter of Europe since his early days as French president, giving an ambitious speech at the Sorbonne University that proposed a detailed reform agenda focusing on continental sovereignty and defense, and calling on Germany to play a leading role.

“France has been actively trying to influence the EU’s trajectory,” says Georgina Wright, head of the Europe Program of the Institut Montaigne, a think tank in Paris. “I think it’s evidently clear that a lot of what the EU is discussing at the moment – be that the climate deal, EU foreign policy, or decisions around tech regulation – they’re all the things France has been pushing and decisions close to Macron’s heart.”

But Mr. Macron’s achievements have fallen short of his ambitions. That is partly because of the inherent difficulty of reaching policy consensus among all 27 EU members. But it also has something to do with the French leader’s style, and the way he is perceived in comparison with Ms. Merkel.

“Merkel is analytic and a very integrative person, so she tries to bring people on board to find compromise,” says Daniela Schwarzer, executive director of Europe and Eurasia at the Open Society Foundations. “Macron has a far more disruptive understanding of change. There’s a difference between the two approaches that is very much anchored in the respective political cultures of France and Germany.”

Last month, the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) published a study that confirmed some of the apprehension surrounding Mr. Macron’s ability to unite Europe. It showed that EU citizens saw Germany as a trustworthy, pro-European power, with Ms. Merkel a major source of that positive image. Their poll found that 41% of respondents would vote for Ms. Merkel versus 14% for Mr. Macron in a hypothetical election for the EU presidency.

Hesitancy among Europeans

The comparative lack of support may be due in part over Mr. Macron’s handling of troubles at home. His presidency has been marred by social unrest, notably the yellow vest protests, and domestic terrorism.

And even if Mr. Macron has always promoted a strong vision for Europe with innovative ideas, he has been criticized for antagonizing his neighbors. For example, in November 2019 he said that NATO was experiencing “brain death” in an interview with The Economist. His blunt words sounded to German ears like a suggestion that NATO was worthless, and they alienated Central and Eastern European nations for whom NATO is an invaluable element of their defense.

“Macron has failed to take other members [of the EU] on board. He is a leader with no followers,” says Jana Puglierin, head of the ECFR Berlin office. “He has ambitious ideas and wants to change the status quo ... but he needs to be more trustworthy and more inclusive, more like Merkel in this respect.”

Observers say Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi shouldn’t be counted out as an influential figure for Europe, and that Rome, Berlin, and Paris could potentially form a triangular alliance to help move decisions forward. 

Still, Germany and France’s historically strong partnership will most likely dominate the European policy agenda – Germany as the largest in the bloc and France as one of the most enthusiastic about European integration and sovereignty.

Mr. Macron’s ability to lead Europe will, of course, depend on whether he can convince the French that he should remain their leader. If and when he officially begins campaigning for the presidential bid, his Europe agenda could fall by the wayside. But on pressing issues such as climate change, rule of law, defense, and integration, France clearly has an important role to play.

“Macron has been trying really hard to invest in his relations with EU leaders. Member states know that France is one of the only EU countries that has a European agenda and who can push through pieces of legislation,” says Ms. Wright of the Institut Montaigne.

Whether that translates into a personal leadership role for Mr. Macron, though, is another matter. “The thing about Europe is, there is no one leader and no one is expecting one leader,” Ms. Wright adds. “What people are looking for is for the EU to move forward and continue to reform. No one is expecting a continuation of Merkel.”

The Explainer

German coalition talks: What do they reveal about Germany’s future?

Germany’s first post-Merkel election promises to reshape the country’s governing priorities. They can begin to be seen as the parties thrash out a new, likely three-party coalition.

Harry

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With Germany’s federal elections finally in the books, the country’s parties are now tasked with determining who will replace Angela Merkel as chancellor. For the first time in decades, three parties will be needed to form a governing coalition.

The calculus that requires three parties to form a coalition gives unusual power to two smaller parties: The Greens (14.8%) and the Free Democrats (FDP, 11.5%). These two parties – which are both socially liberal but divided on economics – will be hammering out policy differences and finding commonalities. Meanwhile, Olaf Scholz and his center-left Social Democrats (SPD), which edged Ms. Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) by 1 1/2 points, will be waiting for their phone call.

Pundits predict that the most likely government will be a “traffic light” coalition – red for SPD, yellow for FDP, and green for, appropriately, The Greens. Still, the result is not a clear repudiation of the CDU’s mainstream policies.

“A traffic light coalition would definitely be a move to the center-left, but it will be capped by the free-market-oriented FDP,” says Aaron Allen with the Center for European Policy Analysis. “Olaf Scholz is an experienced, competent politician, and I don’t think he’ll rock the boat that much.”

German coalition talks: What do they reveal about Germany’s future?

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Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters
Election posters of Social Democratic candidate for chancellor Olaf Scholz, Christian Lindner of the liberal Free Democratic party, and the Greens party co-leader Annalena Baerbock are pictured in a park of Bad Honnef, Germany, Oct. 1, 2021.

With Germany’s federal elections finally in the books, the country’s parties are now tasked with determining who will replace Angela Merkel as chancellor. In a break from Ms. Merkel’s 16 years at the helm of the European Union’s most powerful country, her center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) came in second to the center-left Social Democrats (SPD). Ms. Merkel will stay in power until coalition negotiations are concluded – but for the first time in decades, three parties will be needed to form a governing coalition.

Why is needing three parties a big deal?

The calculus that requires three parties to form a coalition gives unusual power to two smaller parties: The Greens (14.8%) and the Free Democrats (FDP, 11.5%). These two parties – which are both socially liberal but divided on economics – will be hammering out policy differences and finding commonalities. Meanwhile, Olaf Scholz and his SPD, which edged Ms. Merkel’s CDU by 1 1/2 points, will be waiting for their phone call.

Pundits predict that the most likely government will be a “traffic light” coalition – red for SPD, yellow for FDP, and green for, appropriately, The Greens. That said, the CDU will also be meeting with the FDP; it’s unlikely, but possible that the CDU could still negotiate its way into a “Jamaica” ruling coalition (green, yellow, and black; the CDU’s color is black) should The Greens and the FDP choose to rule with it instead.

Michael Kappeler/dpa/AP
Germany's Green party leaders Annalena Baerbock (center) and Robert Habeck (left) brief the media together with the chairman of the Free Democrats, Christian Lindner (right), after exploratory talks between the two parties about options for a new German government in Berlin, Oct. 1, 2021.

Having three ruling parties could mean policymaking stasis; more voices means potentially more squabbling. Yet a multiparty coalition signals a new era in German politics, whereby the political landscape has fragmented, and more small parties will be consistently vying for votes.

What does the vote say about how Germany has changed?

At the very least, the CDU’s loss was a clear repudiation of its candidate for chancellor, Armin Laschet. Mr. Laschet is famously gaffe-prone, and the party accustomed to ruling Germany with Ms. Merkel at the helm has reached a moment of reckoning after experiencing a 9-point drop from the 2017 federal election.

That said, the result is not a clear repudiation of the CDU’s mainstream policies. The SPD’s Mr. Scholz is business-friendly and generally hews to the right of his party’s center-left platform.

“A traffic light coalition would definitely be a move to the center-left, but it will be capped by the free-market-oriented FDP,” says Aaron Allen, analyst with the Center for European Policy Analysis. “Olaf Scholz [the leading contender for chancellor] is an experienced, competent politician, and I don’t think he’ll rock the boat that much.”

Yet, with first-time voters gravitating in the largest shares to The Greens and the FDP, there’s a clear signal that Germany’s political landscape has significantly shifted away from the traditional large parties.

What does the delay in government formation mean for Germany’s role in the EU? 

In a press conference earlier this week, Mr. Scholz remarked that a coalition government should be formed “by Christmas.” That’s three long months away, and in that time, consequential events such as the United Nations climate change conference in Glasgow, Scotland, will be taking place. Germany also faces important challenges such as ongoing management of the COVID-19 outbreak, and how it might handle a multibillion-dollar pandemic-related deficit.

Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters
Armin Laschet, Christian Democratic Union leader and candidate for chancellor, holds a news conference one day after the German general elections, in Berlin, Sept. 27, 2021.

Ms. Merkel will be chancellor until a new government is announced, and her presence until then will provide continuity. “But the European Union is in very bad shape, because we have no strategic direction or ideas about what we want to be, or how we want to renew the transatlantic relationship,” says Judy Dempsey, senior fellow at Carnegie Europe. “We’re also so divided over China. We need direction on how we’re going to tackle these major challenges.”

Still, the likeliest traffic light coalition would not present a wholly radical departure from past policies, so if Ms. Merkel holds course, it should flow into whatever government comes next.

Yet nitty-gritty details on where Germany’s priorities will lie, and how leadership sees its responsibilities as far as the European Union and global alliances, will have to wait. The faster Germany can start down the road with clear leadership, the better for Europe.

Difference-maker

When prison doors swing open, these mentors open their arms

Society often treats formerly incarcerated people as broken. At the Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop, they help each other – and themselves – find healing.

Harry
Erika Page/The Christian Science Monitor
Craig Watson (left), Keela Hailes (center), and Shannon Battle – seen here at the office of Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop in Washington on June 21, 2021 – form a network of support for formerly incarcerated individuals.

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When Craig Watson returned from prison, he had 22 years of catching up to do. Volunteers with the Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop helped him with practical things like finding his first job, but most important, the organization became an extended family that kept Mr. Watson from becoming another statistic.

Every year, the United States releases 7 million people from jail and more than 600,000 from prison. Of the latter, more than two-thirds are rearrested within three years. Free Minds offers its 330 reentry members workshops, coaching, counseling, group support, and connections to opportunities. Mr. Watson is one of 12 peer supporters guiding others through the emotional and logistical challenges of starting over after incarceration. That level of peer involvement is key to the success of reentry, experts say.

“The prison system is designed to break ties, to separate the person who is incarcerated from their community,” says Tara Libert, co-founder and executive director of Free Minds. She says that peer support does the opposite. “They repair, restore, and create new community connections which are essential to successful reentry.”

For Mr. Watson, the dream is simply “to do right by a young man. ... It’s just rewarding.”

When prison doors swing open, these mentors open their arms

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Craig Watson only showed up at that poetry workshop back in 2015 because his prison compound’s championship basketball game was canceled. “I was just sitting there, like, ‘I don’t write poems. I don’t rhyme,’” he recalls, chuckling.

The facilitator from Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop told him to forget about rhyming and just express himself. The blank page in front of him began to fill up. Poetry offered an outlet for expressing difficult feelings about a childhood marked by violence. During community “write nights,” Free Minds members gave him positive feedback, and he began to lean into that network of support.

Free Minds, founded in 2002, operates book clubs and writing workshops in prisons around the United States and at the jail and juvenile detention center in Washington, offering constructive connections among its nearly 2,000 members. Members never “graduate” but remain part of the organization for life; thousands are on its waitlist. When incarcerated people are released, Free Minds helps them find their feet back home through its reentry program. 

When Mr. Watson returned from prison through the Second Look Amendment Act in 2019, he had 22 years of catching up to do. Free Minds helped him with practical things, like finding his first job, but most important, the organization became an extended family that kept Mr. Watson from becoming another statistic.  

Every year, the U.S. releases 7 million people from jail and more than 600,000 from prison. Of the latter, more than two-thirds are rearrested within three years. Many return to communities of historical underinvestment with limited education and weak social support. Criminal records make the job search difficult, and drug use and suicide rates are high, according to a report by the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. 

Free Minds offers its 330 reentry members workshops, coaching, counseling, group support, and connections to opportunities. But during the pandemic, Mr. Watson, who was serving as a Free Minds poetry ambassador, noticed he wasn’t hearing from a lot of reentry members.

So in January, he presented his idea: a formalized peer support program, with the goal that every reentry member would have someone to talk to who had been through it themselves. Today, Mr. Watson is one of 12 peer supporters guiding others through the emotional and logistical challenges of starting over after incarceration. That level of peer involvement is key to the success of reentry, experts say.

“The promise of these [reentry] programs lies in the street cred of the mentors,” says Dr. Nancy La Vigne, a criminologist with the Council on Criminal Justice. “People are more likely to listen to and follow the lead of someone who’s walked in their shoes. ... I think they can reach people who might not otherwise be reachable.”

Erika Page/The Christian Science Monitor
Shannon Battle (left) and Davonta McBride, seen outside Davonta’s home in Washington, Aug. 20, 2021, met through a Free Minds meeting.

A listening ear

Mr. Watson traces his journey as a peer supporter back to a time in solitary confinement in 2005. In many prisons, incarcerated people sent to solitary confinement end up doubled up in cells together. His cellmate had just learned of the death of his mother. Mr. Watson sat with the man, though he barely knew him. The two talked, heart to heart. Mostly, Mr. Watson listened. When his time in solitary confinement ended, Mr. Watson voluntarily stayed longer, to be there for his new friend. 

“I know how important it is to have somebody when you’re going through something,” says Mr. Watson.

In May, the first class of Free Minds peer supporters completed a three-month training course, where they learned how to care for others while also paying attention to their own needs. Over two dozen reentry members have already expressed interest in joining the next class in October. 

“The prison system is designed to break ties, to separate the person who is incarcerated from their community,” says Tara Libert, co-founder and executive director of Free Minds. She says that peer support does the opposite. “They repair, restore, and create new community connections which are essential to successful reentry.” 

The peer supporters work alongside three full-time reentry coaches, who recommend names of people who might need extra attention via a phone call or a visit. Sometimes, the members simply want to celebrate a new job or recount the score from a child’s sports game. Other times, they need help working through relationship problems, loneliness, or post-traumatic stress.

“We know the problems of the young people out in the streets,” says Mr. Watson, who got the keys to his first apartment in September. “We want to give back to these communities that we once destroyed when we were young.” 

The peer supporters say that helping others helps them heal, too.

“After talking with them, we understand what our family was going through – our mothers, our sisters, our brothers,” says Mr. Watson. “That’s where that connection really builds.” 

“Just rewarding”

When a friend home from jail first brought Davonta McBride to a Free Minds reentry book club meeting, Davonta imagined he’d walk that path, too, dropping out of school or getting locked up. “I was so worried about him because he was like a firecracker, just really impulsive and angry,” remembers Keela Hailes, a reentry coach who got involved with Free Minds after her own son became incarcerated. 

The Free Minds members treated Davonta like family. He showed up every Wednesday evening, even arriving early to set up and staying late to clean. That’s where Davonta met Shannon Battle. Mr. Battle had learned of Free Minds through his friend Mr. Watson after serving 25 years in prison and is now himself a trained peer supporter. 

Both Davonta and Mr. Battle grew up in precarious circumstances and took to the streets in their early teens in search of money – and role models. So when Mr. Battle got a call that Davonta was in a potentially violent situation, he knew he had to act fast. 

“I dropped everything I was doing, went to his school looking for him, and basically had a conversation with him to let him know that this course of action was not the right one,” recounts Mr. Battle. Davonta nods his head in agreement. 

“I had people in the ’hood, but they weren’t role models. They were just telling me what to do,” says Davonta, whose own father has been locked up for as long as he can remember. “People like Shannon I listen to because I know he went through the stuff, so I take big heed of what he says,” he adds.

Thanks to Free Minds, he says, he graduated from high school this spring. 

“They treat me like one of their sons, or brothers. I can call them for anything,” says Davonta. Mr. Battle even helped him pick out an outfit for prom. 

“That’s always been our dream,” says Mr. Battle. “To do right by a young man like him – because we can see a lot of ourselves in him – it’s just rewarding.”

‘A revolutionary posture’: Singer Dar Williams takes a stand for optimism

What’s the best way to stay buoyant in the face of challenges like climate change or declining towns? For musician and author Dar Williams, the key is a social contract she calls “positive proximity.” 

Harry
Courtesy of Ebru Yildiz
Singer-songwriter Dar Williams' 10th album, "I'll Meet You Here," released Oct. 1, suggests that social connections can empower individuals to tackle global issues.

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Folk singer Dar Williams’ literary lyrics – lauded by the likes of Joan Baez and Judy Collins – often explore how contrasting individuals meet heart-to-heart. Her characters find common ground across religion and gender. 

Her latest album, “I’ll Meet You Here,” which debuts Oct. 1, posits that social connections can empower individuals to tackle global issues such as climate change. 

“If you have what I call ‘positive proximity,’ which is the most basic contract of social trust, you recognize that living side by side with other people is beneficial,” says Ms. Williams in a phone interview. “You don’t have to like them. You don’t have to understand them all the time. But somehow you can find your dovetailing interests.”

The new album’s lead single, “Today and Every Day,” features a stop-motion animation music video in which individuals unite to tackle climate change. Ms. Williams says the message is a counterpoint to the doomy tenor of many environmental stories in the news. 

“[That] puts us in the place of not doing anything, because it feels so futile,” says the songwriter. “Optimism is a revolutionary posture right now.”

‘A revolutionary posture’: Singer Dar Williams takes a stand for optimism

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On the cover of her new album, Dar Williams stands on a floating platform in a lake. A breeze ripples the water so that it’s as wrinkled as elephant skin. As Ms. Williams gazes toward an unseen horizon, her scarlet shawl flutters behind her like a vapor trail. 

The atomistic image is metaphorical. Ms. Williams says the photo, taken by a drone, makes her look like a red dot destination marker on a map. The album, debuting Oct. 1, is titled “I’ll Meet You Here.”   

“Somehow we have to figure out how to continue to meet the moment and meet one another,” even when we seem to be stranded, explains the folk singer in a phone call.

Ms. Williams’ songs often illustrate how human connections can be a bridge across troubled waters. In 2017, the songwriter wrote a book about solving social problems by finding common ground. “What I Found in a Thousand Towns” examines local communities that have been revitalized by disparate citizens who’ve banded together in collective pursuits. Ms. Williams’ 10th album goes one step further. It posits that social connections can empower individuals to tackle global issues such as climate change. 

“The things I love about her songwriting are all on this album,” says songwriter Maia Sharp, who shares a similar literate, lyrical sensibility on her latest album, “Mercy Rising.” “I just thoroughly enjoyed it, from a thinker’s perspective, from an emotional perspective. She hits on familiar heartfelt subjects and themes, but operates in a completely unique way. ... It’s very layered, and I always get a little more from it every time I hear it.”

Courtesy of Ebru Yildiz
In addition to a long career in music, Dar Williams also wrote a book in 2017. "What I Found in a Thousand Towns” examines local communities that have been revitalized by disparate citizens who’ve banded together in collective pursuits.

Ms. Williams’ literary lyrics – also lauded by the likes of Joan Baez and Judy Collins – often explore how contrasting individuals meet heart-to-heart. For instance, her 1993 debut, “The Honesty Room,” includes a fan favorite titled “When I Was a Boy.” The song’s female narrator reflects on a childhood in which she was a misunderstood tomboy who could “climb a tree in 10 seconds flat.” Her male partner then confesses that he exhibited feminine qualities as a child, picking flowers everywhere he walked. “And you were just like me, and I was just like you,” he concludes. 

A song called “Christians and Pagans” on Ms. Williams’ second album probes how we can find the humanity in those unlike us. It’s a sitcom-like story about a lesbian who brings her Wiccan partner to a Christmas dinner hosted by her religious uncle. The two sides of the festive table ultimately find communion: “Lighting trees in darkness, learning new ways from the old, and / Making sense of history and drawing warmth out of the cold.”

“If you have what I call ‘positive proximity,’ which is the most basic contract of social trust, you recognize that living side by side with other people is beneficial,” says Ms. Williams. “You don’t have to like them. You don’t have to understand them all the time. But somehow you can find your dovetailing interests.”

Indeed, Ms. Williams’ book chronicles how small towns from Florida to Pennsylvania to Utah have been revitalized through positive proximity. The author researched how neighbors can set aside partisan differences by focusing on community projects, sharing communal indoor and outdoor spaces, and finding value in the varied personalities and skill sets of fellow citizens.

“I’ll Meet You Here” includes a song, “Magical Thinking,” about a desolate locale where roofs have caved in and trees have overgrown the railway of a run-down station. The narrator’s vision of the town’s revival comes true despite the naysaying of skeptics who’d accused her of impossible dreaming. 

A positive outlook also informs the album’s centerpiece, “Little Town.” It’s about a bigoted man who resists the growing racial diversity in the town his family has lived in for generations. But his longtime friend, the mayor, invites him to participate in planning the annual July 4 parade. Over the arc of the narrative, the protagonist eventually comes to embrace his diverse neighbors. The song was inspired by a notable figure in Beacon, New York – a town near where Ms. Williams lives that she profiles in her book – who was able to bridge divides within the community. 

“In Beacon, the mayor knew the old guard and welcomed the new guard,” she says. “He had a sign that a campaign had made against him. On one side, it said, ‘I love Randy.’ And on the other side it says, ‘But I don’t want him to be my mayor.’ He just laughed and he said, ‘These are all my friends now. You know, these are the people I work with closely.’”

The new album’s lead single, “Today and Every Day,” features a stop-motion animation music video in which individuals unite to tackle climate change. It concludes with a scene in which someone leafs through a book with images of wildlife, from polar bears to bees. The final page says “The End.” The character picks up a pencil, crosses out the inscription, and instead writes, “New Beginnings.” Ms. Williams says the message is a counterpoint to the doomy tenor of many environmental stories in the news. 

“It puts us in the place of not doing anything, because it feels so futile,” says the songwriter. “Optimism is a revolutionary posture right now.”

The video, intricately handcrafted by fellow musician Antje Duvekot, also depicts a woman sending a letter with a picture of a heart to a solitary stranger. The recipient seems to be as isolated as Ms. Williams is on the cover of her album.

“People think that saving the planet is a matter of political will. But the thing that has to precede political will is social will,” she says. “Antje and I want to underscore the importance of the connections that we have that involve trust and responsibility to other people. And that comes when your heart feels connected to somebody far away.” 

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When Islamists defend democracy

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It says something about progress in the Middle East that top Islamist leaders in Iraq and Tunisia are crying out for democracy in their Muslim countries. Their public faith in individual liberties and rights is a timely counterpoint to the hardening of Islamist rule in Iran and Afghanistan.

In Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a highly influential religious authority, has called on voters to participate in crucial parliamentary elections Oct. 10. He advised voters to select a candidate in their districts who is the “most honest, who is interested in the sovereignty, security, and prosperity of Iraq.”

In Tunisia, where a democracy sprang up during the 2011 Arab Spring, the leading Islamist party, Ennahda, has led calls to reverse a power grab by President Kais Saied. In July, the former law professor seized near-total power. On Sept. 29, Ennahda called on all political and civil society groups to “defend representative democracy.”

Many people in the Mideast who live under an authoritarian or strict Islamic ruler are probably aware of these hopeful calls for democracy by Islamist leaders. Reconciling democracy and sharia (Islamic law) is not always easy. But at least two countries are showing signs of hope that bear watching.

When Islamists defend democracy

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Reuters
A female employee of Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission delivers voter cards in Basra, Iraq, for an Oct. 10 election.

It says something about progress in the Middle East that top Islamist leaders in Iraq and Tunisia are crying out for democracy in their Muslim countries. Their public faith in individual liberties and rights is a timely counterpoint to the hardening of Islamist rule in Iran and Afghanistan.

In Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a highly influential religious authority, has called on voters to shed their apathy and participate “consciously and responsibly” in crucial parliamentary elections Oct. 10. “Make a good choice, otherwise the failures of the previous parliaments and the governments emanating from them will be repeated,” he said Sept. 29, referring to political leaders elected after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that planted democracy in Iraq.

The election, he added, is the best path for Iraq to “reach a hopefully better future than the past, and through which the risk of falling into the abyss of chaos and political stalemate will be avoided.”

While Mr. Sistani does not support parties or candidates, he advised voters to select a candidate in their districts who is the “most honest, who is interested in the sovereignty, security, and prosperity of Iraq.” His reference to “sovereignty” may be a call to rid Iraq of foreign influence, especially that of Iran and the United States.

In Tunisia, where a democracy sprang up during the 2011 Arab Spring, the leading Islamist party, Ennahda, has led calls to reverse a power grab by President Kais Saied. In July, the former law professor suspended parliament and seized near-total power, claiming the government was in political gridlock. Although he promised his actions were temporary, he has since cracked down on opposition and added to his powers. Ennahda’s leader, Rached Ghannouchi, who is Tunisia’s leading Islamist politician and the speaker of parliament, said the president had effectively “canceled the constitution.”

On Sept. 29, Ennahda called on all political and civil society groups to “defend representative democracy” through “all forms of peaceful struggle.” On Oct. 1, police blocked dozens of members of parliament from entering the legislature.

Many people in the Mideast who live under an authoritarian or strict Islamic ruler are probably aware of these hopeful calls for democracy by Islamist leaders in Iraq and Tunisia. Reconciling democracy and sharia (Islamic law) is not always easy. But at least two countries are showing signs of hope that bear watching.

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.

The grace of forgiving

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When forgiveness seems an impossible task, we can let God’s love dispel hurt, redeem wrongs, and impel peace, grace, and even “sweet reuniting,” as this poem conveys.

The grace of forgiving

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Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition

Forgiving her sat like a rock too
heavy to move. Bleary with fitful
mental mutterings of “She owes me
an explanation,” I turned away from
this earthly haze to the perfect
clarity of divine Love, God.

At once my praying thought stirred
with an upwelling as noiseless as
dawn’s light: “And forgive us our
debts, as we forgive our debtors.”*

Then came, “And Love is reflected
 in love;...”**

Instantly, it crystallized that Love
owes nothing for it has all, its
ever-presence teeming with good,
no voids to fill. We are the children
– reflection – of Love, and our divine
Parent streams to us all grace, joy,
mercy – unspent. As we drink in
our spiritual nature, free hearts brim
to overflow. All hurt spills out, no
room; its sham power and presence
wash away in the love of Love.

It was as though I tossed the rock
like a pebble. Thought now released,
gracious forgiveness swept in peace.
Even sweet reuniting came.

*Matthew 6:12
**Mary Baker Eddy, “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” p. 17

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Four-footed fun

Hatem Moussa/AP
A Palestinian man plays with a horse at the beach of the Mediterranean Sea in Gaza City in the northern Gaza Strip, Oct. 1, 2021. The beach is one of the few open public spaces.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )

A look ahead

Thanks for ending your week with us. Come back on Monday when we’ll be looking at the start of the Supreme Court’s term, including a case that could define the court’s legacy.

More issues

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