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Posts Tagged ‘choose your own adventure’

NPR’s podcast, Invisibilia, just ran a piece about Max Hawkins, “a kind of unassuming white guy.” Maybe you know Max because he arrived, uninvited, at your Passover seder, or the sushi-making party you threw last year. Because that’s his thing: using technology to find and show up at private events.

And—surprise!—strangers welcome him gladly! Relationships are formed, and good times are had by all!

The piece is skewed to read as wacky, charming, renewing-your-faith-in-the-basic-goodness-of-your-fellow-citydwellers. All that. Definitely played for sweetness: young man realizes he lives in a bubble and uses tech to try new things and meet people he wouldn’t have otherwise met. You can listen to it on the NPR site. It’s a great story.

And it enrages me.

For real. On so many levels: as a woman, as a Black person, as a private citizen who doesn’t have a lot of love for colonizers and gate crashers. This story reeks of privilege, and NPR’s inability or unwillingness to call that out in a real way is frustrating in the extreme. There is a half-second nod to Hawkins’ privilege. But that’s it. The idea is almost acknowledged, and we’re told that Hawkins acknowledges it, too … and then we move right back to the smiley, feel-goodness of this zany tale.

But it’s not that simple. In 2017, in MAGA America, it cannot be that simple.

In the past, you could do an interview like this and never have to include even token acknowledgement of the power of whiteness. Why would you? It was expected that stories would be told from the point of view of white folk, quite often from the vantage point of white men. The white person’s point of view was, simply, the “norm,” and the rest of us were welcome to fit ourselves in around the margins if we could, but we were expected to accept our exclusion and erasure and keep quiet. Inclusion? Not possible.

Also impossible? The idea that anyone else’s feelings or interests or privacy need be respected. The white people are having fun, and that was the only point. Never mind if their “fun” disturbed or damaged someone else, one of those nameless “other” people who count so very much less.

This story is presented as funny and clever, something we should all try because surely all of us could benefit from stepping out of our comfort zones and meeting new people. Really? How well would that work for me as a woman alone to go present myself at the homes of strangers? How well would it work of for me as a Black person? How well would it work for a Black man?

Let’s pause for a moment to consider how unnecessary any of this is. In a city like San Francisco, there are plenty of public events that could have helped Max break free of his homogenous bubble. There are gallery openings, readings, performance art installations, open houses. He could volunteer with an organization working in a neighborhood he’s curious about but never visited. He could join his community board and meet some of the old-timey residents who have yet to be priced out by his gentrifying butt. Why am I supposed to think it’s okay for him to insert himself in other people’s lives because his own life feels boring or stuck in a rut?

As I said, the story does take a quick glance over the wall at privilege: “as a kind of unassuming white guy, [Max] actually didn’t [have to worry about people not responding positively.] (And Max acknowledges this privilege.)” Oh. Okay, then. Max acknowledges his privilege. Carry on.

This hat tip to white male privilege isn’t enough. No points for that little wink and nod. What privilege is it that Max is aware of? We have no idea because we’re just given that pat on the head, no actual information. No, sorry. NPR and Invisibilia, you have failed. You need to take that further. In the case of this profile of Max, a lot of my anger would have melted away if the reporter creating this story had stepped away from the cutesy narrative and said plainly:

Max was able to get away with his shenanigans because he is a young white man who is not aggressively muscular and looks goofily non-threatening. Given the realities of our current society’s entrenchment in rape culture, this kind of reliance on the kindness of strangers isn’t recommended for women. Given our adherence to the belief that all Black bodies are dangerous and criminal and in need of neutralization, showing up at strangers’ doors and demanding entrance to their parties is discouraged for Black folks … well, hell, for all people of color.

But my anger runs along another path as well. Yes, the white male privilege of Max being able to feel safe and comfortable putting himself in places he doesn’t belong would be enough to piss me right off. But there’s more. There’s the raging sense of entitlement that allows Max to decide he has the right to show up at strangers’ homes, at strangers’ private events. That entitlement allows him to made decisions about other people’s lives, allows him to decide that whatever he sees that he wants, he can have. And that is just the whitest thing in the world.

It’s easy for me to believe Max Hawkins is a nice guy. Look at his almost cartoonishly goofy face:

He really looks like a nice guy. That’s not the point, however. Nice people do shitty things all the time. Nice people take full, comfortable advantage of their privilege all the time. They may even, like Max, acknowledge that they have privilege. But when Invisiblia reports on all of that without acknowledging any of it, that’s the problem, that’s what sparks my rage.

Back in December, Storycorps raised hackles by framing an awful story as a heartwarming one, just in time for the holidays … and then refused to take full responsibility for their crap when listeners and readers called them out.

Now it’s Invisibilia’s turn. There is no excuse for presenting a story like this without context, without explicit acknowledgement of the ways in which Max’s life-randomizing hijinks are also dangerous, intrusive, and dripping with privilege.

Is it fair for me to expect more from Invisibilia, from NPR? I say yes. The Washington Post’s new motto, “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” tells me that the paper must be held to an even higher level of accountability for its journalism, for its honesty, for its calling out of wrongs and lies. Not that it shouldn’t be held to high standards simply because it’s a major national newspaper. But when you slap that kind of high and mighty line on yourself, you are asking to be put under a more exacting microscope. I mean, Fox News was terrible for years, but when they started describing themselves as “fair and balanced,” that was clearly a call for pointing out every instance of their utter lack of fairness or balance.

NPR presents itself as the news organization that goes beneath the surface, that takes more time with its stories, digs deep for the hidden bits that are crucial to understanding, to informed, critical thinking. That standard of reporting has to apply to all of the reporting. That standard of reporting has to be followed even when a reporter is faced with “a kind of unassuming white guy” who’s doing some madcap thing that seems the perfect idea for a fluff piece. You sell your wares based on the promise of critical analysis. Throwing the words, “And Max acknowledges this privilege” at me is laziness. It’s telling me, “Look, we know there’s more here, some deep mess that needs dissecting, but we’re not in the mood. We like this guy and don’t feel like examining the seamy underbelly of his privilege, don’t want to make him feel bad about this adorably crazy thing he’s done.”

That laziness is bad journalism. There are people who don’t understand what privilege is or how it works, who don’t know how to spot it, who can’t see that it’s lurking in harmless spaces like Max’s decision to amp up the interesting-quotient in his life. It’s up to quality, responsible journalism to point that out.

The decision to ignore the negative aspect of Max’s story is bad for Max, too. As I said, it’s easy to believe Max is a nice guy. He probably means well and didn’t set out to harm anyone. The I-can’t-fully-open-my-eyes, nerdboy look of him makes that easier to believe. He’s a nice guy. By not calling his attention to what he’s doing, by not picking apart his “awareness” of his privilege, he gets to continue running headlong down his slippery slope.

Max’s slope? Monetizing his behavior and taking it public. He is developing a “suite of randomization apps.” Of course he is. Because what he’s done is so fun and clever, and of course lots of other people should do the same.

He hopes to introduce [the apps] for public use in the coming months. He has also created a Facebook group that encourages people to attend strangers’ publicly listed events and offers tips and tricks for doing so.

(I’m not even going to list all the ways I’ve already imagined for this to go horribly wrong, all the folks with ill intent who could take full and painful advantage of Max’s apps. No, we’ll just pretend he’s done something fun and clever and of course lots of other people should do the same.)

When we don’t push people to think about the problematic things they’re doing, they will keep doing them. And, in some cases, they will expand them, and make money from them, and get other people to start doing them, too. Swell.

Being a nice guy shouldn’t give you a pass when you’re doing something wrong. By finding Max clever and off-beat, NPR lost sight of the work it’s supposed to be doing, the quality journalism we’ve been led to expect.

I expect my purveyors of quality news to be aware of the larger world, even in a puff piece about a bored hipster who’s created an app for that.



In 2017, I’m on my #GriotGrind. I committed to writing an essay a week … but fell behind behind pretty quickly. I’m determined to catch up, committed to 52 essays by year’s end.
I’m following the lead of Vanessa Mártir, who launched #52essays2017 after she wrote an essay a week for 2016 … and then invited other writers along for the ride.

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I don’t know anything about classical music. I’ve played some — back in my mercifully short career as a high school flutist. I’ve sung a fair bit. I have favorite pieces. There are symphonies I love, composers who generally never let me down, but I don’t actually know anything. I haven’t studied, don’t understand intricacies or what makes one piece speak to me and another leave me cold. I’m that classic, “I know what I like,” kind of fan.

I could fix my ignorance, of course, take classes that would give me the background and vocabulary for all the things I don’t know how to say about this music. I don’t mind my not-knowing, however. Not really. I like coming to this music following my heart, my emotional response, rather than paying close attention to my head.

Last year and this — and again for next year — I have bought not one but two subscriptions to concert series at Carnegie Hall. And they’ve been all classical music all the time. Last year, one of the series was all Russian composers, and that was pretty fabulous. I hadn’t really thought about having a particular love for the Russians, but apparently my musical tastes run similarly to my early literature-reading tastes. Give me the Russians (shame to think this is something I’d have in common with THOTUS)!

The final concert of my subscriptions for this season, the last of my Philadelphia Orchestra performances, was Leonard Bernstein, Mozart, and Robert Schumann. Of the three, as much as I have discovered myself as a lover of Mozart (I resisted at first because it seemed too easy, too obvious — he was someone I was supposed to like), the Bernstein and the Schumann won me, with the Bernstein resonating most deeply.

Just as I love choral singing — my one voice melded into a crowd of others — I love orchestral music, love the singular pieces all playing together to make a whole. And the beautiful playing of the Philadelphia Orchestra under the dynamic and gracious conducting of Yannick Nézet-Séguin doesn’t disappoint.

Favorite moment? At the end of the first movement of the Bernstein, the percussionist is called upon toe use maracas (what does the scoring look like for maracas, I wonder) … and he picks them up … and uses them as drumsticks to play the timpani!! That, truly, was everything. Every last thing.

* * *

Not long ago, I posted on Facebook about how self-doubt creeps in on me, makes me question whether I’m really a writer at all, whether I should just quit messing around and use my time more productively. Watching the orchestra, I wondered if that doubt is fueled, in part, by the solitary echo chamber that is writing. As a member of an orchestra, you can see and hear your work every time you take up your instrument. Your place in the larger whole comes back to you as harmony, rhythm, a full and beating heart of sound. And watching the Philadelphia Orchestra reminded me of some of the self-care I know my creative self needs, things I haven’t been making time for.

I like writing in community. I don’t mean that I like working on group writing projects (although that sounds like fun and could someone please propose one for me to join you on?). No, I mean that I like being around other writers while I’m working. I like basking in and soaking up that creative energy. I like not being alone, like working next to folks who get what I’m trying to do, having those folks be right there when frustration or procrastination hit.

And I know this. But somehow I allow myself to forget. Over and over. Somehow I set aside this vital truth and, instead of finding more ways to write in community, I isolate myself so I can get some work done … and I grind myself down smaller and smaller until I get almost nothing done at all.

My smart, talented lovely friend Lisa wrote a manifesto for nurturing her creativity while nurturing her new child. She drafted it on a dramatic length of butcher paper and hung it on her wall. I’m thinking bout that now, the larger-than-life, in everyone’s face commitment of that butcher paper. I’m thinking I need something similarly large, large like the poster I’ll be making of the Joe Louis fist, large enough that I can’t help but see it and can’t possibly ignore or forget about it.

It needs to say obvious things like “write in community,” but also things like “keep your Carnegie subscription,” “go to the singalong Messiah,” “go to the theater.”

And you’ll notice how few of those things have specifically to do with pen and paper, with me actually doing some writing. But I think that’s another part of the point. Because yes, I need to sit down and work — with other people when that’s possible — but I also need to feed my creativity. When Julia Cameron wrote about “filling the well” in The Artist’s Way, she wasn’t talking about writing every minute of every day. She was talking about the exact opposite, about the fact that we can’t create if the well is dry, if we never give ourselves the chance to take in beauty, nature, music … whatever is going to replenish our spirits so that we can sit down and do the work.

The Philadelphia Orchestra is definitely a well-filler, but my Carnegie season is finished. I won’t be back in my second tier box until the fall. But there are so many things I can do in the mean time. I have a whole summer of well-filling ahead of me, a whole summer to remember to make artist dates and friend dates … and writing dates. I have a friend with whom I have semi-regular writing dates. First summer task: do a better job of making those dates more “regular” than “semi.” It’s a start.

__________

(There was no way I could resist using that title. As soon as I started writing this post, it came flying up from the deepest depths of my memory. I couldn’t even remember what songs OMD were known for, but the name was right there, ready for me to scoop it up. I went to The Google, and was reminded of If You Leave. Oh yes, it all comes back to me now …)



In 2017, I’m on my #GriotGrind. I committed to writing an essay a week … but fell behind behind pretty quickly. I’m determined to catch up, committed to 52 essays by year’s end.
I’m following the lead of Vanessa Mártir, who launched #52essays2017 after she wrote an essay a week for 2016 … and then invited other writers along for the ride.

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Last week I printed out a photo of Detroit’s Joe Louis Memorial, the gloriously enormous sculpture of Louis’ mighty fist. I saw it in an article someone forwarded me and immediately knew I needed it posted on the half-wall of my cubicle. Needed it.

This sculpture is one of my favorite things in the world. The first time I saw it, driving from the airport to a conference at the Renaissance Center, I was so wowed I couldn’t breathe or speak for a minute. It is a thing of absolute, graceful power and beauty. It is magnificent.

Here’s one of the pics I took of it in 2012:

I printed the photo from the article (a slightly more close-up, angled, under-the-fist view) and tacked it to my cubicle wall.

I feel it there, casting it’s dark, black spell, enveloping me in its strength and conviction.

So many times during the days since putting it on my wall, I have hung up the phone after an annoying call or looked up after reading an email that has made me sigh and shake my head, and my eyes go right to that picture, go right to that beautiful bright light.

And I feel myself become calm.

The first time I saw it, I was with the woman who was my boss. She was appalled, thought it was “so violent.” I wondered if we were looking at the same piece of art. Violent? Where? How? Could she really not see the sleek, delicious glory of it, its heavy, soul-filling affirmation?

No, she thought it was angry. Angry.

Maybe it is angry. Maybe that’s why I love it, maybe seeing it then — two years before the finally-and-for-good emergence of Angry Stacie — was the initial push, the moment when my heart felt the vibrating resonance of recognition, felt how completely I would come to embrace my rage.

I don’t think so, though. Yes, to the vibrating resonance, but not in recognition of anger, or not anger as such. Recognition of the fullness, the beauty of being exactly who I was — as big, as loud, as angry, as strong, as emotional, as articulate, as fed-the-fuck-up, as loving, as hungry as I actually was.

Which is what it’s giving me now, too. I have to swallow myself at work sometimes, hold back my honesty, pretend to a version of myself that can be made to fit the space I’m given. Like not lashing out when a superior refers to  formerly-incarcerated youth as “little criminals” and can’t seem to understand the value proposition of creating education and job training programs for them. Like not slapping the hand of the coworker who reaches out to touch my hair.

That fist is a signpost, a reminder that I’m still here. A reminder that, even when I have to walk softly, I can still fight, can still push back. That my voice can still shout, even in the dark, especially in the dark. That fist is my mantra, my affirmation, my vision board all rolled into one.

I need the picture poster-size and on my wall at home. That fist. To wake up to it, to fall asleep under its watch. Imagine.


In 2017, I’m on my #GriotGrind, committed to writing an essay a week … I’ve fallen behind, but I’m still committed to writing 52 essays by year’s end.
I’m following the lead of Vanessa Mártir, who launched #52essays2017 after she wrote an essay a week for 2016 … and then invited other writers along for the ride.

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It’s about hospitality to strangers, which reads to me like kindness and generosity.

Tonight was the sixth anniversary of a women’s poetry salon I’ve been attending off and on since the summer of 2014. (Yes, for someone who spends a lot of time talking about how she isn’t a poet, I sure spend a lot of time immersed in poetry, don’t I? I know.)

The salon is a lovely space, a welcoming group of women who are unfailingly supportive and encouraging of one another. There are a couple of guys who attend, and they are just as lovely.

Aside from the beautiful welcome the salon extends, I feel free there. I let down my writing defenses — the ways I try to keep myself “safe” when it comes to writing poetry. I have let myself write in new ways, let myself stretch and try and trust the moment in ways that I would have had to struggle to do before I joined the group. One of my strongest Black Lives Matter pieces came, nearly whole, from a writing exercise we did in the salon.

Tonight was the 6th anniversary party, and it was great! Excellent readers, friends in the audience I haven’t seen in ages. Nice all the way around. Tonight’s chōka was inspired by one of the conversations I had early in the evening.

Plumped and Full

I said to a friend
I feel like I’m coming back,
back into the world.
It’s a good feeling — airy,
light, full of power
like everything is open.
It’s a good feeling,
finally back to myself,
my lungs plumped and full.
It’s time to stand up, to sing,
take pleasure in all of me.

_____

A chōka is a Japanese form poem with a specific syllable count per line. The shortest form of chōka  is: 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 7. The 5- and 7-syllable lines can repeat as many times as needed. The poem’s end is signaled by the extra 7-syllable line. The final five lines can be used to summarize the body of the poem.



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My friend — who, for the purposes of this post and the poem that follows, I will call “Saadiqhah” because it means, “true, sincere, faithful, veracious, a woman of her word” — is about to leave town. She is moving clear across the country. I am going to miss her for so many reasons. She is one of the friends that VONA has brought into my life to make my world bigger, richer, better. She is smart and funny and strong and clear-eyed and honest and thoughtful and caring. The Bay Area is about to be super lucky to have her.

But back on this coast, we had a party last night to celebrate our friendships with her. The party included an open mic, since many of her friends are writers or performers. I wanted to read something of mine, but I also wanted to read something from VONA and something that was created just for her. In the end, I read two super-short poems by Ruth Forman (“Let Down All Your Doors” and “The Sun’s One Good Eye”). I read the poem I wrote on Sunday about people trying to touch my hair. For the final piece, I wanted to copy a thing I participated in many years ago.

I read in a great reading for Valentine’s Day. The reading was called “Love and Chaos,” and was organized by a lovely poet, Patricia Landrum, who has since passed away. For her piece in the reading, Patricia did an audience participation poem. She asked us to shout, “Chaos!” every time she gave us the signal. Her piece was fun and funny and wonderful. I wanted to do something like that for Saadiqhah, and I wanted the poem to be a chōka. And it started to feel silly once I put it together, but I read it anyway. And (of course), because everyone in the room was there because they all love Saadiqhah, it worked exactly as well as I’d hoped it would!

I Love Saadiqhah!

I love Saadiqhah
and I know I’m not alone
I Love Saadiqhah!
so many conversations.
I Love Saadiqhah!
She doesn’t pull her punches.
I Love Saadiqhah!
Saying what I need to hear.
I Love Saadiqhah!
She is always right on time
with friendship, wisdom, and love.

(I could have gone on and on, but decided the occasion — and the patience of the audience — called for a shorter chōka.)

(I’m a day late, but will try to catch up tonight or tomorrow, can’t fall off the challenges this late in the game!)

_____

A chōka is a Japanese form poem with a specific syllable count per line. The shortest form of chōka  is: 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 7. The 5- and 7-syllable lines can repeat as many times as needed. The poem’s end is signaled by the extra 7-syllable line. The final five lines can be used to summarize the body of the poem.



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I mean, of course. I am outrageously vain, after all. Nothing if not vain. I talk about this all the time: how vain I am about my hair, my hands, my knitting, my … everything! Truly, the list goes on and on. I’ve embraced my vanity in recent years, make a point of telling folks just how vain I am.

But

I’m realizing tonight that my vanity is a bit of a sham.

Tonight I am working on a letter of recommendation … for myself. I am drafting a letter that I’ll send to the person who is doing the recommending, and she’ll tweak it to make it her own.

I’m doing this because I’m working on an application for a writing residency. I’m doing this because I refuse to let the deadline for this residency pass me by as I have done with several deadlines in the last few months. I’m doing this because I have to push myself in this way, force myself to apply for things. I’m doing this because I want this residency, because I want this gift of time.

But oh, how I also want to push this away.

I’ve known about this application and its soon-coming deadline for more than a month. Proceeded to ignore it for weeks. And when I did think about it, I decided that I couldn’t possibly get it, so therefore I shouldn’t apply. And when I thought about it again, I reminded myself how busy I am at work and how much I don’t have time to work on the application because I’m just too tired. And when I thought about some more, I realized the really what I needed to do was encourage all my eligible writer friends to apply because obviously this was perfect for them.

Yeah. All of that. Me, body-slamming myself again and again into the wall of Impostor Syndrome.

This is why I say my vanity is a sham. I walk around thinking I’m so in love with myself, but clearly that love is only on the surface, only for surface things. Because I also walk around running myself down, holding myself back from things I should be racing toward.

Sitting here tonight, trying to find a way to type out nice words about myself as a writer is crushing me. And the truth of that is breaking my heart. I shouldn’t be this difficult to say that I’m passionate about writing, that the project I’m proposing is a good and worthy one. Shouldn’t be. But is.

I know I have a lot of work to do with this. I guess what I’m realizing is that the work is that kind of every-minute-of-every-day work, that I have to pay closer-than-close attention so that I can see when I’m holding myself back, giving in to the inner critic. I have to be hyper vigilant … and make that my V word for today and every day.

Not an Impostor

How to see myself
to look uncritically,
to see all my flaws
not as flaws, just who I am.
To see my talents —
acknowledge that they exist,
that I do have skills,
that I have earned the things I have,
my jobs, my awards,
that I haven’t just been good
at fooling people.
How to see myself,
take my first real, honest look
silence my critic,
the one who uses my voice,
who knows all the ways
to bully, cut myself down.
This is behavior
so old, so painfully known.
This is who I am
to myself. I need to change,
find the vanity I claim.

_____

A chōka is a Japanese form poem with a specific syllable count per line. The shortest form of chōka  is: 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 7. The 5- and 7-syllable lines can repeat as many times as needed. The poem’s end is signaled by the extra 7-syllable line. The final five lines can be used to summarize the body of the poem.



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“Land is power.” Ruby McGee

Tonight I had the distinct pleasure of watching an amazing documentary, Dirt and Deeds in Mississippi. It tells another amazing “hidden figures” kind of story, some Black history that was rolled up in cotton wool and tucked way out of sight. In this case, the story of Black land-owning farmers and the role they played in the fight for rights — civil, voting, human — in Mississippi. It is an eye-opening, painful, powerful, important document of history. I could watch it on a loop for days.

Ruby McGee was the first Black person to be registered to vote in her county. Today, she owns and operates the family tree farm that gave her the freedom to take some of the chances she took as a young woman, that enabled her parents to run a Freedom School. She talks about what being a landowner gave her, says that it meant she didn’t have to work in white people’s kitchens. She talks about the idea of “knowledge is power” … and says no, “Land is power.”

And that resonated so deeply in my chest. I wanted to clap my hands and shout, “Yes!” It reminded me:

Got land to stand on,
then you can stand up,
stand up for your rights
as a woman, as a man.

“Achin’ for Acres” by Arrested Development was about exactly this, the power of owning where you live, owning the ground beneath your feet.

And it reminded me of my sadness, my personal heartache when family land has been lost, on my mother’s side, on my father’s. Those are pieces of ourselves we can never get back. I feel the empty spaces left by each even now, years later.

It reminded me of something I heard John Boyd Jr. say a while ago in an NPR profile piece: all of us are no more than two generations removed from somebody’s farm.

It reminded me of Constance Curry’s amazing book, Silver Rights, also about Mississipi.

This movie touched so many chords. And it spilled over into tonight’s chōka.

I have so much pride
seeing my ancestors fight
seeing them stand up
refusing to cave, to give.
This is what it means:
strength, power, faith, love, honor.
This is who we are,
fierce, unendingly stubborn
and sure. Sure of us,
sure of the fact we were right.
Sure that — live or die — we’d win.

My family isn’t from Mississippi — at least no one I’ve found yet — but Dirt and Deeds felt like home all the same.

_____

A chōka is a Japanese form poem with a specific syllable count per line. The shortest form of chōka  is: 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 7. The 5- and 7-syllable lines can repeat as many times as needed. The poem’s end is signaled by the extra 7-syllable line. The final five lines can be used to summarize the body of the poem.



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