Girl Unboxed


It was mid-April and our tour guide was a friendly young woman in a light yellow cardigan. She was Japanese, a fourth year student at the Japanese university we were touring. Although the international school counselors in my group were very impressed with her English skills, our compliments didn’t stop her from apologising, continually, for her lack of fluency and poor vocabulary as she led us around the campus, pointing out various classrooms and buildings we did not actually enter. My fellow counselors were a curious bunch and began asking her what she enjoyed about attending this university… what had been her greatest challenges… what were her plans for the future?

“I’d like to study abroad. I’d like to do my Masters in Australia. Australia is my first choice. But it will not happen.”

“Why not?”

“My parents. They think it unnecessary for girls to study abroad. They say it is now my job to find a rich husband and get married. (In Japan, unmarried women over the age of 25 are often referred to as ‘leftover Christmas cake’.) They say that perhaps I won’t even have to work but I definitely want a job – but first I want to do my Master’s in Australia. Last year, I studied one semester in America and my parents checked my Facebook every day. Then they would call me. Who is the girl you had lunch with? Who is the boy in this photograph? They would call me at least once a day and often twice to interrogate me. I was happy there although America is very different from Tokyo. My parents say they do not want me ruined.”

The counselors changed the trajectory of the conversation by asking her more specific questions about her program of study and why she chose this university; these were safer questions, the kind of questions our own high school students would ask. While our guide was taking with a couple of the counselors, the only Japanese woman in our group leaned close to me and whispered, “She is what we call a ‘boxed girl’.”

On my phone, I googled the term hakoirimusume (translated literally as “daughter in a box”) and found this definition: “A young single woman who leads a sheltered life with her protective family.”

An image from my childhood popped into my head; I remembered a doll with soft blonde curls, a doll dressed in a blue dress with white polka dots. It may have been a Shirley Temple Doll. The doll was still in her original box, stored high on a shelf and I asked if we could play with it. The owner, an older woman, explained that it had never been taken out of its box, that the perfect condition of the doll made it worth more. I’m not sure where I saw the boxed doll but I’ve never forgotten the strong, pulsating sense that it was unnatural to trap the doll behind a layer of plastic and cardboard, to deny a child the joy of playing with it.

When our young guide dropped us off at the Admissions Office, she thanked us, several times, for allowing her the pleasure of serving as our tour guide. I gave her my name card. We bowed and then bowed again and said good-bye.

Boxed girl.

I’m grateful to my colleague for teaching me this phrase that perfectly describes the way that many girls and women live (and not just in Japan), this phrase that made my brain buzz with recognition and purpose. Without planning to do so, I’ve chosen to help boxed girls for my entire life. It’s why I worked in Residence Life at university, why I became a teacher and, later, a Counselor. It’s why I began creating online courses. I want to help girls and women out of their boxes, out into the glorious fullness of their lives. (I don’t think we can save other people but I do believe we can help.)

Another way to help others with the burden of their particular boxes is to become aware of the ways that I, myself, am still boxed ~ the ways in which I am boxed in by society and, much (much) worse, the ways that I have kept myself boxed up, behind a “protective” layer of cellophane.

My goal is to become a girl unboxed.

What are you doing, lovely one, to let yourself out of your box?


Note: This post was first published as The Sunday Reader on 15 May 2016. If you’d like to receive these essays directly in your inbox, subscribe here.

This I Experienced as Love


My friend Jenny emailed me this week to thank me for a blog post I published on Valentine’s Day 2012. On Love and The Price of Admission was about recognising what a good thing we’ve already got with our partner ~ and learning to let go of the small annoyances that accompany deep familiarity.

That post was inspired by an idea from Dan Savage ~ an idea that has, over the past four years, saved me from saying/shouting many crazy-stupid things I would have regretted exactly one nano-second later. Ultimately, my partner Damien and I consider ourselves really lucky and we let lots of small stuff go in order to bask in the yummy-melty-yellowey company of the much beloved other.

For me, there’s another idea that always hold hands with the Price of Admission. In the short movie that plays inside my brain these twin-ideas are represented by seven-year-old best friends playing on a swing set. Higher and higher they swing. One girl wears a t-shirt that says “The Price of Admission” while her kindred spirit wears the slogan, “This I Experienced As Love.”

We all want to be loved. Yup. I’ve been thinking about this one for decades and I could not be more certain about it.

But here’s the tricky bit… we all want to be loved but the way in which we want to be loved varies SO greatly from person to person. Me, I grew up looking for a big, juicy love-fest featuring deep and meaningful connection 24/7. I could talk to Damien all day long every day, analysing Buffy the Vampire Slayer, planning our dinner menu, and updating him on the constantly shifting cloudscape within my brain. That kind of intensity would blow his circuits. What he needs is connection punctuated with stretches of time on his own, and the ability to move back and forth between the two without too much fuss. That feels like love for him.

We are not alone in this conundrum, this particular love-dissonance. I often think how miraculous it is that any of us are able to form long committed relationships.

Today, May 1st, marks 22 years of Damien and me. {We celebrate the anniversary of the day we met as there is still a bit of disagreement regarding when we actually became a couple.}

22 years of miracles.

In that time, I’ve come to need a less intense connection. Over those two decades, he’s chosen to spend more time hanging out in my little cocoon. Our Yin and Yang have cuddled up somewhere in the middle.

But there’s another thing we’ve done that isn’t so much about change as it is about noticing.

I’ve gotten better at noticing HOW he loves me.

Inside the front door of our place in Japan we have a storage closet that contains approximately half the contents of our apartment. It is seriously scary… piled high with pillows, duffel bags, suitcases, the vacuum cleaner, decorative items we don’t have space for… ETCETERA. I avoid that closet as if it were filled with bubonic plague laced with plutonium. Recently, I was preparing for a trip and Damien, who had been in the dining room editing his film, came into our bedroom and said, “Which suitcase would you like to take?”

Oh. Sweet. Man.

He doesn’t make a big deal of things. He doesn’t call attention to the ways in which he is generous. Just, “Which suitcase would you like to take?”

Love does not always show up with chocolates and fresh flowers. Love does not necessarily have the time or inspiration to write you a sonnet. But when Love volunteers to brave the perils of the front closet to pull out your big black suitcase, it’s swoon o’clock.

This I experienced as love.

Your Homework Assignment (should you choose to accept it):
Pay attention to how the people in your life show their love ~ especially if it’s different from the way you show love.


*This post was first published as The Sunday Reader on Sunday 1st May 2016.

Nine of the best things I ever did

9 of the best things

Reading everything (EVERYTHING) as a child.
I became the protagonists of the stories ~ Heidi and Harriet the Spy and Anne of Green Gables and Nancy Drew and Joan of Arc ~ and had the grandest adventures. Books nurtured my imagination and curiosity which turned out to be the twin-keys to the magical-world-doors that have have, one by one, swung open as I was ready to walk through them.

Doing, literally, whatever craziness was required to complete my undergrad, my teaching degree and my Masters. None of it was easy. I put myself through school so I worked the entire time. I dropped out of university after the first semester, worked retail for a year and a half, and then got my minimum-wage-earning-ass back to Carleton where I took five more years to complete my undergrad. It was worth every single difficult post-secondary moment to have the freedom and confidence to create this life.

Damien. Best friend. Best partner. Best choice ever. Period.

Saying no.
(She whistles!) Who knew you were allowed to say no? It’s just not how the women-folk of my generation (and all those before me) were raised. Although I don’t think of myself as a particularly passive person, I’ve said yes to a lot of things that took me off my true path and, as a consequence, I’ve spent too much time course-correcting. Not so much now; I have moved into the era of The Transcendent No.

Becoming a Counselor.
Training and practicing. Moving from the question, “How can I help you?” to “What kind of life do you want to create?” Expecting that the students with whom I work actually want to change and not feeling responsible if they don’t or cannot yet. Asking hard questions because the questions will help the student and not because I am curious. Listening with my whole being.

Moving to Japan.
For harmony and peace. For fascinating people-watching on trains that always arrive on time. For the intricate choreography of umbrellas on rainy days. For ramen. For cherry blossoms and other celebrations that mark the four seasons. For delicate manners and shoes left at the door and artful floral arrangements. For safety, Mount Fuji and an abundance of cute things. For the blustery way the wind blows off the bay in April. For quiet-joy.

Dyeing my hair red and then purple and then red again ~ after a lifetime of absolutely safe hair choices. A student at our high school died and the universe whispered to me, “So what the hell are you waiting for?” There was no good answer. I’m learning that being worried about what other people think is never a good reason to do, or not do, anything.

Creating Geography of Now, Poet Laureate and The Sunday Reader. Identifying the intersection of creativity and thriving, that exact radio frequency, that makes me hum… and then sharing it with other people. Writing and encouraging other people to write and make things. Gathering up a tribe, my own tribe of wonderful humans. Growing, learning, noticing.

We first visited Paris (and Europe) ten years ago when we lived in Mexico. I researched for months. I learned that Parisians only drink cafe au lait at breakfast and that whenever I entered a shop, I should always say, “Bonjour, Madame” (or Mademoiselle or Monsieur) and ask for permission before I touched anything. And I learned not to dilly-dally on the escalator. These were good suggestions but all the books in the world could not have prepared me for how I would feel about The City of Light. Arriving in Paris was like landing on another planet ~ the planet I was always meant to live on. At the end of our vacation, I cried in the shuttle on the trip back to the airport. In April of 2016, just a few weeks ago, we visited Paris for a week and, again, I cried in the taxi on our way back to Charles de Gaulle. Paris is the place where I feel most alive.

This idea came from Danielle LaPorte’s Facebook page and I thought it would be fun.

What are nine of the best things you ever did?

If you feel inclined to share, please comment below or leave me a message on Facebook.


Inspiration Instead


{Unboxing a painting by Ruth Shively}

It’s the first week of February and, in Yokohama, it’s finally winter. The days are short and the news from America seems more reality tv than reality. It’s easy to become cynical but the truth is that the pay off isn’t good.

I’m choosing, instead, to be inspired by and grateful for:
*When We Were Young from Adele’s album 25
*Gate A-4 by Naomi Shihab Nye
*The kindness of Scottish taxi drivers {also Scottish shortbread}
*Ruth Shively’s paintings which you can see on Facebook and on her website
*High School students who ask for help for their friends
*This photograph taken by Jessie Voigts
*Snow days
*The way that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listens to Canadians when they speak
*Cashmere sweaters and scarves
*Lisa Hsia’s writing about her pregnancy
*The gorgeous love that a young friend has fallen into
*Scrivener ~ an amazing tool for writers
*Downton Abbey. {I’m know I’m late to this party… but wow!}
*The noticing poetry of Samantha Reynolds
*Cynthia Erivo’s performance in The Colour Purple on Broadway

What’s been saving you lately?