I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world, for there I could best see the moonlight amid the mountains. I do not wish to go below now.
~ Henry David Thoreau
A couple weeks ago, I found myself at a place I consider more home than the house where I grew up. In that place, there is a rocky beach and access to a large swath of the upper Chesapeake Bay.
Believe me when I say that I know how lucky I am to have that place. I do not think I would be who I am without it. I doubt sincerely that I would be here at all.
When I first came to that place, I quickly earned the nickname “Mouse.” At eight, I was very small indeed. I did not speak much, and when I did, it was quietly. And I was afraid of everything.
A couple things happened over the course of many years to change Mouse into me. One of those was that someone showed me how to sail a small dinghy, called a sunfish. They did not *take* me sailing. I was not crew. After teaching me the basics on a larger boat, they put a tiller in my right hand and a mainsheet in my left and the sent me across the water on a calm summer day.
Eventually, the wind died and I got stranded out there. I couldn’t make the boat go where I wanted and I cried and someone came to rescue me. The next day, I got back in the boat and did it again. And eventually, I learned to steer that boat and many others.
So last week, many years later, I went back to that place, and lifted a different dinghy down from its storage: a laser – one of the faster dinghies out there. With help, I carried it to the water, got a friend onboard who had never sailed, took tiller and mainsheet in hand and off we went.
At no time did I wonder if I could sail that boat. The actions I took onboard with me are reflex now. I know how the sails fill, I know how far I can point the boat into the wind. I know the patterns weather makes on the water. It is a feeling of extreme competence and I would not trade it for the world.
I learned a lot about everything on those boats, and at that camp. I learned how to sing and how to comfort others. I learned how to be a sailor and a lifeguard and, most important to me, a good person. On their boats, I learned what it was to feel competent and capable.
But there is another place where I want that feeling of competence. That sense of being capable:
Speaking up for myself.
I have never felt competent at that.
This is amusing, since I love words. But when it comes time for me to speak in a way that says “this is not okay with me,” I have a hard time. Internally, I am still Mouse. Still tiny and quiet. And in this world, it’s sometimes easier to not speak up when you need to.
Since I was very young, when I’ve spoken up, I was labeled “pushy” and “a bitch.” I’ve been told on at least one occasion when I was advocating for myself with a doctor that I was just anxious and should take a Xanax. Turns out, no, I needed medical attention, and I got it. But not with that doctor. I have a new doctor. I wasn’t crazy. Nor pushy. Nor a bitch. I needed to make myself heard.
We’re seeing a lot of pushback happen every day on women who are asking to participate in the conversation equally. Not as props or pretty cover decorations — whether in the news industry or in literature, or in politics.
It’s difficult to speak up in light of that. I have to work for balance and calm in my own small sphere, and sometimes I don’t find it.
But here’s the thing: I am given one voice. I am learning how to use it. I want to feel the same competence about speaking up as I feel about sailing.
I’ve been told my whole life that my speaking out is not appropriate. That it would be easier for everyone if I didn’t.
I have been letting those words keep me from becoming competent with my own voice.
I find I like being at the tiller of this ship. I like using words to make stories and truths.
I will try every day to choose not to go below, not to be afraid of speaking.
I hope to learn how to do it well enough that my speaking does not limit your ability to speak too.