Before the Mast and on The Deck of the World

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.



  1. This is a wonderful post. It speaks to truth in my experiences too. Let’s embrace any mistakes we might make while speaking out, after all, that tiller wasn’t put in our hands early on.

  2. Gorgeous and uplifting and true. I will be cheering for you, even as I’m trying to do something similar in my corner of the world.

  3. I read this and I recall Sparowhawk at sea in his shadow’s wake. I’m glad you’re wholly yourself more today.

  4. Wise words by example on how to encourage that sense of competence — and what the world tells us about ourselves. It’s not that you’re a Mouse, it’s that you’re up against a Leviathan, or maybe a T. Rex.

  5. “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. ”

    Well said, and very relatable. Enjoyed reading!

  6. This is a beautiful metaphor, wishing you success at whatever tiller you find yourself manning.

  7. One of the most important pieces of advice I have given my children? You don’t get any points for being shy. More true than ever in a world where squeaky wheels get the most attention.

  8. Thank you freshly pressed….as I could read this beautiful piece….after I long time I read something which touched my heart…the nostalgia…the bewilderment….and then the voice, the courage…the values we stand for….I am gonna follow you….if you get time….do check my blog….I will be more than glad..

  9. This is really inspiring ! Always speak up if you feel is right, nothing will happen or change if we don’t speak up. Keep it up, all of it xxxx

  10. Love what these words imply: ” I learned how to be a sailor, a lifeguard and most importantly a good person” You learned to lead but also rescue, which to my mind made you that “good person.”
    Tremendous writing with an equally tremendous message!

  11. So awesome! The way you begin with Mouse and slowly, with determination and persistence practicing, learning, changing into Lion, roaring with such confidence on your sailboat. And then you transition with internal imagery to the process you’re going through with your Voice, using that same method to achieve that same confidence in your Voice of Truth. Inspiring and filled with joyous hope.

  12. I see a pattern here: struggled with Sunfish, grew into competent Laser sailor; struggled with writing, grew into a blogger with many appreciative comments; struggled with speaking up for yourself, grew into . . . captain of your ship?
    “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” – Ernest Hemingway

  13. Stunning. Remember that you are your number one. Love yourself first. Women need to learn to communicate and stand up for themselves, but we are challenged by what expectations our patriarchal culture has created for us. Be the captain of your own ship. If the crew doesn’t like it, they can get off the boat. There is always another deckhand to be found. It’s a hard practice, but you will be happier in the long run. Keep telling your story! xx

  14. No matter our age, experience, or level of competence, we are surrounded by sad souls who will go to any lengths to shut down the female voice. The attempt plays out in so many ways; it’s rather tiresome at times. Nonetheless, I shall be out there with you. We are all this together, doll.

  15. Fran, well said! And remember when that voice shushes you, that just as you speak up for your children, you also are a “mother” to that Mouse inside you, and you can speak for her as well, as legitimately and as loudly. We’ll back you up.

  16. Well said, and not alone! Thank you for sharing. I am slowly finding my own voice as well and learning that writing the heart and soul of my feelings truly helps my personal progress. I am also finding that sharing my words in print is just as scary as voicing discontent. The fact that it scares me makes it all the more important to continue!

  17. Took my young son sailing a long time ago handed him the tiller and let him sail away by himself. He discovered sailing and trust with responsibility all with his fathers love. I discovered the sadness of a son growing up so fast and the joy of his being independent and the wonderful memories of the happiness of my own father setting me adrift in his sailing dingy.

  18. Lovely, Fran. It reminds me of a book a friend gave me in high school called “The Book of Qualities” — especially the vignette in it on Power.

    If I can find it in my renovation messy house, I’ll get the excerpt for you,and see if you agree,

    Aside from books, this also reminds me of my progression of being scared of horses, to riding my little pony, to leading trail rides for adults at the age of 8.

    Nicely done!

  19. Nicely done Fran! It is a wonderful place which has made an indelible imprint on many many people who carry the life lessons of Camp Tockwogh everyday!

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