I stepped from Plank to Plank

by Elouise

Night Sky and Pacific

For several weeks I’ve wondered about this poem by Emily Dickinson. What’s it all about? Do I get it yet? I’m not sure. I do, however, think it gets me right now.

I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my Feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch –
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

c. 1864

Emily Dickinson Poems, Edited by Brenda Hillman
Shambhala Pocket Classics, Shambhala 1995

As usual, there’s precious little to go on regarding Emily Dickinson’s context when she wrote these lines. Here’s what I jotted down when I began reflecting on it.

What’s going on here?

  • Was her caution due to eyesight problems?
  • She’s definitely feeling her way along.
  • Images of walking a gang-Plank (by force?) come to mind.
  • Or is this simply about her next step?
  • Why might it be “my final inch”? The end of the line? Death?
  • Why would Experience cause a “precarious Gait”?

I don’t have answers to these questions. I do, however, have two examples of times I’ve felt this way. My first example comes from seven years as dean of a seminary during a difficult merger with a university.

I know these feelings. Seeing but not seeing; knowing but not knowing; compelled to keep moving forward; lurching around a bit in response to whatever the next Plank feels like.

Being “slow and cautious” wasn’t always considered a valuable trait during the years when the seminary was merging with the university. The pace wasn’t set by us, it was set by the university. Questions and requests for more input, feedback, or time to complete due diligence were sometimes interpreted as foot-dragging.

I often felt I was feeling my way through a murky atmosphere. I didn’t know whether I’d just taken my “final inch.” Sometimes I wanted that to be the case. But overall, I wanted to survive the merger without too much collateral damage.

Is slow and cautious a sign of cowardice? Emily doesn’t think so. It’s based on Experience—which always gives me my best input about what to do, ask or run away from when I’m expected to move forward in uncertain situations. With the program, not against it.

My second example is still in process. Yesterday I had my two-week check-up with the wonderful doctor who introduced Lucy pacemaker into my body.

I’ve had my ups and downs over the last two weeks. I’m making great progress. Nonetheless, I came home feeling strangely uneasy.

I knew it was going to happen. My doctor recommended that I begin two new medications. My heart sank. When I got home I got online and looked at several sites to find out more about each drug. Bottom line: neither looked good for me just now.

On one side, I know I won’t be forced to take either of them On another side, my doctor clearly thinks these drugs will be good for me and agrees it’s my decision. And then there’s this: I’m still a recovering ‘good girl’ who doesn’t like to go against authority figures, especially medical doctors.

I feel thrown into Emily’s poem above. Inching my way along, seeming to vacillate between whether to keep moving forward or not. The promise of stars in the night sky invites me to look up and move forward with hope; the feel of sea waves swirling around my feet warns me to take my time and consider carefully what I’m willing to live with at this time in my life, within and with the body God has given me.

So far I’m embracing my “precarious gait,” happy to have Experience on my side. I also have Experience saying No to authority figures and living with the consequences. And, as my doctor keeps saying, It’s your decision.

The next move is mine.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 20 April 2016
Photo from en.wikipedia.org