Years ago, I was absorbed by Ken Burns’ documentary about the expedition of Lewis and Clark. Among the things that stands out all these years later is a quote Burns pulled from Meriwether Lewis’ diary on the occasion of his 31st birthday.
This day I completed my 31st year… I reflected I had as yet done but little, very little indeed, to further the happiness of the human race, or to advance the information of the succeeding generation. I viewed with regret the many hours I have spent in indolence and now soarly [sic] feel the want of that information which those hours would have given me had they been judiciously expended.
He concludes, promising,
…in the future to live for mankind, the way I have lived heretofore for myself.
What struck me about Lewis’ lament is that it came a little more than a year into one of the greatest journeys ever undertaken. He and William Clark mapped a vast, unexplored territory, determining the true course of the Missouri River and its major tributaries. They studied plants and wildlife along their 8,000-mile trek, providing the first scientific descriptions of the grizzly bear, prairie dog and mountain goat. Their contact with Native American tribes opened trade and provided the first survey of indigenous lives and culture. How could Lewis possibly have felt he was diddling away his days? Perhaps he had impossibly high standards, or maybe he was blind to his accomplishment. Or was his birthday meditation a simple expression of mortality?
All the time I feel I’m wasting time. I’ll batter myself over spending too long on Facebook or walking downtown for my favorite coffee. But somehow, the work gets done. As in any journey, the steps add up to miles. Every hour doesn’t require some greater meaning or accomplishment. It’s the minutes that count.
Time, injudiciously spent, certainly can haunt a soul. I’ve been working on my first novel in fits and starts—between paid assignments and childrearing and housework—for about four and a half years. Most days I feel I’ve accomplished nothing, and then I’ll come across the dozens of file folders I’ve filled with research or the list of 75 books that currently comprise my bibliography. I’ll hit the “Project Statistics” button in my manuscript and see that I’m fewer than 20,000 words from a completed first draft.
Like many writers, I’m frequently flailing in a sea of self-doubt. Yet every day—often in spite of myself—I’m moving toward the shore.
Who is to say how our hours are “judiciously expended?” I rediscovered Lewis’ quote recently while rifling through my old journals. What appeared to be procrastination offered its own reward.
Photo: Missouri River, archives.gov