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The Buckblog

assorted ramblings by Jamis Buck

The weakly-flowing stream

13 February 2016 — An essay about making the most of the time you have, rather than regretting the time you don't — 4-minute read

There’s a (possibly obscure) saying in Korean: “가늘게 흐르는 개울물도 바다로 간다.” Literally, it means “even the waters of a weakly-flowing stream go to the ocean.”

From about the 5th grade until I graduated high school I lived in a small town on the Oregon coast. That was almost 25 years ago now, so I may be romanticizing things a bit, but I loved growing up there. The dunes, the forests, the ocean, and all the myriad little creeks and streams gave my siblings and me plenty to explore and discover.

And at night, if I listened carefully, I could hear the roaring of the ocean five miles away.

Five miles away!

Compare that to the small stream that ran just a couple dozen yards behind my house. It was maybe five feet wide at its widest, and nowhere too deep to wade across. It ran through a ravine about ten feet deep, surrounded by thick glades of rhododendrons easily taller than I could reach and almost too dense to navigate. We used to cross it on a large tree that had fallen some years before, following the ghost of a trail that led through the undergrowth and out onto some dunes.

So much closer than the ocean, and yet you couldn’t hear its murmuring at all unless you were right next to it. Even atop that tree bridge, seven or eight feet above the water, you couldn’t hear anything except birdsong. I certainly never fell asleep listening to it roar its secrets to the sky, like the ocean often did.

These days, I’m much farther from the ocean than I was growing up. Considering vertical distance alone, I’m nearly a mile above those foaming breakers of my childhood, and horizontally I’m a good deal farther than that. I certainly can’t hear the ocean from here.

I have a lot less free time than I used to, as well. My wife is back in school, studying Music Therapy. We homeschool our four kids, and of course I’m working to support our family on top of all that. My kids are old enough that they’re getting involved in extra-curricular stuff now, too–my two oldest have multiple rehearsals each week for a play they’re in, my daughter is in choir and art class, and my oldest son is participating in mock trial.

Scheduling is insane most days.

I fondly remember when, just a few years ago, I had free time to spare. I was prolific. I wrote code all the time, writing Ruby bindings for SQLite3, a server-automation tool called Capistrano, a pure-Ruby SSH client called Net-SSH, and lots of other things, like a dungeon generator, a budgeting tool, ray tracers, and more. I experimented, I tinkered, I dreamed…

It was like living near the ocean! Oh, that constant roar of creativity, and generativity…

My productivity is much more constrained these days. I feel much farther from that well of creativity–much higher, with metaphorical mountains and deserts and forests standing between me and those bright days. I look at what I’m producing and it feels like the barest trickle of what it used to be.

The whisper of a stream, to the roaring of the ocean that was.

I have to create. It’s who I am, what I do. It’s how I think about myself, and how I relate to the world around me. The thought of making more time by simply not playing music, or writing stories, or crafting code… I’d be miserable, and lost.

So instead of making time for new creation by removing constraints, I’ve discovered that I can instead constrain my time for creation. Instead of bemoaning the ocean that I used to have, I can channel a few moments each day into a little stream, whispering and murmuring its way along. I take the things I want to work on, box them up, and commit to spending time each day on them.

Literally “moments”, sometimes. I try to practice guitar for 15 minutes each day, but some days it’s more like I play a few scales and put the guitar away. I try to work on writing for 15 minutes daily, too, but there have been days when I count it even if I only managed to brainstorm one new idea for a story.

The important thing isn’t how much I’m producing, but that I’m still moving myself forward. I still have momentum. My stream isn’t carrying very much, and it’s certainly not going anywhere very quickly, but these drought-days of sparse creativity and meager output are temporary. Someday these constraints will change, and I’ll find that reservoir of productivity again.

I’ll take it a day at a time, a little water here, a bit of generativity there.

I think the Koreans have it right. Even this weakly-flowing stream will eventually reach the ocean.