Selfie, smiling, wearing blue climbing helmet, standing on a rocky ledge with fall leaves and bare trees far below.

Yesterday was my last day at MongoDB until December. At least, that’s the plan. My company offers unpaid sabbaticals of a few months to employees of 5-plus years. I asked for a longer leave and it was granted, since I’ve been there more than 10 years.

Why leave? I started climbing in a gym a few years ago, and when the gym closed for Covid, my partner Jennifer and I started to climb outdoors regularly in the Gunks. I fell passionately in love with real rock climbing—first, tamely, by hiking to the clifftop and attaching a rope there.

Me, climbing a flat rock wall with a rope going from my harness to the top of the cliff, then back down to the ground.

Then, more boldly, by climbing from the ground up and placing protection into cracks in the rock as I go ("traditional climbing"). Last year I was following a friend up Madame G’s, a trad climb in the Gunks. The climb is easy and safe, but vertiginous. Towards the top I was gripping the rock with a hundred feet of empty space below my feet, and feeling frustrated: I wanted to enjoy this climb more, and be less afraid. I wanted to be comfortable enough to lead the climb, risking roped falls of 10 or 20 feet, instead of only following my more courageous friend.

So I decided to devote most of this year to getting comfortable on the wall. I’m 43, and the physical training won’t get easier if I wait. I hit the startup jackpot by joining MongoDB early, so I can live off stock. I’ll climb in the Gunks and take trips to Utah and other climbing playgrounds, with Jennifer and friends. I’ll recruit more climbing partners on Facebook and Mountain Project. This will be a very challenging year! I’ll spend a lot of time afraid, working with fear, practicing frightened mindfulness. This is a terrific addition to my 20 years of Zen. I feel apprehensive and attracted, like I felt when I signed up for a year at a Zen monastery back in 2003.

Black and white photo of Yokoji Zen Mountain Center, a Japanese-style building among pine trees, with a mountain in the background.

Climbing every day is impractical (and inadvisable at 43). What am I going to do with my mind on rest days? I’m going to read and blog about more research papers in distributed systems, and participate in the DistSys Reading Group. I’ll keep building up my foundational knowledge, and expand into cloud operations. I’ll finally learn about containers.

I intend to be not completely useless to other people while I’m on leave. I’m the director of the Village Zendo’s program at Sing Sing prison and I co-founded our program in the NYC jails. Both are still paused for Covid, but I hope they’ll reopen soon and let me resume volunteering. The zendo is starting a refugee resettlement project with HIAS and I will donate time and money there, too.

Yesterday I went into the MongoDB office to say goodbye for now. I almost never work in the office anymore, but it seemed right. Around 5pm I gathered with the MongoDB Serverless team, drank some scotch, and ceremonially set my Slack status to “Away”. I logged out of work email and calendar on my phone and laptop, took a picture of the vista from the 37th Floor, and took the elevator down to the street.

View of Manhattan and Hudson River, through office windows from high in a skyscraper.