Letting Go

Heartbreak, unemployment, fire, and now embarking on another open-ended journey (I’m on the way to the airport as I write this draft). If this year has a theme for me, it’s definitely “letting go”.

It’s hard to let go. I don’t know if it’s true, but I heard that newly born babies have such strength in their hands that they can grab something and hold their weight. So it seems that we’re born with the ability to grab and hold on. And then we spend the rest of our lives learning to let go, until our moment of death when we finally let go of life itself.

What makes letting go particularly difficult for me, at times, is the fact that I’m a pretty tenacious guy. In many situations, that’s a virtue. If there’s something I want to accomplish, or a problem that needs to be solved, I’ll keep at it until I succeed. This trait has gotten me pretty far in life, and it’s something I’m proud of. But, sometimes, our gifts can also be vices, when applied in the wrong context. Sometimes, I need to make the difficult decision to let go, rather than to endlessly attempt to solve an intractable problem.

One tool I’ve come to appreciate in such difficult processes, is a ritual of some sort. I haven’t always been a big fan of rituals, having been exposed to quite a few of them through my Japanese heritage. The inexplicably rigid format of old rituals felt mechanistic, and I didn’t understand their underlying purposes or intentions. But, as I grow older, I’ve come to appreciate rituals for what they are: a way to externalize, visualize, embody, or make tangible an internal and invisible process, often in the presence of witnesses.

One ritual I enjoy and actively take part in, is the act of burning, which I experience annually at the Burning Man festival where a giant man-shaped effigy, a large temple, and other large pieces of art are burned every year in the vast emptiness of the Black Rock desert in Nevada. One of the wonderful things about burning is that it can symbolize and represent almost anything you want. To burn something, you need to create something to be burnt, which in itself can be a satisfying and meaningful endeavor. And when you light up a giant (non-destructive) fire, it almost always evokes a sense of wonder and beauty, and a sense of celebration. Or, burning an effigy can represent conquest, victory or at least resistance and rebellion. And burning something of value can symbolize a form of release and catharsis.

IMG_3491So, when I recently made the difficult decision to finally let go of a really amazing lady I madly fell in love with last winter and clung to for way too long after our attempted relationship fell apart, I decided to build something and burn it. After some thought, I felt it would be fitting to build a log cabin-shaped pyre to represent the hopes and dreams I had for a future with her, and then to burn it down to express my commitment to letting go. I told a few neighbors about this plan, who eagerly joined in on the project, and we spent an afternoon collecting fallen trees and felling skinny struggling trees from my pine forest. That process served the triple purpose of supplying building materials/fuel for our project, removing fuels from my woods to reduce the impact of a potential fire, and culling stragglers to give stronger trees more room to grow. Incorporating local sustainable materials and employing forest stewardship practices seemed only fitting considering how our shared love of nature and passion for environmentalism were partially what had brought she and I together. Once we’d collected a large pile of logs, we proceeded to stack them into a vaguely cabin-like shape, then filled it with dry tinder.

After the build, we broke for dinner. As we prepared dinner and waited for dusk to fall, nature gave a helping hand by blessing us with just enough rain to dampen the ground and eliminate our concerns of an un-contained fire. Then the sky cleared, the sun set, the stars appeared in a moonless sky. We trudged back up the hill in darkness, the chilly air moist with the smells of early autumn. We stood by our cabin-pyre, I said a few words, then lit it up. As the fire roared, shooting flames high into the sky, scattering embers among the stars, I let the heat and the light sear into my skin and mind…


So, am I done? No. But the burn gave me a sense of finality. And every time my mind wanders back to her, the things I said or didn’t say, or the adventures we never went on, I remind myself: Let it go. You burned that cabin, remember?

Glass Half Full?


Are you a “glass half full”, or a “glass half empty” kind of person? I’m sure you’ve been asked this before. The point of the question ostensibly is about whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist, and the lesson is that any given situation can be seen positively or negatively depending on how you choose to see it. How nice.

But, let’s think about this a bit more critically. Let’s say you arrive at your table at a nice restaurant, you sit down, and you notice that there is a liquid in your wineglass. Whether the glass is half empty or half full is the wrong question to contemplate. What you’ll be asking is “Why is there stuff in my glass that I didn’t ask for?” And if you call over the waiter and they offer to top off the glass, you might respond, with rightful indignation: “No, just give me a clean empty glass.”

As it turns out, there’s a fairly famous Zen parable that touches on a similar issue (adapted from the version found here):

One day an important man, a man used to command and obedience came to visit a Zen master. “I have come today to ask you to teach me about Zen. Open my mind to enlightenment.” The tone of the important man’s voice was of one used to getting his own way.

The Zen master smiled and said that they should discuss the matter over a cup of tea. When the tea was served the master poured his visitor a cup. He poured and he poured and the tea rose to the rim and began to spill over the table and finally onto the robes of the wealthy man. Finally the visitor shouted, “Enough. You are spilling the tea all over. Can’t you see the cup is full?”

The master stopped pouring and smiled at his guest. “You are like this tea cup, so full that nothing more can be added. Come back to me when the cup is empty. Come back to me with an empty mind.”

In the context of Zen, the teacup is a metaphor for the mind, and how, through meditation, we can clear our minds of thoughts, ideas, beliefs, and expectations that often hinder us more than they help us. Once we have cleared our minds, there is finally room for truth and enlightenment.

Emptiness/fullness can also be used to describe life itself. When someone says “my life feels empty”, that’s considered a bad thing. And conversely when someone says “my life is full”, that’s considered good. But, many of us, at one point or another, probably had/have “full” lives that were/are nonetheless stressful and unfulfilling. The fullness might come from obligations and responsibilities that we don’t find nourishing, but nonetheless occupy our minds and bodies from morning to night so fully that it leaves us with no time to connect with ourselves and loved ones. The “fullness” prevents us from working towards or exploring a better life. This kind of “fullness” could hardly be said to be good.

After I quit my job back in mid-May, I’ve struggled with feelings of emptiness. I would wake up in the morning, and there would be no job or purpose awaiting me. No responsibilities, no obligations. Nobody waiting for me or relying on me. Just, emptiness. I found myself oscillating between trying to plunge myself into a project, or distracting myself by mindlessly staring into my computer screen. I doubted my self-worth. It challenged my work ethic. I even contemplated employment.

Instead of doing anything drastic, like getting a job (which I know I would hate as soon as I got), I decided to sit with this uncomfortable feeling of emptiness, and let it run its course. I’ve always had a difficult time dealing with uncomfortable feelings and situations, but one of my intentions over the past months has been to learn to live, confront, and play with uncomfortable things. So, how convenient it was that I would often wake up with this big hairy beast called Emptiness sitting on my chest?

And over the course of weeks and months, an interesting thing happened. I came to see this emptiness for the gift that it is.

For “emptiness” is really just another word for “freedom” and “opportunity”. An empty glass can be filled with anything. I am about as free as any man has ever been in the history of mankind. And that’s no understatement. I am bound by fewer social and cultural norms and obligations than just about anyone in history. I don’t have a boss. I don’t have a wife or kids. I have few financial obligations. I have mastery over some of the most complex and powerful technologies the world has ever seen. I can make practically anything. I have the ability to go anywhere in the world, and do just about anything I damn well please. I can enter any relationship, any occupation, any adventure that comes my way that I choose. And I can do it at the drop of a hat, because I’m an empty glass.

Granted, not everybody is as lucky as I am, but regardless of your circumstances, if you have a glass that is half empty/full, I suspect one of the following two cases is often true: 1) You enjoy what’s in the glass, and you want it to be topped off, or 2) You’re not enjoying what’s in the glass (any more) and you want the glass to be empty, perhaps so it can be filled with something else.

Of course, actual life is never that simple. We’ll never have a life full of just the good stuff, and we’ll never empty our lives completely. But, instead of thinking about whether the glass is half empty or full, we should think critically about what is in there, and what is not. We should be mindful about what we put into our lives, because for every thing that we put in, we reduce space for something else. And we shouldn’t be afraid of taking things out of our lives, to free up space too.

So, the next time someone asks if we’re a “glass half full” or “glass half empty” kind of person, I propose we answer thusly: “I don’t do half-full/empty glasses. I want my glass to be full with something awesome, or otherwise I like it empty and clean so I can fill it with what I want.”

Thoughts From a Short Visit to Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage

As I sat in a toilet stall in Terminal 1 of the Minneapolis St. Paul airport, I thought to myself, “this is nuts”. There I was, depositing my output in a pool of potable water, about to flush it with even more potable water, to be sent to a treatment plant where the sewage would be processed using electricity generated in large part by burning coal. No part of that made any sense.

Twenty-four hours and a few hundred miles prior to that, I sat similarly in a communal stall, except this one was over a bucket. When I was done with my deposit (lovingly called “contributions” by residents), I had simply covered it up with a bit of saw dust. The bucket would be carried down to the compost heap, and a few years later, the resulting compost would be spread in the garden to enrich the local clay-y soil, which in turn would help produce food to be consumed. That made sense.

When I decided to visit Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in rural Missouri, I told some friends that I was visiting a “crazy hippie commune.” I wasn’t entirely serious about the “crazy” label, but even I didn’t quite anticipate how sane the place would feel, and how crazy the “real world” would seem once I came out of the experience.


Let me step back. In late July, I spent several days at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage to attend a workshop. Located in north-eastern Missouri, about 3 hours from St. Louis near the town of Rutledge, Dancing Rabbit (DR) is part of a cluster of 3 sustainability-focused intentional communities (the other two communities are Sand Hill and Red Earth farms). Originally founded in the late 90s by a group of young Stanford and Berkeley grads from the Bay Area, the village today is home to some 40 to 70 residents and visitors of all ages, including over a dozen children. They live in accordance with a small number of covenants, most of which are designed to make life more environmentally sustainable, while still allowing for enough flexibility to be accepting of a range of personal preferences in areas such as diet, technology use, spirituality and community involvement.

Perhaps one of the most noticeable physical characteristics of the community is its structures (see pictures). In addition to one large dorm-style two-story straw bale building, most members live in a wide variety of shelters, ranging from tents and converted busses and shacks, to beautiful and modest yet comfortably sized single family homes. What gives the place and its structures a distinct look is probably the combination of one of the covenants (that all structures use natural materials and locally harvested or reclaimed lumber) and the county’s lack of building codes. The covenant banning new lumber has practically forced folks to replace traditional stick-framed construction methods and factory-made materials with beautiful local natural materials, while the lack of building/zoning codes has allowed for experimentation and creativity. Since there are no codes to dictate minimum house sizes or densities, and there’s no requirement for homes to have road frontage, the village is densely inhabited but with enough green spaces and gardens interspersed such that it doesn’t feel crowded. I was also told that warrens (as plots of land are called there) and structures were planned specifically to encourage interaction among residents.

I was impressed with the community’s commitment to environmentally sustainable practices. Although the village is now hooked up to the electricity grid and city water, they are incredibly mindful of those resources. Most folks seem to be living off of harvested rainwater, and I heard the community generates 3-4x more electricity through solar panels and wind turbines than it uses (they got tied to the grid to be able to charge an electric vehicle, essentially using the grid as a buffer, which IMO is probably more environmentally friendly than the alternative: a big bank of lead-acid batteries). Some people use gas for cooking (though I did see quite a few solar ovens and a couple of cob ovens), but they rely on passive heating and locally harvested firewood for warmth in the winter. They also share just 4 cars among the entire village, and supposedly use something like 94% less fuel per person than the average American (on driving). Overall, other than the restrictions around building materials, the sustainability practices seemed quite similar to how I’ve lived on my property.

What impressed me most, though, about DR was the fact that the community functions at all, and has for almost two decades. It’s one thing to get a bunch of idealistic young hippies together in one place. It’s another to go from 6 to 60 people, and have a community in the middle of nowhere where people can live reasonably comfortable lives. Granted, even in my short stay, it was clear that not everything was peachy. The last of the original founders had just left indefinitely a few days before I got there, and I caught glimpses of some large disagreements about the future of the community. Nonetheless, it appeared that they had figured out an economic model and governance model that was functional and self-sustaining, which alone is quite impressive.

Since I mentioned it, I’ll try to briefly describe their economic and governance models. Keeping the cost of living low seems to be a priority, and most residents pay land use fees (I think on the order of tens of dollars a month, depending on home and lot sizes) as well as 2% of their income. Sources of income seemed to vary quite a bit: food stamps, trust funds, working in the village or for the nonprofit, working online, renting cabins, etc. The village and umbrella non-profit organization also makes money from hosting workshops and visitors, but it wasn’t clear how much that accounted for the village’s revenue. Other than that, people pay for their own needs, in some cases by buying into individual co-ops (for food, for transportation, for showers, for power, etc). As far as governance goes, they have an interesting streamlined version of a consensus-based model, where functional areas are broken into separate committees. The committees are responsible for taking proposals through a consensus-based process, but eliminates the need to have everybody in the village in the same room at the same time for all decisions. There’s also a village council and a system called “power levels” that delineates what kind of decisions can be made where (I think) but my understanding is murky on those areas.


When I think back at what it was like there, this is what I experience in my mind: Wind turbines whir overhead, the sound intermixed with the laughter of children playing on the dirt paths as a couple of old dogs look on and a pair of ducks waddle by. The people seem relaxed, and happier. They stop to interact with each other. All around, we’re surrounded by the green hues of trees and gardens, the blue of the sky, and the bright yellows and oranges of colorful houses blending into the landscape with more crooked lines than straight ones. It’s pretty damn idyllic.

My first moments of arriving at DR reminded me of the trope often seen in post-apocalyptic narratives: the promised land where people live happily and peacefully, free of whatever ails the world around them. Here, I thought to myself, people live sane and sustainable lives, in community. It combined aspects of what I loved about living on my property, with what I’ve been searching for more recently: a community. It opened my mind and eyes in the way that my first Burning Man did; it made me realize that another kind of life and society was possible. I don’t know if DR, specifically, is my ideal. But it made my ideal a little bit less of an abstract dream, and more of a reality than it ever was.

Yet, when I step back, big questions also loom in my mind. As impressive as it is that this community that started with half a dozen dreamers has grown to a village with dozens of people, is this The Answer? Some folks at DR want to grow the village to a 1000 people, which seems like quite a challenge. And even if the model could be replicated 1000 times over, which, again, sounds like quite a challenge, that’s still only 1 million people out of the over 300 million people in our country. And, let’s not forget the rest of the world. There are around a billion people who live in rapidly developing countries where, over the coming years and decades, they may achieve the kind of affluence that will allow them to live increasingly energy and resource intensive lives. So, in the grand scheme of things, getting a large number of people to slightly change their behaviors might be far more impactful than getting a tiny number of people to live drastically different (albeit sustainable) lifestyles.

This conundrum may, in many ways, be at the root of my inability to choose definitively between a rural life and a life in the city. I am happier in a rural setting, and I want to live a lifestyle that is congruent and consistent with my values. But what draws me to the city, at least partially, is the promise to affect change from the belly of the beast. That is the promise of Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area: it’s the place where a great deal of technological, cultural and social changes were/are born and disseminated throughout the country and the world. Even Dancing Rabbit started there, before moving to Missouri. But, then again, Silicon Valley’s focus these days seems to have been redirected more towards getting rich quickly, rather than changing the world for the better. And I haven’t figured out how I can orient my skills and experiences to push for a more sustainable world in an impactful way. Perhaps nobody has.

I’m returning to Dancing Rabbit in October for their 3 week visitor program. My intention is to learn more about the inner workings of DR, and to also more fully experience life in an ecovillage. But, in the back (or front) of my mind will be this question about where and how I want to live, and how I want to orient myself to engage the world. I don’t expect to have answers. But I hope to have another piece or two to fit into the puzzle of my life.

I’ll be living in this cozy little “Summer Cabin” when I return in October!

Post-fire Report


I just got back from 2 weeks in the desert (for Burning Man) and realized I never posted the “all clear” post, so here it is. My property was spared from the fire, though just barely. The picture above was taken just a few hundred yards from my property fence (and there was a spot fire just 50 yards from my fence), and when you consider that the fire started 5 miles away and burned 50,000 acres, that’s nothing short of a miracle (well, and firefighters doing a great job).

In the aftermath of this close call, I decided to invest in an Oregon 40V battery-powered chainsaw so I can clear more/bigger brush faster than I currently can with my 18V reciprocating saw. I’ve also been thinking about thinning out my pine trees to help them grow bigger and stronger, especially given current drought conditions. Normally, periodic natural fires would do the thinning, but I think that responsibility falls on me at this point.


I’ve so far only used the chainsaw for one afternoon, but I’m pretty happy with it. The biggest piece I cut was a 9″ diameter fallen pine log, which it cut just fine. I also got a spare 4Ah/144Wh battery, and had no trouble keeping the chainsaw powered, though I also wasn’t using it constantly since I used my reciprocating saw for small branches. One advantage of an electric chainsaw is that it’s easy to start up, and it’s super quiet, which also makes it less scary to operate. Also, for sporadic use, it’s also nice that you don’t have to choose between idling a gas engine or stopping it and having to start it back up constantly. The biggest downside is cost: the chainsaw with two 4Ah batteries set me back $650. I decided it was worth it because I care a lot about not having tools that depend on gas, but for others, that might not be enough of a reason. It’s also somewhat underpowered if you actually plan on cutting down trees bigger than ~10″ in diameter. I’m also hoping to eventually mill my own lumber, and for that, I might get a corded electric chainsaw that I can run directly off my solar-battery array through an inverter.