Four Candles for the Queen of the Universe

Change, Life as it is, Love, Spiritual Journey

My friend, Debby, the Debutaunt – the self-proclaimed Queen of the Universe, passed away today.

Four Candles for the Queen of the Universe

Light the First Candle
The light of this first candle represents our grief. The pain of losing you is intense. It reminds us of the depth of our love for you.

I got the news on twitter and sent condolences and then thinking of Deb, I looked over some of the photos I have of her. Grief then overwhelmed me as I realized the hole that she left in me – I guess part of me has been waiting for her Instant Message to joke about kicking cancer’s ass again and we would swap stories and laughs just like we used to do.

I tried to look over some photos and maybe send them to her sisters, but I couldn’t function at the computer at all. I was moved to honor her and I wanted to give something special to he sisters, but i was non-functional. So I stopped and called friends to connect and share my feelings to get through it all.

Light the Second Candle
The light of this second candle represents our courage – the courage to confront our sorrow, to comfort each other, and to move forward in our lives

Deb is the bravest woman I have ever met, and her family is an amazing family. If you follow the link to her blog, you can start the story where I did in about July 2005. Meet a woman coping with life the best that she can when she finds she has Leukemia a couple months later. Read her stories of her courage as she found reason after reason for why she can do this – and watch as she fought with a katana-like will to get better.

Light the Third Candle
This third candle is a light to all of our memories of you. To the times we laughed, the times we cried, the times we were angry with each other. The silly things you did, the caring and the joy you gave us.

So tonight I reached out to a friend and connected with another person on the phone – and also went to pick up my daughter. On the way home with my daughter it occurred to me how I could respect the depths of my feelings for the loss of Deb. So we stopped off for milkshakes and when we got home I got my son and daughter together at the kitchen table and we had milkshakes while I told them stories of how Deb became the Queen of the Universe (it says so right on her checks), and how she helped me when my daughter was in the hospital, and how crazy-funny her blog was.

I shared, too, how much of her blog I re-read when my father was diagnosed with Leukemia as well. Deb was sick again by this time, but her story had been written and shared. I sent gifts to team Zoe, her daughter’s Leukemia Society fundraiser, in my father’s name. Deb’s fight, and the grace with which her family showed rallying around her, helped me as this evil blood cancer took him away.

Light the Fourth Candle
This fourth candle is the light of our love. We cherish the special place in our hearts that will always be reserved for you. we thank you for the gift your life brought to each of us. We love you, always.

I pray that Zoe will remember always just how many lives her mom touched and made better because of her smile and her fierce battle to survive. There was such light in her smile and laugh, and we will remember her.

On the way home, I remembered a recent memorial service we attended for my father who flew away in October. In this service, they lit four candles and read a special celebration for each candle and what it meant. It was a beautiful way to honor and respect my father when this service was performed a couple weeks ago. My suit coat was still hanging in the car tonight and I found a copy of the service in my coat pocket.

So tonight, this is how I remember and celebrate the passing of the Queen of the Universe. Lighting each candle and speaking these words on behalf of all those inspired and touched by her. Her fight is over, and all of our lives are better for both the battle she fought and for the peace she now knows. May all those who have been touched by Deb – especially her family – find comfort in one another and in the love she has for them.

She touched so many people. I’m just one of them.

[Edited on 5/22/2009 to add the following from Deb’s Sister]

Speaking of friends… several of you have been asking about how you can help… if you knew Debby, you knew that she was always behind raising money or awareness for a few good causes. Here is a list:

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to

Contributions may be made to:
The Financial Advisory Group, Inc.
c/o David Jenkins
5599 San Felipe, Suite 900
Houston, TX 77056

Please make out the checks to “College America” and in the memo field write “FBO: Zoe Costello.”

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Learning to Let Go

Change, family, Life as it is, Love, Mistakes, Spiritual Journey, Vulnerability

How do you stop a runaway escalation in conflict between parent and teen? After bunches of mistakes, I’d have to offer the mere wisdom of letting go.

What Our Lives Used to Be Like

Once upon a time I wanted to protect my daughter from the forces that might harm her.

Spider Lily Redux

I fought against those forces. I fought the threats – some maybe only perceived – others tragic in their reality. Threats involving cyberbullying requiring trips to the E/R. And threats that included turning over to homicide detectives the IM transcripts between my daughter and the kids who murdered her friend.

I was up to such a fight. But it wasn’t just these things I had to fight. There was my daughter’s own resistance to my protection and a constantly escalating struggle. I listened to the network communication to keep her safe. She encrypted the communications. I placed filters on the computer in the network stack. She installed her own network stack. I installed a kernel-mode rootkit to completely own the operating system. She used live CD’s to bypass the operating system I installed completely.

What Happened

I remember the day that I learned that I could not forcibly keep her safe. Her mom had convinced me to start deadbolting the house and hiding the key. This was a huge act of desperation for me – I had survived a fire in the middle of the night as a child and so knowing how to escape was always on my mind. One morning I awakened and found the deadbolt was loose – she had gotten a screwdriver and used it to remove the deadbolt so she could sneak out. As I was considering hunting down all screwdrivers and locking them into a toolchest I realized that I could not win the battle.

I could not force her to be safe.

It was a tragic moment of realization. It was the end of an illusion to which I clung. It was the end of a bunch of mistakes and the beginning of becoming teachable.

Later a counselor drove it home for me. She asked a simple question, “If your daughter decided to kill herself, what could you do to stop it?” The answer is that I couldn’t. Not that I got that right away. Like I said, I clung to that illusion that somehow I could try hard enough and through valiant effort, I could save her. But I had to admit that she was smart enough and I was too limited – unable to watch over her every moment – and that if she devoted her intelligence and creativity in that direction I could not stop her.

And in fact, probably, nobody could.

How Things Are Now

Now, almost three years later, my daughter uses the Internet without filters of any sort. The keys to leave the house at night are no longer hidden. And the responsibility to live and thrive and grow is where it should be – it’s on my daughter’s shoulders. I’d love to say that letting go made everything perfect, but it didn’t – there were still several more crises to get through and I was frightened several times about the choices my daughter made.

But things are better. And while letting go doesn’t make everything perfect, it does make it survivable for me. It makes the responsibility for her life fall onto her shoulders and not mine. It doesn’t mean that I am not interested or that I don’t love her – I do, I do! But what she hears from me now is that I love her enough to respect her decisions and the consequences she chooses.

We have boundaries, and she knows that if her behavior goes past those limits, than she cannot stay here any longer. But it’s her choice and her call – my job is just to uphold and enforce those consequences.

And our relationship is better than it has been in a long time.

Why Letting Go Works

I doubt I understand all of how this has improved my life well enough to explain it, but I will still try. I think this is one of those lessons one has to learn from their own mistakes, but maybe I can point out a different course of action if you are caught in this painful place of escalating conflict.

Imagine a tug of war with a rope between the two of us and my pulling it to the side of safety and her pulling it to the side of freedom. The closer I get the flag on the rope to my position, the harder she will pull it to her side and the more out of control she gets – the closer she gets to what she sees as freedom, the more desperate my pulling becomes. When she was younger, we started this game, and it worked because I could overpower her and drag her to my side.

But as she has gotten older, smarter and more creative, my ability to simply overpower this system is eventually lost. And as I try to continue to do so, the more she pulls against me. So I pull harder, so she pulls harder. Can you see this dynamic in our battle over controlling the Internet?

“Letting go doesn’t mean giving up, but rather accepting that there are things that cannot be.”
–Anonymous

But there is another option. The rope stays somewhere in the middle – not quite where I want it and not quite where she wants it. She’s seen the pain of winning too much freedom and so as I stop fighting her and lay my side of the rope down – so too, did she. Eventually.

Those boundaries I mentioned? She knows that if she chooses too many freedoms, she can’t live here with me and they may get her into worse places than living in my home. The rope is where it was before – the state is still that teen state of having to be between unsafe freedom and restrictive safety. But now we are not fighting to keep it there.

In fact, by refusing to fight her, she has found the fight is really between her and herself. This is the battle we all face and that our children must face and learn to win. Before, the only option for her to master was in defeating me – now she has a chance to learn self-mastery.

Free to Become Her Daddy

So letting go does work. It’s terrifying and seems completely the wrong thing to do. But try harder and then harder again was not working so it was time to try to let go. Now that she doesn’t see me as her opponent in everything, I have become free to become her father a little more and a little deeper.

I’ll take it.

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Twitter Improves Lives

family, Life as it is, Twitter, Vulnerability

I wrote this as a comment – a very long comment – to Good Times, where they offer an inexperienced view that Twitter Sucks. I could not save my comment (due to a problem with their captcha anti-spam defense), so I decided to share it here with you.

There are a lot of good comments in the post written, but it also lacks the frame of reference of the experience of using Twitter for any length of time – or at least using it with any interpersonal connections of value. I have been using Twitter since 2007 and will offer some other glimpses in how Twitter is improving lives – or at least my life, and impacting – in a good way – the lives of my daughter, family, Houston homeless, hurricane Ike survivors and many others.

Reaching Out to Twitter

Twitter is Experiential

I believe that the value of Twitter is experiential, and almost impossible to see from the outside. Just as one sonar ping on a naval warship is uninteresting – it can only tell a distance to another object, a series of pings can tell a tale of hidden dangers, hidden enemies, and even locate lost friends. So too, one tweet may be have limited meaning or value in and of itself, but reading a series of tweets of a friend’s day or life lets us get an image and tells a tale of their life that we would not see otherwise.

For example, I know that my niece just served on a jury for the first time and thought it exciting; is planning to attend a baby shower; and struggling with the amount of e-mail she receives. My daughter has a grim but determined relationship with Geometry; has endured the loss of a meaningful relationship (that would not normally be shared with a dad); and gets to play the instruments during break at the music store where she works.

Are any of these of major import to others? No, but they let me see the lives of those close to me in a way that is meaningful to me and would not be mentioned in a letter from my niece or at dinner with my daughter. In other words, i get a chance to see the lives of those i care about in a way that I might miss otherwise.

Twitter Saved My Runaway Daughter

That doesn’t mean that Twitter is without importance, however. When my daughter ran away last year into the 4th largest city in the US, twitter (along with Flickr and Facebook) was instrumental in finding her and carrying her messages of my love for her. Where the police could not find her, friends and social network contacts who spotted her would tweet where she was and what she was doing. Their ability to tell her of my love for her helped set up her eventual return.

Twitter and Hurricane Ike

When Hurricane Ike hit the Houston area, I heard many people frightened, alone and cut off on the radio talk shows through the night of the storm. I hadn’t seen any of that because all of us were able to continue touching one another with news and hope and human connection through the storm through Twitter. Based on SMS, Twitter also proved reliable as a communication medium the next few days as cellular voice calls became overloaded and unreliable. We were able to arrange shelter for people still without power as some of us gained power back, tracked locations for food and assistance, and were there for one another.

Twitter Feeds the Homeless & Shelters My family

This past Christmas I decided to see whether Twitter could help me feed 100 Houston homeless (after learning about another effort to do so from someone on Twitter). As a result of the generosity of the people who use Twitter in this city, over 230 homeless people in Houston got a full Thanksgiving dinner, complete with all the trimmings and pumpkin pie.

When my son and I lost power unexpectedly for several days over Christmas, a single tweet of our situation ended up with us having a complimentary hotel room while we waited for power to be restored – thanks to a generous-hearted individual that uses Twitter. I have had wonderful photowalks with old and new friends, just because one person would tweet where they were going and offered an invitation. Many lunches around here are spontaneously organized around local venues – some of whom (like @coffeegroundz) will let us tweet ahead with our orders and have them ready.

So What Then Can We Make of Twitter?

Twitter is nothing more or less than a way for people to communicate with one another – in a way that removes geography and other barriers. What we make of Twitter is based on this – it may be vapid connections with people that don’t matter to us if that is how we choose to connect to one another. Or… And this is the most wonderful thing about a technology like Twitter. Or, it may be used to connect lives together in ways that we can do things together that we could never do on our own.

How meaningful that makes Twitter, then, is up to each of us. In the same way, I started writing this about twitter, but the truth of the matter is – it is really about how blessed i have been to have such wonderful people connected to me through Twitter. the technology remains juts a technology. as always, it is the people that matter.

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10 Tips for Parenting through Self Injury

family, Love, Mistakes, Spiritual Journey, Vulnerability

It has been a couple of months since I wrote about my teen daughter’s cutting, and what it was like to be a parent surviving through self-injury. Now I see parents arrive here at MereWisdom.org from time to time with searches that break my heart – for I typed so many of the same things trying to find answers. For these visitors, I offer the following wisdom gained from making a million mistakes in responding to my daughter’s self harm.

Victoria in a New Place
For those looking for people who are getting through this, I would point you to my daughter’s site where she wrote to share some of her story of Survival of a Self Injurer. Worthy of note and celebration in this is that she now has nine months free of self-injury, one day at a time.

Caring for Myself and Family

1 – There is nothing I can do to save her or protect her completely – The belief that if I just try harder to protect her, to limit her choices, and keep her safe to get her through this without being able to harm herself further is, in the end, a lie. I had to accept my powerlessness to stop her from harming herself before I could stop dying inside from whether she has or has not self-injured today. It’s her behavior and only she can make different choices.

2 – I did not cause it – I struggled with my own guilt for a long time. A long, long time of second guessing myself, thinking that my own faults and failures ends up, really, only another form of the false beliefs in item one, above.

3 – Her Self-Injury is not the most important thing in my life – She is more important to me than what she does. My son is equally important to me, and can’t be ignored because of constant crises in her life. Self-injury can pull a family out of a normal orbit into a tight orbit only around the self injury. This reinforces the self-injury from my experience, and it harms everyone else now out of orbit.

4 – I needed help for myself and my family and not just my daughter – It’s her behavior, but it affects all of us. More importantly as the family increasingly becomes centered on the self-injury, the more the family systems break down and require conscious rebuilding. Normal systems and family behavior that act as balancing forces for our children and ourselves become reinforcing factors for out of control behavior instead. And as we broke down, it was invisible to us. Outside help is critical.

5 – Learn to live in Daytight Compartments – The notion of “One Day at a Time” is almost a cliche in dealing with these situations, but there is some truth to the idea that just for today I can endure and do the things that I could never do for the rest of my life. For me, the idea of daytight compartments, like watertight compartments on a ship, helped me get through tough times.

Responding to Self Injury

6 – Talk about it – One of the things I did right in this was insist from day one that we would not act ashamed about it and talk freely about self-injury. It is always ok to ask if injuries need immediate treatment, for example. It’s ok to talk about feelings – from my feelings about specific events to her feelings before or after cutting. It’s also ok to talk about other things besides self-injury – there is a whole life taking place at the same time.

7 – Set Boundaries on Behavior – I mentioned above that trying to control her behavior stems from a false belief that somehow I can do it for her. This is one of the broken systems that reinforces negative behavior, rather than balancing or opposing it. Natural consequences are much better. One of the first consequences we had was that all cuts had to be examined by a medical professional within 24 hours.

8 – Build a Team – My daughter’s recovery team became her school nurse, her family doctor, her psychologist and later a psychiatrist. Each of them got a copy of the Bill of Rights for People Who Self-Harm and it made a very real difference in the level of care she received.

9 – Stay the Parent – My daughter at one point was using her self-injury as a point of leverage to take control of the family. She would threaten to cut herself to get herself out of situations, and these tools helped get us past that point. She would threaten, and I would respond that I can’t stop her if she chooses self-injury but then medical care is required, and if self-injury was a part of any behavior contract, then those consequences would happen as well.

10 – Love her enough to respect her decisions – This is the hardest one, and a recent bit of learned wisdom. I think this is because the same need I have to protect her from harm is also in play to keep her from harm by way of her consequences of her actions. This is still an ongoing struggle for me as it is a great theory until I see behavior that is likely to cause problems for yars to come or legal issues and so on. In our case, it meant loving her enough to respect decisions even when the consequences included not living at home for a while, hospitalization, school settings that took her away from music, and so on.

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Laser Ninja Robots and the French Revolution

family, Life as it is, Mistakes

As a master of making mistakes, it is important that I recognize them and learn from them. That way I can stop making that same mistake and go out and find some new error while trying to do well.

A Video Worth Watching

In this case of an error on my part, it has to do with the French Revolution and planning. Now, I don’t mean to say that I am a revolutionary or an instigator of uprisings or anything of the sort. Rather, it has to do with my son’s report for school on the French Revolution and his decision to earn extra credit through making it a video – and, to his credit, making it the sort of wonderfully funny video that only he could make.

My Mistake

My error in this was simple. My son told me that this was his decision and that he had some ideas. Like a concerned parent that has learned some wisdom, I did try to stay out of it so that it could be his own vision and humor and video to present to the class. In addition, I also demonstrated some additional learning from other mistakes by watching to make sure he was making some forward progress. That is, I noted his study on the French Revolution and even saw that he had gotten DVD’s of documentaries on the subject, after all, I had seen what happened in his test of whether teachers really read the essays turned in for a grade.

But in hindsight, that wasn’t enough. I realized this at midnight on the night before it had to be turned in, when I realized that while fully animated, he had not yet rendered the video. Knowing what sort of computer he has in his room and how ancient it is, I quickly offered to install the software on my photoediting system so that the rendering would complete that night. And he still had to assemble the final video from there.

My mistake was simple. I have spent a long time learning how to plan and execute complex projects, but I have never sat down and shared that knowledge with him. Now, I am not talking about formal project management and creating gantt charts, but rather simpler planning on how to get from here to there – once we have identified where here and there are.

What I am Learning

I am a fan of the Getting Things Done, or GTD if you prefer, system by David Allen for most of what I need to be done. And while my execution of the system is flawed and erratic, I have long since loved and used his Natural Planning Process for most of my one-man projects at work and home. I even once made this simple diagram while reading and rereading the details of the process in David Allen’s book and I keep a copy on my wall at work where I can always see it:

[Image removed due to incompatibility issues in IE]

So I met with my son and reviewed these questions – trying to help him see where we can do better next time. In discussing what “wild success” means, it became clear that the video could have been made much cooler than it already is. When translating “wild success” to “the most awesome thing you could imagine your project doing at the end”, he responded, “It could have ninja laser robots worked into it somewhere.”

So there you have it from one wiser than me. Plan your french revolution properly, and laser ninja robots might just save the day. Of course, as it is, the teacher kept a copy and shared it with every class he had that day. Imagine what would have happened, had we hit the wild success of the laser ninja robots worked into the story line as well.

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