A great miracle happened there

Thanks to Charlie's classmate, he came home with dreidels yesterday.

Thanks to Charlie’s classmate, he came home with dreidels yesterday.

I don’t know what sends him into these difficult periods. These times when the anger rises from his root and rages like a rogue wave through his body, flushing his face with a glint I don’t recognize and coursing like hot metal into his fists, which harden on contact and almost uncontrollably fling something into the air, break something without premeditation or pound someone, usually his little brother. Hard. He moves like an ancient martial artist, like he’s been plugged into a combat-warrior program that once served him somewhere in the matrix. He’s never taken a class, yet his stance is powerful, his moves decisive, his response instinctual. It all happens in the blink of an eye. A deep-down button is pushed, he switches into defense mode and his body is hurtling around in ways I know he doesn’t want. Because he looks pained. And it’s like he can’t stop himself. In therapeutic services circles, this is called “impulse control” and it has various neurological explanations and slow-burning antidotes but, when I’m in the middle of a difficult streak and his switch is flipped, all I know about impulse control is that he has none.

Timeouts, counting to four, deep breathing, his own designated “safe zone,” reward jars, privilege removal, promises of treats based on good behavior, heart-to-heart talks after everyone is calm, keeping my cool…none of them seem to impact the behavior when we’re riding this awful wave, which can last hours, days or sometimes even weeks. He’s easy to motivate when he’s what therapists call “regulated,” but not when he’s unregulated. (The formula for what regulates my son is less mysterious than it once was, but the complete code remains to be cracked.) Incidentally, screaming, dragging him angrily to his room, glaring at him wildly and smacking his cheek don’t work, either, not even as a last resort. Hugs work. But I usually have a crying little brother to comfort in those moments. And, sometimes, I am just too mad to hug.

Charlie’s moods are mystifying, so my only option is to try to manage my own, to be calm inside when all else is torrential.

At five till noon yesterday, I sat down to meditate. I needed those last five minutes to center myself before leaving the babysitter-enabled solitude of my office for the drive to preschool.

At three minutes till noon, the office door slowly opened. Anticipation wafted heavy across the room to the alcove where I was beginning to breathe. I pulled back the curtain and saw Charlie looking around with a concerned face.

“Are you looking for me?” I asked, smiling.

His face eased into a big grin. “Are you all done working, Mommy?”

“Yes, honey. But now I’m meditating for a couple minutes.”


“Would you like to join me?”


He climbed on my lap and placed the tops of his hands on my palms, which were resting on my legs. So still. So willing. These were the same hands that had been breaking toys accidentally at school, the same hands that grabbed his brother that morning and wrestled him to the ground even as I was running toward him yelling “stop!” These hands rested, softly, warmly, serenely, palms up, in my own hands.

“We’re going to breathe three times. In—one, two three. Hold—one, two three. Out—one, two, three.” He did it. Without complaint. He breathed deeply, filling his four-year-old abdomen with air on the inhale and releasing everything with a cathartic exhale from the same mouth that bit his brother on the cheek yesterday, the mouth that spits when it feels like it, the mouth that would eat only sugar if I let him.

And then we chanted Om three times. Together.

“Are you done now, Mommy?”

“Are you done?” I asked, squeezing him. His twinkly eyes searched my own.

“Do you realize you just meditated?!” I gushed. “So I should ask you: Are you all done meditating, Charlie?”

He giggled his half-sigh, half-laugh and beamed at me.

A great miracle happened there.

Yesterday at school he learned about Hanukkah, and the fact that a day’s supply of oil kept the light in the temple burning for eight days, a welcome sign that God was with the Jews despite the horrific oppression they were facing at the time. Charlie brought home a dreidel. Charlie loves a dreidel, so it was the first thing he mentioned when I picked him up from school. His last words before bed last night were, “Mommy, can we play with my dreidel in the morning?”

I learned yesterday that the four Hebrew letters adorning the four respective sides of a dreidel refer to the story of the long-burning oil and are an acronym for “A great miracle happened there.”

I wasn’t raised in the Jewish tradition, but the miracle of the oil has stuck with me since the days I slept with my Bible every night. God works in so many different ways. And the truth is that that miracles still occur within and around us every single day. Even in the midst of tumult, God is there, lighting our way.

That stillness of Charlie’s always-moving body resting quietly against me, that feel of his soft hands on mine in meditation, the sound of his sweet voice om-ing, they remind of who he really is, and of who he can be. We all flash from time to time. And kids need to know they’re loved even when—especially when—they’re conventionally unlovable.

And so I hugged him. And he hugged me back. A miracle. That stillness, that hug, that love, will keep the lamp in my inner temple burning. (for at least eight hours.)

Both boys smiling? Also a miracle.

Both boys smiling? Also a miracle.

14 thoughts on “A great miracle happened there

  1. I’m not Jewish but what a beautiful story here. I really loved reading this, this morning 🙂

  2. p.s. Your boys are so adorable!!!

  3. Love! I am going to try meditating with my Evan as he seems to be very similar to Charlie…..:) Hope you are well.

  4. Hugs, Emily! Your posts are always so beautiful.

  5. This is resonant and superbly crafted. The diction is cracklingly precise. Your voice has a calm and understated elegance; you have found the subtle and sublime difference between control and restraint – the peice reminded me of Nina Simone’s voice in “The Other Woman.” Listen to it: You’ll hear the note I mean and, I hope, be lavishly complimented.
    More than the workmanship – Gr. poema – you have succeeded in inviting the reader to a moment of trust, introspection and understanding and then deftly delivered him to the same physical and emotional place you were. Remarkable! The art is how you transcend this naked moment and never seem vulnerable. The magic beyond – which to me approaches divine grace — is that the reader, too, is never conscious of just how vulnerable reading these words will render him. I myself did not realize how far my guard was down until I stopped reading and had to pause to re-triangulate my actual emotional and geographic position. Ok, lessee: West Virginia, right. And otherwise preoccupied with minutia. Got it. But wow, where the hell was I?
    Be careful with young boys. They need more room more often than one might suppose. Tske note of, say, the constants in the equations, but don’t look too closely. Don’t solve for X. Let the formula(e) remain uncracked – it is, after all, his equation to balance. And be warned: You won’t know when the lad is really asking for help with it, and neither will he. In the meantime, Charlie, himself en route, will test his limits and certainly yours. Like a river, he will ebb and flow and must reach and sometimes breach his edges, and he must do it on his own rather than to have arbitrary lines imposed. What I have learned is that the standards a mother’s son sets for himself will always be higher than she could reasonably expect. This wholly unpredictable process ultimately and paradoxically teaches control. It fosters mercy and kindness, sensitivity and tenderness. To wit: Every boy must learn, for example, he can pummel his little brother and then decide whether he should do it. This is a messy business, and hugs help. Certainly meditation is better than medication – and also mediation.
    Heavens. I seem to have pointed my bark into very dreamy waters. But you started it!
    I wouldn’t (and couldn’t) have red-penned a word of this. But I would have liked to fight with you about it, particularly the phrase “God works in so many different ways. I’d have argued for “in all ways.”
    I love that you write about it. I love how you write about it.

    • Andy, I’m so deeply moved by your response. I’m actually kind of speechless. The depth of your reaction and the stately descriptions in your “review” of this piece really melted into my heart in the best possible way. (Nina Simone’s voice in “The Other Woman?” Geez, Andy, that’s really generous. Let’s hope that if I ever see the other side of feedback from you in the future, it doesn’t sting as strongly as this soothed.) Wow. I don’t have great words for how touched I am by your advice on mothering young boys, but thank you. Real beauty, wisdom and divinity in your written words, and I’m taking them to heart. As for your red pen, your comments are as enjoyable as a “good paper.” However, regarding our fight, it wouldn’t have been much of one because I agree with you. God works in all ways. God is in everything. God is in Andy Obermueller! If only I’d had this lovely insight into you when I was a green freshman walking into Kansan Editorial Board meetings. Maybe I would’ve done something other than giggle the entire time…

      When are you going to start a blog? Or write a book. I’ve been piecing your story together from the last 15 years and it’s downright fascinating. Inspiring, I daresay? I would relish reading every word you pen, and so would the rest of the world. Take an occasional break from your career as an elitist investment strategist and get back to your wicked way with words, will ya? (you can do both.)

      Really, it’s such a delight being in touch with you. Thank you so much for reading my stuff.

  6. Wow!! Another beautifully written, sensitive and detailed peek into your life. I felt like I was there. Your boys are so blessed to have YOU as their Mom. How wonderful that Charlie at his young age has learned the beauty of meditation. If only all children were given this gift think how awesome the world would be!! I also must admit to verbalizing an “Awww” at the adorable picture. They are beautiful and precious.

    • Thank you so much, sweet and wonderful Joanie! Your kind and loving words buoy me, as always. I’m not sure he’s learned the beauty of meditation quite yet, but he actually DID it, and that’s enough for me for now. 🙂 Miss you tons!

  7. That was beautiful. It gave me chills. Thank you for being honest about parenting. I think so many people are trying to make it look easy. I’m not a parent but I know it’s not easy.

    • Oh, Whitney, I finally discovered that honesty has the power to draw out much-needed validation like this bit of amazing love from you. Without that kind of support, I’d suffocate beneath my own imagined pressure of perfection. The making-it-look-easy thing absolutely wrecks me if I buy into it (and this doesn’t apply just to parenting, of course–the theme is everywhere!) Thank you so, so much for reading this and for your sweet comments. A very, very Merry Christmas to you!

  8. My sister’s oldest son had a similar personality to Charlie’s. She really struggled with his moods and anger issues. After a lot of research she decided to try to eliminate preservatives and food dyes from his diet. We all really noticed a difference. Now he is in 4th grade and a really great kid (not to say he wasn’t before). He is calm and can control himself. It’s truly an amazing transition. I’m not saying that it was all about the diet, I’m sure some of it was just growing up and maturing. I guess my point is, there is so much hope in your story. I’ve seen it on the other side and it is even more refreshing to watch him interact peacefully with his siblings after knowing how violent his past reactions were. Don’t lose faith this is just a phase.

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