Quantum Physics at Four by Francine Marie Tolf

Time: the system of those sequential relations that any event has to any other, as past, present, or future.   

 Distance: the extent or amount of space between things.

 Place: a particular portion of space, whether of definite or indefinite extent.

Time, distance and place dovetailed when I was four years old, leaving me dazzled. I was standing under pine trees that rose from sandy soil bordering a small lake in the Wisconsin Dells. White Lake, 1962. My parents had rented two cabins for ten days. We needed two in order to house me, my five sisters, Mama and Daddy, and my Aunt Margie. The cabins did not have bathrooms. You had to enter a tiny dark shoebox of a building and situate your bottom over a hole carved out of a rough wooden bench top. I remember the shoe box’s raw stench and my fear of falling cedar-first (cedar was what I called my skinny little buttocks) into that terrible hole. I also remember my indignity at having to sleep in a crib. I tried to climb out of it one night to get the candy necklaces my sisters had brought back from an Indian Powwow I had not been allowed to attend (my mother thought it would frighten me). I slipped and the crib fell on top of me; suddenly I was a prisoner behind bars. My mother woke to my frantic bawling. There were cries of confusion, then laughter as the crib was righted, then a slew of candy necklaces to comfort me.

But about my moment. It was early morning, and I lingered under tall pines holding a large, sticky pine cone in my hands. We were going home that day. The homebody in me felt glad, but I was also filled with wonder. How could I be here now, under this blue sky scratched with green needles, and home in the very same day? At four, the distance between White Lake, Wisconsin and Joliet, Illinois might as well have been the distance between earth and the moon. But my wonder involved more than the many miles we would travel. If I took this pine cone with me in the station wagon, I asked myself, would part of here be there once we got home? And after I was home, if I closed my eyes and thought hard about this blue sky and the sharp smell of these pine needles I was standing on, would part of me be forever here? In short, the idea of two places always and ever separated by distance just seemed wrong.

What fascinates me about this memory is that at four years old I came to some of the same conclusions quantum physicists would arrive at decades later, namely that distance, time and space are illusions. I don’t pretend to understand the basis of this hypothesis, I know only that it is a hypothesis (a factoid I probably learned while reading Deepak Chopra). It seems the realm of a child’s mind is the realm of scientists and mystics. A writer I delight in, John O’Donohue, agrees. He considers infants creatures fresh from eternity who need a few years to get used to the illusions of our mortal world.

As a mortal, I’ve long gotten used to the illusions. The idea of two places forever separated by distance now seems inarguable. There seems no getting around the fact that time travels forward only, and no shortcut for the hours it takes to travel to any particular location. But sometimes the veil of logic comes close to tearing. I sat in a bar one night in Bloomington, Indiana, wanting a man who lived many miles away to walk through the door that minute. I wanted this so badly I was stunned he did not materialize.

I think the prayers we breathe tug small holes in logic. I pray for what can never happen on a plane where time, distance and space operate through fixed laws. I pray that every tear will be wiped away – from slaves who died in silver mines centuries ago, from over-worked children in Victorian England, from chimpanzees in laboratories today. I’m obsessed with the idea that suffering must be compensated. I wrote a renowned monk about this years ago, after reading an interview in which he said this life on earth was plenty for him, and that he would embrace death with gratitude, having lived fully. Fine for you, I told him in my letter, but what about people who endured miserable existences through no fault of their own? What about child prostitutes and babies who starve to death? Don’t they deserve something more?

How astonishing that Brother David Steidl-Rast (who was sent to a Nazi death camp and nearly starved to death himself) took the time to answer accusatory words from a woman who clearly knew nothing about him. Two weeks after I wrote him, I received a handwritten letter in the mail, one so kind it brought tears to my eyes. Brother David thanked me for my thought-provoking questions and acknowledged he might have sounded smug about his own death (I saw the twinkle in his eye as he wrote this). He invited me to think not of afterlife, but life beyond this life. “Eternity is not an infinite tail appended to our lifetime here and now,” he explained.  “Eternity is ‘the Now that does not pass away’ (St. Augustine) and to this Now we have access before death….as to the suffering of the innocent, I do share your grief – daily. It is a mystery we cannot penetrate from outside. We can only trust that the mothering love at work in the universe does find ways to compensate – from the inside – for every pain and sorrow. We can trust in this, because we experience it in ourselves.”

I do not fully understand the vision of this remarkable man, but I trust Brother David’s belief that time is penetrable…and that the mysteries of our universe are not, at least by scientists – even quantum physicists. After all, quantum physics is just the most recent box opened by science. There is another box inside it, and another, then another. You’d think humans would have learned by now not to be arrogant enough to assume we have the universe figured out.  We’re always proved wrong, eventually.

A child’s mind is free of this arrogance. When I was four years old and grasped under those Wisconsin pine trees that our physical world was an illusion, I felt only wonder. I realized I lived – we all lived, Mama and Daddy and Aunt Margie and my sisters – in a realm of mystery. I accepted this truth as trustingly as I accepted the sticky pine cone in my hands, a memento I would carry all the way from White Lake, Wisconsin to Joliet, Illinois. So part of here could be there.


Francine Marie Tolf has published two poetry collections, Rain, Lilies, Luck (North Star Press of St. Cloud) and Prodigal (Pinyon Publishing), as well as a memoir and five chapbooks. Her essays and poems have been published widely in journals including Water-Stone, Poetry East, Under the Sun, Christian Century and Contrary Magazine.  A collection of essays, JOLIET IN MY BLOOD, is pending from Port Yonder Press.