UtS 15 ms photo Buttenwieser  Photo by Christina Schmidt

Photo by Christina Schmidt

Laws of Motion

Janet Buttenwieser
Newton’s First Law of Motion: An object at rest will remain at rest unless acted on by an unbalanced force. An object in motion continues in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.
At summer camp when I was six, we swam in the university pool. We walked there from archery, singing “The Ants Go Marching” as we crossed the quad and descended the athletic building stairs. Inside, everything glimmered: the chrome ladders, the reflection of the recessed fluorescent lights on the water, the red and white plastic triangular flags strung from posts across the lanes. When we arrived, we broke the water’s glass surface, thrashing like caught fish, our squeals bouncing off the concrete all around us.
           Over the summer, I progressed from Tadpole to Polliwog to Frog. During free swim at the end of lessons, we’d take turns jumping into the deep end. I usually hovered at the edge of the pool, shy in my Snoopy bathing suit; I stood, hesitant, like a teen driver afraid to merge into traffic. Then I met Jody. She’d skipped Kindergarten, and wore her curly hair short, and talked and chewed gum constantly. Her eyes and teeth sparkled as though she couldn’t wait to see what was going to happen next.
           “Let’s run, Janet!” she’d say, grabbing my hand, and we’d sprint through the grass to archery, or arts and crafts, or lunch that we ate in the shade of maple trees at the edge of the quad. Years later, when we met for the first time since high school, the union would reverse itself as my extroverted daughter took Jody’s daughter’s hand, coaxing her away from her mother’s side to run across the lawn to the swing set.
One recent evening, my kids in bed, the toys put away, the dishwasher loaded, I read a New Yorker article about quantum computing. The physics professor who gave me my only C in college would be surprised to learn that I voluntarily stayed up late to learn about quantum mechanics, absorbing author Rivka Galchen’s words under my bedside lamp. She explained that two particles can be related. Entangled particles, as they are called, can share information that an observer cannot perceive. The particles can perform this operation even when they are far away from one another. Galchen describes that information as their “collective secret.”
           Friends share secrets, first as children, then adults. The particles in our bodies share them, too, even when we stop holding hands, even when camp ends and we trade our flip flops for saddle shoes and return to our respective schools. The connection remains like an indelible imprint on our skin.
One day at summer camp, when the whistle blew for free swim, I ran with Jody, laughing, my feet light on the cracked tile. I did not linger at the edge of the pool. I did not look before I leapt. I just jumped. Another girl was already in the water, practicing her back float. How peaceful she must have felt in the moment before my feet hit her stomach, the fluorescent lights above blurred by the chlorine in her eyes, her body weightless in the still water.
           In two breast strokes I was at the ladder, scrambling up, hoping a swift exit from the pool would somehow undo my actions. Nearby, the head coach turned and blew his whistle, his extended arm and finger pointed at me.
           “Watch where you’re jumping!” he yelled while a counselor helped the girl. “No running on the pool deck.” My eyes filled. I’d never before been scolded by a stranger. Walking back from the pool, I saw the girl vomiting onto the grass. I can still picture her bathing suit: a blue-and-red lattice pattern with a frilly skirt at the waist.
**
Newton’s Second Law of Motion: Acceleration is produced when a force acts on a mass. The greater the mass of the object being accelerated, the greater the amount of force needed to accelerate the object.
I stood on the bank of the Colorado River, watching the sun glint off the water, and had one thought: This is a bad idea. But I was twenty-two years old, three weeks past my college graduation, and unused to asserting myself. Even though a student at our college had died in a climbing accident the previous autumn, we all still held the belief, boosted by our inflated egos, that we were invincible.
        I’d just moved to a small resort town in Northwest Colorado. Some college friends and I rented half of a duplex adjacent to the ski area. Three men in their late twenties occupied the other half. On move-in day we made the delightful discovery that one of them owned a river raft, which sat inflated on a boat tow in their half of the garage. By nightfall we’d planned a whole-house trip.
           I loved the thrill-ride that rafting provided, the boat bumping along rapids, water spraying my face. The speed at which one plunged downriver fit the pace of my life. In the next nine months I would travel abroad, move away from the resort town and then back again before embarking on a five-month stay in Nepal. I’d change jobs almost as often as I changed my sheets, rent a post office box and a storage unit. First, though, I’d go rafting.
           The two other women on the trip, Penny and Martha, were part of my group of college friends. One of them was my boyfriend, Matt, who would later become my husband. We’d all developed a bond that would deepen as the post-graduation years passed, supporting each other through miscarriages and mental illness, through marriage breakups and health scares. We’d known the three men we were about to go rafting with for a handful of hours. If Penny, Martha and I were entangled, our particles a cluster of electrons comprising a single atom, our relationship to the three men was like a sketch of the solar system, each planet separated by millions of miles.
           With three previous trips under my belt, I was the second-most experienced person on the boat. Half the members of our group had never rafted. The boat’s owner, Doug, gave us a quick lesson on the riverbank before we loaded the raft with supplies: a cooler stuffed with sandwiches and beer, one water bottle per person. My friends and I had brought our bike helmets for protection.
           “We won’t need the helmets until later,” Doug said, so we clipped them around the black nylon straps wrapped around the boat’s inflated tubes like birthday gift ribbon.
           The six of us buckled rented lifejackets around our torsos and scampered aboard. I sat in the back with Doug. For ten minutes we followed his commands, paddling more or less in unison. We lumbered along, Doug’s roommates teasing each other loudly at the front of the boat. I tried to concentrate on digging hard with each stroke. Leaning down, I sometimes got a face-full of water from Martha’s errant stroke in front of me. I barely noticed the clusters of Aspen trees dotting the riverbank, the kingfishers zooming close to the river’s surface.
           Soon enough, we heard the rush of water ahead, louder than our voices. We came around the bend and saw a large rock dead-center of our first rapid. Doug alerted us to stay to the right of the rock, and began shouting commands, panic rising in his voice as we drew closer.
           “Paddle right, hard!” he screamed as we headed left and straight over the top of the rock. We tipped vertically onto the hole the water formed around the rock and the boat stayed in that stuck position, wedged between the hole and the rock as if with Velcro. Doug and I were forced to our feet, and I heard him say shit as I launched out over the boat and into the water.
           The underside of the rapid was the opposite of its surface. Cold, quiet, and dark, it was like being in a slow, mute washing machine. I knew almost nothing about whitewater rivers, but I did know this: a hole can hold an object a long time, longer than the average human lung capacity. It releases you when it feels like it. The river flowed over, under, all around me. Time slowed almost to a stop as water pushed me backwards into the hole.
           While paddling, we’d thought we were in control of our momentum, moving the boat where we wanted it to go. But our clunky, beer-laden raft was a little cork compared to the power of the river. It was as though Poseidon were there on the Colorado that afternoon, tossing us around for his own amusement as if we were juggling balls. Oops, I could almost hear him say as he held me under. Dropped one.
           In the hole, I thrashed wildly, to no effect. Nearly out of breath, I had no choice but to submit. My limbs went still, and almost immediately, I spat out of the hole. I popped to the surface, my feet pointed, mercifully, downstream. I imagined bouncing off rocks, first with my feet, then with my head. I thought of my helmet still fastened to the raft. Bad, bad. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
           But the impact never came. The current slowed. I remembered I could swim and did so, landing in an eddy further downstream. I scrambled onto the bank, a thin swath of dirt abutted by large rocks. Doug and Martha had fallen out too, and climbed onto the bank alongside me. Somehow the other three managed to get the boat to the eddy and hold it there.
           We thought of ourselves as huge, strong, safe in the big raft. But we were mere molecules. Easy to sweep aside, to wipe out. We were trying to move too fast.
           Six years later, a pair of surgeons would remove a benign tumor lodged between my tailbone and my intestine. Recovering from my operation, I would think of rafting and wonder that I ever had found the energy for it. It would feel as if a different person had been able to move that quickly. Maybe the river had a lesson to teach me that day about slowing down, being present. Appreciating what I had instead of taking it for granted—my health, my friends, our whole long lives together.
           I wanted to stay on the bank, enjoy the solid, still feeling of being on land. But the only exit was downriver. We had to get back into the boat. Penny extended her arm and I reached toward her with my own hand, bruised and throbbing from hitting a rock. I put my hand in hers, and she pulled me on board.

**
Newton’s Third Law of Motion: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.
The day before my friend Beth died from brain cancer, I sat at the edge of her bed, holding my three-month-old daughter, Helen. Across town, Caleb, my two-year-old, made play dough with his babysitter. Helen slept in a sling, pressed against my abdomen and the place where surgical scars formed an uneven tic-tac-toe board across my flesh.
           Beth had a light around her, an energy that drew people into her orbit. She wasn’t bubbly like my camp friend Jody, but they shared the same eye-glint, attuned to and energized by their surroundings. In the preceding years, we each had recurrent tumors cut out of us.
           “What does it say about our places in the universe,” I said to Beth once, “that your tumors were in your brain and mine in my butt?”
           “What does it say,” she replied, “that yours were benign and mine were malignant?”
           On her last day, Beth slept sitting up in a hospital bed in the front room of her house. She wore a blue t-shirt I did not recognize. Sun shot through a cloudless sky, spilling light onto the honey wood floor and her copper hair splayed across the pillow. Her hand felt warm in mine, her breathing deep and even, like Helen’s.
           “I don’t normally give baby clothes as gifts,” Beth told me the first time she visited after Helen was born. “But I’m making an exception for Helen.” I unwrapped the package she’d placed on the couch beside me to reveal a set of shirts in springtime colors.
           Helen had been a fussy newborn whose acid reflux disturbed her digestion and sleep. Matt and I felt exhausted, caring for a baby who took ninety minutes to complete one feeding and a toddler whose throttle was stuck on the fully open position. We slept in shifts and showered infrequently. I rarely left the house.
           At exactly three months old, the reflux subsided and Helen began to notice her surroundings. During the week before we visited Beth, Helen had smiled when awake instead of screaming and would sit in her baby chair watching Caleb as he played with his trains or shook the plastic maraca from his instrument box. Her outfits from Beth had grown too small. I stretched my favorite—teal with a watermelon print—over Helen’s torso to wear to Beth’s house.
           “Check out Helen’s beer gut,” I said to Beth’s sleeping figure. I studied her cheeks, swollen by steroid medication, and then I had to turn away. I looked out the window. If Beth had been awake, she would have wanted to go outside, to tilt her head back and drink in the sun. Yes, I could imagine her saying, It’s better outside.

 

I, too, find comfort in nature and in the laws of nature. I feel reassured by the predictability of Isaac Newton’s laws of motion. If you hit a billiard ball with a certain amount of force, at the correct angle, it will move across the table at a constant rate of speed and drop into the corner pocket. I want these hard-and-fast rules to apply elsewhere: If you get sick, you go to the doctor and then you get better. If someone cuts a tumor out of you, it’s gone forever. You die when you are old.
           Newton’s laws, reliable though they may be, are inadequate to explain some phenomena. Quantum mechanics, in contrast, requires an acceptance of uncertainty.
           Beth and I shared many “collective secrets,” as Galchen put it in her article on Quantum mechanics: This is what it’s like to be sick, to have a hostile object dwelling inside you. This is how it feels to be well. We knew what it meant to require care, to return the favor. We had equal and opposite reactions to medications, to invasive cells. Then we became entangled in a different way: one gone, one describing memories.
           What would I have done if I’d known Beth would die ten months after her tumor came back, thirty-eight and a half years after she was born? Lingered longer over dinner parties together, maybe, or had more of them. Followed through on plans we made: a road trip to Vancouver, a weekend at the beach. Maybe I would have fought my way through the haze of Helen’s early, fussy days to drive across town to Beth’s house and take a walk together in her neighborhood. From the top of her hill, we’d watch the ferry making its slow crossing to the island across the bay.
           But, Galchen says, “As quantum mechanics has taught us, things are inexorably changed by our trying to ascertain anything about them.” Quantum information is “like the information of a dream—we can’t show it to others, and when we try to describe it we change the memory of it.” We cannot know. We are required to accept ignorance about events transpiring around us, about what’s in store.
           I did not know how I would bear Beth’s death, or what it would feel like to have her gone: my home absent of her voice, my children growing up not knowing the sound of her laugh or the size of her hands as she flew them, airplane-style, around our backyard. Perhaps it’s better to be in ignorance about the impact of loss. We cannot measure the length of grief; it rises to the surface unpredictably. Healing does not follow a linear path. We have to learn to accept the randomness, to welcome the experiences no matter where we are in time and space.
           Maybe being born and dying are not opposite actions. There were, in fact, similarities between Helen waking to the world and Beth fading from it. Both had their basic needs tended to by others. Both breathed at the same rate while sleeping, exchanging carbon dioxide for oxygen in the same air space. Maybe their particles became entangled in the few moments they shared, my daughter and my dear friend. An older Helen would pull our photo album from the shelf, drop it in my lap, and together we would name our constellation of family and friends. Beth, I’d say, pointing to a picture of her, and Helen would repeat it with the same emphasis. Beth.
           I thought Beth’s death would mean the end of our friendship. But she left an imprint. I don’t know what quantum physicists have to say about what happens to particles after a life ends. It seems to me, though, that entanglement lasts forever. Years after her death, I see Beth’s smile on her nieces’ faces. I can conjure her sarcastic tone, her laugh at Matt’s jokes, whether or not they were funny. The hole she left remains, but time has dulled its edges, like a piece of sea glass that’s spent years tumbling in sand and salt water.

 

In the evening, as Beth’s breaths slowed and her family gathered around her bed, I stood in my entryway across town, buckling Helen into our jogging stroller. In the kitchen, Matt washed dinner dishes and baby bottles. Caleb was already in bed, the stuffed bear Beth gave him when he was three days old lying face-up at the foot of his crib. I ran down the hill to a trail by the lake. Helen fell asleep within minutes, and I detoured off the path to a park, pushing the stroller in front of me.
           At the edge of the lake beyond a stand of blackberry bushes whose fruit had not yet ripened, I watched the weekly sailing race, boats zipping around buoys in front of the downtown skyline. At the restaurant adjacent to the park, diners clinked glasses and forked locally caught salmon under plum-colored umbrellas. The sun, three days past the summer solstice, shone on the water and the tops of trees. The word solstice comes from the Latin sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still), because on those days the seasonal movement of the sun stops before reversing direction.
           A sailboat approached the drawbridge to my left, honking its horn to request passage. The bridge operator responded with five short blasts of his own. The boat idled in front of me, waiting. When traffic cleared on the bridge, the two halves would separate, allowing space for the boat to pass. The amount of power required to raise the bridge, Matt told me once, is the same amount of power it takes to operate a toaster oven. We were in our car at the time, watching our side of the bridge rise to its vertical position. Just moments before, a twenty-ton truck had driven across it.
           “That’s all it takes to lift all that steel?” I said.
           “That’s all it takes.”
           I watched the boat’s passengers sip beers twenty feet from me, laughing, no one aware that early the next morning, at the moment the summer sun created a fissure in the night sky, the earth would pause in its rotation for a split second as Beth breathed her last breath.
           The bell above our heads dinged as the streetlight turned red and the bridge gates lowered. The people on the boat stopped talking and turned toward the bridge. I followed their gazes, the sun at our backs, the noise of freeway traffic above our heads sounding like waves crashing against a rocky shore. In the stroller, Helen sighed and slept and grew older while I stood by the water’s edge near a group of strangers, suspended in time and space, our heads tilted upward as we waited for the two halves of the bridge to part from one another and make their slow ascent.