Spacetime, Buddhism, and my mother

Lately, I’ve been missing my mom, who died in 2007.

If you ask most people what they miss about their moms, they might say “feeling close to her” or “her cooking” or “the way she braided my hair.” Well, my mother and I were never close in a typical mother/daughter way. She was not a great cook and I don’t think she ever braided anyone’s hair.

I miss my mother the physicist.

Eileen Handelman Patent
My mother’s patent

Only recently have I come to understand that my mother’s path and mine may not have been so different after all, that physics wrestles with the same questions as art and philosophy. Who are we? Why are we here? Are we alone? What is the nature of reality? What does it all mean? What exists beyond that which we can observe?

During my young adulthood, I thought art was the only approach to answering such questions. Draw about them. Paint about them. Write about them.

My youthful hubris put blinders on me. So I never got a chance to discuss with my mother how she chose to deal with these questions. By the time it occurred to me to wonder what she thought of string theory, multiple universes, and the controversies in physics, it was too late to ask her.

Reading Max Tegmark’s book, “Our Mathematical Universe,” gave me a glimpse into some of what must have drawn my mother to her chosen field. As I struggled through the book’s more mind-bending concepts, I wished I could pick up the phone and chat with her about it.

I find myself a little jealous of my mother’s former students at Simon’s Rock College, who probably did get to discuss some of these ideas—or their predecessors—with her during her long tenure as a professor of math and physics. Although I attended the college myself, I was much too busy being a callow college student and indulging my love of literature to take my mother’s physics class. Now I regret that decision, though I’m not sure my taking the class would have been a particularly pleasant experience for either of us at the time.

My mother the Buddhist?

Another topic I wish I could discuss now with my mother is religion. She was quite a-religious, even a-spiritual, and I spent a good bit of my adolescence working in opposition to her views. I realize with the benefit of hindsight that we may not have been as far apart as I thought on this topic either. Perhaps, given time, she may have come to appreciate and even embrace a spiritual practice like Buddhism—as long as it didn’t involve any dogmatism.

My mother may never have braided my hair, but she bequeathed to me a legacy of questions that have consumed me and fueled the passions I’ve pursued for most of my life. While I don’t believe that she waits for me in any conventional heaven, I feel privileged to take up a conversation with her through my own thinking and writing about things that obviously mattered to us both.

Thanks to Kay Huber for her recent post that inspired my thoughts on this. 

What conversations do you carry on with people who are no longer with us?


14 thoughts on “Spacetime, Buddhism, and my mother

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  1. Audrey, what a beautiful post. It’s so hard that the person we are at a certain time couldn’t have appreciated the opportunities we had then that we now long for. I wish I could have dinner again with my good friend from college (he passed away the fall after our senior year from cancer.) I’d love to hear his voice again and have him give that awesome insight only he could.


  2. This is such a beautiful ;post in so many ways, and I am honored that my post was a bit of a spark for it. I just finished reading Einstein’s Dreams (Alan Lightman)–it does take me a while to get through my always expanding reading stack–it is a brilliant novel on how we live in the space and in the time we have. We cannot go back or forward but the now always allows us the wonder of asking. As your post so thoughtfully demonstrates, it is the asking that allows us to connect no matter when.


    1. I am all too familiar with the ever-expanding stack. But I am going to add Einstein’s Dreams to it, a book I have certainly heard about but never read. Thank you!


  3. What a wonderful legacy, even with your regrets! My father, at 86, is still bopping around and writing emails about politics. Your post has given me some ideas about what I want to ask him about. Thanks.


  4. my mom died when I was 7 so I’ve always been in wonder how different my life might have been had she lived, but luckily I had my dad until my early 20’s and I remember how full of life I felt when I was finally able to have intellectual…or ethereal discussions, really with my dad before he passed on. My mother has never stopped advising me…those one-sided conversations continue!


    1. I’m sorry you never knew your mom when you were an adult but glad you had that opportunity with your dad. And yes, sometimes I think the voices are louder coming from the other side!


  5. I still have my mother, and I should take this post to heart while there’s still time. I recently lost my father. Too recently, perhaps, to have yet realized what I should have asked him.


    1. I didn’t realize what a chord this post would strike with so many readers.

      It’s only human to not think too deeply about the limited time we have on this planet. (If you follow my blog you know I do spend more time than most dwelling on that!).

      Sorry to hear about your father…


  6. I often regret not taking the time to learn more about my grandmothers while they were alive–what their interests were other than the obvious, their beliefs, their coping strategies. Your lovely post has reminded me I still have time to do that with my own mother, so I should take advantage of that opportunity. Funny how we think we’ll have plenty of time. Until suddenly, we don’t.

    You’ve honored your mother beautifully. I love that she was a physicist. 🙂


    1. I have the same regret with my grandmothers–though, to my credit, I tried to talk with my paternal grandmother a few times and she was so uptight and class-conscious that it wasn’t a very satisfying discussion… I hope you find a way to connect with your mother while you can.


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