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Talking to Sylvia

As you may know, my wife Sylvia died of cancer in January 6, 2023. I’m still grieving, and I miss her very much. Over the last eight months, I’ve returned many times to the question of what it might mean to say Sylvia’s soul is still with me. In this post, I’ll outline some of my ever-changing thoughts.

The least comforting viewpoint is that when you die, you die. Like a light being turned off. Like a decades-long movie hitting a jump-cut…with nothing on the other side. Maybe it’s like going under total anesthesia and never waking up.

Some of you will have had anesthesia. When you rise out of the black in the post-op room, it’s as if no time elapsed. Unlike after sleep, you don’t seem to have had any intervening dreams. Jump-cut. But, as I say, if you’re dying, it could well be that there’s nothing on the other side.

It’s certainly reasonable to entertain the lights-out view of death. In our time we tend to think of consciousness as an epiphenomenon. Something that flickers within a living body like flames within a campfire. A computation being carried out by the brain and the physical body. If the body’s gone, there’s no more computation. No more epiphenomenon. No more you. Dead is dead.

I don’t like thinking that. No point trying to be all tough and hardcore. You’re gonna die away. So why not believe something that makes you happy?

You can find info about the paintings in this post on my Paintings page.

I’m writing this part of the post on my laptop as I sit on a bench in the Los Gatos town park. It’s Sunday. Around me is the weekly Farmer’s Market. Hundreds of people, scores of booths, music, sun and shadow. Tonight the park will be empty. This week’s market event will be dead.

Or will it? A very weak way past the dead-is-dead stance is to espouse a spacetime view of the world, then nothing is really gone. It’s just a little farther back along the time axis. The universe is a static block of spacetime, and time is not in fact passing. The passage of time is a persistent illusion that we humans have at each and every cross-section of spacetime. We’re always there, and we’re always wrong about thinking the past is gone.

I once had the chance to ask Kurt Gödel, “What causes the illusion of the passage of time?” Along with friend Albert Einstein, Gödel was one of the deepest thinkers of the 20th century. His answer: “The illusion results from confusing the given with the real.”

So, sure, maybe, but that’s pretty abstract. If you’re grieving over a dead person or, for that matter, dreading your own death, the spacetime viewpoint is thin gruel indeed.

Cue corny anecdote. My preacher father liked to tell the story of a little boy who’s frightened by a night thunderstorm, and he runs to his parents’ room and gets into their bed. “Can’t you just pray to God?” says the father. “He’s always with you.”

“If there’s a storm,” said the boy, “I need someone with skin on.”

Switching topics for a minute, I finished writing the “Big Germs” story I’ve been working on all year. I ran for the endzone and got it done in 4,500 words. I’ve dreamed of this story for so long, and now it’s over. And I don’t think it’s too short. The quick hit feels right. The idea is that two young women conjure up some ethereal jelly-bag critters evolved from human blood cells—these are the big germs of the title. The big germs have minds, and they reproduce, and you can talk with them. They zap all the guns and weapons in the world and turn them all into dust. End of problem.

So good to have that story done after thinking about it for so long. It was wonderful to regain my writing mojo and once again to revel in my craft. I mailed it off. Hope my tale’s extreme anti-gun stance doesn’t make it too hard to publish! Well, I always find a way.

No idea what I might write next, and not gonna fret over it yet.

About two weeks ago I drove up to SF to have dinner with John Shirley, Paul Mavrides, Hal Robbin, and some of the other cyberpunk/SubGenius types. Cozy. John’s wife Mickey was very emotional about how much she loved Sylvia, and how she now misses her. I told her Sylvia is alive in my head, and for a about a minute we got into this thing where Mickey was talking directly to Sylvia through my glassy, wide-open eyes. We were doing a routine.

Mickey goes “Hi Sylvia.” And I raise my voice and say, “Hi Mickey,” and it feels real…but then it’s too creepy to keep going.

Coincidentally, the next day my grief and loneliness were at a peak—it comes and goes, maybe like a sneaker wave that douses me on a beach. Sylvia, Sylvia, Sylvia. She’s gone for good.

This is a painting of our family members being one inch tall and we’re in a little boat going past big frogs and lurking squid.  (Just the OG family, no grandkids, but I threw in our departed dog Arf, and Isabel’s lost dog Rivers.) Life in a nutshell?

Last week when I was visiting SF, Rudy Jr and I went and got treats with his three kids at the nearly empty St. Francis Fountain shop on 24th St in the Mission. The shop isn’t a Disney-park reconstruction, but simply a 1940s soda shop that happens to remain. Stabs of “time pain”. Like “heimweh” in German, “home pain,” that is, homesickness. “Time pain” is my try at temporal equivalent of that. Better word?  Oh, hell, just say nostalgia. The simple pleasure of the kids, young with their whole lives ahead of them, and not even knowing that or even thinking about it.

[This spherical sculpture is by my friend Dick Termes.]

I’d prefer not to be a grieving parent who continually discusses his loss with the kids and grandkids. Maybe I’ll get there. So far they don’t seem to mind or resent my bringing it up. It’s still present in their minds as well. I hope in a year or two it’ll damp down, at least somewhat.

The next week I had a big insight. As I may already have mentioned in these posts, I have a very good model of Sylvia in my head. A human brain is of course the best possible “computer” for simulating a human. And I have an immense data base on Sylvia. As an SF writer and a computer maven, I’ve been saying to myself that I can run a simulation of Sylvia. What I call a “lifebox” in my nonfiction tome The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul. And my most recent novel Juicy Ghosts is about a big company renting out lifebox slots in their cloud silo.  Rent-A-Soul. But this idea doesn’t go far enough.

I got the new insight when I had Bob Hearn for lunch…he’s a computer programmer, also into mysticism and Buddhism, goes to Burning Man, and gets ecstatic satori by running ultramarathons—when I saw him he was preparing for a trip to Greece to run 150 miles from Athens to Sparta in 30 hours.

I told Bob my notion that Sylvia exists as a lifebox simulation in my brain, and he said, why think of it as a simulation? Why not say it’s real? Or why can’t it be both things at once? Reality is, after all, a completely fluid and arbitrary and in-the-eye-of-the-beholder thing. If all the Sylvia processes are in place, why not say it’s an actual Sylvia.

And now I’m fooling with this insight, opening up to it, and it makes me feel much better than I did a few days ago.

The Sylvia who lives within me isn’t just a model that I can contemplate. It’s a living being who I can talk to and, more importantly, this alternate Sylvia can respond.

Why this is good? First of all it’s more fun. And a big side benefit is that I can talk to Sylvia and beg forgiveness for mean things I did.  These days, I often get into a remorse loop of wanting to apologize to Sylvia for the times I was cold during those hard last two years. For instance, I have a heart-breaking memory of her sitting on the couch across the room, dejected, and saying, “Why are you always mad at me?”

And me knowing that what she said was true, not always, but certainly at that moment. The times were hard. And I still feel guilty and horrible about it, and I long to apologize. And if Sylvia is in some sense alive, I can actually say “I’m sorry” to her, and she’s likely to accept my apology, as she was kind and generous, and also she knows how rough things were.  And once she forgives me I’m finally okay.

Here’s a photo of Sylvia and me, in the form of those two logs. In the last months, we’d lie together like that in the mornings, close as close can be, hugging, desperate, terrified.

I discussed the “she’s really alive” notion at my grief counselling session on Zoom, and I told the therapist about my new take on things. And he said, yes, of course that’s true. We’re not just alive on this level. You might even say that we have a higher body—the subtle body, or astral body, or causal body—why not just call it the soul. And given that Sylvia was so tightly bound to me during her life, then of course her soul is with me.

One more touch. I’m in a grief group, and I was talking to the others about my new notion of being able to talk to a living Sylvia, and a woman said, “Well, of course. My husband will always be alive in my heart.”

That’s nicer than saying Sylvia’s soul is a process in my brain. Being an SF writer and CS professor, I tend to have this fixation on brains as opposed to the whole body. But, yes, saying heart is a fuller expression of what it’s all about.

So alright! And  hello, Sylvia.

Light beamed from madman’s stark, staring eyes, as if he were a jack-o’-lantern with a flare within.

No, no, just kidding with that last line, this isn’t meant to be creepy SF. Much cozier than that. Sitting outside on the side porch, late afternoon, nice sun, quietly chatting aloud with Sylvia. Getting caught up on what’s happened around here. Talking feels good.

Here’s a lovely little poem by Sylvia. I think I may have shared it before. I found in a tiny spiral notebook in her car.

I’ll always love you, dear.

10 Responses to “Talking to Sylvia”

  1. Eo Says:

    Surely there’s a dual space where we are spread throughout space and time. Always existing in some version of being.

  2. Geebit Says:

    Beautiful, pops. Endearing, encouraging, extra.

  3. David Says:

    There’s definitely something to the simulation idea. I’ve had on many times had dreams where lost loved ones have appeared. They act exactly as I remember them. One time I had a dream where they said something really funny, and it was exactly their sense of humour, and something I never would have come up with myself.

  4. R. Schanze Says:

    That was beautiful.

  5. Betty Eldridge Says:
    he year I was sleected to be the observer and the observed, the actor and the audience 1932 1984 2000 and 2001 now Hello Out There

    I was selected to be the listener, the observer , the observed, the actor , the audience, the data base, the searcher/ finder and a  recorder  in 1984,  a super year
    i hope you are having a mindquake like I had, its the only way to experience human reality, imo.  I am 91+ and my husband and I lived as one person.  That was not always a good thing when he was alive but the memories and more understanding has made it a miracle stretched out in time, so I could see
     and feel it happen..  1984 was a target, and everything was linked into a planetary unit.  

    “For centuries and thousands of years something has circled and circled in human thought that it has never  successfully expressed.” P. D. Ouspensky

    “Destiny is the result of two factors which grow together
    in the life of a human being; one streams outward from the inner depths of the soul: the other comes to meet man from the world around him.” Rudolph Steiner

    1 infinity plus 1/2 infinity = 0 and a half

  6. Kap Says:


    One thing does not exist: Oblivion.
    God saves the metal and he saves the dross.
    And his prophetic memory guards from loss
    The moons to come, and those of evenings gone.
    Everything in the shadows in the glass
    Which, in between the day’s two twilights, you
    Have scattered by the thousands, or shall strew
    Henceforward in the mirrors that you pass.
    And everything is part of that diverse
    Crystalline memory, the universe;
    Whoever through its endless mazes wanders
    Hears door on door click shut behind his stride,
    And only from the sunset’s farther side
    Shall view at last the Archetypes and the Splendors.

    -Jorge Luis Borges
    translated by Richard Wilbur

  7. Andrew U Baker Says:

    Even given the circumstances under which they were written, each one serves as a reminder to me about how I should value my own family members and the time I have left with them.

  8. Bev Says:

    I so sympathize with your heartfelt loss.

    After my own losses, I grew alarmed to learn that people can die from a broken heart: it can be dangerous to deeply grieve for a long, long time.

    I am glad your thoughts are making you feel better.

    People believe any and everything without evidence which can sometimes make them vulnerable to those who would take advantage of this capacity.

    For the sake of the loves we’ve lost, we need more empathy toward each other, now.

  9. Nathaniel Hellerstein Says:

    Of course there’s life after death. Once you’re dead, you’re dead, but other people will be alive. That should be afterlife enough for anyone. It isn’t, but it should be.

    Grief comes and goes. Usually it fades, though not entirely. That’s natural, it’s how we’re evolved to be.

  10. D Jesse Says:

    I’m certain everyone has a “life box” of their loved ones. And they have for millennia.

    Pliny the Younger once wrote of a recently dead friend:

    “He lives, and will live on forever; and his fame will extend and be more celebrated by posterity, now that he is gone from our sight. I keep thinking of Verginius: I see him before me: I am forever fondly yet vividly imagining that I hear him, am speaking to him, embrace him.”

    William Penn said something similar (J.K. Rowlings used this quote in a Harry Potter book):

    “Death is but Crossing the World, as Friends do the Seas; They live in one another still. For they must needs be present, that love and live in that which is Omnipresent. In this Divine Glass, they see Face to Face; and their Converse is Free, as well as Pure. This is the Comfort of Friends, that though they may be said to Die, yet their Friendship and Society are, in the best Sense, ever present, because Immortal. “

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