Friday, April 30, 2021

The Transmigration of Stephanie Sinclaire Lightsmith

© Mandi Lynn

On April 14, 2021, my friend Stephanie died unexpectedly at Seatoun Beach. She was 67.

If I could begin to be

Half of what you think of me

I could do about anything

I could even learn how to love

When I see the way you act

Wondering when I’m coming back

I could do about anything

I could even learn how to love like you

Love like you

Love me like you

—From “Love Like You,” Steven Universe

I remember exactly where I was when I met Stephanie. One of the holistic health practitioners at our yoga studio had invited us to a party. You may not know this about me, but I am not the biggest party person. In this case, however, I was willing to hold my introversion/ neurodivergence/misanthropy somewhat more lightly for one February evening in Seatoun. This coastal Wellington neighborhood had held a special allure ever since we first rode down Marine Parade in a van named Gollum on a Lord of the Rings tour of the city and its environs.
The occasion was the arrival of Katey’s mother. She was in from London, where for years she had been part of the film and theater scene, running the iconic Kings Head pub theater. We found each other immediately, retired to a sofa, and shared our journeys as immigrants, entrepreneurs, artists. We talked for hours, about everything, stopping only to watch the orca in the harbor. It was an auspicious beginning.
Four months later, as the Fates and real estate situation of Wellington would have it, we ended up moving into the cottage next door to Katey and her family. In the meantime, Stephanie had returned to London to tie up some loose ends so she could return for the birth of her granddaughter later that year. It’s when she got back that we started an intermittent series of what we called “artist’s dates,” after Julia Cameron’s concept for sparking creativity. Our version was simple, a conversation, really, that ran for 10 years.
Some sessions we planned, but more often than not we met by chance. They were regular but never routine. More than anyone else I’ve ever known, Stephanie had a penchant for popping up at the most opportune moments. Her sense of timing, in that sense, was perfect. She and I would find each other at countless industry events, workshops, trainings, conferences, parties. We ran in the same overlapping circles. She made everything better; if she was there, you felt as if you were on the right track.
With Stephanie and playwright Phillip Tyler Wilson, Creative Leadership NZ 2017.

In LA, every coffee shop is filled with aspirants writing screenplays. In Seatoun, it was just Stephanie and me. We were respectful of each other’s writing time, because we knew how hard it could be to come by.
During our joint sessions, we would check in with each other, pitch our projects and share our processes, commiserate on our challenges and disappointments. Most of all we would encourage each other. We never collaborated directly on a project, but we were nonetheless collaborators. Stephanie wasn’t a mentor, at least not in the traditional, hands-on sense. I think she knew that the best way to provide guidance, at least in my case, was by example. As much as Stephanie had already accomplished, she’d had her share of obstacles and hardships, as any creative does. She was not without self-doubt. But she also had a titanic courage, a deep well of experience to draw upon, that saw her always pushing forward.
We shared a kinship but our temperaments were quite different.
Stephanie was always onto something new, a splendid hummingbird, and catholic in her sympathies and allegiances. For someone who excelled at beginnings, she got a lot done. She was a creative with a capital “C,” someone who understood the importance of generating and then shipping the work. For someone more deliberate but equally ambitious, it was always a healthy reminder.
Stephanie was vain but not despairing of growing old. Glamorous but not false. She was well on her way to cronehood.
She was the only person who called me “Darling,” which she spoke in her enchanting Mid-Atlantic accent.
Stephanie took Hawk seriously, always, most recently hearing his pitch for a trilogy of YA zombie-apocalypse novels he had dreamed up. She brought Hawk into our tradition, the ways of our little club, for why would you not honor the natural creativity into which we are born?
Stephanie sampled widely the menu of life, an epicure of the noblest intent who never failed to make you feel welcome, the center of the universe in that moment. She gave you her full attention. Jenifer put it this way: “When you were with her, she always held you as if you were already whole.” She spoke as if everything were possible, with a gentle but unassailable conviction that what we most longed for was eminently possible. I will continue to trust in her wisdom here.
When, in late 2013, a change in immigration policy meant we had to leave New Zealand, she was one of the first we told—in a chance encounter outside St. Peter’s Anglican Church. She was also the last person we saw before heading to the airport. She saw us off, radiant in her white ceremonial garb, from her Sea Star Studio. We were so rushed, so pressed for time, she finished cleaning out our apartment, selling off or rehoming the housewares, books, and sundries we were unable to manage in what we thought were our final days in New Zealand. We were very pleased when, shortly thereafter, she moved into our cottage.
At this, our first parting, her gift to me was The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick. She couldn’t have known that the afterword and part of the annotations were written by my favorite graduate school professor. Or maybe she did, via her cosmic intelligence network, or a little bird.
The week after Stephanie’s death, I was telling my friends at work, “my Millennials,” all about her. What she meant to the arts community here, to our neighborhood, to our family. To me. “She was one of my favorite people,” I told them, my voice breaking. And so she was. I may not have known that until just then.
I went for a walk on the City to Sea Bridge overlooking the harbor. Once upon a time I had run into Stephanie there, with Katey, shortly after my return to New Zealand. As I was reflecting, I noticed a duck swimming below me, right to left. An adult duck, male, and clearly competent in the ways of duckness, of duck-being, and moving with clear-eyed intent. Once, I thought, he had been a duckling and not yet versed in the ways that would be required of him. He paddled past me, and then I noticed another duck, swimming at a right angle to the first duck, along the y-axis to his x-axis. They came together and met in the corner of their mutual graph, their 0,0, and passed from view. Who is to say what transpired after this meeting? What might these two share from this center of all centers, this core of cores? In this life, we meet one another, and our connection and shared path may be invisible to others. Sometimes even to ourselves.
The way I want to remember Stephanie is how I once observed her: walking along Ferry Street, too far away to call after her. I knew exactly where she was going and why, to the cafe to write. I envied her the journey, but it was hers to make, and I had elsewhere to be. On she went to inhabit whatever faraway world she had called into being. On she went.
Godspeed, Darling.

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Saturday, November 12, 2016

Hillary, Hermione, and Us

When I was in fourth grade, I loved playing Around the World. This was the game we played, usually on Fridays, in which one student stood behind another's desk, the two students shouted out the answer to a math problem--delivered by the terrific Mrs. Groff--and the victor moved to the next student's desk, trying to make it all the way around the room's large rectangle of desks--"around the world." I was very good at this game, and often enjoyed the spoils of victory, which I'm pretty sure were Gummi Bears. But there was another student, an African-American girl named Michelle, who was even better. She was blazingly fast and, as much as I liked winning, I loved watching her play. She inspired us.

In sixth grade, I tied for second place in the 50-yard dash. My equal was my friend Sajy, and the boy who came in first was a year older than us. The true champ, however, revealed on Field Day, was a long-legged girl named Robin--and she smoked all of us. Watching her run, we were astounded: Who could do a 6.7? She could!

I went to a public school, and as often as not the best and brightest were girls. As I grew older and moved through school, however, I began noticing that some of the girls in my cohort began to disappear. No longer were they in the "gifted and talented" group, the "top section," the Advanced Placement classes. It wasn't until years later that I would learn of research showing how girls are at great risk of "dumbing down," starting somewhere in the fifth grade--about the time kids start showing an interest in fledgling romances and "boy-girl" parties.

These memories come back to me now because one of our best and brightest has lost the US Presidential election. Hillary Clinton has come up short, and I grieve.

I grieve for the country, I grieve for Hillary, and I grieve for my wife. I grieve for the little girl she was, once upon a time.

My wife, Jenifer, recently shared her experience in a Facebook post. She was responding to the sentiment, now widely expressed, that grieving is "soft," and that we are called upon to "get to work," or, by some, to get over it. Jenifer writes:

"You know the character Hermione Granger? You know, she's the smartest and most talented witch. She's always the most prepared. She's really passionate about learning. And she's really, for the most part, passed over. I grew up a Hermione Granger. Often, even when I was objectively or subjectively the best possible person for an award, a job, a promotion--I was looked over, passed over, or often even told to do the work of the other person. I have, throughout my life, been seen and treated as a half-person based on my sex (cisgender female). . . .

"For me, at a deep, largely unconscious and emotional level, Clinton became the avatar and champion of me. She is a living embodiment of every time I've been overlooked, every time I've been pushed down or pushed aside or treated poorly. Because like me, she just gets back up and gets to work. . . .

"And yes, I'm grieving. Not because Clinton lost an election. But because her losing the election was related to every time I have lost, and in particular, lost to someone who was truly *unworthy* of winning."

When I met Jenifer, it didn't take me to long to figure out that she was a Hermione Granger (even if I wouldn't discover that character for a few years). She was my equal. And yet, unlike me, she had experienced a school system, a community, a society that again and again denied her the recognition, status, achievement that were her due--because she was female.

Grieving is a natural, healthy response to profound loss. And Jenifer, and I, and all of us, have a experienced a profound loss.

To be clear, we are not grieving a political event. We are grieving the loss of what this election signifies, something far more significant: the loss of an idea about ourselves, our nation, that we are decent, moral people. The fact that people we love and respect have chosen complicity with hate speech and the language of fascism.

We are grieving the loss of identity.

Women are hardly the only ones hurt. The patriarchy--which sounds so old-fashioned now--also wounds men, gravely. The old mode forbids them from grieving. From expressing vulnerability. So many men today don't know how. As the poet Robert Bly puts it, they don't know how to shudder. We have a nation of strong women. We need men who can shudder.

There's a lot of talk these days about how the "angry white men" of America haven't been acknowledged by Washington. And it's true. These angry white men haven't been seen. But the crime is not solely the politicians'. These are men who haven't undergone the ritual of initiation. They have never, as youths, been seen by elder men, never been blessed for the golden promise of their power, and so do not understand vulnerability or the subtle demands of intimacy.

A man unseen walks in shadow and sees all others in shadow, and seeks to bring them into the orbit of his darkness.

When I see my son, Hawk, age 8, I marvel as his self-possession, confidence, emotional intelligence. They inspire awe in me. He knows who he is and understands that he is allowed, simply, to be there. He knows that his peers--from New Zealand, Fiji, Greece, Georgia, the UK--deserve the same. And he is beginning to discover his privilege.

Whatever gifts my son has received from me, whatever are of his own makeup and destiny, I know that many come from Jenifer, who feels similarly "entitled". Entitled to be there, to occupy physical space, to participate in equal footing in public discourse, to belong--in short, to matter.

I have friends who are not so lucky. Friends, who, because of the color of their skin, are more likely to be "extrajudicially executed" by public servants. Friends who, because of their gender or sexuality, are more likely to take their own lives, because they are not permitted to be there.

I grieve for them, too.

The day after the election, I stole away from the office for a moment. There was no place to go that was private, it was pouring outside, so I went up a back stairwell, between office floors, until I could go no further. Beyond the locked door was the roof of the building. I went as far as I could go, and I wept.

Whatever Hillary's shortcomings (that is say, her humanity), she has had to walk the impossible path expected of women, which is to be immaculate. But we have no need of perfect women. We need women who hold themselves, and are held by others, to be whole people. Women of ambition, intelligence, and doggedness honored for what they contribute to the world. Is it too much to hope that, adult by adult, teacher by teacher, mentor by mentor, friend by friend, we can nurture these gifts in our youth, girls and boys alike? That we ourselves might be the avatars and champions of those who need us most?

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Thursday, January 15, 2015


On January 3, 2015, my grandmother passed away at the age of 98. This is the remembrance I delivered at her memorial service.

.     .     .

Delina May Heiss Wise. Most knew her - many of you knew her - as Delina. But in our family she was "Opie." I was only two years old when I gave her that name, and it stuck.

In my earliest recollection, Opie was a being of mysterious and magical power, as grandparents are, at their best. Her car looked like the Batmobile of the Sixties, only in champagne. Her house was (to me) gloomy, wreathed in shadow, and the bathroom smelled of perfumey soaps. She dispensed weird chalky candies. She could sneeze like nobody's business.

In short, Opie was different. Special. An outlier in the small realm of my brief experience. At that age, I didn't know the half of it.

Opie was born in a different world. One in which a girl might learn to drive herself to school at the age of 12. Or maybe that was just her way, to be ahead of her time. Her bright mind must have been evident even then, as she graduated from Drexel University and did further studies at Duke and Millersville, when women's educational and work options were much more narrowly defined. She became a teacher, and was accomplished in painting, needlework, and sewing. In marrying Richard Wise, she became a mother, choosing to take responsibility for my mother when she was six years old.

Opie was private, quiet, independent. For years after the death of her husband, she maintained their large property on her own. Sometimes I helped with the leaves. One time I hunted birds with bow and arrows. She was okay with that.

Opie collected owls. Later I learned that previously she had collected pigs. This struck me as incongruous, for whatever virtues a pig might possess, surely such a creature was not fit to serve as this woman's familiar. No, the owl was her totem animal. Druidic, elemental, wild. Untamed. Opie was spirited, even if that wasn't immediately obvious. At times she might seem aloof, or bored. It was plain that she took little interest in small-minded talk or gossip. If she disagreed, she remained silent. She was honest, and this is part of wisdom.

And yet: she was so not above pinching a bite of food from your plate at a family cookout. She would do it and laugh with defiant glee.

In her last years, her taste buds failed her, and her natural penchant for sweet things only grew stronger. She liked anything chocolate, and apparently chocolate ice cream featured heavily in the nursing home's dessert rotation. Not entirely a bad thing.

Other things went away, as well. Her memory, her sense of time and place, of the individuals who played significant roles across her long span of years. Bit by bit, as her condition progressed, she shed the layers that seem to add up to what we call personality. But she was still Opie.

Opie was the last of my family's elders. Our elders. The advance guard leading the rest of us in a journey through time, through the stages of life.

When I think of Opie now, I remember her strong hands, with prominent knuckles, arthritic fingers bearing chunky wooden rings. Her stoic wisdom. Her trickster energy. I remember Sundays after church, when she would come up the walk to our house for lunch and be met by our schnauzer, who was beside himself, in utter rapture, greeting the most important person in the world. He knew what Opie was all about. He, like us, had fallen under her spell.

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Friday, November 07, 2014

Once and Future

Something odd and wondrous is happening. Something "wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey," as a certain Doctor might put it. Recently, I shared with Hawk the Disney version of The Sword in the Stone. Naturally, he loved it, as it involves Knights and Wizards and Beasts. And only a couple of days ago, in his school library, Hawk spotted a golden-covered copy of T.H. White's The Once and Future King, pointing out that it matched the one on my shelf. Next to it were no less than five copies of The Sword in the Stone, which, I explained to Hawk, was the first part of the larger book. "Can we check it out?" he asked. I told him we could, but first we'd have to work through all the other library books we had at home!

I was in eighth grade when my friend Travis showed up with his golden-covered copy of The Once and Future King. I had already consumed The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Prydain and the Dune Chronicles, and feared there was little left in the world worth reading. But here was something with promise.

Once I got into screenwriting, I thought The Once and Future King would make a great epic film or mini-series (no offense to the Camelot musical and film), and it ranked high on my list of dream adaptations to write someday. And now it's back in a new version. As fortune would have it, my friend Brian Sibley has written a six-part dramatization for BBC Radio 4 that airs beginning this Sunday, November 9.

Not so very long ago, in Wellington, my friend Jack (Lord of the Rings tour guide extraordinaire) called me up. His voice was urgent (not that unusual), but also excited (again, typical): our mutual friend, the writer and broadcaster Brian Sibley, was in town. He was staying in the Museum Hotel, and we were to join him for dinner at the hotel's Hippopotamus Restaurant & Bar. I didn't yet own a car, so I quickly cabbed over to the Te Aro district and bounded into the restaurant.

At Hippopotamus Bar & Grill (l-r): Jack, Brian, Ryan.

Brian was in Wellington conducting research and interviews for his (compulsively readable) three-part Official Movie Guide of The Hobbit Trilogy. As locals, Jack and I were keen to supply our intelligence and, of course, glean whatever production secrets Brian might be able to share with two crazy Tolkien fans.

We had a splendid time. Brian proved a true gentleman, sweet and generous, and a gifted conversationalist. Indeed, Jack and I soaked up many tales from Brian's work in radio and film (go check out his entertaining blog). He's one of those warm people who can put you at ease with seemingly no effort at all; it's no wonder he's corresponded with and met a great many of his personal heroes. As we parted, we took some photos together.

I'm not sure what all this synchronicity means, Brian's adaptation and Hawk's excitement and the final Hobbit film and connections made in wonderful Wellington. But as I was preparing this blog, I checked the date on the photos. Exactly three years ago today.

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Friday, January 24, 2014

To My Father, on the Occasion of His 70th Birthday

My father and grandfather: Theodore C. Rasmussen III (l) and II (r), 1945.

When I was growing up, my grandfather gave me books: on my birthday, for Christmas, when we visited him and my grandmother at their house on Blossom Hill, in Lancaster. He was not alone in doing so. My great-aunt was a librarian, and a reader of novels, and she, too, gave me books, many books; starting with children's classics and working up, over the years, to various sorts of dictionaries, thesauri, and other volumes in support of my growing interest in writing. The books my grandfather gave were different.

First, they were from his own collection, and even then I perceived a powerful magic about the transaction: passing on books--vessels of knowledge--that reflected not only my grandfather's myriad interests but also his life journey, his self-education. A Conrad Argosy, Henry Miller's The Books in My Life, anything by Somerset Maugham.

Second, the books always were inscribed, in my grandfather's steady hand, in pencil. Invariably, they began with some version of "To Ryan, on the occasion of his 12th birthday," followed by an anecdote about the book's acquisition or (more interesting) Charles Doughty's exploits in the desert or how my grandfather met Henry Miller (twice!), and at last his signature: "Grandpa Alex."

Berlin, 1950s.
The thing that impressed me then, if I could have articulated it, was the experience of being made to feel special. The day was my day, and here, separate from the usual wrapped gifts, was something genuine and ineffable. It was a generational transmission, and it was significant that it came from outside the circle of my immediate family. There was mystery about the gift, always, something old and weighty, for there was no way I could conceive of what volume my grandfather would deem appropriate for the occasion. Besides, my grandfather, who was actually my father's stepfather, was difficult to know, according to both family consensus and my own vantage point of youthful timidity, and probably just plain difficult. But I felt special all the same, tended to, the chosen bearer of ancient lore. My grandfather could not have given anything finer.

I was of a generation, as many before and all since, that did not undergo a particular rite of passage. There was no common, widespread way of preparing a boy for manhood. I feel fortunate, at least, to have been the recipient of the material stuff of accumulated wisdom, doled out at odd intervals.

Today, the day my dad turns 70, I have the temerity to offer an inscription of my own, hastily scrawled, as I reflect on what it means to be a son, to receive the inheritance of manhood, and how and whether we can ever know our father, our many fathers all the way back. I cannot claim to possess special knowledge or hard-won wisdom, or at least anything worthy to be passed on to my father. Indeed, it seems such gifts can only ever be passed down, not up.

What, then, can I give? What do you give the man who, truly, has it all? What can I offer here besides the literary equivalent of ties, sweaters, and novelty items?

I think, today, I can offer only this: a story. Not even that: a moment. Recently, my sister came across an old photograph of my father. It's 1945. He's one year old, and standing with his father, my grandfather, Theodore C. Rasmussen II. This photograph stunned me. For I never knew this grandfather; he died several years before I was born. I know only facts: Captain in the U.S. Army, black belt in judo, survived a machine-gun burst, could lift a chair off the ground by grasping one leg while lying flat on his chest, divorced my grandmother, remarried and started a new family in South Carolina, died of throat cancer. I look at the photograph, at this unknown man, and in his face I see my own looking back at me. I can only marvel at this ageless and constant thing, this . . . Rasmussen-ness, that is expressed in a series of bodies through time.

I wonder at the "otherness" of my father, his me-ness and not-me-ness, or perhaps it's my him-ness and not-him-ness. And I wonder: How does my son know me? How will he come to know himself? What faces will stare at him?

.     .     .

Fortunately, my father was not entirely mysterious. I am aware of what he gave me. A sense of pride in my work. A sense of the cosmic. A love of what my mother terms "blood-and-guts movies." An appreciation of human frailty, and of physical strength. The capacity, as Robert Bly calls it, to shudder. He gave me books, too, at critical moments. Two in particular stand out. When I was eight (and he 36), he gave me The Empire Strikes Back Sketchbook. It was a turning point in helping me discover that films didn't just happen. They were written, designed, made. Four years later I received a copy of Dune (bearing the inscription, in my dad's perfect architectural lettering, "SHOOT FOR THE STARS, RYAN!"). Neither book was expected let alone asked for, and their arrival seemed auspicious.

Mount Victoria, Wellington, December 2012.

Churchill Park, Seatoun, Wellington, January 2013.

Thanks, Dad.


P.S. Early this morning--it was still "dark morning" as we call it--Hawk awoke and climbed onto me and said, "I really like the stories of your childhood, because it gives me the ideas of what I might do." And then he dashed into the dining room to wait for his father to get up and cook his breakfast.

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Sunday, March 24, 2013


Monday, March 11, 2013

Feather to Fire

Feather to fire, fire to blood, blood to bone, bone to marrow, marrow to ashes . . . ashes to snow.
It's funny what you miss when you live abroad. There's no accounting for what pops into your head at any given moment, though I guess that's also true if you stay in one place.

Arriving in New Zealand with seven pieces of luggage and a car seat, much of what we ownwhat we hadn't soldremains in storage. Your life moves on, you live with less, and your precious things become less precious. It becomes very easy to divide your history, your mental landscape, into Before and After.

For example: Before, I had a TV, a bunch of DVDs, and a player on which to play them. After, we download programs from the Internet. There are a good many films, favorites, that I haven't seen in years. Gregory Colbert's Ashes and Snow is one of them, and a little while ago it popped into my head. It's something I originally saw as part of Gregory Colbert's haunting Nomadic Museum installation in Santa Monica, during my first trip to Los Angeles. Narrated by Katsumoto, Morpheus, and a Spaniard (a Mexican stand-off I'd like to see), the film is divided into several parts, including Feather to Fire. Enjoy.

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