Death Written Right: "Swing Time" by Zadie Smith

Includes: Spoilers for the novel; Discussion of the loss of a parent

I just finished Swing Time by Zadie Smith. I’ve been reading it on and off since December. It’s a beautiful, engaging, evocative, moving novel about the protagonist’s life from childhood to her mid-thirties. I won’t describe the novel much but I will spoil it—it ends with the passing of the protagonist’s mother in a hospice due to cancer.

Before my father passed I would find works (books, movies, tv shows) that killed off a loved one bland when it was done badly, but now I find such things deeply annoying to the point of offensive. It feels so horribly false and ridiculous when someone hacks away at such a deep experience with little skill or precision, communicating nothing about life as they try to use such an experience only to move the other bland characters from point A to B like limp dolls. I especially resent the triggeryness of these bad uses of death—they remind you of the death you experienced without doing the profound experience any justice.

Since my dad passed, the casual use of death as a plot point in nearly everything jumps out to me more. The overuse of it without any proper thought or interesting treatment is laborious and boring. I turn off a lot of tv shows I might have otherwise finished. I reject a lot of mediocre movies. Death of a loved one is scattered everywhere and rarely done with any semblance of real human emotion—neither the grief nor the weird humour—none of it.

Dead to Me is for me another exception, on the humour side. The lasagna rage, the weeping on the toilet, and listening to death metal while driving are all just perfect.

Zadie Smith’s Swing Time is the perfect counter example of this sort of experience as a reader or viewer. I’ve taken a great deal of comfort in a few interviews with her and a few of her essays since my dad passed. The way she discusses the death of her father is so humane that it counteracts the wash of media so filled with blanched depictions of such intense experience. In listening to her and reading her work I feel that moment of recognition—that someone writing has, in fact, thought and felt this same experience. It’s not some apparition in my life—the feeling of death and the way it makes me consider the past, present, and future, the finite and infiniteness of life. It’s not just something to drive a boring show or story to its inevitable over-telegraphed conclusion.  

Swing Time firmly situates the protagonist in her own life. Her relationship with her childhood friend, her origins, and her mother’s conception of their identity all suffuse her. In interviews Zadie Smith talks about the finiteness of life as she sees it, and this is so strikingly real, as someone who is still in the first year of a loss, and someone who writes, is so real and so cathartic it’s hard to communicate the relief of reading such a novel, the work of such a person.  

I’ve lately spent time with two of my childhood friends, and friends I met a decade ago, links that are often severed by moving here and there, time and space. Links that don’t really do much for the forward, upward momentum that is the general order or narrative of our culture—they’re real and deep and pointless to capitalism unless depicted inaccurately in shows or ads. I’m also presently writing a book, the basic idea of which started forming in me when I was a child, and more pointedly when I was a teenager. I find myself thinking both about how, as a writer, there are only so many works in me. My ideas germinate at one moment and take years to develop, or they come and go quickly but then become a significant curiosity to me when I consider my past. I have a list of works I’d like to write and most are at a minimum ten years old—most of them older. I feel too that my father’s passing has changed my conception of time. I was telling my old friends since my mid-twenties everything has felt like it happened two years ago, when it could be anywhere from one year to ten. That’s changed—I am very aware of the difference between the time when my dad was alive and the time when he passed. I won’t call it a sharp line, as I find memory and emotion mean his presence is still very much with me, but there’s a difference in time and in me. Having the opportunity to go through that difference with people who know you only on one side of it, new friends, and people who remember you as a child, even have childhood memories of your parent that you don’t from their own perspective, is a big deal. These components and people in our lives are not moveable or exchangeable. The experiences that inspire us aren’t either.  

It makes me wonder if the people writing the bad portrayals of death haven’t experienced it, or can’t manage to express it though their work, or don’t want to face it and what it reflects back at them about their personhood or life more broadly. I don’t mean to be cruel, but there’s such a dull cruelty in making a bland mush this experience.  

Anyway, all that, all that feeling is what Zadie Smith pulls out so beautifully in her interviews, essays, and in Swing Time. When I got to the part where the mother goes to the hospice I felt that moment of resistance, of not wanting to let the book unexpectedly drag me back to that place, but the feeling softened quite quickly, as it’s easy to trust Smith with your psyche. You know that she, as an artist, isn’t going to subject you to some hackneyed torture, yanking meanly at the aching parts of you just to find a way to tie up her book in the absence of any other ideas. Quite the opposite.  

In our family of four, three of us were from Canada and one was an immigrant, a childhood refugee. Our experience differs from the one Smith describes in many obvious ways—my father was Eastern European and an immigrant to Canada, not a Caribbean immigrant to England like the mother in the book—but there is something so incredibly accurate in the way Smith speaks to your heart if your family is composed in any which way like this—not all people from the same place. The way the immigration experience and exploration of one’s identity make up such an important and all encompassing part of your life, and the weirdness of the person whose experience formed that core being able to die and be gone in that way… it’s hard to explain how much Zadie Smith’s writing reaches into my heart and holds that glowing experience and let’s me feel it.  

Being subjected inadvertently to so many bad and meaningless depictions of death, Smith’s writing on death in Swing Time is the perfect opposite. Rather than the usual dull thud on a sore spot, it was a gift. The echo of death, it’s delirium, the kindness of hospice workers, the strange aura of people not experiencing what you are at the time—Smith evokes it all in a way that makes my ears ring. Place, childhood, my parents, my present, death, my experience as a writer, how I see life forwards and backwards and conceive of myself in death’s wake, how it feels to be in the loss of my immigrant parent—Smith lets me look into these experiences when I can’t find them elsewhere.  

While I’ve read a few non-fiction works about death a grief that have spoken to me this way, Swing Time is the first piece of fiction that’s properly sprung death on me. Rather than feeling annoyed by it, blanched by it, Smith makes me feel seen. She makes death feel real. It’s a relief to read it.

Interviews with Smith:

CBC: https://www.cbc.ca/radio/writersandcompany/zadie-smith-on-the-ups-and-downs-of-female-friendship-in-swing-time-1.3840639

Adam Buxton: http://adam-buxton.co.uk/podcasts/ep40-zadie-smith

Desert Island Discs: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03bg4v7

Grief, Lichtenstein, and Goldie Hawn

The primary motivation for making this website was sharing my dad’s work with the world (other than all those podcasts ads of course… I’ve resisted buying a Casper Mattress thus far but was apparently not immune to the siren calls of Square Space). In the wake of his passing I find myself reflecting often on how my love of art, and my motivation to be an artist, was largely inspired by him, as well as by all of the museum going I did with both him and my mom.

In the face of this grief, continuing to share my dad’s work is really important to me. It feels super positive, and like we’re still working on our projects together, still scheming away. Actually selling the work is important to me too. He loved when someone took one of his pictures home and he specifically asked us to sell his work for him when he was gone. I get it. Knowing that someone bonded with your art so deeply that they want to live with it, and make that art part of their lives, is an incredible honour. There’s a deep sense of gratification that comes from someone seeing your art that way. I can also understand the desire to leave a legacy through your art, and to feel that you’re continuing to contribute to supporting your family once you’ve left this plane of existence. That’s all very important stuff.

So, in an effort to learn to sell these pictures in my dad’s honour, I took a class at Motion Gallery here in Calgary about selling your art online, taught by Steve Gow, which was awesome, and check the book How To Sell Your Art Online by Cory Huff out from the public library—both the book and the library are awesome too. The reason the book and class seemed so awesome to me is because the central message of both was that someone out there will like your art and connect with it, you just have to find them or help them find you. That’s a very peaceful and gratifying message—that your life and work will mean something to someone else too. You don’t have to change what you do, you just have to find the people who get it and get you.

Both the class and book shared another central theme, which was that the main way to invite people into your art is through stories. Stories about how and why you make art, about its meaning and significance, and so on. That way people can connect with you and the work, and they’ll feel more inclined to take that leap and buy a piece of your work. If the viewer feels like they get you and can trust you, then they’ll have positive associations with the work, and they will want to invite it into their lives.

That’s all true and good, and I can think of lots of examples where this applies to my feelings about certain artists and their work. But all this is a very long preamble to a different thought. In thinking about this idea, I’ve realized that a lot of my feelings about art, and about specific genres and pieces, are based on moments shared with my dad. One of my earliest memories is of being at the Glenbow and standing in front of a big abstract piece with my dad, and him encouraging me to walk backwards away from the painting to see how it changed depending how far I stood from it. I have a particular affection for 70s abstract works because my dad shared such work with me. Ditto for chunky shimmery sculpture, and anything large-scale and industrial and made of steel. I love it.

It’s not just childhood stuff either. When my dad couldn’t go out and about independently anymore we took him to shows around town, and in addition to seeing the Black and Gold Tapestry over and over again, we spent ages exploring Anna Torma’s show at the Esker and Mark Dicey’s show at the Nickle. I’m going to be the biggest fan of these artists forever not only because their work is amazing, but for this personal reason that is, essentially, totally tacked on to their art by me when I look at it. Whenever I see their work, I think about seeing it for the first time during some of the brightest, most meaningful moments of my life. I remember discussing the beautiful, intricate details of their pieces with my dad. What could make a stitch or a stroke of paint seem more significant than that?

That’s all pretty easy to track stuff. Seeing art with the people you love in beloved and welcoming environments during significant moments in your life is probably going to leave you with a good and lasting association, I think, especially if the art itself is up your alley.

(On a side not, we also saw some shows we didn’t particularly dig during the same time, and while I fondly remember talking with my dad about why we didn’t like Lawren Harris’ abstractions, I don’t now like Lawren Harris’ abstractions [with all due apologies to poor David who really liked that show… my dad and I let him wander off to enjoy it so we could stay behind to crab about it once he was out of earshot].)

http://paintingsinmovies.com/m/view/id/95

http://paintingsinmovies.com/m/view/id/95

But there’s one artist’s whose work I realize I have an odd perception of because of how I was introduced to their work—and that’s Roy Lichtenstein. I was recently reminded of this when I was looking for a new podcast to listen to (no I don’t want a mattress!) and I had the pleasure of finding The Lonely Palette. So I was listening to those and came to the episode about Roy Lichtenstein’s Ohhh… Alright…

So as an eleven year old one of my very favourite movies was, of course, a movie about women in their late 40s getting divorced and taking financial revenge on their philandering ex-husbands to support a feminist charitable cause because that’s the sort of stuff kids like. I’m talking of course about The First Wives Club, a movie no one else ever brings up but which I probably think about at least once every two weeks for one reason or another. It’s a lonely life, sure, for a First Wives Club-head like me, but one cheered by the many humorous moments for First Wives Club that I enjoy replaying in my head.

first wives club.jpg

Anyway, there’s a scene where Elise Elliot (Goldie Hawn) marches a crew of moving guys into her ex’s apartment, and, first thing, points at the wall and says “There’s the Lichtenstein,” indicating the painting she wants the movers to take as part of her efforts to consolidate and sell off their assets, per her ex’s request during their divorce negotiations (you know, kids’ movies!). The movers grab Spray Can from the wall and move it out while the characters go on with the scene.

http://paintingsinmovies.com/m/view/id/95

http://paintingsinmovies.com/m/view/id/95

The next time we see the painting is on the Christie’s auction block, selling for 380k. “Three hundred and eighty thousand dollars for that?” says Shelly, the inappropriately young girlfriend of Bette Midler’s ex, to two of Midler’s friends who are trying to dupe Shelly into wasting as much of Midler’s ex’s money as possible. She’s meant, in this moment, to be showing her general lack of refinement in this formal environment of rarefied tastes.

Like I said, I love love loved First Wives Club, even though a bunch of references didn’t make sense to me as a kid—mostly vocabulary from Midler’s lines (“Wake up and smell the audit” only sort of resonated with me, for example, or “I remember—your first talkie” yelled at Hawn about her long ago film debut during a fight). The movie, aside from striking a deep emotional chord in me from an early age (?), also seemed sort of fancy and New York-y, which I also found appealing.

And so too did the Lichtenstein. I felt like I got let into the art through the movie—like I understood some slice of New York art and the lives of the rich and famous and divorced and committing extortion.

Throughout my life, though, whenever I encounter Lichtenstein’s work, I’ve noticed that I react to it weirdly. I feel like I don’t really want to discuss it in relation to pop art or art history more broadly. I don’t really want to talk about it as an example of text in art. I don’t’ think I even finished the podcast episode about him. I don’t want to get into it with friends who like Lichtenstein. When it comes up I feel myself resisting because…

To me Lichtenstein is my private First Wives Club art. It’s my little glimpse into a big city art world, into Christie’s, and into my childhood dreaming about what it would be like to be an empowered and sassy divorced lady in my late 40s.

That’s my Lichtenstein, then and now and for always. 

 

Birthday Orchids

Steve (Pisti) Hajnoczky's photograph from January, 2018.

Steve (Pisti) Hajnoczky's photograph from January, 2018.

Today, March 29, we celebrate Steve (Pisti) Hajnoczky’s birthday. As a special tribute to him and his artistic vision, I thought I’d share some photos of one of my father’s favourite subjects—orchids.

Steve loved flowers—spotting them, photographing them, painting them, and just appreciating the beauty they add to the world. Many a family road trip was extended because the sun would be hitting a prairie field in a particularly beautiful way, and no Hajnoczky can resist pulling over and pulling out their camera when nature beckons thusly. Steve also enjoyed cultivating indoor flowers—especially orchids. Orchids, though, are not for the impatient. Steve’s orchid collection would, many years, feature only stems and leaves, with each plant following its own long, patient cycle between flowerings. Nevertheless, he attentively cared for the plants year after year, appreciating them as they were.

Then, in January of 2018, one of Steve’s plants flowered for the first time in 25 or so years. Of course, he took the opportunity to carefully set up a backdrop for the flower (with the help of Ruth), and to then photograph the long awaited orchid. Here is one image from his series of photographs.

The two shelf mate orchids, 2019

The two shelf mate orchids, 2019

I picked this particular photograph as I think it typifies my father’s style. The close cropping showcases the blossom, with the carefully considered angle adding drama and movement to the flower. This approach to the subject also highlights the structure of the orchid, allowing it to cast shadows on itself, and letting the lines and frills of the blossom draw the viewer in. The photograph emphasizes the delicate texture of the pink that brushes each petal. The leaves, too, in the background adds dynamism to the image, sweeping behind the flower and inviting us to look from one edge of the flower to the other.

This plant sits in a stand with its partner, another plant my father patiently cared for year after year. And this year, the plant has treated us to a display of vibrant purple flowers.

With my dad in mind, I spent some time yesterday photographing this flower, taking the time to appreciate not only the beauty of the blossom, but also the time and love my father put into caring for this plant so that I could enjoy it, enjoy photographing it as he would have, and enjoy sharing it with you.

Help us celebrate Steve (Pisti) Hajnoczky's birthday today by taking a moment to appreciate the flowers!

The 2019 birthday orchids.

The 2019 birthday orchids.

NOTE: This post was originally shared as part of our monthly newsletter. Each monthly newsletter features one of Steve’s works as a way of celebrating his life and art. Sign up for the newsletter here: https://www.ateacozyisasometimes.com/contact-and-connect/#/newsletter/

Prints of the orchid series are available https://www.ateacozyisasometimes.com/store/orchid-photo-series

Facebook

You can now find ateacozy over on Facebook. Give ‘er a like if you’d like to follow along for updates about updates to this website and blog, general neat stuff that I like, and to see Instagram posts, if you aren’t an Instagram user but would still like to check out the photos I’m sharing.

my (small press) writing day

The poem is the tangle in me that I untangle, but in untangling it I create a tangle, and this is what I have to offer, like the glass vessel. Everything we do together seems so fragile to me.

The poem is the tangle in me that I untangle, but in untangling it I create a tangle, and this is what I have to offer, like the glass vessel. Everything we do together seems so fragile to me.

rob mclennan kindly asked me to contribute to his ongoing series “my (small press) writing day.” Check it out here. Writing this piece was a wonderful experience, giving me the opportunity to reflect on what motivates me and work for me as a writer, and what it feels good to share or hold back when writing about grief.

Be sure to browse around the site too! With new contributions being added all the time, “my (small press) writing day” is a wonderful source of inspiration and insight into the creative process.

Review of "Variations on the Stillness of Motion"

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rob mclennan has posted a lovely review on his blog of my latest chapbook Variations on the Stillness of Motion. rob very touchingly calls this chapbook, which deals with grief, “quiet and still and lovely.” Thanks rob!

The chapbook Variations on the Stillness of Motion explores grief through both watercolour paintings and poetry. The work is 36 pages long, full colour, with a hand-sewn spine. Copies can be ordered here, through the teacozy store.

You can also follow the work along on Instagram, where I’m posting the pages slowly one by one using the hashtag #VariationsOnTheStillnessOfMotion. These pages are interspersed with #eyeSnowScape posts of pieces made together with my late father, Steve Hajnoczky. You can read more about his eyeSnowScape series, his work, and our work together here.

Woolf's Voice 22!

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Paintings in progress for  Variations on the Stillness of Motion  ?! Press Chapbook

Paintings in progress for Variations on the Stillness of Motion ?! Press Chapbook

I’m reading tomorrow at Woolf’s Voice 22! Shelf Life Books, 7pm, November 21st. This reading series is especially meaningful to me, as my dad and I had the wonderful opportunity to share our eyeSnowScape collaboration there at #20 on 2 May 2018—the last show of his work that he was able to attend in person—and we just had the best night ever. It’s a wonderful, warm environment that Adrienne Adams and Shelf Life books create together, and it’s a privilege to get to participate again, this time in a poetry capacity. I’ll be sharing works written in response to the eyeSnowScape series (you can find all those here, or in the ?! Press gallery), as well as poems about anticipatory grief and coping with grief through art.

I’ll also be reading from a brand new chapbook (which I may or may not still be sewing together…) also about the grieving process. It’s called “Variations on the Stillness of Motion” and it’s full colour, handwritten, and I’m excited to share it.

I’ll be sharing the chapbook’s contents on Instagram using the hashtag #VariationsOnTheStillnessOfMotion so please do follow along! If you don’t use Instagram you can check out the posts on this very site https://www.ateacozyisasometimes.com/instagram/

above/ground press: 25th anniversary poetry broadsides

Image of broadsides  from above/ground press .

Image of broadsides from above/ground press.

“a shadow is a delicate thing
disturbed by the wind
by a breeze, a breath”

You can now get a copy of “Pink Skies I” in the beautiful above/ground press: 25th anniversary poetry broadsides pack!

“Pink Skies I” celebrates the life and art of my father, Steve Hajnoczky, by reflecting on the way his landscape painting series “Nothing but Pink Skies from Now On” has influenced the way I see the prairie landscape.

Thanks to above/ground for including this poem, and a very happy 25th anniversary!

People's Poetry Festival at Loft 112

Loft 112 Reading.jpg

Come on out to the evening show of the People’s Poetry Festival and catch a short stop motion movie I’m making based on my book Magyarazni.

?! Press at Calgary Canzine

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?! Press will be at Calgary Canzine! Saturday, October 27, 2018, 12 - 6 p.m. at the Memorial Park Library. I’ll have chapbooks of some old favourites, as well as new works made specifically for this event.