In the bleak mid-winter,
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone.
– Christina Rossetti, “In the Bleak Midwinter”
My friend and I are in one of those ironic restaurants where everyone wears dark-rimmed, nonprescription eyeglasses and the sommelier fills wine goblets to the rim. On our table is a steak served on thin, waxy cardboard accompanied by a fork and casually tossed chef’s knife; two sweet potatoes snuggled in a brown paper bag; a china bowl filled with an unidentified cream sauce; and a pile of rock salt that the waiter threw onto the table before strutting away to the beat of the techno remix that accompanies our meal.
Cold is cold: the undersized parsnip-like fingers and toes of children offer no more resistance to Jack Frost’s ravages than anybody else’s. But still, there is something to the burning cold ears of winter days that makes Christmas special. Indeed, it was usually during those particularly nasty December nights that my folks would decide to go for a family stroll through the highly celebrated, candy-cane decorated, light bejeweled, oversized Charlie Brown blow-ups neighborhood of the city. The dazzling lights, sights and sounds distracted me from the sting of ice’s tongued lashes at my triple-sock layered toes. Singing Santas, dancing reindeer, plump penguins and jolly gingerbread people cookies abounded from yard to yard, all proclaiming “‘tis the season to be merry.”
The week was thick with doubt; I couldn’t see past my nose. On Sunday, I’d begin a two-night run as Cyrano de Bergerac within a majestic, historic theatre, upon a stage framed by a gilded proscenium, before an audience seated upon velvet chairs beneath a central dome of stained glass. What justice could I possibly do (I could not stop thinking) to the grandeur of that play’s great space—the one built when my city was young, and the one Rostand made of words?
In my mid-twenties, in a time of profound personal crisis, I began trying to draw things. I wanted, as always, to write, but I could not write at that point—I could barely talk. It was the first time since early childhood I’d even made an attempt to draw anything: I knew by then I had no aptitude or natural skills as that kind of artist. What a surprising delight to find that I was better than I expected, even with just a tiny bit of instruction, some space to work, and a few hours of attentive play. I began to learn some of what I assume most beginning art students do: how to look; how to see the whole of a thing and its parts sandwiched between back and foregrounds; how the surface and texture of a thing suggests or conceals what is underneath and inside; how to estimate proportion, the size of a thing relative to another; how to direct the trajectory of the next stroke; how light on things makes shade; how a simple thing on a table can become beautiful—a wonder; how to take these things in, and then to render. It was fun—it was true play.