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Church bells chuckle, gradually breaking into full-fledged laughter as I pull into the convent parking lot. Another autumn morning delights them. I wonder, too, if they are amused by my presence. I am the little heathen painting murals in the most Catholic of locales: a convent that sits at the back of a parish, across the street from a parochial school. The convent was renovated prior to New York City’s COVID-19 lockdown. Half of it remains a convent and the other half has been converted into a group home for individuals with disabilities.
The nonprofit that runs the group home is my client. It is not a Catholic organization but does maintain ties with the Archdiocese of Brooklyn, which played a part in its founding 150 years ago. Hence, the snagged rental. And that is why I spend my days painting with a view of a patio frequented by a tanning priest and a basement door concealing a food pantry. My soundtrack includes the low rumble of South Brooklyn street noise (low compared to the rest of the borough), with the intermittent squeals of masked school children playing touchless freeze tag. Every couple of hours, the church bells break the relative quiet. The convent is probably Brooklyn’s most serene pandemic hideout. Painting, which is already a meditative activity, becomes all the more consuming in a place literally built for reflection.
Living in New York City during the pandemic has awakened my every anxiety. Organizations like my mural client suffered tremendous death and COVID infection rates, yet all of that suffering occurred behind closed doors. I remember feeling the tension on the streets in April, when New Yorkers knew the hospitals were full even if we never stepped inside. People crossed to the other side of the street to avoid sharing the sidewalk with strangers. Once, someone yelled at my husband for sharing the sidewalk, even though it was a wide one and he walked along its edge, several feet away from the other person. On the day I learned that 20 people at my client organization had died from COVID, I ceased my daily walks. Instead, I exercised in my apartment and got fresh air on the fire escape. When the George Floyd protests began so close to home, my first thought was, “About time.” My second (selfish) thought was, "Please don't smash up where I live." You can think and feel both at once.
Inside the convent, I am alone, making murals, maskless. I can let my guard down because nobody else will enter that building for months. I do not have to fret about maintaining my distance from others. I do not have to douse myself in hand sanitizer every time I touch something. Instead, I focus on painting. There’s no WiFi in the building, so I don’t even have music or podcasts playing. I don’t bother with a radio or other workaround because I love the silence. And I am painting the brightest, happiest murals I can imagine.
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