During the AIDS era, the saving presence of art in my life enabled me both to grieve full time and to serve as a minister full time.
Study of a Hand, 1856, by Hiram Powers, American, 1805 - 1873, charcoal heightened with white chalk on green wove paper. John Davis Hatch Collection, National Gallery of Art. (Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington)
About four weeks into my quarantine, a couple of social media posts from beloved colleagues really grabbed my attention. First, the Rev. Sean Parker Dennison referred to an article that suggested that folks like me, who have been feeling rather calm in the midst of this “unprecedented” social upheaval, might be feeling that way as a result of surviving past traumatic experiences. Second, the Rev. Diane Miller thoughtfully reflected on previous experiences in her life that are helping her move through this present situation, after which the Rev. Meg Riley wisely asked all of us to contemplate the same question Diane had answered.
It immediately occurred to me that I did have experiences of trauma that prompted my calm response to the present trauma. For twenty years, I spent time isolating in my room after frequent outbursts of irrational rage from my father. And then for ten years during the AIDS crisis in the Bay Area of California, I buried most every friend after watching them suffer immeasurably, then would seek the solace of calming self-quarantine after each memorial, where I could grieve fully.
During each period, I spent part of that solitude making art. Paintings, drawings, sculpture—art typical of my age in childhood; art born of university training in my adulthood.
Indeed, during the AIDS era, the saving presence of art in my life enabled me both to grieve full time and to serve as minister of the UU congregation in Hayward full time. Visits to the museums in the Bay Area proved to be similar experiences to what colleagues described after spending a week in silence at Gethsemane Abbey or at a Buddhist retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh. Before the great works of art I would breathe in redemptive silence. When I traveled, I would always spend time at the local museums.
On Tuesday nights I would drive over to San Francisco to the house of Mark Chester for my weekly Gay Men’s Sketch Group, where I would draw for two and a half hours. In those hours there were no tears, no AIDS deaths, just my drawing pad, the model, the pastels and charcoal, and my hand and arm, producing a drawing. Week after week, I made friends there with other artists who are still central to my life here in Columbus, Ohio. Indeed, many of them were living with the same trauma I was, losing everyone they ever loved—a trauma that cannot be accurately apprehended with mere words.
Those days were different from the present pandemic, of course. It took ten years of die-ins, fierce letters, political agitation, Larry Kramer, and ACT UP shouting loudly, to get other people—often the more doctrinaire religious people—to care that we were dying, or even notice that we were dying. And then they blamed us for our own suffering.
As I write this, someone is dying of COVID-19 every 12 minutes in New York City alone. And this time, the pandemic is more easily spread and travels the world freely, killing the most vulnerable because of advanced age, preconditions that weaken the ability to survive, or social vulnerabilities created by the 400-year history of racial and economic disparity in our country. African Americans and Native Americans, particularly the Diné (Navajo) nation, have been especially hard hit.
Since I left the Bay Area to serve our congregation here in Columbus, and now, some years after I have retired, I have continued to worship in the temples of art for my soul’s sake. Sometimes my friend Devon comes up from Houston, and we visit local museums. (Devon’s mother just died today of the virus, so I FaceTimed him before sitting down to write this.) I also go with local friends, but I often go alone, too. I used to reference art so much in my preaching that the American Art curator asked me to write a 2,000-word essay on a painting by George Tooker (Lunch, 1964) for Reflections: The American Collection of the Columbus Museum of Art (2019), one of the greatest graces in my whole life.
The museums are closed now, but I still draw. I draw, using the omnipresent reality of Zoom, with the same sketch group that was my reliable anchor during my Bay Area days. It’s different, sure. But nevertheless, I am drawing, each week, and my drawing pad, model, charcoal and pastels, and my hand and shoulder once again provide a reliable calming reality where there is no virus, just art rising up and healing my spirit.
I’m grateful for my local friends who show up in the parking lot below my window on the second floor so we can talk for a while. Sometimes they shop for me, or bring me flowers, which is sweet.
My beloved 37-year-old son lives with me now, but he is working out in the world, so I still spend most of my time alone. He showers and changes clothes when he gets home, so I’m relatively safe.
Some things have not changed at all. I have talked with my friend Doug in California every day for years and I still do. I text friends in Europe I’ve never even met face to face, and I still do, via social media, the same way as before. I still cook every day, shower every day, hug my son every day.
I understand that my physical separation is different from others, like my friends Andrzej and Adriana in Abu Dhabi, who are working from home and home schooling their two children. Or my homeless friend Kenny, who lives in his car.
It’s still strange to some people that I am so calm in quarantine, and not panicked. I know I am fortunate to have enough to get by. Many of my friends do not have enough to live on, so I help them out as I can. I know I will be quarantined longer than most because of my heart condition and age, but even here in my small dwelling in downtown Columbus, I am surrounded by art: gifts of friends, old pieces I have painted, gorgeous curling metal sculptures bent by my artful and very strong friend Nathaniel, a quilt crafted for me by Jacqui James, and paintings I have bought over the years from artist friends like Kevin Woodson and Adam Chuck. Each time I see one of those pieces, I am lifted up from the strangeness of this era and returned to the reality that I am alive, interwoven with hundreds of people—now as before; now as after.
I’m not saying this is easy. Calm and easy are hardly the same thing. I certainly cried loud and long yesterday for the declining state of this nation and for all the deaths. Nevertheless, art, now as before, puts wings on my back, sets the table before me for humankind to feast together, and reminds me that I am simply one human being among billions temporarily quarantined, without many answers and with plenty of questions, on a small planet in a very large universe.
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The Rev. Mark Belletini is minister emeritus of First UU Church of Columbus, Ohio, and the author of Nothing Gold Can Stay: The Colors of Grief (Skinner House, 2015).