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Sand Painting

Since last summer, I have led a Zoom discussion with members of the Zen Peacemakers about Bernie’s book, Instructions to the Cook, eight one-and-a-half hour sessions. We wrapped up in mid-December. I call it the “cooking class.” In his book, Bernie shares his wisdom as he tells the story of building the Greyston mandala of for-profit and not-for-profit organizations.


In one of our last meetings, I was sharing my sadness that we could not go toYonkers to see what Bernie had built. There is still a Greyston, and I imagine that if you asked the people there, they would say that Greyston was flourishing, but it is not the same Greyston. It has been over 25 years since Bernie and Jishu left Yonkers, and Greyston has changed. A series of CEO’s have made what may have been very slight adjustments in course, maybe only one or two degrees, but even such a slight change, continued for 25 years leads to very different place.


I have been thinking a lot about this, often on my walks. One of my favorite places to walk since retirement is the boardwalk at South Beach. Somedays I park so that I am at looking across Father Capodanno Boulevard at the main campus of South Beach Psychiatric Center where I worked for 20 years. Al Mesnikoff, the founding executive director of South Beach, had a wonderful vision, a radical departure from the other State mental hospitals in New York. Inpatients lived in a more cottage-like environment. When I first began working there, there were no locks on the doors. The hospital service area was divided into small geographic areas, following natural neighborhood boundaries in western Brooklyn and Staten Island. There was a chief of service with responsibility for mental health services for that community, inpatient care, outpatient clinic services and partial hospitalization. Innovation within a gigantic public bureaucracy like the New York State Office of Mental Health looks very different than Bernie’s social entrepreneurship.


When I arrived at South Beach first as a consultant in 1973, the hospital was only a couple of years old and still evolving. Mesnikoff moved on a few years after I arrived and I never really got to work with him, but the energy that was released by his vision was remarkable. For years, it was a wonderful place work, although even in the early years, there were signs of erosion. I remember being horrified when they put locks on the inpatient unit doors. But at South Beach, a series of successors managed somehow to remain largely true to Al’s original design.


Sitting in my car in the boardwalk parking lot, looking across the street, I feel so sad. The cottages have been abandoned. The inpatients are all now housed in a high-rise building — maybe the design is a little more contemporary, a little less frightening than those in the other boroughs — but it is the same old state hospital design that Mesnikoff set out to reform. The geographic services are gone. The innovative community mental health approach to patient care which Mesnikoff brought to South Beach has been abandoned.


Mesnikoff’s enterprise is in so many ways so different than Bernie’s but there is a sad parallel in their long-term outcomes. I am taking comfort though in seeing this. What is it? Some variation on “misery loves company.” Fifteen years of my life went into building ICS, our Staten Island network of charter schools. I was proud of what we had accomplished and proud of the young people who had joined me on the journey and made it possible. Together we made a difference in many lives. And I was proud that Bernie was proud of what we accomplished. His work at Greyston was the inspiration for my work in the schools, even though my enterprise looked very different from Bernie’s and very different from Mesnikoff’s.


It is only 18 months that I am gone from the network of charter schools that we built on Staten Island. I would love to take people there, like the people in our cooking class, to see what we built. The schools are still there, but they are not the same. I would like to show the cooking class the way it was. It was special. It was important in my life. I would like to be able to take them to Bernie’s Greyston and to South Beach the way it was in the 1970’s.


When we were talking about this in the cooking class, one of the people in the class shared a wonderful thought. She compared the work of the social entrepreneur with the artist. “You finish one work of art in order to go on to the next one.” I loved the image. These days in my writing mode, taking my plunge into writing fiction, finishing the first draft of my first novel, getting it out to the first readers, this insight resonates. It’s what I’ve been hearing from my gurus Stephen King and Rick Rubin. In creating art, part of the job is finishing the work and letting the work go out to the Universe and going on to the next project. That’s what Bernie did, leaving Greyston to work on the creation of the Zen Peacemakers. I found his decision troubling at the time. Is that what I’ve done, too? It now appears that I left ICS in order to write.


But as we are talking in the cooking class, I am having doubts about the metaphor. Picasso’s paintings hang in the museum. We can go and look at them. Bernie’s Greyston, the Greyston that Bernie painted, doesn’t exist anymore. The analogy with art is not holding. The ICS in my memory cannot be seen anywhere. I hear myself saying that the social entrepreneurship is different than art.


But then I have a second thought. I am thinking of sand painting, part of Tibetan as well as Navajo spiritual ceremonies. I have seen the films, the hours of meticulous practice which goes into creating the sand painting, and then at the end of the ceremony, it is swept away. It is such an awesome teaching in the practice of impermanence.   


Almost immediately, I realize that I have had a taste of this kind of art practice. When we were doing the Arts of Recovery, creating opportunities for artists living with mental illnesses, often not far removed from years in psychiatric hospitals, to collaborate with professional artists, Barbara Bash led a calligraphy workshop for us. It was very Zen.

A long sheet of brown wrapping paper, stretched on the floor, provided the table. There were cushions along either side of the table for each participant, one cushion at either end. At each end, there was a pile of fresh white paper, a pot of ink and a brush. Two people at time, — one would go to each end of the table — would bow to each other. Then breathing, gathering themselves, they dipped their brushes in the ink and made their strokes. Brushes down, they bowed to each other and to the group. The they held up their creations for everyone to see. We applauded each other’s effort. And then each of the artists crumpled threw creation and threw it away. Sand to the wind.


Maybe social entrepreneurship is more like sand painting than oil painting.

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