Take the Bench
Back in ’06 and ’07 I worked for an outfit called Walden House. This was in San Francisco, most of my time running the adolescent boys’ residence in The Lower Haight – ‘214’ – and some of it at the girls’ residence in South San Francisco – ‘PSK’. Walden House was a California state-wide organization primarily directed toward substance abuse identification, intervention, and treatment. Hardly anybody volunteered to go there – folks were encouraged.
Walden House was an ‘old-time” drug treatment program, lots of structure, lots of confrontation, a fistful of slogans. One of those slogans – and I came to know this in the adolescent programs – was this – “Take the bench.” Literally the idea was there were benches throughout the building, generally in high-traffic areas – and if one of the young folks (all of whom were ordered into treatment by county Probation departments) was mouthing off, struggling with direction, becoming volatile, some angry adolescent thing, one of the staff would tell them to “Take the bench”. And the rules were clear about the bench. Crystal clear. If someone was on the bench they were not to speak and they were not to be spoken to. By anyone. These bench assignments lasted five minutes and the goal, the hope, was that the time would be used for reflection and self-assessment. Best use to ponder “Why am I here?”
Better still was to choose to take the bench without being told, a most worthy option. To have the level of self-awareness that taking the bench – right here, right now, with whatever’s going on – is the right thing to do. In Alcoholics Anonymous, I understand, they talk about “restraint of pen and tongue”. Pause before writing or saying something you’ll regret. It’s good advice, you know, count to 10, take a deep breath. etc etc.
There was something beyond that, though, with “Taking the bench” in 214, “Taking the bench” in PSK. Similar, but further. Some sacred space to ask yourself something like, “Who am I?” and “Why do I do what I do?” “How do I operate?” “How did I get here – on this bench? In this building? Today?”
Pictured above is a bench in the Rhododendron Garden in Portland, Oregon. I’ve been taking that bench for more than 10 years now, pretty regularly, sometimes actually meditating, usually sitting still and paying attention – the ongoing song of redwing blackbirds, the convoy of duck families floating by. Dragonflies, faraway train whistles. I’ve made important phone calls to faraway friends on that bench. I’ve scribbled story ideas in old steno pads on that bench. I’ve sat with my wife on that bench and bathed and shimmered under the golden glow of true love. Mostly I’ve sat there alone. I do alone good.
And good for me, yippee, I take that bench of my own volition, my own choice. It’s sacred space, for me, blessed territory. And – and I know this – it is not a whole lot different from the bench just outside the program administrator’s office – my office – in the building at 214 Haight Street in San Francisco. Honestly, it’s not.
Lucky me, I took the bench today. Yes, I could see my breath through my mask, and a few minutes after sitting it began hailing on me.
But, lucky me. I took the bench today.