The Friendship Bench
by Lorraine Payette
One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin,
but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.
As I sit at the computer keyboard to start this Scuttlebutt, I am watching perhaps millions of snowflakes swirling and going sideways in a strong southeast wind. My mind is swirling with ideas, thoughts, voices, and memories wanting column space. I have a blizzard of stories in my mind and I must sit quietly waiting for the one meant to be captured and put into print.
I say this prayer, “God, please direct my thinking. Let me be an instrument in your hands.” I have a bulging file of clippings of true stories of inspiration and hope. I was trying to find the one about the Friendship Bench for I wanted the exact details of the country in Africa that the story concerns. As I was going through the file of course other stories caught my attention and I could’ve spent all day down there reading and just so getting filled up with love, hope and gratitude.
However, as usual I am behind schedule for my column.
I have my notebook filled with more stories of my own experiences too. So it is vital that I sit down in silence, quiet my body and brain and wait for my fingers to start typing…Of course dear readers it’s funny quieting down because I am running on caffeine from my 3 cups of coffee spread out since 5:00 am. I can feel the elevated blood pressure in my neck.
Stories are powerful tools in the telling but are useless if no one is listening. We all have a deep longing to be loved, understood and listened to. It is very difficult to listen intently to another person, isn’t it? People don’t like to read more than a paragraph. In our tech/instant information on everything and anything, folks don’t have the attention span they used to. The more stuff thrown at us on our phones the less we ponder and pay heed. We keep jumping like frogs from one thing to another without pondering or contemplating what we are looking at. For in truth, we are only quickly scanning things that catch our attention for a moment.
There’s a difference between being heard and being listened to. I so appreciate when someone really listens to me. It really means something when someone takes time to be fully present with another person. January 25th was the Bell initiative of talking re mental health. Once again there’s talking, but someone needs to be listening.
Which brings me back to the Friendship Bench. I looked it up on my phone and the African country is Zimbabwe. Years after the Gukurahundi a genocide in Zimbabwe targeting the Ndebele and Kalanga peoples from 1982 -1987 a program of listening and aiding in healing of survivors became known as the Friendship Bench.
The elderly are valued in these cultures and Grandmothers were given training in listening and some counseling skills. But they are not counselors or mental health professionals. They are trust inspiring listeners. A grandmother sits on the bench and waits for someone to come sit with her. No appointment necessary. She is approachable merely by the fact that she is a grandmother.
People are able to freely share their stories, emotional pains or joys with an elderly lady who listens and offers no judgement or advice other than a loving listening ear and perhaps a story of her own. Friendships grow and healing of deep emotional wounds happen from these encounters of two people sitting on a bench.
I got choked up when I read the article because I loved sitting on a bench in Simcoe Plaza in Terrace Bay with my mom. If I couldn’t find her at home I would head downtown and find her sitting on a bench looking so peaceful and having conversations with passersby. To this day eighteen years later I get teary eyed when I’m in Terrace Bay and I see that bench still there and remember those sunny days of long ago. The bench is always empty when I am in Terrace Bay, but I like to think someone is enjoying it still.
There’s another special bench in Schreiber by the Cenotaph facing the now gone Spadoni’s Department Store, a bench dedicated to Irene Borutski. Joe Sheehan, my long time friend and mentor used to sit there on a sunny summer afternoons. Like Mom he has passed on too. I wish I would’ve spent more time with him on that bench. I am so grateful that Mom and Joe showed me how to sit back, relax, to listen and just sit on a bench to see who stops by, with no cell phones happening, no distractions other than the sounds of the world passing by…what a beautiful thing. The friendship bench.
The blizzards outside and in my mind have calmed. The benches are put away now for the winter, but my heart remembers and dwells on the love and friendship I found in them, these benches of home.