During my time in Prescott, I had the opportunity to create a community bench as a senior project for Prescott College. I had seen many of these structures in Nepal where there is a deep sense of connection between people and nature.
Enthusiastic to bring this idea to the U.S., I received approval from the Parks and Recreation Department and worked with the city for many months before the bench finally came to life. After eight weeks of work we were asked to stop construction, and three weeks later the bench was torn down. Although the last three weeks of the project were rather unexpected and full of chaos, I don’t regret how the events unfolded. The intention behind the project was to bring people together and to create a platform where their voices could be heard. Although the bench is gone, the values that it stood for still remain as people continue to come together.
We chose to build the Community Bench around a silver maple in Granite Creek Park, a tap root tree that generally has deep root systems, so digging a foundation shouldn’t have been a challenge. Soon, however, we found ourselves on our hands and knees with spoons, delicately carving in and around the extending and interlaced webs of the tree.
As more and more roots were uncovered, stories were told, food was shared, and love and sweat were poured into the project from an eclectic group of volunteers.
We had good friends as well as strangers digging in the intense heat and laughing with each other as the sun passed across the sky. Dog-walkers, families, the homeless, veterans, students, immigrants, those in rehab, tourists, and people across all age groups stopped by to share a small part of their day and energy with us.
My good friend, Lucho, sat next to me and said, “This is incredible. I always thought these were people who needed our help. You know, like people who need food and shelter, or a place to recover. And kids, too! Here they all are helping you with this project, helping each other to make something for the community, and they don’t even ask for anything in return.”
I realized he was right, that we were all becoming friends with people we never expected to, and we had all come together not for charity, but to make something bigger than ourselves.
More than four weeks passed before the bench was ready to be decorated with broken tiles. At times I felt overwhelmed by the number of children, parents and grandparents who flocked to our area for a chance to be creative and share an idea. I never provided any direction for the mosaic, but what I saw being created was beautiful. Peace signs, flowers, names of loved ones, trees, animals, people — all of them messages from the heart. I heard parents who had grown up in Prescott tell their children that someday they could bring their children here to show them what they helped create.
Over the weeks that followed, I felt my heart swell with joy as I witnessed friends and strangers come together to create something for everyone to share at the park. Even after the conflict over the bench began, I felt overjoyed at finally feeling like I was part of a community. People were coming together for a cause, to make something for the community and to help preserve the piece of art that resulted.
I also felt heartbreak over the fear that runs the city of Prescott. I can’t say exactly why the bench was torn down, whether it was religious intolerance, censorship, or just simple misunderstanding. However, I do feel that fear was the driving force behind many decisions that were made by city employees. Fear of losing a job, fear of “hippies” influencing the city, or fear of conflict or change. Many times when talking with city officials, I wished that I could have gotten the real story of who was speaking behind every action, and why the bench was so threatening.
It’s been a few weeks since the chaos has settled down and I am still gathering my thoughts on all the events that have occurred. How do I process 10 weeks of digging dirt, hauling sand, inhaling cement, burning under the sun, butting heads with the city, and finally losing the entire project? Maybe the better question is, how can I ever thank a community that has provided the greatest learning experience of my life?
I consider every person I’ve met over the past several months to be my teacher, whether a 3-year-old playing in the mud, a student placing jellyfish tiles on the bench, or a city official explaining why we had to tear down eight weeks of work. Most importantly I am learning how to keep an open heart. It’s really hard at times, and there are moments where I feel bitter and devastated that the city rejected so many people in their own community. But it helps to know that, after all of this, I have a family of hundreds of people in Prescott who I can always return to.
Like a sand mandala, this bench has brought wonderful people and blessings into my life, and its pieces will continue to send good blessings wherever they are carried by the wind.