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No Strangers At the Table

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Kristin Schell, an author, speaker, wife, mother and, to some, an outgoing next-door neighbor, turned her longing for a deeper, more meaningful community into an international movement, one turquoise table at a time.

By Deborah Hamilton-Lynne, Photos by Annie Ray, Hair and makeup by Laura Martinez, Shot on location at Archer Hotel Austin

On the surface, Kristin Schell was a typical suburban wife and busy mother of four who was always juggling a full calendar of activities, from carpool schedules and volunteer stints at her children’s schools to book clubs and Bible studies. But beneath the surface of Schell’s happy demeanor was a longing for a simpler way of life, one with relationships and connections that ran deeper and felt stronger.

The giveaway that something didn’t feel right could have been the “Queen of Crazy” bumper sticker that adorned her minivan, or her growing dissatisfaction with her frazzled lifestyle, running day to day from place to place and not feeling like she was truly connecting with her children, her husband, her friends or her community.

“I was doing instead of being,” Schell recalls. “I was spinning my wheels and going nowhere.”

As Schell grew increasingly frustrated with the rapid-fire pace of her daily to-do list, she began to long for a time when she had experienced a welcoming sense of belonging and ease as an exchange student in France. There, she had seen the power of the ritual of sharing a leisurely meal and conversation around the table.

“It was much different than what I knew in the U.S. It was nothing for ‘table time’ to last two hours,” Schell says. “I wanted to recreate that feeling again, but I didn’t know how.”

Schell had always been a woman of faith, so she began voicing her desire through prayer, asking for authentic connection and for a community like the one she had experienced in France, where everyone—family, friends, neighbors—was welcome at the table. As she prayed to be shown how to build the community she envisioned, serendipitous events began to happen. While attending a conference at Austin Music Hall, she saw a film about an extraordinary Czechoslovakian woman, Ludmilla Hallerova, who had managed to open her home to listen to and pray with friends and strangers during years of suppression of religious and personal freedom by totalitarian regimes.

Hallerova’s story had a profound effect on Schell. She realized what she wanted to create was simple. Schell wanted her gatherings to take place at her table, to be like those she had experienced in France. She kept praying and began to make gradual change, starting with her family.

Schell’s first approach to encourage more conversation was to initiate a strict technology-is- the-only-unwanted-guest-at-my-table policy. Schell remembers making a shift at one family dinner.

“I saw my wedding candlesticks that I had never used on our family table because they were too good,” she says. “Somehow, I was inspired to put them on the table. What was I saving them for? Something so simple and within arm’s reach shifted the entire atmosphere of the dinner. It was no longer hustle and bustle, eat some grub and move on. It was a time that was special. It was holy in the most literal sense of the word, meaning ‘set apart.’ ”

Motivated by that memorable evening at the dinner table, Schell began to use other talismans, from fine china to owers, as visual reminders that gatherings at the table were a time to slow down, enjoy a meal and be present in each member’s company.

The epiphany she had been waiting for came serendipitously. Having agreed to host a backyard barbeque for a friend at the last minute, Schell and her husband, Tony, realized they had no outdoor furniture to host guests. They had a small budget in mind, and a hasty internet search turned up unfinished picnic tables that would seat six to eight people in a pinch. Schell placed an order for delivery the next day.

When the truck arrived, one of the tables had been unloaded and placed under a magnolia tree in her front yard. The sight took Schell’s breath away. She realized this was what she had been waiting for, and a plethora of what-if scenarios began to bubble up in her thoughts.

“What if we left the table in the front yard as a gathering place to connect with our neighbors?” she remembers thinking. “What if we moved our backyard activities to the front yard? What if we took 15 minutes to be under that tree and connect with nature and our community? What if I grabbed a cup of coffee and my laptop in the morning and people started to come by?”

To make the table stand out, Schell chose to paint it her favorite color, turquoise, a color she later learned represents friendship in Native American cultures. She began to share the vision of community she had for the table with neighbors, family and friends. As people began to gather in her front yard, sometimes by invitation and sometimes spontaneously, The Turquoise Table movement began.

Schell started to include the vision of The Turquoise Table project in speeches at conferences and the movement began to grow organically, spreading from one neighbor to the next by word-of- mouth. To date, there are reports of the movement reaching all 50 states and at least eight countries.

“People just started putting the tables out and telling the story,” Schell says of the movement. “They started sharing their stories on my blog. Somehow, a radio show in Australia got wind of the project and reported on it. It all seemed to be so random because I had no plan as to what would happen at the table. I certainly had no business plan and never saw myself as an entrepreneur. I see myself as a dreamer.”

Fast-forward four years from when she placed her picnic-table order, and Schell is busy shepherding an online community of table members, touring the state and country as a speaker, as well as establishing merchandising partnerships with Dayspring and Tuesday Morning. Her book, The Turquoise Table: Finding Community and Connection in Your Own Front Yard, debuted in summer 2017, and she has plans to launch a podcast this spring. All the while, no matter how frantic her new schedule is, Schell continues to make time to return to her own turquoise table as often as possible.

Schell confides the table has allowed her to meet and get to know more of her neighbors on a personal basis. It’s not unusual for someone to walk across the street carrying a plate of cookies and sit down to talk with Schell. For her, The Turquoise Table has been the fruition of her prayers and desires. The idea has spawned a deeper sense of community, one of belonging and connection. When speaking of the connections that happen at the table, Schell notes there’s a difference between hospitality and entertaining.

“When I was entertaining, I felt like I was performing. My house had to be clean, my food had to be gourmet and I had to plan it to the T. I flitted around, but I wasn’t making a deep connection,” she explains.

“At the table, you can come as you are. I [set out]a pitcher of something as simple as tea or lemonade or maybe just coffee. Food can be anything from nuts to cookies to a bowl of fruit. I use plastic cups and paper napkins. It is all about the conversation, not what I am wearing or what I am serving or how my house is decorated. The root of the word ‘hospitality’ means love of strangers. I substitute one of my favorite quotes from William Butler Yeats for a mission statement about The Turquoise Table movement: ‘There are no strangers here, only friends you have not met.’ The important thing is that everyone is welcome.”

Although we are connected now more than ever through social media, Schell believes that while those connections are wide, they barely skim the surface of intimate, authentic relationships. She believes there is a longing for face-to-face community, a void that time spent at The Turquoise Table fills. Schell also believes listening is an important factor in making lasting connections. She encourages people to develop listening skills to hear what the person sitting across the table is really needing and trying to say. To her, the table signifies a return to principles as basic and old as time, when women gathered at village wells.

“Putting the table in the front yard literally gave a new meaning to ‘grassroots.’ What is simpler than gathering around a picnic table? The table only holds four to six people comfortably, so it encourages us to gather small, listen when people need to be heard and love deeply,” she says.

Schell is convinced face-to-face, intimate conversations held at the table might just be a way to bring together people who have widely different opinions and viewpoints. Her conversations with those who set foot on her front lawn cover a wide spectrum; some end in laughter, and some more vulnerable and honest conversations end in tears. Each conversation is different, but in the end, it’s all about respectfully giving each member a safe place to hear and be heard.

“The things that divide us should not be played out on social media. We need a better platform if we are ever going to try to move the needle on either side of the argument,” Schell says, explaining the difference between making connections online or on social media versus making connections in person. “We skip a basic step when we only relate on social media. We haven’t gotten together in any human way before, yet we are out there taking sides. It is better to have a civil dialogue than a social-media diatribe. We may never agree, but we can start with the things we have in common. When you can sit across the table and look someone in the eye and have bread, cheese and wine, that is where you relate. I believe most people genuinely mean well, even if I don’t understand their positions or opinions. And I believe that we must try to understand. Think about it. All peace talks start at a table, so maybe, in a grassroots way, world peace can start in those conversations at The Turquoise Table.”

Schell expounds further, noting the overarching takeaway she’s received from her time spent at The Turquoise Table.

“Relationships are important,” she says. “Through them, everyone can make a difference. People want to make a big difference, but I learned that I don’t need that power. What if these simple moments of connection are the ones that make the real difference? I am never going to be the secretary of state or a Nobel laureate, but I can effect change in meaningful ways to the person sitting right in front of me.”

Because one restless woman followed her heart and continued to ask, “What if?” a simple, unfinished pine table painted turquoise and placed in a front yard became the talisman for face-to-face conversations and meaningful connections that are being made throughout the world. Schell is con dent time at the table will change the world, one community, one neighborhood at a time.

“My vision,” Schell says, “is for people to take ownership for making positive change in their own way, in their own communities. Can you even imagine what might happen if our conversations led to that?”

 

Kristin Schell’s Recommended Reading 

Rhythms of Rest by Shelly Miller

“As an extrovert with the gift of hospitality, it’s important for me to remember to rest, not just naps or Netflix binges, but intentional breaks from work and routine. Shelly, an expat living in London, shares the wisdom and gift of practicing Sabbath in our fast- paced world.”

Loving My Actual Life by Alexandra Kuykendall

“Alexandra needed a restart, a recalibration of her days, so she embarked on a nine-month experiment to make a few small changes each month that led to big changes for [her]and her family. It’s a perfect time of year to join in on the practical experiments to love your actual life too.”

How to Love Your Neighbor Without Being Weird by Amy Lively

“Fellow neighboring advocate Amy is a friend and gifted writer. Her book offers fantastic tips and ideas for getting to know your neighbors. Although, in Austin, we’re cool with being weird, right? [It’s] a great companion book to read with friends at The Turquoise Table.”

Here Goes Nothing: An Introvert’s Reckless Attempt to Love Her Neighbor by Kendra Broekhuis

“One of the most frequent questions I’m asked is, ‘How do I love my neighbors when I’m an introvert?’ Since I can’t speak from an introvert’s perspective, I lean on the wisdom of my friend and fellow community builder, Kendra.”

Five Conservation Starters to Break the Ice

“We love using the Dayspring conversation jar at The Turquoise Table,” Kristin Schell says. “The questions get the conversation flowing.”

She shares her favorites.

o What are you most grateful for at this very moment?

o What do people most often ask you to help them with?

o Would you prefer a live-in massage therapist or a live-in chef?

o How do you feel when someone shows up at your door unannounced?

o What’s one dream you’ve set aside for the moment?

 

 

To learn how to create a Turquoise Table community, visit turquoisetable.com.

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