It’s easy to have an open-door policy when there are no doors.
That’s Kristin Schell’s philosophy when it comes to the big turquoise table in her front yard. She’s in a West Austin neighborhood, where this shade of Austin weird can be a little harder to find than in other parts of in the city.
Two years ago this month, Schell and her husband, Tony, wanted to host a last-minute barbecue after plans at a neighbor’s house fell through. She was worried that she wouldn’t have enough seating for people, so she ordered a $100 picnic table from Lowe’s. When the delivery crew arrived, they dropped off the table right by the curb.
“It took my breath away when I saw it there in the front yard,” she says. “I realized how frustrated I was with entertaining and socializing.”
She’d seen how her fellow moms were feeling stressed about not having a Pinterest-perfect life. With four children younger than 15, Schell, a stay-at-home mom and former community relations director at GSD&M, just tries to keep everybody’s ships moving in the right directions for school and church activities. Last year, her youngest “little,” as she calls them online, had major back surgery and spent four months in a body cast.
She decided that picnic table belonged right there in the front yard, for everyone to see. She went to the paint store and picked up a gallon of the prettiest turquoise she could find, one called Nifty Turquoise from Sherwin-Williams, and painted the table so it was even harder to miss.
“The first time I sat outside, I chatted with dog walkers and saw the school bus,” Schell says. “A woman three doors down and I struck up a conversation for 30 minutes. She said I reminded her of her third-grade teacher.”
She realized that even with our growing online networks, people are starving for community but are reluctant to reach out beyond a text message or a quick chat at PTA night or after church. She got wrapped up in the busy just like everyone else. “I didn’t have time to see the people I love.”
Two years later, the table is getting more use than ever. Soon after the table became part of their day-to-day lives, Schell wrote about it on her food blog, kristinschell.com, which she started 10 years ago.
Pretty soon, turquoise tables started popping up elsewhere, and their owners started emailing Schell to tell her how spending more time in their front yard was changing how they interacted with their communities. By her count, there are now a few hundred in more than 20 states and three countries, including Uganda. Her goal is to have one in every state and every Austin ZIP code by the end of next year.
Susan Anthony, who has her own turquoise table in Central Austin, says that some of her first visitors — on the day she painted the table, actually — were the Hyde Park Middle School cross-country runners. “I passed them in my car coming into the neighborhood. It was about 100 degrees outside, and I knew they would run by the house. I quickly set out six cups of water and told the coach that they were welcome to take a drink. He had them all introduce themselves and shake my hand. I would have never done that without the table in my front yard to simply set the cups on.”
For Christmas this year, Anthony is giving her aunt and her mom, who live in condos where they don’t have room for a full table, folding chairs that she spray-painted turquoise.
“It takes the burden off bringing people inside your house” to have a meaningful exchange with them, Schell says, a sentiment that I have shared as I think about hosting people in my small house that feels full and chaotic when it’s just me and my boys.
By moving that socializing out to the front yard, she’s moving it away from the TV and electronic devices and into an outdoor classroom, where many of us fondly remember spending countless hours as kids.
“We all remember a time when we were outside all the time, when we knew every neighbor on the block,” she says. “We wanted to take that part of our lives back.” Like family, we don’t choose our neighbors, but it’s a little harder to love them than the people we’re related to by blood.
Schell wanted to show her digital-native kids what conscious offline outreach looks like. “It’s one thing to say that you want to get to know your neighbors, but it’s another thing to be deliberate about it,” she says.
At least once a week — she designates Thursdays — Schell will “do” her life outside. Fill out paperwork for the kids, answer emails, write a blog post. They eat dinner outside sometimes, and weekend lunches or breakfasts.
The table has opened up conversations, some light and pleasant, others heavy with the weight of a crisis, either personal or one that’s happening nationally but is being felt at home. This fall, that has included the tension around race, politics and gun violence that her kids are now old enough to start to understand. She lives in a mostly white neighborhood, but Schell has tried to use the table, as small an effort as it seems, as a space for asking difficult questions and navigating this conflicting notion of “us” versus “them.”
The table and the love and community it inspired were an answer to a prayer Schell didn’t even know she needed answered.
Newer neighbors have an opportunity to stop by and say hi, and the older neighbors who have lived there forever are feeling valued and loved anew. “We talk about news and what’s going on in our lives. (A table) is where those conversations are supposed to happen,” she says.
The movement is also helping employ formerly homeless Austinites in South Austin.
After hearing Schell speak at a conference, Allison Eskew of ReWork Project sent her a tweet: “We build tables,” she wrote.
Within a few months, employees at Eskew’s nonprofit, ReWork, were building turquoise tables for customers all over Austin. The workers make more than picnic tables — you can browse their woodwork online at reworkproject.com — but the picnic tables are the best seller. They cost $225, not including delivery, and Eskew says they have sold about 25 this year.
“This is the perfect partnership for us because our program is grounded in the importance of community and relationships, and our goal is to build that here as much or more than it is to build tables,” she says. “Community or healthy relationships are things that most of our workers have lacked throughout their lives,” and the team takes pride in the sense that they are helping build community when they are building tables.
Turquoise might be the last color you think of when you think of Christmas, but it has come to represent Schell’s personal ministry of spreading radical acceptance and unconditional love.
Schell says that it’s the least she can do to encourage people to love their neighbors, not just those who live on her street.
Turquoise Table Cookies
This sugar cookie recipe has been passed around through the turquoise table community, starting with Colleen Enos. They are soft cookies, thanks to the Crisco, but you could substitute butter for a slightly crispier, flatter cookie. The Lammes Candies locations at Barton Creek and Lakeline Mall sell M&M’s by the color, so you could make them all turquoise or another color of your choosing.
1 cup Crisco
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup brown sugar
2 tsp. vanilla
2 1/4 cups flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
1 1/2 cups M&M’s, divided
Heat oven to 365 degrees (or 375 if your oven doesn’t have smaller increments). Cream Crisco, sugars, eggs and vanilla thoroughly. Sift together flour, baking soda and salt. Add dry ingredients gradually to creamed mixture and mix well. Stir in 1/2 cup of M&M’s. Reserve remaining candy for decorating.
Drop tablespoons of the dough on a parchment-lined cookie sheet. Place four or five turquoise M&M’s on top of each cookie. Bake for 11 minutes. Makes about two dozen cookies.
— Colleen Enos