It’s hard to remember life without text messages and the ability to send a note to someone thousands of miles away with the touch of a button. Likewise with social media, which allows us to easily maintain relationships that would have been lost to the hands of time, or market products and services to the masses for pennies on the dollar.
But research has shown that despite the deep connectivity of our modern world, we’re more isolated and lonely than ever. Truly, nothing can replace the magic of real-life relationships and interactions. And, as Kristin Schell, Austin, TX-based blogger and author of The Turquoise Table: Finding Community and Connection in Your Own Front Yard, which releases this week, says, “There’s no ‘I’ device that will ever replace ‘eye’ contact.”
After feeling frustrated about a lack of quality time among her family of six, and the fact that she didn’t even know the people who lived in her own neighborhood, Schell took a decidedly unconventional approach to Southern hospitality. She placed a turquoise picnic table in her front yard and invited friends old and new to have a seat, have a bite and truly connect.
Here, she tells us about the evolution of her crazy idea and how easily we can foster a greater sense of community in our own corner of the world. Welcome Kristin Schell, today’s FACE of the South!
You say that when the picnic table “appeared,” it was an answer to your prayers of how to connect more with family and friends. So how exactly did that happen?
I was having a backyard barbecue with a friend of mine. We didn’t have any backyard patio furniture, so I ordered a picnic table because I needed something fast, and I needed something cheap. And when they brought it, I can only assume that they put it in my front yard because it’s heavy and wanted to figure out where I wanted it to go before they dragged it all across my yard.
So when I walked outside and I saw it right there next to the curb, underneath the tree, I was like, “I want it right there.” They thought I was crazy.
When you started thinking about inviting others to the table, were you nervous that everyone would think you were nuts for having this picnic table in your front yard and no one would actually sit with you?
Absolutely. It took about a week before I started. It was rainy, rainy, rainy, so I think that was good because I was able to buy some time. Yeah, I thought it was a little bit weird, and I think if I had had any longer to think about it, it certainly would have been easy to have said no or just blown it off. But I didn’t.
And the story is, I went out and I met a neighbor literally within five minutes of sitting out there. We’re good friends now, but I didn’t know her then, and she lives three doors from me. I remember kind of slowing down and thinking, “Okay, maybe there’s something to this.”
Do you always have a meal prepared every time you sit at the table? Or do you just sit down and wait for people to come?
I’ve found that for me, it’s a healthy blend of spontaneous and planned gatherings. So a planned gathering might be something as simple as sending an email, or texting four or five good neighbor friends or girlfriends and saying, “Hey, Thursday morning, 9 o’clock, yoga pants.” And then some of the more spontaneous gatherings are times when I’ll just go out there and use it as a time to write thank-you notes or journal or something. If people show up, fantastic. And if people don’t, then it becomes just a gift of time to stay unconnected and have a moment to breathe.
With four kids, how do you have time for your blog and the book, and to follow your own advice and remain connected to family and friends?
You know what? It’s not either/or, it’s both/and. I’m sitting in the carpool while I’m talking to you, and I’m totally transparent about that. My family always will come first. If not, then what message does that send? One of the frustrations that I was having is that I love Southern hospitality, and I love to have people in my house. But that’s not always a blessing to my kids or my husband. And, quite frankly, I can’t keep the house clean enough to have people over.
But the need is still there. So you and I can meet outside, and you don’t have to see all the crud on the couch. Then it serves the purpose. So, truthfully, it’s not how do I do it all, it’s just become a way of life, which is the way hospitality’s supposed to be. It’s not supposed to be something we do, it’s supposed to be something we are.
You’ve been blogging about hospitality for a while. Did you always envision this concept becoming a book?
No. I mean, I didn’t even really know this table would be a thing. But when I found out there was a table in Australia, I thought, “Well, we might need to pay attention to this.” And it was interesting: I was responding to emails and queries from people who were asking how to set up and run their own turquoise table, so it just became a natural extension. What if we put a book together and encouraged people to do this if they want?
For those who are going to read this and say, “You know, that’s such a great idea but I can’t do that; I don’t have the space,” or, “Nobody will come,” what advice do you have to help them make that first step to connect with the people around them?
Baby steps, of course. My mother always said, “All you need is one friend.” So just mention it to somebody. Say, “I read this idea. What do you think? Should we try this? Would it be interesting in our neighborhood or our community?”
And if you don’t have a front yard, where do people naturally tend to gather? There are turquoise tables now in school patios and courtyards and libraries and other natural places where people gather. I think the conversation is the most important thing. You just have to start, and once we get over the fear of inviting someone into our lives, it just makes everyone feel so good. I mean, think about how you feel when you’re invited to something.
Aside from faith, family, and friends, what are three things that you can’t live without?
I use a grocery delivery service, and it’s my favorite thing on earth right now. Having four teenagers and my brain half gone half the time, it’s been really nice. I’m always reading, so I have to have a book. And it can be in Kindle form, but I have to have a book or my Kindle at all times. And then I would say my journal.
Thank you to Kristin for inspiring us to get back to connections and for doing her part in preserving Southern hospitality! Learn more about Kristin and The Turquoise Table at kristinschell.com.
Meet more inspiring Southern women in our FACES of the South archives!