Learning to Pause: How Building a Table Changed My Service

BY SHEA KELLY-BUCKLEY | April 29, 2019

One Sunday afternoon, in late autumn, my JVC Northwest community mates and I made a stop at our local Home Depot. After much collective discernment, we had landed there, with intentions to build ourselves a new kitchen table. Our motivations for this undertaking were various. We agreed that our glass tabletop didn’t resonate well with the ‘vibe’ of our home. We were also aiming to fill our Sunday afternoon lulls with something generative, meaningful, and collaborative. Clearly, we were seeking a project that would invite us to step outside of our comfort zones, given that I had never built a table, seen anyone build a table, or learned about building a table in any other capacity—nor had either of my community mates. We walked through the automatic doors of Home Depot that day with a posture of immense humility.

As we entered the store we approached the first orange-clad employee we encountered, confidently stating that we wanted to build a kitchen table. We also shared that, hypothetically, if we were to build a table, we would not have any clue where to begin. With true concern for our understanding, the gracious employee led us up and down the aisles, pointing out potential supplies and pausing for us to take photos or ask any clarifying questions. We left the store empty-handed but full of gratitude, feeling much more equipped to begin our table-making journey than when we arrived.   

The next phase of our journey commenced a couple of months later, in a setting quite distinct from that of the Home Depot. A byproduct of the rapid growth of our Bend, Oregon neighborhood is the presence of dumpsters full of scrap wood and other excess building materials. We are particularly attentive to the rhythms of the construction process, and we derive great joy from our frequent visits to the dumpster nearest our home as we search for table-making supplies. On a cold morning in early winter, I found myself standing in one such dumpster, up to my knees in cardboard, wood, and sawdust. I tossed beautiful wooden planks, smooth and rosy in color, up and over the dumpster’s walls for my community mates to gather and carry back to our home. We placed the planks on a table in our backyard. In silence, we began arranging them so their edges were flush.

When I’m not at a hardware store or in a dumpster, I am at my service placement, which is a youth and family center that offers support and outreach to young people who may be street dependent or experiencing housing insecurity. Every time I encounter a young person for the first time, I aim to approach that encounter in the same way I entered Home Depot: full of humility and curiosity and with a willingness to ask questions. As with the construction of a table made of wood by one who has never used a power tool, humility is a prerequisite in this metaphorical table building, too. It would be unwise to build a table for the first time without asking for support and guidance, just it would be unwise to assume that the relationship I am aiming to build resembles the one a young person might be envisioning. It may even be unwise to assume that now is a good time for building.

Two young adults at the author’s service site share in conversation and a game of cards.

This last bit of truth I have learned and continue to learn by way of my community’s lengthy table-building process. There have been many factors creating friction and inertia: fatigue, cold weather, poor communication, and our lack of power tools. In recent weeks, our table building has also taken a back seat to some bigger things: grief, bad news from home, our own suffering and that of those we love. Each of these demands its space and its time. We have given the hard stuff room to breathe—perhaps even when we didn’t want to or didn’t know how—while the smooth wooden planks sat waiting in the backyard.

It is essential to remember that building, particularly of relationships, may not happen quickly. It requires a sort of agility—a willingness to adjust and renegotiate and be present to barriers that may hinder our process, acknowledging the space they take up rather than simply mowing them down for the sake of efficiency or some other agenda. I have noticed that sometimes a hiatus from building is actually where the work happens. Providing pause for things that demand pause may be an essential part, rather than a lapse, in our creative process. Who am I to demand a trip to the dumpster when grief is consuming all of the air in the room? It is okay if the building happens slowly.

Whether engaged in the building of a relationship or a kitchen table, I have found sustenance in a disciplined presence to the building itself. At the same time, in both my service and my community, I have learned that it can be helpful to hold an end goal in mind that can serve as an energizing form of hope. Because once a table is built, it usually holds. It holds food and drink, UNO cards and chess boards and art supplies. It is adorned with cloths and candles and vases of flowers. It bears silent witness to time passing, holding steady between meals and across years. It can be cleared, wiped clean, and re-set—offering us a new beginning and a new shot at communion every time.

Likewise, when a relationship is built in a way that is honest and humble, mutual and laden with respect, it offers a foundation upon which those who have built it can rest. That foundation is then able to hold laughter and pain, joy and grief. It can support disappointment and betrayal, anger and forgiveness. It can hold our stories and the things we don’t want to say. A relationship with integrity and a strong foundation endures and offers the opportunity for renewal. Of course, if I have learned anything from building a kitchen table, it is that any kind of building is complex and nonlinear. The arrival at that foundational place where the builders can rest—which is not really a true arrival, but rather marks another jumping off point—does not happen without bumps and bruises, detours and setbacks.

Though we often dream of a finished product, my community mates and I still haven’t finished our table. I cannot offer a conclusion or tie up the loose ends of our table-building journey, which at this moment has only a beginning and middle. The beautiful rosy planks from the dumpster still lay dormant in our backyard, now covered entirely with snow. Patiently, they await our return to building.

3 replies
  1. Dr.Cajetan Coelho
    Dr.Cajetan Coelho says:

    A relationship with integrity and a strong foundation endures and offers the opportunity for renewal – Thanks. Well said. Very true.

  2. Erin
    Erin says:

    Love pondering your reflections, Mary Shea! Wise insights about the depth and time of relationship building. Thank you for sharing!


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