We Belong Together (At Least This Year)
Names and faces may change, but the circle remains unbroken at the avaya house
by Martha Lynn Coon
Photograph by Casey Chapman Ross
During my college years in rural Tennessee, a friend introduced me to the second volume of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s classic album, “May the Circle be Unbroken.” In an introduction to one of the tracks, Emmylou Harris talks about an experience she had years before, “sitting around in a living room with a bunch of people and singing and playing, and it was like a spiritual experience, it was wonderful … I think over the years we’ve all gotten a little too technical, a little too hung up on getting things perfect. We’ve lost the living room. The living room has gone out of the music, but today I feel like we got it back.”
This sums up community life at AYAVA House, only our jam sessions revolve around good, old-fashioned conversation. We are a program of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, which has been fashioning its own intentional community smack dab in the center of Austin since 1902. Our weekly gatherings and Sunday supper tradition let us all bring conversation back into the living room. Our community is young adults in Austin, hailing from all over the country, for a year of service, both national service corps and faith-based. Together, we learn how to slow down and build community in this fast-paced, digital age. Not everyone who comes our way is expressly religious, but most are spiritual seekers in some way, shape or form. That means each year ushers in a new family, with new personalities, strengths, challenges, humor and, like all families, a healthy dose of dysfunction.
It’s a strange family, based on so much transience, but perhaps this transient quality is what makes the time together feel so real and so necessary. Our modern life is lived in motion, and a program like ours requires these young adults to hit the pause button on their frenetic, media-laden lives a few times each week. The hope is that enough small pauses will add up to a year of real discernment, reflection and growth. We take turns cooking and also help generate the lion’s share of content and reflection. Every year we have ideas that are slightly off-the-wall and often incredibly awesome. We also have guests from the seminary and the community. They up the ante with their brilliance, wit, vulnerability and commitment to the larger home we call Austin.
It’s a strange family, based on so much transience, but perhaps this transient quality is what makes the time together feel so real and necessary.
There’s the Old Testament professor who ate tacos with us, then proceeded to blow everyone’s mind as she shared things that both inspired and confounded her from the ancient text—topics ranging from the role of women to accounts of genocide. And the Comparative Religion professor who inspired us after the 2016 election when we were all in search of guiding light. We learned about how his own journey led him from boat-building in Maine to a failed stint as a chaplain before evolving into his current role as a teacher. For people who consider the ‘90s legitimately “vintage,” it’s powerful to hear another person talk about surviving their own young adulthood during the era of Civil Rights, Vietnam and second-wave feminism. Another night that stands out was a birthday celebration for a community member on a retreat in Utopia, Texas. We listened to a lot of Beyoncé-and ate a cake covered with mermaids, while the birthday girl wore a fantastic handmade Wonder Woman ensemble. How or why any of those choices had a thematic through-line, except total fabulousness, I still don’t quite grasp. The thing I remember most is how happy she looked in every picture, and what a fantastic woman she is now. Deep down I hope our year of Sundays contributed to that in some small way.
Oddly, one of the Sundays that stands out most in my memory is one of the few I missed over the past six years. One Sunday morning in December of 2012, I received the painful news that my best friend of almost twenty years died suddenly in her sleep, just three months short of her 35th birthday. Completely bereft, I phoned my boss to see if he would join the group in my absence. That night stands in such relief not because of my absence, but because of their presence. I drew strength knowing that every person there, though not with me, was for me, and that the legacy of those we love is best kept alive by how we live and love each other. It seems like this is the real magic of our commitment to gather: the knowledge that the slow cultivation of togetherness, once achieved, remains with us even when apart. I guess whether it’s the music or the conversation we’re trying to bring back to the living room, our intentions are the same. Creating a circle, and hoping that the center will hold. Martha Lynn Coon is a writer, blogger, wife and mother of two. She works on the staff of Austin Seminary, talking to anyone who will sit still about vocation and purpose, and happily managing the whirlwind that is AYAVA House
Martha Lynn Coon is a writer, blogger, wife and mother of two. She works on the staff of Austin Seminary, talking to anyone who will sit still about vocation and purpose, and happily managing the whirlwind that is AYAVA House.