Our culture chirps an incessant tune of romantic love — who is marrying, who is breaking up — and we do this on the cover of People magazine, in our most popular songs, even in our unpopular songs. But friendship is fairly unsung. Friendship resists storytelling. A friendship of long duration is not scandalous; it is gentle. Our culture is not gentle now. Friendship endures or it doesn’t. The making of a new friend is not usually marked by a ritual, nor is the end of a friendship. Friendships are mostly mourned in silence.
I have noticed that even highly introverted people need friends; I myself scored 20 out of 21 on an “Are you introvert?” quiz. And some of my best friends I have made on actual islands.
It can be a hurdle for introverts that to make friends you have to talk to people, sometimes even in a dreaded group. And yet introverts can make the best kind of friends — often the most loyal, often the best listeners. Some of my most profound friendships have been made in enclosed spaces, like rehearsal rooms or classrooms, where one must stay for a prescribed amount of time before bolting.
I even met my husband by being his housemate first, then his friend, then, several bacchanals later, we fell in love. I’ve been lucky — friendship has found me, despite my shyness. If I had to give advice to other introverts on how to make friends, I might boil it down to this simple advice: Don’t move. I’ve also made friends through paper — the writing of letters back and forth.
I lost one such dear friend, a brilliant poet named Max Ritvo, two years ago, when he was 25. We wrote about 500 letters back and forth before he died, and at some point we decided to make a book of them. Max had a rare genius for friendship, and for the writing of poetry. Our friendship, which I think would have been lifelong, had to be compressed into the four years we knew each other.
I first met him when he walked into my undergraduate playwriting class at Yale. In his application to get into the class he wrote, “All I want to do is write.” He seemed to have an ancient light bulb hovering over his head. He’d read everything, and he was also very funny. He loved to make a joke; looking like a young Mike Nichols, he would gaze up from under his thick spectacles to see whether his joke had found its target.
At the end of the semester, Max told the class that he’d had a recurrence of Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare paediatric cancer he’d battled in high school. My father died of cancer when I was 20, and I knew from experience that most of Max’s peers did not have mortality on the brain. I told Max that he could talk to me about his fears if he wanted to. He wanted to. Our friendship was accelerated by the urgency of his questions.
Max worked hard to graduate from Yale while going through chemotherapy and surgeries. With an awareness of time, he went to Columbia to get his Master of Fine Arts in poetry, wrote an extraordinary book of poetry called Four Reincarnations, fell in love with a young woman, got married, wrote even more poems and gave of himself, always, to his wide circle of friends.
Unlike me, Max was an extroverted writer, which is something of an anomaly. When he read his poems aloud, he shouted them to a crowded room, circling and often wearing a pink kimono. He collected friends readily, intensely and demonstratively. Max knew he didn’t have time for the slow reveal. He once recited a poem to me in his booming voice standing up in a Brooklyn cafe. When I indicated a measure of embarrassment, Max was horrified and apologetic, waving his arms. No, no, I assured him. I was embarrassed in the way that Elizabeth Bishop was when she read a poem that moved her — she didn’t want to look at it directly.
Max and I were often not in the same city. He was in Los Angeles to see his family and for treatment or in Washington undergoing a clinical trial. To distract him from chemotherapy, we swapped poems, plays, rants, jokes, spiritual questions and dreams of the afterlife. We wrote on subjects as far afield as metaphysics, the essence of soup, literary revenge, meditation, the Amtrak quiet car, childhood battle chants and our mutual love of Mel Brooks.
Like the nature of conversation itself, friendship is not categorisable; friendship is partly defined by what you can talk about. With some friends you can talk about work; others, family, fishing, books, politics; some, nothing much at all, but you enjoy being together in silence, making a pie, or walking. Max’s genius for friendship was partly a genius for conversation — he could discourse as easily on the soul as he could on Cyndi Lauper. We tried to arrange our book of letters by subject matter, but the book kept resisting our efforts. We realised that the disparate subjects defied categorisation. And after he was gone, I realised that to organise the book chronologically was to imply an ending.
The ending came in August 2016, when Max was 25. A lot of people pointed out that it was the same age at which Keats died. I don’t even know whether Max liked Keats, though now I would love to ask him. For a long time after he died, I could not stand the sight of poetry. Reading poetry just made me want to talk to Max again, and that made me sad.
How to mourn for a student, a friend, a teacher? Because Max was first my student, then my friend and finally my teacher. In our culture it sometimes feels as though social ties can be summed up by the bonds of nuclear family and romantic love. Perhaps we’re obsessed as a species with romantic love because it helps propagate our species. But isn’t friendship just as necessary to emotional survival?
When we find the right friend at the right time in our life, or the right teacher, or the right student, our lives are changed forever. Max was the voice that answered back. And he still is.
— New York Times News Service
Sarah Ruhl is a playwright who teaches at the Yale School of Drama and a co-author, with Max Ritvo, of Letters From Max: A Book of Friendship.