Letters from Max: A Poet, a Teacher, a Friendship

Letters from Max: A Poet, a Teacher, a Friendship

by Sarah Ruhl, Max Ritvo


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In 2012, Sarah Ruhl was a distinguished author and playwright, twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Max Ritvo, a student in her playwriting class at Yale University, was an exuberant, opinionated, and highly gifted poet. He was also in remission from pediatric cancer.

Over the next four years—in which Ritvo’s illness returned and his health declined, even as his productivity bloomed—the two exchanged letters that spark with urgency, humor, and the desire for connection. Reincarnation, books, the afterlife as an Amtrak quiet car, good soup: in Ruhl and Ritvo’s exchanges, all ideas are fair, nourishing game, shared and debated in a spirit of generosity and love. “We’ll always know one another forever, however long ever is,” Ritvo writes. “And that’s all I want—is to know you forever.”

Studded with poems and songs, Letters from Max is a deeply moving portrait of a friendship, and a shimmering exploration of love, art, mortality, and the afterlife.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781571313751
Publisher: Milkweed Editions
Publication date: 09/10/2019
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 288,442
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Sarah Ruhl is a playwright, two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, Tony Award nominee, and author of the book 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write, which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. She has been the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, the Whiting Writers’ Award, the PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award for a midcareer playwright, and the Steinberg Award. She is currently on the faculty of the Yale School of Drama and lives in Brooklyn with her family.

Max Ritvo (1990–2016) was the author, with Sarah Ruhl, of Letters from Max. He was also the author of two collections of poems, Four Reincarnations and The Final Voicemails, which were published by Milkweed Editions in 2016 and 2018. His chapbook, Aeons, was chosen by Jean Valentine to receive the Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship in 2014. Ritvo’s poetry has also appeared in the New Yorker and Poetry, among many other publications.

Read an Excerpt

At the end of April, the earthquake in Nepal killed nine thousand people.

And Max was about to have his own personal earthquake. His April scans showed more bad news. More tumor. His current regimen clearly wasn't working.

I met with Max after his bad news. He told me that he was afraid of death. I wanted Max to know that he could talk to me about his fear of death, that I wouldn't be squeamish, or deny the possibility. So I wrote Max the letter that follows, and the reply would come almost year later.

May 2

Dearest Max,

A letter. And fair warning--this is a letter about the afterlife, so read on only if you wish to contemplate such things.

You told me yesterday that you are scared of death, that sometimes you leave the house and forget your wallet, and you think that death might be like that sensation: I left the house but forgot my body, my house, my New York City, my fiancée, my mother. The metaphor seemed apt. Walking out of the house, and forgetting, but not being sure quite what you've forgotten.

I think I may have told you once about a dream I had that comforted me about death. I'd had a biopsy of some breast tissue that looked questionable; it was normal, but as a result I was dreaming and thinking of death. In my dream I was going to a Buddhist temple in India. The steps up were very high and gave me vertigo. When I got to the top I was going to make an offering, and I saw that monks were meditating and the odd thing was that they were able to meditate with their heads severed from the bodies, their heads lying peacefully on the ground next to their cross-legged bodies. I found this horrifying (the image of the severed head) but also comforting. The monks could still meditate without their bodies. In other words, their consciousness persisted. After I saw these monks, I saw golden Buddhas racing, racing, all in gold. I was going to leave this tower and walk back down on steps all arranged like Legos, not glued in. As I walked down, the lapis Legos shifted under me and I faltered, falling. I was holding onto my daughter Anna's hand. When I reached the bottom, the stairway was gone, crumbled, and I apologized to a monk, and he said: It's all right, they get arranged newly every day.

I'm not sure why but I found this dream a talisman that made me less afraid of death.

Once in my twenties I was in a car accident on Hope Street in Providence and we were blindsided and I hit my head and conked out and thought: This is how death comes, quickly. It was not frightening. Or even unsettling. It just was. It was dark at first. I saw a glimpse of how I would say goodbye to my body, and it seemed like quite a simple matter. Then I woke back up. Sometimes I think my whole life has been a dream since then.

Here is a question: if you had a choice, would you rather be orbited off into enlightenment after death, or would you rather be born a bodhisattva to come back and help others who are suffering? I know you are not a Buddhist per se, and you know me, I'm this strange syncretic wandering Catholic former atheist Thomas Merton admirer who just took refuge. I think you might already be a bodhisattva who has come back to help others. When I took a teaching from this wonderful Englishwoman, now a Tibetan nun, someone her asked a question about bodhisattvas, and she answered very plainly and antimetaphysically: "There are good people in this world. There are people who help. Look around you. There are many good people."

You, Max, are good. You don't know how many you've helped already.

The more I have looked into this reincarnation business the more I am convinced that we have had numberless lifetimes and will have numberless more. It does not necessarily make death less scary because we still lose everything we love, all this contingent matter, our identity in this lifetime, this person, this feeling of being situated, knowing, this web of love that we are cocooned in. But I do believe consciousness persists. I believe we get on a train, and the train is God knows what, the opposite of a train, going God knows where, but I do believe something travels and arrives somewhere. When I met you, you walked into my classroom, this wise luminous person, and I thought--it is not possible this young man is twenty. You had a wisdom that can only be accumulated from many lifetimes of suffering. Forgive my sermonizing. I am not a sermonizer by nature (I hope) but when you told me that you were afraid to die, I thought, Not many people like to discuss death, so I wanted to create an opening if you wanted to talk. I know I am not qualified.

The other dream that comforted me about death was about my father. I dreamed I saw him after he died, and in silver letters in the heavens was spelled out: There is no God. I turned to my father in the dream and asked: But who wrote that in the heavens? And he said: Exactly. At the time I was in Prague (of course) and reading The Brothers Karamazov, my father's favorite book. The dream seemed to be an answer to the questions the book was asking. That in the asking, the ability of consciousness to frame the phrase "There is no God," there was an answer, an ability of the thinker to contemplate God was enough proof of God's existence, or of an abiding, persisting consciousness.

I will pray to whatever god or God that your body gets better. And if your body doesn't get better in this lifetime, I will pray that we will meet up and recognize each other in the next lifetime, where probably you will be my teacher, as you once were previously.


I am waiting for Anna to finish her violin lesson now. In the middle of writing this letter she emerged from her lesson and needed help blowing her nose. You can contemplate existence all you want, at the end of the day someone needs to blow their nose and hand you a dirty tissue.

I love you dear Max,



Max moved into his mother's house in California full time. It was no good, his shuttling back and forth to New York to teach and to see friends. He needed care. He needed family. He needed to be near the hospital.

I had sent Max a letter almost a year earlier about the afterlife, following a conversation in which he told me he was afraid to die. Max hadn't answered the letter then; it was too much. But now, out of the blue, he answered:

February 12


It's taken me just over a year to attempt to reply to this letter. I've told you often how much it means to me, and how I intend to reply--but it's difficult to try and communicate back to something that loves you so much it burns you. I have a natural tendency to cut people off mid-sentence--to barely hear what they say before trying to touch it with my own mouth. I think my silence over this letter tells you how deep it goes. Thank you. This letter is silver, in the sky. And in the end, that's probably all that will matter.

But also, I've been afraid to respond in part because you are deep in me. You are beneath belief--you are voice itself. When I write, I often feel the language coming out to be yours. (Of course, the language is demented and dizzied by the hedge maze that stands between my inspiration and the page. And it's a great hedge maze. It's proprietary. The hedges are actually impossibly large onion plants.)

You, in fact, are me. Yet above voice, there is belief--perhaps situated on a pile of priceless blue Legos--and I find myself unable to believe in a committed way in the afterlife that you have torn from your dreams, your near deaths, your tears, and your inspiration, and have given to me as a glowing gift. It's weird. Your letter feels like a bone that has grown out of my body, around which I am unable to form flesh. It's terrifying.

The problem is with consciousness persisting, and what is meant by that.

For me, consciousness emerges bit by bit. An ant is a bit conscious. A dog, a bit more. Really all that's needed for consciousness is for information to be stored and then exercised. The system of information, if it gets complicated enough, will eventually become self-referential, and at that point it's thinking. I'm a Turing boy, in my heart, and a Hume boy.

I think a trillion planets in different galaxies, moving with a degree of regularity and interrelatedness, could have a mind. I think the act of speaking, in which information travels from brain to brain, if it is spread among enough brains, could form its own consciousness. This last idea I came to after I saw The Oldest Boy and wept and wept, thinking that the monk and Tenzin, sharing the same set of ideas in the same language over and over again, could be a crucially stable line of code in the conversation that is God. I wrote a poem for you about this, where my shrink and I are like Tenzin and the monk.

But the limitless potential for consciousness means another thing: it's really sloppy. The consciousness in our brain is not a coherent force, not something perfected and organized, but a phenomenon of trapping in as much of the world as we can as it comes to us through a welter of chaotic channels. Because our brain is made up of many tiny scraps of code, many little machines, many little ants, and is not one perfectly engineered program. As human beings evolved, we picked up useful little things for our brain to do, and over time they crashed together into what we are.

We actually have, in our brain, two different visual processing systems--one that provides us with color and light and shape and the world as we know it, and another one that evolved much earlier, when we were shrews, that can only tell whether something is horizontal or vertical, and whether it is approaching from the left or right side of us. This shrew brain isn't normally active in a human, but when people are blinded by strokes, they can, with close to 100 percent accuracy, take a cartridge and stick it in a slot that's either vertical or horizontal and positioned to their left or right. It seems miraculous to the blind people--they say they aren't seeing anything, but can feel jaggedness through their eyes.

The brain is full of first and second drafts of ways of thinking. The parts of the brain that are in use exist for their own sake, and on their own terms. And sometimes they conflict with one another. Sometimes we just outright ignore parts of our consciousness. Every time you aren't tuning into the sound of a clock ticking in your room, it's not because you aren't hearing it. The part of your brain hearing it is just being damped and muted by other parts. Consciousness is almost an ecosystem of sensations, with predators, prey, weather patterns, and natural resources. Consciousness as a sensation, as a system, all comes together kind of by accident, and we make sense of it all because we have to.

So with that in mind, what can I say about consciousness persisting? Broken down, the storm of codes that happen to coexist in my brain seem to me perfectly willing to part from one another. Preserving them would be a much more difficult task for God than if my consciousness were a whole Thing. My Soul isn't a fish, it's an Ocean with waves breaking in a particular moment in time. And that's another thing: I think I am time. But not Time. Rather, I am my time.

And funnily enough, Buddhism has gotten me to feel this way more than anything else. Since you last wrote, as you know, I've started meditating and reading Buddhist texts. Meditation has been stripping me back, and when you strip me back, you find paradox. When Buddha talks about Being and Not Being, Cause and Effect being both something to liberate yourself from and something that's essential--I think he's expressing the illusion of a unified consciousness slowly unbraiding. Buddha got to a place where he qualitatively experienced what cognitive science thinks is true of the mind. My "I" as I meditate seems to be very much essentialized in my experiences. Without seeing a bunch of crap happen over and over again very dependably, I don't even know if I'd have an intuition of cause and effect. Which is where Hume and Buddha start to boogie together. And I can't help but feel that the particular crap I dependably saw is part of who I am. And it can never be recreated.

Does this seem foolish to you? Am I missing the point? Arguing sideways? Is my soul something deeper than my "I"? Then what is it?
I think my mind is a set of lapis lazuli steps falling apart, and all I want is to be told, "It's all right, we rebuild it every day." But what is the it? What is it? And if I was vaporized by a ray gun but was then replaced instantly by an identical person with an identical filigree of nerves shot through with identical sparks cased in an identical skull--would it still be me? I really don't think so. I'm starting to feel like Theseus and I just want my fucking ship out of the dry dock and back on the water.

Your love and vision--these seem to me to be the forces of life. They have the fingerprints of life all over them. They palpitate with your experience, with your blood. You are a great sense-making force. And I don't mean sense-making in the crotchety, bookish, neat way. I mean you make stuff for my mind and nose and ears and mouth. I worry that the sense-making faculties fundamentally differ from those that would undo the senses.

Maybe I'm a Zoroastrian. I feel like my love and my imagination, and your love and your imagination, are fires locked in eternal combat with the dark, the mute. Maybe my grief and your inspired calm are part of a greater consciousness. Maybe I have just written "There is no God" in silver letters across the sky. That I could believe. But I don't know if I get to carry the torch of my fear into the night I am heading into.

With More Love Than There Is,


Table of Contents



Part One:

New Haven, 2012–13

Part Two:

New York, 2013–15

Part Three:

New York and California, 2015–16

Part Four:

California, 2016


Everywhere. Time Unimportant



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