Life

The Visitor

I wrote a novel about a woman who rekindles old friendships with some strict rules. Then I tried to follow them myself.

Two women walking down a brightly painted street.
Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

Is there a best time in life to make friends? I’ve heard people say it’s your 20s and your 60s, grimly suggesting friendship and child-rearing are mutually exclusive. I’ve read F. Scott Fitzgerald thought it was his 30s and Thoreau was inspired by his 40s. Maybe there isn’t one best time, but you know what is true? It’s always the right time to work on keeping the friends you have.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, ever since I wrote a novel about a middle-aged woman who sets out to visit four faraway friends over the course of a year. She sets strict rules for each visit, including no social media and no set plans; the friendship itself must be the sole purpose of the trip. On tour and in interviews, I’ve been asked if I went on such a journey myself. I’ve had to say no, I did not. The visits of my narrator, May Attaway, are imagined. Sure, I drew on personal experience—I have friends, and the novel is dedicated to five of them—but I didn’t travel to see them the way May travels in the book.

In truth, I have not been very good over the years at traveling to see my friends. I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and the five friends I dedicated the book to were all made before seventh grade but now live spread out across the country from Maine to California. Three of them made plans to tour with me on the West Coast (traveling from Seattle and Ann Arbor to do so), and at each event, when I mentioned that three of the five “dedicatees” were in the audience, there was a collective gasp and much turning around in seats to find them. The fourth arranged to do an event with me at a bookstore in Chicago. Same reaction when I explained our connection.

The fifth friend, Rebecca, is the one in Maine, and the one I’ve seen the least over the years. After the book was published, I thought I’d visit her as a way to complete this circle of friendship. I’d meant for May’s journey to be accessible to everyone. Most people with jobs, some vacation time, and the willingness to prioritize friendship could make such a journey. So shouldn’t I try it? I emailed Rebecca with the subject line “Visit?”—and that was just the first of many question marks in the email. Is it a good time? Would she be game if I made the visit a bit of a social experiment and wrote about it? Is that too weird? I built in as many outs for her as I could, but she wrote back, “I LOVE THIS IDEA. It does not feel weird at all.”

So we made plans, but nothing is really that easy. Her work schedule was very busy, I was still on book tour, and then my mom went into the hospital. Rebecca and I pushed back our dates.

Then life really intervened. My mother died. It wasn’t entirely unexpected—we’d moved her from the hospital into home hospice care—but we’d thought we had more time and, nevertheless, you’re never ready. For a couple of weeks, everything went upside down. I was sure my visit with Rebecca couldn’t happen.

But then I realized this was the very thinking my novel was trying to resist. It’s never easy to make time. For anything. And studies show that when life gets too busy or too difficult, the first thing we drop is time with friends. Also, my mother had known Rebecca, as she’d known all five of the friends I dedicated the book to. That made me want to see her even more. So I decided to follow my own character’s lead. Despite difficulties of timing and grief, stress and illness, I went to visit my friend.

Our visit had an inauspicious start. The night before my bus from New York City to Portland, Maine, Rebecca texted to say she was staying an extra night in Vermont with her sister, where she’d been celebrating her niece’s birthday. She’d gotten a stomach bug and still wanted me to come, but was worried she wouldn’t make it home in time to meet me at the station.

Rebecca and I met in sixth grade when she spent a semester in Ann Arbor while her dad was on sabbatical. Her family went back to Bennington, in Vermont, at the end of the summer, but we exchanged letters for the rest of middle and high school, visited when our parents let us, and ended up going to the same university, though we didn’t see much of each other during those busy years. We have not lived permanently in the same place since we were 11.

I told her not to worry. I could certainly find my way to her house, even stay in a hotel the first night if she wasn’t well. I reminded her that the point, à la my protagonist May Attaway, was for me to spend time in her life—she was not supposed to entertain me—so if that meant eating soup in her living room for the weekend, that was fine.

Which brings us back to the rules. In the book, May, who is particular in her ways, follows some fairly daunting mandates. I also set out to abide by them:

1. Make the visit for the purpose of friendship only—not because you have a business trip in the area, for example.

2. Stay at your friend’s house.

3. Be alive in the space of the friendship, meaning no social media during the visit. Take pictures for yourself, if you want, but no posting until later.

4. Don’t make special plans (spa, resort, fancy local restaurant), because the purpose is to see an ordinary day in the life of your friend.

These are deliberately a little strenuous. Perhaps you are already thinking: Couldn’t I tack a visit onto the end of a business trip? That will do in a pinch, but it’s not what I’m talking about. Or you might be wondering, wouldn’t it just be easier for everyone if I stayed in a nearby hotel? Again, better than nothing, but the experience will be different. I’m after the kind of visit you get when you are present for all the intangible in-between times—coffee before everyone is up, a chat with one of the children when other grown-ups aren’t around, the sounds of your friend’s house at night—that somehow add up to more than the sum of their parts.

Rebecca recovered and made it home in time after all. I entered her life on a busy Friday, and because we didn’t try to halt everything to be together (see No. 4 above), we spent more time talking and working than reminiscing—book-related things for me, Rebecca’s work as a mitigation specialist for her; since college, Rebecca has worked to tell the stories of the lives of people facing the death penalty. Eventually we reminisced too, and it was wonderful, but for a friendship to have a future, there needs to be more than nostalgia.

So rules 1, 2, and 4 were going well so far. About No. 3: I’d been in Portland less than half an hour when I was tempted to post something to social media. Rebecca lives on the second floor of a historic three-story house. There is an old-fashioned doorbell and a turquoise door that looked handsome to my antsy fingers. Almost by reflex, I took my phone out. But then I remembered the rules and put my phone away. There were a few more times during the weekend when I almost slipped. (Rebecca is not on social media, so she had it easy.) But ultimately the visit felt richer to me for my restraint. We were making a visit just for us, not with an eye for how to present it for broader consumption.

The next morning, we slept late, and then Rebecca made us scrambled eggs and toast, our words warmer and faster now than they’d been the day before. In part this was possible because we were alone. Rebecca is not married, and I was visiting without my family, so there was no one to interrupt us, which was rare and divine. We talked about her boyfriend, my children, our equally difficult cats. I remembered how she used to know all the words to every Broadway song when we were little. She told me about the annoying bagpipers who practice every Monday night across from her building.

Eventually we left the apartment and walked around her neighborhood. She showed me a pig etched into the sidewalk that she’s always liked and her favorite city block on a street called Pleasant. “Just a nice coincidence,” she said.

Two women observing a drawing of a pig.
Lisa Larson-Walker

She pointed out Richard Russo’s house and took me to a place far away from the water for the best lobster roll I’ve ever had. At some point, she started gently pointing just ahead of us so I would know which way we were turning before we got there. The technique smoothed our steps and reminded me of the ideogram C.S. Lewis proposed for friendship: Friends are two people standing side by side, looking ahead in the same direction.

Walking around with Rebecca, I felt the force reflected in centuries of writings on friendship and the many recent studies that purport to show the health benefits of our connections with others. I felt better. I was distracted from my grief, but also comforted, a combination only a friend can provide. She pulled her hair back from her face in the two-handed way I remembered from our childhood, and I was reminded of our long history. Then she talked about the dismal state of our criminal justice system, and I was inspired by her knowledge and passion; she tells stories for a living too, but hers are true and for the sake of real people facing capital punishment. When you don’t see friends for a time, you can forget the depth you’ve forged with them.

On her Instagram recently, Elizabeth Gilbert wrote, “There are friendships so dear and foundational that sometimes you just have to change around your schedule and get on a plane and just go BE WITH EACH OTHER. Because it is what’s needed.” She wrote those words on a trip herself, an inspiration to me. But it’s easy to say, harder to do. Now, when we travel, we tend to prioritize places and experiences, and if not those things, then convenience. It’s true: Staying with a friend isn’t always convenient. Not everyone has a guest room, so someone might be sleeping on the sofa. Even when there is a spare room, your friend might insist on taking it herself and giving you her room (as Rebecca did, despite my protests). I still say it’s worth it. Make the stay shorter, if need be, but stay with your friend if at all possible. A visit across two bases is inevitably less intimate; more time is spent arranging meetup times than sitting over cups of coffee.

The next morning, tired from all the words the day before, we got a late, quiet start. We walked to a street fair downtown and found our way to a tent with handmade ceramics, where we chose matching clay cups that would connect us even when we were back in our own lives. Rebecca drove me to the bus stop and sat with me until it was time to board. Just before I did, I thought of a gift she’d given me years ago: She’d written the lyrics to “You’ve Got a Friend” in calligraphy on a scroll, and my mother had helped me frame it. It decorated the guest room of our house for years.

Regarding May’s rules, I can say Nos. 1 to 3 are definitely worthwhile. No. 4 needs some flexibility; people want to show off the best features of the place they’ve decided to settle. They want to design scenic drives, book ferry rides, and take you to nice places to eat. Rebecca and I got doughnuts from the famous Holy Donut and ate them in the sunshine by the water—toasted coconut for her, honey lavender for me—and talked about our moms. That was an indelible part of the trip.

In my novel, May wants to see how her friends have settled into their lives so that she might better settle into her own. I won’t tell you how the journey ends for her, whether she finds the clues she needs, but I will tell you that my own visit to Rebecca exceeded all my expectations. The rules kept me focused on friendship, this one dear friend with whom I was finally face-to-face again.

A day spent with an old friend is extraordinary, no matter what you do. I underestimated that. It made me think of Katherine Mansfield beginning a letter to a friend: “From my life I write to you in your life.” I love the feel of those words and what they suggest about how hard it is to bridge the gap between lives with words (or buttons or emoji) alone.

That’s why you must go for a visit.

Book cover of Rules for Visiting.
Penguin Press

Rules for Visiting

By Jessica Francis Kane. Penguin Press.