Thus is friendship

I owe a friendly debt to the English poet W. H. Auden and to Vicki and Tim Mayer of Standish, Maine. It was a typical Maine morning, with the August mist lying in clear layers over the Herefords and the pines. We had set off early, my brother-in-law and I , to drive into Portland. Don, I suppose, was feeling something between resignation and contentment at the prospect of another day in his life as a New England lawyer. I was feeling exhilarated by the rinsing of fresh sunlight, and terribly virtuous for having gotten out of bed before 6 to accompany him.

There is a strange kaleidoscoping of views when someone comes on vacation to a home where someone else is working. It's as though the same day has to rattle out its pattern to accommodate two wholly disparate purposes. It must have seemed peculiar to him to have a passenger. And it felt odd to me to be commuting to something that wasn't work. But that's friendship. Fortified (in my case) with a large piece of peach pie, and in his with a veritable flagon of coffee, we set out for the 20-minute ride.

Or so we thought. In fact, the teaspoonful of gasoline in his Volkswagen tank barely carried us over the crest of the first hill. As we rolled out along the flat pastureland, it exhausted itself in a sputter.

"Can you believe it?" Don groaned, visions of an early lunge at his workload fading rapidly. "I said to myself when I left work yesterday, 'Now I've got to get gas.' Then I got excited about seeing you and forgot all about it." Which, I reflected as the tires crunched on the gravel shoulder, is also friendship.

There was nothing for it but to hike back home for the lawn-mower gas can. We walked against the flow of occasional other early birds who passed like priests and Levites with quizzical looks. There aren't, after all, many categories into which two such city-suited walkers fit at that hour on a country morning. We were clearly not joggers, dog-walkers, farmers leading cows, or lunch-pailed and lingering schoolchildren. The drivers eyed us surreptitiously and passed by on the other side.

But it was a brisk morning, and we set a brisk and chatty pace. For a while I cast backward looks, in case an outbound car came within thumb range, but by the time we passed a littered barnyard with a marvelous hand-lettered sign saying "beware of the roosters" (maybe the dogs, by contrast, are paragons of affection?) I gave it up: the walk itself was altogether too interesting.

Which is when Tim and Vicki Mayer appeared.

"Hi," said Tim, leaning in his Coast Guard uniform across his wife as the car drew up from behind. Don recognized him as a distant neighbor and acquaintance.

"We passed you going the other way," said Vicki.

"Yep," said Tim, "saw you dump out your mug just now, and I says, 'Running outta gas is one thing, but when Don runs outta coffee, that's getting serious.'

Which is friendship, but of another order: the kind that interrupts routine, turns around, and literally goes the extra mile. Maybe it grows up more easily in the country: relationships are generally trusting, and selfishness is less apt to justify itself by suspecting its neighbor. Or maybe it's just inherent human goodness, the Samaritan inside us all, willing to invest time and tuppence for the sake of an ideal without which society would be unbearable.

For friendship really is the result of investment. Acquaintance runs fine on the chance purchase, the amicable interchange of interests whenever convenient, the steady but unstretched affection. Friendship needs more. It's fashionable to say that, with charity institutionalized into government programs, there seems less call for through-thick-and-thin friendships. Perhaps: it's been a while since the bread lines of the '30s, and times, it seems, aren't thin.

But something else has grown up instead: a mobility that throws people into intimacy for a few years, then swirls them away into other lives. The challenge to friendship may be even greater now: not simply to demonstrate loyalty in the face of adversity, but active renewal in the face of other and distant commitments.

Which brings me to Auden. He ends a masterly poem about Brueghel's painting of Icarus with a sharp vision of the un-Samaritan life. There is Icarus, plunging into the sea near a ship, his feather-and-wax wings melted on his first flight with his father, Daedalus. There he is, a couple of legs sticking out of the water. "And the expensive, delicate ship," writes Auden, that must have seen Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky, Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.m

Tim and Vicki had somewhere to get to, other coasts (as it were) to guard. But they stopped. It's not a big thing. But it mat ters.

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