The oyster needs the sand to irritate the hell out of its insides to create a pearl. We humans need our most annoying intimate relationships to scrub and polish the insides of our hearts to reveal the precious gems awaiting us there. Only our loves can help us scour away the most caked-on muck and shine up the jewels.
We also need teachers to sharpen us, so we can carve our path in life and reach our highest heights. This weekend I was at the memorial of a college friend who was a master soul sharpener.
Fred Kennamer was a screenwriter, playwright and director who was dearly loved and revered for his fatherly wisdom (yes, even in his 20s at UC Berkeley), his creative genius, and his unrelenting pursuit of making things, people and art better. He pushed us all to be the very best versions of ourselves. He could be tough and unrelenting, but we all knew that he loved us with a gentle, pure and loyal heart. You could count on Fred. Whatever your heart and soul needed, he delivered.
Fred knew I was incredibly intimidated by him. I was in awe of his brain and creative impulses. He had nicknames for everyone. Mine was "Bwidgie." By the end of the memorial I finally understood why I didn't have one of the cool nicknames. It was his way into my heart, to soften me, to take away the fear. It worked. He got in, and he never left.
I had seen very little of Fred since college. Who knows what jewels he would have unearthed in me or what paths he would have helped me clear. As people spoke at the memorial I started realizing what I had been missing all these years. Then one person read a poem that cut me to the quick.
Karl Hamann, another brilliant writer in our midst wrote an ode to Fred that ended with this one epic line: "Who will I sharpen myself against now?"
Soul sharpeners are few and far between. We are lucky when we find them, privileged to have the sandy shards bump up against us and make us better. But a soul sharpener can't just be a source of abrasion, they have to open their hearts to you too. This is why they are rare. This is what makes the loss of Fred feel as if we were all left with a void. But, our beloveds' deaths never leave us in a vacuum.
My father was another of my soul sharpeners, and he's been gone for four years now. But as the Buddhist scholar and author, Franz Metcalf pointed out in response to Karl's poem: "Fred sharpens you still." Our pearl polishers and soul sharpeners carve out little spots in our hearts and remain there forever.
Who will you sharpen yourself against today? If you can, remember to thank them for their service to your mighty heart.