I’m the best shoveler I know. Seriously. At age sixty-seven I can out shovel pretty much anyone. Need snow cleared or a new garden bed dug… I’m solid. But becoming a prodigious shoveler was not the dream to which I aspired as a youth. In those days I fantasized about becoming another Athos, Aramis, or Porthos because I admired their swash and their buckle, as well as their earrings and poetic dispositions. Instead, I spent the majority of my formative hours with some sort of digging tool in my hands. Why? Because I grew up on an old-fashioned family farm with an even older-fashioned father.

Ralph (I called my dad by his name) was a fascinating man. Ungodly muscular and strong, which I gradually learned was an outgrowth of being ridiculed as a youth for being too skinny. Fearless in any encounter, because there was no room for fear when his unforgiving temper and relentless determination filled the space. So in tune with the natural world that he could borrow a jar of honey from an active hive with no protection whatsoever. And immensely nostalgic, carrying a reverence for the labor and commitment of his forebears, as well as a love of their lifestyle. And part of that lifestyle was shoveling.

Many digging tools are designed for highly specific functions, but in general, shovels serve two purposes — to dig and to transfer. You either want to dig a hole or you want to transfer some type of material from one place to a different place. And though a visit to your neighborhood hardware store yields myriad possibilities for distinctly different shovel acquisition options, one could get along quite well in life with only two shovels, as long as you have one to dig with, one to scoop with, and the skill required by each.

Knowing exactly what to do with a shovel doesn’t always come naturally, but Ralph explained to me one day that everything done with a shovel is easier if you relax and listen to your internal rhythm. After watching me struggle to transfer a truckload of seed wheat from the truck to the granary, he stopped me and said I was making it too hard. I’ve seen you dance, he said, and you’re a good dancer. Scooping is rhythmic, he explained, just like dancing. You push, then pull, lift and swing and drop the blade, allowing the grain to hold together as it flies through the air. Then swing back and begin again. He learned to dance with a shovel, he said, unloading rail cars filled with coal… a second job he took to make extra cash when his farm was still a fledgling. If you’ve ever seen up close how immense a rail car is, you can probably sense another important requirement for shoveling. Perseverance. 

I don’t know about you, but words like perseverance sort of scare me. By the time I get halfway through the word, I’m already playing head games with myself about whether or not I can finish it. But those words never even phased Ralph. He could give himself to any task. Meet any demand. Regardless of whether it required an angry patience or offered the enduring joy he felt when the never ending work of his hands matched the hopes in his heart. Some say perseverance gets you up the hill. Ralph said it also gets the hole dug. This particular skill did not come naturally to me, but even staying power was easier to get my arms around than the skill which eludes me to this day, which is focus. And it’s one’s ability to focus that raises the bar from average to memorable. 

Focus allows us to unify ourselves with our environment, to be totally in the moment, and to refine the work of our hands. Ralph called it paying attention. Pay attention to what you’re doing, he’d say, before you break that… before you hurt yourself… to make it look better. I do think he finally figured out that my mind was never going to stop wandering, but he never stopped reminding me to pay attention nonetheless. Strangely, I’ve never stopped hearing him say it. Even though he’s been gone for years. So perhaps that’s why I’m still working regularly on my shoveling skills. Now that I think about it, I suppose the fact that I spend a lot of time shoveling helps a bit, too. And I’ve got one final word for that. Practice.

Stay with it, Ralph would say, and you’ll get better. So I did. Always have. When I was young it was to keep him satisfied. Now it’s to make me happy. And it does. In fact, there are few things in life that help me feel more like myself than shoveling… just like my dad showed me.