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There’s More Than One Way to Use a Shovel

This past Friday night found me snuggled between a blanket and a golden retriever in my family room, watching old family videos my father had found while cleaning the basement. There were piano recitals, birthday parties, band concerts, and even just random “around the house” activities—all caught through an old school video camera.

Though I spent most of that night crying tears of laughter, there was one particular moment that I have been thinking about ever since.

Scene: The Family Vacation

Location: Outer Banks, North Carolina

The year was 1999. I was 5 years old, making my brothers, James and Matt, 12 and 9, respectively. The home movie goes on to show my brothers jumping through the waves and crashing against boogie boards and rafts.

In toddles 5-year-old Liz, bounding over to the shoreline to see what shells the waves brought in—examining each one as though it were a precious gem. Apparently, I wasn’t fond of the water.

In the next cut, my little body is being covered to the head in sand by my brothers. A few moments later, I was summoned and I rose out of the ground, grumbling like a Zombie.

The entire environment is carefree, fun. Then, I start to bury James.

My oldest brother is lying face up in the sand, and in my hands is a plastic shovel. But rather than using the shovel to dig I would drop the shovel on the ground, and push sand onto it with my hands. Once the shovel had sand in it, I would pick it up and, after dumping half of it back on to the ground with teetering hands, I would shower my brother in sand.

I watched this scene unfold for quite some time before I realized how inefficient this was. I immediately lost myself in laughter. This is the little version of the person who, just last Tuesday, ate dinner while watching a Webinar about Happiness and taking notes for a research project.

It was almost painful to watch how inefficient little-Liz was as she dropped the shovel and scooped sand into it time and time again. Maybe there’s a certain degree of impatience and rush now to 20-year-old Liz but we’ll save that topic for another day.

As I sat there, laughing at my former self, my mom uttered:

“Well…there is more than one way to use a shovel.”

And I paused. I stopped laughing. I thought. It wasn’t about the sand monster anymore. It was just a silly red plastic shovel and, had it been handed to me today, I would have assumed my job was digging. However, little-Liz had figured out a different way to use the toy and, regardless of efficiency, it’s impossible to deny I was having the time of my life.

When did we come so conditioned as to see a shovel exactly as it was? What was wrong with trying things differently?

What about the family room couch? When I was younger, the couch was always Noah’s Ark and I’d jump onto it, bringing a fleet of stuffed animals with me.

As I type these words, I am sitting in my campus library at a small corner cubicle desk. It’s a nice desk, perfect for writing a term paper or filling out an accounting payroll. But what if it could be a rocket ship?

The whole idea that so fondly struck me about the shovel was that it didn’t have to be used for digging. Life can be bigger than that. Things—even a childhood beach toy—can have more meaning than that.

When’s the last time you just let yourself think? Turned off your phone and unplugged the headphones. Pick up whatever is sitting to your left and just look at it. I don’t care if it’s a free pen you got from the bank or a coffee mug from your best friend. Pick it up and look at it. Really look at it.

It’s surprising what you notice once you see what is beyond its purpose.

Love always,


NOTE: I knew I wanted to write about the beach shovel—but I thought I knew exactly where I would go with the post. However, this veered way off my predetermined track, and though I was tempted to go back with edits, I think I will stand by my original words. I guess subconsciously, I was going somewhere else with this post. And that’s just fine.

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