Rites of passage

A recent Upper Iowa graduate celebrates her degree on a front porch in Beloit, Wisconsin. (PHOTO: Mark’s Postcards from Beloit, Flickr CC-BY-NC-SA)
Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

On Friday Hibbing Community College held its annual commencement ceremony.

No, the sounds of organ playing “Pomp and Circumstances” did not fill the cavernous Hibbing High School auditorium. Indeed, the excited students could not congregate in the cafeteria before marching across the stage. For the first time in many years of teaching I didn’t hide backstage to read the names of graduates as they collected their diplomas.

In fact, everyone stayed home. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic our graduation ceremony joined countless others across the country in being cancelled to protect public health. Instead, the college broadcast a virtual ceremony using the internet. The experience was touching, sincere, and — like everything else these days — mildly bizarre.

Setting aside the medical and economic devastation, one of the most traumatic effects of state and federal response to COVID-19 is the loss of ritual. Rituals, after all, are one of the cornerstones of human culture. Weddings and funerals postponed. Birthdays celebrated by phone or video chat. Cancelled festivals and annual celebrations. And now, diplomas in the mail.

Losing these traditions, even if only temporarily, creates grief. Real, aching grief that can’t be wished or hoped away.

If grief has any benefit, however, it is that it opens a door to our memories. I remember that not all rituals are public.

When I was in high school my father asked me to help pound a sand point well for the garage. This involves driving lengths of pipe into the ground until you reach potable water.

Now, my dad had done several of these wells in his life. My grandfather operated his household like a work farm and they moved a lot, mostly to cheap swampy acreage outside of any given town. This meant new wells all the time. As a result of his upbringing my dad always cut me some slack. I had chores but he never made me do hard labor. But I was older now. He asked, and I agreed. How long could it take?

It started with hammers. Before long we were dropping a post driver on the pipes using pulleys. We’d take turns pulling up the heavy steel post driver and letting it drop. It was a workout, but the real bear was what it did to my hands. We lived in the country but I had townie hands built for my coming life of typing and clicking a computer mouse. Even with gloves, the steady friction on the rope eventually blistered my palms and fingers.

It hurt. And I was bored. After the first day and a half, I coughed up some excuse. Work or school, I don’t remember. I left my dad to finish the well on his own. The clanks of the post driver from outside the house haunted me like a line from Edgar Allen Poe. Each one taught me something.

Two days later he reached water. I felt shame because I was self-centered and immature. I wished I had stuck with the work. For one, it would have gone quicker. For another, I missed the glorious sight of water pouring out the top of that pipe. I still think about how hard work and pain are sometimes the only way through difficult things.

One morning a year later I woke up before dawn to leave home forever. I was going to college in Iowa. These were trying times. My parents’ marriage was falling apart. Alcoholism and depression coursed through our home. Money was tight. My baby sister was only one year old. I knew, one way or another, that I would never live in this house again.

The night before I had said goodbyes to my parents, so I was surprised to see my mom appear in the kitchen just as I was putting on my shoes. I don’t think we said much of anything. She just held me close to her, like she never has before or since. Everything that needed to be said was expressed wordlessly in this dark, quiet kitchen. The road lay ahead.

These small moments propelled me to adulthood. More than all my proms and graduations combined. They left me with loving connection to my parents that helped each of us, in our own way, get better.

These are the rites of passage that really matter. A pandemic can’t stop them. If we are wise we will not ignore them.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and is the creator of the Great Northern Radio Show which aired for eight years on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, May 17, 2020 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.




  1. Well written personal narrative. If we all knew each other through stories like this, we might all get along better. Thanks for sharing.
    I recently read a commentary by someone (name forgotten) who argued that life is much more important than a series of badly catered events. He was, of course, referring to things like graduations and receptions. Let us all recognize the passages of life that truly matter. In retrospect, this pandemic experience might be one of them.

  2. Joe musich says

    Sharing personal experience helps to break the dam of isolation, releasing the pent pressures of anxiety much like the water flow up the well. Thanks much.

  3. Mike Spry says

    Beautifully written. Thanks for sharing this.

  4. Ed Zabinski says

    Great job on this story, Aaron. Beautifully done.

  5. Elanne Palcich says

    Great commentary, Aaron. Thanks again for your thought-provoking messages.

  6. Thank you, very touching. It helps.

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