This little light

PHOTO: Piermarco, Flickr CC-BY-NC-SA

Back in the 1960s, my grandfather deployed a simple fix for an old septic system prone to freezing during a particularly frigid northern Minnesota winter. 

Anyone who’s experienced a frozen septic system knows why this is important. It’s the difference between pouring coffee into a mug and pouring a chocolate milkshake onto the bathroom floor. In the malodorous sanctuary of a low budget septic tank, the icy thin line between liquid and solid runs narrow indeed. 

The solution glowed from the light of a small incandescent bulb that provided just enough heat to keep things flowing. In a situation like that, you don’t need the septic to be warm, just warm enough not to freeze.

How much trust are you willing to put in a lightbulb you can’t see? Before you answer that, think about all the other little things keeping our lives in order right now.

For instance, there’s a little flap in your throat that moves automatically when you swallow. It’s what keeps your Thanksgiving dinner from clogging your lungs. Do you know its name? It’s got one. I don’t remember, but I trust it to handle this next swig of coffee.

Lug nuts keep our wheels from falling off. How tight are yours? A thin slab of rubber protects our feet from burns and frostbite alike. Deep in the innards of machines we find features that prevent dryers from burning the house down and microwaves from irradiating our brains.

We spend a lot of our time on this earth worrying about things that might not work out. Maybe it’s because we all die in the end. Maybe it’s because it’s really easy to find examples of things that aren’t working out for someone, somewhere. Heck, it’s in your face 24 hours a day if you’re looking at screens. 

By the way, how does your phone or TV even work? I know how to find out, but I won’t. 

Under it all is the dim sense that all of this might not work out for us. We might not get what we want, who we want or where we think we should be. And that is a real bummer.

And yet, a little bit of experience tells us that we sometimes want stupid, selfish things. Often, we don’t know what we want. The best comes unexpectedly. The worst comes rarely.

John Prine sang of this phenomenon in his song “That’s The Way The World Goes Round.” “It’s a half an inch of water,” he wrote, “and you think you’re gonna drown.”

When my grandpa was telling his story about the septic tank, I was thinking about the relationship between heat and light. Somewhere out in the darkness, in the foulest of places, a little light illuminated what no one could see. I mean, you could pry off the heavy lid to find out, but my dad attested that was a job no one wanted. Quiet faith became a virtue, or at least something that kept you from having to crawl into a homemade sewer.

From this little light — probably cost a dime — came enough heat to save the day.

Somewhere inside each of us we find a switch. When we flip it up or down, nothing seems to happen. But somewhere out of sight a light flickers on and off, on and off. 

Flick the switch. Think of the small light with just enough heat to keep going. It’s on now. I know it’s hard to trust, but we trust and fear so much else with so little thought. 

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.



  1. Absolutely terrific last line. I can hear the taconite pellets rollling around in laughter the engaged and aloof minions that they are, Thanks

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