Darkness and Light

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Photo by Jocelyne Bodden

This fall’s shift from daylight savings to standard time roughly converged, as usual, with Halloween and the Day of the Dead. And as usual, while I reminded myself to “spring forward and fall back,” I pondered the meanings of forward and back, the living and the dead, light and darkness.

When I was a kid in northern Wisconsin, I loved putting on a fake beard of blackened cork to roam the night as Paul Bunyan or a pirate, with mock ax or cutlass, demanding sweet plunder.
When a young folklorist, I learned that Halloween maskers originated among Irish immigrants who, following the ancient Celtic traditions of Samhain, disguised themselves at season’s turn from marauding fairy folk in search of captives.
Nowadays, when October rolls into November, I think of ghosts, of deceased relatives, and especially of a growing list of old pals who didn’t make it past their mid-fifties. Among them, Denny Drew.
Back in 1966 I’d blocked for Denny as he scored touchdowns for the Rice Lake Warriors. A few years later we drank beer to celebrate his return from Viet Nam. In November 2004, on the first weekend of deer hunting season, Chai Vang, a Hmong immigrant, shot and killed Denny as he ran through the woods not far from home.
Am I foolish for imagining Chai Vang, a Hmong shaman who traditionally entered the spirit world, as akin to an Irish pookah, a powerful supernatural being who, if abused, might wreak vengeance? Vang testified that he tried unsuccessfully to walk away after trespassing on private land, then was compelled to defend himself against repeated physical threats and a barrage of racial slurs.

I do not know what happened in the woods last November. I do know Hmong friends, hunters among them, who have been treated both cruelly and kindly in America. I know that I have heard some old Rice Lake pals use harsh epithets like “nigger,” “timber nigger,” and “gook,” just as I have witnessed pals from my up north, quintessentially American hometown live lives of generous tolerance.
If there is a spirit world, I hope that Denny Drew and Chai Vang will meet there one day, talk things over, and find peace.

I hope for light in a dark season.

Jim Leary, a folklore and Scandinavian studies professor at UW–Madison, is co-director of the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures.

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