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Dancing with the Northern Lights

December, 2021

Dear Friends,

This month I bring you greetings from the North Pole! Even though my husband and I visited the town of North Pole (which is near Fairbanks, Alaska) and not the actual North Pole, it was a remarkable trip that still has me ruminating about its spiritual lessons.

I had two reasons for making our journey last month: one was to see the Northern Lights (officially known as the aurora borealis) and the other was to reconnect with my cousin Debbie, who lives in the town of North Pole. By the end of the trip, I realized that the two experiences were connected in a Web of Wyrd kind of way (see my book The Soul of the Family Tree to learn what I mean by Web of Wyrd).

Each night we relied on the city’s Aurora Tracker for forecasts, which take into account the weather as well as aurora activity. On the nights when the forecast was good, Bob and I took turns waking up every half hour to head outside to check the sky. On three out of our six nights in the area, we got lucky. Bundled up against the sub-zero cold, we gazed upwards in delight, entranced by the lights swirling and dancing above us. They’d appear and disappear on their own mysterious schedule, shimmering curtains of yellow-green tinged with pink that rippled across the sky. Though we’d seen them in photos and videos, nothing can compare to viewing them in person. (The NASA picture below is of the Aurora Oval, a ring-shaped region near the North Pole where aurora activity is at its highest.)

After we caught up on our sleep, we learned more about the aurora at the Museum of the North on the University of Alaska-Fairbanks campus. The lights are the result of charged particles ejected from the sun, a solar wind that takes about three days to hit the earth’s atmosphere. There they are channeled to the polar regions by the earth’s magnetic fields.

The charged particles light up the gases in the upper atmosphere 60 to 500 miles above the earth. Greenish-yellow is the aurora’s most common color, but shades of yellow, violet, red and blue are often seen as well. Because it takes the charged particles only two seconds to travel the length of the globe, the auroras form identical patterns at the northern and southern poles.

Given how spectacular the lights are, it's not surprising that cultures from around the polar regions have many myths and stories about them. In Estonia, it was believed they were magnificent horse-drawn carriages carrying heavenly guests to a party. A Finnish myth says that the lights are sparked by a creature known as a firefox, who runs so fast that its tail causes sparks to fly into the heavens. In Sweden, the lights were traditionally regarded as portents of good news (the opposite was true in southern Europe, whose residents saw the lights very rarely and viewed them as evil omens). In China, the lights might well have been part of the origin of the legends about dragons flying across the sky, and in Japan it's believed that children conceived under the aurora will have good fortune.

My favorite belief about the Northern Lights comes from the Inuit who live in northern Canada. They believe the lights are spirits entering the afterlife, whose way is lit by those who have already crossed over. I can't think of a better way to spend eternity than dancing as an aurora across the sky.

I met a number of people in Alaska who agreed that the lights have a magical, mystical quality. Even after seeing them for many years, they said they never grow tired of them. "I think part of what makes them spiritual is that they're on their own schedule," said one woman. "You can put yourself in the right spot at the right time, but you can't control when they appear or disappear, and they're never the same, no matter how many times you see them. They're a good lesson in being humble and patient. All you can do when you see them is just stand there, awestruck."  

Since returning home, I've been thinking about that connection between the lights and ancestors. It helps make sense of the renewed connection I made with my cousin on this trip. During our time together we talked a lot about our mothers and grandmother, in particular, poring over old pictures and telling stories. We laughed until we cried and I think gained some perspective that was missing before. And maybe above us all the time were our ancestors, dancing across the sky (for the aurora is always there, even during the daylight). 

We flew out of Fairbanks in the middle of the night, peering out the plane’s windows in a vain effort to see the aurora one last time. Though disappointed, we knew the northern lights keep to their own schedule and that we were fortunate to have seen them at all.

All good wishes,


P.S. If you're interested in seeing the Northern Lights yourself, the aurora season in Fairbanks typically runs between mid-September and early April, with peak viewing from January through March. The area has many options for seeing the lights, including heated “aurorium” cabins with windows on the ceiling, overnight dog sledding adventures, photography classes, and tour companies that will pick you up at your place of lodging and take you to remote areas for prime viewing. Most hotels offer wake-up calls when the northern lights are out. It’s estimated that visitors who spend three winter nights in Fairbanks have a 90 percent chance of seeing the aurora.

(photo credits: first image by Bob Sessions, second image by NASA)

Recommended Reading:

The Northern Lights: Celestial Performances of the Aurora Borealis by Daryl Pederson and Calvin Hall has spectacular photos from the Arctic region.

You can learn how the scientific explanation for the aurora was discovered by reading Lucy Jago's The Northern Lights: The True Story of the Man Who Unlocked the Secrets of the Auora Borealis.

Northern Lights: A Practical Travel Guide by Polly Evans gives information on how you can see the aurora in person. 


And here's one more book I recommend:

I got the chance to review an advance copy of Skipping Church: Notes from an Accidental Minister's Wife, a new book by Suzanne Kelsey. Here's what I said in my endorsement: 

"In Skipping Church, Suzanne Kelsey eloquently and honestly describes the challenges of being a minister’s spouse and the struggles and rewards of her own search for truth. Her exploration of the complex terrain of a long and loving marriage provides a model for anyone who loves someone with different life goals. Even more, her keen insights, willingness to ask hard questions, and openness to the mysteries and wonders of the world show us that spirituality can be found in many forms."


News About My Newest Book:

As regular readers of this newsletter know, I'm the author of the new book The Soul of the Family Tree: Ancestors, Stories, and the Spirits We Inherit, which is about tracing my family roots and the life lessons of genealogy. See my website for a list of reviews and media.

Interested in doing The Soul of the Family Tree in a book group? You can find discussion questions here

And if you've read and enjoyed my book, I hope you'll post a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or other online sites. Your review will help other readers discover my book. 


Upcoming Events:

December 2, 7 pm Pacific Time, Zoom presentation on my new book sponsored by the Napa Valley, California, Genealogical Society.

December 4, noon to 4 pm, I'll lead an Advent Retreat at at Grace Episcopal Church in Galena, Illinois. Register at (815) 777-2590.

December 8, 2 pm Central Time, Zoom presentation on my new book sponsored by TRAIL of Johnson County, Iowa and the Iowa City/Johnson County Senior Center


 My Previous Books:

Near the Exit: Travels with the Not-So-Grim Reaper is about places that have helped me come to terms with mortality. 

“This book’s journey to spiritual places near and far is worth taking.” Library Journal (starred review)

Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God is a memoir told through trips to a dozen holy sites around the world.  

“Whether describing mystical visions or the rhythms of everyday life, Erickson turns the spiritual journey into a series of exciting transformations.” Publishers Weekly (starred review)


Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She's the author of The Soul of the Family Tree, Near the Exit and Holy Rover. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world. 

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