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A Pilgrimage of Memory

June, 2019

Dear Friends,

Last month my husband and I got the chance to return to a place we hadn't been in nineteen years: Yorkshire, England, where we lived for a semester while Bob did a teaching exchange.

Most of my memories of that time had faded, overtaken by all the experiences since. But once we entered the small town where we'd lived for five months, I was astonished by how it all came back: the walk to our boys' school, the grocery store, the bakery, the library, the church we attended. A flood of long-forgotten pieces of my life came back. (The photo shows one of our favorite places: Bolton Abbey, the ruins of a twelfth-century priory near where we lived.)

To be honest, by the time we left England nineteen years ago, I was very ready to leave. The weather had been unrelentingly gray and rainy for several months (we were there during the wettest autumn in more than a hundred years). I missed my home and friends. But once I stepped into the small town of Ilkley again, it was the good memories that were strongest. By the time we left, I felt like I'd gotten back an entire chapter of my life, one that wasn't always easy but which was deeply formative for our entire family.

This experience has made me think about the role of memory in travel. Often we journey to places we've never been, seeking the new and exotic. But some of our most meaningful trips are often to places that are part of our past. These destinations are usually not on the standard tourist route. They're probably not places anyone else in your life is interested in visiting. But for you, they hold a world of meaning.

Psychologists say that many adults feel a pull to return to the place where they lived between the ages of 5 and 12. Those years are significant because that's when we form a sense of self and identity and when our emotional attachment to home is strongest. A trip to where we spent our childhoods can remind us of our most important values, can heal deep hurts, and can help us get our life back on track if it's gone astray.

A curious part of such journeys, I think, is that they're usually about reconnecting with place but not so much with people.  Those you once knew there are likely gone, but the sight of seemingly ordinary places can be enormously meaningful, from the backyard of your house to the route you took to school. 

Maybe you, too, have a place that you haven't visited in many years. Maybe your memories of it are mixed, and the thought of going back includes some trepidation. But sometimes, facing those shadows, that mixture of light and dark, is just what we need. In doing so, a trip becomes a true pilgrimage.

In the words of T.S. Eliot:

"We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started 
And know the place for the first time."

Something like that happened to me in England. May it happen for you, too, if you decide to make a pilgrimage of memory. 

Blessings on all your journeys,


Recommended Reading:

Jerry M. Burger's Returning Home: Reconnecting with Our Childhoods examines the psychological impacts of re-visiting a childhood home. He argues that there are few experiences in one's life that can move a person as deeply and unpredictably as returning home.

Acclaimed author Annie Dillard's memoir An American Childhood recounts her growing up years in Pittsburgh in the 1950s. Her book skillfully blends a child's sense of wonder with an adult's wisdom, providing a model for how we can indeed go home again, at least in memory.

Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering is one of the most fascinating (and helpful) books on memory I've ever read. Author Joshua Foer explores how people in the past were able to memorize huge amounts of information and helps us understand how to improve our own memories. 


Book Updates:

My new book Near the Exit: Travels with the Not-So-Grim Reaper will be published in August by Westminster John Knox Press. The book is an exploration of places that have helped me come to terms with mortality. This month I'll record an audio version of the book. Stay tuned for ordering information.

In the meantime, don't forget about my Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God. It's a memoir told through trips to a dozen holy sites around the world. If your book group is interested in reading it, download the Holy Rover Discussion Guide.

Coming Up:

Book Launch for Near the Exit: August 27, 7 pm, at Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City, Iowa

Reading and signing at Dragonfly Books in Decorah, Iowa, at 7 pm on September 5

Iowa City Book Festival: October 5, 1 pm


Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She's the author of the memoir Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God and the creator of Spiritual Travels, a website featuring holy sites around the world. Her newest book Near the Exit: Travels With the Not-So-Grim Reaper will be published in August.
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