Lori Erickson’s travels have taken her all over the world. Little did she know when she started writing decades ago, her travels would also give her a “tutorial on death.”
Erickson, a northeast Iowa native now living in Iowa City, recently published her second memoir, “Near the Exit: Travels with the Not-So-Grim Reaper.” Out just this month, the book blends memoir, spirituality and travel to examine how cultures confront and have confronted death for many years.
Erickson said the book was very much inspired by real life events.
“Several years ago my 59-year-old brother died unexpectedly in the same week that my mother went into memory care. So that combination was essentially kind of a wake-up call for both my sorrow at those things happening but also my notion of growing older.”
Her spiritual travel writing — a source of searching for meaning and insights into her life, Erickson said — coupled with her experience as an Episcopal deacon gave Erickson a unique perspective to writing about an often-explored topic. In the book, she reflects on mortality — the ways we avoid it, the ways we cope with it, and the ways life is made more precious by accepting it — in places as far away as New Zealand and as close as the nursing home up the street to consider how to live a life while death is along for the ride.
“I got thinking about trips that I had made or that I could make that would teach me about mortality,” she said, noting that she’s been traveling, researching and working on the book for the last couple of years. “I really wanted in the book to have a mixture of places far away and close to home because not everyone can travel to Egypt or go to New Zealand but almost everyone has an experience of being in a nursing home at some point or visiting a graveyard.”
“My travels took me to a Day of the Dead celebration in Chicago, where I learned that the smell of marigolds attracts the dead to altars, and to the inside of one of the Great Pyramids in Egypt, where I attempted to think deep thoughts but instead worried about all the germs in its well-used air,” she said. “In the Vatican Necropolis I stood beside what might be St. Peter’s bones, and in New Zealand I spent a week among the Maori, who believe their ancestors live among them. In Crestone, Colorado, which has more spiritual sites per square inch than anywhere else in America, I visited its open-air cremation ground and heard about the lessons it teaches the townspeople each time a body is burned.”
“But, it’s not a depressing book,” she added. “Yes it’s about death, but I hope it makes you think and smile. I hope to give people some ideas and tools that they can use when grieving. Writing this book helped me realize you don’t get over death, but that it’s comforting to see the perennial nature of these questions and the ways in which people have had a chance to answer these questions about death in a really diverse range of ways. I really didn’t want the book to be hard to get through.”
In fact, the topic makes for very interesting discussion, Erickson said.
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“Death is so universal, especially the older you get. People connect with the topic. They share their own stories.”
Readers can meet Erickson, share their stories, and hear her read from “Near the Exit” at the book launch event at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City. “These events are fun because you work on a book for so long and then to have people listen to your work is really gratifying.”
Over the years, Erickson said she feels her writing has gotten deeper.
“I started in my mid-twenties and I’m in my late fifties now,” she said. “During that time I’ve always been a freelancer and so it’s a lot of a lot of different projects. But much of my work, especially within the last 15 years, has focused on travel and spirituality and the intersection of those two.”
Erickson’s previous book, “Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God” (2017) explores the transformative power of travel to a dozen holy sites.
“I feel like I had been given the opportunity to travel to all of these wonderful places and really had these wonderful marvelous experiences around the world. I wanted to do more with that, dig deeper into the meanings of these trips and places and the ways in which they have changed me.”
l What: Lori Erickson will read from her new book, “Near the Exit”
l When: 7 p.m. Tuesday
l Where: Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St., Iowa City
l Cost: Free