When we asked Lisa Holzkenner, a member of Senior Planet, to speak with us about the power of poetry, she didn’t just say yes; she wrote a poem for the occasion. But of course, she doesn’t only write poetry, she practically speaks in verse. Slowly and thoughtfully, Lisa lets her words flow with one common aim: to spread goodwill in a divided world. In our conversation, she tells me: “I am grateful for everyone human being I meet, because in them I see myself. And I bless them.”
As a life-long advocate for kindness, Lisa has used her own history of persecution to lift others’ voices. Born in Morocco, she and her family fled in the middle of the night with only the clothes on their back to a transient camp in France and then immigrated to Israel. Lisa eventually landed in the United States with her then-husband, a survivor of the Holocaust himself, and built a life in New York.
As a social worker, Lisa for many years worked as a volunteered for the Red Cross, during the Gulf War and was a first responder during 9/11. Before joining the Board of Education, she worked as a supervisor and a counselor in two universities and maintained a small private practice specializing in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Oh and she’s also an accomplished bird photographer (read her profile in The Urban Audubon here).
We sat down with Lisa to hear how she is staying creative during lockdown, what drives her to write and how she believes words can change the world.
How have you been staying creative?
When the pandemic began about a year ago, I was very anxious because of the suffering and the pain all over the world. I meditate every morning and when I got into that state of inner self, I knew I had to write something about all of my fears, concerns and anxiety. I wrote a poem on finding meaning in the midst of the coronavirus. (Read her poem here.)
There is a saying Hillel, a Jewish sage: “If I’m not to myself, who will be? And if I’m only to myself, who am I?” So why poetry? I find it to be a creative and healing process, but that isn’t enough. I used to invite people over twice a week for dinner but now instead I cook and I bake once or twice a week and bring the treat to neighbors and friends. It gives me a sense of meaning and satisfaction.
Where do you think this drive to help others comes from?
When I was young, one day my grandfather was beaten up by some teenagers. When he came home I looked at him and said: “Grandpa, if I know who did this to you I would beat them up.” He touched by head gently and said: “Dear child, don’t hate. Gentiles are our cousins and Muslims are our brothers, these kids did not know what they were doing. In the scheme of life we are all one.” Words that influenced my personal and professional life.
Unity seems to be a recurring theme in your poems. Have you always been a writer?
I’ve always been an artist. When I was a teenager living in Israel, I remember listening to the Eichmann trial and getting anxious and angry. I went to the balcony and kept painting and painting. It was healing for me to be able to escape from a fearful world. As a teenager, my dream was to bring people together and heal the world from hate.
Why do you write?
I write because it is a healing process. We write about what moves most. Whether it is a positive or a negative experience. When something moves me, I meditate when I get into the inner self, there: in the subconscious sits emotions and experiences, waiting for kindness to free it. When we free those feelings and thoughts, we put them into perspective and finally the infinity of words will speak to us.
We have all the knowledge we will need in our life time, but we need to learn how to tap into it. When we get in touch with it, nourish it and watch it bloom, then share the gained insight with others. So that we become part of those to bring about Tikkun Olam (to repair the world). That’s what writing for me is. What I can say, what I can do in some small ways to make the world a better place for the human family and all creatures with whom we share our planet earth.
While you were always an artist, you also worked for many years as a social worker, correct?
I originally wanted to be a doctor and was a pre-med student. But with two children and without family support it would have been physically impossible. I went to graduate school and majored in clinical social work, then studied psychoanalytic psychotherapy, early childhood development and family and couple therapy.
The peak of my practice was working with survivors of the Holocaust. I was determined that no survivor would die in their anguish without a chance to be heard. People would say: “Go to Lisa, she’ll take you without money!” And I would, money has never been my driving vision in life.
What was the first poem you ever published?
Allow me to share with you why I love birds: My enthusiasm to watch, learn and love birds was kindled by my grandfather’s reverence for nature and all living things. To me birds are expression of grace, beauty and joyful music. All of which inspire and move us from the mundane to the poetic. They conjoin us with the natural world, a place where we become nostalgic for what we were, are, and always will be: part of nature. Also, I love birds for their intrinsic valuable role they play in fostering an ecological balance through pollination, dispersal of seeds, and the role they play in our lives as a thermometer of environmental health and change. Moreover, they provide us with food, eggs and meat, for our sustenance. This is only a short list of why I love birds.
To my recollection my first poem was published on a Raven, my first encounter face to face with such a wild creature, whose eye were like a moon. The bird scared me at first and pained me to see it trying to devour a pigeon. When I went home I was sad. I meditated and had a conversation with Raven, which turned into a poem. That was my first poem ever published (Read the poem here.)
You’ve accomplished so much.
If I were to die today, I know that every thing I have done in life, I have given it my best. That’s all we can do. Whenever I have the chance to do a kind deed or say kind words, I am grateful for the opportunity. A learned lesson from early childhood that has sustained me to this day.
We’d usually ask at the end of the interview what aging with attitude means to you, but Lisa instead wrote a poem to answer that question. Read her new poem “I will cling as I may to the joy of years left to live” here:
I will cling as I may to the joy of years left to live
Written by Lisa Ruimy Holzkenner (Chelsea, NY)
I was once a young woman; it seems not long ago.
I have been in my mid-life journey for a while.
Each season of my life had its different hue,
some shining moons and some dark nights.
The forces of destiny have taken me by the hand
through territories unknown, justifying life’s purpose.
Each stage required a new understanding of myself in this unsettling world,
With all its mystery, adversity, and beauty.
One season following the other, I grew slowly as a ripening fruit on a tree.
Embracing all the seasons of my life made me who I am:
Through my veins in a tumultuous rush there flows the blood of all colors,
Yes, for in the timeless continuum of life, we were, are and always will be, part of each other.
Eternally intertwined and perpetually involving.
One season following the other, none can stay, all perfectly filled with hope of reawakening.
Ah! But when the twilight years of my life arrived, it came as a howling winter storm
Like a bolt breaking through my locked door.
It is true the mirror reflects the lines of times past.
Yes, once I was nimble like a fawn, climbing mountains to watch birds.
Today both my knees ache with arthritis and will not climb the stairs.
When I saw the first gray glacier on my head, I smiled.
Nostalgic memories surfaced my grandfather’s face and words came to mind.
I thought of his gray hair, his noble soul and wise words,
“Being on this earth is a gift of life. Thus, it is incumbent upon each of us,
even in some miniscule way to be part of those to bring about Tikkun Olam” (to mend the world).
Yes, my memory at times takes a sabbatical; but I will not shed a tear, but smile,
for memories filled with pain and joy mingle in the timeless rhythm of life
until dimmed at twilight.
But, the power of memories distills what matters most.
My precious children and grandchildren who are and always will be my soul, pride and joy.
And yes, my beloved family and cherished friends,
whether neighbors or live miles apart, they’re and always be in my daily prayers and in my heart.
Often, I think there is more to me than the decline of the physical.
Ode to old age, illuminated by the synthesis of life experiences
I learned to transfer the worst of fate into a fruitful old age.
Yes, there are myriad advantages and rewards of old age-
asking ourselves what our life has been worth, what worth is still has,
and what value we will leave behind.
And yes, the world of material possession, vanity, pride and greed recedes.
Compassion, spiritual and inner peace are more cherished.
Often, I remind myself, my ideals have not ceased.
Yes, I have a dream. Imagine, yes, imagine,
what it would be like if we could find new paths
to unravel the mysteries of the hidden paradise here on earth,
enabling us to create a world where peace will be ours,
living in harmony among the human family and
all creatures with whom we share the “blue dot”. the only home we all have.
Ours to preserve, protect and cherish.
And yes, for the health of the earth is the hope of the world.
Yes, these are the rewards of what one’s twilight years can bring.
As long as I choose to rejoice in life for its own sake,
and keep being useful, crafting meaning from the remnants of time,
I will cling as I may to the joy of years left to live.