Finding Healing, Finding Hope: The Powers of Poetry

A Conversation with Cantor/Rabbinic Pastor Lisa Levine, a Reform Jewish Poet and Author
September 22, 2020Chaim Harrison

In a time as devastating as the COVID-19 pandemic, people heal in many different ways. For Cantor/Rabbinic Pastor Lisa Levine, healing comes in the form of music and poetry.

Her recent book, Heart of Light: Poems of Longing, Loss & Life, is a collection of poetry intended to bring healing to those who need it most during these uncertain times. We spoke with Cantor Levine about her book, what inspired her to create it, and what she hopes it will provide for those who read it. Where did the idea originate for writing this collection of poetry?

Cantor/Rabbinic Pastor Lisa Levine: I think a lot of what inspired it was my need to heal not just others, but also myself. Around a decade ago, I lost my mom, my sister, my older brother, my aunt, and my uncle, all in a very short period of time.

That must have been an incredibly traumatic experience.

It was, and I really needed a pathway to healing. I decided to enter the ALEPH Rabbinic Pastors Program, which required four units of Clinical Pastoral Education. In 2011, I was accepted to the MedStar Georgetown University Hospital CPE Program, where I spent two years as an intern chaplain. That journey was the beginning of my true grieving and healing.

I’m a cantor and a poet, so I began writing songs and poetry for self-care because I was dealing with the ICU, which came with a lot of deaths and a lot of bedside healing.

How did your writing transform into Heart of Light?

In 2018, I served as the religious leader at Seaside Jewish Community in Rehoboth Beach, DE, which has a big writing community. I met a poet named Mary Helms who was dying of ALS and she inspired me to organize some of my poetry. I was referred to another poet who agreed to be my editor and writing coach. When the pandemic hit, I realized that I needed to get busy and get the collection out; life is so fleeting. I sent her 250 poems, which she pared down to 44.

In March, I connected with my friend, wordsmith and artist Julie Silver, whose work I fell in love with at the 2019 Union for Reform Judaism Biennial. When I saw her work, I mentally began pairing the images with my poetry. She graciously sent me more than 300 original works, from which I chose 35 to include. One went on the book’s cover.

What types of poems included in this book?

The beginning of the book primarily focuses on loss. For example, “In the Blink of an Eye” is about the immediacy of loss and is originally from my book/CD/DVD Yoga Shalom. “For Mary” was inspired by poet Mary Helms, who I knew from my time serving in Rehoboth Beach.

I’ve actually been writing poetry since I was in my teens, and a few of these poems were older ones written for my father and a few dear friends. New ones were for my mother, sister and my brother, and they’re all rooted in the concept that love is never lost because it's our spiritual DNA. If you’ve lost a loved one, they’re always with you because their spiritual DNA lives on in you.

The middle section was written during and inspired by my visit to Israel last year and serves as a love letter of sorts to the land and the amazing people who live there. The last part of the book features a diverse set of poems deeply grounded in my chaplaincy work and observations of the natural world.

How do chaplaincy and poetry intersect for you?

As a chaplain, I need to have access to poetry. I have around 30 poetry books in my library because I'm always grabbing poetry to use – not only for hospital visits, but also for when I meet with my clinical pastoral team. During those meetings, there's always someone who's in charge of giving opening or closing blessings, and I like to have a variety of poetry at my disposal. I began writing prayers and poems for those gatherings. “The Light of You” is one example of that. 

What advice do you have for people to heal during this difficult time?

No matter how you’re suffering right now, self-care is so important. If I hadn't used writing as a self-care tool, I wouldn't have this collection right now. I’m still writing every day.

I encourage people to find something they love to do, whether it's meditating, writing, exercise, yoga, music, or something new that they've always wanted to do but now have the time to explore, and dedicate at least 15 minutes every day to it, twice a day if you can. Shut yourself in a bubble, clear your mind, and unplug. It's the only way.

What do you hope this book offers to people?

I hope this collection will prompt readers to not only see their own stories reflected in my poetry but to write their own stories, as well. Writing helped me get through the pain of loss, and I want them to know that anybody can write. I think the point of the book is to help folks discover that they have something to express and that writing can provide them an outlet for healing.

Below is one of the poems featured in Heart of Light, available now.

“Butterfly” by Cantor/Rabbinic Pastor Lisa Levine

Yesterday I saw a butterfly.
It hovered before my weepy eyes
And whispered to me.

Please don’t mourn and cry
because my love will never die.
My light is one
that will never be extinguished,
and although my body has gone,
my spirit and memory will live on
through your light and music and love.
My soul will soar on and on and on
beyond the confines of this world,
unconstrained by earthly woes.
I’m free now let me go.

Yesterday I saw a butterfly
perfect in its symmetry and color,
its wings gracefully navigating the wind,
and I knew
you would always be with me.

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