Lisa Jean Newell plays her djembe, her doun duns, and her frame drum the same way she shakes the hair out of her face, eats, talks, and laughs -- with a confidence and rhythm most people don't possess.
Her life, like the most basic and ancient drumbeat rising out of the belly of the earth, steadily and assuredly takes on meaning, creating and spinning life from each rap, whack and boom resounding from the drum. She shapes significance from her impact on the planet and the planet's impact on her.
Her fingertips are wide and rounded and her nails cut short, creating perfectly shaped crescents of skin over each nail. Her hair is curly and bounces asymmetrically at chin level, though never in her face. She is not tall or short, neither large nor small, though her confidence fills enough space for three or four people. It is probably the way she is at home and with her clients in her bodywork practice as well. What possesses a person to be so self-assured, to speak and act with so much self conviction, that their every movement conveys a rhythmic, practiced and sure groundedness?
Growing up in Waterbury, Conn., was hard for Lisa. Perhaps she never belonged in an urban environment, perhaps the area was too conventional for her, perhaps, like many of us, growing up was difficult and traumatic for reasons none of us want to relive. However, for Lisa, "the despair of childhood was transformed" when she began volunteering at a hospital when she was just a kid. She found "when you give something of yourself to someone, it's a healing gesture -- for me to feel valued and like I had something to offer."
Working at the hospital at a young age had a large impact on Lisa after feeding a blind person, helping someone walk to the bathroom, and listening to people talk about their lives. "Working with elders, being with them, and listening to them" gave Lisa a clearer vision and she realized that "serving people would be my path.
Lisa became obsessed with drumming at 16 because it felt like a healing tool. It helped her connect with other people and herself, it was "very meditative and opened up my spiritual path." At first, she had no traditional teaching but learned from people who had. She knew that drumming would also be part of her path, but at that time had little knowledge of where her obsession would take her.
When Lisa got out of high school, she tried college in northern Vermont but before long she realized that "the institution was driving me mad" and that life for her was about "so much more than sitting in a classroom." This is when Lisa's passion for travel was born, when the rhythm of the earth began calling her to follow her inner voice.
At 19, Lisa went to Hawaii on a vision quest that lasted the better part of a year. She lived outside, barefoot, and spent long periods of time alone swimming with dolphins, observing pods of whales, hiking dangerous trails and riding the vicious Hawaiian surf. For Lisa, living alone in Hawaii "was one of the most profound experiences because I was able to heal and transform what was holding me back from being in service." Her professional goals became more clear.
Since the age of 18, Lisa had been practicing reiki because she knew that the energy in her hands was helping to heal people. She found a massage school in Santa Fe, N.M., that encompassed the academic, spiritual, scientific and expansive values Lisa had been honing. She was there for two years learning bodywork and had "incredible teachers who helped me fine tune listening and giving with my hands." Lisa felt as connected to the land in New Mexico as she had in Hawaii.
When she graduated, Lisa moved to Brattleboro because she had friends who wanted her to play in their band. She was mostly self-taught but began to become more serious about music, realizing that she "needed to go to Africa to understand the roots of what I was playing, and put into context what I was playing." She wanted to make sure that she was paying homage to the African rhythms that she was playing and not "another person stealing from Africa."
Lisa took a personal loan from the bank, the first debt she ever incurred, and went to Africa with two friends. Their goal was to find drummers to teach them, but they had no plans and nothing set up so when they set foot in Senegal, they didn't know where to go. They chose Goree Island of the coast of Senegal as a place to enjoy the beach while they got their bearings, but they met a teacher when they got there and didn't leave for their entire stay.
They spent six weeks learning traditional African rhythms on drums made by their teacher. When the trip was over, Lisa went back home, sold all of her possessions and went back for another two months to continue her studies. For the next few years, Lisa returned to Goree Island, meeting people and creating family. It wasn't always easy diving into life the way she did because "the mirror is held up, you have to look at yourself, you have to see your privilege and your shortcomings, look outside yourself again and again and if you're willing to engage with life in that way, it'll make you so much of a better person."
Lisa lived parallel lives of sorts as she worked in Brattleboro at the Community House and at the Brattleboro Retreat, both places that helped her develop mental health and counseling skills, and traveled back and forth to Africa. She knew that after spending several years traveling between Vermont and Africa, there would come a time when she would not see Africa for several years as she developed her career. Leaving for the last time was like "leaving a lover," but her life was shifting, and she knew she had to answer the call. This is when she enrolled in the Barbara Brennan School of Healing in Miami, a school that could bring all parts of herself together -- the scientific, the energetic, and quantum physics.
Lisa alternated between Miami and Brattleboro until she got her bachelor's in Energy Medicine and Personal Development. It was a phenomenal experience and worth the thousands of dollars of debt she took on to make it happen. Her professional practice took off after graduation, and Lisa completed her reiki master training during this time and also began studying Somatic Experiencing, which is a body-based approach to trauma resolution where the "client tracks and is aware of sensations in the body to build the capacity to feel without being overwhelmed."
Trauma therapy is "what gets me up in the morning" because it's been so apparent to Lisa that "trauma robs people of their essence." Working with the body changes people, and it's inspirational for Lisa to watch the "unwinding of places where trauma is held."
Lisa works from her private practice in downtown Brattleboro, teaches drumming, which is "an outlet that moves energy like a river" and plays in Gaia Roots, an all-women percussion group that plays mostly traditional folkloric music from Africa, Cuba, Haiti, and Brazil with some original songs as well.
This year Lisa is going back to Africa to visit Goree Island where she has spent so much time in the past and is also going back to Hawaii as well. At almost 37 years old, she says that she is "living the life I've always dreamed of because I can have my career and my travels."
Lisa credits both her mother and her maternal grandmother, whose name was Jean, Lisa's middle name, as very significant mentors and guides in her life. Her grandmother, Gram, was her rock, and Lisa spent as much time with her as she could before she passed away five years ago. She was a painter and helped Lisa develop a strong connection to the natural world. Lisa's fondest memories of her grandmother are going on long drives, looking for eagles, and watching the waves in her grandmother's home state of Maine.
Lisa lives life in a state of "unexplainable gratitude," calling herself a "servant of the spirit." She has witnessed great healing that would be unbelievable had she not seen it with her own eyes. Lisa is a valuable, opinionated, lover of truth and righteousness, with a strong inner voice that is continuing to lead her on a magnificent journey through the hills and valleys of her life with the rhythm of the drum by her side.