In the spirit of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, I’d like to introduce my own neighbor—Judith Williams.
Judith and I have been in the neighborhood book group together and exchanged cat care duties over the years. We chat when she’s out watering her flowers or walking. I helped her a bit during two hip surgeries and she graciously adopted my ailing cats at the end of their lives. We’ve provided meals for sick neighbors. My boys have shoveled her snow since middle school.
With her love for animals, Judith is the self-proclaimed contemporary St. Francis of Assisi. When she’s out of town, I’ve fed her cats, picked up her mail, and tossed seeds across the yard to feed birds and squirrels.
Judith is the neighborhood piano teacher. She currently has eleven students, several within a few blocks. She taught guitar lessons to my daughter Kaia in middle school, and piano to my son Jeffrey. She gave me tips and creative ways to make lessons fun when I taught a young girl piano lessons (my only time).
On Thursdays you’ll find her heading to St. Vincent de Paul, shopping for bargains.
On top of the regular neighbor activities, Judith is involved in the following:
- is a Catholic Workers board member (since 1994)
- runs a Catholic Workers house (since 1997)
- is a board member, co-chair of religious leaders, and task force member of Sophia Waukesha
- does weekly jail ministry, including counseling and guitar worship at Waukesha County Jail (since 1994)
- writes to inmates weekly
- hosts an ecology book discussion twice monthly for the Plowshare Center, which she helped found
- participates in a “Back from the Brink” group every 6 weeks, studying the nuclear situation
- participates in a weekly peace vigil at the library (since 2001)
- hosts a monthly meditation group (since 2013)
Breathless yet? Hold on to your hat! This flurry of activity is even more impressive considering that Judith turned 80 this month! (Born 1939.)
And I haven’t yet mentioned activities she USED to do!
Truly a role model. I hope I’m as engaged in life at age 80 as she is.
“I don’t want to accept the stereotype of aging.
I want to give till it’s my time to step off this planet.”
Judith grew up in Waukesha, Wisconsin. In fact, I referenced her parents in a previous post–the ones with the Mother Goose book collection.
When I first met her, she had four cats. Two were named Faith and Hope. When she adopted our cat Cheeto, Judith renamed her Charity. Yes–Faith, Hope, and Charity. When we exchanged cat duties, I had to learn how to give her diabetic cat a shot. Oh, my! But when she graciously took my two cats in at the end of their lives, that more than made up for my shot-giving.
Wandering through her house, I’m compelled to stop and read notes and quotes on the wall—inspirations and food for thought, from Jesus to Gandhi to Casals. They suffice as her mantras. They capsulize her philosophies and keep her vision before her.
“The most perfect technique is that which is not noticed at all.”
—Pablo Casals, cellist, composer, & conductor
Judith raised three children, mostly as a single mom. Her husband left the family in 1972 when the kids were 11, 9, and 8. Even so, she never spoke poorly about their father to the children. Now, all these years later, she is at peace with what happened, seeing him more as a human being whose own father left him at an early age. She prays for him.
When she found herself alone with three kids, she knew they had to start new traditions as they healed. They took a vacation in a new place, to start afresh. Her daughter picked it: Washington Island in northern Wisconsin. They took bicycles and turned it into an annual event. Judith still visits there regularly, to see her friend Donna.
Judith derives much strength from meditating on Scripture and inspirational poetry. This one in particular speaks to her heart:
Her difficulties and the world’s pain are often the catalyst for writing her own poetry, as means of exploring, musing, encouraging, or healing.
Hardship she knows well, but it has never interfered with her passions or caring for her family and others. Age is no obstacle either.
When her kids were still young, Judith obtained a degree in Music Therapy (1972) and later a masters degree (1982), both through UW-Milwaukee. After getting the bachelor’s degree, she started the music therapy program at St. Mary’s Hospital downtown Milwaukee. The psychiatric wing was called St. Mary’s Hill. She worked there ten years and initiated internship programs. Every seven months, the hospital took on two women as paid interns. The hospital also paid for Judith’s masters degree, as long as she received As, which she did–except for one B.
How does music therapy work?
At St. Mary’s Hill, one of the groups Judith worked with was called “Records for Feelings.” She’d select both stimulating and relaxing pieces, such as Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” Sometimes patients finger painted as the music played.
One time, Judith asked a lady, Roberta, “What do you feel about what you drew?” Roberta, who suffered from depression, said she saw horses in her painting, representing her inner power, which helped her heal. Later, after being discharged from the hospital, she commissioned a 2’ x 4’ painting of a large black horse, with a white one galloping behind–symbolizing her indomitable spirit. She donated it to the hospital.
Expression of feelings was the purpose of bringing music to mental health patients, both individually and in groups. Judith played guitar for sessions, leading patients in singing folk, religious, and contemporary songs at least twice weekly. Songs were chosen to evoke feelings.
“What is within you
is expressed outside of you,
and promotes healing.”
She also taught piano, keyboard, and guitar, since learning and mastering an instrument raises self-esteem.
At that time, the doctors at St. Mary’s Hill experimented with re-parenting through talk therapy. The patient shared painful messages conveyed by parents in childhood. The therapist replaced those messages with new ones.
In 1982, Judith moved to Winona, Minnesota and ran the music therapy department at St. Teresa’s College for 4 years. Her clinical experience was valuable to her students. She returned to the Waukesha area when her daughter’s husband passed away and she needed help with four kids.
Since then, Judith has used her musical talents for teaching piano and guitar lessons from home and leading worship at the county jail. (More on that later.)
Instead of having piano recitals, she hosts a “Master Class” and invites the parents for a musical experience featuring each student.
Join me next time to learn about Judith’s involvement with The Catholic Worker, Sophia Waukesha, the Plowshare Center, and more.
Is there a song or genre of music that is particularly meaningful for you? One that evokes certain memories or strong emotions?
I’d love to hear from you!