Jodi Hills

So this is who I am – a writer that paints, a painter that writes…

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Loving through.

When I told her I was never going back to school, I meant it. It was in the first week of my first grade at Washington Elementary and the first time I had ever been called a bad name. It being my first time, I didn’t remember the name, but I remembered the venom that spewed from Steve Brolin’s mouth and landed directly on my heart of firsts. 

Of course it happened the first thing that morning on the playground, so I had to hold it in all day. By the time my feet jumped from the last step of the bus, the tears began to flow. Big, bulbous bubbles that caught for several seconds in my eyelashes. Tears that puddled in the fold of my new dress as I sat on the cement floor of the garage, willing my mom to come home early from work and receive the news.

She knew something was wrong immediately, seeing me sprawled on the cement, with my backpack laying atop the garbage can. “I’m never going back,” I said. “Ok,” she said calmly. She didn’t argue with me. Just took my hand. Washed my face. Kissed my eyelashes. 

It being autumn, the nights had just begun to get cooler. “Would you like to put on your winter pajamas?” she asked. The feel of the soft plaid down my arms. Down my legs. Wrapped early for Christmas, she tucked me under the crisp white sheet. “I don’t think I want my books in the garbage anymore.” “I’ll get them,” she said. “But just for me,” I said, “I’m not going back.” “OK,” she said. 

I could hear her getting ready for work. Smell the coffee. My chubby feet wiggled beneath the plaid and hit the carpet. I brushed my teeth. My hair. My brown sack lunch was ready at the end of the table, right beside my backpack – it along with my heart – rescued. I guess we both knew I was going back. “I don’t like Steve Brolin,” I said. “That’s OK. Do you remember what he said,” she asked me for the first time. “Not really,” I said. “Do you remember I love you?” she smiled. “Yes!” I smiled. She got in her car and waved to me as I stood by the mailboxes waiting for the bus. It was the first time I got over something. It wouldn’t be the last. My mother showed me how to love my way through. I walk by her photo and wave, smiling, and knowing, everything is OK.



I suppose one of the reasons I loved her the most was because she never tried to explain away the magic.

The first time I descended the stairs to my grandparents’ basement, I’ll admit I was a bit nervous. It was dark — even with the light on. Each step had a voice. My 5 year old imagination ran wild. But about halfway down, it started to smell familiar. Books, I thought. It smells just like the library. I raced the remaining steps. Wet, overworked overalls hung by the furnace.This was the army, I thought, that helped my grandfather in the fields. This one sized army, that was just his size alone. This pinstriped gathering of strength. These dampened blues and browns hung thick with the words that told his story. I ran my fingers across each page.

I wasn’t surprised to see my mother waiting at the top of the stairs. She was always the first to gather me in. Listen to me. To take whatever I had experienced and make it real. “It smells just like the library,” I said. “Pockets and pockets and pockets of stories! That’s where he keeps them, isn’t it?” “Yes,” she smiled. She always smiled, and I was home. 

She could have explained that the smell was merely the dampness of the paper, the material, perhaps even mold under the collective weight of age and use. But she didn’t. She never would. Some of my older cousins would try — LaWanna said I was a baby, with baby thoughts. But not my mom. She never took the magic away. Maybe that’s why I still have it. Still believe in it. Still carry it. By the pocketful!

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It’s not lost on me that it was orange. When she handed it to me at the pharmacy — this promotional bag, a gift with purchase, I think my whole body sighed. It wasn’t the first time an orange bag came to my rescue. 

It had been a stressful morning. To give it more time is not useful. We were dealing with visa paperwork and government employees. The stress of it all seemed too much for my heart to carry. When leaving the building, we knew we had to do something quickly to change our minds. The most obvious, and most French thing to do, was to head to the pharmacy. I needed some lip balm. I added a couple of items, but my entire purchase fit in the palm of my hand. Two tubes of lip balm and dental floss. Out of nowhere, (or straight from my mother’s hands) the clerk behind the counter put my tiny purchase in the largest orange cloth bag. It was beautiful. And the pure randomness, some might say unnecessary-ness of it all, felt in this moment, so glorious, and completely, well, necessary. 

I was 5 years old the first time I had to go to the hospital. Naturally, I was terrified. It was not only my first time in a hospital, but the first night that I would spend away from my mother. I loved books. I loved words. I loved when my mother read to me. When she let me read to her. The only book I knew by heart was “The Little China Pig.” We had read it so many times together. Each night, despite the dark, and all things scary that could occur, I was safe within the words. My mother knew this. Before leaving for the hospital that morning, my eyes packed with tears, my hands clutching the words of this little pig, my mom gave me the most glorious gift. A hand made orange book bag. It was ridiculously too large for my one book, but she knew it also had to carry the weight of my heart. And so I filled it, with book and needless worry, and I was saved. 

Lips balmed, heart unburdened in a bright orange sack, (surely touched once again by the hand of my mother) I begin this beautiful new day! Fully prepared to do the unnecessary!

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It’s not true to say we didn’t play with our grandma’s phone. Not the way children do now. We weren’t prompted with apps, or videos, but we did have fun!

There was only one telephone in this house that raised nine children. And it was a party line (meaning the neighbors also used it.) The chord for the receiver rested in a heap on the kitchen floor. It had to be long. It had to stretch through the kitchen to the stairs. I suppose we could have set the receiver down and then walked up the stairs to yell at grandma in the sewing room, but instead, when getting a call, we clutched the phone to our chest and walked it and the cord as far as it would go, disappearing all the coils to a flat line. Grandma would then waddle the call. Pull the receiver from our sweaty hands and “talk on swede” so we couldn’t understand. It was so exotic. It was all my cousins and I could do to not to crawl through the line and enter this magical world. Instead, when grandma was off the phone, we would sneak back and hope to listen in on the neighbor’s conversation. I don’t know how she knew, but she always did — yelling at us from the sewing machine, “Hang up the phone.” We hung it up, but did the next best thing, taking turns wrapping ourselves up like mummies in the coil of the cord. Standing on the “lazy susan” we could spin ourselves free, until someone threw up from the dizzy.  We didn’t have the internet, but oh, the places we went on that single landline.

I was listening to a podcast the other day while going for a walk. It would have been hard to imagine that one day my phone could be with me, miles from home. The magic is still dizzying. The podcast expert was comparing the progression of our times. Unfortunately we have not made the advances proportionate to our advantages. And it got me thinking, questioning, am I? Am I doing the best with what I have? I hope so. I want to! I want to be as curious as I was when the coil of the phone wrapped around my face. When I could travel in time and space with only my imagination. There is so much still for all of us to learn. To experience. We just can’t lose sight of the magic. 

The morning sun is ringing off the hook!  I race to the day, yelling “Phone!!!!!!!!” 

Answer the call.

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It’s not just that she resembled the woman on the magnet I was making — wearing a face from the past, but a smile looking toward the future. And it’s not just that she was the one who first told me, “Slap on a little lipstick, you’ll be fine,” surgery after surgery. It’s not just the fact that she helped cut those magnets – on a paper cutter from Independent School District 206. And it’s not just that she sat on the sofa next to me, sleeving those magnets in plastic, with a glass of wine, mixed with so much laughter that leaked into tears of tenderness. And it’s not just that she stood beside me on concrete floors in Minneapolis and Chicago and New York, selling those created, cut, lived, sleeved magnets. It’s not just that within each of these moments, on couches and concrete, more moments were created that would end up on more magnets, on more paintings, in books, and here – in stories, spread across the internet, moving from country to country, reminding someone somewhere of their mother, their grandma, their friend, who helped them laugh, who helped them cry, and gave them a story to pass on. It’s not just this, but all of this, and more…

I suppose that’s the problem with artificial intelligence. There is no more. Words can be manufactured. Paintings can be painted. Music generated. But then it stops. I want more.

We have a nephew in Kansas City. He is a fantastic musician. And it’s not just that he is creating music that he hears in his heart, in his soul, music that comes from a time when men wore brightly colored tailored suits, topped with matching hats, when fingers were snapped, and jazz wasn’t just played, but spoken. And it’s not just that he is creating that music in a house that his father transformed to make room for him, and well, all that jazz… And it’s not just that they are transforming a new house to create more music, with more creators, in this creative city. It is more. This is the sound of more.

The world is changing. Some want to create it all, with just the push of a button. I want more. May we forever, all want more. These are the better days. WE are the better days.

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I suppose some of the gifts should have been a surprise, but they never were. We grew up with them, these strange and fantastic presents from Grandma Elsie. She was certain that she would be the next Publisher’s Clearing House Winner. Certain enough to clear a path at the front door for an oversized check. But not quite certain enough to stop ordering from the catalog. She imagined with each purchase she got a little bit closer to winning. And she needed gifts after all, what with 27 grand children. So she ordered. I’d like to think it was all random. It’s hard for me to imagine that she saw the red knee length laced panties (bloomers), and thought immediately of me. But that’s what I received for my Christmas present when I was 8 years old.

I had no sinister thoughts at the time. No thoughts of “saloon girls,” or worse… No, I thought they were shorts. Fancy shorts. I kept them folded neatly in my summer drawer.

I was still at my softball game when my mother got home from work. Now, as luck would have it, (so I thought) our town colors were red and black, based on our Cardinal mascot. It was on this very day that I decided to wear my fancy Christmas shorts with my Cardinal t-shirt. The man-made fibers rubbed against my chubby thighs, and caught on the wooden bench of the dugout. I imagine I left a trail of red lace as I rode my bike home from the Dairy Queen field. My disappointment was met with horror on my mother’s face as I dropped my bike in the driveway. I started to cry pink tears. “No,no, no…” she tried to assure me. “It’s fine. You’re beautiful,” she said. I caught my breath, hiccup by hiccup. “Grandma doesn’t know anything about softball,” I said. “No, she doesn’t,” my mother smiled. “How was your game? Did you win?” “No,” I said, but I think we’re getting closer.” I was indeed my grandma’s girl.

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Donned and feathered.

We were in the car this morning. Dominique said something about used pickup trucks… or cars, or something… I don’t really know. When I didn’t respond he asked what I was thinking. I said, “I was thinking that Meryl Streep was the first to perfect the linen blouse and and khaki pants ensemble in the movie Out of Africa. And I was thinking that perhaps no one has done it better…until today…” I gave the Vanna White motion over my outfit, and smiled. “We really are wired differently,” he said. I smiled, because now I was thinking that no one ever used Meryl Streep and Vanna White in the same sentence. Off we flew to the grocery store.

We are all so different. But isn’t that the real beauty? We should be able to see it. To live it. Not fight it. No more square pegging in round holes. It’s exhausting. We can do that for each other. Be loving. Be accepting. But first, I think, and maybe most importantly, we have to do that for ourselves. I wrote many years ago, “What a relief to be myself.” I hope you can feel that. Truly feel it. Then you can celebrate it. Find others, in the relief of being themselves, and we can all truly enjoy the company — the company of all those strange, wonderful, possible, joyful people — donned and feathered with hearts on sleeves and smiles on faces!

This new day is here — how are you going to wear it?


Oranges. Poranges.

For a brief moment, we had orange countertops. Some of my friends’ mothers wouldn’t allow you to sit in or on the kitchen cupboards, but my mom did. Maybe it was because I told her I liked to read in that sea of orange — like I was balanced on a giant spoon in a bowl of sherbet. Or maybe it was because she was never really all that precious about things. Or maybe she knew we wouldn’t have them that long. They didn’t have time to go out of style before we had to sell the house.

It wasn’t that long ago that she wondered aloud, perhaps she should have cooked more. Taught me things in the kitchen. Oh, but you did, I said. Cooking, no. But the things I learned! To imagine! To dream! The freedom to sail orange waters! Nothing could have fed me more! And perhaps just as important, the lesson in letting it all go, with grace, and with hope. That’s how she lived.

There was a cartoon at the time. H.R. Pufnstuf. I loved it. Every Saturday morning. In one episode they sang a song, “Oranges Poranges.” It was ridiculous. But it always made me laugh. Everything was packed and in the moving truck, but for the weight of having to leave — that we carried with us. I was standing by the back door. I watched my mom take one more look around. I didn’t want to cry. She looked at me. Brushed her hand across the countertops, then gave it one final tap, as if to cue the song. “Oranges Poranges,” she sang at the top of her voice, “Oranges Poranges, who says, there ain’t no rhyme for oranges!” We smiled and walked out the door one last time. She taught me everything.


Th gift of imperfection.

Returning from my walk yesterday I hit the button on the remote to open our gate. Nothing. I hit it again. Still nothing. I thought the battery died. I punched in the code on the backup panel. Nothing. I did take one split second to look around, as this had happened once before in my life.

It was on Jefferson Street. My mom and I lived in the white condos. There were three sets of four. Identical. We lived in the middle. A friend was dropping me off at night. In my defense, we were laughing, and I wasn’t paying attention. I got out of the car. Opened the door. Walked up the steps quietly, to not wake my mother, or Agnes who lived below us. I tried to turn the handle. She locked the door? She never locked the door. I had no key. (Of course there were no cell phones in these days.) I was about to knock when I saw a huge plant in the corner of the stairwell. “Did Agnes put out a…” My brain kicked into gear. Wait. Was this the right building? I stepped back into the driveway. I was in the first building. It was a little late to sneak, but I tiptoed to our driveway, and slipped into bed.

I went in those doors a million times, but this was the only instance we talked about. Laughed about. Exaggerated the outcome. What if someone had woken up? The ending changed again and again. The gift of imperfection!

Standing outside of our gate, I thought certainly I hadn’t made the same mistake again. After all, our houses here don’t even look the same. My friend texted me at that moment. She was having a stressful day. I told her I was locked out of my own house. We laughed. She said it sounded like a blog in the making. I called my husband. The electricity was off to install a water heater. He brought a ladder. I climbed up the gate. Pulled the ladder over. And climbed back down.

When we retell this story in years to come, it will be the day that Dominique helped me break into our own house.

My life is connected with a series of joyful imperfections. There would be no story if the path was always clear. If the doors were always open.

Our Wi-Fi is currently shut off because our provider had the wrong address on our account. They changed the address but took that as a “move” and shut off our service. It won’t be re-installed for days. I’m using the data from my cell phone to power my iPad to write today’s blog — once again being asked to hike up my skirt and climb over life’s gate!

All the wonder this living can bring!!!!

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The Italian.

I found the laminated card that my mom kept in her purse. It listed of all my surgeries. She grew tired of remembering and writing them down for insurance purposes, so she typed up a card and handed it to them. There were over twenty. Joint by joint.

She was the first to sign each plaster cast. I don’t know which number surgery we were on, (I suppose I could check the list)…but it was a full length cast on my left leg — she wrote in big blue sharpie — “Nurse Linda.” “Who’s that?” I asked, still in a bit of an anesthetized fog. “Me,” she said proudly, “If I’m going to be playing nurse all the time, I should be able to pick my own name.” I smiled. She struck a pose at the side of my hospital bed. We laughed until I threw up in the plastic bean beside me. She wiped my face with a warm washcloth. “Thank you, Linda.”

She had to use vacation days from work to be with me. She brushed it off, while I apologized. “Nurse Linda doesn’t care. It’s part of her job.” She made everything easier. With just those two words — Nurse LInda — she made even my plaster covered existence lighter. Trips to the hospital became vacation. Vacation from the norm. Vacation from reality. She did, in fact, have the power to heal me.

I had just started this recent painting. I emailed the beginnings to a friend of mine. “Is it a nurse?” she asked. I hadn’t thought about it yet, but of course it was — she was. This beautiful Italian woman appearing on my canvas was healing me. Taking me to a different time, a different place. A vacation for my heart and mind.

My mother’s name would change from time to time as needed. From Linda, she went to Goober, to Sparkle, Little Sister, Gilbert, (and now, she is “The Italian.”) We changed and grew. Adapted. Healed. And most of all, we had FUN — the greatest healer of all, I suppose. And even though none of this may continue, make no mistake about it – it is permanent! A love written in Sharpie. A love laminated on my heart.