Jodi Hills

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


The Painful Blossom.

Nature has it right. Never is it more beautiful than when it is about to grow. Full blossom. And proud! “Look! Things are changing,” the trees say joyfully in pink and yellow and white. If they are afraid, they don’t show it. And the transition can’t be easy. They are awakening from winter. Changing shape. Having to rely on sun. On rain. Fully exposed. 

The obvious teacher of this would have been my grandfather. A farmer. Riding, guiding, nature’s wheel. And he did — teach me. Never shying away from the difficulty. “I can’t glamorize the dirt,” he told me. It was real. Rocks needed to be picked. Hands would be recognizably changed. But each year he too changed the fields from black to green to gold. Fully exposed. Fully beautiful.

But maybe the best teacher was my mother. When her seasons changed abruptly from married to single. From sure to uncertain. Fully exposed, each morning, she willed herself into the light. Smoothing the lines on her face. The seams of her skirt. Allowing the painful blossom. Allowing the beauty of growth.

The petals slowly falling on the trees remind me, it is once again my turn. It’s time to grow. Fully exposed, but never alone. Each petal a sign of those who have gone before me. In perfect harmony I hear them. My mother, my grandfather. “Look,” they say, “things are changing!” My smile blossoms. I am not afraid.

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My mother’s giggle.

She could keep a secret better than anyone I knew, except for presents. For nearly every birthday present, Christmas present, it went something like this: About two weeks before the event, my mom would ask me, “Do you want to open your present?” “No, I’ll wait,” I replied.

“You could unwrap it and then we could wrap it back up so you could open it again…”

“No, I’ll wait.”

“Do you want to just look at it?”


“What if I just told you what it was?” She grinned.

“How is that different?” I smiled.

After about age seven, I knew the routine. But it was never manufactured. She truly was that excited to give me a present. And that was the ultimate gift, I suppose. Two glorious weeks of taunting excitement! Giggles and anticipation. Pure joy and love! That’s why I never wanted to open it early. I relished the time with my mother.

About two weeks ago, on vacation, I bought my favorite candle. The clerk asked if it was a gift. Yes, I smiled. She put it in a box and tied a bow. I still haven’t opened it. I just need a little more time inside my mother’s giggle.



Before we knew how long it actually was, and how much we would actually need it, we used to promise it in three little letters – BFF – best friends forever. We wrote it in notes. on plaster casts, in year books…on the palms of our hands, and the seams of our jeans — forever!  

Somewhere along the line, we stopped. Maybe we thought we were too cool. Too smart. Maybe I’ve lived long enough for it to come back in fashion, or maybe I’ve lived long enough that I’m not worried about how it looks. I’m not embarrassed at all to declare my friendships in big bold, heart shaped permanent markers. I know what joy, what life-sustaining gifts you bring to me each day. And I will give thanks – forever!

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Something beautiful.

There was a row of large windows in Mrs. Bergstrom’s first grade class at Washington Elementary. It was in the spring. I was eagerly awaiting my birthday. She gave each of us a small paper cup. We got to place the dirt inside with tiny shovels. Then a small bean. We stood single file in line to give our beans a small drink at the fountain before placing them on the window ledge.

Our six or seven years on the planet so far had not supplied us with much patience. We snuck peeks all afternoon to look for sprouts. Of course nothing happened that afternoon. Nor the next. Nothing was growing. Certainly we had overwatered, and underwatered and overexposed and overpoked. Then, just as we had almost given up hope, or interest, one started to sprout. It was Gerald Reed’s. He had two little green leaves. What magic we thought. No one else had anything.

The day of my birthday, my little girlfriends gave me little girly gifts, all pink and delightful. I was rosey faced all day. The afternoon sun shone through the windows as I packed my bag for the bus. I could see there was a little dirt around my cup. I went to the window. And there it was – the most glorious green sprout! It was a birthday miracle, I thought. Then I followed the trail of dirt to Gerald’s cup. It was empty. My heart grew. It was a miracle indeed – I had such a friend!

We all have something to give. We all have room to grow. How beautiful!

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Red rubber hearted.

We were the first class of six graders to move to Central Junior High School. The only ones really happy about this were the incoming seventh graders – no longer would they be at the bottom of the hierarchy. Leaving Washington Elementary, we left behind our giant playground. Filled with monkey bars, swing sets, tethered balls, a baseball field, a jungle gym, teeter totters — all which we ruled as 5th graders. Central Junior High had none of it. No playground whatsoever.

There was a small nook between building additions. It was covered with tar. It didn’t take us long to claim it. (Not to mention that no one else wanted it.) We took chalk from the art room and outlined the four squares. Kept a red rubber ball after gym class. We were all set. Four-square. We didn’t just play. We became champions. We had moves. Giant arm swings that would indicate a hard ball on the way, only to tap it slightly with fingertips, leaving the person in the next square open-jawed and back to the end of the line. We made alliances. We laughed. We cheered. We ruled that tiny piece of real estate that few even knew existed. 

We heard the rumors. Sure. Parents. Teachers. People of the town. “This part of the school wasn’t safe.” “It shouldn’t be open.” “What will they do?” We couldn’t really be bothered with it all. We simply found a way. We found our own way. The voices in our own heads were so much stronger. Now that I think about it, maybe they weren’t any louder than the voices in our heads today, but maybe we just listened more. I want that. I want to listen to that voice that tells me to color outside of the lines. To laugh until I can’t stand. To embrace my friends openly. To take what I’m given and celebrate! To love and play over the din of doom. To feel the bounce of my red rubber heart! I can hear that joy! You can hear it! I know we can do this! Whatever this day may bring, let’s find a way – our own way – to have a little fun!

What was it all for, if we didn’t have a little fun?

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Fluffy random weeds.

It was only in the last ten years that I became aware that asparagus not only grows in large bundled stalks at the grocery store, but also in the wild.

I couldn’t see it at first. My husband pointed to the ground. “Regarde, les asperges!’ I started rifling through the small rolodex of newly learned French words in my head. I must have it wrong, I thought. I couldn’t see anything that resembled asparagus. He pointed again. Nothing. He bent over and picked up the tiniest stalk. That? I would have never seen that. It wasn’t what I used to buy at Byerly’s. “How do you know where to look?” I asked. He showed me the fluffy weed-like thing sprouting on the ground. Oh, I thought, I could see that. “Does it grow within that?” “Oh no,” he explained. “Well, close by then?” “Sometimes. Sometimes not.” That is the worst clue, I thought to myself.

The season is short. Just a few weeks in the spring. I didn’t think about it much that first season. But the next March, while out walking, I just randomly saw one on the side of the road. I looked around all smiles, as one does, to see if anyone saw me make my big discovery. No one had. I picked it. And from then on, without my knowledge or permission, I started not only looking, but seeing.

I suppose we all think we are being so obvious. That everyone should know exactly how we feel. Really see us. Perhaps the clues we give are as ridiculous as a random fluffy weed.

Nature tells us that it is worth the look. Worth the time. As I walk this world, I am reminded to do the same with you. It would be so easy to just walk on by. I’m sure I’ve done it a million times. But I want to see you. Really see you. I will only ask one thing, that you give me even the smallest of clues. Wave in the breeze just a little. I can’t promise I will understand immediately. But I can promise you this, I will look. Daily.

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Pebbles and paths.

It’s unlikely they are Laura Ingalls Wilder fans, but she is my first thought as I pass the sign each day on my walk. It points and reads, “La Petite Maison” — the little house. Surrounded by trees on the gravel path, I am transported from the south of France to the northwest of Minnesota, crouched in the corner of our living room, reading “Little House in the Big Woods,” by Laura Ingalls Wilder. 

I read all of her books. Each one a safe haven to dream. Moving me forward from place to place. Opening doors. Revealing the possibilities of words, of stories, of living. They were the cars of my underground railroad. 

With each gift comes a responsibility. I, we, were given so much. So easily. And I don’t think it’s enough to just give thanks — thanks for the path. We need to keep digging. Keep paving. Putting up the signs, as small as they may be. Because someone will see them. Will feel them. These small acts of kindness. These words of hope. These gravel roads to possibility. 

I continuously have a rock in my shoe. I think that’s the wink of the universe. A reminder of where I’ve been. A reminder to keep going. That my tiny life, as petite as it may be in this “Big Woods,” has to matter. Has to mean something. So I gather the words and the pebbles and make paths. Walking ahead. Walking behind. Walking beside. Always with you.

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Telling mom.

For the first decade of my life, each limited conversation I had with my brother began with “Don’t tell mom…” Maybe that’s the way with all siblings. Or maybe he knew early on that we had a special bond. She was the only one I wanted to tell everything to. From skinned knees to skinned feelings. Not for tattling, but just to share what was happening with me. Because she always understood. A built-in empathy that was recognizable from the start. 

Yesterday the universe scraped at my heart a little. Of course it will heal. The sting from the air has already subsided. But the need to tell my mom hasn’t.  My hand continues to reach for the phone. My fingers type her email address. And I am that little girl. Dirt smudged tears remind me — they remind me that without words, she always knew. That’s what my brother had to learn. What I’m learning now. It wasn’t that I ever explained my heartache, my mishap, my tripping, she just knew. She always knew. 

I catch a tear in my smile. There is no need to explain. I know she knows. She understands without conversation. A forever recognizable balm for my heart. And I am saved.

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Capturing the poem.

A set of railroad tracks ran through the path I took to walk to town. If you were caught in the train’s path, you could wait up to ten minutes for the train to pass. It doesn’t sound like much, but in summer’s youth, to give up 10 minutes was just too much. The things that could be accomplished were extraordinary. You could climb on the feet of the giant viking statue. Peruse the aisles at Woolworth’s. The penny candy at Ben Franklin. Ride the back of a shopping cart from Olson’s super market. Swing to the sky on the playground. Drag a stick in the empty ballpark’s sand. Balance in the middle of a teeter-totter. Smudge the windows with open face looks into the movie theatre. Smell the books at the public library.  10 minutes could simply not be wasted waiting for a train.  

So if you heard one, a train, rounding the last curve around the lake before the tracks, you ran like hell. (I only said it like that in my head. Outloud, I would have spelled it “h – e – double hockey sticks.” Nevertheless, I ran!  With everything I had, I ran to beat this train. To capture a part of my life that I knew I would never get back. I wasn’t going to miss it.

Much later, I would learn of the poet Ruth Stone. Growing up in rural Virginia, she would be out, working in the fields and she would feel and hear a poem coming at her from over the landscape. It was like a thunderous train of air and it would come barrelling down at her over the landscape. And when she felt it coming . . . ‘cause it would shake the earth under her feet, she knew she had only one thing to do at that point. That was to, in her words, “run like hell” to the house as she would be chased by this poem.

The whole deal was that she had to get to a piece of paper fast enough so that when it thundered through her, she could collect it and grab it on the page. Knowing full well, that if she didn’t catch it, it would “continue on across the landscape looking for another poet.”

I suppose we are all only vessels. Life is a series of moments floating, racing around the universe, and we have to be open, ready, willing to catch them. I don’t want want to miss out. In this life, I want to be the one who beats the train into town. I want to be the poet who captures the poem. 

The morning sun is rising, as sure as a whistle blowing down the tracks. I hear it. Getting louder. I’m ready!


The promise of spring.

The first sign of spring came when Sylvia Dynda hung her weekly wash out on the line. Damp white cotton, blowing in the gentle breeze — a breeze warmed with a promise written by Hemingway himself — “There would always be the spring…” It would be years before I read the line, before I could read at, but I knew… And so with my freshly exposed skin, I ran through the empty lot that separated our houses, and under the sun I danced through this sea of white. Clothes that were alive! Clothes that cooled my sun-surprised shoulders and warmed my summer eager heart. It was a promise of forever, and I immersed myself in it.

She must have known it too, Mrs. Dynda, because there would be no other reason to let the quite possibly dirty hands of an unrelated neighbor girl touch her freshly laundered clothing. Sometimes I could see her smiling through the newly replaced screen door that her husband Frank put up for the summer. I knew she knew. And so I would dance.

Yesterday was the first time I washed my mother’s ruffled blouse. Her blouses were always whiter than any other person’s. Always clean. Always pressed. Always spectacular. I didn’t want to mess this up. I washed a basin. Washed it with a new washcloth, just in case. Added the water. The delicate detergent. Gently wooshed it with my clean hands. Let it soak. Then hung it on our clothesline. Our new spring breezes were strong. I watched over it. This was more than just a blouse on the line, this was the promise of forever. The promise that my mother would always be with me. I let the sleeves ruffle my arms. Dance damply around me. She made it to the south of France. And I would make it through this spring. It was promised on Van Dyke road. It was promised today. I knew she knew. And so we would dance.