Jodi Hills

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


The call.

french-phone-pic-goodI listened to this podcast on NPR a couple of days ago. Here is a summary of the program by Chris Kavanagh:

This week’s episode of the popular NPR podcast This American Life featured a touching story (available to listen to here) about how some people in Japan who had lost loved ones in the 2011 tsunami were making a pilgrimage (of sorts) to a phone booth on a hill in the town of Otsuchi in order to ‘speak with’, or more accurately send messages to, their deceased relatives. The so-called ‘wind phone’ (kaze no denwa) is comprised of a simple disconnected rotary phone which is located in a white phone booth that overlooks the Pacific ocean. The phone is owned by a 70 year old gardener named Itaru Sasaki who had installed the phone in his garden prior to the disaster in order to give him a private space to help him cope with the loss of his cousin. However after the devastation of the tsunami, news about the phone gradually spread and eventually it became a well known site with various reports suggesting that three years after the disaster it already had experienced 10,000 visitors.

When listening to this segment it is impossible to ignore just how much power a simple disconnected phone line is providing to people who are suffering terribly and how it manages to help them process their grief precisely because of the unconventional, irrational scenario that it represents. Everyone visiting the phone-booth understands that it houses just an old rotary phone with a disconnected phone-line, but this knowledge does not prevent them from instilling their one way conversation with deep personal meanings. A poignant point that is raised repeatedly is just how mundane most of the conversations are, with people relating events from their daily life and, in stereotypical Japanese fashion, reassuring the dead that they are working hard and telling them not to worry.

Not that long ago, I painted an old telephone. An old French telephone. My reasons were not that different. I, too, want to stay in contact. I want to be connected. So I place this call, and know you are with me:

“Hey, it’s me. I just got back from a walk. It’s beautiful. Sunny. Still warm. I love it. The sun goes down earlier now, but I hang on to it like a tethered ball. I miss you. I think about you all the time. There’s a moment, when I’m putting on my make-up, and I can see you in the mirror. I’m losing my tan. I was so tan this summer. And last summer. I know, remember when I got so burned in Florida when I was like 12. Blisters, oh my! No more. The French sun agrees with me. Still wearing shorts. I will ’til the last minute. Almost Halloween. Remember that blizzard? I don’t miss the snow. I’m painting every day. I see you. I tell people about you. I sold five paintings this week. You’d love my husband. Mom is good. Did I say I miss you? I’m so thirsty. We need a bonnes vacances – that’s our happy hour. I love you. We’ll talk soon.”

Stay connected my friends. Make the call.


The storm.

“What are you going to do about this damn storm?” she asked my mother.

“Perhaps you’d like to speak to the superintendant?” my mother replied.

There was nothing she could do about this storm, or the weather in general. She never had been able to control the weather. She did, however, control the switchboard at Independent School District 206. She answered these kind of calls from angry parents whenever a snow storm threatned to cancel, or did cancel school for the day. The students of ISD 206, as I can attest to personally, loved snow days. A freebie. Somedays, if you were super lucky, or a big believer in prayer, you would actually get a snow day on the day a large test was scheduled. Many nights before exams were spent praying for large amounts of snow. But religious intervention or not, parents were never happy. It meant time off of work, or finding a baby sitter, or worst case scenario, staying home with them yourself.

My mother had been cursed at, yelled at, threatened, hung up on. “One moment please,” she would answer. “Where is the bus?” “Is the bus going to be later?” “Two hours late, well then why not just cancel it?” “Why isn’t it canceled?” She was always, “one moment please,” cleared of the situation. This was not the case at home. Even though, at times, after taking hundreds of phone calls, she still answered our home phone “Alexandria Public Schools….” things were not as easy as a simple call transfer. My mother could no more control the weather, than my father. After he left, she was just so sad. Perhaps humiliated. Perhaps angry. Perhaps frustrated. Perhaps as unsure of what to do as the parent on the other line screaming, “What are you going to do about the damn storm?”

And what was she going to do? There was no one to transfer the responsiblility to… she had to deal with it. She had to cry and count the sleeping pills on the night stand and force herself to eat, and then put on clothes, two sizes smaller than last year, and go to work, and as cheerfully as possible, greet the people on the phones and at the door. And she did. One damn storm after another, she got herself to work, and day after day, year after year, call after call, it all became a little more managable. And some days, they, we, would laugh. That was some storm!

My mom’s sister, Kay, had her own weather to deal with. She never could say no to a hurricane, literally or figurately. She lived through two, and married, maybe seven.

We didn’t hear from her for weeks after Katrina. No phones. Only bad reports from her area. Everything was downed…trees, houses, people… peoplejust floating.  I checked the internet lists for her name… I had to call my mother first…I couldn’t remember last name….it had changed twice before I was even born. It wasn’t listed, under any of them. A neighbor’s cell phone brought word that she was fine. Of course she was fine. To date, she had survived whooping cough, rheumatic fever, a husband’s death and/or murder, a tax scandal, toxic shock syndrome, an fbi investigation, possible lupus, a son’s suicide, and hurricane Rita. They warned everyone. Get on the bus. Get out of town. You have to save yourselves. It’s not safe here. Please, the television and radio begged. Get on the bus. She never got on the bus.

When my cousin Todd shot himself in the head. My aunt got on her hands and knees, scrubbed up the blood with a bucket and a rag. The rain beat against the window. The water turned pink beneath her hands. What are you going to do about this damn storm?

The only similarity that I could see between her and my mother, was the shared shape of my grandfather’s face…long and lean, built to carry a certain gravity. My mother was able to get on the bus. My aunt never has.

We began in grade school praying for snow. Some of us learned to eventually pray to be released from the storm. Not to be spared, to be saved.

My grandfather told me when my father left, you can turn in, you can turn out… you can be like your mother, or your Aunt Kay?

I prayed for snow. I took the tests. I rode the bus. I got on and off. I found good weather.

What’s going to happen now? Anticipation, hope, joy is always near… “one moment please…”


beside-still-waters-for-blogBeside still waters.  acrylic on canvas.  jodi hills




When you’re from Minnesota, you never really expect that you’ll become an immigrant. Some have migrated to, well, Chicago for instance. This, however, does not actually make you an immigrant. You might move to Arizona in your golden years, but this makes you more of a snow bird, and not actually an immigrant. So it was more than a surprise to find myself in France. Living. With a French man. It all seemed so simple, until someone spoke. Wait. They speak French here. Yeah, I don’t speak French. This could be a problem. After a few minor/major visa misinterpretations, or violations, I became part of the system. I was now enrolled in mandatory French classes, with my piers. My piers were now, of all ages, all classes, all religions, and ethnicities.

I had been learning a few French words, phrases, but aparently my Minnesota accent was stronger than I thought, and I found myself repeating everything. Well, let’s be honest. I still find myself repeating everything. Everything. Words are repeated to me, and in my head they sound exactly like what I said, but yet are misunderstood. That’s what I just said, I say, and people laugh. So, to combat this, I am sent to mandatory French class. I’m not certain what the first thing is my teacher asked me, but I am certain of the response – oh, so certain…. I hear it over and over… “Mon Dieu!” she exclaimed, which means, “Oh my God!” Did you take some sort of motivational classes I wondered, because you yelling, “Oh my God!” or in other words, “I can’t believe how stupid you are!” is really motivating me to move forward in this educational process. But after a night of tears, I began my lessons.

My lessons were not alone. After “je m’appelle,” we mostly just nodded, so with all respect, I will call them Japanese, South Korean, Mexican, Cambodian, Russian, Phillipino, and the 10 Arabs. These were my piers. And we clung together like on the sides of life boats. Two life boats. The Arabs wanted their own boat. Our teacher seemed to make fun of us equally, and after beating the waves for 4 hours a day, we ended in tears. Now, not only was I learning French with my Minnesota accent, I was learning it with a Japanese one, a Mexican one, a Russian one, and so on… Some days, I’m not sure we were even speaking French. I assumed it was some other language, and so I wrote it down, memorized it, cried, and went back the next day.

Despite all this, progress was made, and I passed my test, and received my visa. I still find myself repeating everything, sometimes thinking, well, this is just how Ji Young said it. My French is better, and I hope also my understanding, not of the language, but of the people. Being different is hard. Not just, oh that was challenging, but tremendously hard. Not to be understood, for even the smallest thing, that hurts in any color, in any language. I get it. It’s hard not to judge. It’s hard not to want to be around people who are just like you. But this is not the world we live in. In any country. We are enveloped in a changing world of diversity. In our countries. In our neighborhoods. Tolerance is not good enough. I have been tolerated. I have been ignored. It is more painful than I ever imagined. But don’t feel sad, there is so much joy and humor in our differences if we can get passed them. If we can see beyond it all. Just imagine our class photo. This is not a lesson for your heart, but for mine. I need to find the joy in it all. I am finding the joy every day. It is a privilege to be humbled, to be challenged. And after you’ve cried a little, you can always laugh. I have lost my Minnesota accent, and gained a Japanese/Korean/Cambodian/Russian/Arabic/Mexican drawl. And my heart is open.

I’m still an imperfect person though. As kind and open as I want to be, I have to admit, I found a bit of satisfaction when my husband and I went on vacation to Italy. Of course it was no different for me, I was going to be misunderstood wherever we were. But he saw what I go through on a daily basis. We were going to stay in a convent that had been converted into a hotel. When asking directions to the convento, we heard the same response over and over. Convento? Si, convento. Convento? We repeated what sounded exactly the same to us. Si, convento. Finally, one said, “Ahhh, convento….” Like they were able to translate this completely broken word and now repeat it to us in their language. Trust me, it was exactly the same. Now, whenever challenged communicating here in France, we laugh, and say, “convento?”

Last week we spent a wonderful vacation in New York. New York is a city of immigrants. A beautiful, wonderful, delightful, exctiting, stimulating city of diversity. What a joy! What a constant adventure! The cab driver that drove us to the airport for our departure was from Equador. He was full of stories and information. Some of it correct, but none of which we corrected. He was so proud to be an American. He arrived in 1998 and said he was a New Yorker. He loved New York. We spoke of other immigrants and the election and the how people just need to be good to each other. “Yes, yes!” he said. “We have to remember Thanksgiving. We have to be grateful. Just like the Jewish people were on the first Thanksgiving. They came to America because Adolfo Hitler (he said Adolfo) was killing them, so they came to America to be safe and they were so happy they celebrated with a turkey. And now we all celebrate with a turkey because we are free. It is beautiful.” I looked at my husband. “It was pretty close,” he whispered to me. We couldn’t correct him. Weren’t we all tired of being corrected? And after all, hadn’t he made his point about being grateful? And wasn’t that what it was all about. Sure we’re all different. But we’re all just trying to be safe, be happy, and be home. And if we keep those as our truths, laugh more than we cry, we all have a reason to be grateful. “Yes, yes,” I said. “Convento.” And we sat in gratitude.