Jodi Hills

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


The time when my brother saw me.

bicycle-paintingOn my left hand I have three scars, just above my knuckles.  On my right hand two.  I love them.  I think they are beautiful. My flawed hands remind me, not of the time I fell off of my bike, but of the time when my brother saw me.

We lived on VanDyke road.  It was gravel…all gravel.  I learned to ride my bike on that gravel road.

When I met my brother, he had already achieved super-hero status.  Being seven years my senior, he had already learned everything.  I never saw him struggling to ride a bike, climb a rope, or win a race.  From my earliest memories, he could     outrun, outthrow, outsmart and outdo any of the the neighbor kids, the Norton girls, the Shultz boys, the Mullens, the Weiss’s, any of them.  He was strong and fast and brave and I would have done anything to travel in the wave of his cape.

So when he came to me and told me it was time to take off my training wheels, I agreed.  I gave no thought to the gravel, the hill, or my five year old lack of balance… I could only hear his voice, and something about running along beside me, and flying down the hill and ohhhhh, it was glorious…  He took the wheels off with a red screwdriver he found in the shed.  I breathed in time with each turn of the bolt.  Youth and innocence were my best friends and they told me to believe when my brother tossed each training wheel aside.  Excitement rang over all of them, but I heard things like, “there’s not going to be anything holding you up, so you’ll have to balance, but you’ll be fine, just ride faster, the faster you go, the easier it will be, in fact, I’ll help you, by pushing you down the hill, and I’ll run along beside…you’ll be fine…you’ll be riding before Mom gets home from work.”  Thank God we don’t age backwards – we’d never do anything….only a five year old can hear the words, “take away the only thing holding you up…gravel…hill…push…you’ll be fine,” and joyfully, hands in the air, whole-heartedly agree to it all.   

Agree I did, and mounted my white and silver, newly grown-up bike.  He held the back of my seat, and I was perched, like Robin next to Batman, at the top of the hill…the gravel hill that began at the end of our driveway, and ended at Norton’s.   It didn’t really end at Norton’s, but beyond Norton’s was the North End…. The North End – the Bermuda Triangle of VanDyke Road.  I wasn’t allowed past Norton’s, but I hadn’t really yet had the need or the means to travel that far.

He dug in with his black and white Converse, and counted to what I thought would be three, but we took off on two.  I could  hear his shoes hit the gravel, wheels spinning, and my feet not actually pedalling, but just trying to catch up with the pedals.  He tried to keep pace with me…I really believe he did…I could never imagine that he just let go…  and for a moment, I could feel the wind, and the whisp of his cape, and then I heard him yell….”Pedaaaaaaaaaaaaaalll!!!!!!!”  I was trying, really tring, the wheels had a life of their own, and suddenly I could see how fast the trees were going by, and I looked back to find my super hero, and in looking back, turned the handlebars as well – rookie mistake – hit a rock, flew over the bell, and landed knuckle first at the bottom of the hill.

I heard what I assumed to be words of comfort running down the hill…but as he got closer, they became more clear…. “Don’t tell Mom, you did great, don’t tell Mom…”  Stunned by the fall, lack of wind in my lungs, the blood shooting out of both hands, and the fact that my brother thought I did great… I didn’t even cry, well not out loud, tears of course flowed, but I didn’t make the usual gasping noises…we take our victories where we can.  He ripped off his shirt, like a cowboy or something, (ok, I know he was my super hero, but I was five, and cowboys and superheros and some cartoon figures all blended together), and he wrapped the strips around my hands.

My hands hurt like crazy, but I felt good for some reason…a little prideful, but most of all, noticed.  I knew how the boy felt in the book,  “All the Pretty Horses,”  – learning to ride a horse for the first time, falling off over and over, and the others exlaimed, don’t you know how to ride – and he boldly stated, “I was ridin’ when I fell off wasn’t I?”…

He picked me up by the shoulders, stood me straight, wiped the tears and snot and dirt off my face, grabbed me by the shirt and started walking, pushing my two-wheeler with his free hand.  “That was so cool,” he said, leading me back up the hill.

“Yeah,” I said.  It is cool when your super-hero sees you.

“But don’t tell Mom.”

I loved my brother.  Of course I wouldn’t tell.  Of course she found out anyway.

Gravel does create a sense of urgency, and I learned to ride pretty quickly after that.

Fully bandaged, more and longer and than necessary, I learned to ride before Kathy Norton, who was a year younger than me, and even better, so my brother said, before Kathy’s sister Renee, who was a year older,…that’s what you need to do” he explained, “always be faster than the neighbors…”   I wasn’t really sure what the big deal was, but he was happy, so I was happy.  He was full of tips like that… “it’s better to go down swinging,” “don’t cry on the bus, even if the Schulz boys are mean”, and of course, “don’t tell Mom.”

I followed him around as much as he would allow.  If he got ribbons at school, I got ribbons at school.  I tried to match him trophy for trophy, step for step…but with each year, the seven year gap seemed to just get wider.  He no longer wanted to dazzle me with the dead finger in the box trick, or use me for circus practice.  He seemed to get older so much faster.  He had seen the North End and beyond, and I couldn’t keep up.

Everyone started to leave VanDyke Rd.  My brother left.  Even more surprising, so did my father.  The only one left to tell things to was Mom…all the rules were changing, and soon we would leave too.

Life happens as it always does.  I never saw my father.  My brother got busier, different hills to climb, to run down, and away from…and slowly, I think I started to disappear.  And it wasn’t just him…I started to chase different things, down different roads.

Time flies, and we struggle to keep up with the pedalling.  But what a ride.  I feel it my heart, and see it in my hands.

I see my hands and I see my brother.

I see my hands and I see that he once saw me.

And I forget about the gravel and the hill, and the blood, and all the years in between.

I see my hands and I see a struggle survived, and it is glorious.

I see my hands and I see hope.

I see my hands and know, in this relationship, “we were riding when we fell off weren’t we…”

I learned to ride my bike on a gravel road.  My brother saw to that.  And now with the memories of crashes survived holding me up, and with my love-scarred hands raised joyfully in the air, I welcome it all, agree to it, live it, fall down it, and get back up again, knowing, nobody enjoys the ride more than I do…and every so often, I feel the whisp of his cape.


“With an apple, I will astonish Paris.”

“With an apple, I will astonish Paris.”   Paul Cezanne.

He painted mountains and bridges.  The Sainte Victoire stood majesticly in his back yard.  He painted it over and over.  The colors.  The beauty.  The ever-changing stillness.  Yet, he knew, with something as simple as an apple, he could change the way people saw things.  An apple.  Not a mountain.  An apple.

And only, as I sit, quietly, still, I too understand.

No one has time to be still anymore (if they ever did).  To actually look.  To see.  To feel.  To see an apple, a pear, for all its beauty.  To hold it.  To touch it.  To taste it.  Maybe even give it to someone, to give them a smile.  To show them this beauty, and to have them see it, to have them feel it, to taste it … in this stillness, this beauty, would we not have the power to astonish?  For when we stop, when we are still, and we offer someone else that peace, that presence, we are offering our hearts.  Our hearts.  What could be more astonishing than that?

So I sit before the pear.  Before the canvas. A nd I wonder, will they see it?  Will they really see it?  Beyond the yellow and green and bruising,  Will They see my heart?  Do I even see it?  I’m still.  I feel it.  I have to try.

And I paint the pear over and over, as if were the thing they climbed in victory in my back yard.  I paint this tiny mountain of fruit.  And each day with quiet footsteps I climb.  I climb through my doubts and fears.  I climb in oranges and browns and with each stroke I come closer to that quiet place.  That quiet place where I know what I want to say.

When I reach it, the quiet room, the still life, I will tell you that everything will be OK.  That I’ve seen it.  I’ve seen yesterday, and It was so hard, and I cry.  Please do not be sad.  This is the gift I was given.  My fruit.  This tender skin of still life.  This tender skin held my heart and said there is life.  Still.  There is still life. A nd it showed me.  Tomorrow.  I’ve seen tomorrow.  The one you’ve worried about.  The one I worried about.  I’ve seen it.  And it is as beautiful as the fruit I hold in my hand.  I’ve seen tomorrow and I’ve watched it grow.  As pure as an apple.  As delicate as a peach.  As delicious as all the fruits you could dream of.  It is so beautiful and still.  It is astonishing.  It is Cezanne with a brush.  It is Paris.  It is heart clutched and breathless before the painting.  The still life.

And so I take to the canvas again, like a prayer.  I pray with each stroke of the red apple that we all can astonish.  I pray this is what I won’t have to tell you. T his is what you will know.  In your heart.  That everything is still good.  Life is still good.  That love is still the answer.

We can astonish each other with this love.  With this kindness.  With kindness so pure it glows in the fruits we are given.  And they ARE given.  Every day.  What if we saw them?  What if we gave them?  What if we changed the world with just an apple?  Just a heart.  What could be more astonishing than that?

And still I paint.  I paint a thousand apples, a thousand times a thousand pears, so you will know.  Every time you see one, in this book, on the counter, at the store, hanging low from the tree, you will know, everything IS good.  Everything IS beautiful.  This tender, pure, life is astonishing!

Still, and again, I believe.


Save the shoes.


Don’t give up being good, just trying to be great.

I listened to a story told by firefighter Mark Bezos. It was his first fire. He was ready to be a hero. He so wanted to save a life, a person, a pet, anyone, so he could go home and be like Superman to his children. He got to the fire, the second volunteer firefighter on the scene. The first firefighter was asked by the captain to go save the homeowner’s dog. A little disappointed, he waited for his assignment. He wanted to be the one to save the dog. The homeowner was standing outside, in the pouring rain, with no shoes on. The captain told Mark to go get her shoes. It was in a pretty safe place in the house and he came out quickly with the shoes. In the moment, of course the dog got a much bigger welcome than the shoes. The next week the homeowner wrote the fire department a letter of thanks. She praised them for their work in saving her house, her dog, and she said they were so kind, “someone even got my shoes.”

Mark so beautifully teaches us, “Not every day is going to offer us a chance to save somebody’s life, but every day offers us an opportunity to affect one. So get in the game. Save the shoes.”

I am a painter. I am a writer. I am not Cezanne. I am not Hemingway. Yet I paint and I write. I learned during my first “fires” (my first days of selling), that a card sold for one dollar, could mean as much to that person, maybe even more, than the person who payed thousands for an original canvas. When you see that person hold that small piece of paper close to the heart, tears in eyes, you know it was a good thing. For that one moment, it was a good thing. Sometimes I think, but is it good enough?  I could do better, be better. And this is OK, we must all strive to be the best we can. But I have learned, I can’t give up being good, just trying to be great.

We do the small things. We touch people’s lives. Most of the time we won’t save the lives we touch, but oh, how we can touch them. The little things carry us from day to day. A smile. A hand. A song. A moment. And in those moments, those moments of kindess, maybe we truly ARE saved.

And that is good. Maybe that’s even great. Paint the painting. Sing the song. Reach out your hand. Save the shoes. It all matters.


“Being loved was freedom.”

potrait-collage-36I listen to The Moth podcast each week. The Moth is a show of true stories told live. Today’s episode was told by Michael Vonallmen, an ex-inmate who spent 11 years in prison, wrongfully convicted. While in prison, he meets another man, spending life, who he thinks is also being wrongfully convicted. Michael is released from prison after 11 years, and after 16 years, he is cleared of all charges, as the person who actually did commit the crime was found. Michael vows not to forget his friend in prison. He tries, with the help of the Innocence Project, to get his friend released. With the crime taking place in the 1960’s very little evidence is available and the Innocence Project does not succeed before Michael’s friend is near death. Michael was the only person to visit his friend in 30 years, so when his end was near, the hospital called Michael, as his name was the only name ever on the visitor’s list. Michael had to make the daunting decision of whether or not to keep his friend on life support. The doctor explained that they could insert a breathing tube and a feeding tube, but then he would be confined in this bed until he died. The word confined made the decision for Michael. He knew he could not be the one to confine him any longer. On the day they “unplugged” his friend from any support, the guard left the room. For the first time in decades, he was not imprisoned. They knew it would be just a matter of minutes before he died, and they watched the numbers on the monitors. The numbers slowly declined. Michael didn’t know what to say. First he went to prison mode, and he said, “You won’t have to listen to those screws any more.” The numbers continued to fall and Michael said, not knowing where the words came from, “I love you.” And the numbers went up. They went up again. And they stayed there for several minutes. Michael knew he was going to die, but he also knew for those few minutes, he was free. “Being loved was freedom.”

I wept as I listened. Being loved is freedom. It always has been. Now some may say, oh, they are just prisoners. They broke the law. This is not a judgement for them, or any of us. But we need to think about this. We need to think about how we imprison people every day. We exclude them. We hide them. We forget about them. We do this regarding people’s race, and religion. We do it with people’s gender, and preferences. Life styles. We shut people out because of their looks, the amount of money they make, the cars they drive, the neighborhoods they live in. We tell people they aren’t included because they aren’t pretty enough, they aren’t smart enough… you just don’t belong. We lock people out because we are afraid. We have all done it. And maybe we have all felt it. I pray that I never do it, or feel it again.

I want to be the person who frees you to be yourself. I want to be the person who is welcoming. Unjudging. Kind. I want to unlock those doors. I want to love. What a glorious gift Michael has shown us. “Being loved was freedom.” He gave that freedom to another. And those few moments were everything. What if we all gave each other that – just those few moments… I want that – for all of us. No laws can truly make people free. We need them, but we have to do the rest. Only we can make us free. We can give each other that freedom. We can give each other that respect. We can love. And then we truly will be free.

All we have to do is be good to each other.  



Our humanity lies not in the ordinary. We do the things we have to in order to stay alive. Alive. But to really live, we have to do the unnecessary. We create extraordinary things. We gather ourselves in music and art and dessert. And this is where we really live. And oh, how beautiful. This beautp1040733iful stillness.

It was never necessary for an apple to be beautiful. It could offer the same nutrients in a plain package. In fact, we could take vitamins, and maybe get the same thing. But there it is for us, in all of its unnecessary beauty. The brilliant ball of red, and green and yellow, that fits perfectly into the palm of your hand. What a gift. And the pear. This yellow. This yellow that doesn’t rely on just yellow, but greens and browns and oranges and bruising, never apologizing for its bruises, its scars. As if it has already healed from the growth on the vine, saying, no it’s not easy, but it is wonderful, and I am beautiful. I am so beautiful.

But that’s the risk, isn’t it? Beauty is a risk. Creating beauty, being beautiful (I mean a beautiful person, generating real beauty) that is pure vulnerability. It is a risk. Someone could say, well, I just don’t get it. They do it in museums. Have you listened to jazz? Beauty is a risk. Some may reject you. You may be the dented peach, the scratched pear, and you may know, hey, I am beautiful, but not everyone will be willing to go there with you. And that’s on them, not you. Beauty is strong. Humanity is strong. Some people are afraid. They are afraid to be vulnerable. And they are scared of those who dare. Those who dare to be brave. Those who dare to say, I am part of all of this… I am a part of you.

And they might say, well, it’s not even necessary for us to get along, for us to see each other, to see the beauty in all. And they are probably right. The world will keep spinning. And there will be ugly things. Like anger and mistrust. Ugly things like fear and discrimination. Ugly things like abuse. So we do the unnecessary. We offer our smiles, our colors, our bruises, and say, hello. We smile on the street. We forgive. We forgive ourselves. We show up early. We stay a little longer. We laugh. Not necessary, but oh, oh, so needed. We dig a little deeper. We learn a little more – something that’s not on the test – something about someone’s past. We care enough to ask. And then we care a little more. We walk a few steps further. We order an extra dessert. The pure joy of the unnecessary. We get up a little earlier. We take a little nap. Luxury.

And so I place the fruit before you. I ask you to be brave. I ask the same of myself. Let’s take the risks. Let’s be as brave and strong and giving as the fruit before us. Let us be beautiful. Let us be fruitful. Let us expose our branch-weary days and dare to say we matter, we have something to offer – something to offer that is beyond the ordinary – something so beautiful that it surpasses all the imperfections of ordinary life. Let us be kind and giving and, well, fruitful. Let us be so fruitful with these unecesary gifts. Let us be so good that we are beyond worthy of the unnecessary. Let us welcome the chocolate and the days in the sun… the open hands, the crooked smiles, the jokes and the uplifting hugs. Let us be humble enough to accept these gifts. Let us blush apple red when the unnecessary compliments roll in. Let us pass them on. Let us send flowers and “love you” notes for no reason. Let us give. Let us paint. And sing. And dance (like nobody is watching, because really, are they?). Let us splash in puddles and offer rides and slow down. Let us be gentle. Let us listen. Let us like. Let us love. Beyond the necessary, beyond what is expected. Let’s be unexpected. Not shocking, but wow-ing.

With every paint stroke, I think, I could do better. Not in painting, but living. And so I paint, not because it is necessary, but because it is a reminder – a reminder to be unnecessary. No one needs this paper to survive, but what joy it brings me. And maybe you too. Maybe I can bring you joy. And so I keep painting. And what a pleasure it would be to stop and see you smile. What an unnecessary gift. Let’s remember, and share it. Let’s learn and use it. Let’s love and give it.

The gifts are on the table. Take the risk. Enjoy!

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And then…

Painting these every day is such joy. And it is surprising how much you can learn, every day. To see how yellow is not just yellow, but green and brown and white and red… It’s like when you paint skin tones… and you see that there actually is no black or white… just a multitude of colors, and to achieve this feeling of life, of depth behind the colors, the skin, the peel, you have to be loose, free, and let it just happen. And then the beauty comes. And maybe that’s the line right there, “And then the beauty comes…” Today, it might be in the letting go, it might be after the rain, it might be after the rainbow, whatever you are experiencing, I guess you have to live it, really live it, and then the beauty…