Jodi Hills

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

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Filled with evidence.

We went to Cocoa Beach, Florida in the winter of my Seventh Grade. It was my first, I guess only, school vacation. We went to see my grandparents. I looked out the airplane window into the blue sky and wondered what they would be wearing, these Minnesota farmers. I had never seen either of my grandparents in shorts. Not to mention on vacation.

They picked us up at the airport. He in pants. She in a dress. I hugged them so hard, these new people that we had all to ourselves for the very first time. The same sun that lit them in this new color, jumped into my heart and filled it.

I heard it before I saw it, the ocean. My grandpa stood near the deck of the condo and waved me out to the beach. He was in shadow then as I looked back. But still so tall. So recognizable. And I was old enough to know it wasn’t true, but it felt like this was his, and he was giving it all to me.

I stayed out too long in my newly found gift. My lavender/white skin burned to a crisp and bubbling red. My grandma rubbed me in vinegar and slept on the floor beside me.

Creamed and covered for the next 6 days, they took me to Disney World. Cape Canaveral. The dog track. The outlet mall. This was a once in a lifetime, I thought. Not because of the sites, but because of them. The time. Oh, what a time!

Returning to Central Junior High after the break. Everyone was exchanging vacation stories. Most were fascinated with Janie, the surgeon’s daughter. They had gone skiing. She had the deep dark face tan, but for the goggled area around the eyes. Everyone oooed and aaaaahed. Someone looked at me and said, “I thought you went to Florida.” “I did! I did!” I said in delight. “But you’re not even tan.” No, my burn had peeled away and slipped down the shower drain the night before our return. “It was wonderful!” I continued. But they wanted proof. Evidence. I couldn’t believe they couldn’t see it. My full heart.

Maybe they were ahead of their time. Wanting to see the selfie of the moment. But I knew I had it. I carry the evidence with me daily. Maybe these words are my proof. Maybe not. It doesn’t really matter. Because I know. I know what I had. What I will always have. I look back, and I see him standing there. Smiling. So recognizable, even today. He, they, gave it all.

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By name.

We were working our way through the alphabet, cursively. During the letter “r,” I raised my hand to get permission to go to the bathroom. Mrs. Erickson gave me the nod. I gave the pencil sharpener a quick turn before I opened the giant door. It was perched right by the door handle, and so tempting. I looked back in apology and went to the lavatory. I went to the bathroom. Washed my hands. I should have just walked back to the classroom, but the shining white porcelain called my name from down the hall. Just a quick drink, I thought. I did a half scoot/run to the drinking fountain. Bent over. Turned the silver knob. A giant stream soaked half of my long blonde hair. I couldn’t return to the room with all of this evidence. I had only gotten permission to go to the bathroom. The drinking fountain was way down the hall and we were only allowed, single file, twice a day. I race walked back to the bathroom and pulled the brown paper towels from the dispenser. I tried to use them as a towel, but that made my hair look even worse. So I put one in each hand and pulled and willed the water to leave. I tucked the wettest behind my ear, down into my turtleneck. Hung my head low and slithered back to my chair. Mrs. Erickson was writing the letter “t.” I had totally missed “s.”

I was listening to a podcast the other day. The woman said she writes her name in every book she reads. Evidence of the connection. Even when she reads the book again, she writes her name again. I used to do it as a child. I’m not sure why I stopped. I’m going to return to the habit.

But for a brief experiment in Junior High, I have had the same signature. Perfect cursive until the last letter of my last name. “S.” I always make it like I’m printing. It’s not like I couldn’t have changed it through the years. It wasn’t like my only moment to learn how to make a cursive “S.” But I liked it because it told my story. It wasn’t just a letter. Not just a name. It was me.

We always want people to see us. And that’s so important. But we have to be able to see ourselves. Write our own story. Claim it. Again and again.

I wrote my name in my newest book — a translation of French poetry into English. My signature carries the bookstore where I bought it. The friends I was with at the time. The laughter of the day. This day and every day before. The school where I first learned to love to read. The day I claimed my name.

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The bright light within.

The light bouncing off of the freshly fallen snow was so bright. It seemed to go straight to our legs as we waited to go out for recess at Washington Elementary. We bundled. We ran, like baby Michelin men, in the snow. Rolling. Tumbling. No fear of falling. It was beautiful.

When the bell rang, we dripped into the hallway. Hung our soggy clothing on wall hooks and slumped into our desks. The teacher put on all the lights, but we still couldn’t see anything. Blinded, I suppose, by the light of all that fun.

I think maybe that’s the way of grief. Trying to adapt in this newly dimmed room. They say you will adjust. I’m still waiting. But not really — most of me doesn’t want to adjust. I want to keep that bright light within – that glorious light of my mother. The damp smell of tender tears hangs in the coat room of my heart. I sit up a little straighter, look out the window and smile. Oh what a time we had! What rolling, tumbling joy!

“All my heart ever wanted was just to come in from the cold.”

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Doing it anyway.

It’s hard to imagine now, but we always traveled, what today would feel like almost naked. We had no phones. No GPS. No maps (I guess they were available, but we didn’t know how to read them.) I’m not even sure we wore our seat belts. But somehow, someway, my mother got us from place to place. Mostly doctor’s appointment for me, in larger cities. She never thought she was brave, but tucked under her wing, as we flitted and fluttered about, I always felt safe. 

I suppose courage is a muscle. You have to use it to gain it. You don’t get to be ready. Not for anything really. I think sometimes we see people out in the world doing the most remarkable, frightening things. The only difference between them and everybody else is not that they don’t have any fear, the difference is, they’re doing it anyway. 

From all the times she “had to go,” my mother gained the strength, to well, just go. Go for fun. For shopping. To help me with art shows. Book signings. And I know that fear didn’t just magically disappear, but she learned to let it ride along. “Ok fear, you can come with, but you’re not going to drive.”

It is so easy to say no. To stand still. But oh, the things you’ll miss. I know it’s frightening. I have shook the tears from these fragile wings, but oh the views, the joy, the flight! You can’t miss it. I won’t miss it. And my mother, the one who first tucked me under her wing, well now, she’s tucked under mine.

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If wishes were fishes…

He was probably just big for his age. I could see him by the side of the pool while I was running on the treadmill. When he turned around I could see the soft timidity of his face. He was still young. He looked at his father sitting in a chair beside the pool. Maybe for assurance before he entered the pool. He lowered himself into the water. His father lowered his face to his cellphone. He hopped around at first. The initial excitement of the water itself. But then it became clear. He was alone. It’s hard to splash yourself. Flip yourself. I kept running. I was smiling. I didn’t want to make him more self conscious if he looked up, but I wanted him to know it was ok. That he was ok. He was free to make his own splash!  

I did. I had for years. I threw the softball against the garage door. I hit the tennis ball against the brick wall. Rode my bike alone. Walked to town alone. Made parades with only stuffed animals. Picnicked with dolls. Splashed in Lake Latoka, then set out to make bigger splashes in bigger ponds. Even across one of the biggest.

I saw two in the pool the next day. Probably a brother and a sister. They had such fun together. But they too, will one day have to make their own way. We all do. Some just start earlier. 

I’m sending out my smile today. You are not alone. Someone has felt it, survived it, struggled through it, even splashed beyond it. Maybe we can all just offer that smile today, to each other, as a reminder. My grandma used to say, “If wishes were fishes, we’d all be in the pool!” We can make that happen you know…that’s my wish, that we can all be there for each other.


All set.

We were exchanging airport stories. She was traveling with her big family. They had made plans and lists. Organization was attempted. Even still, the best laid plans of travelers… They unloaded and reloaded, resembling more of a comedy than a dance. Nearing the end, she thought she heard the security guard say, “You’re awesome.” All smiles, giddy with delight that they had navigated through this maze unscathed, and apparently quite remarkably, she replied, “Oh, thank you!!  Thank you!  You’re AWESOME too!” He hadn’t said “awesome.”  “No,” he replied stoically, “You’re all set.” We hear what we want to hear. 

I suppose we do this a million times a day, try to translate what is said by others, even what we tell ourselves. People ask me all the time, how do you write every day. Saying they could never do it. Really, we all do it, I just happen to put it down on the page. We are in a constant state of listening and telling our stories. What is said and what is heard are often so different. This is why I love my friend’s story so much! In all the chaos around her, the story she was hearing in her head was that she, they, were awesome!  What if we all told ourselves that today? What if the voices in our head told us we were doing great? That we looked fabulous! That we were really something!  Then we would, in fact, be “all set!” 

Have a great day, my friends!  You ARE awesome!

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Shoe horned.

From the outside it looked like any other shoe store. The shoes were brightly lit against the wall. So many choices. I had a pair in mind. In the past few days I had searched for them. Rifled through the stores with boxes all in a row. Never matching the right color with the right size. I wasn’t all that hopeful, but I asked the man for my size in a few possibilities. He went in the back and returned, behind a stack. He kneeled down in front of me. And started unlacing the shoes. I reached down, but he said, “I’ve got this.” Suddenly I was 6 years old at Iverson’s shoes. He opened the laces around the tongue. I pointed my toes and he shoehorned my foot inside. All I wanted to do was run around the store to see if they were fast. He went in the back to grab a few more, and I did. And they were. I loved them.

I placed them in the “probably” chair next to me, and tried on the rest. It was always the first pair. That first perfect pair. I tried them on three times in between the others, just to be sure, just to return to my first love. 

I said I hoped I wasn’t wasting his time. It’s funny that we are conditioned to go there. “Absolutely not,” he said. He was cheerful and kind. Offered to spray the shoes to protect from the elements. I joyfully agreed, even knowing the whole while I would never expose these beauties to such things.  

Some might say it is only nostalgia. Maybe a little. And I don’t think it’s just about service. It’s about being seen. Having an interaction with another human. An exchange of kindness. This is now. Forever. 

It took years to grow into my size nines. To stand on my own. But I didn’t get there by myself. No one does. And if we can offer it from both sides, this grace of giving, this grace of receiving, then maybe life will be a little sweeter, always fast, but a little more joyful, as we slip gently against the smooth path, easing ourselves into the journey. 


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I found it in the basement. Next to the old coats. A thermos my brother made in high school.  It was basically just a thick layer of styrofoam over a glass jar. I had never had my own thermos. I was told a thermos had the power to keep warm things warm and cool things cool. How did it know? Doubtful, perhaps just as its maker, Tom, I wanted to test it out. I didn’t know it then, but I suppose I was looking for the assurance that it offered – the assurance of “it would be there.” The preparedness of no matter what the condition, it could be relied on to protect. 

It was summer. My mom was at work. My brother had already started a new life. In the morning, I filled the thermos with ice water, and took it for a walk out into the sun of Hugo’s field. I could feel the heat against my bare arms. This would be a good test, I thought. I walked the mile to town. Opened the lid. Still cold. I smiled and walked back home. I was allowed to use the can opener and one burner. I opened a can of chicken noodle soup, off-brand, and emptied it into the pan. Heated it up. Poured it into the thermos and walked back to town. I sat on a bench by the railroad track. I forgot my spoon, so I took a small sip. It was still warm. It did know.

I took that thermos with me every day of that summer. Hot. Cold. It knew. By the end of August, the styrofoam started falling apart. Chunk by chunk. Just as our family had. With only a sunburn and a glass jar, I sat at the end of the driveway and waited for my mom to come home from work. The familiar sound of the Impala’s tires against the gravel echoed in my heart. Some things don’t last. Some people don’t stay. But my mother always did. No matter what the conditions. I never even had to test her. I just knew. This was the permanence I was looking for – what I carry with me, still today.

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Love’s wealth.

I don’t know what she gave up so I could do it, but it must have been something. We didn’t have extra money. Maybe not even enough. Perhaps that was one of the gifts she gave me, the not knowing.

It was hidden, the store. No signs. No advertising. But someone had told my mother about it. She knew I would love it. I loved everything about art. We climbed the back stairs. When we reached the top it was a sea of white. Statues. Figurines. Pots. Bowls Plates. All unfinished ceramics. I knew how the scientists felt when they discovered the lost city. It was so beautiful. So much possibility. “And you just paint it. At home. No need for firing.” I could barely hear the words she was saying. My head was spinning. 

And so it began. Each Saturday we climbed those stairs. My mom would let me pick out something, and all week, after school, after homework, I would paint. It was glorious. I filled my mom’s apartment. If she needed something for her dresser, I painted it. Birthdays, I painted it. What we didn’t have room for, we gave away. Because she knew, I knew, it was never about the having afterwards, it was the doing. It was the making. The feeling of accomplishment. I suppose at that time there was so very little that made either of us feel worthy. But this did. She was able to give me this opportunity to create, and I was able to do it. And exchange of love’s wealth.  The feeling was palpable. It jimbled around my heart, my belly, and I was alive!

We went to the museum a few days ago. Each time I go, I have the same feeling — all jimbly. It’s the only word I have ever had to describe it. And it never fails. Every room. Every painting. Every statue. I am a child climbing the stairs to possibility, filled with the wealth of love. My mother gave me that. I will be forever filled. Forever grateful.


With me.

With me.

The library was always an airtight alibi. Most of my friends used it on a weekly basis. I used it too, but it was different for me, I know it to be true, because I was actually there. I loved the library. Since the day Mrs. Bergstrom walked us single file to the one in Washington Elementary, to the Central School library, to the one at Jefferson Senior High, and the University of Minnesota.

I lived in those words. I still do. The comfort. The adventure. The knowledge. The trust. I continue to sleep with at least one book beside my bed. I like waking up to see it there, to hear it say, “She was with me.”

We moved six times before I entered high school. In all this uncertainty. One thing remained the same. The books. They never left. They never disappointed. The never hurt. They only gave. They always welcomed. What a constant comfort! Maybe it’s why I write every day, to offer out a little of what has been given to me. And I like to think of you, waking up with me, wrapped in these words. Knowing that you can say, with all certainty, as you begin your day, “She is with me.”