Jodi Hills

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

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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.

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The path.

“I walk because it confers- or restores- a feeling of placeness…” Lauren Elkin, Flâneuse

Conversations others had with my mother often started out like this — “I saw you out walking…” It always pleased me to hear it. It seemed to me like a compliment. 

I loved her stride. Long-legged purpose. Maybe it was when walking that I saw her the most confident. And I liked being in it, beside her. It felt certain and unsure at the same time. Admitting that you could be lost or found, but somehow, your feet held the power. Step by step. Place by place.

I suppose she always knew. Setting this pace for me at such a young age. Lengthening my gait, that we would soon walk side by side. And that one day, I would go beyond. But still, she encouraged it. And we walked. Walked and walked. Making maps with our feet. Promises with our heart. 

I walk every day. Promises are kept. This place becomes mine. And a little bit hers. My feet have a conversation with the gravel. Telling of how they got here. A stranger passes, and we smile in different languages, but we know…somehow we know…there is a place for us. For all of us. Here. 

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1, 2, 3…

She was hesitating at the side of the pool. Dipping toes. Looking back to the sun-filled lounge chairs. Adjusting her swim goggles, the elastic of her suit. I had already been in and was wrapped securely in a towel. I wanted to help her, so I just counted to three out loud, “un, deux, trois…” And in she jumped on trois!  

I don’t know why it works, this counting. Maybe it’s just the simple direction of it. The three footprint stickers placed on the floor to show you the path. An easy way to say you’ve done this before, and you’ll do it again. A veritable encouragement of “On your mark, get set, go!” 

We went to see Dominique’s mother yesterday. Each week, I get stuck on one. The pain of seeing her struggle deepens the pool of missing my own mother. But one, I get in the car. Two, we make the drive to 

Vauvenargues. I know how important this is. Yet, I know how hard it will be. Dominique signs us in at the door. My heart beats quickly. I put on my mask. In my ear, it’s my mother who whispers, “three.” We walk through the door.

Love. It’s what I count on.


A peach!

Our peach tree, Officer Bob, (I named him Officer Bob because I always imagined him in an old time movie, cigar tucked in the side of his mouth, looking at something beautiful and saying, “It’s a peach, see….”) — anyway, yesterday Office Bob broke a major limb. We have been worried about him all spring — carrying more fruit that ever before. Each branch loaded beyond capacity. Dropping unripe fruit daily to get some relief. (When I mowed the lawn it smelled like jam.) But yesterday I guess it all became too much. One of his branches, and it was a thick one, snapped beneath the weight.

The things we carry.

It’s too self-important to imagine that this was a lesson just for me. But, none the less, it is definitely something I need to keep learning.

By nature, I suppose, I have always been one to add the weight of worry. I have improved, but I can certainly still overload my branches. I don’t think we’re built to carry. Even the good things can become too much. Maybe we’re meant to feel and release. Letting go of the bad things. And letting loose all the good – sending it out for all the world to see.

A bird rests on one of his limbs this morning. So light. Singing a song of hope. Maybe we can do the same for each other. Be there for each other. No weight added. Only song.

Worry dropped, love released, the morning winks and says, “It’s going to be a peach, see!”

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I was so surprised that we could afford them — these golden books. I was only five, but I knew that gold was expensive. The display was just past the shopping carts at Olson’s Supermarket. I stood motionless in front of the golden choices. It was safe in those days to leave a five year old in the book section. My mom reminded me to breathe, and went off to gather the groceries. I knew the routine. When I saw her get in the cash line, I had to make my final decision and come. I held the book in my hand. I wasn’t about to place it on the counter with all that produce. When everything had been priced into the register, I reached the book to the cashier without letting go. She smiled and punched in the 99 cents. The man bagging the groceries said, “You’re gonna wanna carry that yourself.” Yes, I nodded. We all knew the value.

Yesterday we went to Fountaine de Vaucluse, a small village about an hour away. The village of Fontaine de Vaucluse is squeezed into the sharp end of a narrow valley and takes its name from the beautiful and mysterious spring feeding the river Sorgue. This spring comes from deep underground – nobody knows how deep. In the 50s, Jacques Yves Cousteau came with a submersible to explore the depths but did not find the bottom. A paper mill still operates from the rushing water. The paper is beautiful. Each sheet contains this history. The touch of hands. The flow of the water. The strength of the trees.

I stood at the counter to buy, not surprisingly, a small collection of this paper, covered in leather — the color of gold. There was only one of these books. The man searched for the price. Opened one ledger. Then another. There were no scanners. I smiled and traveled back in time. He searched for the price. Dominique checked his watch, keeping track of the parking meter. He eventually found the price. Punched it into the register. Then wrapped the golden book safely.

It’s funny, they say they don’t know how deep this water flows, but I do. Carrying my golden treasure to the car, I am assured, it travels to the very depths of my soul.

May we all know the value of that.

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These precious days.

I recently finished the book of short stories by Ann Patchett, These Precious Days. The highest compliment I can give it is, it’s not yet finished with me. If you’re a reader, you know this feeling. How the words sit with you, familiar-like at the kitchen table. Laugh with you. Cry with you. Bent over, trying to finish the sentence of “Remember when…” 

This book sits with me. I don’t like to give much away. I think books are made to be discovered. Page by page. And these stories are combined like an album of your favorite music. Luring you in, but not giving you the best immediately. Building slowly. To a crescendo, then leveling you back down. Resting beside you. 

I have written since I was five years old. No matter what I was feeling. Pencil, crayon, to paper, and then hands stretched out, reaching it towards my mother. I suppose I’m still doing this, daily. 

The story in which she speaks about her father passing, she misses this one thing the most — receiving his feedback. She relied on him. Counted on him. For safety. Honesty. And most of all, the immediacy. I had that, with my mom. Her entire life. I had her attention. No matter what she was doing, she would stop. Take the time. Even if it was one word, it filled my entire heart. 

I heard recently that sometimes the best prayer you can say is “Wow!” I know what that means. When my mother gave me a wow it did feel like an answered prayer. An answer to the prayer of protect me, love me, stay with me, sit with me in the familiar. 

These are indeed the precious days. I had this. I have this. I’m learning, even on the days when missing her cracks my heart to the core, I send up the only prayer necessary — a prayer of thanks, of gratitude — I had such a mother — I get up off my knees and shout, “Wow!!!!”

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Simply the best.

It’s funny, but I didn’t remember the names of the two women who took me to the concert. We had only just met. I started this job right out of college. I was in gathering mode. There was so much information to take in. I stepped into the business — this wild adult playground. This playground of a school that everyone had attended for years, and I was the new kid. I was employed now – whatever that meant. I navigated through this unfamiliar jungle gym. It was in that first week of chaos that I heard them, these two women, yelling above the crowd, urging me to join them at Double-dutch. “You have to come with us to the Tina Turner concert,” they yelled. I timed the ropes with my hands and I jumped.

I didn’t recognize them at first when they picked me up. No longer in office attire, they seemed younger. More wild. They honked the horn and turned up the radio. I got in the back seat. Is this how adults made friends? Is this how you survived the work? I had no idea. The wheels sped down the freeway to the stadium. In the parking lot, the taller one said she “had to pee.” I turned my head to find a restroom. In the few second it took to turn my head back, she had already squatted with pants around her ankles. I couldn’t breathe. What had I done? I didn’t know these women. Why had I just joined them? So easily I got in their car. It had only been a week. Sure, I liked Tina Turner, but I didn’t own the cds. My feet, without my knowledge or permission, raced with them to the stadium door.

Our seats were actually good. Just left of the stage. Cigarette lighters flickered in the darkness. People squirmed and danced in their seats, eagerly awaiting Ms. Turner. I looked at the two women next to me, trying to remember their names.

I don’t know the song. It all happened so quickly. Suddenly she was there on stage. So close. A force of nature. She was not young, Tina Turner. And she was so petite. Just a tiny woman. But I had never heard, felt, witnessed anyone so powerful. Hair, dress, torso, thighs, heels — all moved in time to this thunderous voice. And it may surprise you to hear, but it was the most elegant thing I had ever seen. She moved like a gazelle to our corner of the stage. We were beyond the zoo now. Animals, all moving on instinct. There was no time. No space. No cages. Primal. Beautiful. Dance. 

It wasn’t my only glimpse of freedom. But it may have been one of my first. And upon it, I would build. Adding enough courage, wisdom, to walk out of this building, to my own humble corner of stage. To dream my own dream. Stand strong on my own two feet. Even dance. 

Our journeys are full of choice. And chance. We wander the strangest paths, to simply find our own best lives. Along the way, we remember the ones who lift us. Hoping one day to do the same for someone else. Today, I remember Tina. Let’s dance.


Noise reduction.

I would have never thought to ask him to turn on the radio, sitting next to my grandfather in his truck. The windows were open. The dirt sputtered beneath the wheels that harrumphed through the furrows in the field. Nature itself in full conversation, from bird to grain to tractor to grandpa to me. There was no real need for words. He looked at me. Gave a slight nod — a “there, there” for my heart. All childish doubt and insecurity was silenced. I belonged.

There is button on my computer’s photo editing app — Noise reduction. So useful when too much is happening in the picture. Too many distractions. With just a slide of this arrow, everything becomes more clear.

Often I have wished the same for my head and heart. The noise that sputters and splats against the windshield of my day can be overwhelming. Through the years I have found my own applications. My own buttons. And I have several. Taking a walk. Reading a book. Going for a swim. Painting.

Yesterday was loud. (There is no need to give it volume by explaining.) So I went to the studio. And got out my brushes. Dabbed the bits of paint on my palette. Stroke by stroke, it calmed. I calmed. Each touch of the brush to canvas, a “shhhhh” for my brain…a “there, there” for my heart.

My grandfather never owned a computer. I don’t know if he even had a camera. But he was the first to teach me one of life’s great applications – noise reduction. In the silence I can hear my heart beating. I smile. Everything quiet. Clear. To this I belong.


Something pretty.

I don’t remember ever using the word haul. I suppose I heard it when my grandfather was taking grain to town, but certainly I never used it going to the mall.

It was only by her example that I learned it – the joy of “seeing pretty things.” More times than not, we came home from Viking Plaza (Herberger’s) with our hearts full and our hands empty. She knew the names of everyone, my mom. And she spoke them freely. Joyfully. She knew the layout of the store. What was new. What would be on sale soon. Which coupons could be used on what. Coupons that were often given freely to strangers contemplating the price of a future purchase. She knew which dressing room had the best lighting – the second from the right in the denim section. The laughter we shared on what would have otherwise been a lonely Sunday afternoon, was larger than anything I’ve ever seen on YouTube. I suppose that was our “haul” — this glorious time together — something I carry with me to this day.

I’m not perfect. I too can get caught up in the end result. What will I have to show for it in the end? Painting, not for the pure joy of it, but to have a painting. Yesterday, to break that cycle, I told myself, “Today is just for fun. Nothing to be saved. Gained. Or sold. No rules to be followed. It is a Herberger’s afternoon.” With no plan, I just started to paint. The rain beat against the studio and I painted. The music played. I sang. I laughed. I paused. I painted some more. The hours passed without my knowledge. The sun came out. My heart was full. I walked away from the unfinished canvas.

Sometimes when I’d say “I need to see something pretty,” she would reply, “Look in the mirror.” Today, when I do, seeing her reflection in mine, I know I have forever made my haul.


Nothing artificial.

Whenever I read my short story, “Leap of Faith,” to an audience, people wanted to buy it. This was before I had it made into a book. This was when the words were just typed on inexpensive white paper. Double spaced. Crinkled by the grip of my hand. Still, I was offered money. Obviously it wasn’t because they wanted to display it on their coffee table. What they wanted was to capture that moment. That moment the words jumped (or should I say leaped) not from the page, but from my soul, into their soul. This is the power of writing. The beauty of the written word.

There is a lot of talk lately about artificial intelligence. AI. People are using AI to do their homework. Write their messages. Even create books. I listened to a review yesterday about a newly constructed book, almost 100% artificially generated. I say constructed, because for me, to be written, it must contain the personality, the heart, the experience, the life of the writer. The reviewer seemed to agree with me. It was not a terrible book, he said. But what it lacked was soul. Soul — without it, to me, it’s only paper.

And it’s not just books. AI can now generate a picture. But can you feel the strokes? The welcoming of the blue, and the slight trepidation of the buoy. This beautiful imperfection of fear and familiar. The comfort and the uncertainty. The soulful play of the water.

Some people are worried. They imagine that humans don’t care enough. They imagine that the speed and bulk of artificial creation will win out. But I’m not afraid. I believe our taste cannot be “Old Country Buffed.” We are deeper. We are better.

Maybe I believe it because I’ve seen it. I’ve stood in front of a crowd and splashed them with the words of Lake Latoka. I’ve swam them through the blue, over their heads. Walked them up the slippery ladder onto the diving board. And I’ve hooked them, hand in hand, with words. Words that connected us. Protected us. Inspired us. Dared us to take that leap. Together.

In this I have faith. The very soul of us. In life. In love. Nothing artificial.