Jodi Hills

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

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Someone was.

I was thirty-something when my bike was stolen. I ran up to my apartment for just a few minutes. Left the garage door open. How quickly things slip away. When I returned, it was gone. I called the police to report it. I remember thinking how casually he walked, this police officer, to my garage door. Like he saw it every day. Well… He asked for the brand and style of bike. I asked if they ever found them. “No,” he said. And then he proceeded to talk about how the drainage system in our garages wasn’t correct. So that was it? My beautiful bike was gone and we were talking drainage. He put the report in his pocket and left.

I stood alone in front of my open, improperly drained garage, and thought about my first bike. My beautiful banana seat bike that I pedaled into the ground. That I abandoned in ditches on VanDyke road. In the Olson’s Supermarket parking lot while I ran in to cool off in the refrigerated section. In the front lawn of the public library while I read for hours. On the beaches of Lake Latoka while I splashed until summer’s end. I stood in the gaping mouth of my open garage, missing much more than my bike, wanting so desperately to feel surprised. Wanting to be that banana seat bike riding girl, that girl who trusted everything and everyone.

I wrote about it — that beautiful feeling of trust — in my book, Leap of Faith:

“It was the greatest. All my friends loved it. (my banana seat bike)
But Ididn’t even need a lock for it. Nobody ever stole
bikes from the beach. It was kind of like our sacred
ground. . . and we knew that in order to get to our
sacred ground, you had to have a bike, and to take
that away from someone, to take away their chance
to fly on the way to that glorious one of 10,000
lakes, well that would just be a terrible crime, so
we didn’t do it. I don’t think I realized how beautiful life without
mistrust really was. . .How could I know?
You can’t. . .until it is taken away —
and only in those rare moments,
when you let yourself remember innocence,
can you feel the slip of beauty.”

I reread that passage often, and I think, as Joan Didion wrote in her book, Slouching towards Bethlehem, “Was anyone ever so young? I am here to tell you that someone was.”



Maybe with girls, it’s all about timing.

There wasn’t a swing for every girl at Washington Elementary. When your class was released for recess, the playground had to be divided and navigated. It was always a race out the back door to the swingset. These weren’t just ordinary swings. They were the tallest that any of us had ever seen.  With the help of your best friend pushing from behind, you could reach unimaginable heights. Deals were always struck minutes before recess. Partnering off. Who would run. Secure the swing. The first one. The last. The ones in the middle. Who would ride first. Push first. We learned early on, working together, we’d all get to fly! 

We didn’t have phones with stop watches. We didn’t even have watches. But somehow we knew. Because friends were known. Some days you just needed a little extra time. Maybe the spelling test was harder for one. Maybe the new boy teased you. Whatever the reason, it never had to be explained, just a look, a look that said, I need an extra turn. And it was always given. 

I have a few friends like this still today. We know each other’s timing. When to push. When to step back and just watch you fly! Knowing the roles could be reversed at any given moment. Timing — impossible to monitor electronically — it can only be measured by the heart. 

I’m feeling strong today. Just give me the look, and when the doors are flung open, I’ll race to secure the swing. Today, my friend, it’s your turn to fly!

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Roll on by.

She wasn’t a screamer, nor a fighter. I suppose I get that from her. But I know that my mother got stressed. And somehow it had to get out.

I wasn’t yet of driving age. We had a blue Chevy Malibu station wagon. It wasn’t built for speed. Not known for its quick pickup. The light blue remained unblurred, but for those special moments when out of traffic’s way, safely buckled in, she would wink at me, slam her Herberger shoed right foot onto the gas pedal, roaring the engine! We could only squeal tightly along with the tires. We released our breath and she, her foot off the gas. “I just had to get the soot out,” she said. And we laughed. Louder than any engine’s roar.

It took awhile, but I would come to realize it wasn’t to release the “soot” from the car, but from our very spirits. Life can clog you down. And somehow, you have to release it. Laughter seemed to be our favorite route!

I can’t Malibu myself out of today’s stress. But I have found my own ways. On the gravel path. In shades of blue on the canvas. Sometimes, just word by word on the page, hoping they take you along for the ride, sometimes with a laugh, sometimes with a tear, sometimes both. The sun is coming up, hop in, my friends, let’s get the soot out!

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Magical gifts.

There is a natural magic that happens when the air is perfectly still and the outdoor temperature is just slightly above that of the pool. I can close my eyes, raise an arm out of the water, and not feel the difference. For a brief second, I am part of it all. I am a leaf on a tree. A blade of grass. A bird on the highest branch in the sky. I am not trying to fit, I just do. 

I suppose when catching yourself in this moment, in any moment of happiness, the moment does pass, but maybe it is the impermanence that makes it so special.

Everything will end. That is the very nature of, well, nature. 

There are only a handful of people who are this air to my water. People with whom I can be myself. Just be. And it works. People with whom I can fall, secure in the knowledge of being caught in these moments. 

This magic can go by many names. Love. Friend. Family. Whatever you call your magic, call it often. And when it calls to you, be it whisper or shout, go without hesitation. Be in it. Live in it. Without worry of time or loss — both are out of reach — but the joy of being, the nature of being, is right here. Right now. Shhhh. Be still. Can you hear it? That’s the magic calling.

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Be the occasion!

One doesn’t find a place, one makes it.

We couldn’t drink the water in this apartment. The smell was, well…the fact that it smelled should tell you enough. My mother boiled it. Assuring me each time, we wouldn’t be here long. Maybe it was only a year. Possibly less. Time does not pass equally in every address. 

But the rules were the same. “Beds must be made,” she said. “No dishes in the sink.”  Pictures were hung. Books placed on shelves and nightstands. Music played — 45s purchased for a dollar at Carlson’s music center. And we dressed, not for an occasion, but because we were the occasion. “We’re not vagrants…” she said, “yet…”  We could always drink in the laughter. 

Each apartment we moved to was an upgrade. But one was not more, nor less, a home. It was always home. Because we were together. We created the space we wanted. 

When I moved to France, I brought almost nothing, but was certainly not empty handed, nor empty hearted. Our house is filled with art and books. With the scent of bread baking. Photos of family. Friends. The sounds, the marks, of those who pass through — by foot and by heart. And I’m known to change clothes several times a day, because I am the occasion — still and always — my mother taught me that.

Sometimes I catch myself in the worry of time racing, but then remember, this is the gift — I will make something of it!!!


True colors.

It’s odd to think of Christmas in this French summer heat, but there it was, along my daily gravel path. The color of the wild flowers against the sea of green — the same combination my friend Deb used for her Christmas decorations. 

Lounging in our chairs at the Starbuck’s near my apartment, drinking extra-hot vanilla lattes in the still-welcomed air conditioning of the lingering September summer, we thumbed through the Jonathan Adler catalog, already dreaming of Christmas. We could never start too early. We both loved decorating for the holidays. It was here, eleven years ago, that she changed her color palette. And a bold palette it was. More pink than red. More yellow than green, but still a nod to the tradition. Each holiday piece that she put out was in this new palette. Right down to the candy purchased in Stillwater, Minnesota. 

With French pebbles still in the soles of my shoes, I stepped directly into her apartment. The familiar scent of candles. The corner tree blinking. Shelled pistachios next to chocolate covered in a deep pink candy shell. (Ever in the palette.) And just like with the catalog, we went through her apartment and pointed out, praised, loved each and every detail. 

If you think this all shallow, you would be wrong. Because I knew what this break from the traditional palette meant. I knew what not fitting into the norm of it all felt like for her, for me, (for so many). I knew the pain she had suffered losing her husband first to mental illness, then divorce. The jobs she had lost. The lifestyle she tried to regain. The navigating of keeping tradition for her son, creating a new life for herself. I knew her colors, inside and out. She was my friend.

And isn’t it just like a friend to show up with a wink and smile, lifting your heart and heat weary feet on a gravel path. I suppose that’s what real friends do, at any time, any distance, they show you their true colors, and allow you to walk in  yours. 

If you see a spring in my step, you know I had such a friend.


I can help.

I was never afraid of the water. My mother saw to that. Buoyed by baby fat and unweighted from no previous experience, I easily bobbed up and down in the blue. She didn’t buy float rings for my arms, or an inflatable duck to strap around my waist. No lifejackets, or flotation devices of any kind. What she did give me was the confidence to jump in the water and trust my own skills. And what’s most remarkable, she never let me see the fear she carried.

I was in my early twenties, living in my first apartment, deeply secure in my ability to navigate any body of water, when she told me. Just before entering the pool for the complex. I had seen her dip toes in Lake Latoka. Wade in the water thigh high. Even sink to shoulders. But it was here, in this pool of firsts that she told me she had always been a little afraid. We got her a kicker board from Ridgedale mall. She did laps in the pool. I was so proud of her. So very proud. She was worried it would be a burden for me. Nothing could be further from the truth. What a gift. This turning of tables. A gift to carry what she once carried for me. We filled that pool with laughter and joy!

I suppose that’s what true love is — this constant exchange. This lifting. This buoying of hearts. Taking turns in bravery. In strength. Celebrating the victories large and small. Together.

I have a memory of a cartoon. Black and white. Two little girls on the front stoop of a house. One day the little girl is crying. The other girl reaches out her hand and says, “I’ll help you.” The next day laughing, with the same response. This is the world I lived in. The world my mother gave to me. The world I want to share with you.

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A love song in silver.

I raced the stairs to his class. He was a stickler for detail. One must be on time, or you will get a “greenie.” A greenie was a small piece of green paper, denoting some poor behavior – like being late, talking out of turn, not doing an assignment. And a certain amount of greenies resulted in detention or grade reduction. Of course this was incentive enough to race the halls of Central Junior High and up the stairs to his classroom, but it was more than that, I was excited for his class, English Literature. I was excited to see him. He postured straight at the front of the class. Suited and bow-tied, a pocket filled with green paper, one finger pressed to lips like a conductor waiting for the orchestra of the English language to begin.

In his fitted plaid lime green jacket he introduced us to T.S. Eliot. He read to us in perfect pitch “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The boys giggled. Mocked. Rhymed words with “frock” and quieted down after receiving their greenies. “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons,” the lyrics danced in my heart. Never to be careful, ordinary, predictable, monotonous — this was the lesson. I put it in my heart and quietly vowed the same.

In my mother’s silverware drawer, there was one spoon different from all the rest. Before I knew of words and poems, or even what was ordinary, I loved this spoon. It was the only one I ever used. My mother made sure that for each meal it was clean. My spoon. My different spoon. Not matching. Not safe. Extraordinary.

When I moved to France, the hardest thing, (the only thing that could have made me stay) was my mother. In the first weeks, my lonesome heart ran through the doubts. Had I done the right thing? No one can give you life’s permission, but I waited for a sign. A letter arrived. Small, but an odd shape. I opened it. My spoon. My different, glorious spoon — a love song in silver.

It sits by my desk. Telling me daily to choose the extraordinary. The sun comes up. I race its stairs to the beautiful unknown.


Precious cargo.

The bike that I received for my birthday near the end of March had something even more spectacular than the flowered banana seat, it had a basket — a white wicker basket just below the handlebars. Each day that pre-spring (end of winter) I got off from the school bus, put my books in the basket, opened the garage door, and watched for any sign of gravel beneath the snow.

Near the end of April’s slush, I put on my mittens, my rain boots, and braved the scattered gravel patches of Van Dyke road. I returned home with a skunk like stripe of wet gravel from the back of my boots to the top of my neck, never happier. I retold the glorious tale of each turn of the pedal as my mother peeled off my layers. “You brought Big Suzy with you?” she asked. Big Suzy was my off brand “Raggedy Ann” doll, twice the size, (hence the “Big”), and not red, but bright yellow. “I would never ever leave her behind,” I said. And I didn’t. Even when the snow was gone, the ice melted, when my basket was filled with my a giant towel and flip flops, I put Big Suzy in the basket and rode off to Lake Latoka. Her smile never left her face, nor mine.

I suppose when one parent leaves, you’re always a little worried about the other. (The things we carry.) I thought I hid them, these fears, but she knew — my mother knew my every layer. Even when I outgrew the banana seat, the dolls…even when winter after winter she remained as faithful as spring, my heart’s basket held that tiny doubt that would pop up into my path, and when I carried it, when she saw it, she looked at me and smiled, “Suzy…” she said, and I was saved.

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Filled and filled and filled.

When Mrs. Strand abandoned us to take care of other children, horrible other children (I thought), that she liked better, I was just so angry, and mostly hurt. To be fair, they were her children, and yes, she was pregnant with twins, but still.

When the substitute kindergarten teacher walked in — with all her opposites — dark hair, short, nyloned, I was furious. I just wanted to bite her. So I did. I don’t know if she knew it, but I did. When she walked around the classroom halfway through her first day and pushed (quite possibly gently) our heads down to our mats for our morning nap, I was so close to her leg. So close I reached out my mouth. Opened it. I know a loose baby tooth rubbed against her nylon. Maybe she didn’t notice. Maybe it was subtle. But in my five year old brain, the point had been made. I loved Mrs. Strand.

It didn’t take long for me to let it all go, the loose baby teeth, and my hatred for Mrs. Podolski. Maybe it was because she didn’t force me to drink the glass bottled milk before nap time. Or maybe it was because she hung our indescribables (just a longer word for scribbles) all around the classroom. Or maybe she did just pillow our heads to the mats each day. In any case, she was nice. And I loved her too. “There’s so much room in my heart,” I thought, as I fell to sleep on the floor of Washington Elementary.

It was my first lesson in the letting in and the letting go. It wouldn’t be my last. I stopped biting, but my five year old heart didn’t ever really change. It has been pushed and coddled gently. It has been bruised and stretched and filled and filled and filled with the tenderness that only love can bring. It still amazes me. Each morning. I lift my head and think, and hope, and pray, “Let there be room in my heart!”