Jodi Hills

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

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Fleck to fleck.

I suppose like with anything, you could argue it all down to the very basics. It’s only paint, after all. Tiny flecks of white in the canvased eyes of this woman. Or, you could put aside all the whys and hows, the whats, and what ifs, and just feel it.


We don’t have to fix everything. (Not even if we could.) People, I think, just want to be seen. Accepted, with all of their flecks and flaws. Noticed, when that white fleck turns from sparkle to melancholy. And loved just the same.

Is it too much to expect? Maybe. But it’s not too much to ask.

So I pose the question again and again with each stroke. Each portrait. Each painting. Hoping that all of us can see each other just a little bit more clearly, and possibly even ourselves. Reflecting the beauty from fleck to fleck.

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Close to you.

It will probably sound strange to the youth of today, but it was something to see — this woman — who sang like an angel, wore her hair and dresses long, and sat behind the set of drums. You might think, so what? Anyone could have done it. While that may be true, she was the one who did. The first one I had ever seen. I’m guessing that’s the case for most of us. Karen Carpenter. Not all who lead stand in front. 

Most of the heroes that I write about daily were never given awards. Not praised in the news. Nor decorated with medals. But I honor them. These farmers that stood above the wheat. Teachers that cleared a path. A grandma who giggled amidst life’s clutter. Neighbors with open doors. A mother who loved within and beyond any storm. These are the angels that led me here. 

They are the reason I can sit in a country far away in front of an empty canvas, where birds do “suddenly appear,” and keep me daily, and ever close, to the ones I love.


Weekly. And forever.

I suppose we all knew that the “F” in BFFs, (Best Friends Forever) could never really be forever. Things changed so quickly at Washington Elementary. Fights could be resolved with two words, like “just kidding,” or “no offense.” And while we all knew there was both truth and offense in most of it, we moved on. There were new games to play. New promises to keep for a week at a time. And new best friends could be made with a smile, or a heart dotted “i” in an invitation for a sleepover. 

I can’t tell you what everyone clinged to. What grounded them to this perpetual moving playground and school. But for me, it was the Weekly Reader. The magazine all about books. The magazine, that if you were blessed with a mother that also loved to read, and if that mother allowed you to spend her hard earned money on words — this was the magazine that indeed saved me. My constant. My balance. My future. My ever. 

Of course we had library day. And I was grateful for sure. But there was something so very special about knowing these words didn’t have to be returned in two weeks. These words could stay beside you. In hand. On bedside. Wherever. Whenever you needed them. In this world that moved as quickly as grade school hands on monkey bars, it was the assurance I needed. It was the “F” I could really depend on.

There is an uncertainty in living a visa-ed life. Dominique and I are both dependent on those who allow us to stay…but at the same time, could say, “just kidding…” and our lives would be changed forever. We’re in a bit of an anxious moment. A moment in which my brain tells me, it will all work out, but my heart says, maybe we should go buy a book… So we did. Yesterday. The smell of the print is familiar. The weight in hand is a “there, there…” for my soul. Time disappears as I begin to read. Worry gets lost on the page. And I believe again in forever.

From my mother’s pursestrings, to the grasp of my husband’s hand, I suppose it was really always love that saved me. Love that saves us all. It’s the one true forever. But still, it’s always nice to have a book nearby. Weekly. And forever.

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Laid upon the counter.

My first instinct was to save it all. Candy from Easter or Halloween. I would spread it out. Sort it by taste and then color. Count it. Figure out how many days it would last. Not wanting to run out. Supplementing with Christmas, or Valentine’s, possibly birthday…how could I keep the candy supply chain alive?

It became quite clear on our trip to Jerry’s Jack and Jill grocery store, that this was the furthest thing from my Grandma Elsie’s mind. The first thing she picked up was a bag of coconut toasted marshmallows. She ripped open a corner and placed them in the child seat at the front of the cart. “Grandma!” I shouted a warning. “It’s fine,” she said. “We’re going to pay for it.” “But we’ll get in trouble.” “No, I know the people here.” And indeed she did. Never hiding her joy of these sugary treats, she ate them right in front of the butcher, and the stock boy. She said hello to everyone, popping them into her mouth, one after the other. By the third aisle, it became quite clear that we weren’t getting into trouble, so when she looked at me offering, I agreed. They were delicious. “Don’t you want to save any?” I asked. She looked bewildered. “But you love them…” I said. “What am I going to do with all that love?” she smiled.

We placed the empty bag on the counter at the cash register. It was my favorite trip ever to the grocery store.

It became so clear. Nothing was worth anything, if it wasn’t spent. Candy on the bedroom floor had no taste. And it became even more true with emotion. Courage had to be exercised. Love had to be given away. Or it meant nothing. I suppose we think we’re safe or something, if we hoard it all, but I’m afraid it’s just not true.

I want to live this way. So sure at the end of the day that I’ve laid it empty upon the counter. My sacks of courage, and victories, my joy, my woes, even, and especially, all my love. So sure that there will be more tomorrow. Again, and again, I will taste this life.

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I was brushing my teeth amid this morning’s thunder and lightning. And as in any storm, I quickly went through my checklist of what is connected to what… (I can’t be the only one that for a millisecond still wonders if the water works when the electricity goes out.) You know, like on the occasion when you lose power and think, can I still flush the toilet? 

I suppose it’s all about the panic. Amid the chaos, it’s hard to be certain of things. This is when our real connections have to be so very strong.

Waking from my first surgery, an emergency appendectomy, I had no idea what to expect. That sensation of being lost. Removed from time and space. Not yet in control of all my functions, I must have looked agitated. Eyes darting. Struggling to move my head back and forth. I couldn’t place myself in this sea of bright white. I wanted to run or cry, but I couldn’t seem to do either. That’s when the nurse put her hand on my shoulder. She asked the right and only question. “Is your mom here?” I repeated the words in my head. Said the sentence slowly. It began to make sense. I was unsure of where I was, how I got here, but in this state of panic, I went through my list of connections, and the only answer was yes. Of course my mom would be with me. She always was. I blinked once slowly and smiled.

The morning storm has calmed to a drizzle as I type. The electricity is on. The water still runs. Dominique is reading in the next room. And my mother sits with me. Still.

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Scampering to joy.

I didn’t know much, if anything, about lizards before moving to France. It came as quite a surprise while I was gently shoo-ing my first one away, that it dropped its tail and scooted out the door. I thought it was some sort of super ninja trick. Dominique explained that’s what they do. Shocked in the stairwell I thought, “It’s amazing what you can leave behind.”

So yesterday, when I saw a tiny one do the same thing, picking up the tail, I thought, “I’ve done this before.”

When the last of our three houses on Van Dyke Road was no longer ours, my mother had a garage sale. We packed our few remaining things in the Chevy Impala and backed the car out the driveway one last time. It was surprisingly quiet, only a slight popping of the gravel against the tires. I didn’t even hear as we drove over the remains of my father’s tail.

I suppose we were all trying to save ourselves. Friends, security, this neighborhood, this life, dusted behind us.

My mother and I moved from apartment to apartment. Finally settling the longest on Jefferson Street. Perhaps it was here we gained our footing and began to attach again. To new friends. A new life. With lizard-like resilience, we scampered through open doors, and found our way.

I can’t say that it wasn’t a tiny bit frightening — getting on the plane for France. Looking out into the blue, everything of this life became small. Tiny little tails. “I’ve done this before,” I smiled.

Life gives us all the tools we need. We face challenges. We grow. Change happens. Daily. Sometimes by choice, sometimes not, either way, opening a door. We can freeze in fear, or we can shake loose the dust, and scamper towards the joy.


Waiting for Phyllis Norton.

It wasn’t surprising that my mother had to drive Phyllis Norton at full speed down Van Dyke road to Douglas County hospital to have her baby. The surprising part was that she only had to do it once. Mrs. Norton did have five girls after all.

I’m not sure if they were rules of law, or just the rules of the neighborhood, but people respected them either way, and drove slowly on the gravel. On the rare occassion that you saw the billowing of dust behind a vehicle, you knew something had to be wrong. It was this sort of knowledge that was the firm structure on which we based our youth. We knew our neighbors. And for better, or worse, we counted on them. And not just to do the heavy lifting, or make the hospital run, but to be who they were. Each of us had our roles. The Norton girls could fill out any team — softball, kickball, kick the can — they had the numbers, and the ever willingness to play. The Schulz boys guarded our behavior. In hindsight, they weren’t bad, but probably just a little wild, and served as a threat if we did something wrong — “Do you want to go live with the Schulz’s?” We didn’t. So we behaved. Our stunt grandparents, both Dynda and Mullen, served as stability. Open screen doors and plates of cookies. Clothes hanging on the line. Constants. The Lees provided our future — our last pick-up on the school bus, they were young and sparkling clean as their mother, Yvonne, with her movie star looks and shift dresses waved us all goodbye. The Spodens came to fill in our missing pieces and hold together the movement that kicked up the gravel one last time.

Does it matter? I can answer this by a dream I had the other night. It was really in the early stages of the morning. The kind of dream that comes after a rough night. The kind of dream that stays with you. In my dream, we lived in a replica of my grandparents’ house here in France. Our house was filled with unknown tourists, struggling with their cellphones. Looking out the kitchen window, I saw someone familiar. I flung open the door and raced toward her yelling in delight for all of France to hear — “Phyllis Norton is here!!!!! Phyllis Norton is here!!!!” I screamed it through our yard. Through our house! And woke up with such joy. Such comfort.

So it did matter. It matters still. We built something. Together. And it remains. Even a lifetime and country away, it supplies a structure of support. A stability of goodness. I carry it with me daily. Count on it. Guard it with my heart. And go to sleep each night, waiting for Phyllis Norton.


Dabbing the crumbs.

She yelled, “Sur la table!” We all sat down for the evening meal. The conversation began immediately. It was when I first arrived in France. When they still took the time to translate. Dominique’s cousin said they were talking about food. I smiled and looked at the full table. “Oh, not just this food,” she explained. “You see in France, while we’re eating the meal, we talk about the last meal we had, the one in front of us, and the next meal we’re going to make.” Food is life here.

I was never really a fast-food American. Some of my favorite memories with my mom included the slow intake of small portions over a long evening in my apartment. I would buy the best of what I could afford. The tiniest cut of cheese. Bread from the Great Harvest. A bottle of red. We gathered in the memories of the day that moved between laughter and tears, back to laughter again, all tender. Then decaf coffee with a morsel of chocolate. There were no left-overs to settle, but for the occasional giggle. From my bedroom, I could hear her rustle in the living room. She could hear a giggle burst down the hall. This continued until I squeezed her air mattress next to my bed, and we finally went to sleep. 

Even with this, the transition to the art (and it is an art) of French cooking and eating took some time. As much as you will find paint on my everyday clothes, you will find handprints of flour. Traces of sugar, or jam. I am a part of it now. The meal before. And the ones to come.

It was 105 degrees yesterday. Yet, I knew I needed to bake cookies. French cookies. I mixed the dough. Rolled it on the table. Cut out the circles. Used my fork to make the criss-crossed lines. Brushed with egg yolk for the golden color. The test cookie came out perfectly the first time. My mother-in-law lay passing just a short-drive away. The last meal was over. But our house is filled with the scent of butter, sugar and sweet memory. 

Dabbing the crumbs with fingertips, not to miss a taste, we speak of what’s to come. The next meal. This is life. And it is delicious!

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Flowered in the cracks.

I’m not sure it’s statistically possible, but it would seem that 90% of the time I’m at the end of the roll of toilet paper. Perhaps, like all bounty, it is hard to see until it begins to end.

I don’t know how my grandma did it. With eleven people in the house, just to maintain the necessary products must have been a constant challenge. And yet, I never saw it. And, like I’ve said before, I tried to memorize their house. I paid attention. I counted the number of steps. The paintings that hung in each bedroom. What was hidden in the closets. The sewing room. My grandma’s dresser. The damp coats hanging. The shoes leading down the basement stairs. Which cupboard held the candy. The six pack of cereal. I took it all in, so I thought. But it was only today, these many years later, it occurred to me that I don’t remember where she kept the toilet paper. And I don’t remember ever running out. Even on holidays when that house of 11 turned to 50 or more. We always had what we needed.

It may sound silly. I mention it only because what a thing! —  to count on someone like this. And believe me, I did the math. With each grandchild that appeared. Each great grandchild. I wondered would it be possible for her to still love us all, and by that I mean me. Would it be possible for her to still see me among all these arms reaching up to be held. All these toes trampling and racing. Sticky fingers. And one cry louder than the next. Would it be statistically possible to have that much love?

She was almost 90 when we were sitting at her table. Drinking egg coffee made on the stove. Grounds clinging to the bottom of stained cups. My mom and I had just been at one of my gallery shows. We told her about what I had painted. What I had sold. Sitting in this tiny apartment which now contained a mere fraction of what her house had held. (I suppose all lives get reduced down to the necessary.) She made the silent oooooh with her mouth, a sound only hearts can hear. She told me to go to the nightstand beside her bed. It was only a couple feet from the kitchen table. It was there that I saw it. A small easeled piece of tree bark, with dried flowers glued in the cracks, with the words “Love, Jodi, 5th grade,” written in Sharpie on the back. It wasn’t possible, and yet, my heart’s sigh told me that it was — she saw me, she knew me, she loved me. Still. 

It would have been so easy to get lost in the cracks of it all. But there I was. Flowered. 

I had to hold both of her hands to lift her from her chair. Somewhere along the line we had reversed roles, she now cuddled shoulder high in the warmth of my embrace. If I didn’t know it before, I knew it then, love never runs out.

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The golden glimpse.

It wasn’t certainty, but the complete absence of the need for it. It was only a moment. Perhaps it will take even longer to explain than it lasted. But it did happen. This morning. I walked out the back door. There was no change in temperature. It felt like the world was one big room. Everything equal. I walked around the yard in my swimsuit. I can only describe the feeling as enough. I felt thin enough. Pretty enough. Clever enough. (Not because I had changed, or gotten better, it was just that everything was connected. There was no better, no worse — we all just were.) I was loved enough. Given enough. Not wanting. Nor waiting. Just being. A part of it all.

And I hope you can hear the joy, the gratitude in the word enough.

I jumped into the pool. Still the same temperature. I swam my laps in the blue that held no separation. Was it sky or water? Swimming or flying? I wasn’t sure. But it was enough. Leaving the pool, the water beaded upon my skin. Under the sun. Slowly drying. I was embraced. Framed. Just as the woman in the painting. Golden.

By the time I reached the house, it had passed.

Only to be felt in glimpses now. But those glimpses, I smile knowing, they too, will be enough. I’ll catch a flash of it, walking past her, hanging on the wall. Or maybe walking on the street. I’ll smile as she randomly strolls by, effortless, this stranger, not known by name, but by frame, both feeling, it is indeed golden — just to be — and we are enough.

I sit now within and between the labored breaths of my mother-in-law. How many more? It’s not certain. But there’s no need for it. Not now. In and out. Pausing. And there it is — the slightest smile between the gasps. A glimpse of just being. And I know it’s enough. It has been so beautifully enough.

She’s somewhere between water and sky now. Her arms, merely twigs, make a flutter. The sun is calling. She, I, we, all caught in the golden glimpse. It is more than enough.