Jodi Hills

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


Answering Frank.

It still surprises me the amount of candy one could receive just by donning an old pair of sweatpants and a paper sack from Olson’s Supermarket over your head. Even if we would have had the money, I’m not sure it would have occurred to us to buy a costume. Surely better results could not have been achieved with a store-bought mask. Nor could it have been used as a backup sack when your premier trick or treating bag, also a sack from Olson’s, became filled, or the handles ripped off. Because the women of VanDyke road, and just beyond by the cemetery, would indeed fill your bag. Homemade popcorn balls. Carmeled apples. Full-size Hershey bars. Cookies. We said “Trick or Treat” with full confidence. We were only “treated.” 

It would be hard to imagine now, I suppose. But it was real. Mrs.Vacek, beyond grandma old, opened her door, and walked us past the linoleum porch to sit at the kitchen table. Frank, her husband, perhaps only feigning affection, still managed to sit at the table, head in hand, and asked us one by one, not the standard question of “who are you supposed to be,” but he asked, “Who do you belong to?” “Oh, Frank,” Mrs. Vacek would say, knowing full well who we were. “The green house, on Van Dyke road,” I would reply. (Not completely comprehending, although we had walked far in the early setting sun, we were still on Van Dyke road.) Each of us responded with the like — the yellow house, the white house… Because we belonged here – in this neighborhood, in these houses, on this road. A real community, that was the real treat, I guess. We belonged.

It’s what I wish for you. For all. On this, and every day, that you have an easy answer to Frank’s question. Happy Halloween!

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Extreme makeover.

I don’t imagine my grandma would have ever contemplated an “extreme laundry room makeover.” (Unless, of course, you count the time she filled the basement room with chinchillas.) So I laugh each time I get the Youtube prompt for these transformations, knowing that I wouldn’t have — couldn’t have — loved her any more had she actually upgraded from her concrete floor and clothes hanging by the furnace. 

My mother, too, did our laundry standing on basement concrete. Unmatched baskets. Unmatched hangers. A line strung from one end of the room to the other. Of all the things we dreamed of — and we were dreamers — I’m certain a laundry room makeover was never one of them. 

We spent hours each Sunday afternoon in the darkness of the time change, lying beside the twice our size stereo console, listening to the handful of records that she owned, feeling the turn of washing machine beneath the floor. The only pause of fantasy was when the needle scratched and I jumped up to start it playing over again. It was never of things. Only experience. This is what we longed for. Love and time and light. Laughter clicking with shoes on sidewalks. Toes in sand on beaches. Freedom. Acceptance. Joy. Shopping. Coffee. Travel. Romance — in every sense of the word. And the proper soundtrack that would follow us through it all. 

This year, time took away more than an hour, but thankfully, not the dream. Never the dream. As I sit in the light of the morning change, I see my grandma climbing the stairs. My mother too. Out of the basement. Into the light. I don’t need a Youtube channel for this. The love is extreme, made over again and again.

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The come-with gal.

It was my mother who taught me to be a come-with gal. Both by being one, and by asking the same of me. 

When I started having surgeries in my teens, on every joint available, my mother was there. She made appointments during her lunch hours. She used vacation time for hospital stays. She overnighted in questionable parts of strange cities to be there when I woke the next morning. She was the driver. The nurse. The companion. The entertainment. Each and every step of the way, she came with. 

Returning home, still releasing anesthesia through tears and hanging limbs, she would say, “Well, I’m going to the mall.” I didn’t want to miss out. She knew that. She also knew this would get me off the couch. On crutches, or slinged, sometimes both, I slapped on the lipstick that she already had raised from the tube, and I limped along beside her. She tried on every outfit that Herberger’s had to offer. Some to stun. Some just to make me laugh. And I did. I got over, because I came with. 

Just the other day I sold a painting that turned out to be a two-fer. Sometimes when I run out of canvas, or panel, I paint on the opposite side. As I was wrapping up the painting of Lake Agnes for shipping, I smiled, because there she was, the woman on the other side of the painting — the come-with gal. How appropriate, I thought. On one side, the image of where I came to life, Lake Agnes of Alexandria, Minnesota. And on the reverse, the symbol of how I came alive, just by coming with.

No days wasted. My mother saw to that. The sun is calling, and I must go.


The weight of magic.

It would be hard to see at first glance, I suppose, but the chairs I recovered when first moving to France, remind me of my grandfather.

He didn’t say a lot. My grandma was the talker. So to know him, you had to watch him. It was his actions that told the story. And the truth that I saw was that he could fix anything. His tools were simple. Most, it appeared to me, could fit into a small handled, rusted box that he could carry in one hand from the shed to the field, where the tractor waited patiently.

This was business. He took it seriously. But one time he let me walk with him. Two steps to his one, I bit my lips to mute the million questions in my head. Just watch, my brain kept telling my curious heart. The music of the tools rattling seemed to lead the dance. With great precision he flipped and turned. Jolted and eased. Mumbled under breath. And the tractor started again. I sat on his overalled lap and he drove me back to the house. I told him I would return the toolbox to the shed. It wasn’t just to be helpful, I actually wanted to feel the weight of magic. It was surprisingly easy to carry.

When I first moved to France, I needed to find a way to fix the time. The real “difference,” was not just seven hours ahead, but how it could be filled. I didn’t understand the television. My phone didn’t work. Stores were often closed. People spoke in an unfamiliar rhythm. I had my painting. My writing. But there was still time to fill. I went to my heart’s shed and grabbed my toolbox. I decided to recover two chairs. I had never done it before. Never even knew that I wanted to, but here they were, these two chair frames, so I began to work. With Dominique’s help, I found the fabric, the stuffing, the upholstery nails, the sandpaper, the paint. And began. The sanding and the painting went well. The stretching of fabric over the cushions took some trial and error, but I figured it out. Then the nailing — the endless nailing — hour after hour of nailing. But I did it! I did it, I said again to the heavens. And as I placed one in the entry and one in our library, I could hear the engine roll over, feel the puff of smoke, and the tractor wheels turn. It was magic.

Without saying it, he taught me to find a way. Each day has its challenges, but I’m carrying a box of magic.

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This is better.

The walk of temptation was extraordinary for a five year old. My mom parked the Chevy Impala in front of Ben Franklin that Saturday morning. I could already see the candy through the double glass doors. My impatient feet jittered up and down next to the parking meter as she rummaged through the bottom of her purse for a quarter. I rolled my eyes as she pushed aside Kleenex and breath mints. “C’mon,” I would never say out loud, but released through the clenching and unclenching of my chubby fingers. The coin dropped and the red flag moved aside. We were free. I raced past the front cashier and stood in front of the penny candy. If I saw it today, with grown-up eyes, the square plastic bins stacked on an end cap, might not seem so magical, but then, oh, then, it was glorious! It was Tinkerbell’s wand waving over a colorful rainbow of sugar. I could feel my chin drop. “Wait!” I said as she led me down the aisle. “Can’t we just get a little bit..just one color even…just a piece of red…” “Next time,” she said, “We have better things to do.” Better things, I grumbled underneath my breath. Impossible, I thought. And dragged my bumper tennis shoes along. The aisle became stacked with toys. Beautiful, plastic covered toys! Yes, I thought. These must be the better things. I began to touch everything. I wanted it all. Or anything! Something pink and shiny! Please, I begged, perhaps out loud, or just with heart-reaching urgency. I felt her hand on my shoulder again. “Better…” she promised. It couldn’t possibly be, I thought. Yet, she had never lied to me. But here, in the center aisle of the Ben Franklin, I must admit, I had my doubts. We walked through the back door. A large pillared building stood in front of us. I began to near the grass, but she pulled me to the sidewalk. “You need to see all of it,” she said. We stood in front. The Alexandria Public Library. It was beautiful, but what was inside? “Books,” she said. “They give them to you. With just your name.” I could only breathe the word, “OHHHHH…” We walked up the stairs and opened the doors. “It smells like words,” I said. She smiled and led me down the stairs to the children’s section. I could barely move. Every spine, every cover, called to me. “Take your time,” she said. Each letter tugged at my sleeve until my arms were filled. I signed (printed) my name on the small mildewed card. My heart beat sugared from the inside. “Do you want me to help you carry them?” I shook my head no and carefully maneuvered myself and the precious cargo down the stairs. I started walking up the sidewalk. “Don’t you want to cut through?” she asked, pointing at Ben Franklin. “No,” I said, “this is better.” We walked the long way to the car. Books in hand, I held the keys to the kingdom.

“You are part of my story, and it is beautiful!”

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Leaves turning.

Opening the morning shutters in my pajamas, I didn’t have my cell phone camera with me, so you’ll just have to believe me when I tell you that the yellow turning leaves of the apricot tree against the pink sky pulling the sun was nothing less than spectacular! In the short time it took me to get upstairs the sky had turned to orange, and in a split second, the sun, (that ol’ show stopper) took over and yellow-whited everything. But it did happen. And I saw it. And writing it here, the moment still passes, I suppose, but the feeling remains.

I guess it’s the same with love. With life. All just spectacular, tiny moments. 

When they tore down Petermeier’s Funeral Home, seeing the empty lot for a brief moment, all the colors of my grandma faded. She was such a part of that place. What started as just a small job of phone sitting, turned into something, well, spectacular. Being a small funeral home in a small town, the phone rarely rang. So my grandma filled the time — and no one could fill time better than my grandma. So we joined her, my cousins and I. Playing card games. Riding the vacuum cleaner. Opening unused coffins. Dancing on mopped floors. Hiding behind ceiling-high red velvet curtains. Learning, respectfully, unafraid, the names of the poor souls that did pass, my grandma saw to that. 

There was a reluctance at first, to let the two young Petermeier children into our grandma’s life. Her name was not Elsie, as they called her, it was “grandma,” and that gave us protective ownership, so we thought. But as her love for them grew, and never diminished for us, we allowed it (and by allowed it I mean, we joyfully ran within it.)

We had already said good-bye to my grandma by the time they tore that building down. Actually saying our goodbyes in that very place. Sitting at the stop lights beside the vacancy, my heart echoed with her laughter. She was still beating us at the card game she hadn’t bothered to teach us before playing. The colors filled my heart. The light turned green. I moved on. All the feelings remained.

They still do. Even as I type this, the yellow leaves pass like moments, dropping from the apricot tree. Time keeps passing. But I am a day-filler! My grandma taught me that. It’s not lost on me that the color of the apricot leaves match the French cookies that I made yesterday, (they too are disappearing). And the cookies match the clothing of the woman I recently painted, on a golden day that I did, indeed, fill! 

Thank you, Grandma.

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Heart smiles.


Long before it became my “living,” it was my life. Before I could write, I colored in the feelings jumping around my heart with off-brand crayons, in the coloring books my mom purchased at Olson’s Supermarket. As Mrs. Bergstrom handed out words at Washington Elementary, I added them outside the lines of the images on the page. With increasing confidence in heart and hand, I graduated to blank sheets of paper, creating my own images, my own poems. The silent urging of closeted dolls, (Big Suzy and Malinda), told me to go show my mother. And I did. Every phrase. Every drawing. Because she caught me, with guaranteed safety and wild approval, each time I dared to fling myself from the cliff of my bedroom floor, feelings-first, straight into her outreached arms, waving my newest creation that revealed my entry-level heart…this…this is the reason she was always my first set of eyes — and would be, the rest of her life.

As I began to sell my work, she had the greatest response ever. When I would complete a piece and show her, she would say, “That’s going to sell immediately!” She said it as a compliment, for sure, but also with the slight melancholy of “let’s never let it go.” (My safety net. Those outstretched arms.) When I would make the sale, with the widest of prideful smiles, she would say, “Ooooh, no….” and we heart-giggled in delight.

Pablo Picasso said, “We are all born artists, the problem is to remain an artist as we grow up.” My mother never let me forget. As I put new pieces up for sale on my website, I smile, hearing a faint passing giggle from the sky, “Oooooh, no…” (Still. Those outstretched arms.)

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Folds of worth.

I found ten euros on the path yesterday while out for my morning walk. I picked it up. Smiled. Looked around. There was no one in sight. I folded it neatly and put it in my pocket. It was at the beginning of my walk, so I had almost an hour left to check it repeatedly. Like a five year old with birthday money stashed in my shorts, I clutched it in my chubby fingers again and again. It’s not that I needed ten euros so badly (although it’s always a treat!). What I really needed was not to lose the proof. I was so excited to show Dominique that even though out of season, I still had the “asparagus” eye. Out of all the people that strolled the path that morning, with dogs and phones and step-counters, I was the one who spotted the surprise! It made me feel special. I patted my pocket to feel the folds of worth.

My grandma was the first to give me a five dollar bill every year for my birthday. It continued well into my thirties. While the currency lost value through the years, the envelope that arrived each March 27th, addressed with her handwriting, became priceless. Opening the mailbox, I clutched it in hand. Forever a five year old, held heart-close in my grandma’s attention. I still have the last envelope she sent. Framed, it stands next to her picture. She loved me. I will forever feel special. Worthy.

“Guess what I found!” I said.

“I don’t know,” he said.

“Guess! Go ahead and guess!” I said, while unfolding the bill.

“Ohhhh!” he exclaimed, “You have the asparagus eye!” I am loved. You can’t put a price on that.

It’s all about the choices we make. We can choose to stay or to cross over. We are offered these bridges as gifts. It’s not always easy to dare to cross over, to get through, to get beyond… but it is a choice. So many rivers to cross. And with one step, we choose… we decide to love, to be loved… we decide that we are actually worthy of the giving and receiving… we choose to live… and we cross over… we cross over to the beauty that lies ahead. What a journey!


Smile by heart.

Smile by heart.

It was the first thing we always checked — the lighting in the bathroom. Whether hotel or apartment, this was the most important thing, my mother taught me. After all, she explained, a lady had to get her face on in the proper light. And she always did. I watched her do it. Even on her darkest days, she began each morning in the bathroom light. Transferring it to her face. Going to work with a heavy heart, and a well-lit smile. In my younger years, I imagined the corners of her mouth attached like pulleys, lifting her heart into that same light. Just typing it now, mine did the same. 

When traveling to different art shows across the United States, I would call her when arriving, and the first thing she would ask was “How is the lighting?” I only just realized, maybe it had always been code for “how is your heart?” 

Even in the last apartment she lived in, we checked it first. She used her walker to get into the light. It was perfect, she said. She had already decided. Maybe this is what I loved about her the most — this decision to find the light. To become it. Smile by heart. 

She could get her face on in here, she said. She filled the adjacent cupboard with the finest make-up. Moisturizers. Creams. She put them on each morning. Her lip-lined corners once again pulling up her heart. 

Missing her now, I’m asked to do the same. And I do. Morning by morning. Smile by smile. My heart gets lifted. Into the light.

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More ideas.

Sometimes it takes me a while to get there, but I usually do.

I’m no different from the next person when it comes to packing a suitcase, if that next person is slightly neurotic and overly excited. It’s still three weeks away, but the neurons in charge of organization have already begun counting underwear and creating a capsule wardrobe. “Wouldn’t it be great,” they urged, “if we had packing cubes, and other various sorting devices for the suitcases…” I nodded inside my own head and began searching the web. The options, while infinite, didn’t seem exactly right. I searched through sizes and colors and prices. The right price was the wrong country of origin. The right color was the wrong size. The right size was the wrong price. I searched and fumbled. Added some to cart. Backed out. Searched again. After about an hour and forty-five minutes, it became clear that I could use the random tote bags given free from the pharmacy and the stash of bags my mother gave to me from the make-up counter promotions. I take a breath. I take a pause. I have everything I need. What a relief to quit searching…unless that is, I need more clothes… That’s when I play fashion show from my own closet and once again realize, I have more than plenty.

I suppose it’s true with almost everything — we don’t need more things, we need more ideas. Of course there are specific times when you require a precise tool, object, (even scarf or scarves to match your autumn overcoat), but most of the time I find, if I’m creative enough, thoughtful enough, I already have the perfect solution. And it usually feels great! To shop your own closet and create a new look. To sand and sand the abandoned wood and make a new frame. To create a delicious recipe out of the left-overs. To give the neurons a break and let my heart and hands take over.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for commerce. I bought two new books yesterday. (I will use the french bag as backing for a framed picture, but still.) And I want you to buy pictures and books and cards, even from me (insert shameless plug here). So what was my point? I don’t know…maybe Marie Kondo had it right, about all the “sparking joy.” I like that. I think it’s a good idea…I guess that was the point, after all, more ideas — more joyful ideas! Wishing you a day filled with them.

Pause, and spark!