Jodi Hills

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

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Eggs in a pan.

You’ve probably seen it if you watch the Food Network, or Youtube.  To test the new students or employees, the head chef asks them to make a French omelette. It sounds simple. I suppose we’ve all thrown eggs in a pan. What could be the big difference, right? I decided to give it a try. I melted the butter in the heating pan. Whisked the eggs with just a pinch of salt. Poured them into the hot skillet. Using a spatula, moved the eggs around, almost in a scramble. Then flattened it out gently. While the top remained a bit wiggly, I gently made the first fold. Then the second. And the third, rolling it onto the plate. Just a glossing of butter on the top, and as we say, “Voilà!”

Almost anyone can tell you a story that is plot driven. Fill it full of noises and sounds. Oooohs and aaaaahs! The big stories! The big events. But for most of us, our lives contain only a few of these. The majority of our stories are Tuesdays and Thursdays. Not holidays. Not the trips of a lifetime, but the ones to the grocery store. This is not sad. Well, I suppose it could be…if you choose not to find the beauty of the ordinary… you know, if you’re just going to throw the eggs in the pan…

But I don’t want to live like that. I want to Voilà even the simplest of tasks. The simplest of days. I want to be in love during the week. Be excited at home. Find the story along the gravel path. Don’t get me wrong, the Eiffel Tower is pretty spectacular. And it still takes my breath away, but I can say with joy, and certainty, so do the eggs in a pan. 



Home. Sweet.

It was only out of complete desperation that I ate the semi-sweet chocolate chips in the upper cupboard of our kitchen. We didn’t have a continuous stock of candy in our house like my grandma. I stockpiled from each holiday and saved a bit from the Ben Franklin run before the Saturday matinee, so I was able to keep a small stash for afterschool snacks. On the rare occasion that I ran out, I frantically searched the house. Checking first the milk glass candy dish in the living room, but it only contained what my friends called “grandma candy” – usually mints.  (Which I never understood, because no one had better candy than my grandma.)  Only one other option remained. I pulled the wooden dining chair in front of the corner cupboards. Climbed up. Standing on the orange formica, I spun the lazy susan to the baking goods. Found the chocolate chips. Prayed for the off chance that we also had butterscotch chips to mix with the semisweet. We rarely did. Sitting on the counter’s edge, I poured a handful of the dark chocolate, still hoping for something sweet. 

I mention it only because I marvel at my youthful expectation. After countless climbs, it was always the same result — bittersweet — yet I remained ever hopeful. I suppose believers always believe. 

I don’t know what today will bring, but there’s a part of me that wakes, ready to push the chair, make the climb, hoist my feet and heart, in search of something sweet. I still believe.


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!


Home economics.

Enjoy may be too strong a word, but my mother did get a real satisfaction from ironing. Combining this with the skills passed along to us by Mrs. Ballard and Miss Pfefferle, our home economics teachers at Central Junior High, I suppose it’s no surprise that today I iron everything, including my kitchen dish towels.

I think it was Miss Pfefferle that taught us to weave a pot holder. We had little iron grids and multi-colored loom loops that we weaved up and down. I thought they were beautiful! I don’t know how efficient they were — at this point I wasn’t really allowed to do any cooking, even though in Mrs. Ballard’s class we did learn how to make nougat and an apple pie (not the staples in my mom’s, nor my diet). But I was proud of my potholder. And I knew just who I wanted to give it to — my Grandma Elsie. It was a slight risk though – because she was an expert. She had her own loom afterall. Not a handheld one. No. This loom filled nearly the entire bedroom, upstairs next to the sewing room in her house. It seemed to be a combination of a church organ, a giant craft, and a carnival ride. She moved with her feet and her arms. I held onto her chubby waist from behind as it jiggled each “rag” into place. Everyone loved her woven rugs. They were gorgeous. And I wanted to be a part of it. I thought if I giggled along with each jiggle, that I indeed was. So, yes, to bring my humble woven potholder to this proven expert was surely a risk. I knew it didn’t compare. How could it? But it was my best attempt. It was an effort made. It contained her every jiggle, and I hoped, I prayed, I banked on, her feeling the love in that. With my two hands held flat and outward, I presented it to her. This gift. Her held tilted a little to one side. Both of our breaths held. She took it also with her two hands and clutched it to her heart. I beamed. Then suddenly my face was pressed against the potholder that pressed against her heart. I was inside the jiggle. She did feel the love, and gave it right back to me.

Some might laugh that I iron my dish towels. That I hang them straight. But it’s only out of love. Out of respect. For all the women that took the time to teach me the real value of this living — (it makes perfect sense now, this word economics). When I see something beautiful, create something beautiful, it is these women that I see. And I know, on my very best days, when I create something that you enjoy, that you find beautiful, that you too, are seeing them. You are inside the jiggle.

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Beating Ben Franklin.

It’s probably the worst time to tell you this, but it is true, I never had a Barbie. I don’t remember ever even wanting one.

There was nearly an entire row dedicated to the Barbie world at our local Ben Franklin store. Straight down from the candy. I saw classmates ooohing and aaahing and but, please, mommy-ing as they fogged the plastic containers. I was always two aisles over. In the craft section. Glues and paint and glitter and paper. All I ever wanted to do was make something.

The first time I opened a “grab bag” from Ben Franklin with my grandma during the summer Crazy Days Sale and found the plastic face glued to the crocheted Kleenex box holder, I was hooked. It wasn’t that I loved that “prize.” No, far from it. But I knew, even at 5 years old, I could do much better. I would beat Ben Franklin with their own supplies.

While my friends filled sacks of penny candy to go to the matinee at the Cinema next door, I wandered over to my aisle. I was often alone, or with a grandma look alike who nodded in my direction, understanding the addiction, smiling as if to say it would never end. And it hasn’t. I need to make something every day.

Sure my “aisles” have changed. The daily creation may be making a frame from reclaimed wood. Stretching a canvas. Painting a portrait. Making jam. Writing on scraps of paper with words that glitter in sweet alliteration. Living not in Barbie’s dream world, but certainly mine.

They won’t make a movie about a half-faced plastic girl stuck to a Kleenex box holder.
But I’ll be more than ok. I found my inspiration long ago. I smile as the words rhyme again and again in my head – glitter and “alliter”…. What a theme song!

I’ve had my breakfast of yesterday’s art – homemade bread and jam. I am sugared pink and ready to start the day! Let’s make something of it!

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Four and Twenty.

We were doing so well, until we got into the higher numbers. Not only did we have to learn the language, the French words for the numbers, we had to do the math as well. To say the teacher explained to us — (A “we” that could be only described as a collection of people from the land of misfit toys. Myself – the American, the two women from South Korea, the Cambodian, the Russian, the Mexican, and the 5 Arabs.) — this would be an overstatement. But in her defense, what good reason could there be to stop giving the additional numbers their own names and start combining them in different math problems? For example — the number for eighty is not given its own name, no, it is quatre-vingts (4×20).

Deep in my wandering brain, I thought of the first time I had heard this four and twenty. Yes, yes, baked in a pie…

“Sing a song of sixpence,
A pocket full of rye.
Four and twenty blackbirds
Baked in a pie.

When the pie was opened,
The birds began to sing.
Wasn’t that a dainty dish
To set before the king?”

It was my first music box. It was red and yellow, shaped like a tiny radio. You spun the knob and it sang the nursery rhyme. This one was my favorite. I dialed it in. The birds survived every time. Imagine that I thought – baked in a pie – and they survived! Glorious! I sang it again and again.

As the nursery rhyme repeated in my head, the teacher had already gotten to the nineties. It was even worse. In the nineties, you have to multiply and add. You can imagine the nightmare that 99 brings for a non-French speaking person — quatre-vingt-dix-neuf (4×20+10+9).

I suppose it will come as no surprise. To test out of this first unit, we had to hold imaginary conversations with the French officials. The first scenario, she explained, was in a store. I was to be the clerk selling dresses (so far so good.) She would be the customer. I looked at the pictures she gave to me. It showed a dress hanging on the rack. As big as life the tag read, $99.99. My heart sank. She asked how much it was. I started doing the math. The numbers raced in my head…all clunked together with the Song of Sixpence. I began my quatre-vignt-dix-ing… then stopped and said, in my best French — this dress was on sale. (Wasn’t that a dainty dish, I thought?) She laughed. I passed the exam.

I have been given the tools I need to find my way in and out of life’s pie. And so I keep singing!

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Sur la table.

It’s instinct now. I suppose I’ve done it for years, but for some reason I noticed it this morning. When making something on the stove, like this morning’s coffee, I have to tilt my head down and to the left. It’s no surprise that I’m taller than the last French generation, and the hood over the stove is a good reminder.

But I don’t really think about it. My head just seems to know, and makes the adjustment. Maybe it doesn’t sound like much, but what a marvelous creation — this brain!

This brain that worked for years and years processing one language. A brain that knew the signals and prompts. That navigated the grids and grins of one culture, now being asked to learn it all again, (and bend over a little if you don’t mind.) Even in the face of tears, and fears, and the I don’t want tos and the I cants, somehow it keeps going. Marvelous! And maybe it’s the heart that tells it so. Who can be sure who’s leading. That heart that got more than knocked by a kitchen corner and still keeps beating. So pained by love, still knowing there is nothing better. The heart that only smells the coffee brewing and looks forward to the day.

I mention it, not as a reminder of the struggle, but a reminder to give thanks. To take a moment and tell this brain, this heart — thanks for getting me here. For making the adjustments when life knocks us around.

I sit at the morning table. My cup is full.

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Here was one.

The scent reached me before I reached the door. I had seen it in cartoons — this wave that traveled through the air, curling at the end to make a hook, and then pulling you in. That was the scent of my grandma making shiskis — fried dough covered in sugar. Sweet and warm it gathered you in. In my five years, I had been to the bakery on the corner of main street, but I had yet to see how things were baked.

That summer I was taken to the Douglas County Fair for the first time. The baby barn. Little tiny pigs and cows. All explained away by “it’s a miracle.” My heart still in the lead of my brain, it was enough for me, and I believed it.

When my grandmother showed me the dough for the first time, I was amazed at how that runny batter turned into something so delicious. So golden. Birthed in that very kitchen! “Is it a miracle?” I asked her. “Yes,” she said. And I believed her.

I mentioned the other day the cookies we stumbled upon at a tiny boulangerie. I wanted to recreate the happiness, so I searched the internet for a recipe. The dough didn’t look right. I checked the recipe again and again. I made the test cookie. It was nothing like what I wanted. It looked like white rubber. I closed my ipad and channeled my grandma. She never measured anything. She tweaked. And so I began. Adding sugar. A pinch of salt. A little vanilla. More butter. Test cookie. Again. A little more butter. Test cookie. Closer. More sugar. Test cookie! Golden. Delicious. I finished the batch. Curled them on my rolling pin so they resembled the French roof tiles they are named for. My miracle.

I am currently re-reading “To the lighthouse,” by Virginia Woolf. She writes,“What is the meaning of life? That was all- a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years, the great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations… here was one.”

I don’t know what today will bring. But I do know this — there is a plate (temporarily) full of miracles on our kitchen table.

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Du jour.

I never considered our family broken. What a crazy word to call a family. Was it a big fat mess at times? Sure. Of course. But none of us really wanted to be fixed. Only loved.

It was like my grandma’s kitchen. Dirty dishes in the sink. Ingredients never measured, simply added. Meals made out of seemingly nothing at all. Plates cracked and clinking. Forever a table full. A pot boiling. A dishrag dirty. In a constant state of preparation, but rarely prepared.

My grandfather soaked the last bit of sauce from his plate with a piece of bread and went back to work in the field. Guided by a belly full and ever changing weather, he too, created, farmed, something out of nothing.

We had a smaller table than the one at the farm. And quieter. Only 5 of us. And we weren’t prepared when our family of five suddenly became two. Of course my mom was hurt. I was scared. And the table changed. But we weren’t broken. We found a new way to love. To live. Our place at the table.

If you’re reading this, there is nothing that you haven’t survived. All those things, those changes, those unbearable times…you have gotten through. I write it to remind myself as I foolishly order up the “worry du jour.” As I try to “fix” it all. It’s not broken, I repeat and repeat. It’s only life. It’s only love. Take a seat at this beautiful new table.


Coffee and love.

I remember the last coffee my mom and I had with my grandma. She was sitting at her round table when we opened the door. An empty cup with coffee grounds just within reach. I bent down to hug her. She reached up her arms to grab hold. So frail. She started to push herself up against my shoulders.  “No, no… you don’t have to get up.”  “Yes, I do,” she said, “You’re here.” I knew I was loved.

Most of her cups were stained. Not dirty, but showed the years of use. We took two from the cupboard and sat with her. I had just sold a painting. I remember telling her for how much, and she made the big “OOOOOH” sound with her rounded mouth and clapped her hands together. With that one sound, I received more than any payment. 

It wasn’t long before her head was asleep against her fist. We washed the cups and helped her to bed. The waft of coffee and love followed us out the door.

I suppose that’s why I write the stories each day — to keep the smell of love brewed alive and following. My grandma’s love. My mother’s love. 

Not that long ago, I was struggling through the tears of tenderness. I was writing this daily blog. A dear friend told me, “You don’t have to do it every day.” “Yes, I do,” I replied, “She was here.”