Jodi Hills

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

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By name.

Left to my own devices each weekday of summer, I became quite adept at navigating this solo world of play. On the alternate days when I didn’t have a softball game, I figured out a way to play catch with myself. My mother bought a net that was strung between a metal square. If you threw the softball directly into the sweet spot it bounced directly back to you. I thought I was making a good decision when I placed the net in front of the garage. Because our driveway faced Van Dyke road, I didn’t want to throw the ball directly into what I loosely will call “traffic” (the random neighbor’s car).  Perhaps I overestimated my throwing accuracy. Hitting the target several times in a row, I gained the confidence to throw harder. I “wound up” and let the ball fly. Missing the target completely, the ball shattered the glass window of the garage door. 

I panicked. I looked around to see if anyone saw. There was no one there. Only my banana seat bike. It seemed to be the only answer. I dropped my glove and straddled the banana seat. Kicking the air. Trying desperately to keep up with the pedals as I raced down the hill toward the North End. The North End was the undeveloped land at the end of our neighborhood. Undeveloped by housing, but certainly overdeveloped in every school age kid’s mind that lived on this road. It was where every bad thing imagined or otherwise was sent to live. It was the threat of the unknown. The Bermuda Triangle of this small Minnesota town. Exactly the place where thieves or window breakers would go to hide.  I threw my bike into the side of the gravel pit and waited. 

It could have been hours, or a lifetime, I’m not sure how long. I imagined my story. It was robbers who did it. Certainly bad people who just wandered by while I was innocently playing. Or maybe it was one the Norton girls. Surely I could throw the blame at one of them. I kicked the dust with my bumper tennis shoes and thought and thought and thought. 

When I first heard my name called, I was sure it was the police. I held my breath. I heard it again. It became louder, but not angry. Almost sweet. Almost welcoming. I knew that voice. I got on my bike and rode towards it. My mother stood at the top of the hill. Every excuse fell from my heart and hands as I dropped my bike beside her on the gravel road. “I did it,” I said, hugging her nyloned work legs. “I know,” she said. We walked my bike back home.

Love will always call your name. Heart open, I walk the road. And listen.

Heart open, love called her name.

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I suppose some of the gifts should have been a surprise, but they never were. We grew up with them, these strange and fantastic presents from Grandma Elsie. She was certain that she would be the next Publisher’s Clearing House Winner. Certain enough to clear a path at the front door for an oversized check. But not quite certain enough to stop ordering from the catalog. She imagined with each purchase she got a little bit closer to winning. And she needed gifts after all, what with 27 grand children. So she ordered. I’d like to think it was all random. It’s hard for me to imagine that she saw the red knee length laced panties (bloomers), and thought immediately of me. But that’s what I received for my Christmas present when I was 8 years old.

I had no sinister thoughts at the time. No thoughts of “saloon girls,” or worse… No, I thought they were shorts. Fancy shorts. I kept them folded neatly in my summer drawer.

I was still at my softball game when my mother got home from work. Now, as luck would have it, (so I thought) our town colors were red and black, based on our Cardinal mascot. It was on this very day that I decided to wear my fancy Christmas shorts with my Cardinal t-shirt. The man-made fibers rubbed against my chubby thighs, and caught on the wooden bench of the dugout. I imagine I left a trail of red lace as I rode my bike home from the Dairy Queen field. My disappointment was met with horror on my mother’s face as I dropped my bike in the driveway. I started to cry pink tears. “No,no, no…” she tried to assure me. “It’s fine. You’re beautiful,” she said. I caught my breath, hiccup by hiccup. “Grandma doesn’t know anything about softball,” I said. “No, she doesn’t,” my mother smiled. “How was your game? Did you win?” “No,” I said, but I think we’re getting closer.” I was indeed my grandma’s girl.

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At play.

I’m not sure we ever finished a game. There was softball. And kickball. And kick the can. And freeze tag. Regular Tag. One game morphed into the next in the empty field between our house and Dynda’s. With five girls, the Norton’s made it possible to do almost anything. If they showed up, teams were easily made. And that’s really all any of us had to do — just show up. Balls. Bats. Even bikes waited patiently in the grass, or the curb of the gravel road.

If we did keep some kind of score, it was forgotten. Erased by front stoop calls to dinner, or the dark of night. When I think back, it may be one of the greatest lessons I received in humanity. In love.

As we get older, we think we have to do something – and even worse – do the “right thing.” When someone is going through a difficult period, we struggle. “I don’t know what to say.” “I don’t know what to do.” We search for answers or solutions. But as with most things, we were given the tools from the start. We knew what to do. It turns out, it still holds true. All we have to do is show up. Be there for each other. Forgetting all the scores, remembering only to reach out an imperfect, sweaty, grass stained hand, and just be… together.

My lot is trampled. Sure. Worn even. For this I am blessed. My heart is at play. And I will never finish loving you.

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On the promised land.

We took the bus all the way to St. Cloud (an hour away) to play in the grade school summer softball tournament. It was so hot. By the time we got there, the iron-on patches that spelled out our team’s name began peeling off of our t-shirts.

The score was low and close. Dehydrated, we made it to the bottom of the ninth, up by one. As the visiting team, we just had to hold them off. Three outs. That was it. I played catcher. I beat my right fist into my oversized glove with my name written on it. I called for the pitch. (We had no special pitches, so I was just calling for the ball.) She threw it with the most magnificent arc. Almost impossible to hit. The batter had to wait for it to come down from the blazing blue sky. The batter swung. From the sound alone, I knew she only got a piece of it. I jumped up slightly from my crouch. Legs spinning. Eyes looking upward. My head was so far ahead of my feet. All I had to do was catch this ball and we would win. I chased my heart down the third base line. Head and glove extended. There was no physics to explain how my feet kept my face above the dust of the field’s sand and clay. My heart clearly defied the rules of balance. And I kept running (more falling forward at a wicked pace.) The ball fell into the web of my glove. I could hear the cheers and feel the waves of arms around me. But there was no way for me to stop. I just kept falling forward, heart filled. I was well beyond third base when I tumbled into the green of the outfield. Ball still in glove. We had won.

Some days I still feel like that. Feet spinning, trying to catch up to my heart. And I’ve had my share of face-plants in the dirt, scraped knees, but I wouldn’t have it any other way, so I keep running, falling forward…because, I guess, when it comes to following my heart, joyfully, there’s just no way for me to stop.

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All saints and sinners.

We certainly never bought costumes. To invest in something, just to get free candy, that didn’t make any sense, my mother explained. So each year, we dressed as a shabbier version of ourselves. Maybe it was all a test. To go throughout our neighborhood. Knock on each door. Stand there, presenting the worst version of ourselves, hands reaching out, while they guessed who you were. They always knew. We knew everyone. Even in the early darkness of late October, we knew. We knew by the laughter. The screams. How fast we ran. How slow. We were one. All saints and sinners. And even with all this knowledge, we still asked the question, “Trick or Treat?” Because on this one night of the year, perhaps the only night, we were certain of the answer. We were certain of the sound the candy made as it dropped to the bottom of our paper sack.

France has made attempts at Halloween. The retailers put out a little bit of candy. We’ve even carved a pumpkin or two, never on the 31st, but the closest day of the weekend. But it’s never really caught on. It doesn’t have the history.

I brought back a sack of Halloween candy from the US. I gave it to the kids after explaining they had to say “Trick or Treat?” I didn’t know how to tell them that it was about so much more. It was neighborhoods and trust. Swinging open doors. It was the presentation of ourselves at our worst, and the acceptance given freely, joyfully (ourselves at our best.)

Of course they loved the candy. And somewhere in the sugar rush, past the open doors of our salon — open to a yard that became an afternoon baseball field, played with rules disguised as fun, I hope they felt it, this spirit of acceptance, this spirit of freedom, of joy! I believe they did. So this will be our tradition. This knowing. This certainty. Any day of the year.


Reaching out. Reaching forward.

When searching in the yard for all the tennis balls, (that we use as baseballs, so I, as the pitcher, don’t get killed), the kids found something more. Behind the tool shed, past the wire fence, past the two lines of trees that separate us from our neighbors yard, sat a big dog, eagerly waiting with a yellow ball in his mouth.

I don’t know who hit the ball that far — well, I know it wasn’t Margaux, but there he sat, smiling with his discovery. They reached their hands through the fence. Faces pressed up against the wire to get full arm’s length. He crawled up slowly as if to say it was OK. Released the ball. And one of them threw it back over the trees. We couldn’t see where the ball landed, but the dog knew, and brought it back immediately. And so the unlikely game of fetch began. Through the fence. Through the trees. Over and over. It would be hard to say which side was more delighted.

Children find a way. Perhaps because they are open beyond fences. They see beyond the trees, the obstacles. They find the joy.

It’s easy to get stuck in life’s daily obstacles. Blocked by others. Trapped by our thoughts. But I don’t want to live like that. I want to see all the possibilities. See with the eyes of youth. Not the dim view of experience. Because sometimes, the past is kept well, in the past. And the clear view is led with hearts and hands reaching out, reaching forward. Beyond the fenced fear. Into the bright light of today. Smiling. Eager!

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Sunday. Sun day.

The grandkids now have an exchange student staying with them from Germany. Yesterday, in the afternoon sun, wearing the Minnesota Vikings caps we gave to them, we played our version of baseball in the backyard. Two French kids, one German, one American, wearing football caps, playing baseball in the south of France. Not a bad Sunday afternoon.

When I was in highschool, we called them foreign exchange students — but there was nothing foreign about this kid. He fit right into our cornucopia. After, what I loosely call, “the baseball game,” they wanted to go to my painting studio. He looked at everything. Each painting. Wanted to know the stories behind them. He was thoughtful and interested. After looking, touching, he went to one of the smallest paintings I have, right by the front door. He said with all certainty, “This one is my favorite.” I smiled at Charles, because we knew the story. 

When Charles was very young, he came into my studio. I had just started a new painting, immersed in the blue of a new sky. “But where is the sun?” he asked. I hadn’t gotten to the sun yet, so I told him it was coming. He watched, eagerly. And as it appeared, for one brief moment, I held his sun in my hands. 

“That’s Charles’ Sun,” we both said at the same time. Now, that might seem like a small thing, but it felt like magic. 

Most people gravitate to the largest of my paintings. The grand scene from New York – 8 feet tall. Or the people swimming in a 7′ sea. But this kid, German, but not foreign at all, went directly to Charles’ Sun, and he connected us all. 

It’s easy to find the differences. But really, we all just want a Sunday afternoon. With room to play. Room to grow. To learn. To connect. We can do this. For each other. For our world. We’re holding the sun in our hands.

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Making heirlooms.

I looked it up, to see the exact definition —. Heirloom: a valuable object that has belonged to a family for several generations.

I don’t suppose we’ve ever been a family of objects, but I’don’t feel badly about that. Because we do have valuables. My grandparents, being farmers, grew something every year. Not for display. But for the growth. The life. And the stories that remain, even after every truck and tractor, every tool, had been auctioned off, the stories remain. And I hear them. I write them. And I pass them on – these heirlooms.

Since I can remember, I have only seen my brother in overalls. He is not a farmer. I’m sure if you asked him, he would say for the comfort, the pockets, easier to work in… and those reasons are probably all true. But it occurred to me that maybe he is creating his own heirlooms. Just as I write the stories, he puts on my grandfather’s wardrobe, and gives his own grandchildren an image of the past. An image that they certainly will carry with them forever. Their Grandpa Tom wore overalls.

We get to decide what is valuable in this life. What is important to us. For me, it has always come down to the human connection. Never to be displayed on shelves, but certainly displayed daily, in hands reaching out, arms pulling in, love grown, lives shared.

Some days, as I type, I wonder, is it really important, to write these words? And then you respond with memories of your own. Share your stories — your heirlooms — and grandparents are kept alive, traditions, schools, hometowns… and I smile and know it is valuable — making these daily heirlooms.

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Put me in, coach.

I played summer softball when I was a young girl — and I emphasize the word “played” here. We did keep score, but I can’t say that it really felt like we were competing. We were playing with our friends. There was something called “the ten run rule” — if your team was behind by ten runs after a certain inning, they just called the game, assuming you had no chance of winning. (A rule most certainly created by adults. We would have played forever.) And what I most appreciate about these times, times when they enforced this rule, it always came as a complete shock! I, we, never dreamed that we didn’t have a chance. We always thought we had a chance. We thought surely we should be allowed to try, to keep playing.

The confidence of youth! Had I known there was a chance it could slip away, I would have guarded it for the treasure that it was. I work on it now daily — rebuilding this confidence. Because what a joy!  To step up to the plate, without fear of the score, or the outcome!  To just play. To just live!  

I was in college when John Fogerty’s song, Centerfield, was released. It became a theme song for my mom. 

“Oh, put me in, Coach – I’m ready to play today;Put me in, Coach – I’m ready to play today;
Look at me, I can be Centerfield.”

I’m not sure everyone understood the song to the depths that she did. She had spent years rebuilding her life. Rebuilding her confidence. And this song, told her she was ready. And oh how she sang!  

The song begins, “Well, beat the drum and hold the phone – the sun came out today! We’re born again, there’s new grass on the field.” I look out the morning window and smile. There IS new grass on the field! And I, we, have the chance to play – forever!

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There used to be a ballpark.

I wonder if the birds realize how much things have changed. Do they fly over and think, “Wow, they are really packing the houses in!”? Are their favorite trees still there? Do they move their nests from year to year?

We were driving down Van Dyke Road yesterday. The first road I remember. The first road my feet touched. Probably my knees. My bike tires. But for the sign with its name, it was almost unrecognizable. Every empty lot that we ran around, cut across, kicked balls, and chased each other in, every lot was filled. House after house.

Frank Sinatra sang, “There used to be a ballpark”:

And there used to be a ballpark
Where the field was warm and green.
And the people played their crazy game
With a joy I’d never seen.

We went to see the Nortons – anchors of our former VanDyke Road neighborhood. We laughed and hugged, with the joy I remember, the joy that still lives on, maybe not on the same road, but always in the path of my heart.
The birds are still singing, because they know where to look. Up. Always up. Sitting in the Norton house our spirits were forever young, forever “warm and green.”