Jodi Hills

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


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And stronger I ran.

They tarred over the playground of Washington Elementary. I have the scars on my knees to prove it. 

Back by the swings there were two horizontal poles. I’m guessing they used to hold the planks of wood to form teeter-totters. Maybe they thought the teeter totters were too dangerous, so they removed them. But that didn’t stop us.

I don’t know who thought of it first, but we all did it. If you wrapped one leg over the top of the pole, grabbed it with your arms underneath, forming a circle around the pole, then kicked the other leg from underneath you, you could spin around the pole like a human hula hoop. When it worked, it was glorious. Dizzying. Exhilarating. But when it didn’t…

My sweaty hands slipped from my leg and I landed hard against the pavement — so hard, the very breath that carried me, fled faster than any spinning hoop, fled from my body and flattened me against the tar. No air could get it. I panicked. So panicked I couldn’t even cry out. The weight of it all, against my chest. It seemed too much to bear. It was Shari, or Jan, or maybe even Cindy, one of them said, just wait, it will come back. The air will come back. They gathered around me. The air they breathed found its way to me. We had each other. Even then. And stronger I ran, lifted with the knowledge of having survived. It still carries me. Carries us. Stronger. Together.


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I see you.

Dominique told her that her hat was lovely. She recoiled — as if the compliment was too much to bear. “No, no… this is not my color, I look pale…”

I realize the gift my mother gave me (gives me still) – this ability to accept a compliment and believe it. Find joy in it. I suppose because she was free with her compliments. Never disingenuous – she believed the words she gave. And they lifted me. And it’s not just about beauty — it’s about confidence, self-worth, courage even.

When you give someone a compliment you give them a boost, a lift, a bit of assurance that they belong to this world, and more importantly to themselves. They are worthy. And you lose nothing by offering these words. In fact, you gain something when they give you back their smile.

It is often said, “it is better to give than to receive.” I say, we have to learn to do both. To be generous with others. To be generous with ourselves.

I showed my mother my most recent sketch. She said, “Oh, she’s wearing my turtleneck.” I delighted in her response because she could see herself. What a wonderous thing. And “this”, I think, has taught me more, given me more than any compliment – to see her seeing herself. She taught me how to do the same. And isn’t this the gift we want to give everyone — the ability to see themselves?

So if I tell you, you look lovely in that color, reach out and grab the words, hold them to your heart, know that I mean them, believe that they are true – these glorious words, and fill your heart. And when your heart is overflowing, pass them along, with grace and strength. This is the beauty, the power of a compliment. I see you.


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Framed.

I suppose I thought I would remember every school day. I don’t. Some are merely flashes of bumper tennis shoes on terrazzo floors. Flying through the hallways, slipping through my heart and mind. I grab on to them. Frame them with specific memories – like standing in the window of Iverson’s shoes with my mother. Praying the new blue and white “bumpers” would be fast. And they were. It all was. So fast.

I don’t get to frame all of my artworks. And it is debatable whether they all need to be framed. I have researched, but there isn’t a great deal of information on why some paintings are framed and others not. There is the practical reason of course, to protect the piece. Also, the ease of portability. Also it separates the piece from the surrounding world, gives it importance, singularity. Separates the inside from the outside. And provides visual control.

I framed my painting of Washington Elementary, probably for all of these reasons. Mostly I suppose to contain the time — this time when everything seemed possible. Any fear could be outrun in white and blue canvas tennis shoes. I need those memories. Those feelings. Every day. So I gather them in. Framed on the wall. Framed in my heart. Separating myself from the fears of the day, the challenges of the world. Slowing it all down. I am safe. Perhaps even important. And in the framework of this very day, I am possible.


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Map girl.

Before GPS. Before cell phones. We had to navigate on our own. Research the directions. Write them down on paper. 

When traveling with my mother, I would drive and she would read from the papers that I gave her. I wrote the directions clearly, and precisely to arrive at our destination. Without exception, holding the directions in her hands, she would ask, “But how will we get home?”  I’m still smiling.

Now, you might be smiling too, even laughing, but the truth is, she wasn’t that wrong. Finding our way is not always that easy. Retracing steps may not always be possible. Sometimes “the way” gets blocked. We can get pushed. Distracted. Forbidden even. And then what? 

Some say follow your heart. Others say use your head. Others still, stop and ask for help. I’ve done them all, sometimes all at the same time. And sometimes, finding our way home means not returning at all, but starting fresh. 

Each day I find myself making maps. Because I suppose that’s what all these things are about — maps — little ways that direct me to comfort, to joy, to home. Each story written, each painting painted, each table set, each loaf of bread baked, all little maps to lead me home. 

We have the luxury of GPS now, but only you can find your way. Take your time. Make your maps. Enjoy the journey.


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A look around.

Of course I’m going to finish it. I always do. I never leave a book, just in case… But this will take some effort, this book, because so far, (and I am more than half way into it) I have yet to find a character to empathize with…no one seems real, not to mention likable.  I’m not going to reveal the title, because for you, it might be great. You might relate to one or all of the characters. And that’s for you to decide. 

In any book, I enjoy a flawed character. It’s not like I’m looking for perfection. Because the flaws make people interesting. Human. And that’s what I’m not finding in this book. And maybe that’s on me as well. I have to find a way to see them as human. Part of the journey is up to me. I have to see them.

I suppose that’s the real lesson, isn’t it? I have been proposing this since I wrote my first book, “I am amazed.” I would often take the book to schools and read to the kids, all grades. After reading, I had them do an exercise – pick another student and write down something amazing about them. I encouraged them not to just pick out their friends. And they didn’t. They wrote beautiful things about each other, and their teachers too. They could see each other. One school made a mural of all the attributes and left it up for the school year. They claimed, and I hope it’s true, that bullying decreased, and everyone was just a little more gentle with each other. That is amazing.

So I will finish this book. And I will try harder to empathize with characters not common in my world. I will try to see them. I want to be better at this. Every day. And what if we all did that? Not just with characters in books, but also the ones at the grocery store, the bank, the school, in the car next to us, all the characters who vote and wander, and read, and see us as the different ones. Maybe we all do that for each other. Wouldn’t that be amazing?


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The makers.

Yesterday we went on a mini-adventure. Just an hour from our home. A small village. We wanted to see the local pottery shop. It has been in operation since 1665. Something that has survived that long deserves our attention.  

Along the way, in the countryside, I saw something new. (New to me, clearly very old.) They looked like brick silos. They were to house the pigeons, my husband explained. We discussed the pigeons for many miles. Both in amazement that this was the way they used to get messages from place to place. Pigeons. Messages strapped to them. We complain when the internet is slow. 

Returning home, I sat by the window, looking up pigeons on my computer. I could see our “locals” sitting by the side of the tree. Most of “our” pigeons barely fly anymore. How lazy, I thought, then quickly caught myself as I checked my mail (my email that can arrive almost instantly from another country.)

It’s easy to forget about the makers. Those who crafted things by hand. Came up with solutions to problems. 

We ate our evening meal on the plates we purchased from the potter – the most beautiful plates I have ever seen. Each touched by human hands. Potters. Still making dishes. Not one exactly the same. Beautifully imperfect. 

We have the luxury of so many things – and I use them every day. I love technology. I am so grateful for the ease of everyday living. But I give thanks for those who got us here. And for those who continue to remind us of the journey. The makers. The hands that continue to create. Touch. The parents and grandparents that still carry the stories, messages strapped on hearts and wings. Journeys that deserve our attention — not one exactly the same. Beautifully imperfect.


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Produce

I have professed my love for libraries, over and over. The Washington School Library. The Alexandria Public Library. One small room. One small building. Each opened a world to me that will never close. I can smell the wood that housed the paper. The slight hint of sweet mildew, like an open window.

The truth is, this was not my first impression of books. My first collection of words on pages — words mixed with colorful art – these books held the smell of fresh produce. It was at Olson’s Supermarket. My mother hoisted me into the shopping cart. The silver denting the back of my thighs. Legs dangling. Her purse beside me.

Just after the cart corral was a long display of Golden Books. I can feel my arms reaching. They were the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. She placed one in my chubby hand and I was changed. Words on paper. My arms will be forever reaching.

I can hear her voice reading each page. Night after night. Year after year. And then I started to hear my own. How do you thank someone for giving you the world? I suppose the only way I know is to use the same words I was given. Again and again.

I was speaking to the young woman who is currently working on my new website. Not a small task. She has to handle each piece of art, each word. She told me yesterday, because she is so immersed in all of the work, “I feel like I know you.” My heart is still smiling. My arms are still reaching. We are in different countries. From different generations, and my paintings of the apples remind her of her mother’s kitchen. Once again, the sweet smell of produce… My world opens, and I give thanks with the words that first saved me.


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Just breathe.

We knew a little about team work, from playing in school sports, or even gym class, but this was different. We weren’t just working together, “It was more than that,” he said. We had to breathe together. Breathe together? All of us? Was that even possible?

We were just a group of teenagers in a band. We had never heard of breathing exercises. Certainly never heard of yoga. We were preparing for the state high school band tournaments in Minneapolis. Maybe some of us had grand aspirations, but I don’t really think so. We got to get out of school early. Ride a bus to Minneapolis. That was about it. But for some reason he believed in us. Wanted us to believe in ourselves. Reach for something more. And he stood in front of us, with that baton, that wiggle, all that hair, smiling, and we started to believe too.

It was the first time I even brought my clarinet home. Practiced. This was new. For most of us. We were all learning our individual parts, but it wasn’t enough he said. He said we had to be “one.” And the only way we could be “one” was to breathe together. For the first time I listened to my own breath. I was aware of my actions. Aware of the girls on either side of me. The boys behind me. We had different interests. Different skill levels. But we could do this. We could breathe together. We could do this for ourselves. We could be better. And we were. Every day.

That bus ride to the competition was fantastic. We sang. Arm in arm. Shoulder to shoulder. Our instruments snuggly packed in the compartments below. We played better than we ever had. Cohesive. One unit. It sounded beautiful — to us. We didn’t make it past the first round. I don’t suppose that was the ending you imagined. You were expecting some sort of victory. OH, but you see we were victorious. We thought so! And he thought so, our conductor, Mr. Christianson.

On the bus ride home we sang and laughed, still arm in arm, shoulder to shoulder, because we had done what we thought impossible. We became one. And that was the victory after all. We were part of something. I can hear a big band song on the radio today, and feel it!. I breathe in, once again, the gift he gave us, the gift we gave ourselves. And I belong.


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Family farm.

I don’t remember which pronoun we used. I have to choose one now to write this story, so I will say he, and respectfully hope that that’s correct.

My mother’s cousin was born a female, but lived as a man. Now, see, I’m not even certain that’s the right way to put it, because I’m sure to him, he was born a man, and lived as a man. I want to move beyond my clunky way of describing him and get on to the heart of the story.

This was long before support groups. Long before anyone thought of being politically correct. Long before people spoke of gender. Certainly no one ever heard of fluidity. These were farmers. They spoke of farming.

And he was an excellent farmer. The hardest worker in the family. My mom spoke of how he saved the family farm. I only have one image of him, and that is leaning against the barn. Overalled. Tired — I pray from working.

I was too young to judge, to be unkind. I hope we all were.

I bring it up because it occurs to me, at some point in our lives, we have all found ourselves, leaning against the family farm, tired, wanting only to be accepted for who we are, the work we have done, praying for the kindness of fresh eyes and open hearts.

Tanned and weathered by the heat of so many summer suns, I stop, under today’s and think, what a glorious time to grow.


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Rolling.

I didn’t know my great aunt Ellen very well.  It was clear though, that she was the opposite of my grandmother. In size, weight, humor, and day to day living. She seemed to be afraid of life itself. She was thin as a rail, but watched everything she ate. She didn’t drink coffee, only hot water. She carried what she called a purse-snatchers purse — a decoy, while her important items were stashed in a different location. She also wore extra undergarments, just in case… I was too young to know in case of what.  

I hope there was more to her life than I remember. Otherwise, I’m not sure that she really lived. 

On occasion, my grandmother must have worried. She had nine children. Pick any day, and something had to have gone wrong. John got kicked in the head by a cow. Kay had rheumatic fever. The crops needed rain. But through it all, she never seemed paralyzed by daily fear. She seemed more to be rolling. She was chubby and laughing and  always believed in the good. She died thinking she was just about to win the Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes. 

I will admit that I get frightened by many things. We all do. But I try to keep rolling, even when my tears are doing the same – I keep rolling. Because I, too, believe in the good. And I don’t want to be paralyzed by fear. I want to be known, always remembered, in full stride, with my purse of youth dangling from my arm. Alive.