Jodi Hills

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


Noise reduction.

I would have never thought to ask him to turn on the radio, sitting next to my grandfather in his truck. The windows were open. The dirt sputtered beneath the wheels that harrumphed through the furrows in the field. Nature itself in full conversation, from bird to grain to tractor to grandpa to me. There was no real need for words. He looked at me. Gave a slight nod — a “there, there” for my heart. All childish doubt and insecurity was silenced. I belonged.

There is button on my computer’s photo editing app — Noise reduction. So useful when too much is happening in the picture. Too many distractions. With just a slide of this arrow, everything becomes more clear.

Often I have wished the same for my head and heart. The noise that sputters and splats against the windshield of my day can be overwhelming. Through the years I have found my own applications. My own buttons. And I have several. Taking a walk. Reading a book. Going for a swim. Painting.

Yesterday was loud. (There is no need to give it volume by explaining.) So I went to the studio. And got out my brushes. Dabbed the bits of paint on my palette. Stroke by stroke, it calmed. I calmed. Each touch of the brush to canvas, a “shhhhh” for my brain…a “there, there” for my heart.

My grandfather never owned a computer. I don’t know if he even had a camera. But he was the first to teach me one of life’s great applications – noise reduction. In the silence I can hear my heart beating. I smile. Everything quiet. Clear. To this I belong.

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My freshly earned driving permit was burning a hole in my pocket. “I don’t care where it is…I’ll take you anywhere,” I pleaded with my mom. When you’re 15, a Sunday can seem as long as, well, a month of Sundays. And not to use my state issued permission to drive (with another qualified licensed driver) seemed unthinkable. “We could go see…” “Yes,” I interrupted. “Grandma,” she finished.

The roads to my grandma’s house were long, straight, and for the most part, untraveled. I got in the driver’s side of our light blue Chevy Malibu station wagon. My mom got in the passenger seat. I put on my seat belt. Adjusted the mirrors. Started the engine. Turned off the radio. Looked in every direction. Put on my blinker, even though there was obviously no one behind us in the driveway, and proceeded with caution onto the road. The football coach who taught us Driver’s Ed was fresh in my mind.

Even with the windows closed, I felt the breeze in my mind. Wide open. Such freedom. I had experienced it on my bicycle, but this was fresh, exciting, this new travel — it was indeed Malibu!

My Uncle Ron was also visiting my grandma that Sunday. He watched me pull in the driveway. He slipped the toothpick from his mouth. He said things slowly, like my grandpa. “What kind of mileage do you get?” he asked me. Not only did I not know “what kind of mileage” I got, I didn’t even know what it was, or if in fact I was actually getting it. I shrugged my shoulders. “You don’t know. You have to know,” he said. I looked at my mother. She raised her eyebrows as if to wish me luck, and went into the house. I looked at my uncle. He led me inside to the kitchen table, where all things were learned and/or decided. He took a scratch pad and a pencil from the rolltop desk and proceeded to do the most math I had ever witnessed on a Sunday.

I stared at him, which he may have mistook for attention. But it was really more amazement. This was our first conversation in 15 years. I think he actually cared about me. Sure it was all disguised in a car metaphor, but I smiled and nodded. I stashed his full proof formula inside my pocket.

Freedom isn’t always measured in distance. Sometimes it takes you to the familiar, in a way you’ve never been before.

Today’s journey is beginning. I look in the morning mirror, and give myself permission.

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The first few notes played on the radio this morning. So iconic. We both put down our toast and jam. “Start spreading the news…” we sang. New York. New York. Perhaps one of only a handful of songs about a city that is known internationally. “I can name that tune in five notes,” I said. “What?” I explained to him the game show Name that Tune. 

It was my mother’s favorite. And she was good at it. She loved music. She knew the notes. The words. As easily as my grandma could beat me at cards, my mother could beat me at Name that Tune. But as we sang together, laughed together, sometimes even danced, it felt like we were both winning. 

I don’t think the show was on the air that long, but we kept it alive in the car. It was difficult at first, with cassette tapes. Trying to cue up the song to the right position. We kept a pencil nearby to wind up the ribbons that we abused. The game was significantly improved when we graduated to cds. It was so easy to cue up the song. To start and stop. To Name that Tune.

We didn’t really keep score. We knew the music we owned. And of course we always created a playlist for the city we were driving towards. A trip to Chicago always included Frank Sinatra singing “My kind of town…Chicago is!” 

It seems funny to even mention it – because we never really gave it a thought – but neither of us were particularly good singers. That was never the point. What we were really good at was being friends. I suppose nothing else really matters. When you know someone, really love someone, above all the flaws and the shortcomings, you only hear the music.

I had the privilege of taking my mother to New York three times. I can’t hear the song without descending in the plane over the Statue of Liberty. Sitting beside her on Broadway. Looking up in Times Square. Drinking the wine. Trying the clothes. Singing on the sidewalk. There’s a reason your heart “beats”  – to keep time with the ones you love. 

Ask me anything about my mother. I can name that tune. The music never ends.

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My best yellow.

“If I were a bird,” she thought, “I would fling myself from limb to limb. The breeze would take away all the weight of being, and I would feel alive.”

“If I were her,” thought the bird, I would change out of my yellow dress and lie, pillowed, comforted, and still.”

It’s so easy to see what we think the “others” have. It takes a special effort sometimes to see it in ourselves.

Yesterday, I took two hours to hand paint a single bookmark. As the woman was coming to life on the paper, she looked so familiar. Someone I knew? I couldn’t quite place her. As I cut her, tasseled her, gave her a sleeve, I saw it — the yellow bird painting. She was the yellow bird. And that’s when I heard their voices.

I’ve heard those voices before. In my head. The ones that compare, Oh, the French do this, or the Americans have that… and I can get lost in this battle of others. It’s so ridiculous, and never makes me happy. I’ve seen people do it online, comparing their lives to the manufactured world of social media. Ugh. But it seemed so simple, when I saw the yellow birds, the yellow-dressed woman — we all have everything we need, we just have to see it. To live it — live our best yellow. When I want to fly, I must fly. When I need to rest, I can rest. There are no “ifs,” there is only YELLOW! And when comparison tries to whisper in my ear, you don’t belong here, you’d be better off somewhere else, I simply fluff my winged dress and say, “Oh, but it IS my place!”

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Never finish loving you.

When you complete a painting, the recommended last step is to apply a fixative. This chemical substance acts as a preservative. It stabilizes the paint. It protects the painting from damage. It is finished.

But for a small cage of ribs, the heart is offered no such protection.  It carries the pain, both exquisite and excruciating. Some may try to put up walls and barriers. Fighting it, as if love were a wind. But I’ve never looked to stability as the cure. The only answer for me is to ride it, feel it — feel it all. 

Walking yesterday, experiencing the exquisiteness of each painful heartbeat, I stopped at a gathering of poppies. Most were braced against the wind, but there was one, not fighting it, just dancing. Petals whipping. A glorious blur of red. 

My life doesn’t need to be fixed. Only lived. And I know, this glorious poppy that beats inside of me, that dances in the winds of change, it, I, will never finish loving you.

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Out of the back seat.

I was learning the capitals of all 50 states when they shaved my brother’s head and assigned him to the base in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I had never heard of the UP, until the weekend we went to visit him. My only reward was a dusty blue sweatshirt with the words, “UP – 51st state.”

Wearing it, I tried to memorize the capitals of the other fifty on the excruciatingly long ride home. It may have been the first of a forever lesson on the existence of others. There were other states. Other cities. Even my brother had become an other. Soon, but for my mom and I, that’s what our family would be.

I suppose the awareness was just coming into light. But I could feel the discomfort. My mother could see that I was struggling. “Just make it familiar,” she told me. I reached my head over the back of her car seat, wondering what she meant. “You know, make the connection personal. Tie the capital and the state together with something you already know.” I stared blankly. “Name a state,” she said. “Michigan,” I said — it being in our rearview mirror. “What’s the capital?” “Lansing,” I read off of the map in my hand. “What’s familiar?” she asked. I said the words over and over… quickly. Lansing. Michigan. LansingMichigan. Lanigan. Cindy Lanigan – My best friend. I smiled. “See….” my mom said joyfully. I’ve never forgotten.

I aced the test on Monday, wearing my new sweatshirt. Some laughed. Thought it was ridiculous…a 51st state. But I knew, even then, there was more out there. More of the other, that I would connect to, make my own.

My mother gave me more than a home. From the back seat of a Chevy Impala, she gave me the world.

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A part of it all.

It’s one of the first lessons they taught us at Washington Elementary. One that I keep having to learn.

Mrs. Strand told us to sit in a circle. We wriggled our way next to our best friend of the day. Up and down. Crawling on hands and knees. Maneuvering. Pushing. Wedging our way into position. Mrs. Strand had the patience of a saint. Finally, when we shaped ourselves into something nearing a circle, Mrs. Strand told us the game — “Whisper around the World.” What did she say? (Because in fact, she did whisper it.) She said it softly again. “Whisper around the World.” And because our world was contained within these four walls, we thought for sure we would excel at it.

She would begin by whispering a sentence into a student’s ear. That student would then repeat it into the ear of the next student in the circle, and so on, until it reached the last person, and then that last person would say it out loud. Words were passed, between snorts and giggles. Laughter and spit. And more words. Other words. We leaned in close. Leaned over in delight. The last person said the sentence out loud. Then Mrs. Strand said the actual sentence. Not even close. Not one word was the same. At first it was hysterical. Then we did it again. “This time we were really going to try,” we thought. We never got it right.

I suppose the lessons were multiple. And because we hadn’t yet developed the cynicism that age can bring, we still believed it was possible. If we really tried. If we paid attention. If we asked questions. If we went to the source. Our source was a tall, soon to be pregnant with twins, woman at the front of the class. When she told us something. We heard it. We believed it. “The truth can always be found,” she told us, “if you go to the source.”

I understand today, that even hearing the words is sometimes not enough. I’ve learned to stop and ask the questions. Not just “what did you say,” but “what did you mean when you said…”

Now being actually “around the world,” it’s even more important. Distance. Time. Texting. Emailing. They can all be as easily misconstrued as a passing snort. Maybe it’s naive, but I still believe. I still believe we can get there. We can see the humor in our mistakes. And come together, with all of our ill-shaped good intentions, we can whisper our way to the truth, and be a part of it all.

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Within the flutter.

The first time I showed her the painting of her dress we were at Barnes and Noble in St. Cloud. It was half the driving distance for each of us. Just an hour difference, but so necessary. This excitement that was bursting inside of me – a heart trying to contain a mass of butterflies – I just couldn’t hold back for that extra hour. And neither could she. We ordered our lattes. Found our table. And I ran out to the car and dragged the four foot painting inside. If people stared, it was probably due more to the butterflies than the painting. Our joy was palpable, and not to be contained.

When I walk up the stairs in our house, I pass her picture and there is a swelling, an ache, in my heart. I do yoga in the bedroom. The third pose turns my head toward her image on the dresser, and my there is my heart again. Sitting at my computer, typing these words, her dress hangs on the wall. My heart. For months after her passing, I would have called this pain. But it occurred to me this morning, sitting by her painting, I can still smell the coffee from the Starbuck’s counter at Barnes and Noble. It’s so strong, I’m waiting for the barista to call my name. I hear my mom’s laughter. Touch her purse with the side of my foot. Marvel at the crisp white of her blouse. As my heart sends those twinges, those heart swellings to my brain, I think this is not pain, these are the butterflies. This is love. This is joy.

I have been following the book bannings in the US — particularly one ruling in Florida – something about banning anything that made people “uncomfortable.” What a ridiculous notion. Not to mention impossible. I don’t want to live in that world. How would we learn anything? How would we grow? How would we even love? Yes, my heart may ache, but I wouldn’t trade that for the world. I want to feel the discomfort of every butterfly. The glorious discomfort of change, growth, of life itself. This is nothing to be feared — and I almost said “but embraced” here – but really, not even embraced, for butterflies as you know will never be contained. They can only be released.

I sit, books surrounding me. The scent of coffee in the air. The sound of my mother’s joy. This is love, I tell my heart, and run along in its flutter.

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It isn’t often. It’s only happened a couple of times in 10 years, but it’s been enough to keep me humble. To keep me aware. I respect my electric saw. It cuts the angles to make the frames to enclose the paintings.

The first time it occurred, it terrified me. I can’t say why it happened. Maybe a flaw in the wood, or an extra strength… I don’t know. I always check for nails or screws in my reclaimed wood. I wear goggles. Take the usual precautions. But something snapped. And I mean cracked with the most vengeful noise and a piece of wood shot across the studio. Like a gun or canon went off! It took me several days to go back to it. To be calm enough to try again. But I did. And the fear slipped into knowledge. It became an additional tool. It happened again the other day. Less terrifying, but I knew enough to step away. To think it through, and return with a clear head.

I hope I’m smart enough to do the same in my relationships. I hope we all are. Gathering in the fear, the surprise, the anger even, and turning it into knowledge. To know when it’s time to engage, and when it’s time to step away. We are given all the tools. Right from the start — I guess we just have to keep learning how to use them.

Trust is a big one. I will admit that it has been a hard one for me to re-learn. Taken away with a bang at a young age, it took me a long time to go back to it. But I have been lucky. The door has been opened and opened again with the kindness of others. And I can’t turn away. There is beauty to be made. Joy to be felt. Love to be loved. Life to be lived. The day begins – my heart is a tool – I’m not afraid to use it.

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Heart bound.

We lived in three houses on VanDyke Road. We didn’t stop until we reached Grandma Mullen. For this brief moment in time, we were wedged between the two grandmas — Dynda and Mullen. The fact that we were related to neither of them, didn’t make the grandma bookends any less special.

We choose what holds us up. What keeps us together.

I remember thinking that gold was actually the color of white. Because in all of the fairy tale books beside my fairy-tale-needing bed, the women had hair “spun from gold.” The two grandmas had the finest, whitest hair. Hair that seemed so different, so magical, that my chubby fingers could do nothing but reach out and make a wish. A golden wish — that I would be forever held.

We lost that house. My mom and I moved into town. The grandmas passed away. They paved the road. I left the city. The state. And eventually the country. Some might say, “Well, that golden wish sure didn’t come true…” I guess it’s all what you choose to see. I think it has. I think it continues.

We used to play a game. Telephone. Strings and tin cans. Whispering into the tin, our voices traveled through the string into the other can. We said things that we didn’t dare say out loud in the light of day. Words only safe on magical white string. Sometimes, before I fell asleep, I’d imagine that Grandma Dynda would whisper a secret. One that would travel across the vacant lot. Through my open window. Translated by my heart. Passing through the trees, into the bedroom of Grandma Mullen. We were all connected.

You might say that VanDyke road was the place where everything fell apart. Or you could say, it is the place that gave me the tools to keep everything together. That’s what I choose. Daily. What lifts me. Daily. What holds me together. Forever wedged within the magic. Heart bound in the belief that we are all connected.