Jodi Hills

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

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…and so she would dance.

I suppose we all have different destinations. I used to walk down Hopkins Crossroad and take a left onto Minnetonka Blvd. The obvious attraction to many was the bright red roof of the Dairy Queen. But not for me.

It was no accident, I suppose, that there was usually a Dairy Queen next to the softball fields of my youth. In dusted and grass stained uniforms, with skinned knees and sweat matted hair, all the young girls gathered behind cones, and cups. Celebrated or commisserated with frozen cream. Intolerant, being a word well above my reading level, I just knew I would get sick. (After two very unsuccessful attempts.) Sometimes I opted for the Mister Misty – the DQ’s version of shaved ice – but mostly I just went without.

I could have felt sorry for myself. My mother didn’t allow that. “Look around,” she said, on her way back to work, “You have a banana seat bike and a beautiful summer day, figure it out…” So I rode. I rode that bike to lakes. To swingsets. To ballfields. And neighbors. The North End. Parks. On gravel and hills. In cemeteries. Empty school yards. To the public library. Ben Franklin. Hugo’s field. I saw everything. I pedaled the paths and when the paths got too thick, I dropped my bike and walked. And walked some more. As I wore the flowers from my banana seat, and the soles from my bumper tennis shoes, without my knowledge or permission, I was indeed figuring it out.

I still think of it as my superpower — seeing beyond the obvious red roof. During my Minnetonka stay, I saw it almost every day, the weeping willow just before the DQ. One autumn, after dancing with it for an entire summer, I came home and gave thanks on the canvas. For the willow. The road. My mother. The love of the dance.


A new measure.

I spotted it on the gravel path. The sun reflected off the silver case. I picked up the tape measure. It had a few scratches, but worked perfectly.  The metal strip was strong. It stayed in place when I pushed down the lever. A good measure. I looked around the nearby driveways to see if a work truck was nearby. There was no one. We are always in need of a tape measure. We have a couple, but they never seem to be in the right place. Smiling, I hooked my find onto the waistband of my shorts and kept walking. It was a good day.

The things that make me care are forever changing. There was a time when I measured the success of the day by the odometer on my bicycle. Each turn of the pedal brought something new. Then by school grades. Every “A” neared the way out. Paychecks and car doors. Plane tickets and galleries. Fax machines and store orders. Credit cards and rent paid. Computers and social media. “Likes” and “friends.” Measure by measure.

There are a million ways, I suppose, to monitor your success. I would never presume to tell you how to do it. The only thing I know for sure is that it keeps changing. That is the gift, if you choose to see it. But you have to change along with it. Find a new measure. I tell myself this daily. Will this painting sell? It doesn’t matter — I had fun doing it. Will this post get a lot of likes? The message was just as much for me. Did I get anywhere today? I had the time to go for a walk. New measures.

I don’t know if some signs are easier to see, or if some days we just choose to see them. Either way, I needed this one. Returning home, I presented the tape measure to my husband. “Bravo!” he cheered. Love — perhaps the greatest measure of all.

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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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It was pretty clear from the start that I wasn’t going to be a saint. But a poet? Maybe.

I knew she loved poems. My mother. She tucked me in each night with Emily Dickinson. I was safe and feathered (the sweet spot where hope lives).

I suppose I saw early on how the words lifted her. How even in her darkest hour, they offered this light. I wanted to be a part of that. That lifting light.

Once I started looking, I could see it. You had to want to see it, but it was there — the poetry of our town. You had to pass the giant Viking statue on main street to get to my school. The giant Viking that claimed us as the “Birthplace of America.” Written on his shield, what could be more poetic than this? Inside Washington Elementary, Mr. Iverson brought the bouncing words and notes into our kindergarten music class. The librarian read the words aloud that soon we would learn to spell in Mrs. Berstrom’s first grade classroom. Words screamed from monkey bars and whispered in lavatory lines. Words I scribbled in crayon and revealed to my mother at bedtime. Hope lived.

Poetry winded through my wet hair as I raced on my bicycle from Lake Latoka. Poems ran beneath my sanded feet in the ballpark. Waved through the farm fields of my grandfather. The open windows of my grandma’s car. Bounced upon the neighbor’s screen doors. Crackled in the summer gravel of Van Dyke Road. Fell from autumn trees. Rested in winter snows. And returned with spring — just as promised. Summer bikes once again pulled from garages.

I attached the playing card to the wheel beneath my banana seat. The joke would now be on my brother, because he could no longer ask me to play “52 pickup” – now it would be 51. The click-clacking echoed through the streets as I pedaled. What was making the sound? Was it the wheel? The card? Or the wind?

And so it was with the poem. Who was writing it? Was it me? My mom? The town? The words echoed in my heart. I wrote them on paper. And we were saved.

They don’t make me want to go back, but pay attention to the place I’m in — the poem that is gently click-clacking right outside my window. A love that keeps lifting. Safe. And feathered.

“EMILY: “Does anyone ever realize life while they live it…every, every minute?”

STAGE MANAGER: “No. Saints and poets maybe…they do some.”

― Thornton Wilder, Our Town


Precious cargo.

The bike that I received for my birthday near the end of March had something even more spectacular than the flowered banana seat, it had a basket — a white wicker basket just below the handlebars. Each day that pre-spring (end of winter) I got off from the school bus, put my books in the basket, opened the garage door, and watched for any sign of gravel beneath the snow.

Near the end of April’s slush, I put on my mittens, my rain boots, and braved the scattered gravel patches of Van Dyke road. I returned home with a skunk like stripe of wet gravel from the back of my boots to the top of my neck, never happier. I retold the glorious tale of each turn of the pedal as my mother peeled off my layers. “You brought Big Suzy with you?” she asked. Big Suzy was my off brand “Raggedy Ann” doll, twice the size, (hence the “Big”), and not red, but bright yellow. “I would never ever leave her behind,” I said. And I didn’t. Even when the snow was gone, the ice melted, when my basket was filled with my a giant towel and flip flops, I put Big Suzy in the basket and rode off to Lake Latoka. Her smile never left her face, nor mine.

I suppose when one parent leaves, you’re always a little worried about the other. (The things we carry.) I thought I hid them, these fears, but she knew — my mother knew my every layer. Even when I outgrew the banana seat, the dolls…even when winter after winter she remained as faithful as spring, my heart’s basket held that tiny doubt that would pop up into my path, and when I carried it, when she saw it, she looked at me and smiled, “Suzy…” she said, and I was saved.

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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.


Each song has wings.

I always knew I was fast on my bicycle, until Hardware Hank’s had a sale on speedometers. Before my brother secured it to the handle bars, I had my own way to gauge the speed. I sang. I knew two complete songs from Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark album, thanks to the constant play on my sister’s stereo. I knew how many verses it took to get past the gravel of VanDyke road to the smooth pavement. How many verses it took to get through the cemetery to the fairgrounds. I sang and sang. Past the tanks. Up to big Ole. Down Main Street. Each segment had a song. A lyric. A melody. I had created a soundtrack to the movie of my life.

The first ride that I watched the needle rise was rather amusing. I had a number now. Something real, I suppose. But then I stopped singing. And only watched the speedometer. My eyes darting from the road to the needle. Up and down. I began to miss it all. So focused on the number, I missed it all. The signs in Ben Franklin’s window. The girls laughing outside the Dairy Queen. The boys pushing outside Hardee’s. No music. Only a number.

I guess I learned pretty early on. It was always about the journey. And I didn’t want to miss it. I still don’t. It’s so easy to get caught up in the race of it all. Have to get here. Have to do this. Clock racing. Calendar flipping. And soon the music of it all disappears. Until I sing. Slow it all down and listen. Look around. Stepping. Riding. Living in the moment. In the movie of my heart.

Breathing heavy. Unsatisfied, I dropped my bike into our driveway. I found a screwdriver in the garage. Smiled with each turn. Dropped the barely used speedometer into the junk bin beside the car. And began to sing.

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Hope dangles.

The chain came off my bike. For a few seconds the pedals spun furiously and I moved no where, then fell to the ground.

I was young enough that a mile from home still seemed like forever. I stepped down from the banana seat and saw my hope just dangling there. It never occurred to me that the chain would just fall off. I had ridden this route to town a million times. My mom was at work. I didn’t have any change for the payphone. I would have to get my hands dirty.

I secured the kickstand. Fumbled with my chubby fingers. It was greasy. But soon it became clear where it needed to be. Both hands black now, I navigated the pedals with my left and reached the chain with my right. Pulling. Reaching. Sweating. I wiped my brow. My forehead now blackened too. And then it clicked. Dropped into place. I looked around as if to say. “Look! I did it!” No one was there. I was still happy.

I didn’t ride straight home. It was just too thrilling to be moving again. I serpentined slowly through the streets. Gentle breezes whispered, “There, there…” Peace. Freedom. Joy.

I suppose adversity always comes with a bit of surprise, a bit of a mess. But I know I, we, have been given the tools, the strength, the will, to keep pedaling. I brush off my knees. I smile. Hope dangles beside me.

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I woke up alone each day in my summer bed. My mother at work. I brushed my teeth. Sometimes my hair. Put on shorts and a t-shirt. Made a piece of toast with Smucker’s grape jelly and Jif creamy smooth peanut butter. Walked through the unlocked door. And continued walking. No map. No plan. I filled my pockets. A smooth rock. An abandoned neighbor’s toy. Kicked the gravel beneath my feet. Dust circled my ankles. I kicked faster. Began running. Found my bicycle in the ditch where I had left it – distracted by yesterday’s game of kickball in the open field. Rode slowly at first. Up the hill. Turned around. Fast down the hill. Again up. Again down. Faster each time. Down again. At Dynda’s. Arms extended, I ran through the cool, wet white sheets hanging on the line. Waved to Grandma Dynda, who wasn’t related to me. Ran back through the grass. Through the open door, letting it slam behind me. Gathered all the dolls and stuffed animals that would fit into my homemade orange corduroy book bag and ran back to my bicycle. Filled the basket on the handlebars and told them not to be afraid. I would take care of them. And raced on the gravel road. Raced them to where the tar began, to where I could really pick up speed. I made the sound of “weeeeeeeee,” that I imagined each one to scream. I showed them the geese near the lake. Not too close. I protected them. Took them back home for lunch. On a blanket table in the grass, we ate Campbell’s chicken noodle soup from the can. The grass tickled our backs through the blanket as a circus of clouds entertained us. I carried them back into the house in the blanket. Placed them on the bed. They didn’t argue about taking a nap. I forehead kissed each one of them. Raced through the door. Raced back in. Grabbed fifty cents, an actual 50 cent piece that I got from my grandma for my birthday. Got back on my bike that waited patiently in the driveway on its side. Rode past the gravel. On to the speed of the tar. Over the railroad tracks. Past the viking statue. Onto broadway. Stopped at Rexall Drug. Left my unlocked bike on the sidewalk. Emptied my pockets on the counter. Sifted through to find the 50 cent piece. Handed it to the smocked lady. Took a frozen Milky Way candy bar out of the freezer. Ate it in the sun. Got on my bike. Chocolate fingers stained the handlebars. Tar. Railroad tracks. Gravel. Home. Hose. Washed hands. Washed bike. Ran through open door. Grabbed the Laura Ingalls Wilder book from the bedroom side table. Forehead kissed each doll and animal again. Book in basket, I rode to Norton’s. “The girls aren’t home,” Mrs. Norton said. “That’s ok,” I said. And sat on their front steps to read. Finished two chapters. Forgot my bike. Walked home. Heard my mother’s car wheels on the gravel road and smiled. Raced to her car door. She gave me a kiss on the forehead. “What did you do today?” she asked. “Nothing,” I smiled.

Yesterday I drew on a piece of paper. I painted in my sketchbook. No one will buy it. What was it for? Sometimes I wonder… is it nothing? And then I remember. I race through the door of my open heart. Yes, I smile, nothing.

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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.