Jodi Hills

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

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Lighter than joy.

It’s ironic, I suppose, that she was singing, “If I could turn back time…” — this Cher hologram or avatar (or holographic avatar, I don’t know…) in my dream early this morning. We were shopping in a large department store. Tired of her following, her singing, or both, Dominique grabbed her imaginary face and kissed it. “That should keep her quiet,” he said. But it only seemed to make her angry. Maybe not so much, Cher, but the Roomba-like machine that was giving her life. It began following us around the store. Sirens blaring. We couldn’t escape. It’s hard to stop the passing of time.

Sometimes I think of how strange it would be to try and explain this all to my grandmother. I don’t mean the dream, but the iPad that I’m typing on. The phones that follow us everywhere. The cameras and clocks attached that are always with us. At the farm, the only thing that told time was the bird that popped out hourly from the coo-coo clock in the living room. And oh how she would have guffawed at the notion of taking her picture while she baked in kitchen. If Paul Harvey was on, it was noon — we didn’t need a clock in her car. She knew everyone in town. This was her social network.

Obviously I love technology. I use it daily. I’m not sure I could find my way without GPS. But I don’t think that in moving forward, we have to leave everything behind. Human contact will forever be the all. The everything.

We are going to go to the mall today. Even the Apple Store. And I’m excited. My grandma never wanted to go to the mall. But oh how my mother did! And OH the times we had. Because times do change. And that can be beautiful! Today, I will go with Dominique. And the experience will be new. We are forever changing. Time, no matter what Cher sings, cannot be turned back. But it can be carried with us. Nothing is lighter than joy. Keep it close beside you. Within you, as we all make our way.

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Social studies.

We never had a lack of things to judge each other by, and Central Junior High made sure that we never ran out. Of course there was the usual hierarchy of those in advanced courses. The grading system. The hands raised in class. The sulking heads in the back of the room. But then they sent us to gym class. They timed us around tracks and arm-flexed hangs. They measured and weighed us. Tested us through units of gymnastics and every ball game. With no self-esteem to spare, they sent us to the pool once a week. It would have been enough to be on display in our one piece suits and skin-capped heads in front of the other 20 or so girls, but the pool was adjacent to the lunch room, separated only by glass windows. Like the theatre view in an operating room, the 9th grade boys eating cafeteria pizza had a thirty minute view. We longed for the “eyes on your own paper” rule of law.

I suppose the greatest gift was the lack of time. The allotted 5 minutes to shower, dress, and speed walk (no running allowed) with wet hair flinging down the halls, to math, or English, or Social studies, didn’t allow much time for scrutiny. It’s only as I’m typing this that I realize there was really no need for the social studies class, we were living it, from beginning to ending bell.

I only mention it, because I use the skill they gave us, almost daily. I can get trapped in the moment of self-awareness. How do I look? How do I appear? Am I being judged? But really, nothing has changed since junior high. I don’t have the time to worry about what everyone else is doing…so certainly others don’t either. (And if you do have the time for judgement, maybe it’s time to switch course. Quickly. Down another hallway.)

There is so much to learn. I hope I continue. I’m sure I stumble on my way to daily social studies. But then I see you, my friends, my fellows, my human contacts, all trying to make our way, and I smile.


Summer fingers. Forever friends.

I recently bought a new ring. It was still in the heat of summer, so my fingers carried a bit of extra fluid. I carefully measured my summer finger to get the right size, but by the time the ring arrived, the cooler air had slimmed my fingers down significantly. It spins round and round. I suppose with everything, it’s hard to get the perfect fit for all occasions.

I have been blessed though. This I know for sure. I have a few friends that I know will always be there, through any situation. It’s easy to find your summer friends — when everyone is running with the bounce of bare legs, lit perfectly under a bright yellow sun. The heart swells with youth. And all acquaintances gather. But the ones that remain in the fallings of autumn, in the bareness of winter, these are your true friends. Those who will spin round and round with you, in your smallest of times.

I look at the new green stone. From the front of my hand. From the back. It reminds me of how lucky I am. To have such friends. And I don’t wish anything away. Every season brings growth. Reveals the truth of friendship. True love will always gather in.


Look up.

A jolt rushes through my body like lightning. Straight up through my back and out the top of my head. It takes only a millisecond for my brain to realize that the tip of my shoe has hit a rock mid-step on the gravel path. Not enough to fall, but enough to be grateful to still be standing. It’s funny how we always look back to see the culprit. Like it matters which rock. But I do. And I won’t remember it. I probably won’t even remember the feeling. 

You’d think growing up on a gravel road, that I would be accustomed to it all. Wearing the scars on knees and elbows and knuckles. But I can still get tripped up from time to time. Yet I don’t stop. I’m out there. Daily. Twice daily. Because I love it. Still.

I imagine it’s the same with the heart. If mine had stopped wandering the gravel every time it got bruised or scraped, I would be stuck. Alone. But thankfully, the beat that carries me is skinned-knee tough, and it keeps choosing love. I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

They say when walking or running, you need to always look ahead — that you’ll fall a lot more if you’re focused on what’s beneath you, if you’re looking down. Always good advice, I suppose, for everything. Today, I will forget my near fall, and feel the open path in front of me. Sometimes, you just have to look up!

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The Cardinal beat.

We were never asked the question when we were young — “How do you identify?” I smile now, thinking about it, because I probably would have answered — “A cardinal.”

I didn’t see it for the blessing that it was at the time — maybe that’s the way with all blessings — but despite time and distance, it has stayed with me, this feeling of belonging, being, and I remain a cardinal.

Even on the teams we didn’t play for, we still came together in our red and black. Sometimes on the field. Sometimes in the band. Sometimes in the bleachers. Forever donned in our mascot, the Alexandria Cardinals. Because no matter what we were, hoods, geeks, nerds, jocks, preppies, we were always cardinals. We stomped and clapped to the Cardinal beat. Competed. Learned. Fought. Made up. Grew. Fell. Got up. Together.

I put on my second-hand Cardinal T-shirt yesterday. Wondering why it couldn’t all be this simple. Weren’t we, aren’t we, all a part of something bigger? I’d like to think so. Maybe the red and black is never all that black and white. But it is something to be connected. To be a part of the bigger picture. I want that. For all of us. For this world. We could come together. And identify as one.


Story books.

I don’t know when it changed — the moment we dropped the word story and just started calling them books. A part of me wants to bring it back. 

The story books were in the basement of the Alexandria Public Library. Maybe it was because we didn’t know how to use the card catalog yet, but so many were on display, not by spine, but full cover. I can still see the bright blue cover of Jonathan Livingston Seagull. It was still above my reading grade, and sat perched on the very top shelf. I thought if I finished all the books on the lower shelves, read each and every story, worked my way upwards, that I too could fly. 

My mom dropped me off every Saturday morning. I climbed up the outer steps, then climbed down the inside ones. I read for hours. Just before my mom picked me up, I checked out as many books as my orange book bag would hold, and the librarian would allow. She never complained about having to come in and get me. Most of my friends from school sat outside waiting for their rides. Running around in the grass, soon and easily fed up with the quiet words of the basement. But not me. I wanted every moment. And my mother, being an avid reader, understood. She parked the car behind the Ben Franklin store and walked over to get me. 

I wasn’t thinking about it when I wrote the book Bird Song. Covered in the same blue, it is a collection of stories (a story book) told by the beautiful wings that carry them. But of course it lives within me. The days at the public library. Each word read. Each shelf climbed. I know they brought me to this place. They lifted me. Dared me. And faster than any childhood Saturday morning, I learned to fly. 

The stories we create are not weights, but branches. Out on the morning limb, I heart gather all the words – of mother and love and youth and chance and choice and story — I spread my wings, and I fly.


Hands at the wheel.

There are scientific studies that show actual hormones are released when you share, physically increasing feelings of well-being.

I didn’t have the words for it then. I barely do now. But I didn’t need the proof either. I knew for certain that every event — every book signing, gallery show, television appearance was extraordinarily better with my mother by my side. And it wasn’t just about the event itself. Her involvement started long before. Upon initial creation of the words or painting, she was first to see. From the very beginning she was my safe space for this most vulnerable act of sharing my heart and soul. Each time, preparing me a little bit more. Giving me the courage and confidence to risk it all and show others.

Some have explained artists as a giant nerve, sent out to experience all the feelings, returning as proof that it could be felt, or reminding those who have forgotten, or bringing in those who had to turn away. I can’t be certain, but it feels pretty real to me. I do know one thing for sure, I wouldn’t have dared the nerve without my mother beside me. And even if I had, it certainly wouldn’t have been as fun!

Because it was never in just the allotted hours. No, an event from 2pm – 5pm on a Saturday afternoon started with morning giggles. Extra-hot, skim, vanilla lattes. Outfits laid out. Jewelry arranged. Swapped. More giggles. Make-up. Fashion show. Compliments exchanged. A very light lunch. Nibble really. As not to ruin the ensemble or lose the buzz of caffeine. Then the glorious event. Laughter and hugs and tender, joyful tears. Still flying high, we would make it to a favorite restaurant. The wine and plates shared. Slowly. Mapping out and traveling the day again. Returning home. All exposed nerves filled to capacity, safely tucked in. Muted giggles swallowed in pillows.

Listening to a podcast yesterday, a woman was explaining her time as a Donut Dolly, working for the Red Cross overseas in WW2. With the same courage as any soldier, these women braved the front lines to bring the much needed supplies of coffee, treats, news, letters, smiles, compassion, comfort. Dodging bombs and boosting morale. She spoke of her best friend beside her. She explained that she “drove the truck,” but it was her friend “who brought the joy.”

Tears streamed down my face. People have told me through the years how brave I have been. To follow my dreams. Risking my heart. Exposing my life through the work. And yes, I did dare to “drive the truck.” But just as brave, just as valuable, it was my mother who sat beside me, bringing the joy.

We’re still doing it. Hands at the wheel, I gather in her joy. And the journey continues.

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Close to you.

It will probably sound strange to the youth of today, but it was something to see — this woman — who sang like an angel, wore her hair and dresses long, and sat behind the set of drums. You might think, so what? Anyone could have done it. While that may be true, she was the one who did. The first one I had ever seen. I’m guessing that’s the case for most of us. Karen Carpenter. Not all who lead stand in front. 

Most of the heroes that I write about daily were never given awards. Not praised in the news. Nor decorated with medals. But I honor them. These farmers that stood above the wheat. Teachers that cleared a path. A grandma who giggled amidst life’s clutter. Neighbors with open doors. A mother who loved within and beyond any storm. These are the angels that led me here. 

They are the reason I can sit in a country far away in front of an empty canvas, where birds do “suddenly appear,” and keep me daily, and ever close, to the ones I love.

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It was our only safety net. We didn’t have the security of a cell phone. We memorized our home phone numbers, and carried with us the knowledge that in the unlikely event we missed the team bus on an away game for example, we could dial zero for the operator and she would place the call to our home, announce the collect call, asking our mothers “will you accept the charges?” The real security, I suppose, was knowing she always would.

Somehow I made it through my school days without making that call. Sure, there was the occasional mix-up. I sat alone in each of the school parking lots, waiting for the light blue Chevy Impala. And if she couldn’t come, there would be a sticky note on the main door of the school with instructions, like, — “Call Andria for a ride home.” I knew it was for me. We relied on our connections. Our human connections.

It’s hard to imagine now. We never leave home without our cell phones. How would we get anywhere? How would we get back? There is definitely an unmatched safety with the cell phone. But I may never feel as secure as I did back then. To count on someone like this is really pure magic. And it wasn’t just for rides. It was for everything. Secrets held. Emotions shared. Dreams dared. Confessions bared. Everything accepted without question — that was my mother.

The memories are sweet, but not without their own kind of pain. I will walk by a photograph and feel the squeezing of my heart. A glorious ache that I never want to end. “The charges of love,” I think, and smile. I take the bus, the plane, and travel this life. Secure in the knowledge that love will always come for me. And I may not be safe, but I will be saved.

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We took the bus from the roller rink to city park. Our sweaty legs were the only things grounding us to this world and the green pleather bus seats. We hovered between the exaltation of this finale to the fifth grade, and the silent wishing that this day would never end.

We jumped on picnic tables and rolled in the promise of summer grass. Our teachers started a fire and passed around graham crackers, marshmallows and Hershey chocolate bars. Some of the boys lunged with the toasting skewers, fighting off the time. Then blackened their marshmallows in the fire. The girls roasted theirs to a delicate brown. The hot marshmallow melted the chocolate sandwiched between the graham crackers. We all shook our heads in agreement to the name — s’more! For that’s all we wanted — more!

Perhaps it was the crash of the sugar high that silenced us on the bus ride back to school, but I think it was more than that. The open windowed breezes blew through t-shirts and pony tails, as our heads rested on classmates’ shoulders. Maybe we knew how special this day was. How exotic to catch yourself in transition. The magic of this moment, no longer a fifth grader, not yet in junior high…just here, together, joyfully sweated in our exhaustive friendships of youth. I mean we used everything. We spared nothing. We gave each other every laugh. Every tear and fear. We faced every open window. Together. Knowing we had it all. Knowing there would be more.

I laughed the first time I saw them in the exotic aisle of the grocery store here in France. Hershey Bars. Exotic! And then I was transported in time and place. Tasting this magical day of so long ago, so far away. And in that moment, I thought, they got it right. What could be more magical than this? More exotic?

I stood silent. Catching myself in the between. Hovering in this space of brand new and brand familiar. My imaginary pony tail brushed across my face and I smiled.

I will give everything. And humbly shake my head in the agreement, “S’more!”