Jodi Hills

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


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Reflections of the heart.

I was watching the British National portrait challenge. A variety of artists are given four hours to paint the portrait of a person. All are good at their craft, for sure. And it’s interesting to see the different techniques they use in their respective mediums. But the most fascinating thing for me is seeing the different ways in which they see a person. When completed, most portraits look like the person sitting, but often the portraits look nothing like each other. One subject commented, “They all look like me, but they are all so different.” Another man was simply moved to tears because he had never seen himself in this way. The subjects get to choose their favorite portrait of themselves and take it home. Interestingly, what they choose is often not what the judges deem the “best” portrait.

So how do we see people? How do we see ourselves? The only answer I can come up with is to keep looking. See people in every light. When they are happy, or sad. Winning or struggling. And give them a reflection. I don’t mean we all have to be portrait artists. Of course, if you can paint someone, show them what you see. Or send them a letter.  Return the smile they give you. Or catch their tears. If they are reaching out – reach back. Reflect the heart offered. The same applies to the face in the mirror.

When I painted my mother’s portrait, she said, “That woman doesn’t look like she needs to be afraid of anything – maybe I don’t either.” I pray every day that this is true — reflecting the heart she has always so generously offered to me.


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Hello!

I thought about it a lot yesterday while I was painting our front gate — this gift of time.

My grandfather died my first year in college. I was studying creative writing. Words had always saved me, since I was a little girl. When I found out he was ill, I started writing. Reaching out with each letter. To save him. To save myself.

I picked up the community phone in our dorm. It was my Aunt Sandy who called to ask if it could be read at his funeral, this poem. The tears were streaming down my face. The two popular girls from South Dakota, their room adjacent to the community room, stood beside me, trying to catch the tears in their hands.

I was so brand new, in almost every way. The language I was living was filled with hellos, and on his paper, his poem, I was writing his goodbye. In one line I spoke of him wanting to repaint the barn, but he thought he wouldn’t live to see it dry. The words break me, even as I type it. Even as I painted the front gate. But in this cracking of my heart, this opening, it became so clear. I do have the time. Today. And the choice of how to fill it. The choice to live each moment, the best that I can.

I caught the paint drops in my hand and made our front gate just a little more welcoming. I did the same with my heart. This day, this time, this brand new, will not be wasted. It will be lived. And it will be beautiful! With each word I type, I know that I won’t be safe, but I will be saved.


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Daring greatly.

It seemed easy to make friends in school. They sat you next to about 30 options. Gave you subjects to talk about. Offered common enemies like rules and detention. Supplied the games and gyms. Put you in pools and on buses, all together.

And that was enough for most. But it seemed like there should be more. “Wasn’t there more to it? Wasn’t it all supposed to mean something?” I asked my best friend in my yellow bedroom on Van Dyke Road. Cindy thought about it. I mean, she didn’t laugh, but really thought about it, and I suppose that’s why we were friends. We understood each other. Even in our preteens, we sought more than they could possibly offer at Washington Elementary, or even Central Junior High.

We both agreed that there had to be more. But how did you get it? That was the bigger question. I searched for years. I can’t tell you the exact moment. They came in whispers. Small bits. I wrote words for my mother. And we connected deeply. A poem for my grandfather’s funeral. And I was a part of a family. I began to expose my heart. I suppose I stopped looking for what could be offered to me, and began to offer what I had. And it was bigger! Better! It meant something! It meant all and more than I had dreamed of in shades of yellow. This is how I would connect. How I still connect.

He said I could pick out anything from his wood pile. Maybe that doesn’t sound like much, but for me it was priceless. A way for us to connect. And I had a long way to travel to catch up to this life-long friend of my husband. He helped me load the back of our car.

I cut the first strips of wood to stretch the canvas. No plans yet of what to paint, that would come. It always does if I just give it a path. I gessoed the canvas. And began in blue. The sea and sky and sand opened before me. The boats and nets and the fishermen — all daring greatly.

I searched my newly attained wood pile for the longest, straightest pieces. Sanded each length. And sanded again. And again. I cut them to length. Nailed them with the rusted hammer — once belonging to my husband’s father. Squared. Stained. Sanded again. Cut the strips for the backing. Placed the painting inside. It should also be mentioned that Michel, the man who let me pick freely from his pile of wood, was, for the majority of his life, a fisherman. A fisherman, I pause and smile. The blank canvas knew, perhaps even before I did. And this is how we connect. Connect our hearts. Our stories. By doing the work.

There is more. There is always more. But it won’t be given. We will have to search and throw our nets out to sea, continuously doing the work, ever daring greatly.


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Peace leads to joy.

In the fifth grade at Washington Elementary, I was ahead in my studies, so Miss Green said I could go upstairs to assist the third grade teacher. Oh, yes. What an opportunity! I felt so old and smart. These poor, lowly third graders surely needed all the wisdom I could impart. I walked tall into their classroom. I stood next to their teacher. Certainly we were equals. They were about to start a section in science. Biology. Not my favorite, but I was still confident. I walked behind her to the giant glass box. Frogs. My heart rose a little in my chest. I didn’t like frogs. Perhaps it was the years of torment from an older brother who thought sticking one down your summer tank top was hilarious! (It wasn’t.) Still, I thought, they’re in a glass cage. How bad could this be? My question was soon answered by one of the third grade boys who opened the cover. Frogs began jumping everywhere. It was an infestation, biblical in nature. The teacher ran around, grabbing. Children screamed and threw. No, not me. I raced to the door, and took the stairs two at a time to get back to the comfort of my classroom. “They didn’t need me after all…” I said as I humbly and quietly returned to my desk. I wrote over and over in my journal – “not today.”

It had been just weeks earlier at our yearly safety assembly that our principal told us when faced with something that made us uncomfortable or nervous, not to engage, but to remove ourselves from the situation. Who knew how valuable this information could be?! Still is.

As grownups, it gets a little harder to see the chaos of certain people or relationships — it’s usually a little more subtle than flinging frogs — but just as chaotic. And sometimes we can feel compelled to argue our point, louder, faster, as they fly overhead. But I’m right!!!! I’m right!!! Only it just adds to the screaming. I know I’ll be taught this lesson again and again. I walk out into the calm of the sun, the quiet peace of the morning, smile, and tell my heart, “not today.”


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Nothing.

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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Carried within.

For a short time, when I was but a short child, I lived in a green house. It was under a blue sky, lit with the brightest yellow sun. It was a time when blue and yellow did, in fact, make green. And everything made sense. Then we moved to a brown house. On the same road. We broke apart, each of us. Nothing made sense. And I spent years searching for my palette.

I asked the same sky, under the same sun, every day, “Please, can you show me the way?” The sun continued to smile, as if it were already telling me. “What?” I asked the yellow. “Where?” I asked the blue. One day I looked down at my shoes, my travel weary shoes, stained with green. A smiling sigh. The blue got bluer. The sun beamed. I looked back at my shoes. How long had they been carrying the answer? Carrying my palette. My home.

They come out so easily now, the colors of my heart, as I live and paint each canvas. Because I know where they are, these comforting colors of my palette, my love, my home — they are, as they always have been, carried within.


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Washed clean.

I walked through the garage and into our front yard. The grass was damp. I could see that Cathy was in the empty lot before Dynda’s house. It had just rained, this being spring. I didn’t walk on the road because I didn’t want to get my shoes dirty. I chose wet instead. I crossed through the line of trees that separated the lots. The leaves dampened my shirt. She sat there, near a big puddle. Her hands were covered in mud up to her elbows. It was hard for me to breathe. “Let’s make mud pies,” she said. I liked neither mud, nor pie, but I did like Cathy, so I walked a little closer. She passed to me a clump of wet soil, as if it were a gift. I held on for as long as I could, mere seconds. “My mom is calling,” I lied. She looked confused as I dropped the muck. I ran with arms extended. “Maaaaaaaaaaaaam!  Mom!” I yelled as I got closer. She ran out the door with the urgency I required. “What????” she asked. Not seeing my most obvious emergency. I thrust my hands in her direction. I shook them towards her. How could she not see?  Look! My hands. She smiled in acknowledgement. She knew I didn’t like my hands dirty. “Please…” my outthrust hands pleaded. She grabbed the hose, and I was saved.

I don’t know why it terrified me so – to have dirty hands. But it did. My mother never made fun of me. Never questioned why. Never told me how to feel. She just helped me wash them. And later, we had a good laugh. 

Through the years, there would be countless times that I, or she, would find ourselves in a mess. Sometimes created. Sometimes thrust upon us. But I never felt judged. We simply helped each other cry — washed ourselves clean. Helped each other grow. Helped each other laugh. And we were saved. 

I hope you have this. This person beside you. Who will reach out to your dirtiest of hands. Who will help you cry. Help you laugh. Just be there. Be there for you as you battle through love and fear. Battle through the letting in and the letting go. Be there when you call their name, with outstretched hands. And even more than this, I hope you ARE this person. (Just as I hope that I am.) 

Be there, as we all try to come clean.


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Little lamb.

Margaux got her first ipad. She’s only 11. Still a little lamb. She adores art. She fell in love with my ipad (middle aged when I got my first one). She loves to draw using the Procreate app. It’s a wonderful application to be sure. I use it. Millions do. And maybe this is where my hesitation comes from. The millions. The sheep. 

I want for her to embrace all technology. All that the future holds. Progress is good. Yes. But there is so much more. 

The pencil sharpeners we had in school hung at the front of the class at Washington Elementary. Right beside the door. Silver. Heavy duty. Bolted into the wall. The handle made for anxious little lamb arms to circle round and round with all their sweaty might – to achieve that fine point, fit for cursive writing, for cursive drawing. And it was something to go to the front of the class. To step away from the flock and make your own point. We didn’t have words for it then, but it was probably our first risk, our first chance, to bravely stand alone with our Number Two pencil, and prepare to create.

I’m thrilled that Margaux has an ipad. How lucky! But I’m still going to be the one to show her the open fields of paper, and pencils and paint. Of freshly cut wood. Sanded. Of gessoed canvas and stick drawings in the sand. Gently push her to the open door, with tools sharpened, mind and heart wide open. Cheering all the while, as this little lamb is on her way.


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Come in, you and your heart sit down.

For many it is a tradition to drive around neighborhoods to look at all the houses lit up for Christmas. That’s fun, I suppose, but for me, I looked at it a little differently. I was never so much in search of the light, but the warmth.

Since giving up our home when I was a little girl, I began the search. I would walk by. Bicycle by. Look at the homes. Wondering what they were doing inside. How did it feel? What was it like to be gathered in? Wrapped inside the warmth. Not the heat, nor the light. For it wasn’t about that. It could be a summer’s day, and I would search for the warmth.

What was that warmth? If I had to give it a definition I would say the feeling of belonging. The feeling that if you went there, they would not just have to take you in, but delight in it. They would sigh with hearts, that you made it here – home. They would not care how you got there, just that you were there, here, in the warmth of this place.

And so I painted. Houses. A yellow house. A green house. White houses. Doors. Entries. Windows. Shutters. I painted it all. Willing it to life. And I did, you see. I found it in the search. The destination was my heart. (I guess Glinda from the Wizard of Oz was right — “You had the power all along, my dear”)

I still paint the houses, even though I have found my way home. I’m no longer searching, but presenting. Maybe you need to find it too. So I paint them. Again. With a palette that will draw you in. Open arms. No judgements. No restraints. I want everyone to feel that. Not just Christmas in December. Or July. But every day!

Welcome home.


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Klickitat street

It’s no secret that our thoughts control our hands.


My grade school travels were never alone. For a good two years I was accompanied by Beverly Cleary’s kids from Klickitat Street. Cleary was one of my favorite childhood authors. Yesterday, making the blog journey back to my own Klickitat Street (which we named Van Dyke Road), my thoughts were consumed with Beezus and Henry and Ribsy and Ramona.


It wasn’t like I stayed with them all day, but subconsciously, they must have wandered through my head, in their wide-legged, hurried steps of youth, because when I sat down to paint, there she was — slowly emerging with a smile that said, “I knew you’d come back for us.”

Beverly Cleary. Smiling. In the certainty of black and white – the certainty that maybe only lasted those two years I spent with them on Klickitat Street. The certainty I carry with me today when I need sure footing. When I need my thoughts to be pure.


Because our thoughts lead to actions. Have you ever heard yourself say, “I’m just so tired of this… just sick and tired of it all…” What have you claimed? What have you made yourself. You’ve secured that fact that you are sick and you are tired. We become our thoughts. I know only because I do it. We all do it. But when I find myself there, I try to go through my list? My list of haves… my list of blessings… and almost always, those thoughts can magically make the journey from my head to my heart to my hands, and I can walk in a better day. A better day — maybe not perfect — there are so many things out of our control, I know. But I think it’s always a good day if I can take a walk on a path of joy, a path of hope, a path of positive action. Who knows where it may lead? Who will join you?


I give thanks for all the fictional and nonfictional characters — (and yes, please let me be surrounded with the wonderful world of living “characters”!) — they, you, bring me so much joy — a joy that only makes me want to do more – be more — and be better! Today I call you Beverly. Tomorrow, by your name. I will come back for you. Again and again.