Jodi Hills

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

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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.


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.


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.


Looking up

The track meet was nearing the end when the coach approached us on the grass. I had one event to complete, and Colleen was finished for the day. The mile race was coming up and we had an extra space to fill. It didn’t have to be filled of course, but if someone competed in this spot, we were sure to get a point just for completing the race. That point could make a difference on whether or not we won the meet. He was looking at Colleen. She seemed confused, because she had never been a miler. I could feel the inner shaking of her head. It would be really difficult. You need to train for something like that. Just jumping in at the last second would surely be almost impossible. Clearly she wouldn’t win, and probably would be embarrassed. There could even be puking. The coach would never force her to do it, he only asked. She got up. I smiled. I was so proud of her! That’s my brave friend, I thought. There were no real surprises. The other contestants raced out in front of her. She kept running. Her heart and lungs fought for her attention. She kept running. Her legs turned to stone. She kept running. The others finished. She kept running. And running. She could have stepped off the track. No one would have blamed her. But she kept running. She finished. I hope she was proud of herself. I hope I told her just how amazing I thought she was! I can’t tell you if we won the meet. If we had a good season. But I do know this – at sixteen – I witnessed strength. Courage. And pure will. When I saw her going around that track, she wasn’t just running, she was flying, and the most beautiful bird in the sky!

My mom ordered a dress from the Sundance catalog. It should be arriving today. Why is this a significant event? She is currently surrounded by friends and family who are giving up. And she could do the same. Who would blame her? But she keeps believing. She keeps dreaming. She orders the dress and believes in a tomorrow where she looks beautiful! And she will. Because she keeps running. I have never been more proud of her. She will put on that dress of blue and teal and white, and she will be the most beautiful bird flying in the sky!
If you want to believe in miracles, sometimes, you just have to look up!

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Good morning, Corrigan!

In fifth grade we went orienteering. There was nothing in our history that said we would be good at orienteering. Most of us, in our 10 or 11 years on this earth, had never even heard of it. But off we went. Handing in our signed parental waivers as we filed into the big yellow school bus, perhaps as unaware as livestock heading off to market. We stopped in the middle of the largest forest we had ever seen. Surely this was the beginning of a horror film. We stomped into the wooden cabins and waited. Of course we would wait for dark. That’s exactly how it would read in the script. We were assigned teams. We didn’t pick teams like in sports. No one had any idea who would actually be good at this, so it would have been hard to choose key members. There were brief instructions. No one listened. We assumed, as in our monthly fire drills at school, we would march out, and somehow march back in. We were given compasses and charts and courses. Each team was to finish a specific course, mark it on the maps and return to base camp. Teachers waited up in the trees, to watch us, or to frighten us. I imagine, as with any disaster, perhaps a plane crash – just before the point of impact when people start wishing they had listened to the preflight instructions – we began questioning each other, “does anyone know how to do this?” We didn’t. There was something about stars, I think. Maybe these compasses. And suddenly it became very clear that it was dark, and we were in the woods. We started running. This made the most sense. We picked any check point we could find. As fast as we could. And later than anyone expected, even with the running, we miraculously found our way back to the cabins.
In 1938, Douglas Corrigan made a flight plan from New York to California. Twenty eight hours after taking off, he landed in Ireland. He got out of the plane and said, “Where am I?”  To the amusement of both sides of the Atlantic, he stuck to his story of a malfunctioning compass.  He was given the name Wrong-Way and written into the history books.  Up until then, he had been merely a footnote.
The chaperones came down from the trees, and avoided being “up a creek,” as we were all alive and safe.  While no team exceeded expectations, our team ended up doing the wrong course, in the wrong direction, with the slowest time.  They gave us paper certificates, clearly made from the cabin’s photocopier, with the Wrong-way Corrigan award (or citation). We were no longer footnotes of the fifth grade. 
At some point we all have to find our way. Some of us need to follow the wrong path beforewe find the right one. Perhaps most of us. The wrong job. The wrong love. The wrong town. Sometimes you have to get lost in order to find your way. Sometimes you have to take the wrong path. Draw the wrong perspective. Then things can become clear. I have done all. I have stumbled over my own heart and path, every day. But both are mine. Mine to walk. Mine to share. There’s no compass for that. There’s only faith. And the stars.

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I went for a walk this morning.  The sky was mostly gray. The ground wet from last night’s rain. I listened to a few podcasts for inspiration. The words were good, but they didn’t really leap into my heart.  So I kept walking. Looking. Turning corners, passing trees. And then the prettiest little bird flew directly in my path, landing in the tree that guards our garage. The most elegant mix of blues and yellows. I know that bird. I have painted that bird.  It was, in fact, the first bird I painted in France.  The first bird I heard in France. With a song, so delicate, so lovely, saying, “Every day she decides to be happy, and sings.”  

I was visiting with my mother on the phone yesterday. Remember when I told you that I know my grandmother’s handwriting, and how important that is? Well, maybe even more importantly, I know my mother’s laugh. It starts almost as a little chuckle and grows into the most delightful giggle. In this laugh she is young, and possible and cancer free, and she sings. She sings a song so beautiful, that when I start to laugh with her, it becomes a dance.  Because it was just yesterday when she felt the breezes from Lakeside Ballroom, dreamed of Frank Sinatra, gave her heart, smelled the youth of her children, broke her heart, and trusted her heart again…It was just today when the wind brushed her skirt, and she hoped and twirled like a little girl.

What a gift she gives me with her song. What a gift we all have been given – another day!  Another day!!!!  Be happy!  Sing it out loud!


VanDyke Road still on my shoes.

 The Birthplace of America.

I don’t really know how he got his name. Was he always Big Ole? He was to me. He was just always there. Could it be that we were really the birthplace of America? We had the Rhunestone too. Or a copy. We never spoke of it in school, never read of it in books – but there it was – the claim that was so large, Birthplace of America. True or not- everything that happened was on either side of Big Ole. So, it was right in that sense. It was our birthplace. It was all we new of America. Of our dream.

I have a memory of a neighborhood. For it was a neighborhood, you see, we had neighborhoods back then. Do we still? We had houses and people that matched them. Cars that matched the houses and the people. We knew the houses and cars and the people, and the wood, the linoleum, the carpeting, the clotheslines. We knew the jobs, the gardens.

Mrs. Muzik lived next door to the Nortons. She had a daughter. Melody. Say it in your head, Melody Muzik. Mrs. Muzik had the greenest lawn. We all had the same weather, yet it favored her. Her lawn was always freshly cut, thick and luxurious. You weren’t allowed to walk on it. I didn’t want to. Not because my summer bare feet didn’t imagine it to be magical. I didn’t want to because there was no Mr. Muzik. I never asked where he was. I assumed he died. Until my own father left, I had no reason to believe that anyone did, or would. Just knowing that a Mr. Muzik was missing, I remember thinking, but she has this, this green lawn, these perfect flowers. She should have this. This was hers. I didn’t walk on her lawn.

Dyndas lived across the street from them. It was Frank and Sylvia Dynda, with his parents, Grandma and Grandpa Dynda. It was a neighborhood. It felt right to call them Grandma and Grandpa Dynda. It was not too familiar. It was just familiar. Oh how glorious it was to be familiar. To walk in between the sheets that Sylvia had hanging on the line. To let them brush, cool and wet against your sun drenched legs, to walk through the open screen door, to say, hello Grandma, and to get a cookie that she had made, to answer her grandma-like questions, and leave through the same screen door, never worrying of when you would see her again. Nothing was disposable.

Alf drove the oldest pickup in the neighborhood. He might have scared children from a different neighborhood, but I, and maybe we, had thought his name was Elf. An Elf wasn’t scary. An old Elf on Van Dyke Road. He lived next to the Schultz’s and the Weiss’s. The Shultz boys would give us all a good reason to behave. Most of us, under the age of 10, were threatened when rooms were left uncleaned and beds undone, “Do you want to go live with the Shulz boys?” The Weiss family was older than the Nortons, younger than Elf – Alf. They were quiet and reliable. As quiet as the peach that colored their quiet house. Then the Mullens. Maybe it was Carol Mullen that drowned out the sound of the Mr. and Mrs. Weiss. She had the loudest voice for the dinner call. “Patsy!!!! Patsy!!!” She had three children, but I only remember her calling for Patsy. She was the only one to stray I guess.

As I rode my bike further down Van Dyke road, the names became less familiar, but some stood out – The Lords, The Lees, The Vaceks. And how comforting to put a “the” in front of these houses and cars and people. Because they were the families. Each family had cupboards of cereal and single-line telephones and one television and tables and grocery bags from Olson’s super market and we knew them. We knew who and how many and how long and where the baby aspirin was kept, and the color of bikes and the grades in school and the wet hair and the bus… we were part of something, behind Big Ole. We were a neighborhood. We were people listening to “open-line” on the radio, running barefoot, through swinging doors, not just your own, and we were home. That’s what I tried to stuff in my pocket. That’s what I stuffed into both pockets, my lungs, my toes, deep inside my heart, when I rode my bike home from volleyball practice and there was a sold sign in our driveway. My father had walked away. Sold the house. My mother and I would move to the other side of Big Ole. To an apartment. With Van Dyke road still on my shoes. 

The Norton girls anchored Van Dyke Road. They were the team leaders – without the five of them – there was no kickball, no kick the can, no softball. They led us each summer night to the empty field next to Dynda’s house, and we played until the sun lay low. And a little longer. Until our parents called us home. And a little longer. They were the gatekeepers of the North End. The last to get on the big yellow school bus. The Tech School student studying law enforcement, who drove the bus, turned us around in their driveway, and brought us back up the gravel road. I don’t think there was a time when all five Norton girls were on the bus together. The driver would open the door and one, two, maybe three would run in with books and wet hair, smelling of shampoo and the fresh air that clung to it. We didn’t take selfies. It would have been absurd to take a picture of someone on the bus and then take the film to Peterson Drug store and wait for a week to see an out-of-focus girl hiding behind her books, with a glazed look of sugared cereal. We didn’t text. We didn’t have Google. We had to be curious. If we wondered who was the actor who played Peter on The Brady Bunch, we had to wait a week until the next episode and watch the credits. We also had mystery. I didn’t know what was in the North End, though my imagination had conjured up many stories of runaways and robbers and other various Nancy Drew cases. I didn’t have the words for it then, but I needed them. The Norton girls. They were pretty and athletic and accessible. They were older and younger and I found myself wedged in the middle. It was familiar, and possible. I can hear the creaks on their staircase. The screams running down their backyard. The running. The biking. The breathless racing of secrets and time. And the bus door would open, with the certainty that one Norton girl would get on board. I needed that. We all did. We needed each other. We needed the lawns and the fields and stories and this building of lives. This neighborhood. We claimed each other. We grew up together. This was the birthplace of our America. Our pockets were full.

Sometimes I stop myself and think, did it all really matter that much? Did it change us to know the wood work, the bed times… and the linoleum? The linoleum. Decades later, at the Atlanta Gift Mart – 7.1 million square feet hosting over 200,000 people, I would run into Melody in the passing crowd. With instant recognition and a calm that only a shared past can contain, I simply said, “Oh, hi Melody,” as if she just got off the bus in front of her house on Van Dyke Road. Did it matter to remember the sound of lawn mowers and cards in bicycle wheels? Decades later, changing in every way, every direction, even moving to another country, I would come home for a visit and Lynn Norton would pass as I climbed a tree over Lake Agnes wearing my mother’s coat. I would see her the next day and she would say, “Didn’t I see you up a tree yesterday?” It did matter. To be known. To be seen. To be held in the arms of 5 girls, an empty lot, an unrelated grandparent, and the swing of a summer screen door — it mattered. It still does.