Jodi Hills

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


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Musical chairs.

It was one of the first games I learned at Washington Elementary. I had no idea, that so many years later, I would still be involved in my own game of musical chairs. The teacher placed the chairs in a line in the center of the room. One less chair than there were students. She started the music and we marched, danced, around the chairs. When the music stopped, we had to race to get an available spot. The person who didn’t get a chair was out of the game. Each time a chair was removed and the winner was left to sit alone. I enjoyed the music. Loved the dance. But what an odd way to win I thought. Silent and alone.

My mother loved to dance. And this relationship we had was one in itself. A movement of joy and support. A partnering. Then on a November day, the music stopped. I raced to the nearest chair. My yellow hair flung as I yelled and pointed. The metal legs scraped against the floor as people pushed and scrambled. Smiling and exhaling the joy that we danced for my entire life, I looked left and right. Noooooo! I looked up and she was still standing there. Wait. I’ll slide over. Not within the rules they said But she belongs beside me. She needs a chair. We need to keep dancing. We are supposed to keep dancing. I could give up my chair. Could I give up my chair? Not the way it’s played. But how do I play without her? Where is the music? I need her in the game. I looked up from my cold metal chair. So cold. She smiled and waved. I’m not afraid she said. The silence filled the room. I covered my ears.

Grace sat with me. There was no need for an additional chair. The music began. Softly. We’ll just sit a while she said. And listen. The music never ends.


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Belong.

To have walked a place is to possess it. I knew this before I even knew what the word meant. 

From my first visit I tried to memorize my grandparent’s farm. The house. The barns. Fences and trees. Knowing that I would need it one day. Not the things inside the rooms. Not the furniture or figurines. Not the rusting tools. Nor the worn clothing. But the security. I suppose that’s all a home is — this feeling that if you went there, they would have to take you in. And if in fact I carried it with me, this feeling, this home, then I could go anywhere. I could have everything, or nothing else at all, and I would have this. And I would be OK. So I memorized the steps. The pictures hanging on the walls. The variety packs of cereals in the cupboard. The smell of damp work from overalls hanging on the wall. Tables and rugs and boots. Desks and doors. Closets. 

My suspicions were confirmed when I saw the For Sale sign in the front lawn of our home on Van Dyke Road. My mother was trying to say the words. I tried to listen as I went through the steps. “We’d find an apartment,” she said. I walked up the gravel driveway to the house. “And we’d be OK.” I opened the front door and clung to the overalls hanging in the entry. “Just the two of us,” she said. I walked up the three steps to the kitchen. Tears fell from her eyes as she tried to convince me. “It wasn’t my fault…” I went up the stairs to the first bedroom, the second, the sewing room. I walked the barn. Even the empty chicken coop. And I returned to her face. My mother’s face. Seeing her. Loving her. Trusting her. It didn’t matter where we were going. If we had everything, or nothing else at all, we had each other.

And I memorized each laugh. Each day. Each struggle. Each adventure. Every trip to every mall. Every pretty dress. Every conversation mixed with coffee and wine. Each moment with my mom. Knowing I would need it one day. And that day has come.

I walk the streets, the gravel paths of Aix en provence. I have filled out the forms. Followed the rules. Applied. Tested. And carry the card that says I belong. But I know the only way for that to be true is to walk it. This place. Gather it all in, step by step, and carry it with me. Scattering along the way, everything that I have collected through the years. Each story. Every pebble on the path that I walk daily is now mixed with my treasures. My memories. Dampened overalls and sparkling dresses. Laughs and loves. I am a part of it all. And I am home.


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The language of “I understand.”

My friend Barbie and I had a secret language in Mr. Gustafson’s sixth grade class. Our desks weren’t close, so we also had to include signals. We had special words for the things that were important to us. Like “training bra” and if we were wearing one that day, and what we were training for — I believe the word was brazier burger, referencing the Dairy Queen, I suppose. We had signs for the upcoming weekend, for sleepovers.

To get her attention, I would pop my lips, almost as if saying the letter B that started her name. To get mine, she made the J sound, tongue against teeth. It was unsophisticated enough, and disruptive enough for Mr. Gustafson to look up from his hockey magazine. But he let us continue. What was the harm really? And I was already correcting the spelling tests for the entire class. So we clicked and popped our way — completely connected — through our first year at Central Junior High.

The other night, before sleep, Dominique and I were solving the problems of the world, as we often do. I was describing someone, and I said his brain went “kerflooey.” It surprised even me. I don’t think I have ever used this word before. It sounded like something from an episode of Scooby Doo. He thought I was making it up — and to be honest, I wasn’t sure myself. The next afternoon I began reading a new book. Only a few chapters in, there it was — larger than life — the word “kerflooey.” I felt connected to not just this book, but to the entire universe. The randomness that puts us together, in the right place and the right time — well, to me, it’s nothing short of spectacular.

Sometimes you tell me, “this is exactly what I needed to hear today,” and I feel the same connection. It is magical that we can click and pop into each other’s lives. We can speak the language of “I understand,” and “you’re not alone.” We connect in the most glorious of ways, and my heart, overflowing with joy, goes kerflooey!


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Something cracked, something broken.


The first time I wore plaster was in the fifth grade. I broke my arm ice skating during the Valentine’s Day party. I waited patiently in the nurse’s office of Washington Elementary. My mom came from work and drove us to the clinic. The sleeve of my winter coat dangled from the left side as I breathed in the antiseptic smell. My mother touched my knee so I would stop kicking the bed as we waited for the doctor to return with the xrays. He clicked the black sheets into the light that hung on the wall and said, “See right here… that’s where it’s broken.” We both agreed, but I’m not sure either one of us saw it. He dipped the strips of plaster and wrapped it warmly around my arm. It was as white as his coat. “Tomorrow all your friends can sign it,” he said. Oh, he didn’t have to tell me. That was the only thing I was looking forward to. I barely slept through the night.

Maybe the teachers gave them the permanent markers. They must have. Soon I was encircled with eager fifth graders, armed with all colors of opened Sharpies. Almost high from the smell and the attention, I presented my open canvas and each kid fought for the prime real estate of my cast. 

I don’t know how we knew. But we all did. Maybe it was a right of passage. This ritual. This coming together over something cracked, something broken. It was so beautiful. It would have felt no different had they lifted me above their heads and passed me around the classroom. 

It happens less frequently now. And maybe with less fanfare. Maybe it’s because the wounds get less visible when we’re older. Maybe our collective groups get smaller. But I consider myself lucky. Blessed. I still have those people in my life who surround me with support. Sometimes with just a few words, but they fit into the prime real estate of my heart and fill it. And I am lifted, with a permanent high. 

All we have to do is be good to each other. Be there, for something cracked. Something broken.


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Bambooed.

I didn’t even notice it when I took the picture – how the bamboo tree photobombed my most recent painting.

I don’t know that I was aware of the speed, strength and resilience of bamboo before moving to France. We have a tiny forest of them in our backyard. It’s not like you can actually see them growing…but almost. For the most part, we have kept them contained to a single area, but this one somehow snuck much closer to the house.

I was never really one to paint landscapes before. I had only lived in the city. But I am surrounded by nature now. I walk through it daily. It seems I permanently have a rock in my shoe, every shoe, and a call to wander. It’s in my heart now. And as with all of my paintings, they have to travel through there first. I paint the landscapes. I live in this new palette. And I can see it. The growth.

Maybe I didn’t notice it while it was happening, but I have bambooed my way into this new palette — this new life. I suppose that’s the way it is with all growth — strong, resilient, and oh, so surprising!

Green and smiling, I begin the day. New.


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The beginning of somewhere.

We pulled the car off of the freeway to the only gas station in sight — the only building in sight. We were in the southern part of the US. Some might call it the middle of nowhere. But I don’t really like that phrase – everywhere is somewhere to someone, and we in fact were there – so I call it the beginning of somewhere. I would say we were lost. Dominique would say that we just weren’t sure how to get where we were going…. In any case, we paid the woman behind the counter for the gas and some random snacks, and asked her directions to our destination. She had never heard of it. That was fine. What’s the name of this freeway right here? Or the number? She said she didn’t know. Perhaps she didn’t hear, I thought, so I repeated, this freeway right here — I pointed. “I don’t know,” she said, “I didn’t drive here.” Baffled by the response, we walked back to the car in silence. There were so many questions. First of which – how did she get there? Where did she live? There were no houses in site. And most importantly, do you really need to drive on a road to know its name — a road that you could reach out and touch if you took two steps?

And I suppose that’s the problem, isn’t it? This lack of interest. Empathy. Knowledge. Have our worlds gotten so small? Our concerns even smaller? It was Maya Angelou who said the most important thing was curiousity. It was the key to everything. Without it, she thought, nothing else was really possible, including love, friendship, education, invention…life itself.

Our favorite travel memories always include the stumbling upon. The surprise of what isn’t on the map, or the brochure. I wish this for everyone. And you don’t have to travel the world – though I highly recommend it if you have the means — but please, please, look beyond your front door. Take the road less traveled, or the road worn to tracks, it doesn’t matter, just take a road. Go somewhere. Learn something. Meet people.

We were taught in school that it was important to “walk in someone else’s shoes.” Maybe that’s frightening to some, so I would say, start by walking in your own shoes. Live your life. Take some chances. Make some discoveries. And then make the exchange — of “shoes” — you will have something to share, and be open to receive. If you want the thrill of “stumbling upon,” you have to be willing to stumble.

We drove down the unknown freeway. Smiling. Packed with a new memory. A new story. Ready for our next adventure.


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Recent. Frequent. Ever.

Recent and frequent tears have not made my heart, nor mind, any less wide-eyed. I jerked my head around to see the horses. The horses clopping behind me on the path. Gathering speed. Louder. The horses I knew would be there. I stopped. Looked. The clip-clop continued in my ear buds. The path behind me was empty.

I was listening to the Paris Review. They were playing a short story about a man visiting a town. All were on horseback. The reality of their podcasts is unprecedented. I don’t know how they produce it, but the sounds they create are alive. Separate from the narrator, the horses approached. The sound got nearer. So real. So magical. I could feel the breath of them behind me.

Further down the path, when the horses returned, the character’s departure, the clip-clip continued. This time, it wasn’t so startling, but more comforting. I liked thinking of them by me. Behind me. Walking with me. And I was no longer afraid, but comforted. I continued down the path, deep inside the magic.

I passed by my mother’s picture as I first went out the door for this particular walk. I had just been working on my computer, and I had this thought — What happened to her email? Where did they go now? The reminders from Sundance catalog — this turquoise coat that she would love. What happened to all the emails we had exchanged. Promises. Love. Were they still hovering? If I sent one now – to her address – her address that carried my birthday numbers — where would it go? Could she see it?

I stepped onto the path and hit play. Trying to drown out the typing in my head, when the horses startled me. They were so alive. The presentation so real. My heart was so willing to believe in them that fear turned into comfort.

I’m typing the words now. My cheeks still rosy, more from magic than from the cool winter air. Each word is filled with love. Filled with chance. Filled with a comforting joy that walks beside me. Magic that I don’t need to understand, that I just believe. Unconditionally. My mother is with me. Recent. Frequent. Ever.

Wide-eyed. I hit send.


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I am here.

In the fifth grade team room of Miss Green, Mr. Andert, and Mrs. Pohlman, we were allowed to begin. And I mean begin anything. Without plans. Without direction. Without fear. 

The janitor’s closet was directly across from our classroom. During a rainy day recess, Wendy Shoeneck, Lori Patri, Barb Duray and I used it as our office. Amid the smell of disinfectant and the wet mop in the bucket, we came up with the idea of putting on a play for our classmates. We had no reason to believe we would be good at it. We had no reason to believe we wouldn’t be… so we continued. We had no script. No decisions were made other than to just do it. 

We flung the door open and told Miss Green of our plans. I don’t remember asking, maybe we did, I hope we did, nonetheless, she said sure, and when the class convened after recess, we began. We drifted between themes of don’t use drugs, be nice to everyone, some school bus songs…I remember jumping and waving, and soon the whole class was singing. It maybe lasted 5 minutes. But you don’t need a long time to get a real taste of freedom, a real taste of joy.  

We were rangled back to our desks and the day continued with books and structure. But the afternoon smiles never left our faces.  

I had been shy for my first four grades. Some said painfully — I had never seen it as pain. When they mentioned it on my report cards, my mother always told them, “When she has something to say, she’ll say it.”  My mother never lied to me, so I believed her, and lived in my quiet world pain free. She was right, and it happened for me in fifth grade. Maybe it was due to the open team room. Maybe it was because of the open teachers. The safety of friends. Or maybe it was just my time. But I give thanks for it all. I never turned back after that. 

I have no real plan for the day. I have no reason to believe it won’t be good. I fling open the door — here I am — powered by the freedom to live my joy.


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All suitcases roll beautifully when empty.


It really came down to the color. They all seemed to roll beautifully — these new suitcases in the store. I tested many. Each one. Each brand. All glided across the polished floor. I picked one, sure that my next trip would be so much easier.

I removed the tags. Filled it. Full. Struggled over the rug. Through the door. Down the stairs. Hallway. Trunk. Airport. It didn’t seem all that easy. I labored with the weight. 

What seems so incredibly obvious, has taken me decades to learn. And maybe I should say understand, because to be honest, I’m still learning it. I still struggle with, “But I need it…I can’t leave it behind…”  Even more importantly, I need to learn it – for my head, my heart. How glorious it would be to roll around this world, unburdened by the weight of it all. All those conversations playing over and over in my head. The weight of worry and what ifs. The weight of well, they should have, and why can’t they…  and why didn’t I…  I’m learning to lighten the load. I don’t want to be crushed by this passage of time. Day by day. I want to let go, and enjoy the journey. 

It’s all kind of funny, when you think about it — this baggage. We have the power to choose. It can’t follow us on its own. It has to be dragged. I smile at this morning’s sun…empty handed.


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Off to a different deck

My mom was dizzy for most of her life. An imbalance in her inner ear. We had only been on the cruise ship for a short time when it began — a tumbling in my brain that went directly to my stomach. An inner violence I had never felt before. I spent the first day hugging porcelain.  My mom seemed fine. I couldn’t believe it. How was she doing it? “Oh, I always feel like this,” she said, shrugging it off. And she went in search of the captain, humming the theme song to The Love Boat. 

I got a couple of shots from the ship’s doctor, easing the symptoms and allowing me to navigate while on the ship. The only problem was, it seemed to be overcompensating, and walking on land was a struggle. So this is what they meant by a drunken sailor?  It lasted even after returning home. The long hallway in my apartment building proved very challenging, and for nearly a week, I serpentined my way from the garage to my door.  Once again, I marveled at the silent strength of my mother, and kept walking.

Yesterday, I went out for my normal afternoon walk.  A quarter of the way through, my left earbud stopped working. It didn’t make sense to turn back, so I continued on. But it felt so strange. I couldn’t seem to adjust. I felt partial. Incomplete. Off balance. I kept walking. In search of my other voice. I only mention it because it occurred to me, this is what it’s like to lose someone you love. The world hasn’t changed, but your way of navigating through it is completely different. But you keep walking. The sun still shines. The trees are lovely. The ground is solid. The birds are humming. I see my mother skipping off to a different deck.

I was given the strength long ago. Now is the time to use it.