Jodi Hills

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


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And stronger I ran.

They tarred over the playground of Washington Elementary. I have the scars on my knees to prove it. 

Back by the swings there were two horizontal poles. I’m guessing they used to hold the planks of wood to form teeter-totters. Maybe they thought the teeter totters were too dangerous, so they removed them. But that didn’t stop us.

I don’t know who thought of it first, but we all did it. If you wrapped one leg over the top of the pole, grabbed it with your arms underneath, forming a circle around the pole, then kicked the other leg from underneath you, you could spin around the pole like a human hula hoop. When it worked, it was glorious. Dizzying. Exhilarating. But when it didn’t…

My sweaty hands slipped from my leg and I landed hard against the pavement — so hard, the very breath that carried me, fled faster than any spinning hoop, fled from my body and flattened me against the tar. No air could get it. I panicked. So panicked I couldn’t even cry out. The weight of it all, against my chest. It seemed too much to bear. It was Shari, or Jan, or maybe even Cindy, one of them said, just wait, it will come back. The air will come back. They gathered around me. The air they breathed found its way to me. We had each other. Even then. And stronger I ran, lifted with the knowledge of having survived. It still carries me. Carries us. Stronger. Together.


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Map girl.

Before GPS. Before cell phones. We had to navigate on our own. Research the directions. Write them down on paper. 

When traveling with my mother, I would drive and she would read from the papers that I gave her. I wrote the directions clearly, and precisely to arrive at our destination. Without exception, holding the directions in her hands, she would ask, “But how will we get home?”  I’m still smiling.

Now, you might be smiling too, even laughing, but the truth is, she wasn’t that wrong. Finding our way is not always that easy. Retracing steps may not always be possible. Sometimes “the way” gets blocked. We can get pushed. Distracted. Forbidden even. And then what? 

Some say follow your heart. Others say use your head. Others still, stop and ask for help. I’ve done them all, sometimes all at the same time. And sometimes, finding our way home means not returning at all, but starting fresh. 

Each day I find myself making maps. Because I suppose that’s what all these things are about — maps — little ways that direct me to comfort, to joy, to home. Each story written, each painting painted, each table set, each loaf of bread baked, all little maps to lead me home. 

We have the luxury of GPS now, but only you can find your way. Take your time. Make your maps. Enjoy the journey.


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A look around.

Of course I’m going to finish it. I always do. I never leave a book, just in case… But this will take some effort, this book, because so far, (and I am more than half way into it) I have yet to find a character to empathize with…no one seems real, not to mention likable.  I’m not going to reveal the title, because for you, it might be great. You might relate to one or all of the characters. And that’s for you to decide. 

In any book, I enjoy a flawed character. It’s not like I’m looking for perfection. Because the flaws make people interesting. Human. And that’s what I’m not finding in this book. And maybe that’s on me as well. I have to find a way to see them as human. Part of the journey is up to me. I have to see them.

I suppose that’s the real lesson, isn’t it? I have been proposing this since I wrote my first book, “I am amazed.” I would often take the book to schools and read to the kids, all grades. After reading, I had them do an exercise – pick another student and write down something amazing about them. I encouraged them not to just pick out their friends. And they didn’t. They wrote beautiful things about each other, and their teachers too. They could see each other. One school made a mural of all the attributes and left it up for the school year. They claimed, and I hope it’s true, that bullying decreased, and everyone was just a little more gentle with each other. That is amazing.

So I will finish this book. And I will try harder to empathize with characters not common in my world. I will try to see them. I want to be better at this. Every day. And what if we all did that? Not just with characters in books, but also the ones at the grocery store, the bank, the school, in the car next to us, all the characters who vote and wander, and read, and see us as the different ones. Maybe we all do that for each other. Wouldn’t that be amazing?


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Thumbs up.

There is a certain group of people that will forever remain in the Mr. or Mrs. categories for me — my teachers.

As an adult, even becoming friends with some of them, it still seems almost impossible not to refer to them in a proper way. And how lucky, I suppose, that this remains. This simple sign of respect. 

My first gym teacher at Washington Elementary was Mr. Christopherson. His job, I see now, was almost impossible. Rounding up these groups of children, on the brink of Lord of the Flies…so filled with the agony and frustration of grammar and times tables…bursting at the seams of our gym uniforms to release the energy of learning. But somehow he did. Separating us into teams. Arming us with red balls. Allowing us to throw and run and scream and laugh, and sometimes cry. But then, and here comes the amazing part, he had the strength, the respect, to wind us down. Make us pick up the balls. Place them neatly in the ball rack. Stand in line. March to the lavatory. Shower. Change back into our “civilian” clothes. And walk quietly, calmly, (a little lighter of educational worry) single file, back to our classroom . This is something. This is why he will, and should, forever remain “Mr. Christopherson.”

When I became an adult, and would visit my mother for the weekend, I would go out running in the morningtime. And I would see him out there. Even on the coldest of winter days. Well into his later years. Still running. Still fit. Still in charge. Still inspiring. I would see him from a distance. I knew how he ran. I could feel myself pick up my pace a little. Puff up my chest. Run a little taller, straighter, stronger. When we crossed paths, he would smile and give me the thumbs up. Approval. It mattered. It still does. 

Today we say goodbye to this forever Mister. I sit up in my chair. A little straighter. A little stronger. And type the words of thanks.


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Lucky.

Most of the houses on VanDyke road had screen doors for the summer. There is a freedom in the sound of that screen door gently banging itself shut, because no matter who’s door you were racing through, who’s house you were leaving, you simply ran fearless out into the wild, the wild of a gravel road and more time than our school free minds could imagine… still, we ran, with newly tanned legs, in and out of neighbors’ houses, never looking for cars, or danger of any kind. 

It is something to grow up in a neighborhood. Not just a place where people lived near one another, but a true neighborhood, where you were part of something bigger than yourself. You were part of every home behind each swinging door. You were cared for, and watched over. You were free to roam under every sun, and gathered home each night with your mother’s call from the front stoop. To look, wander, and explore, unafraid, that made us not only rich, but the luckiest kids alive. 

They say if you see a bird looking away from itself, it is a sign of good luck because it means that bird doesn’t feel like it has to protect itself from danger. I suppose that’s what we were — young birds – flitting and flying about Van Dyke Road, never worried, free to look in any direction. 

And then one day, we all flew away, with all of our wildly different high hopes.  

What a gift we were given. These open skies over Van Dyke Road. Sometimes, even now, if the summer breeze gently blows my cares away, I look around without worry, and think, how lucky I was, to learn to fly.


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Produce

I have professed my love for libraries, over and over. The Washington School Library. The Alexandria Public Library. One small room. One small building. Each opened a world to me that will never close. I can smell the wood that housed the paper. The slight hint of sweet mildew, like an open window.

The truth is, this was not my first impression of books. My first collection of words on pages — words mixed with colorful art – these books held the smell of fresh produce. It was at Olson’s Supermarket. My mother hoisted me into the shopping cart. The silver denting the back of my thighs. Legs dangling. Her purse beside me.

Just after the cart corral was a long display of Golden Books. I can feel my arms reaching. They were the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. She placed one in my chubby hand and I was changed. Words on paper. My arms will be forever reaching.

I can hear her voice reading each page. Night after night. Year after year. And then I started to hear my own. How do you thank someone for giving you the world? I suppose the only way I know is to use the same words I was given. Again and again.

I was speaking to the young woman who is currently working on my new website. Not a small task. She has to handle each piece of art, each word. She told me yesterday, because she is so immersed in all of the work, “I feel like I know you.” My heart is still smiling. My arms are still reaching. We are in different countries. From different generations, and my paintings of the apples remind her of her mother’s kitchen. Once again, the sweet smell of produce… My world opens, and I give thanks with the words that first saved me.


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Just breathe.

We knew a little about team work, from playing in school sports, or even gym class, but this was different. We weren’t just working together, “It was more than that,” he said. We had to breathe together. Breathe together? All of us? Was that even possible?

We were just a group of teenagers in a band. We had never heard of breathing exercises. Certainly never heard of yoga. We were preparing for the state high school band tournaments in Minneapolis. Maybe some of us had grand aspirations, but I don’t really think so. We got to get out of school early. Ride a bus to Minneapolis. That was about it. But for some reason he believed in us. Wanted us to believe in ourselves. Reach for something more. And he stood in front of us, with that baton, that wiggle, all that hair, smiling, and we started to believe too.

It was the first time I even brought my clarinet home. Practiced. This was new. For most of us. We were all learning our individual parts, but it wasn’t enough he said. He said we had to be “one.” And the only way we could be “one” was to breathe together. For the first time I listened to my own breath. I was aware of my actions. Aware of the girls on either side of me. The boys behind me. We had different interests. Different skill levels. But we could do this. We could breathe together. We could do this for ourselves. We could be better. And we were. Every day.

That bus ride to the competition was fantastic. We sang. Arm in arm. Shoulder to shoulder. Our instruments snuggly packed in the compartments below. We played better than we ever had. Cohesive. One unit. It sounded beautiful — to us. We didn’t make it past the first round. I don’t suppose that was the ending you imagined. You were expecting some sort of victory. OH, but you see we were victorious. We thought so! And he thought so, our conductor, Mr. Christianson.

On the bus ride home we sang and laughed, still arm in arm, shoulder to shoulder, because we had done what we thought impossible. We became one. And that was the victory after all. We were part of something. I can hear a big band song on the radio today, and feel it!. I breathe in, once again, the gift he gave us, the gift we gave ourselves. And I belong.


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What remains.

I don’t know if it was important to her or not, but she – my aunt Sandy, was in fact crowned the Dairy Princess. She was probably just a teenager. It’s odd to think of adults in your life as young. To think of them having hopes and dreams. To be sashed in victory, and hearts broken later. But they are human. These aunts and uncles. These grandparents and parents.

I remember doing the math of when my Uncle Ron was born, and when my grandparents got married. My grandma telling me how she kissed a boy behind the Alexandria motel. Was it grandpa? I still see her smiling.

I earned a box full of trophies in high school for sports. I have no idea what happened to them. And I don’t really care. Yesterday, one of those girls from a high school team sent me a message. A girl that got the lyrics wrong to the song Beast of Burden by The Rolling Stones, returning on the team bus from an away game. This girl emailed me a bit of her broken heart from a brand new loss. We are still connected. I suppose this is the trophy that I will keep forever. These connections.

The Alexandria Motel is no longer a Motel. But stolen kisses live on. Sashes and trophies long gone. Friendships remain. How easy they are to carry in my heart. Never lost. What remains.


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Family farm.

I don’t remember which pronoun we used. I have to choose one now to write this story, so I will say he, and respectfully hope that that’s correct.

My mother’s cousin was born a female, but lived as a man. Now, see, I’m not even certain that’s the right way to put it, because I’m sure to him, he was born a man, and lived as a man. I want to move beyond my clunky way of describing him and get on to the heart of the story.

This was long before support groups. Long before anyone thought of being politically correct. Long before people spoke of gender. Certainly no one ever heard of fluidity. These were farmers. They spoke of farming.

And he was an excellent farmer. The hardest worker in the family. My mom spoke of how he saved the family farm. I only have one image of him, and that is leaning against the barn. Overalled. Tired — I pray from working.

I was too young to judge, to be unkind. I hope we all were.

I bring it up because it occurs to me, at some point in our lives, we have all found ourselves, leaning against the family farm, tired, wanting only to be accepted for who we are, the work we have done, praying for the kindness of fresh eyes and open hearts.

Tanned and weathered by the heat of so many summer suns, I stop, under today’s and think, what a glorious time to grow.


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A part of the story.

First I sanded it. Then cut it. Then sanded it again. It smelled brand new, this wood — this wood that he gave to me from the scrap pile. I squared it. Nailed it. Then stretched the material over this frame. I gessoed the canvas, and gessoed it again. And then I began to paint. I was invested long before the image came out. Long before the yellows and greens. Before the dimension rose from the surface. It was a part of me. A part of him. A part of the field of overgrown weeds, on the side of the mountain. A part of the story.

I was reading the reviews to the last book I read — a book that I adored. I wanted to be a part of the group – a part of the people talking about the experience. Most of the reviews were positive, but there was one that I just couldn’t believe. Now, I know that everyone doesn’t like the same thing, and that’s fine, but this negative review was so ridiculous in its reasoning. It said,(surrounded by a lot of other unflattering words) “it was just a bunch of stories.” What??? I still can’t believe it. Yes, it was, as you say, a bunch of stories. It was a grouping of beautiful stories. A gathering of lives. Because isn’t that all we are – a gathering of stories? Those we have lived through. Shared. The stories that trigger your memory. The stories that help you get through your own story. Gather you into mine. The stories that make a path. Guide you into the future. Comfort you in the darkness. Laugh with you in the light. These are our lives. All of these stories. And to me, that is beautiful!

These stories of my mother, my grandparents, my schoolmates and friends, these are the piles of scattered wood that, when treated with care, take on new form, new life. I know this painting of the lemons won’t last forever. But I’d like to think that one day, after it hangs in one home, then another, maybe it gets painted over, and hung again, or maybe restretched with a new canvas, maybe the wood frames a different painting, or braces a different structure, maybe eventually it burns in the fireplace, and comforts you as you share your story with the one you love.

Life…it’s never just a lemon. Share your story.