Jodi Hills

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


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The exchange.

She has short term memory loss, my mother-in-law. She arrived with flowers for me (courtesy of her other son). I thanked her. Hugged them close to me, draping myself in the fragrance. I held them out to her so she, too, could breathe them in. She thought I was giving them to her as a gift. She smiled with a grand “merci!” — and I was gifted again.

It’s not always clear who is gifting whom. Who is the one helping. Most of the time, I think we all receive in the exchange. And we need to move freely between the roles. Sometimes I think it is maybe easier to be the giver, the strong one. Allowing yourself to be the one who is vulnerable, perhaps this takes the most strength of all. 

I leaned on you today. I’m not sure if you even knew, but I wanted to thank you. I felt you holding my heart. It made me happy. And I was strong. I hope I can do the same for you, if so, we can do anything.


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The playground

I suppose I’ve always been a dreamer. But I’m not sure it would be possible to live, (not just survive, I mean really live) any other way.

On the playground at Washington Elementary, it was something of a right of passage to display your bruises – your badges of courage. We’d line up under the monkey bars, and point out our battles survived. “This is when my foot got caught in the jump rope and I landed on my knees.” “Oh, yeah, but look, here’s when we were playing tug of war and the rope got caught under my arm.” “Look at my eye – the football hit me right in the face – the FACE!”  Never broken, but bruised daily. Because we were participating – joyfully!

I’d like to think the same of my heart. I continue to send it off to battle. It knows, from past experience — this daily beating on life’s playground — that it is going to be bruised. Love will do that. Every time. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

Maybe my biggest dream is that we could all do this — love this big! Risk it all, believing  in the beautiful resilience of the heart. 

My heart will not be broken – it is not a block of ice. It is a juicy pear, bruised for sure, but forever delicious! So I run to the playground again and again, proud of what I’ve been through, what you’ve been through! We’re here. Today. Let’s play!


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Welcome to the garden.

I found out yesterday that I have been gardening since the age of five.

I certainly never wanted to get my hands dirty. Some of the neighbor girls made mud pies — the thought of it…. no! I constantly checked to see if the outdoor hose was working, just in case. 

My grandmother made real pies, but still, her hands… deep in the garden, she pulled and cut the rhubarb. You could see it from the dining room window. And I was fascinated that the day before, or even that very morning, it was in the ground, and now, here it sat, round and steaming, crusted, on the table.

I was asked the other day at what age I started to write, to paint. 5 years old. Did you share it? she asked. Oh, yes! With my mother. I would come out of my bedroom, arms straight out – holding it like the steaming pie I imagined it to be, and presented it. Words and paintings, I thought, were meant to be devoured.  

Mid-feast in my newest read, “Our Missing Hearts,” by Celeste Ng, I read that the word “author” means to bring to life, to grow. Like a gardener, I thought. 

She asked me if there were other writers, artists, in the family. No, I said, but there were gardeners, farmers — people with hands and hearts, dirtied by life’s abundance of heartache, challenge and joy. Teaching, inspiring, giving everything, with arms reaching straight out — the authors of living.

Each day, ready or not, we will be asked to grow, to give. The sun comes up, and says, “Welcome to the garden!”


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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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On top.

Perhaps one of the biggest dangers of social media is the act of comparison — comparing your life to what you think is the life of the other person on the screen. And I say, “what you think” because you really don’t know how the other person is living. You just get this small glimpse of perhaps what they had for dinner. You might see them in their best outfit. On vacation. Their best photoshopped image. And even if it is “real,” it doesn’t change your life. You decide if your life is big or small, happy or sad, empty or full – and believe me, you will probably experience all of these – more than probably.

The birds in our yard love the cherry tree — and I don’t blame them. Cherries are delicious. Someone told us to hang cd’s from the branches, and it would scare the birds away. The cherries are all gone. Turns out they were not afraid, but perhaps even enjoyed the music while they ate. You just never know. I imagine the fun they had in the tree – their own social gathering place – singing along to the shiny objects. I could waste my time and feel bad about not eating cherries, but nothing would change, so I’m going to be happy for them! After all, they sing for us every morning.

Remember, you will not always be the biggest bird. You will not always be the smallest. Find the joy in both. The grace in both. That is the cherry on top!


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Out of the tree of life.


A red plum in France is called prune rouge. I like the sound of it. Elegant, I think. We have a tree in our front yard. Each year she gives us the most delicious harvest for making jam. It’s my favorite. Of our fruit trees, peach, apricot, cherry (she is yet to produce enough for jam) and plum, the plum, or prune rouge is the most difficult to make into jam because the fruit is very small and the pit is very big, and very attached. But the reward! As the fruit turns from yellow to pink to the most glorious, well rouge, aaah, it is magnificent. And the taste! The taste bursts into Frank Sinatra singing, “Out of the tree of life, I just picked me a plum!”


I heard once, and it took a long time to learn, but I believe it now, “One doesn’t love a home less for having suffered in it…” Things happen. Hurtful things. But I suppose, only where there is love can there be pain. People, places, that you don’t know, that you don’t care about, they can’t hurt you. But they can’t give you anything really. To really love someone, love something, there is always the risk of being hurt, well, more than risk really, you will get hurt. But the reward! When you take that hurt, grab it with both hands, break it apart, tear away the pit of it all, it can transform – you can transform, into something absolutely delicious!


Coming home now, I can see this place for all the rouge it contains. All the gifts it has given me. And I am grateful for it all, the pain, the work, the possibility, the start, and most of all the love! For giving me the lyrics to my song, “Still it’s a real good bet, the best is yet, to come!”


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Pont du Gard

The most visited ancient monument in France, listed as a world heritage site by Unesco, the Pont du Gard aqueduct remains one of humankind’s great masterpieces. A marvel of Antiquity and a true technical feat.

48 metres high, it has three vertical rows of arches: 6 on the lowest level, 11 on the second level and 35 on the third and top level. Its upper part reaches a length of 273 metres (originally 360 metres when there were twelve extra arches). It served as an aqueduct until the 6th century before becoming a tollgate in the Middle Ages and finally a road bridge from the 18th to 20th century.  

Perhaps even more impressive, an olive tree lives, over 1,000 years old, next to this masterpiece — a masterpiece in and of itself.  

Nobody takes the time to plant an olive tree anymore. (Or bothers to build real bridges.) You need patience with an olive tree. You can plant it and wait five years for the olives, maybe twelve. 

Yes, twelve years of nurturing, watering and pruning. The reward is not instant. Ah, instant gratification. I know, I get impatient too. But I’m trying, really trying, with my life, to plant an olive tree. Trying to give without worrying about the pay-off, the reward. 

Maybe it’s not about the fruit. Maybe it’s about the tree. Maybe it’s just about the growth itself. I want to have the patience, the beauty, the stamina, the strength of an olive tree. And so I will put in the time to learn, to love, and to live, without measuring the sun, only feeling its warmth. I offer this to you as well. I am here for you. 

No abandonings. For you, for me, I’m planting an olive tree. I am building a bridge. I am taking the time.


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Peach

Living in an apartment most of my young life, I didn’t really understand the basement of my grandmother. The room at the bottom of the stairs was stacked with glass jars filled with fruit and vegetables. She “canned.” I didn’t really know what that meant. No one really explained it to me. I’m ashamed to say, I wondered if we, they, were poor. Did we have to save this food in these jars? Were we preparing for something terrible to happen? I didn’t know – and I was afraid to ask.


I loved my grandma. She had a twinkle that came from some inner assuredness, so my worry didn’t last long. And I forgot about it.
Peaches have begun to pop out on our front yard tree. Each year when they blossom and then give fruit, it feels like a tiny miracle. They are beautiful. A melding of orange and yellow and red. I imagine the tiny angels that come in the night with brushes and release all the colors, just for us to give a wow in the morning sun!


In a few weeks, I will pick these peaches and peel them. After I take the skin off, the fruit is almost without color, a pale yellow at best, but then when I boil them, they release into the most glorious color of, well, peach! It is stunning. And the magic continues.


As each jar is emptied, over fresh baked bread, or brioche, or just by the spoonful, I am taken on a sticky hand trip, across the ocean, chubby fingers locked in my grandma’s, walking down the stairs to her glorious basement. “I see it now,” I tell her. “It’s magic and it’s beautiful!”

My grandma came last night with the other angels. The peaches fill the tree and the morning air says, “Wow!”