Jodi Hills

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


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Beyond fear.

My mother was in grade school when she hit Arnie Zavadil in the head with her metal lunch box. He was making fun of her younger brother Tom. She was the eldest daughter of Rueben and Elsie. And she took it seriously. She would later drop “eldest” and trade it in for “prettiest,” when describing her familial role, but she never lost her protective spirit.

I counted on that protective swing my whole life as we navigated through the world, often filled with “taunting Arnies.” Even when she traded in her lunch box for white ruffles, dangling earrings and Red Door perfume. I always felt safe. I felt protected. What a gift she gave us all.

Never underestimate the strength of a Hvezda girl armed with love — she is grace beyond fear.


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All overmixed paint turns to brown.

You can see it in a painting. In a poem. When it’s just trying too hard. Overworked. Exhausted. It sucks the beauty right out of it.

I called her Grandma Lois. We weren’t related, but for the love of painting. She was hovering in her eighties. Still brush in hand. I offered my youth. She offered her experience. Our palettes combined. She told me the hardest thing for her had always been learning when to stop. To look at what she had painted and say, this is good – what I’ve created – it’s enough. To learn, and create again — that was the real beauty, she said. We smiled. Painted. Connected.

On canvas, I have learned this. It’s harder in real life. There are some people with whom you think, if I just tried a little harder, maybe if I was just a little brighter, better — if I was just more beautiful, inside and out, maybe they would see me. All overmixed paint turns to brown. Some people just won’t see you. And you have to walk away. Step aside and say, what I offered, it was enough.

Surround yourself with those who can see it. Can see you. In the purest, most simple strokes. Wow – to sit in that beauty – that beauty of being. Knowing your all, their all, is more than enough. Not gasping, just breathing. This, I think, is the art of loving, of living. This is good. This is beautiful.


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The kitchen cow.

You could see a cow from almost every window in my grandparent’s home. Maybe it was just too many reminders for my grandma on this particular day. I never thought of her having a middle name. I barely thought of her first name. She told me while sitting at the kitchen table – it was Gladys. Her middle name. She said she liked it. I could see a bit of a twinkle in the eye that rested above her curled lip. She was thinking about something…  And I suppose it was the first time I saw her not just as a grandma, but a woman. A woman of this world. And she looked beautiful. “But Elsie is nice,” I said. “Ah, it’s a bit too much like a cow…You can call me Gladys if you like,” she said. And her apron started to disappear. I smiled, knowing I had witnessed something so very special. She slapped her hands on her thighs. The apron reappeared and she went back to the sink. I grabbed her from behind, and I hugged, again, and for the first time.  

At our kitchen table here in France, I sit at the chair that faces my little cow. I painted it years ago. It rests just over Dominique’s shoulder. All of my worlds, open, with each morning croissant. The radio was playing Cabaret this morning. Liza sang “I used to have this girlfriend known as Elsie.” My heart grins. For, I too, for just a brief moment had, not just a grandma, but a girlfriend…who let me in, well beyond the kitchen, inside her private twinkle.


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Shine.

There are many reasons that I write each day. A writer writes. 

There are many reasons that I paint each day. A painter paints. 

But I must admit, I had this idea, that maybe, just maybe, if I wrote the words down, they would form a string, a line, a ladder, and connect to my mother. I thought if I finished the painting, finished the book, they would be the lifeboats to carry her. A believer has to believe.

And for 586 days it has been true. But maybe the real truth is that it has saved me. I suppose that’s love. It must be love. And perhaps the only real reason to do anything.

Years ago, I wrote about my mother – 

“You do the impossible every day. You warm people with your own brilliant light, and make them believe it is they who really shine.”

I write. I paint. I believe. I love. All because of her brilliant light. I will do it today, and for the rest of my life. And I will be saved.


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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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Rock solid.


We always raced toward the stillness. We began at the stairs of my grandparents’ house — 4 or 5 cement steps that led to the door that no one ever used. On your marks, get set… Go! And we were off, my cousins and I, wheeling and willing ourselves to the first base – the giant rock at the end (or beginning) of their driveway. The stone had to be touched, then we made a sharp right to the first apple tree, touching the boards that were hammered into the trunk for stairs . Then came the field. The cow field. We were supposed to touch the nearest cow. This meant you would have to duck under the electric fence, avoid the cow “pies” and dare to get get close enough to touch one of those giant beasts. They, not wanting to play, looked at us with faces that said, move on to the next base. We slightly bent down as we ran near the fence and waved in the direction of a moo, and this satisfied us all. We ran around the back of the house, past the rhubarb in the garden, touched the garage, ran to the barn, touched a tractor, then raced back to the front steps.

The rules were loose. The laughter was free. The races were never won or lost. Perhaps we were just gathering it all in. Each touch preserved in time. I can feel it — all — still. Sometimes I think, how smart we were — to take it all in. I have to will myself to be that smart now. It’s so easy to get caught up in the daily race. But I remind myself to take the time to touch it – the stillness around me. I suppose it is there, in this stillness, that we gather in the meaning — the laughter, the love, the rock solid joy of being alive.

Summer is racing towards autumn. I can feel the slight change in the air. We sit on the front steps for a moment. Talk about what a run we had! The slips on corners, and grass stained knees, and we laugh from the lowest parts of our bellies. We look through the corners of eyes and feel the sun… “You wanna go one more time?” Yes! The answer was, and always will be — yes!!!


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This table is strong.

Some said it was in the way, my grandparents’ kitchen table. But for me, for my mother, it was something to lean on. The stability we craved.

The legs were at an angle, protruding just a little beyond the table top. You could kick it. Bump into it. Throw groceries, suitcases, all of your worries, on top of it. It was never going to crumble.

It took a while for my mother to get her legs beneath her. But she did. Oh how she did! And not just holding her up, but at that slight angle – that confident stride. Maybe they saw it in her first – the people of Alexandria. “Oh, I saw you walking yesterday.” “I see you out walking all the time.” “Aren’t you that lady that I see walking?” And when she answered yes to them, maybe she started to hear it herself. Yes. See it in herself. Yes, I am that lady.

I suppose we all have to become the stability that we crave. Table by table. Step by step. The sun rises with one question, we rise, and say simply, joyfully — Yes!

Whatever you need, this table is strong. Jodi Hills


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In close.


I rarely saw my grandmother without an apron. There were so many children. Grandchildren. The kitchen was always in motion. I liked standing next to her. So close. When she wore the embroidered apron – the one with the flowers – I would press my head as close to her hip as I could. This hug, when held for longer than she had time for – (yet she never pushed me away) – this hug could produce an imprint on my cheek of the same flowers. An imprint that didn’t last long on my face, but still remains on my heart.

Dishes clanked. Smells arose. Voices jabbered. And then the whirlwind would stop. She needed something from the basement. She told me to run and get it. The basement. I’ll admit I was afraid. Being only apron high, it wasn’t unusual, but I wanted to be brave. My grandmother canned. There was a whole wall of canned good down there. But to get to what she needed, I would have to go descend the darkened stairs. Past the hooks of overalls that looked like men waiting. I would have to tune out the furnace. The creaks of wood. She pushed the small of my back in the direction of the stairs. Of course I would do it. I held my breath, as if going under water. Raced my bumper tennis shoes down the steps. Grabbed the glass jar filled with what I could only imagine was a science experiment and ran back up the stairs. I handed it to her beaming. She had no idea what I had risked, but she hugged me just the same.

Yesterday, we went to see Dominique’s mother. She clings to the day. Leaving, sad, I heard through the open windows of the house next door, the clanking of the dishes. Silverware. Glass. Stove. A woman singing over the din. The sounds of life. I smiled, feeling the embroidered flowers on my heart.

This love. Knowing your heart, if you’re giving it all, will break and mend and break again. Still, I, we, will risk any darkened stairs to experience it. The sun begins to light today’s path. To this day, this life, I make a promise to feel it – really feel it – and, joyfully, I pull myself in close.


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The makers.

Yesterday we went on a mini-adventure. Just an hour from our home. A small village. We wanted to see the local pottery shop. It has been in operation since 1665. Something that has survived that long deserves our attention.  

Along the way, in the countryside, I saw something new. (New to me, clearly very old.) They looked like brick silos. They were to house the pigeons, my husband explained. We discussed the pigeons for many miles. Both in amazement that this was the way they used to get messages from place to place. Pigeons. Messages strapped to them. We complain when the internet is slow. 

Returning home, I sat by the window, looking up pigeons on my computer. I could see our “locals” sitting by the side of the tree. Most of “our” pigeons barely fly anymore. How lazy, I thought, then quickly caught myself as I checked my mail (my email that can arrive almost instantly from another country.)

It’s easy to forget about the makers. Those who crafted things by hand. Came up with solutions to problems. 

We ate our evening meal on the plates we purchased from the potter – the most beautiful plates I have ever seen. Each touched by human hands. Potters. Still making dishes. Not one exactly the same. Beautifully imperfect. 

We have the luxury of so many things – and I use them every day. I love technology. I am so grateful for the ease of everyday living. But I give thanks for those who got us here. And for those who continue to remind us of the journey. The makers. The hands that continue to create. Touch. The parents and grandparents that still carry the stories, messages strapped on hearts and wings. Journeys that deserve our attention — not one exactly the same. Beautifully imperfect.


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The Farm Report.

Maybe it was different. Maybe it didn’t happen. Maybe we just didn’t hear about it. But what I remember of the news is this — riding in the front seat of my grandmother’s car. Windows open. The smell of earth. Bare legs stuck to the seat. Grandma’s house-dress waving in the breeze, and the flap of her upper arms. The news we listened to was only this — The Farm Report, and Paul Harvey. The voices melodic. Familiar. Simple. And we were saved.

I was washing the breakfast dishes. Looking out the window. Contemplating, agonizing, over this morning’s news. I opened the window. “Please just drive,” I thought. Drive us in open-earth-smelling air away from all this heartache. This killing.

I looked down below the window. “Uncle Wally” (the baby walnut tree) was standing strong. The tulips, looked dry, a little watering needed. The roses — full bloom, nothing to do but enjoy. My “farm report.” My heart calmed to a simpler time. I wish it for everyone.

I will not take up arms to fight arms. It is not my nature. It is not my belief. I can only offer my humble words. String them together, and possibly you can find some comfort in that. Some release. Some hope. Maybe, if we all could do that for each other — be the voices of common sense, common understanding, maybe we could all be saved. Maybe it’s too simple – but I pray it’s possible.

When Paul Harvey signed off, he always said, “Good day…” Maybe it was my imagination, but I thought his voice raised up a little at the end, as if maybe it were a question. And maybe it was. Maybe he was asking us to be better, to be more human, asking us to please, make it a good day.

Today, I will ask myself, and ask the same of you, “Good day…?”