Jodi Hills

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


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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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From rack to mirror.

I often tell the story of the first time Dominique went with my mom and I to Herberger’s. Upon entering the back door, it started — the meet and greet. There’s Jessica from shoes. Hi Jessica! Sue in bras. “The last one fits great!” Oh there’s Carol. “Thanks for the boxes!” “This is the manager,” my mom pointed out. “Oh, hi Claudia — we’ll need to pre-order the Clinique.” Dominique seemed dazed and confused. He whispered in my ear, “I don’t understand?” What? I said – it all seeming so normal. “Is your mom the mayor?” He asked. “Of Herberger’s,” I said, “Yes!”

Some of my best memories are in dressing rooms. Whether it was me, or a complete stranger (of course only upon their urging), my mother was there to help. She would stand just behind your shoulder. Look with you in the three way mirror. And with your very best interests at heart, she would say, “I think we can do better.” And then she was with you – to the very end – from rack to mirror and back again. Until it was just right. No abandonings. Only truth. Only support. Until it was completely beautiful.

I have been told that these sweet memories will someday turn from pain to comfort, and then to complete joy. And I believe it. I have to believe it because I’ve seen it from every angle. This three-way reflection of truth, support and beauty.

I look in this morning’s mirror and smile because I can hear it…I can hear her… “We can do better. We will do better.” She is with me. And it is beautiful!



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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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Something close to hope.

I battled my French lesson this morning, word by word, accent by accent. And “they” know when you are struggling — a little prompt comes up — “Even when you make mistakes, you’re still learning.” I smile and pray it is true, with everything I do.

Sometimes I’ll say a few words to a stranger in French, and they will answer in English. “Wow,” I think, “it’s really that obvious?”…as if the crutch of my broken language is dangling from under my arm. If only the real struggles of everyone were that easy to see.

It’s so easy to be unkind. To be impatient. I know it is a lesson, I, we, must work on daily. It’s impossible to see what everyone is going through. The “how are you”s and the “fines” just don’t tell the whole story. The limps of the heart go undetected. So I guess the answer is to just keep trying. Trying each day to be more kind. More empathetic. And even on the days we fail, when others fail, to understand that we are all still learning. Arriving at something close to hope, and beginning our journey again.


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Love called her name.

I arrived in Marseille yesterday afternoon. Somehow my heart was moving my feet, without any assistance from my brain. The one-way doors to the public area were just past the luggage carousels. The people in front of me, clearly had no luggage, and started to walk through. From a distance, I could see Dominique in his red cashmere sweater (the one I gave him for his birthday). My heart ran through the “no re-entry doors” – straight to his arms. We hugged for the forever that we have promised, and then he said, “Did you get your luggage?”

There is a joke, I don’t quite remember, about “renouncing all of your material goods at the airport,” and clearly, I had done just that. We had to search two floors of the airport for security guards to get us back in. And we did. I got my luggage, but not before my heart got what it needed most.

I suppose some might think – “Well, that’s embarrassing” – but I’m thankful, thankful for a love that rules over everything. I hope on this day of thanks, and every day, we can all say the same.


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Beside still waters.

“If wishes were fishes, we’d all be in the brook.” My grandma used to tell me that. Maybe that’s one reason why I like the water so much.

We closed the pool down for the season. It’s a process. One that I never dreamed I would ever have to learn. Coming from the land of 10,000 lakes, nature took care of all that on her own.  We vacuumed and brushed. Swept. Scooped. Added the extra chemicals. Covered it. Then placed a net on top of the cover. I got a little dizzy, bending over, putting the stakes in the ground to hold the net. I leaned against the pool house, gave thanks, and said goodbye to the season. I know another will come. I believe in it. 

And in this new season, I will wish new wishes, and be buoyed by all the ones that have come true. And there have been so many. Pools and pools and lakes upon lakes filled with blessings. Oceans have been crossed and filled. I know how lucky I am. When I stop to lean against the sturdy of gratitude, beside still waters, I am saved.


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Given my song.

When I first picked up the clarinet, it was completely foreign to me. It didn’t feel securely balanced on my right thumb. It felt wobbly. So instead of just cupping my lips gently on the mouthpiece, I dug in with my front teeth. The marks remain today. 

I eventually learned to hold it correctly. To trust the balance. But it didn’t come overnight. It took years. I had to practice daily.  I knew I would never be great at it – but that was never really the point. I practiced to be a part of something. The routine was comforting. I knew I would forever hear the music. 

When a Benny Goodman song comes on the radio. I understand that I wasn’t the best, but I was a part of this beautiful music. I always will be.

I saw my mom’s picture in the paper today. Oh, how I wanted to love her perfectly. She deserved that. She was Benny Goodman and I was second chair in the fifth grade band. When I see her face, hearing that beautiful music of her heart, I truly know that I wasn’t perfect, but I was a part of that. I was a part of her beautiful heart’s song. And I always will be.  

Today, I may wobble, but I trust the balance, the magic of the music, and, oh, how I’m listening.


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Barely more than air.

It was common knowledge on the playground of Washington Elementary that if you skinned your knee, the immediate solution was just to blow on it. Because the monkey bars, swings, jungle gym, all rested on paved ground, this was an everyday occurance. And it was your truest friends who, when the scraped area was just out of reach, took over the duties, and eased the sting with this balm, barely more than air. 

I want you to know that I felt that yesterday, as you commented again and again with words of love for my mother.. Each letter, each phrase, relieving the pain of my skinned heart. 

We made it through recess together. Limping, hand in sweaty hand, we went back to the classroom with the love and knowledge gained on this sometimes battlefield. It’s comforting to know we can still do that for each other. Thank you, my friends, from the bottom, top and middle, of my ever-healing heart.


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Possibility

I was thrilled when I heard that all the girls had to take shop class — thrilled, that is, until I learned that it wasn’t going to be at the mall, but in the lower level of Central Junior High, with the saws, sanders, wood, and the three-fingered instructor.

Looking back, it was quite progressive. At the time, I didn’t realize how lucky we were. Everyone took everything – no question of gender. We had the funds, not only for these courses — woods, plastics, metals, drafting, cooking, sewing — but we also had band and choir and gym and swimming! Exposing us to a world beyond the brick walls. (Even beyond the mall.)

I suppose it was the smell that I first fell in love with – the smell of cut wood. It had the air of possibility. Week by week our projects progressed. “It has to be flush,” he said. So we sanded again and again. We built small bookshelves. Carrying it home on the bus, was one of my proudest days. It trophies in my hands and lap. The younger kids brushed their hands along the wood, to see if what I was telling them was true, that we had spun the wood like magic into these silky smooth creations. I have been in love with wood ever since.

Yesterday, a friend of ours drove two hours from the mountains to our house. He handed me a stack of wood. Freshly cut. Freshly sanded. Spun magic. I placed them on the work bench, like the trophies they were. I asked Dominique later in the evening, what else was he doing in town. Nothing. He had driven four hours just to give me this gift. My seemingly full heart swelled a bit more. I brushed my hands along the wood to see if what he was telling me was true. It was. We have the magic of such a friend. On a day, perhaps when I needed it most, I was given the air of possibility.


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Let’s talk all night.

When I was a little girl, my mom would gather blankets and pillows in a pile for me beside her bed. She called it my nest. 

I fell in love with Dominique ping by ping. Our first correspondence was on the phone. Text by text. Word by word. 

My mom came to help me with an event. I inflated the air mattress for her to sleep on. First, we put it in the living room. But then, because of the time difference in France, as our night began, so did Dominique’s morning, and my phone began to ping. He was on the fast train to Paris. I ran out to the living room to show my mom. After several pings, and giggles, we squeezed her mattress beside my bed. A nest. “Let’s talk all night,” we agreed. There are some moments you never want to end.

We did it often. The magic was never lost on us. We did it in Minneapolis. Chicago. New York. After a show. A book signing. To fit into this world of laughter and praise and love. Art and music and wine and food. It was glorious. And we wanted it to last. To never end. I still do.

I am nested in the memory of it all. Here in the south of France, beside the one I love. I was sent off with a glorious giggle and a love that still nests beside me. In my head, my heart, I am gathered in, and I know, still, if I but ask, we can talk all night.