Jodi Hills

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


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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.


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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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Tiny airplanes. Little horses.


We were both surprised to see how excited he was for the carnival. Charles is at least 6’ tall, but only 14. His voice changed before his heart. He wanted to go on the rides. The city of Aix doesn’t have room to house giant rides for the Christmas fair. They are mostly for toddlers. Tiny airplanes. Little horses. We could see he was disappointed. Sometimes, you just want to be small.

Some might say I’m too big to miss my mom. But nobody told my heart. So I eagerly await in the blinking light of the Christmas tree, for a miracle twice my size. A miracle of joy. A miracle of peace — one that passes all understanding. I still want to ride the tiny airplanes. The tiny horses. To feel the magic of the season — the magic of being small.


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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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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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Rugged path.

Everything can be explained away. But why would you want to? 

I was walking down the gravel path in Aix. There is a specific sound to footsteps on gravel. Almost a gathering in and a crunch. I know this sound. I grew up on a gravel road. Now, if you google it, it says that Softer surfaces like gravel reduce the force of impact with your running stride and may allow you to recover more quickly from the workout. Plus these softer surfaces require you to use stabilizing muscles that may grow lax on the road or sidewalk. I’m sure all of that is true. For me though, it’s the familiar of it all that helps the most.

Yesterday, desperately in need of this “softening” and “stabilizing,” I set out on our gravel path. Half way on my journey, I saw a sign — painted in yellow on a giant rock. Now I’m sure it can all be explained away. Perhaps it was put up for a running group. Directions for their race. But all I saw was the word “Ivy.” My mother’s name. Ivy. My heart smiled. I was home.

I guess we all choose to see what we want to see. Choose to feel what we want to feel. And for me, today and everyday, I am going to believe in the magic of it all. I’m going to believe in my feet, my heart, and the love that is always out there, leading me on this, sometimes rugged, but always beautiful path. 

My heart is well traveled.


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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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Hand in hand.

I wave to it every day – the Sainte Victoire montagne. Even on the days when the clouds are low, making the mountain almost disappear (which is very rare), I offer my best parade salute, because I know it hasn’t gone anywhere. It is sure, and steady. Beautiful, whether I see it or not.

When I was in the third grade, in the days when an 8 year old could walk unaccompanied through the streets of a small town, we began what we called “Wednesday school.” For those who wanted, you could take the hour or two to walk to your church for religious studies. The church we attended did not offer a class, and wasn’t in town, so I was told I could walk to First Lutheran. I had never been there before. The group of girls that knew the way took off running down the street. I had to go to the bathroom. I was sure I could catch up. But when I opened the front door of Washington Elementary, they were gone. Never was the speed of youth so prevalent. I started walking. I got to Broadway. Looked left. No one. Looked right – only Big Ole, the statue that claimed America’s birthright. I crossed the street. It’s funny how my heart began to beat faster, but my feet were moving slower. I turned left. Then maybe right. Sweating. No longer moving in one direction or the other, only spinning. I called out to no one. And that’s who answered. I bent down to grab my knees. I pretended to be tying my shoelaces, but really it was the only way I knew to give myself a hug. I breathed in the slowness and certainty of the path that got me here, and I started walking back. There was Broadway. There was Big Ole. Still there. My heart started to calm. I crossed the street and opened the big wooden doors. Walked up the terrazzo stairs to my classroom. The door was closed. Gerald Reed was sitting alone beside the door. I waved, and smiled at his familiar face. I sat down beside him. Neither one of us asked why we were there. Our hands were right beside each other on the floor. I don’t know if he took mine, or I took his, but we sat quietly, together, hand in hand, until the others returned. Acceptance, without question. We had received maybe the best lesson after all.

I don’t know what today will bring, but I wake and wave joyfully at all that is seen and unseen, because I still believe in the beauty, the goodness that rests just within reach.


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I called it.

We were always running. To the neighbors. On the field. In the sand toward the water. To our bicycles – to go even faster. Racing to the joy of it all. But there was something so special about riding in the front seat of the car, we not only raced toward it, we “called it.” And for some reason, we abided by these rules – even if you didn’t get to the car first, if you, in fact, had shouted out “I call the front seat,” then it was yours. The power we held.

I was thinking, wishing actually, praying even, for some of that power. Some of that joy. “If only I was able to reserve it – call it out to be mine.” And as I was thinking, my mind racing in bumper tennis shoes, it occurred to me, maybe I still do. What if I decided today was going to be filled with that speed, that speed that only comes from pure joy? That feeling that blows your hair back and your heart forward. That’s what I want. What if I just “called it?” 

We raced through the streets of Chicago. New York. My mom and I. It never occurred to me that she was aging. We ran. Arms draped with packages. From the Magnificent Mile (and it was true to its name!) to the city that never sleeps. We ran. Nothing but joy. And the thing is, in my heart, it’s still happening. My heart races in the memory of it all. 

Today might not be easy, but there will be joy, lifting my feet, lifting my heart. I believe in it. I have to. I already called it!