Jodi Hills

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


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Set up to fly.

She was really too petite to be a Barbara. We called her Barbie. Barbie Smith. She was the setter on our volleyball team in high school. She was excellent in her role. She knew each player. How high they could jump. When they were ready. Quick set. High set. And when she did it perfectly, the hitter got all the credit with the perfect spike. But we knew…without her, there was none of it.


I’m not sure we value these people enough. The setters. Those that set us up for success. As school is about to begin around the globe, maybe it’s a good time to recognize those that have lifted us, lift us now.


My mom worked in the Superintendent’s office at our high school. She took all the calls. She was the first to handle the ball. She welcomed the teachers, new and old. She directed the parents, upset or confused. Kept the administrators smiling. Not only made the school run, but made it look good. The perfect setter.


And the teachers. To say I can’t thank them all would be wrong. I do thank them all. They gave my broken world structure. Gave it a play. Popped the ball in my direction and told me to jump. Jump as high as I could. And I did! I still do it. Every day. Because they set me up. Sure, they offered up the words and the skills and the rules…but they also gave me a reason to stretch my every muscle, a curiousity, a belief that I was part of the game. And I am. They “Barbied” me into a wider world. What a gift!


Today, let’s look behind the curtain. Give thanks to all those who lift us without reward or recognition. The every day heroes — I don’t say everyday because they are not ordinary — they show up every day, they lift us. They give us not just a chance at winning – but a chance to fly!


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Looking up

The track meet was nearing the end when the coach approached us on the grass. I had one event to complete, and Colleen was finished for the day. The mile race was coming up and we had an extra space to fill. It didn’t have to be filled of course, but if someone competed in this spot, we were sure to get a point just for completing the race. That point could make a difference on whether or not we won the meet. He was looking at Colleen. She seemed confused, because she had never been a miler. I could feel the inner shaking of her head. It would be really difficult. You need to train for something like that. Just jumping in at the last second would surely be almost impossible. Clearly she wouldn’t win, and probably would be embarrassed. There could even be puking. The coach would never force her to do it, he only asked. She got up. I smiled. I was so proud of her! That’s my brave friend, I thought. There were no real surprises. The other contestants raced out in front of her. She kept running. Her heart and lungs fought for her attention. She kept running. Her legs turned to stone. She kept running. The others finished. She kept running. And running. She could have stepped off the track. No one would have blamed her. But she kept running. She finished. I hope she was proud of herself. I hope I told her just how amazing I thought she was! I can’t tell you if we won the meet. If we had a good season. But I do know this – at sixteen – I witnessed strength. Courage. And pure will. When I saw her going around that track, she wasn’t just running, she was flying, and the most beautiful bird in the sky!


My mom ordered a dress from the Sundance catalog. It should be arriving today. Why is this a significant event? She is currently surrounded by friends and family who are giving up. And she could do the same. Who would blame her? But she keeps believing. She keeps dreaming. She orders the dress and believes in a tomorrow where she looks beautiful! And she will. Because she keeps running. I have never been more proud of her. She will put on that dress of blue and teal and white, and she will be the most beautiful bird flying in the sky!
If you want to believe in miracles, sometimes, you just have to look up!


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Show your work

When I was in tenth grade at Jefferson Senior High School, I was getting A’s in all of my classes, even math. I loved my English classes, composition, literature, all of it. I loved art and history. I didn’t have the same feeling for math. So when the teacher would say, “show your work,” I wanted to draw a picture of me laying on my bedroom floor crying into an open math book — but I guess that’s not what he meant. Apparently he didn’t understand my struggles because he asked if I wanted to join the math club. There was a club for this torture? No, I assured him that I didn’t want to join.


Every kid questions something in school – “I’ll never use this!!” they claim. (And truth be told, they aren’t always wrong.) But I have to admit that I do use something I learned in all of those required math courses — I learned the value of doing the work, even when I didn’t love it, and most importantly the value of showing my work.


I wasn’t sure what I wanted to “become” in college. I knew I loved writing, and I knew I loved art. But what would I do with that? I didn’t really want to become a professor, and I had no examples, in my circle of people, living creative lives. So at first I tried advertising. That seemed to put some of my skills to use, but I didn’t feel the love – I wasn’t crying on the bedroom floor, but sometimes kneeling…


It all made sense when I combined the two. I started telling stories with each painting. Sometimes a phrase, a word, and even full stories. I began “showing the work.” Each painting was not just the colors, but the life lived behind each color. And that’s what people seemed to gravitate to – the story – the work.


I don’t know why we have to go through all of the things we do. It doesn’t always seem fair, and I’m not sure I believe “there is a reason for everything…” – that maybe is too simple. But I do believe this — we will each spend our time on the floor, questioning, crying, but if we get up — show ourselves that we can in fact do it! — show others that we have in fact done it! — then there is more than just the lesson learned, there is the lesson lived! In my humbly educated opinion, I’d have to say, that is art at its most beautiful!


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Visit your library

Grateful

I’m so grateful that I had to walk to the library, search through the card catalog, follow the Dewey decimal system, find the books, read every one to get the one quote I needed for my paper — instead of using Google.

I’m so grateful that I learned to write in cursive, and not emojis.

I’m so grateful that I had typing class, using all of my fingers, and not just my thumbs to text.

I’m so grateful that I wandered without GPS.

I’m so grateful I waited for my favorite shows to come out once a year at Christmastime, and couldn’t view them every day online.

I’m so grateful that I learned to draw without my ipad.

Don’t get me wrong. I love all the new inventions. I make books on my computer. Write my blog every day on my ipad. I use the ipen, draw with Procreate, and read ibooks, and I try to learn all the new apps. I watch Youtube and Netflix and rely on my GPS. But I had to learn how to learn, without technology. This I think was a gift. With it comes patience and problem solving. Not to mention the joy of creating.

You can spellcheck and grammarly your way through creating a “correct” paragraph. You can hit the prompted replies that Gmail offers. And Procreate will straighten the lines you draw. But what did you show the world? Did you show the world your heart? your brain? or ingenuity? or just your technology.

Am I old? Probably. But I’m still learning. And that is the joy. Whatever you love, learn it. Get your hands dirty. Get frustrated in the attempt. Search for the answers. Maybe even visit your local library. Then, when you’ve mastered it with your whole spirit – then, by all means, add everything you want to enhance it. Tools are tools, use them all. Technology and all the advancements that go with it can be extremely useful. Just live a little first. Then you will have something to offer. You may not always be perfect, but what you might end up being is interesting.

I have a computer — I can get all the apps — you don’t need to show me yours. Today, let me see your heart and hands, and I will be so grateful!

It being almost spring, and at the New York Library, I had the choice of going in the front doors, like and between the lions, but I chose the quiet entrance, 42nd street (and lamb).
I had maybe always entered the library that way. Quiet as a lamb. Shy as can be, I had no certainty in myself, in the world, but for the first time, in the Washinton Elementary library, I felt sure. Sure that the answers were here. The questions. The possibilities. All of it. Here were the dreamers and the doers. And me.
The library, any library, had always carried me. Spoke the words I wanted to hear. Knew my name. Held me. Launched me. But the New York Public Library, this almost spring, now that was something extraordinary. It was New York, after all.
I placed one foot in front of the other. Quietly, firmly, on hallowed ground. Smiled at the portraits on the wall, up to the first desk. And there she was, in a tan blazer and cowel neck sweater, and matching hat. Still with a glow of pink from the fresh air of winter’s remains and spring’s knockings, her coat of the same color rested on the back of her chair. She looked up from her clipboard and smiled. And suddenly I was flying over open water, years ago, my head straining to see the lady in the harbour, searching for my welcome… wait, there, yes, there she is…seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time, feeling welcomed, welcomed with complete unknown possibilities, welcomed with dream upon dream, talent and desire, and grit… welcomed with a toughened grace, like I had never seen… and there she was again, on this almost spring day… at the New York Public Library. Welcoming me to it all again. I smiled, wanting to tell her, that she was all of that – she was the welcoming lady in front of a sea of words. I continued to smile, hoping she knew, knowing she must. I only asked if I could take her picture.
Now I paint her and that feeling is all around me. Even in quarantine, I am filled with possibility and hope and certainty. Each letter. Each book. Each dream. I still live in the word. Flying above the water, knowing that all will be welcomed again. And again.


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And so she would dance

Perhaps the most useless thing I almost learned in junior high was square dancing.
At Central Junior High, 6th – 9th grade, the girls took physical education, not in the gym, but in the girls’ gym. To get to the girls’ gym, you had to take the back staircase, down a small tunnel-like hallway (which they painted pink, as if the point hadn’t already been made), through the final doorway into a windowless box. 

Once a year, we were invited into the center of the school, gleaming wood floors, bleachers, windows, two entrances, and a stage — the boys’ gym — for square dancing with the boys. 
It was almost shocking at first, the glow of it all, but reality unpacked its bags as we were dosie-doed for one week, then returned to the pink of the back stairwell. 


I loved sports in both junior and senior high, but it wasn’t until after college that I found my place. I began to run and bike, by myself. The open roads. The wind in my hair. The thoughts. The music in headphones. The books on tape. This was my world. This for me, was winning.


On my morning walk, I listened to a podcast about Choreographer Twyla Tharp, the legendary choreographer and dancer, who got her start performing on subway platforms and rooftops in the 1960s. She knew she did not have the perfect body for ballet, the perfect technique, but she was strong, smart, and she loved dance. She knew her path was to be made, not followed. And she did. She combined modern moves, with classical moves, she introduced new music, and she created a world of dance that no one had ever seen, or felt. And they followed her, men and women alike.


Today the sun is shining. My legs are strong. And I am happy.  You can take what they give you. You can envy what the others have. Or you can find your own way, and really dance!


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Good morning, Corrigan!

In fifth grade we went orienteering. There was nothing in our history that said we would be good at orienteering. Most of us, in our 10 or 11 years on this earth, had never even heard of it. But off we went. Handing in our signed parental waivers as we filed into the big yellow school bus, perhaps as unaware as livestock heading off to market. We stopped in the middle of the largest forest we had ever seen. Surely this was the beginning of a horror film. We stomped into the wooden cabins and waited. Of course we would wait for dark. That’s exactly how it would read in the script. We were assigned teams. We didn’t pick teams like in sports. No one had any idea who would actually be good at this, so it would have been hard to choose key members. There were brief instructions. No one listened. We assumed, as in our monthly fire drills at school, we would march out, and somehow march back in. We were given compasses and charts and courses. Each team was to finish a specific course, mark it on the maps and return to base camp. Teachers waited up in the trees, to watch us, or to frighten us. I imagine, as with any disaster, perhaps a plane crash – just before the point of impact when people start wishing they had listened to the preflight instructions – we began questioning each other, “does anyone know how to do this?” We didn’t. There was something about stars, I think. Maybe these compasses. And suddenly it became very clear that it was dark, and we were in the woods. We started running. This made the most sense. We picked any check point we could find. As fast as we could. And later than anyone expected, even with the running, we miraculously found our way back to the cabins.
In 1938, Douglas Corrigan made a flight plan from New York to California. Twenty eight hours after taking off, he landed in Ireland. He got out of the plane and said, “Where am I?”  To the amusement of both sides of the Atlantic, he stuck to his story of a malfunctioning compass.  He was given the name Wrong-Way and written into the history books.  Up until then, he had been merely a footnote.
The chaperones came down from the trees, and avoided being “up a creek,” as we were all alive and safe.  While no team exceeded expectations, our team ended up doing the wrong course, in the wrong direction, with the slowest time.  They gave us paper certificates, clearly made from the cabin’s photocopier, with the Wrong-way Corrigan award (or citation). We were no longer footnotes of the fifth grade. 
At some point we all have to find our way. Some of us need to follow the wrong path beforewe find the right one. Perhaps most of us. The wrong job. The wrong love. The wrong town. Sometimes you have to get lost in order to find your way. Sometimes you have to take the wrong path. Draw the wrong perspective. Then things can become clear. I have done all. I have stumbled over my own heart and path, every day. But both are mine. Mine to walk. Mine to share. There’s no compass for that. There’s only faith. And the stars.


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Three minutes in the deep end.

My mother didn’t know how to swim. But she knew how to drive. And from the age of six, even on the harshest winter Saturday morning, she dropped me off at the Central Junior High School pool for swimming lessons. Under the domed roof, we learned to crawl – the crawl stroke. We learned to breathe, and to hold that breath. To trust our bodies. We learned the side stroke – pick an apple and put it in the basket. The breast stroke. The backstroke. We learned to dive. We learned to tread water. Three minutes in the deep end with our hands in the air. We swam 50 laps to pass the exam. We would be safe in any of the 10,000 lakes.

At noon my mother would pick me up. I exited the glass doors that surrounded the pool. Head steaming in the cold air, I wondered if my long blonde strands would freeze. They never did. My mother was never late to pick me up. Never. I never worried that she wouldn’t come.

Perhaps that is the sole reason I dared to go in the deep end. That I still do.

Teach me with honesty and I will know trust. Teach me with gentleness and I will know strength. Teach me with kindness and I will know love.


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The letter S

I don’t know what it is about writing that makes you so thirsty.  I raised my hand and asked the teacher if I could go to the drinking fountain.  She nodded. I rose from my desk. Hands at my side (as we were told to walk). Opened the wood door quietly, then raced down the hall.  There’s something about an empty hall that makes you want to run. A drink of water shouldn’t take that long, but it was so much more than that. There was the water pressure.  Always different. Each time you went to the white porcelain fountain, it offered up a new arc of water. Sometimes it shot completely over your head and landed in hair. Sometimes, you found yourself sucking on the silver spout. (How did we survive this?) It was as if the janitor was playing his own game of fountain roulette.  And then there was the swirl of the water as it glistened down the drain. Round and round. In an empty hall, you could almost hear it. With all of these distractions, it was hard to say how long I was gone. I tiptoed back into the classroom.  Mrs. Paulson gave a startled look, like she couldn’t believe she forgot I was gone, but, well, here I was again, so no harm done. All the desks were once again filled and we continued learning cursive.  They were on the t’s now.  T?  When did I leave?  Maybe P? or Q? Did I miss the letter S.  I did.  How do you make that?  Looks a little like a duck?  A big duck, and a little duck?  Mrs. Paulson was moving through the letters so quickly. I had to cut my losses and move ahead. I made my S like a printed S, only with a little flare. Yes, that would be my S.  I thought it was lovely.  My signature S. And I would be able to use it all the time, as my last name ended in S.

I never learned to make the cursive S. I shouldn’t use the word learned here. Of course, if I had to make one, I could do it, right now. But I had my signature S, and I stuck with it. Not to be defiant. I was certainly no rebel. I was claiming a moment. My S. I’m not sure I knew it then, but this was the beginning, how it starts, how a person gathers in pieces, small at first, and begins to mold a life. This moment will be forever clear. This sense of freedom. This moment of being purely me. 
Life is so magical.  Some days, now, when my heart is open as wide as it can be, I am running down an empty hall, free from all constraints, racing with wonder, creating my own alphabet, racing with joy, building a soul, with my own cursive flare. 


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It’s not what I have, but what I hold on to.

One day in the late 1930’s a boy came up to his librarian and she suggested the he read about King Arthur. The boy replied, “Aw, I don’t want to read about kings. I want to read about human beings.” The librarian, Miss Beverly Bunn, knew what the boy meant. As a child she had felt the same way – she was sick of reading “wealthy English children who had nannies and pony carts or poor children whose problems were solved by a long-lost relative turning up in the last chapter. Beverly wanted to read stories about the sort of children she knew.”

This was the beloved children’s author Beverly Cleary. I did not google this information. I researched her in our University Library. I will sound old, perhaps, but consider me lucky. I was born before google. I was born when you had to go across campus, in the winter, (oh dear, this is almost sounding like one of those I walked a mile to school every day stories, but stay with me), look for your book titles in the card catalog, in other books. Find the aisle. Run your fingers across the shelves. Grab your book with delight, grateful that it wasn’t already checked out. Do this over and over. Then go to a silent table and read. Yes, read. You had to read complete books, not just a blurb spit out by a computer. Sometimes you would read an entire book, and realize it just led you to another book. But what a glorious gift. The smell of the leather, and slight must of the pages. The silence all around. You could feel the power of the words.


And so I researched Beverly Cleary. The assignment was to write about an author who had a great influence on you as a child. And she did. Every Wednesday, at Washington Elementary, the year after I had finished the Cowboy Sam series, and before I started the Little House on the Prairie books, I read Beverly Cleary. They lived on Klickitat Street, Henry Huggins, Beezus,Ramona (the pest), Henry’s dog Ribsy, the neighbor Scooter. You could say they lived in a world where nothing was special, but in that, I thought everything was special. The Huggins home was as real as the Norton home to me. As real as my VanDyke Road. It was a neighborhood I visited every week.


Perhaps the best gift that an author can give you is a glimpse of yourself. When you see a reflection of yourself, you see possibility. You see hope. And you begin to see yourself, just a little bit more.

On my returned assignment, the professor wrote, “Perhaps you should think of doing some professional writing yourself!” An exclamation point. For me! I had been punctuated.

No one should be denied a chance to live on Klickitat Street, or VanDyke Road. So I write.


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The same field.

Rhonda Steen was the best pitcher in the Alexandria Girls’ Elementary School Summer league when I was in third, fourth and fifth grade.  I can’t tell you the name of her team because we didn’t have uniforms, and in fact, each year we randomly chose new teams.  We didn’t keep stats, so I have no actual proof that she was the best, I just remember that I could hit a home run off of almost every other pitcher but her.  She brought something new to the game.  It was slow pitch, so this was all technique.  Every other pitcher up until then threw the ball gently toward home plate, almost as if they wanted you to hit it.  Rhonda threw each pitch with the most aggressive arc we had ever seen.  The ball seemed to sky into the blue, hover a bit over the batter (as they tried to swat it like a fly above their heads), and then drop directly behind them, magically in the strike zone.  Most of us, with no sun glasses, no hats, certainly no tar beneath the eyes, lost every ball in the summer sun and just waited to see what the teenage umpire called… inevitably it was a strike.  


We didn’t receive ribbons or trophies. Except for the year that my team lost every game, I don’t remember the wins or losses.  I don’t remember that is was important. I remember riding my bike to the games. I remember the fields, the dirt, the girls. We were friends in the heat of summer, not tied together by uniforms or sponsors, but by friendship. We just played.  We didn’t know it then, but I suppose Rhonda’s expert pitching was a sign that we would eventually separate, follow different paths…keep track of the scores, the wins, start worrying about whether or not this life was actually a success.  


I still have my baseball glove.  It was a hand-me-down from my brother, who’s name eventually wore off and I permanently inked my own.  I introduced my husband’s grandchildren to the game.  I pitch to them a tennis ball and if they hit it, they race each other around the trees until they fall over.  It is pure and it is beautiful.  And we all win.  


I don’t think Rhonda made a career of her special skill, certainly I did not.  But wait, maybe I did.  I guess my job is to bring you the pure love of these and other stories, through pictures and words. And I hope I can do that. I hope you can feel that. When you reply “oh, that was my mother,” or “that was my neighborhood,” it connects us all.  When we get down to the pureness of it all, in the disinfected light of a summer day, we truly are all connected.  Sure, we can see we have different skills, different goals, different teams… but under that one sun’s warmth, wearing the same dust on our knees, we are one, we are more than winning, we are truly living.