Jodi Hills

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


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The weight of the magic.


Not everyone liked to be called up to the black board. I did. When Mrs. Bergstrom began asking a question, I was suddenly the tallest person in the room. Everyone sank lower in their desks, to discourage her from calling on them — as if she might think, well, I couldn’t possibly ask them to walk all the way up here to the board, they are but floating heads…” It never worked. She called on everyone.


When it was my turn, I ran, hand reaching out for the chalk. I could barely hear the question over my heart racing. I loved the feel of the chalk in my chubby little fingers. Once in a while, she would hand over her personal piece of chalk – the one with the wooden holder. The weight of it was magnificent. It felt powerful and important. As I wrote the answer, any answer, it felt like my hand was sledding across the fresh fallen snow – gliding, surely, easily, making tracks of white. This feeling far surpassed any worry of right and wrong. There was only this. This magic from head to hand to board.


I’m working on some new projects with my publishers. They are in the United States. I am in France. In these separate countries, in different hours of the same day, we communicate in real time, face to face, actions and creations are immediate. Immediate. Imagine that!
In our discussion, they wanted to know my favorite pencil. I knew immediately. It is the woodless graphite pencil I purchased from the Musée Soulages Rodez. The weight of it is, once again, magnificent! It feels possible. Magic! It feels like no worry of right and wrong. It glides with youth across the page. The one I race to. That is a worthy pencil!


Without saying all of that, when they asked me why, I immediately drew this bird. In real time. Maybe a minute, or two. “Because, this!” I drew. This! With this pencil, it is “my turn.” I guess I’ve always understood the importance of that. Even when fear hides all around me, sometimes even within, I will forever race towards the weight of the magic!


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The promised land.

“Don’t touch them,” I heard him say, while I was touching them. It was my grandfather’s voice in my head. He had said it when I found a fallen bird’s nest on his farm. The little bird beaks seemed to be crying out for me, but he said no, if I touched them, the mother would never come back. But surely it couldn’t be the same for bunnies I thought. Not the same for these beautiful cuddly little bunnies that I found on this day in the field next to our house. Bunnies were meant to be touched. To be held. They were accessible. Not like birds. Why, there was the Easter Bunny, and Bugs Bunny… chocolate bunnies, stuffed bunnies… Yes, I told myself, bunnies were meant to be held. There were three of them. No mother in sight. I placed one from each hand, back with the other. They squirmed and nestled and smiled. See, I told myself, they were just fine. The mother would come back.

I told my brother that afternoon what I had found. How I had picked them up. “Now you have to kill them,” he said.

“What?????? Noooooo! I would never!”

“Well, they are going to die anyway. Starve to death. Because the mother doesn’t like your smell.” And he walked away.

I stood motionless. How could he deliver this news and just leave me standing there. I was a murderer, and apparantly, I smelled.

I thought about getting my bow and arrow. The plastic one my aunt had purchased for me at Target. I could “do the right thing” (according to my brother) and kill them. I went into the garage to find my bow and arrow. I touched the string. Slid my finger along the faux feathers of the arrow. There was no way I could kill them. No way. I sat in the gravel at the end of the driveway, now not even certain that my own mother would return to me from work. Why would she? I was a smelly murderer.

When she finally pulled in, she didn’t even put the car in the garage. She stopped beside me. Opened the car door. I told her everything. She assured me that I was nothing of the sort, that mothers do come back. And as I sat on her lap next to the steering wheel, I could only believe her. She was proof.

The next day I searched for the bunnies. Praying for their mother’s return, as the weeds scratched my legs. I searched for hours, or maybe ten minutes, but there was no sign of any of them. No babies. No mother. My own mother went straight to the happily ever after…. “See, she said, “the mother came back and brought them to a new house and they are all just fine.” I believed her.

Years later, the first grown-up book we were assigned in middle school was “Of mice and men.” Lennie, the rabbits. It was all so sad. I wept for the story. For them. And I wept because I felt it all slipping away. I knew now. How could I go forward with this knowledge of unhappy endings? How did they carry it? I wept for my brother. My grandfather. How long had they carried this knowledge? I wept for my mother, who had to have known, but still lived on as proof — still passed on the possibility of happy endings. They all carried it, as best they could.

John Steinbeck says, “In every bit of honest writing in the world, there is a base theme. Try to understand men (humans), if you understand each other you will be kind to each other.” I would have to choose my own path. Walk in my own truth. I suppose we all have to do that. And with each word that I write, maybe I understand them, and myself, just a little bit more. See the beauty of it all, just a little bit more. This I can carry. I smile, and walk on.


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Heart giggles.

“Sit up straight. And settle down.” These were very confusing directions for us, the six year olds of Mrs. Bergstrom’s first grade class. We breathed in. Slouched over. Looked around. Up. Down. Got the giggles. Giggles so loud that she repeated it again – “Sit up straight and settle down!” Snorts and hoots shot from our hand covered mouths. Giggles should never be contained.

Oh, but they tried. Tried to contain us. Keep your desk orderly. Sharpen your pencils. Eyes to the front. It was like this in every class. Even in gym class there were rules to be followed. But once a week, in the lower level of Washington Elementary, we were marched in, single file, and then set free! It was Mr. Opsahl’s art room. It was filled with color. Paper. Glue. Paint. Sticky things. Beautiful things. Possibilities. Here our imaginations were not only welcomed, but encouraged. Imagination – or mind giggles – burst into full color, like the NBC peacock!

It was a garden view classroom, meaning our heads were at street level. We could see the cars, sometimes the pedestrians. In all the other classrooms, I, we, looked out the window, in hopes of joining this outside world. But not in the art room. Here, I hoped people could see in, see into our magical world. See us making hand puppets, face masks, flower pots. I guess I knew, even then, how beautiful this world was. And I wanted everyone to feel it.

Some might say, well, it’s because you were (are) an artist…but it was more than that, more than art. It was freedom. It was joy. And what a glorious way to learn. One day, Mrs. Bergstrom took a break from the rules, and said we could experience our English lesson by using the hand puppets we made in art class. The hand puppets that were created from empty toilet paper rolls and papier-mâché. Fingers full of promise, behind a sheet of plywood with a stage cut window, we put on magical, nonsensical, plays and songs that contained the day’s vocabulary list. I fell a little more in love with art that day. A little more in love with words. And a little more in love with Mrs. Bergstrom. We expected this from Mr. Opsahl, this loosening of the reins, but with Mrs. Bergstrom, donned in her pencil skirt, and neatly bunned hair, this was something! Truly something!

If you can, do that for someone today. Loosen the reins, give the unexpected compliment, the unsolicited kindness. Be the giggle in someone else’s heart.


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Framed.

I suppose I thought I would remember every school day. I don’t. Some are merely flashes of bumper tennis shoes on terrazzo floors. Flying through the hallways, slipping through my heart and mind. I grab on to them. Frame them with specific memories – like standing in the window of Iverson’s shoes with my mother. Praying the new blue and white “bumpers” would be fast. And they were. It all was. So fast.

I don’t get to frame all of my artworks. And it is debatable whether they all need to be framed. I have researched, but there isn’t a great deal of information on why some paintings are framed and others not. There is the practical reason of course, to protect the piece. Also, the ease of portability. Also it separates the piece from the surrounding world, gives it importance, singularity. Separates the inside from the outside. And provides visual control.

I framed my painting of Washington Elementary, probably for all of these reasons. Mostly I suppose to contain the time — this time when everything seemed possible. Any fear could be outrun in white and blue canvas tennis shoes. I need those memories. Those feelings. Every day. So I gather them in. Framed on the wall. Framed in my heart. Separating myself from the fears of the day, the challenges of the world. Slowing it all down. I am safe. Perhaps even important. And in the framework of this very day, I am possible.


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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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Thumbs up.

There is a certain group of people that will forever remain in the Mr. or Mrs. categories for me — my teachers.

As an adult, even becoming friends with some of them, it still seems almost impossible not to refer to them in a proper way. And how lucky, I suppose, that this remains. This simple sign of respect. 

My first gym teacher at Washington Elementary was Mr. Christopherson. His job, I see now, was almost impossible. Rounding up these groups of children, on the brink of Lord of the Flies…so filled with the agony and frustration of grammar and times tables…bursting at the seams of our gym uniforms to release the energy of learning. But somehow he did. Separating us into teams. Arming us with red balls. Allowing us to throw and run and scream and laugh, and sometimes cry. But then, and here comes the amazing part, he had the strength, the respect, to wind us down. Make us pick up the balls. Place them neatly in the ball rack. Stand in line. March to the lavatory. Shower. Change back into our “civilian” clothes. And walk quietly, calmly, (a little lighter of educational worry) single file, back to our classroom . This is something. This is why he will, and should, forever remain “Mr. Christopherson.”

When I became an adult, and would visit my mother for the weekend, I would go out running in the morningtime. And I would see him out there. Even on the coldest of winter days. Well into his later years. Still running. Still fit. Still in charge. Still inspiring. I would see him from a distance. I knew how he ran. I could feel myself pick up my pace a little. Puff up my chest. Run a little taller, straighter, stronger. When we crossed paths, he would smile and give me the thumbs up. Approval. It mattered. It still does. 

Today we say goodbye to this forever Mister. I sit up in my chair. A little straighter. A little stronger. And type the words of thanks.


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Sometimes she would whisper to her heart. It was usually just this, “yes.”

He began the song in a whisper, Nat King Cole. From the radio he graced our breakfast table. His opening of “Perfidia” was as gentle as the steam that rose from our coffee. “Mujer…” he sang, so softly, but never more clear to our hearts. We left our croissants on the table, and just listened.

In third grade, Mrs. Erickson carried a long stick. She didn’t slam it. She didn’t swing it. She held it. Third graders are not known for sitting still. There is so much to make the eye wander. The birds outside the window. The fidgeting boy in the desk next to you. The note being passed around. The answers on the smart girl’s paper. Mrs. Erickson told us once at the beginning of the school year, “Keep your eyes on your own paper.” She never said the words aloud again. But we knew. If the end of the stick tapped lightly on the front of your desk, or simply pointed in your direction…you looked at your own work.

I can see it now so clearly. She was brilliant. She didn’t need to wave her stick around, because it wasn’t about punishing, it was about teaching. I think she knew that “cheaters” weren’t bad, but simply not confident, not confident in their own work. And her tap, was a reminder, “Look, look right here, you can do this.”

I don’t know if everyone got that. It’s a lesson I’m still learning. Every day. It’s not that I have the want or the opportunity to “steal the answers” from someone else. But I do need a gentle tap, a whisper, to tell me that I can do this. I can do this in my way. In my time. The answers are right in front of me.

This morning Nat King Cole gave us a gentle tap.

I summon the daily courage needed, and I begin. “Yes,” I whisper. “Yes.”


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Never finish.

There was a certain percentage of students at Washington Elementary that ate the Elmer’s glue. I must admit I liked the smell, but I never did eat it. I, along with the remainder of the class did however, put it on our fingertips, let it dry, and then peeled it off. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you how satisfying that was.  This, along with a box of colored construction paper and Crayola crayons, could keep us busy during any rain altered recess. 

I was watching it rain yesterday afternoon through my office window, busy working on my new website. I have a small selection of paints at my desk, and a couple of brushes. 

I needed a recess — a rain altered recess. It’s amazing how it still can thrill me. The colors. The possibility. I knew at 5 years old, how magic this world was. Not only could it take you anywhere, but it would stay with you, inside of you, so permanent, so sure. I suppose it’s possible that I could have learned this on my own, I don’t know, but I give thanks every day for Washington Elementary. I give thanks for the teachers that introduced this world. What a gift they offered — this ability to go anywhere, even when the world was closed down…this ability to save yourself from the storm.  

I’m still learning. Still loving. I pray I never finish.


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Swagger.

For a brief period he was the principal at Washington Elementary. Bob Jones. As solid a man as his name could convey. A bald head and a smile so big it seemed to lift his steps – giving life to the verb swagger. He was, as our first grade teacher taught us in spelling class when differentiating the words principle and principal, yes, he was indeed our “pal.”

We wanted him to like us. What a gift that is for a principal to have. It was my cousin Vicki who gave me my first opportunity to speak with him. I get goose bumps remembering. Vicki, several years my senior, asked me one weekend, “Do you think he remembers me?” Remembers you??? He’s a rock star, I thought. “Ask him,” she giggled in delight. One thing about Vicki, she was always giggling. A giggle that made things seem possible. And so I agreed to do it. I would ask him, during his Monday morning stroll through the school.

I barely slept Sunday night. I waited near the back doors that opened to the playground. His usual rounds took him there just a little after 8am. I wouldn’t hear him coming, I would just have to wait – one never hears swagger. And there he was. White belt. White shoes. (I hope it was spring.) I stepped in his tracks. So nervous and excited, I blurted it out with no context. “Do you remember Vicki?” He stopped. He stopped for me! He bent down on one knee. “What’s this now?” he asked. “Vicki. My cousin. Vicki Hvezda. She wants to know if you remember her.” He smiled, even bigger than normal. “Aaah, yes, one of the Hvezda girls.” I beamed and ran to my class, as if she would be waiting there for the answer. I carried that answer with me for the rest of the week. I couldn’t wait to tell her. He remembered her. He stopped for me.

I’m giggling, even today. He left soon after and rose through the ranks of the school system. But for a moment, he was ours – our Bob Jones – and he saw us.

I guess we all want to seen.

It may seem crazy, but it was this simple pear – this tiny, still life – that reminded me of this story. But how beautiful, I think. How fitting. It all matters. The tiniest of moments that lift our faces, and fill our hearts’ pockets. I carry it all with me. Life’s swagger.


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Bus Driver.

It was a big responsibility to get us safely to and from school. They seemed so old, these young men that were usually our bus drivers — law enforcement students at the Tech School in town. Maybe it was the uniform they kept on after class. So authoritative in their beige and brown. They felt like “sirs” when really they were probably 19? Maybe 20? 

I think of them today because of the changing weather. This promise of summer vacation in the air. This need to open windows and doors. To be a part of this air, so fresh, so new! Almost wild (in the best kind of way.) I, we, started feeling it at six years old. Let loose from the doors of Washington Elementary, onto the big buses. We opened windows and let our hair blow against the streak of yellow that lumbered down the street. Contained only by the glance in the giant mirror of the one driving the bus. Holding the back of the seat in front of you for leverage. One leg in the aisle – braced to race out the door when reaching your stop. Then the “almost sir” would move the big silver handle. Door open. Freedom!

What an amazing gift to be given. And we’ve always had it. Today, and every day, I give thanks for each window, each door, and those who flung them open!