Jodi Hills

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


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I am here.

In the fifth grade team room of Miss Green, Mr. Andert, and Mrs. Pohlman, we were allowed to begin. And I mean begin anything. Without plans. Without direction. Without fear. 

The janitor’s closet was directly across from our classroom. During a rainy day recess, Wendy Shoeneck, Lori Patri, Barb Duray and I used it as our office. Amid the smell of disinfectant and the wet mop in the bucket, we came up with the idea of putting on a play for our classmates. We had no reason to believe we would be good at it. We had no reason to believe we wouldn’t be… so we continued. We had no script. No decisions were made other than to just do it. 

We flung the door open and told Miss Green of our plans. I don’t remember asking, maybe we did, I hope we did, nonetheless, she said sure, and when the class convened after recess, we began. We drifted between themes of don’t use drugs, be nice to everyone, some school bus songs…I remember jumping and waving, and soon the whole class was singing. It maybe lasted 5 minutes. But you don’t need a long time to get a real taste of freedom, a real taste of joy.  

We were rangled back to our desks and the day continued with books and structure. But the afternoon smiles never left our faces.  

I had been shy for my first four grades. Some said painfully — I had never seen it as pain. When they mentioned it on my report cards, my mother always told them, “When she has something to say, she’ll say it.”  My mother never lied to me, so I believed her, and lived in my quiet world pain free. She was right, and it happened for me in fifth grade. Maybe it was due to the open team room. Maybe it was because of the open teachers. The safety of friends. Or maybe it was just my time. But I give thanks for it all. I never turned back after that. 

I have no real plan for the day. I have no reason to believe it won’t be good. I fling open the door — here I am — powered by the freedom to live my joy.


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This orchestra.

I came up the staircase and lifted the telephone cord over my head so I could enter the kitchen. My mother had the 8′ cord stretched to its limit. She was talking on the phone while doing the dishes. I could tell she was talking about me. Why was she talking about me? Something about Washington school. A teacher? Was it a teacher? I tugged at her blouse. She nudged me with her hip. She said goodbye and motioned with her eyes for me to catch the phone as she lifted her chin. I caught it and climbed onto the chair to hang the receiver back on the wall.

Who was that? I asked.
Mr. Iverson.
Mr. Iverson? What did he want?
He said you have good hands.
Good hands?
Yes.
That’s it?
He said you’d be good at the vio- something.
Violin?
No, the other one.
Viola?
Yes, that’s it.
He called to tell you that?
He said you can join the orchestra if you want.

I was in the fifth grade. I had just gotten a clarinet from Carlson’s music store. No small purchase for our family. My hands were already invested. But I liked that he noticed them – my hands. Imagine that! A teacher paying that much attention. What gifts we were given daily at Washington Elementary.

I played the clarinet through my senior year. I still have it. But my hands had different ideas. They are daily covered in words and paint. They are good hands. And I am grateful for them every day. I wonder if I would have believed in them though, if people hadn’t believed in them first. If I hadn’t had teachers who invested their time. A mother who invested her heart.

I believe in myself, because they believed in me first. So I use them, these hands. Once more, again, still, ever, to give thanks, and to tell you, you can join the “orchestra” if you want.


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Produce

I have professed my love for libraries, over and over. The Washington School Library. The Alexandria Public Library. One small room. One small building. Each opened a world to me that will never close. I can smell the wood that housed the paper. The slight hint of sweet mildew, like an open window.

The truth is, this was not my first impression of books. My first collection of words on pages — words mixed with colorful art – these books held the smell of fresh produce. It was at Olson’s Supermarket. My mother hoisted me into the shopping cart. The silver denting the back of my thighs. Legs dangling. Her purse beside me.

Just after the cart corral was a long display of Golden Books. I can feel my arms reaching. They were the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. She placed one in my chubby hand and I was changed. Words on paper. My arms will be forever reaching.

I can hear her voice reading each page. Night after night. Year after year. And then I started to hear my own. How do you thank someone for giving you the world? I suppose the only way I know is to use the same words I was given. Again and again.

I was speaking to the young woman who is currently working on my new website. Not a small task. She has to handle each piece of art, each word. She told me yesterday, because she is so immersed in all of the work, “I feel like I know you.” My heart is still smiling. My arms are still reaching. We are in different countries. From different generations, and my paintings of the apples remind her of her mother’s kitchen. Once again, the sweet smell of produce… My world opens, and I give thanks with the words that first saved me.


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A part of the story.

First I sanded it. Then cut it. Then sanded it again. It smelled brand new, this wood — this wood that he gave to me from the scrap pile. I squared it. Nailed it. Then stretched the material over this frame. I gessoed the canvas, and gessoed it again. And then I began to paint. I was invested long before the image came out. Long before the yellows and greens. Before the dimension rose from the surface. It was a part of me. A part of him. A part of the field of overgrown weeds, on the side of the mountain. A part of the story.

I was reading the reviews to the last book I read — a book that I adored. I wanted to be a part of the group – a part of the people talking about the experience. Most of the reviews were positive, but there was one that I just couldn’t believe. Now, I know that everyone doesn’t like the same thing, and that’s fine, but this negative review was so ridiculous in its reasoning. It said,(surrounded by a lot of other unflattering words) “it was just a bunch of stories.” What??? I still can’t believe it. Yes, it was, as you say, a bunch of stories. It was a grouping of beautiful stories. A gathering of lives. Because isn’t that all we are – a gathering of stories? Those we have lived through. Shared. The stories that trigger your memory. The stories that help you get through your own story. Gather you into mine. The stories that make a path. Guide you into the future. Comfort you in the darkness. Laugh with you in the light. These are our lives. All of these stories. And to me, that is beautiful!

These stories of my mother, my grandparents, my schoolmates and friends, these are the piles of scattered wood that, when treated with care, take on new form, new life. I know this painting of the lemons won’t last forever. But I’d like to think that one day, after it hangs in one home, then another, maybe it gets painted over, and hung again, or maybe restretched with a new canvas, maybe the wood frames a different painting, or braces a different structure, maybe eventually it burns in the fireplace, and comforts you as you share your story with the one you love.

Life…it’s never just a lemon. Share your story.