Jodi Hills

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

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As the extreme heat continues in southern France, I can hear her voice. “Just sit quietly,” Mrs. Erickson said, pulling down the long black shades of our third grade classroom windows. Returning from the heat of recess under a sun that grew stronger bouncing off the black paved playground. A sun that said, “Come on, it’s almost summer, just stay, play a little longer!” But she rang the bell and we dragged our feet inside Washington Elementary. Sticky thighs against the wood seats, we wriggled and squirmed. We could barely sit, and quietly seemed impossible. “Just relax,” she urged. “Lay your heads down on your desk.” We placed our sweat-slicked hair on arms folded across desktops. The whispering began. Heads bobbing with playground secrets that needed to be released.

“Shhhhhhhh…” she said from the front of the class. “Think of the water,” she said. Living in the land of 10,000 lakes, it was fairly easy to bring to mind your favorite lake. Our heart rates slowed as she described the waveless water. The calm of the blue. The coolness, first on tippy toes. Then ankles and shins. Cooler still on thighs. We smiled flat cheeked on our desks. “Will you go further?” she asked. We shook our faces. “Whoop!” she exclaimed, “Up to your waist!”

Completely distracted now from the heat, as our ever-coiffed, nyloned and dressed teacher had “whooped” just for us. “Go all the way under,” she said. For me it was Lake Latoka. I held my breath and went down, down, down. It was so cool. “Look at everything,” she said. “The fish, the rocks…” And we did. For ten minutes we swam from the calmness of our desks.

She led us slowly back to shore. Lifted our heads. And then, no pun intended, dove into the math lesson of the day.

Whenever I think of my favorite teachers, I think of the question, “Will you go further?” Because that’s what they did for us. Daily. Took us beyond the lessons, into the living. It’s a question I continue to ask. In love, and trust, and hope, and forgiveness, in curiousity, creativity and knowledge — I want to go further! I want us all to go further.

If you want it too — maybe you can join me — all together now — Whoop!


I can help.

I was never afraid of the water. My mother saw to that. Buoyed by baby fat and unweighted from no previous experience, I easily bobbed up and down in the blue. She didn’t buy float rings for my arms, or an inflatable duck to strap around my waist. No lifejackets, or flotation devices of any kind. What she did give me was the confidence to jump in the water and trust my own skills. And what’s most remarkable, she never let me see the fear she carried.

I was in my early twenties, living in my first apartment, deeply secure in my ability to navigate any body of water, when she told me. Just before entering the pool for the complex. I had seen her dip toes in Lake Latoka. Wade in the water thigh high. Even sink to shoulders. But it was here, in this pool of firsts that she told me she had always been a little afraid. We got her a kicker board from Ridgedale mall. She did laps in the pool. I was so proud of her. So very proud. She was worried it would be a burden for me. Nothing could be further from the truth. What a gift. This turning of tables. A gift to carry what she once carried for me. We filled that pool with laughter and joy!

I suppose that’s what true love is — this constant exchange. This lifting. This buoying of hearts. Taking turns in bravery. In strength. Celebrating the victories large and small. Together.

I have a memory of a cartoon. Black and white. Two little girls on the front stoop of a house. One day the little girl is crying. The other girl reaches out her hand and says, “I’ll help you.” The next day laughing, with the same response. This is the world I lived in. The world my mother gave to me. The world I want to share with you.


Because the sun!

Maybe it was because of what they called it – the deep end – that it seemed so ominous. They roped it off with a bright red and white warning. We weren’t even allowed in until we had passed a certain level of swimming lessons. Which was funny, because I, we, had been swimming out to the diving towers for several years already. A depth we didn’t know, or think to ask. 

And I suppose that’s what made it easier. We only thought about the tower. We had a goal, and nothing was going to stop us. Had we taken the time to think of what lurked below, deep in the darkened waters, maybe we wouldn’t have gone. But we thought about the sun. The sun that baked our shoulders on the diving platform. The figurative and literal height of summer friendships. There was nothing we wouldn’t have done to reach it.

I mention it only to remind myself. Of how to look at things. With fear, or with wonder. The choice of wonder has opened a sea of words. Of art. Of love. Sure, I trip and stumble and even temporarily sink into the unknown, but I will myself daily to keep kicking and thrashing. Raising my head above the murk. Reaching and climbing the next tower. Because the sun! 

Some will laugh when I say that arriving in France, I was actually surprised as we drove from the airport — all the billboards in French. The radio in French. They didn’t speak English. I was already in love, and hadn’t thought to ask. Are there a million things to worry about? Sure. Is the tower slippery? Yes. But the sun is so warm on my shoulders. I can’t help but wonder. I keep climbing.

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Up and farther.

I’m not sure I thought it was so beautiful, when I walked alongside Hugo’s field behind our house. But the song Mr. Iverson taught us at Washington Elementary said so, “Oh beautiful, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain…” Neither had lied to me before, so I Iooked long and hopeful, as my sunburned legs brushed against the amber.

I was yet to see the ocean, but for in books. And in those books they spoke of the tide. The magical way it rolled out, rolled back in…and some said, within this magic, you could let go of all your worries, your problems, and the waves would take them out to sea, and return to you, free from them all, freeing you as well.

I was in need of some of that freedom. I walked as closely to the field as I could. Hugo didn’t want us inside. I imagined it was so we didn’t trample on the magic. That made sense. I only let it brush against me. Praying it was enough to latch on. Praying the wind could make the grain actually wave. Praying it could take away the noise of our house. The argument shook walls that creaked late into the night. The noises that worked themselves into fear and then, as if to taunt, lay deep inside my muscles.

I didn’t know how big an ocean was. Was it bigger than Hugo’s field? I could see across it. Maybe it wasn’t big enough. Maybe it wasn’t even real, but I kept walking. I continued my solo prayer. To say the words out loud seemed too dangerous. As if these words might be the final noise to break the last board holding our fragile house together. I walked and whispered.

We moved from VanDyke Road. I like to believe it was the wave that carried us. Again. And again. From the gravel to the tar. The field to the city. From the noise of fear to the sound of possibility. To Lake Michigan. Then the oceans, Atlantic and Pacific. Then across the sea.

Yesterday, I was readying for my afternoon walk, in France. Ear buds. iPhone. Tennis shoes. I am not proud to say that my thighs were heavy with something that was best let go. It can still happen. Then it nudged me – a tiny wave perhaps – and I reached for the book of poetry next to my phone. I read the lines in French. Could that be right? Did I have the French words right in my head?

“Où même les roseaux répétaient leurs prières
Que reprenaient de plus plus fort et plus loin les oiseaux”

I went to the translation poem.

“Where even the reeds repeated their prayers
Which the birds took up louder and farther on”

I smiled. The magic was real. Had been real all along. I walked lighter in the afternoon wave.

When I got back home, I decided to paint this little bird. A little bird that carried my prayer of only this — thank you.

“Thank you.” Up it went, and farther on, into the oh, so beautiful, spacious skies.