Jodi Hills

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

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The language of “I understand.”

My friend Barbie and I had a secret language in Mr. Gustafson’s sixth grade class. Our desks weren’t close, so we also had to include signals. We had special words for the things that were important to us. Like “training bra” and if we were wearing one that day, and what we were training for — I believe the word was brazier burger, referencing the Dairy Queen, I suppose. We had signs for the upcoming weekend, for sleepovers.

To get her attention, I would pop my lips, almost as if saying the letter B that started her name. To get mine, she made the J sound, tongue against teeth. It was unsophisticated enough, and disruptive enough for Mr. Gustafson to look up from his hockey magazine. But he let us continue. What was the harm really? And I was already correcting the spelling tests for the entire class. So we clicked and popped our way — completely connected — through our first year at Central Junior High.

The other night, before sleep, Dominique and I were solving the problems of the world, as we often do. I was describing someone, and I said his brain went “kerflooey.” It surprised even me. I don’t think I have ever used this word before. It sounded like something from an episode of Scooby Doo. He thought I was making it up — and to be honest, I wasn’t sure myself. The next afternoon I began reading a new book. Only a few chapters in, there it was — larger than life — the word “kerflooey.” I felt connected to not just this book, but to the entire universe. The randomness that puts us together, in the right place and the right time — well, to me, it’s nothing short of spectacular.

Sometimes you tell me, “this is exactly what I needed to hear today,” and I feel the same connection. It is magical that we can click and pop into each other’s lives. We can speak the language of “I understand,” and “you’re not alone.” We connect in the most glorious of ways, and my heart, overflowing with joy, goes kerflooey!


Something cracked, something broken.

The first time I wore plaster was in the fifth grade. I broke my arm ice skating during the Valentine’s Day party. I waited patiently in the nurse’s office of Washington Elementary. My mom came from work and drove us to the clinic. The sleeve of my winter coat dangled from the left side as I breathed in the antiseptic smell. My mother touched my knee so I would stop kicking the bed as we waited for the doctor to return with the xrays. He clicked the black sheets into the light that hung on the wall and said, “See right here… that’s where it’s broken.” We both agreed, but I’m not sure either one of us saw it. He dipped the strips of plaster and wrapped it warmly around my arm. It was as white as his coat. “Tomorrow all your friends can sign it,” he said. Oh, he didn’t have to tell me. That was the only thing I was looking forward to. I barely slept through the night.

Maybe the teachers gave them the permanent markers. They must have. Soon I was encircled with eager fifth graders, armed with all colors of opened Sharpies. Almost high from the smell and the attention, I presented my open canvas and each kid fought for the prime real estate of my cast. 

I don’t know how we knew. But we all did. Maybe it was a right of passage. This ritual. This coming together over something cracked, something broken. It was so beautiful. It would have felt no different had they lifted me above their heads and passed me around the classroom. 

It happens less frequently now. And maybe with less fanfare. Maybe it’s because the wounds get less visible when we’re older. Maybe our collective groups get smaller. But I consider myself lucky. Blessed. I still have those people in my life who surround me with support. Sometimes with just a few words, but they fit into the prime real estate of my heart and fill it. And I am lifted, with a permanent high. 

All we have to do is be good to each other. Be there, for something cracked. Something broken.

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All suitcases roll beautifully when empty.

It really came down to the color. They all seemed to roll beautifully — these new suitcases in the store. I tested many. Each one. Each brand. All glided across the polished floor. I picked one, sure that my next trip would be so much easier.

I removed the tags. Filled it. Full. Struggled over the rug. Through the door. Down the stairs. Hallway. Trunk. Airport. It didn’t seem all that easy. I labored with the weight. 

What seems so incredibly obvious, has taken me decades to learn. And maybe I should say understand, because to be honest, I’m still learning it. I still struggle with, “But I need it…I can’t leave it behind…”  Even more importantly, I need to learn it – for my head, my heart. How glorious it would be to roll around this world, unburdened by the weight of it all. All those conversations playing over and over in my head. The weight of worry and what ifs. The weight of well, they should have, and why can’t they…  and why didn’t I…  I’m learning to lighten the load. I don’t want to be crushed by this passage of time. Day by day. I want to let go, and enjoy the journey. 

It’s all kind of funny, when you think about it — this baggage. We have the power to choose. It can’t follow us on its own. It has to be dragged. I smile at this morning’s sun…empty handed.


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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Before the doing.

The scariest part of doing something, anything really, is always before the doing. Once you are doing it, you’re doing it! Time, energy, thought, are all put toward the action itself.

I love to paint dancers. For me, they symbolize the transition from complete vulnerability to pure beauty. Now, I suppose that can be said about every form of artistry — singing, painting, acting, playing — and perhaps the most artistic (and surely most vulnerable act of all) — to love. And it is easy to see the beauty of those in mid dance, of the completed painting, the lovers in love, but what I want to capture is the beauty of the pre-dance. The beauty in the vulnerability. The bravery, just before you let yourself go. Because I think if we allow ourselves to see that this too is beautiful, we won’t be so afraid of it. We won’t get stopped before we even begin.

And so I paint the dancers, pre-dance. A gift I want to give to all of the little boys and girls that dance around the world, and the one that still fumbles around in my heart.

Be brave, you dancers, and painters, you musicians and builders, you teachers and lovers. Let’s be beautiful! Let’s dare the daily dance!

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I don’t create a masterpiece every day. Wait, now I have to look up the word masterpiece. If by one definition — something “considered to be the greatest work of a person’s career” — then no, I don’t. But if you look at another — “a supreme achievement” — then maybe yes, maybe I do. Maybe we all do.

I was fumbling through a difficult afternoon yesterday. Emotions tangling my every move. Every step a trip. Everything seemed too big. I didn’t want to do it – any of it. It was all too much. I needed something small. Contained. Doable. 6” x 6”. This seemed reasonable. I could navigate half of a foot. I opened my sketchbook. Reached for a single pencil. No decisions of color or brush. Just hold the pencil. Feathers appeared lightly. Then shading. And it felt familiar. New, but not frightening. Pencil lines became darker. More confident. And there it was. A bird. My bird. My something doable. My moment of getting through. I smile because I get to know — I get to know the effort it took to get through the moment — the effort it took to achieve this tiny bird. To navigate the afternoon, all 6 inches of it — an achievement, nothing short of supreme.

We don’t get to know every inch of every person. I don’t know what you’re tackling today. What you’re trying to get through. But I care. And I understand the effort it takes. And I applaud the efforts! I applaud the masterful achievements — the supreme achievements of our daily lives.

Perched on the new day, I shout to the opening sun, my lifting heart, to each master rising – one and all — Bravo!


Carry the impossible.

My cousins Shawn and Kalee first introduced me to Knox Blox. The Jello (gelatin) that you could eat with your hands. What had previously been limited to spoons, bowls and tables, was now portable. You could run with it. Squeeze it through the space your last baby tooth left behind. Take it downstairs. Outside. It was indestructible really. You could stomp on it. Throw it. Take it in the pool if you like. The only problem, it didn’t taste very good. Soon, the remains of abandoned red rubber lined the Tupperware container, and we set off to carry the impossible.

There seems to be a lot of people running around this world with hearts made of Knox Blox. No worries. No consequences. And I have envied them at times. Me, struggling with spoonful after spoonful of fragile feelings. But if given the chance, I wouldn’t change it. I want to feel and taste it all. Even this sweet pain of love and loss.

I suppose we all knew, even then, it wasn’t going to be easy. But we didn’t crave easy. We hungered for the challenges under the summer sun. We craved the skinned knees and knuckles. The sun-burned shoulders. Legs that wobbled weary at the end of the day. We wanted it all. Each morning, the screen door slamming behind us, we dared the day. Dared our hearts. To bring it all. Feel it all.

With eyebrows raised, the sun smiles in my direction. OK, I say. Heart and hands full, I reach for the door.

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Paying attention.

Cluttered with nightmares and nonsense, I don’t normally put that much stock into my dreams. But all last night, I was trying to sign up for another year of university. Hour after hour I searched for the registration. Went through the pamphlets. Made appointments with my advisor. Even after waking up twice, I went right back to it. Would I rent the apartment near campus? Would I get an advanced degree? Academia all night long. I’m not complaining – it was far from the normal hauntings. So was it a sign?

Signs are funny things. They are probably all around us – all the time. Some meant for us. Some maybe not. Some gathered in. Some trampled over. I guess it is what we choose to see. And maybe when we miss it, it repeats itself. Over and over again. Until we pay attention. 

I guess it’s time for me to keep learning. Or maybe, it’s a sign to tell myself that I AM still learning. I will forever be learning. And that is not a nightmare, but a gift. And that’s a hard one for me to, well, learn. I can get myself trapped in a worry. Stuck in a pattern of fearing the unknown. But it will always be there — through all the nightmares and nonsense — there will be growth. There will be challenges. There will be learning. Beauty in it all. 

The sun rises brand new, telling me, “If I’m not happy in this time, in this place, I’m not paying attention.”


The exchange.

She has short term memory loss, my mother-in-law. She arrived with flowers for me (courtesy of her other son). I thanked her. Hugged them close to me, draping myself in the fragrance. I held them out to her so she, too, could breathe them in. She thought I was giving them to her as a gift. She smiled with a grand “merci!” — and I was gifted again.

It’s not always clear who is gifting whom. Who is the one helping. Most of the time, I think we all receive in the exchange. And we need to move freely between the roles. Sometimes I think it is maybe easier to be the giver, the strong one. Allowing yourself to be the one who is vulnerable, perhaps this takes the most strength of all. 

I leaned on you today. I’m not sure if you even knew, but I wanted to thank you. I felt you holding my heart. It made me happy. And I was strong. I hope I can do the same for you, if so, we can do anything.

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…And so it begins.

I always asked for art products each Christmas. Maybe a craft. Shrinky-dinks. Candle makers. Paints or pencils. Sketchbooks. Anything that could be made into something. I suppose I’ve forever been an artist, but there was more to it than that. I think I knew there would always be the 26th. The day after. No more presents to open. Festivities done. Decorations coming down. In all that ending, I would have something to begin. 

Each year my French family asks me what I would like. My go-to answer is, still, anything to do with art. They ask what. Doesn’t matter. What kind? Doesn’t matter. What brand? Doesn’t matter. I guess because it ALL matters. It all works for me. It’s not just love, it is love extended. It fills the hole of the day after and turns it into the day of! Uplifting the let-down. Offering the start of a new season. It gives. It becomes.

Maybe that’s what true love is. Joy in life’s 26th. Wonder in the ordinary. Lights in our darkest hour. Beginnings. Again and again. Celebration all year long. That’s what I wish for you! May you find it today, and every day. Happy 26th!