Jodi Hills

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


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Musical chairs.

It was one of the first games I learned at Washington Elementary. I had no idea, that so many years later, I would still be involved in my own game of musical chairs. The teacher placed the chairs in a line in the center of the room. One less chair than there were students. She started the music and we marched, danced, around the chairs. When the music stopped, we had to race to get an available spot. The person who didn’t get a chair was out of the game. Each time a chair was removed and the winner was left to sit alone. I enjoyed the music. Loved the dance. But what an odd way to win I thought. Silent and alone.

My mother loved to dance. And this relationship we had was one in itself. A movement of joy and support. A partnering. Then on a November day, the music stopped. I raced to the nearest chair. My yellow hair flung as I yelled and pointed. The metal legs scraped against the floor as people pushed and scrambled. Smiling and exhaling the joy that we danced for my entire life, I looked left and right. Noooooo! I looked up and she was still standing there. Wait. I’ll slide over. Not within the rules they said But she belongs beside me. She needs a chair. We need to keep dancing. We are supposed to keep dancing. I could give up my chair. Could I give up my chair? Not the way it’s played. But how do I play without her? Where is the music? I need her in the game. I looked up from my cold metal chair. So cold. She smiled and waved. I’m not afraid she said. The silence filled the room. I covered my ears.

Grace sat with me. There was no need for an additional chair. The music began. Softly. We’ll just sit a while she said. And listen. The music never ends.


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Dear. Someone.

I was just a few years her elder, my cousin Dawn. But it was in those years that I had learned to color within the lines. And more significantly (I’m not saying for the better) I had begun to care about it. We were at my grandma’s house, coloring in the sewing room. She, still free from any worry of boundaries, took her crayon in her tiny fist, and moved it with reckless abandon across the coloring book. I tried to hold in my horror – I hope I did. But these were the wildest, most furious purple lines I had ever seen. It was indecipherable what the underlying outlines had recommended. Still, she held it out – held it up – proudly. “I think it’s pretty good,” she claimed, “you know sometimes, I scribble.” (As if to say she hadn’t then.) I envied her assuredness. I stayed within the lines. Ready too, I suppose, to hold mine equally out to the world, just as she had done, and say clearly, “Dear Someone,…Maybe it’s all been a letter. A reminder. A plea. An offering. An outreach. Sometimes appearing on canvas. Sometimes in a book. Sometimes just a scribble on a notepad. Sometimes even indecipherable. But I think in each of our own extraordinary ways, every day, inside and outside the lines, sometimes with confidence, other times with fury, sometimes in colors so weak they can barely be seen — each day we write the letters. Letters that contain giant hopes of connecting, of being seen, of being loved, of giving thanks. Letters that ask to be seen. Letters that say, “I see you.” Letters that open days, open doors and open hearts. Letters that ask for the help. Letters that offer it. Letters that know today it might be me, tomorrow it might be you. Letters that know both words are true for all. Dear. Someone.

So we wake each morning and present to the mirror, present to the world, our masterpieces and our scribbles, each beginning with a clear and hopeful “Dear Someone,…”


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Belong.

To have walked a place is to possess it. I knew this before I even knew what the word meant. 

From my first visit I tried to memorize my grandparent’s farm. The house. The barns. Fences and trees. Knowing that I would need it one day. Not the things inside the rooms. Not the furniture or figurines. Not the rusting tools. Nor the worn clothing. But the security. I suppose that’s all a home is — this feeling that if you went there, they would have to take you in. And if in fact I carried it with me, this feeling, this home, then I could go anywhere. I could have everything, or nothing else at all, and I would have this. And I would be OK. So I memorized the steps. The pictures hanging on the walls. The variety packs of cereals in the cupboard. The smell of damp work from overalls hanging on the wall. Tables and rugs and boots. Desks and doors. Closets. 

My suspicions were confirmed when I saw the For Sale sign in the front lawn of our home on Van Dyke Road. My mother was trying to say the words. I tried to listen as I went through the steps. “We’d find an apartment,” she said. I walked up the gravel driveway to the house. “And we’d be OK.” I opened the front door and clung to the overalls hanging in the entry. “Just the two of us,” she said. I walked up the three steps to the kitchen. Tears fell from her eyes as she tried to convince me. “It wasn’t my fault…” I went up the stairs to the first bedroom, the second, the sewing room. I walked the barn. Even the empty chicken coop. And I returned to her face. My mother’s face. Seeing her. Loving her. Trusting her. It didn’t matter where we were going. If we had everything, or nothing else at all, we had each other.

And I memorized each laugh. Each day. Each struggle. Each adventure. Every trip to every mall. Every pretty dress. Every conversation mixed with coffee and wine. Each moment with my mom. Knowing I would need it one day. And that day has come.

I walk the streets, the gravel paths of Aix en provence. I have filled out the forms. Followed the rules. Applied. Tested. And carry the card that says I belong. But I know the only way for that to be true is to walk it. This place. Gather it all in, step by step, and carry it with me. Scattering along the way, everything that I have collected through the years. Each story. Every pebble on the path that I walk daily is now mixed with my treasures. My memories. Dampened overalls and sparkling dresses. Laughs and loves. I am a part of it all. And I am home.


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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!


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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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No angel damage.

I was 18 when I had my appendix removed. My first year of college. Not really a kid anymore. Not really a grown-up yet. Everything was white in the room. It was icey cold.

I had felt this before. Lying in the layer of fresh snow. No separation of earth and sky – only this blinding white. Fearing I too would disappear, I flapped my arms and legs to become the angel I needed. But how would I get up, I wondered. Without ruining it — this beautiful angel in the snow. If I rolled over to hands and knees, it would be gone. Just another wreckage in the snow.  I laid still. The minutes seemed like hours, but then I saw her. My mom. In the corner of my eye. She ran out the front door, not taking time to button her coat. Still in street shoes, she hopped through the snow to my angel feet. Reach her arms to grab onto my wings and pulled me straight up. No angel damage. She had done it before. She would do it again and again. She looked at the perfect angel in the snow and smiled. I looked at the perfect angel next to me, and grabbed her hand.

I was just coming out of anesthesia when the nurse asked me, “Is your mom here?” I hadn’t yet opened my eyes, but I knew she was, or would be soon. Her coat flapping in the white, crisp air. I rested still in my angel.


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Word by word.

She loved to read by the window, sitting on the deacon’s bench. The sun lit the words, almost in reverence, just, I thought as it should be. 

It was Mrs. Bergstrom who taught me how to read, but it was my mother who taught me how to love it. Reading and rereading each library book. Words that calmed me when I was scared. Words that lifted me when low. Words that paid for the tickets when money was scarce. Filled the car with gas. Lifted the plane. Took us on adventures. Gave us not just happy endings, but happy beginnings. Told us that all things were possible. I know I was just a child, but when I saw my mother with a book in her hand, I knew that I was saved. We all could be.

Mrs. Bergrstrom wrote on the blackboard the word career. She went around the room asking what does your father do? What does your mother do? Maybe it wasn’t surprising, we were only six, but most of the kids didn’t know. Some said they went to a building. Did a job. Left in the morningtime. Set the table. When she pointed to me – asking what my mother did – I knew for certain, and said it clearly – “Well, she’s saving the world.” Some snickered, but I just smiled, because for me, it was true. Word by word.

I began a new book yesterday. These Precious Days by Ann Patchett. I sat at my desk, the sun shining through the window, illuminating each magnificent word, warming my shoulders. I could have vacuumed, or dusted. Washed clothes. But I was doing something more important. I felt the power. From sky to window to shoulders to page to heart. It was all love. And she was with me. All things were possible. Word by word, we were saving the world.


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The beginning of somewhere.

We pulled the car off of the freeway to the only gas station in sight — the only building in sight. We were in the southern part of the US. Some might call it the middle of nowhere. But I don’t really like that phrase – everywhere is somewhere to someone, and we in fact were there – so I call it the beginning of somewhere. I would say we were lost. Dominique would say that we just weren’t sure how to get where we were going…. In any case, we paid the woman behind the counter for the gas and some random snacks, and asked her directions to our destination. She had never heard of it. That was fine. What’s the name of this freeway right here? Or the number? She said she didn’t know. Perhaps she didn’t hear, I thought, so I repeated, this freeway right here — I pointed. “I don’t know,” she said, “I didn’t drive here.” Baffled by the response, we walked back to the car in silence. There were so many questions. First of which – how did she get there? Where did she live? There were no houses in site. And most importantly, do you really need to drive on a road to know its name — a road that you could reach out and touch if you took two steps?

And I suppose that’s the problem, isn’t it? This lack of interest. Empathy. Knowledge. Have our worlds gotten so small? Our concerns even smaller? It was Maya Angelou who said the most important thing was curiousity. It was the key to everything. Without it, she thought, nothing else was really possible, including love, friendship, education, invention…life itself.

Our favorite travel memories always include the stumbling upon. The surprise of what isn’t on the map, or the brochure. I wish this for everyone. And you don’t have to travel the world – though I highly recommend it if you have the means — but please, please, look beyond your front door. Take the road less traveled, or the road worn to tracks, it doesn’t matter, just take a road. Go somewhere. Learn something. Meet people.

We were taught in school that it was important to “walk in someone else’s shoes.” Maybe that’s frightening to some, so I would say, start by walking in your own shoes. Live your life. Take some chances. Make some discoveries. And then make the exchange — of “shoes” — you will have something to share, and be open to receive. If you want the thrill of “stumbling upon,” you have to be willing to stumble.

We drove down the unknown freeway. Smiling. Packed with a new memory. A new story. Ready for our next adventure.


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Recent. Frequent. Ever.

Recent and frequent tears have not made my heart, nor mind, any less wide-eyed. I jerked my head around to see the horses. The horses clopping behind me on the path. Gathering speed. Louder. The horses I knew would be there. I stopped. Looked. The clip-clop continued in my ear buds. The path behind me was empty.

I was listening to the Paris Review. They were playing a short story about a man visiting a town. All were on horseback. The reality of their podcasts is unprecedented. I don’t know how they produce it, but the sounds they create are alive. Separate from the narrator, the horses approached. The sound got nearer. So real. So magical. I could feel the breath of them behind me.

Further down the path, when the horses returned, the character’s departure, the clip-clip continued. This time, it wasn’t so startling, but more comforting. I liked thinking of them by me. Behind me. Walking with me. And I was no longer afraid, but comforted. I continued down the path, deep inside the magic.

I passed by my mother’s picture as I first went out the door for this particular walk. I had just been working on my computer, and I had this thought — What happened to her email? Where did they go now? The reminders from Sundance catalog — this turquoise coat that she would love. What happened to all the emails we had exchanged. Promises. Love. Were they still hovering? If I sent one now – to her address – her address that carried my birthday numbers — where would it go? Could she see it?

I stepped onto the path and hit play. Trying to drown out the typing in my head, when the horses startled me. They were so alive. The presentation so real. My heart was so willing to believe in them that fear turned into comfort.

I’m typing the words now. My cheeks still rosy, more from magic than from the cool winter air. Each word is filled with love. Filled with chance. Filled with a comforting joy that walks beside me. Magic that I don’t need to understand, that I just believe. Unconditionally. My mother is with me. Recent. Frequent. Ever.

Wide-eyed. I hit send.


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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.