Jodi Hills

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


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The anticipation of youth.

I always trust a town with a coffee shop. We stopped yesterday in Jennings, a tiny, really tiny town, just outside of Lafayette. A sign hung at the entrance, “Making people tolerable since 2013.” We smiled and knew we were home.

Maybe it has come with age, or from living in France, but I have gained appreciation and the patience to wait for my order. Because it won’t be fast here – in the south – in a small cafe. No, you will wait, even if you’re the only ones there. But it was worth it. The lattes – perfection. The ingredients the same, but they added a little anticipation to make it just a lot more delicious.

It hung on the wall in the restroom – this coffee cup made from “string art.” String art was probably the first real art that I made as a child. I say real, because it wasn’t with a kit, or something you filled in from the store, it was all hand made. A piece of wood. Nails. Lots of nails, and string. Oh, how I loved to make it. I made it again and again. Gave it to my mom’s friends. And when I saw it hanging on Diane Larson’s wall, I think that was the beginning for me. I was an artist. I was home.

This coffee cup that hung in the restroom in Jennings, Louisiana, was not new. It was falling apart at the bottom. Some may not even call it art. But it was for me. More than that really. Because in it, I could feel it – all the anticipation of youth! What a feeling! I carry it with me as I greet the new day, again and again, and I give thanks for each beginning! How delicious!


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Fortune.

In grade school we made simple origami “fortune tellers.” Parts of the “fortune teller” were labeled with numbers that served as options for a player to choose from, and on the inside were eight flaps, each concealing a message. The person operating the fortune teller manipulated the device with their fingers, based on the choices made by the player, and finally one of the hidden messages was revealed.


Oh, how everyone loved this game! And I did too! But I think what I loved most of all was the paper itself. Folded, manipulated, decorated. While everyone waited for their fortune to be told, I think I knew then that my fortune was actually in the paper itself. In the creating.


Yesterday, my publisher and I were making plans for new prints to be made on new paper. We were exchanging emails with different paper samples. And my heart ran with the wobbly legs of youth, chasing my fortune across the schoolyard playground.
Isn’t it wonderful to still be chasing! Trying new things. Learning new things. Being alive.


I hold the corners of the paper in my hand. We all do. And we choose. We choose hearts racing, and we live this glorious day!


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Leap of faith.

It’s easy to put conditions on everything. “If the sun shines today, I’ll be happy.” “If this photo gets a lot of ‘likes’ I’ll be happy.” “If I get this done…” “If she tells me this…” “If he would just…” So many conditions. And I’m guilty of it too. We all want certain things. Need certain things. But what I want to do, what I’m trying to do, is start from a place of happiness. Start from a place of gratitude. Every morning. And then let the conditions fall away. Take away my ifs and just start being. Looking only inwardly. Not comparing my life, but living my life. The only competition should be with oneself. Am I living my best life?

When I visited the Brooklyn school district, I asked each young student what they were good at. They unapologetically told me of their gifts. Not bragging, but claiming their attributes. They were young enough to enjoy the gifts. I remember feeling the same. I was 5 or 6 when I began to paint. When I began to write. Not needing any encouragement. No social media. No pressure. I would go into my bedroom and color. Paint. Draw. Write. It was me. That’s what I cling to. What I believe in. The doing. The being. It’s a good day when I enjoy the process. Get the paint on my hands. Get the words on the page. Forever young enough to enjoy the gifts.

I read to the students my story “Leap of faith.” (The story of me daring to take my first real dive off the high tower.) When I was finished, one young man came up to me, and asked a very intelligent question. “What was that really about?” he asked, knowing it was deeper than just the water. “It’s about daring to be yourself.” I replied. He smiled like he knew. “I can do that,” he said. And he ran off to join his class. I know that he can!

“I don’t know if this is going to be the day that my feet will touch the sky…but I am going to climb that tower, and I am going to be scared and I’m going to be happy, and with the wind in my hair, my heart is going to lead me…and one way or another, I am going to fly!” (from the book, Leap of faith)

I’ll see you up there!


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Looking up

The track meet was nearing the end when the coach approached us on the grass. I had one event to complete, and Colleen was finished for the day. The mile race was coming up and we had an extra space to fill. It didn’t have to be filled of course, but if someone competed in this spot, we were sure to get a point just for completing the race. That point could make a difference on whether or not we won the meet. He was looking at Colleen. She seemed confused, because she had never been a miler. I could feel the inner shaking of her head. It would be really difficult. You need to train for something like that. Just jumping in at the last second would surely be almost impossible. Clearly she wouldn’t win, and probably would be embarrassed. There could even be puking. The coach would never force her to do it, he only asked. She got up. I smiled. I was so proud of her! That’s my brave friend, I thought. There were no real surprises. The other contestants raced out in front of her. She kept running. Her heart and lungs fought for her attention. She kept running. Her legs turned to stone. She kept running. The others finished. She kept running. And running. She could have stepped off the track. No one would have blamed her. But she kept running. She finished. I hope she was proud of herself. I hope I told her just how amazing I thought she was! I can’t tell you if we won the meet. If we had a good season. But I do know this – at sixteen – I witnessed strength. Courage. And pure will. When I saw her going around that track, she wasn’t just running, she was flying, and the most beautiful bird in the sky!


My mom ordered a dress from the Sundance catalog. It should be arriving today. Why is this a significant event? She is currently surrounded by friends and family who are giving up. And she could do the same. Who would blame her? But she keeps believing. She keeps dreaming. She orders the dress and believes in a tomorrow where she looks beautiful! And she will. Because she keeps running. I have never been more proud of her. She will put on that dress of blue and teal and white, and she will be the most beautiful bird flying in the sky!
If you want to believe in miracles, sometimes, you just have to look up!


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Truth or dare.

My mom’s sister Karolynn lived in Minneapolis with her three children. It was a distant suburb, but coming from Alexandria (a small town two hours away) it seemed exotic.

My three cousins were just a bit younger, so I was always excited to pass some knowledge on to them, as my older brother did to me. When I went for a visit in the summer of fifth grade, I took the Greyhound bus by myself. I don’t know what year people turned from interesting to dangerous, but this was still a year of interesting bus riders.

I don’t remember ever being inside. We swam in the pool. And the neighbor’s pool. We ran around the house. Rode our bikes to the park. My aunt gave us Lucky Charms for breakfast and bologna sandwiches for lunch. She dropped us off at Valley Fair before opening hours and picked us up after closing. Again, we were lucky enough to run wild amongst the interesting.

I had just learned how to play Truth or Dare. Did they know how? No. Great. I will teach you. One person has to pick a task, either to tell the truth to an agreed upon question, or to perform the task that the others decided you should do. Like what kind of dare? they asked. Oh, nothing scary, none of us wanted that – you know something crazy or funny. Like what? I had something in mind. You know, you could ask me to do something embarrassing. Like what? Like, oh, I don’t know, you could make me go tell your mom that she’s the best aunt in the world… Wouldn’t that be embarrassing?? The truth is, I had wanted to do it, but I just didn’t have the language yet, or the courage. Oh, yes they said, that would be embarrassing – go do that! That was the dare. I acted a bit reluctant, and then ran into the house. My aunt was doing laundry. The others peaked through the back door and listened. “You have to say it really loudly so we can hear,” they said. I ran down the stairs and hugged my aunt’s waist. “You’re the best aunt in the whole wide world!” And I ran up the stairs to my giggling cousins. I could feel her smiling behind me. I dared to love them all.

It’s not always easy to say how we feel. I think I haven’t told people enough. I want to do better. People should know. My aunt should know. My cousins should know — summer days in New Brighton were wonderful. Today, as we all run off in different directions, I hope they can still feel me smiling.

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The memory of snow

The memory of snow.If you are from Minnesota, you will have a memory of snow. Many. I remember bundling. These were not days of Polar fleece. No slim down jackets and pants. No these were days ofbundling. You put on all that you had to keep you warm, and then started to layer with your sibling’s larger clothes, until you almost couldn’t move. You bundled until the sweat started forming on the back of your neck, and the thoughts began to disappear of what you were going to do when you actually got out there.

A fresh snow could mean any sort of building. A fort. A man. Balls. On this day, I began rolling. The bundling made it hard to bend, so I made it bigger and bigger. Big enough that I stood upright to roll. And I rolled. And I rolled. My snowball was huge. It was the largest ever seen on Van Dyke Road. I kept rolling. The Norton girls would be so jealous.I rolled. My brother might notice me. Maybe even talk to me. I rolled. My mittens were wet. My hair was sweaty and freezing under my stocking cap. I rolled. It stood nearly as tall as my ten years. I rolled. Pushed. Grunted. The front yard was almost cleared. Brown grass caught a rare glimpse of the sun. And I rolled. Until I couldn’t. Until there was no snow left to pick up. Until I could push no more.

And there it was. The largest snowball I had ever seen. It was beautiful. White, bright snowball. I loved it. The kids talked about it on the school bus. Neighbors gave the thumbs up as they passed by. It was as large as the rock at the end of my grandparents’ driveway. It marked our house. Our winter. Our youth. My mom took my picture with it that day. And again in March. It was still there. And in June. Still there. Getting smaller, but still reached the top of my hand. The marigolds were coming up in the row that lined the driveway. And it was still there. I posed in front of the orange and gold flowers, in my orange and gold pants set, with one hand on the remaining snowball.

I had built something that lasted. Beyond the norm. Beyond its season. People throughout history have been doing it. In clay, and marble. Building their stories. Without our stories, we are nothing. So we carve, and forge and build and write and paint to tell our stories. To place them at the edge of a town’s road and say, we were here, we are here. Here is the viking-sized evidence of our lives.


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VanDyke Road still on my shoes.

 The Birthplace of America.

I don’t really know how he got his name. Was he always Big Ole? He was to me. He was just always there. Could it be that we were really the birthplace of America? We had the Rhunestone too. Or a copy. We never spoke of it in school, never read of it in books – but there it was – the claim that was so large, Birthplace of America. True or not- everything that happened was on either side of Big Ole. So, it was right in that sense. It was our birthplace. It was all we new of America. Of our dream.

I have a memory of a neighborhood. For it was a neighborhood, you see, we had neighborhoods back then. Do we still? We had houses and people that matched them. Cars that matched the houses and the people. We knew the houses and cars and the people, and the wood, the linoleum, the carpeting, the clotheslines. We knew the jobs, the gardens.

Mrs. Muzik lived next door to the Nortons. She had a daughter. Melody. Say it in your head, Melody Muzik. Mrs. Muzik had the greenest lawn. We all had the same weather, yet it favored her. Her lawn was always freshly cut, thick and luxurious. You weren’t allowed to walk on it. I didn’t want to. Not because my summer bare feet didn’t imagine it to be magical. I didn’t want to because there was no Mr. Muzik. I never asked where he was. I assumed he died. Until my own father left, I had no reason to believe that anyone did, or would. Just knowing that a Mr. Muzik was missing, I remember thinking, but she has this, this green lawn, these perfect flowers. She should have this. This was hers. I didn’t walk on her lawn.

Dyndas lived across the street from them. It was Frank and Sylvia Dynda, with his parents, Grandma and Grandpa Dynda. It was a neighborhood. It felt right to call them Grandma and Grandpa Dynda. It was not too familiar. It was just familiar. Oh how glorious it was to be familiar. To walk in between the sheets that Sylvia had hanging on the line. To let them brush, cool and wet against your sun drenched legs, to walk through the open screen door, to say, hello Grandma, and to get a cookie that she had made, to answer her grandma-like questions, and leave through the same screen door, never worrying of when you would see her again. Nothing was disposable.

Alf drove the oldest pickup in the neighborhood. He might have scared children from a different neighborhood, but I, and maybe we, had thought his name was Elf. An Elf wasn’t scary. An old Elf on Van Dyke Road. He lived next to the Schultz’s and the Weiss’s. The Shultz boys would give us all a good reason to behave. Most of us, under the age of 10, were threatened when rooms were left uncleaned and beds undone, “Do you want to go live with the Shulz boys?” The Weiss family was older than the Nortons, younger than Elf – Alf. They were quiet and reliable. As quiet as the peach that colored their quiet house. Then the Mullens. Maybe it was Carol Mullen that drowned out the sound of the Mr. and Mrs. Weiss. She had the loudest voice for the dinner call. “Patsy!!!! Patsy!!!” She had three children, but I only remember her calling for Patsy. She was the only one to stray I guess.

As I rode my bike further down Van Dyke road, the names became less familiar, but some stood out – The Lords, The Lees, The Vaceks. And how comforting to put a “the” in front of these houses and cars and people. Because they were the families. Each family had cupboards of cereal and single-line telephones and one television and tables and grocery bags from Olson’s super market and we knew them. We knew who and how many and how long and where the baby aspirin was kept, and the color of bikes and the grades in school and the wet hair and the bus… we were part of something, behind Big Ole. We were a neighborhood. We were people listening to “open-line” on the radio, running barefoot, through swinging doors, not just your own, and we were home. That’s what I tried to stuff in my pocket. That’s what I stuffed into both pockets, my lungs, my toes, deep inside my heart, when I rode my bike home from volleyball practice and there was a sold sign in our driveway. My father had walked away. Sold the house. My mother and I would move to the other side of Big Ole. To an apartment. With Van Dyke road still on my shoes. 

The Norton girls anchored Van Dyke Road. They were the team leaders – without the five of them – there was no kickball, no kick the can, no softball. They led us each summer night to the empty field next to Dynda’s house, and we played until the sun lay low. And a little longer. Until our parents called us home. And a little longer. They were the gatekeepers of the North End. The last to get on the big yellow school bus. The Tech School student studying law enforcement, who drove the bus, turned us around in their driveway, and brought us back up the gravel road. I don’t think there was a time when all five Norton girls were on the bus together. The driver would open the door and one, two, maybe three would run in with books and wet hair, smelling of shampoo and the fresh air that clung to it. We didn’t take selfies. It would have been absurd to take a picture of someone on the bus and then take the film to Peterson Drug store and wait for a week to see an out-of-focus girl hiding behind her books, with a glazed look of sugared cereal. We didn’t text. We didn’t have Google. We had to be curious. If we wondered who was the actor who played Peter on The Brady Bunch, we had to wait a week until the next episode and watch the credits. We also had mystery. I didn’t know what was in the North End, though my imagination had conjured up many stories of runaways and robbers and other various Nancy Drew cases. I didn’t have the words for it then, but I needed them. The Norton girls. They were pretty and athletic and accessible. They were older and younger and I found myself wedged in the middle. It was familiar, and possible. I can hear the creaks on their staircase. The screams running down their backyard. The running. The biking. The breathless racing of secrets and time. And the bus door would open, with the certainty that one Norton girl would get on board. I needed that. We all did. We needed each other. We needed the lawns and the fields and stories and this building of lives. This neighborhood. We claimed each other. We grew up together. This was the birthplace of our America. Our pockets were full.

Sometimes I stop myself and think, did it all really matter that much? Did it change us to know the wood work, the bed times… and the linoleum? The linoleum. Decades later, at the Atlanta Gift Mart – 7.1 million square feet hosting over 200,000 people, I would run into Melody in the passing crowd. With instant recognition and a calm that only a shared past can contain, I simply said, “Oh, hi Melody,” as if she just got off the bus in front of her house on Van Dyke Road. Did it matter to remember the sound of lawn mowers and cards in bicycle wheels? Decades later, changing in every way, every direction, even moving to another country, I would come home for a visit and Lynn Norton would pass as I climbed a tree over Lake Agnes wearing my mother’s coat. I would see her the next day and she would say, “Didn’t I see you up a tree yesterday?” It did matter. To be known. To be seen. To be held in the arms of 5 girls, an empty lot, an unrelated grandparent, and the swing of a summer screen door — it mattered. It still does.