Jodi Hills

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


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…if I went with you

Today is Napoleon’s birthday. I’m not proud to say that I didn’t know this before coming to France. I suppose it is important to me now, because I can see that it is important to them. Empathy. 

The thing is, we think we know. I’m smiling as I type this. There is so much that I, we, don’t know. And that’s the first step to learning, I guess. Admitting it. And then doing something about it. 

I have told you how important the library was to me. So important that I used to worry about it. The night before library day at Washington Elementary, my mother would have to comfort me. Ease me into sleep. “But what will I pick out?” “What if there isn’t enough time to choose the right book?” “There are so many.” She didn’t laugh at me. She gave me a solution. “Find a series you like,” she explained. “Then each week you can pick another one from that series.” I did that. My first series was Cowboy Sam. I loved the linen covers. The drawings of cowboys. The adventures. The stories. So it’s not surprising that cowboys were in my heart from the age of six. There were so many books. I devoured them. So full, I didn’t know what I was missing.

What’s taught is what’s known. But at some point you have to take on the responsibility of learning. Teach yourself. I recently finished the book, “The Sentence,” by Louise Erdrich. It is a beautiful book. Filled with the heart and soul and voice of Native Americans. There is so much to learn. But each word lays a rock, creating the path of empathy. People always say, “I hope our paths cross some day.” When they do, and I hope they do, I pray it on this path — this path of empathy.

The epigraph to this book reads as such, “From the time of birth to the time of death, every word you utter is part of one long sentence.” — Sun Yung Shin, Unbearable Splendor.

It is within this bearable and unbearable splendor that I write each day. Continuing the sentence. Searching for the beauty. The understanding. The peace. Empathy. Hoping to look up from the dust on my own shoes, to see you, looking up, seeing me. Splendor.

Happy Birthday, Napoleon. Let’s take that walk.


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The weight of the magic.


Not everyone liked to be called up to the black board. I did. When Mrs. Bergstrom began asking a question, I was suddenly the tallest person in the room. Everyone sank lower in their desks, to discourage her from calling on them — as if she might think, well, I couldn’t possibly ask them to walk all the way up here to the board, they are but floating heads…” It never worked. She called on everyone.


When it was my turn, I ran, hand reaching out for the chalk. I could barely hear the question over my heart racing. I loved the feel of the chalk in my chubby little fingers. Once in a while, she would hand over her personal piece of chalk – the one with the wooden holder. The weight of it was magnificent. It felt powerful and important. As I wrote the answer, any answer, it felt like my hand was sledding across the fresh fallen snow – gliding, surely, easily, making tracks of white. This feeling far surpassed any worry of right and wrong. There was only this. This magic from head to hand to board.


I’m working on some new projects with my publishers. They are in the United States. I am in France. In these separate countries, in different hours of the same day, we communicate in real time, face to face, actions and creations are immediate. Immediate. Imagine that!
In our discussion, they wanted to know my favorite pencil. I knew immediately. It is the woodless graphite pencil I purchased from the Musée Soulages Rodez. The weight of it is, once again, magnificent! It feels possible. Magic! It feels like no worry of right and wrong. It glides with youth across the page. The one I race to. That is a worthy pencil!


Without saying all of that, when they asked me why, I immediately drew this bird. In real time. Maybe a minute, or two. “Because, this!” I drew. This! With this pencil, it is “my turn.” I guess I’ve always understood the importance of that. Even when fear hides all around me, sometimes even within, I will forever race towards the weight of the magic!


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The scent of story.

I was only six when I was walked into the library of Washington Elementary. The door opened and it hit me immediately, the familiar scent. I didn’t have the words for it then. The knowledge. Certainly it could have been explained away with paper, and time. The aging, a slight dampness to it all. But I had smelled this before, this comforting familiar. And I needed no explanation, because I was home.

This welcoming scent – it was the same as the entryway to my grandparents’ home. Coats lined the wall. Dampened with work and story, they welcomed anyone who opened the door. They said, come in, you and your heart sit down. It was there I learned to trust. Trust in those who made the effort. Trust in those who worked hard to create something. Create a life.This library of coats. Of living.

When Mrs. Bergstrom, my first grade teacher, let go of my hand, I wasn’t afraid. She set me free in this open and beautiful world. There was life all around me. Book after book. Page after page. The words brushed against my arm, warm and worn, as the sleeve of my grandfather’s coat.

Some might say it is only nostalgia. But what is nostalgia? For me, it is not wanting to live in the past. No, for me, I see it as proof. A living and palpable proof of how it feels to be open. It is a reminder of how glorious life can be. A documentation of the extraordinary doors — the doors that let you in, the ones that set you free.

I don’t know what today will bring. But I know what it feels like to be open. I need no explanation. I brush against the familiar, and walk into the sun.


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Body and Soul.

It was the only sheet music I remember seeing on my grandparent’s organ – “Body and Soul.” It didn’t seem strange then, this large instrument. When I think of it now, they were probably the only farmers in the area to have an organ in their living room. 

They bought it for my Aunt Sandy. She was the youngest of nine, this Dairy Princess, and when she asked for something, she usually got it. So there was an organ in their living room. I never heard her play it. Nor anyone else – not seriously. Most of us thought of it like a big toy. One cousin would crawl underneath the bench and play the foot pedals by hand, while another cousin or two pressed the keys with as much flare as previously seen on the Lawrence Welk Show — something that also seemed to be on continuously in my grandparent’s living room. 

My Aunt Sandy has passed. I don’t know where the organ ended up. But the song lives on. I heard it this morning, on the radio, in France. Body and Soul. 

We are scattered — those of us that began on this farm — scattered by jobs, and hopes and dreams, scattered by loves and heartbreaks and loves again. Bit by bit, we puzzle together the pieces of our own lives, string together the notes of our own songs. And it takes a long time — a long time to build a soul. 

I thought, when I was young, with fingers glued against the keys, that we would be given all the answers. And that would be that. But we, like everyone I suppose, were not given the answers, but options. And somewhere between field and keyboard, I suppose, we made our way. 

The song fills my heart this morning. Along with the coffee. The conversation above the tune. Joyfully, not complete, but beginning. Again. What a pleasure it is to begin. The sun comes through the window, and another piece of my soul fits together.

The music never ends.

building a soul framed web.jpg


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Ten thousand and one.

Maybe it’s because the brain and the heart are composed of about seventy percent of it. Or maybe it’s because I grew up in the midst of 10,000 lakes. But I have always been comforted by the water. The color blue.

It feels certain – this color blue. Like the words of a favorite song. Words that come so easily. Without thinking. Rolling gently in. Words that comfort. Caress. Hold. Gather. So I paint it, this song, this color and I am home. 

When I was a young girl, and we lost our home, we (my mother and I) moved to an apartment. And when you lose a home, you don’t just lose the walls — you lose the familiar, the comfort, the neighborhood. You lose the sound of screen doors swinging. Mothers calling kids home for dinner. 

Everything changed. I could no longer identify the cars passing merely by the sound of their tires on the gravel. I couldn’t smell the lake from across the street. I had lost the certainty of “blue.”

And being young, I could only see so far ahead. I believed what was in front of me. I believed there were these 10,000 lakes. No more. I believed there was a home. One home. No more. We were given only so much. 

OH, to be so joyfully wrong! Well, I was right about one thing – we are “given” a finite amount – but that doesn’t mean we can’t go out and get more on our own. Find more. Search. Build. I learned if I wanted to have a home, I had to make one. First in my heart. Then in my head. I needed to feel the water flowing through them both. The cool, comforting blue carried within. This was my home. Is my home. My 10,001. (and counting.) No one can ever take that away.

The world, people, will always throw out limitations. Struggles. It, they, will try to block you, box you in. But you don’t have to be one of them. They can tell you that “you can’t…” “you don’t…” you aren’t…” But listen to the water. It’s still flowing. Softly, gently, telling you, “aaah, but I am!”


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Angel in my hammock.

I come from a long line of fools — and I mean that in the most glorious and optimistic of ways. My grandparents fell for each other, as only fools can, and this I suppose, for me, is where it began. He was a farmer. I guess you have to be a dreamer, a believer, a bit of a fool, to make this your living. To plant something in the dirt. Believe in yourself, the work, the weather. Believe in it enough to turn the dirt into gold. I saw the magic. Year after year. I wanted to live like this. Love like this. In the most daring and foolish of ways. I still do. And it’s not hard to prove my case, as I sit typing this in another country.

I imagine it could all be explained away by angles and geometry, but yesterday, in the shade of the house, under the ever pines, the hammock was a glow. It shone in the most golden light. An angel, I thought. Resting in our hammock. And I smiled.

It’s probably foolish. I hope it is. It’s as foolish as when my mother helped me believe it was possible to carry a dream in your pocket. My foolish pocket, that was, is, always full.

Since I can remember, she told me it was necessary. I don’t know if that’s where my grandfather kept his, in the pocket of his overalls, but I know he carried one — one of these foolish dreams. I know my mother carries one still. When she orders her make-up from Macy’s. Looks at the Sundance catalog to see the next season of fashion. Walks around the building to keep her leg strength up. Reads her devotions to keep her heart strength up. Believes in the light of today. The possibility of tomorrow. Her pockets are full.

So the glowing hammock, for me, is nothing but pure magic. And I’m going to keep believing in it. I’m going to keep planting my words, to see what grows. Keep painting with the belief that you too will see the glow, the dream, the possibility of it all. Our glorious and foolish pockets full, turning each day into gold.


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The candy dish.

I’m certain it wasn’t expensive, but it was priceless, this candy dish. White milk glass, with matching cover. My mother kept it on the end table, just as you entered the front door of her apartment on Jefferson Street. I don’t know if it was ever full, but I guarantee it was never empty. My mother made sure that when Josh and Rachel (her grandchildren) entered her apartment, lifted that cover, there was a special treat, just for them. They knew it would be there. They looked forward to it. Counted on it. Just as they did with her.

This certainty was something she had always given me. Still gives to me. Even at her lowest points in life, when her own heart wasn’t full, it was never empty — not for me. She always had something for me. 

On the phone the other day, she questioned herself out loud, “Did she have a home? Did she ever have a home?”  You can never tell someone how to feel. But I can tell her, with all certainty (and I only have it because she gave it), that she gave me a home. She gave Josh and Rachel a home. She gave us something sure and sweet and constant. So yes, there was a home, there was always a home for us. Always will be. And she lived there too. 

Never empty. Because of her.


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500 days!

I have always been inspired, since the first time I saw it — getting bigger and bigger through my airplane window. New York. I know I am not alone. It’s in the song, after all… “If you can make it there…” The melody got louder in each beat of my heart. 

Some might say it’s cliche… and I would have been the first to agree, had it stopped at some point. But it never has. With each trip, over and over, if anything, it grows — this desire to be better. To wake up and want more — I’m not talking about things — but I guess, to simplify it, life — to want more out of life itself — to want more from myself. With each step on a New York street, I feel like I want to dress better. Walk taller. Be sure of my steps. I want to paint better – master my pieces. Create more. Write more. I become the melody. Humming along with the taxis. 

The trick is always, I suppose, not to be inspired (this is rather easy), but to keep that inspiration alive. That takes effort. Work. Faith. At first, when returning from a trip, I could keep it up. Dressing a little nicer when I went to Staples to ship out orders. Savoring Caribou’s coffee a little longer. Feeling the buzz in my hands. Oh, but how easily it could slip away, how easily I could slip into old habits of ordinary. Yellow fading.

It has been 500 days. 500 days! of this blog!! Not one day missed. It has become my New York. I have become my New York. At first, I labored (and some days still). Worried about the idea – would it come? But then I began to believe in it, trust in it, allow it to come. And it does. It has for 500 days! 

It is so easy to let the magic slip from our heart and hands. To wait for something else, someplace else, someone else, to inspire. But I don’t want to miss out. I don’t want to let one day go by without feeling this way, without feeling this buzz of life. It may not always be this blog, but I have made a promise to myself that it will be something…each day will be something…I will be my own vibrant yellow! Moving. Maneuvering. Honking even!  Unprepared to let even a day slip away. Hanging on! I am living this life!

It still may be a blur! Time moves pretty quickly! But oh, what a blur it will be!!!


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Limitless.

I can still remember the smell — the sweetness of wax, color, and possibility — opening the box of Crayola crayons for the first time in Washington Elementary. I had a box of 24. Not the largest box, but not the smallest. And I loved it. Oh, how I loved it. 

Jackie sat next to me in a brand new designer mark dress — both her dress and hair, freshly ironed. I can see her opening that box of 64 — that box of 64 that also had the sharpener. I could hear the ooohs and aaahs of those who gravitated around her. What would she create? Oh, surely it would be beautiful! It had to be beautiful with all those colors!

Mrs. Strand directed us to sit at our desks. She told us to pull out our blank, white construction paper. Not our Big Chief tablets, those were ruled, she explained. Those we would use for writing. What I concluded from these directions then, with our paper and our crayons — there were no rules!  Yes, I thought! There was that smell of possibility once again. 

Mrs. Strand then gave us the gift that I am most grateful for – the gift of time. Time to create. Whatever you want, she said. I can still feel the paper between my fingers. The feel of how the waxy colors connected.

I never spoke in class. I was very shy — some said, painfully, but it felt good to me. I was just waiting. Preparing. And I used the 24. And combined and shaded. Multiplying my colors. Creating depth. Well beyond 24. Beyond 48. Beyond 64. It was limitless. I had time. And a quiet confidence. 

Someone had taught me. Through lesson or example, I can’t be sure. I suppose it was my grandfather, grandmother, mother — probably all three. Use what you have. This was so freeing. It kept me free from the jealous ooohs and aaahs. Kept me free from worrying about what every other “Jackie” had. This gift created a world of wonder at my own fingertips. It still carries me. 

I found a box of colored pencils yesterday. Probably Dominique’s kids left them behind. Almost unused. Pencils are not my normal medium, but there it was, a box full of possibility. So I took the time. I shaded and combined. And it was all limitless once again. No rules. No constraints. No numbers. It, I, smelled of everything possible.

The morning sun is rising. The sky is open with possibility. I’ll see you up there!


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Racing the wheat.

I’ve always gotten up early. Even as a kid, even (and maybe especially) in summertime. This extra light given, after a long Minnesota winter, this was something not to be missed. I would start wearing shorts as soon as the last patch of snow disappeared. My white winter-hidden legs were almost lavender. Exposed to the fresh, crisp air of sun’s warmth and freedom. It was as close to being a newborn as I could imagine. 

I suppose it was the possibility that I loved most of all. To be out in it. To be a part of it! Sun in my face, light breezes carrying, even lifting my knees, urging them to race — this is summer — this is life! And so I ran. I ran on gravel. I ran on tar. Slipped in morning’s wet dew. I ran in fields behind our house, racing the wheat – who would grow faster? 

It was always a surprise when the fields were cut. And my legs were tan. Where did summer go? But wasn’t it wonderful to still be surprised?!

I got up early this morning. Kissed by sun and warmth. Born again. Legs exposed — heart too – still believing that summer will never end.