Jodi Hills

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

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The Eiffel Tower doesn’t need me.

When you say the word France, people immediately think of Paris, and not without good reason.  Paris is a magnificent city. Magical really.  The Eiffel tower, the Louvre, Montmartre and Sacré Coeur. It is, as Hemingway said, clearly a “moveable feast”!  It is fashion and history and artists and writers. Coffee on sidewalks. Croissants and romance. It is Notre Dame. It is what was, and what will be again.

But Paris is not France, not all of it. There is so much more.  Today, I’d like to take you to the lengthy, rugged coastline of Brittany.  Here you will meet French people, not tourists.  Here, they will wave to you (this doesn’t sound like much, but my Minnesota-nice loved it).  Their houses, are not palaces, but they are manicured.  Each small yard is covered with flowers. I saw a woman on her hands and knees with a scissors, cutting the grass. These people are proud and welcoming. We went for lunch at a small restaurant with white tablecloths and a bowl of caramels (the taste of Brittany) for dessert. I asked the waitress where we could purchase these caramels – I loved them! She stepped away from the table, I thought maybe she didn’t understand. She returned with both hands forming a bowl filled with these delicious caramels and she dropped them in my purse. My first (non-family) gift in France.

We went to an antique store, browsed the history, our mouths filled with butter and sugar. I was drawn to a cup filled with old paint brushes. Green handles worn from hopeful hands and spotted with paint’s proof.  I held them up and asked how much they were?  He said something I didn’t understand. My husband said they were free for me – gratuit! I held them to my heart – what was and what will be.

The next store I bought a sketch pad and began painting with my experienced brushes. Together, we sat at the beach and tried to capture this rugged beauty that I had never seen before. This worn in warmth of a place, that maybe needed me to tell its story, as much as I needed to feel it.  An exchange of beauty. This is not the Eiffel tower, but believe me, this too, is France. Bienvenue!

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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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Remembering Corsica

Paper is one of the few materials that has a memory. If you fold a piece of paper, crumple it, it remembers that fold, those lines, that wrinkle. You can unfold it, heal it, but the memory, the mark remains. Some might say it is damaged, but I think, maybe, that it is just more interesting. I think words can do that to a book. This collection of imprints on a page, lines, dots, all embedded in the sheets of paper. This book becomes alive. Touched by hands, dog-eared, embraced. It holds the memory.

I was walking along the beach in Corsica and I watched this woman reading in the sand. As time went on, the tide kept rising, but she remained fixed in the pages. The water grew up her thighs and her focus never wavered. She was becoming part of the page. The magic of the words.

I knew I would paint her, this stranger on the beach, because she was a stranger no more. I knew her heart, also made of paper. It had been folded and wrinkled and healed, but the memories remained. And she, we, had become, only more interesting.

There were no borders between the sea, her body, the words, her heart. No borders between her and I.

I clutched the folds of my own heart, smiled, and kept walking.

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Three minutes in the deep end.

My mother didn’t know how to swim. But she knew how to drive. And from the age of six, even on the harshest winter Saturday morning, she dropped me off at the Central Junior High School pool for swimming lessons. Under the domed roof, we learned to crawl – the crawl stroke. We learned to breathe, and to hold that breath. To trust our bodies. We learned the side stroke – pick an apple and put it in the basket. The breast stroke. The backstroke. We learned to dive. We learned to tread water. Three minutes in the deep end with our hands in the air. We swam 50 laps to pass the exam. We would be safe in any of the 10,000 lakes.

At noon my mother would pick me up. I exited the glass doors that surrounded the pool. Head steaming in the cold air, I wondered if my long blonde strands would freeze. They never did. My mother was never late to pick me up. Never. I never worried that she wouldn’t come.

Perhaps that is the sole reason I dared to go in the deep end. That I still do.

Teach me with honesty and I will know trust. Teach me with gentleness and I will know strength. Teach me with kindness and I will know love.



There was a Ben Franklin store in the middle of Broadway. It was right next to the theatre. They sold penny candy. Before the matinee, we would take our quarters and buy full sacks of candyand take them to watch the feature movie.
As a kid, I didn’t think there could be anything better. But my grandma did. She loved the Ben Franklin too, but more than the candy. In the middle of summer, the local merchants held Crazy Days. Often spelled Crazee Daze, or with a backwards“c” – maybe a crooked “d” – anything to promote just how crazy these deals were going to be. They lined the sidewalks with all kinds of product. It looked like a carnival when you were a kid,or a grandma who was waiting for the next big deal! Most likely it was just the unsold merchandise they wanted to get rid of before the next season, but that reality had not yet set in – for either of us. I’m not sure for my grandma, if it ever did.

At Ben Franklin they had “grab bags.” Brown paper sacks filled with mystery merchandise. Each had a small price written in marker on the front, and you had to buy it sight unseen. Now, some told of the great surpises that were found, for only a nickel, only fifty cents – why it just can’t be – how lucky! My grandma told of these stories too, but had never actually experienced such a thrill. “But maybe this time…” she wouldalways say. I walked the crazy sidewalks with her and we finished at Ben Franklin. She gave me a quarter to pick out any sack I liked. She picked out many.

You have to know a little bit about my grandma. She loved to play games of any kind. Cards. Dice. She wasn’t the kind of grandma to let you win. No, she enjoyed beating you. Not in a mean way, but like in a kid-like way… like your older sister of brother would. She loved to play. She wouldn’t teach you the rules, she said you’d pick it up as we played – meaning she would beat you and beat you until you finally caughton. There was a dice game. You had to roll the numbers in a certain sequence, and if you didn’t, you lost your turn. And the pure joy she got when you lost your turn was beautiful. She would swipe in with her swollen farm hands and scoop up those dice before you knew what happened. “Ooooooo, she lost it!” she would say, almost giggling. She loved to play so much that it was infectious. You never felt hurt or sorry, just watching her play, made you want to play. So we rolled the dice. And we kept rolling.

We brought our Ben Franklin sacks to her car and opened them one at a time. With such anticipation I removed the top staple. Unwrinkled the sack. I pulled out a plastic face that was knitted into a cover for a kleenex box. It was the ugliest thing I had ever seen. “Ooooooo,” my grandma said, “She lost it!” And oh, how we laughed. My grandma knew how to laugh. She knew how to play. We would go back the next year, and roll again.

My mother loved Frank Sinatra. We listened to the same records over and over on our giant stereo. It looked like a piece of furniture. About the size of a small sofa. Speakers on each end.On long Sunday afternoons, we would each lie on opposite sides of the stereo, our heads in front of a speaker, and Frank would sing. Sunday afternoons were long. My father was gone. My mother was sad. The sun went down early on winter days. In the dark. No money. No company. We lied beside Frank and he told us, with such certainty, we had to believe, “Maybe this time,” he sang, “I’ll get lucky… all of the odds are in my favor, something’s bound to begin… maybe this time, maybe this time, I’m gonna win…”

Was it the American spirit? The Hvezda spirit? The spirit of women? Something made us believe. Something made us keep rolling. Keep trying. Something made us believe beyond the season. Maybe this time it’s going to last. Maybe this time we might win. We believed. We all kept rolling.

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I was baking cookies yesterday and my husband told me of the line in the french poem, “Rien n’est plus beau que les mains d’une femme dans la farine” (Nothing is more beautiful than the hands of a woman in the flour).

I think this is where we see the love, in the efforts made. Nothing is more precious than the gift that comes from the heart-led hand. The painting. The handwritten note. The bread coming out of the oven. The melody strummed on the guitar. We don’t all have the same talents, but we can all offer a bit of our time, a bit of ourselves.

And it’s not just about the givers. We also have to be able to receive. When we allow people to offer their gifts, we are in fact giving them a gift too.

Today, let’s get messy, messy in the exchange of kindess. These gifts covered in love’s white flour — “Rien n’est plus beau.”

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Play the way you feel.

Today’s subject was obvious. Too obvious. Blowing at furious speeds, seemingly in every direction on my morning walk. The wind. I have written about the wind for years. I know this subject. My first poem framed was this:

It was so windy that day,

I couldn’t stand up straight.

It blew my hair this way and that way,

and sucked the tears right out of my eyes.

It was so windy that day,

I tried to tell you I loved you,

but you couldn’t hear me.

Deaf to my cries, your ears heard a different calling.

It was so windy that day.

On hands and knees I crawled to your side.

I reached up to you, begged you to hang on.

I closed my eyes with visions of our hands joined,

like they were before the storm.

The wind shook my insides, leaving me hollow.

I opened my eyes and you were gone.

It was so windy that day.

What used to blow through me, now gives me wings.

It hangs in my mother’s apartment. I know this wind that beats against my face today. But the podcast I was listening to, told me to do just that — listen.

NPR was reviewing the life of pianist, keyboardist and composer Chick Corea who died last week at the age of 79. To be honest, I recognized the name only because my nephew posted about this loss to the jazz community, to the music world, to his world. My nephew lives in this sound. He listens, he loves, he creates. This is the wind that blows through him, every day.

I guess the only way to really know people is to listen. I want to know him. I want to know my family. I want them to know me. So I listen. The podcast continued and I walked. Corea passes through Latin bands and I walk. Straight-ahead jazz bands, and I walk. Miles Davis joins him, and I keep walking. He plays through Mozart and Monk and I keep walking. I walked much longer than I had planned, because I was now being carried by the music. That is how, I imagine, my nephew Vincent feels, to be carried by the music.

I am not a musician. Oh, I played the clarinet in the high school band and now it serves as eclectic decor in our library, but I don’t live in the music – I live in the paint, the word. But I am not trapped in this world. I am free, and I am lucky to visit all the worlds around me. What a pleasure to travel in another world. Learn a bit of the language. The reviewer said that diversity was Corea’s greatest strength. Maybe that is true for us all.

Play the way you feel, and then listen.


Mother helped me believe not all things are bad, many things are good.

How do you know to believe if no one has ever believed in you? 
After the publication of my second book, “Believe,” I was asked to read it to a group of inner city kids in Minneapolis.  I’m not sure I like the term inner city.  In the US, the term inner city has been used as a euphamism for lower income residential districts. I wasn’t labeled this as a kid, probably because I was white, but certainly, in terms of income, I was no different.  Maybe the only difference between us was I had someone who believed in me. My mother.

When I finished reading the book to them, which ends, “I believe in you,” most of the kids were quiet, almost stunned.  I looked around, hoping for some reaction.  I looked directly at the largest boy in the group.  I knew if I could get a response from him, the others might follow.  I smiled in his direction. I kept smiling.  He made eye contact, so I asked how he felt about the book, did he have any thoughts?  He said, with no pity, no hesitation, “No one has ever told me they believed in me before.”  The others nodded.  

My heart wanted to cry, but I kept smiling. I was honored to be the first, I said, but I would not be the last. Once you hear it, it cannot be denied. Never unheard.  Now you must live it. 

We painted a mural for their school with the words below. They grabbed brushes confidently, loudly, boldly, and painted themselves a future.

We are born with our eyes and our hearts wide open. Innocence and youth make it so easy to believe…so easy to fall asleep in someone’s arms, to trust in smiles, to see animals float across the sky…to believe your summer will never end.This gift that we’re given – to not just hope – but truly believe in people and feeling and all these things under the sun…this ability to act like it all matters…where does that gift go? Why does time and experience have to wear it away, instead of building on it? At what point do we lose the courage to believe and then just start hoping? And why do some give up completely?Now, I am not the most courageous of sorts…but I’m not willing to give up this most precious gift, for me or for you. I know it won’t be easy, and I know it shouldn’t be. And I’m going to fight for it, every day. Because inside this beautiful struggle to believe, we are given the power to comfort, to heal, to inspire and to love.As I get older, I know my summers may not last forever, but I’m not going to stop believing in the chances that rise with each morning sun. And I know it matters…it always does…the things we do, the things we say, the lives we lead, and the hearts we touch.I want to see giraffes float by, instead of gray clouds. I want to feel the sun, deep inside of me, even when it isn’t shining. I have to believe in myself enough to have the courage to say “I love you,” and mean it…and have the strength to hear “I love you” and really feel it.I believe all this can happen for me, and I believe it can happen for you.

We hung this in their school. I pray it reached their inner-most souls.  

Hang this on your heart today, “I believe in you.”


The poet.

The poet.A cow hung from the tree outside my grandparents’ window. It swayed without skin. Raw. I knew how this must feel. To be without skin. My mother told her parents that my father had left.

They say when you lose one of your senses, the others become stronger. It was not one of the five, but I had lost my sense of comfort, and all the others were working in overdrive. I could hear the flies buzzing, the tears falling. The gray clouds were palpable. The slightly forever over-cooked pans on my grandma’s stove wafted in the thick air. I stared at the cow. I stared at my grandfather. Back and forth, as if to ask if this was my mother’s fate. My grandfather said very little, ever. So when he did, you listened. “No,” he said, “this will not break your mother.” He found the words. The ones I needed.

Today we are living without hugs. Without touching. Displays of comfort hover somewhere in between six feet of social distancing. We need to find the words to take their place. We need to find the words that hold and gather. The words that offer the “there, there.” The words that fall into each other’s arms with laughter. The words that smile and hold and forgive and offer hope. We have the words. Let’s use them.

Adrienne Rich writes, “It is always what is under pressure in us, especially under pressure of concealment–that explodes in poetry.”

Let yourself explode today – offer the words of kindness and strength. You are the poet. Find the words.

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I’m enjoying this practice of sharing a story each morning. It has become part of my routine. I had thought of doing it for a long time, but I was a little afraid of the process. How would I come up with a new idea each day? There are challenges, for sure (it’s not coal mining hard, but it does take some effort.) The key for me has been this, the art of noticing. It sounds simple enough, and it actually is, but you do have to practice it. And once in the practice, you will (forgive me) “notice” how easy it is to notice things.

But it can’t stop there – noticing is the key to gratitude.

This morning I was awakened by the sweetest sound – birds singing. And oh, how they say. So joyful. I woke up smiling. Thank you birds. Thank you morning. Thank you “not waking up to an alarm clock.”

Gratitude alone, though, can become complacent without action. So I painted the birds that sang to me this morning. I put the bird paintings on my computer so I can share them with you. And with a piece of luck, this yellow will make you smile. This smile will brighten your face, which will brighten the face of the person next to you. And we start a chain. A chain of gratitude.

Some of you will share the story that this brought to your mind. This yellow, this bird, this awakening. And your story will make me think, hey, did you notice the… and we’re off again! Thank you for that. Thank you for this chain.

We are only as strong as our connections.

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