Jodi Hills

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

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The thing is, we think we know…

I’m working on opening up an instagram shop to sell my paintings.  I’m submitting each piece, one by one.  Each one gets passed through some filter to check for, I don’t really know, I guess nudity, something offensive, (whatever they deem that to be.) I never really even considered the criteria, because certainly I don’t create anything that I would imagine to be on some imaginary offensive fence. But one came back – denied. Denied?  How could that even be possible.  It was for the piece that I think may be one of my most joyful, “What was it all for, if we didn’t have a little fun.”  This painting, as shown, is of people swimming.  Not nude. Not really even interacting, just enjoying the elegant movement of water, of life.  Instagram gives you an option of “taking another look” – so of course I requested it.  Almost immediately it was accepted.  I still can’t imagine what the first computer eyes thought they saw, but with a second look, that all changed.  

It’s so easy to imagine we are so much better than artificial intelligence.  But are we?

I’ve seen the combative posts on all of social media through the years. And worse, in real life. I’ve seen the leaps to judgement. The accusations.  Wow.  It’s really staggering. Maybe we, too, need the “second look” button.  Taking a second look – nothing artificial about that – I’m not sure anything could be more human.  

We see what’s inside of us. I can paint something, or write something, and through the years the meaning will change for me, and often for the viewers. It will touch the heart in a different way, in a way that is needed at the moment.  And therein lies the beauty. We can see the beauty in not only what made us jump for joy, but what brought us to our knees.  It is everywhere. The beauty. And it so deserves a second, even more than a third, look.

I wrote my first book, “I am amazed,” just after the tragedy of 9/11.  It is just as relevant today, but for completely different reasons.  Take a second look today at what the world presents to you. It might just be amazing.  

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Barely more than air.

There is a group of migratory birds that, each year, flies over 7000 miles over water, without stopping, without eating, without sleeping.  They are able to shut down a piece of their brain.  Their heart rate changes.  Their digestive system adapts. These beautiful living beings, weighing barely more than air, have been given every tool necessary to make the journey.  Each year, at the same time, in the same place, without worry, without discussion, they take the flight. They don’t gather and wonder, “Well, I don’t know, it’s a long ways… I’m not sure… It’s super hard…We could get hungry… Probably tired… Maybe we should wait…”  No, these are the voices in my head, probably yours.

When I was five years old, I began to write and I began to draw. My mother said, no matter what I was feeling, I would go into my room and create the feelings on paper. Feel them. Work through them. Resolve them.  These words and colors would carry me through unimaginable things.  They still do.  

Sometimes I forget. Clogged down with little things like, oh, my computer isn’t working correctly, how can I possibly go on… I’m embarrassed to say that I can be grounded by the smallest things, when I know, I have been given everything I possibly need to make each day’s journey.  

I, we, barely more than air, hold the most magical gifts.  Here comes the sun, my friends.  We can do this. The sky is open with possibility.  I’ll see you up there.  


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The forest door.

I saw a door in the forest…a forest I had passed through so many times before. Looking only with my eyes, it had always seemed so typical – whatever that means. Maybe typical is what everyone tells you is supposed to be there. Well, my everyone had never mentioned a door before, so I looked around, as if not to mention it myself.

Left, no one.
Right, no one.
Behind, nope.

It’s like you think you’re safe or something, if you can just walk away without notice. But what you don’t realize is, you’re wrong…you’re not safe really, just alone.

Memories that force hesitation kept me still. If I went forward, what would happen? I had never travelled beyond the shortcut of disbelievers.

I was afraid. Afraid to stay…afraid to leave. Afraid to see beyond the trees. Afraid the door would disappear the moment someone told me it wasn’t there.

A door in the forest. A door in the forest. Repetition didn’t even make it sound right.

I opened and shut my eyes. It was still there.

I pinched my arm. Still there.

“Would you like to enter a world like no other?”

Now it talked? A talking door in the forest?

No. NO! No, I didn’t want to go. No, I didn’t want to stay. No, this wasn’t happening. And no, doors don’t belong in the forest. There was no door in the forest. Just me. Walking through like I always did. Going nowhere. But always getting there. No. No, I didn’t want to go.

My negations weren’t out loud, but the door responded anyway. “Would it be easier for you if I were a tree?”

A tree. Now a tree sort of made sense. A tree, strong and familiar. A tree could lift you to this other world.

I shook my head yes.

Out of the door grew branches and leaves. Branches and leaves that reached higher than any other bark. A tree that lifted me with such strength and gentleness, beyond the greens and browns of familiarity into blues and yellows and whites…opening my breath to the clean smell of hope.

With the branches blowing in the breeze, the tree asked me if I wanted to go farther…go farther and faster and higher and farther and faster and higher.

“Trees can’t fly.” I said.

“Would it be easier for you if I were a bird?”

A bird. A bird could maybe do that. “Of course,” I said.

Leaves became feathers. Branches stretched into wings. We flew through the clouds and passed the sun. So peacefully unfamiliar, I strangely knew that this was what heaven must be like. And stranger still, it was the first time I even let myself believe the possibility.

“Would you like to fly through it?”

“Heaven?” I asked.

“Birds can’t go to heaven,” I said.

“Would it be easier for you if I were an angel?”

I smiled as a flow of white surrounded me and we sailed further… beyond the sky, straight into love. I knew it was love, because it had no beginning and no end and I had no desire to look for either.

I don’t know how long I was there. There seemed no need for time.

I hadn’t even noticed how sure and steady my heart was beating, until the angel told me I had to go back.

“But I can’t go back to the ground. I can no longer walk in a forest without doors.”

“Would it be easier for you if I walked with you?”

“Angels can’t live in the forest,” I said, now surrounded by trees.

“Would it be easier for you if I lived in your heart?”

Knowing it would, the angel crawled inside of me and blanketed my heart. It beat sure again, without my urging.

The greens became greener and the browns more brown. I walked on familiar ground, that I had never really felt before.

Then I saw you, lost in a spot, no doubt you had frequented…looking forward and back, side to side.

“It’s a door,” I said.

“No,” were the tears you cried.

“Would it be easier for you if I went with you?” I asked.

Together we walked through the door in the forest.

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Spring ahead.

This morning our French clocks leapt one hour closer to spring. Combined with jet lag, it felt more like a shove than a spring. I put one foot in front of the other and walked in its sunlit path. The yellows were brightened against the green and I breathed in the change. 
Truth be told, all my good changes have probably come with a shove.
My child bedroom was painted in the yellow that now lights my morning path. I am transported to that country, that house, that bed, and I am dreaming. Nightmaring actually. In this dream, I am drawn to the unfinished bedroom down the hall. I know it will be bad when I get there, but I keep walking. I feel someone is dead underneath the bed. I don’t want to look, but I know I have to. I bend down below the hanging quilt. Lift the edges, and there I am, dead under this bed. 
I would dream this dream repeatedly until we lost the house and moved (shoved) to an apartment in town.  
We say goodbye to little parts of ourselves every day. We give up that hour of our lives and walked toward the yellow.  This dream no longer frightens me. I can recall it to mind, and see now, only the light.
I have been pushed out of home, out of comfort, out of school, out of job, and directly into myself.  And what a glorious and bright place to land. 
I felt it this morning – pressing against my ribs. The pressure was not taking my breath, but threatening to, and I knew if I let it, if I gave in to it, it would take over . . . just slightly at first, like a bully at school that teases you with a tap. I could feel the quiver in my lip, sending messages to my eyes, “You’re full! You’re full! Let it out.” And as certain as my lips were, the lump in my throat, the pressure in my chest, all agreed, and I began to cry. I knew each year we would say goodbye to winter. We would fluff up our wings and prepare ourselves for the song . . . the sweet song of spring. But it felt good to weep for it. Weep for the change. The transition. Weep for knowing we had lost another year, and weep out of pure joy for the possibility that these new skies held. Each year, I would tell you, “But, I’m not sad . . . it’s just so much inside, this love . . . ” 

“So it’s good then? You want to do it again? Feel it again?”

Thinking of what it would be like not to have this, what some might call pain, “Oh, yes,” I said. “I thank God that winter can move me as much as spring. I thank God that I can miss the seasons as they change and celebrate the new ones as they come. I thank God that I can love this much.” 

The tears smile in my eyes now, and I leap toward the day.

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On fawn legs.

I have a black and white photograph of a baby girl, maybe two at most, crawling on the ground, outside, with a fawn. A little baby deer and a baby girl. Perhaps the most precious thing you could ever see. Such innocence in both. Neither afraid. Neither shy. Captured by someone who clearly loved this little girl. Who was right there. Ready to protect, sure. But just there, in the moment, to witness the beauty of this little girl, this baby deer. Captured on film by someone who knew how special this moment was, how lucky they were to witness this life. This was my mother. This precious baby was my mother, when she was one of two. When she noticed and protected and so very, very special. Within a life blink, she would become one of nine. Nine children. There would be dishes, and dirty clothes, and dirty, well, everything. And precious mo- ments would be so hard to notice, let alone capture. But here she was, the only little Hvezda girl, perhaps the only girl, to have crawled with this fawn. And she was special. I see her now, and know that photographer loved her with a full heart. And oh, to be a witness to that. To be standing in that field of grass, watching a baby girl and a baby deer, so carefree… I smell the sown fields, and the light air, and the hope of what that America was. The promise held in one click.

My mother dropped me off at college.  We were each one of two. Both on the most fragile of legs, we began our future. Innocent, hopeful.  My first roommate was Kimmie.  Not Kim, or Kimberly, but Kimmie.  Kimmie’s American dream was to one day have a job where she could put a jar big jar of candy on her desk.  Also on our floor was a big breasted girl in her late twenties, starting her life over again. She lived with an eighteen year old that worked at Second Hand Rose.  There was Kostas, from Greece, in love with the goth girl from someplace dark. The shiny couple, Peggy and Dean, who someday wanted to raise their own baseball team. The African American from Georgia. The angry couple who only wanted to be Peggy and Dean.  The boys who watched Gunsmoke. The girls from South Dakota who only wanted to smoke.  All on our fawn legs.

My first winter there, I got sick. I woke up feeling like I had the flu. But worse. I went to class, thinking maybe if I just forgot about it. It got worse. I went to the campus doctor. He took my temperature. Gave me birth control. And sent me on my way. The nurse, slightly more concerned came to my dorm room about an hour later. She brought me back. Did the tests. “Where do you live?” the doctor asked me. “Alexandria.” “I think you can make it,” he said. He thought I could make it??? Was I going to die? I had appendicitis. I called my mom. She came to get me. They had the surgeon waiting at the hospital. I did make it. It was a Thursday. I came back to school on Monday. No one believed, until I showed my scar, what I had done over the weekend.

And that was college, really. People telling you, without bold certainty, “I think you can make it.” And then, from this small campus, we were sent out into the world. No longer one of two, nor one of nine, but one of millions, with just a slight memory, of knowing, maybe, just maybe, in this click of four years that went by, maybe we were special.

My mother found her legs. Bold and strong.  She helped me find mine.  How lucky we are to witness each other’s lives. I give thanks for that. Every day.  And so it begins…

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Four hours in Paris.

Four hours in Paris.
It sounds romantic for sure.  Probably a poem in there somewhere. And I want to write that poem now, as we sit at the Charles de Gaulle.  We’re so close to home.  Home. I had searched for it for so long, and there it was within me. Visiting my mom in Alexandria, I was home.  Seeing friends in Minneapolis, I was home.  Now, with the one I love, we are heading home.  I want to write that poem that gives thanks for the comfort of three. Write that poem that breathes the gathered in, the welcomed, the joyful, the weary. Write that poem that stands in harbors, lights up cities, covers in warmth.  But between the jet and the lag, my brain is as foggy as March in Paris. How could I write that poem?

In the movie, Ol’ Gringo, Gregory Peck tells Jane Fonda, he, in fact, could write such a powerful poem.  

Peck:  Oh, when I was little more than a child, I dreamt I would do things that would change the world, and one night when I was about sixteen, I promised a girl that I would do something grand, something really grand, that would make it impossible for her not to love me, and that afterwards, I would come back to her.

“What is it, exactly, that you would do?” she asked.

I would write the most beautiful poem that anybody had ever written, a poem that would make people cry with happiness, love with desperation, make them feel they understand the meaning of their existence on this earth.

“Oh, no, you cannot write that poem”, she said, “nobody can”.

I said “Wait.”

“For how long?” she answered.

Since I was little more than a child and every hour seemed filled with limitless possibilities, I…I told her “just for a short while.”

I wrote for fifty years. I wrote every day of my life, without exception. I wrote and wrote. I wrote during long nights of insomnia. I wrote in foreign countries, in newsrooms, full of enemies. I wrote while my youth drifted by, while love betrayed me.

Many years ago, I forgot her face.

The exact color of her eyes.

The precise line of her mouth.

But today, with my back against that wall, I saw you.

And I knew that you were she.

And that the only place on earth I could have written that poem would have been in your arms.

Perhaps in the arms of Paris, I will write that poem.  But today, it is enough to simply sigh, and know that I am home.  

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In George Orwell’s short story, “Shooting an Elephant,” the narrator, possibly Orwell himself, is a police officer sent to kill an elephant that is perhaps on a rampage. When he finds the elephant, he doesn’t want to shoot it, but he is extremely pressured by the local people, and he finally shoots it, simply to “avoid looking the fool.” 

“At that distance, peacefully eating, the elephant looked no more dangerous than a cow. I thought then and I think now that his attack of “must” was already passing off; in which case he would merely wander harmlessly about until the mahout came back and caught him. Moreover, I did not in the least want to shoot him. I decided that I would watch him for a little while to make sure that he did not turn savage again, and then go home.
But at that moment I glanced round at the crowd that had followed me. It was an immense crowd, two thousand at the least and growing every minute. It blocked the road for a long distance on either side. I looked at the sea of yellow faces above the garish clothes-faces all happy and excited over this bit of fun, all certain that the elephant was going to be shot. They were watching me as they would watch a conjurer about to perform a trick. They did not like me, but with the magical rifle in my hands I was momentarily worth watching. And suddenly I realized that I should have to shoot the elephant after all. The people expected it of me and I had got to do it; I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly. And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man’s dominion in the East. Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd — seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the “natives,” and so in every crisis he has got to do what the “natives” expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it. I had got to shoot the elephant. I had committed myself to doing it when I sent for the rifle. A sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things. To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing — no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.” 

For a brief time in my young years, it wasn’t cool to have clean tennis shoes. I remember the kids with money and houses and fathers who mowed the lawn on Saturdays and drove in clean cars, they would scuff up their shoes to be “cool.”  

My single mother worked for a long time to get me my first pair of tennis shoes that actually had a logo on them. I put them on and just stared. I didn’t want to get a mark in them.   They were beautiful and it was like I was suddenly a part of something…. Something that the others had. I remember sitting on my grandma’s steps with my cousins from Minneapolis, who knew what it took to be cool.   These cousins, who had a swimming pool and neighbors with the same. Who had an address they were proud of. They looked at my shoes and laughing said, “Get new shoes? They’re awfully white aren’t they?“   I knew what they meant.  I was not in the club. I wasn’t one of them. I wasn’t cool. Just scuff them up.  Do it. You don’t want to look like an idiot. My heart beat quickly, I wanted to belong. But I knew how many phone calls my mom had to answer at Alexandria Public schools just to pay for those shoes. I knew how many words she typed and how many angry parents she put up with just to afford them. I knew. And they continued to laugh at me. I knew and they started to walk away.  I rubbed them against the cement. 

My mom saw the scratches but didn’t say anything. I felt ashamed. I loved those shoes and I should have been strong enough to keep them pristine.  I should have been strong enough to wear them proudly… White… Glowing, yes we are poor, yes, my shoes are white, and yes, my mother gave them to me, and yes, that makes me cool!   I thanked my mom again for the shoes.  I slept in them that night. 

Having a mother that loves you, nothing makes you stronger, and what could be cooler than that?  I start each day with a full heart, and take a walk in clean shoes.

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Just sing.

Am I good at it?  If you mean do I love it, do I do it often?…then, yes!  If it is judged by some other standard, then, I guess, I don’t know.  But why would it be judged?  I’m singing.  It’s like if you asked me, are you good at breathing?  I sing.  I sing, I sing, and I sing. I think, I hope, I want to sing because I’m grateful. I’m so grateful that I get to sing. That I get to sing alone, and I get to sing along. That I get to hear it.  That I get to feel the joy in my heart, my throat, and then in the trees. Joy is nothing to be judged, just enjoyed. I think if I questioned it, I would suck the life right out of it. I sing. I live. I love.
I hope I can be grateful for all the amazing experiences. I hope you can too. Because it’s all pretty amazing. Look around. Just look. Just listen. This is not a bad day. This is life. This is joy. Just sing. 

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The patience of croissant.

The patience of croissants.

I eased into baking.  Perhaps I had been waiting for permission, or an invitation into the kitchen, and both finally came when I moved to France.  

I started slowly, a few cookies.  And I always searched for the kind of recipe that didn’t have to be chilled.  I couldn’t possibly wait an hour. I’m not sure what I was in a hurry for, but I was – once started, it had to be done!  I slowly branched out into those that needed to be chilled.  I must admit, at first I didn’t chill the dough for the minimum of one hour, but tried putting the dough in the freezer for 30 minutes.  Oh, patience.  Or was it control?  Either way, I slowly loosened the reins and as the dough chilled, so too did I.  

I started making bread.  This took more patience, half a day.  Then brioche, a full day.  Then croissant, two days.  Two days!  I wasn’t in a hurry. I wasn’t in control. And I was fine.  The dough was in control. It knew what needed to be done and I went along with it.  Rolled with it. Let it chill in between. And rolled with it again.  The first time our home had the scent of a boulangerie, I knew it was worth it! This was the reward. A fresh buttery croissant, that came from hands, both in the work, and the letting go. 
I often have to tell myself to breathe. To do the work, and then let go.  The work has always come more easily to me, but I’m learning each day how to trust the process, trust the time given, trust the “dough.” With that, the process has too become the reward, not the punishment. And the result, each day becomes, well, just a little more delicious!  

Here comes the sun!  Bon appétit!

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The good seeds.

Words are like seeds. They all grow. You tell someone something good, and they think about it. They smile. And those seeds are watered. But you must know, the same thing happens when you say something bad. And I’m not sure why, but those seeds, man, do they have the power to grow fast.

You can get yourself so entangled in their stems and leaves and branches, and soon, there you are, just stuck in them. I don’t want you to be be stuck there. I know what they said is hurtful. And it makes me sad…well, truthfully, it makes me angry. And I think maybe you need a little truth now. You need to know that you are really something.

And I’m not going to wasted my time here saying, “Oh, they are just ignorant, or living in fear…” Whatever. What I know for sure is, they are wrong. They are simply wrong.

I know you. I see you. I see your heart. You are beautiful, inside and out. Done. That is the truth. I will never tire of telling you the truth. And I will cut those hurtful words down. I will pull out every weed. You are free. They say the truth will do that, and I guess they are right. You are beautiful. You are bound by nothing. The wonderful thing about good words – the good seeds – you can just let them grow. And on the days that you need a little reminder, there they are – in full bloom. Just like you.