Jodi Hills

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

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Where it came from — I don’t know. It was just there,
the empty frame in my room. Just this one. Golden. Waiting.
Hopeful. In my room. I never questioned it, in the way that
one doesn’t question a pure gift. It was there, and I knew
I had to fill it.

I sat alone in my tiny room. Paper, crayons, and pencils in
hand, I began to draw my world, Create myself
a life. I had to. I had to be something. I was not
going to disappear. For that was the true fear — not
the angry words that so often filled the house.

“You’re nothing,” he said. How could he think so? I was
only a child. I colored brightly. I could have believed him.
And that could have been my ending. It would have been
easy. But there was this frame. And my hands.
I chose not to end, but to begin!

The paper came to life. The colors jumped from the
paper. No matter how many times he told me I was nothing, the
paper said something different. I had been given a gift.
The gift of an empty frame. The gift to make a choice.
With paper and colors,
I painted him wrong.

I didn’t have the words for
it then, at five; but somehow
I knew, with all the certainty
of Cézanne, that

When Cézanne said, “With an apple, I will astonish Paris,”
some may have found it bold
— and maybe it was —
but sometimes
we have to be.

You have to be bold to take the
ordinary and make it extraordinary. To take this life
and make it astonishing.
And that’s what Cézanne did when he painted an apple.
With care and thought and heart, he brought the painting
to life.
It didn’t shout. It didn’t shock. It didn’t need to.
Because it breathed. It was alive!
Now that’s astonishing.

He knew that with this simple object — this simply
beautiful apple — he could change the way you saw things.
He could take something ordinary and make it

He could hold your heart in the palm of his hands.

Take your breath away with something you yourself had held, had touched.

It was something so simple, so beautiful, so attainable, that it
made you want to reach for it. Believe in it. Hold out your own
hands and know that in this life there is real beauty —
right there in front of you —
for you.

He reached out his hand with a brush
and painted an apple
and told you that it was all possible.
It is possible.
And breathless, with nothing but hope and desire,
you believe it.

A gift that makes
believing possible—
possible —
that’s bold,
that’s beyond beauty,
that’s astonishing!
I didn’t know that Paris existed, but I, too, was going to be
bold enough to change the way the world saw things, the way
he saw things, the way I was seen.

I was going to be bold enough. Brave enough.
I was going to be enough, just me, just my tear-stained,
color-filled hands, I was going to be enough to fill that empty frame.
And that had to be something!

I had never heard of Cézanne.
I had not even read a book on art.
But that magic was in the air, the universe.
That magic remains in the air.
For all of us.

This power to astonish lives in us, and all around us. This power
to astonish, to make us change the way we are seen, to change
the way the world is seen — it’s right here. It sits on our tables
and in our hearts.
A gift just waiting to be opened.
A frame just waiting to be filled.

But it needs you.
There’s a gift that’s just for you, but you have to claim it.
You have to dare to say, That’s mine.

You have to dare to give of yourself, as
freely as the gift was given. As freely as this gift said yes to you,
you have to do the same. You have to say, yes, I see!
You have to be bold enough to embrace it, even when others will
tell you it isn’t there. That YOU aren’t there. You have to be bold
enough to say, I have been given a gift. I have been given a life
that is worthy of being seen. I am here. And that is something!
I am really something.

And it won’t be easy. They, he, and she will tell you no.
In their own fear, they will try to keep you afraid. Lost.
Invisible. And they will give you every reason not to
believe. Not to be yourself. Not to try.
But it is in you. Your apple.

That thing that coddles your soul,
colors your life,
lifts your heart, challenges your mind,
makes you human,
makes you – you!
That’s your apple.

Your apple. The thing that you are willing to do
again and again. The thing you wake up early for.
Stay up all night for.

The thing that makes the red bleed through your every
muscle and makes you feel more alive than
you ever have.

The apple that speaks louder than
any negative voice around you.
The apple that says yes. The apple that keeps you alive,
keeps you trying, shows you the beauty of the struggle
and the victory.

Just by filling your frame,
living your true life,
using your true gift,
you will be astonishing.

The truly astonishing thing is that there is a world
of people doing the same. This is who you surround yourself with
— people using their gifts every day to make this world beautiful.
To make this world bigger than Paris.
Bigger than New York. Bigger and more beautiful than any
of us have ever seen.
A world of people opening doors and highways and hearts, just
by living. Just by being bold enough to be themselves and to share
their amazing gifts, they, too, give us reasons
every day, to hope, to believe, to try.

Every time someone dances, that
dance stomps on the words, “No, you can’t.”
Every time someone tells their story, that story
erases the words, “You’re not special.”
Every time someone paints,
that painting covers the words,
“You’re nothing.”
Someone is doing that for you.
You can do it too!

Maybe you were born to paint. To dance. To write. To create.
It’s your thing — it’s your apple — you know what it is.
Maybe you were put here to solve problems.
To discover. Nurture. Build. Invent.
You know it in your heart.

I paint. I write. Every day.
Look around.
Right now someone is daring to get on that stage.
Someone is going to class. Crossing lines and putting out fires.
Someone is planting. Molding. Reforming. Changing laws.
Someone is breaking stereotypes and knocking down barriers.
Right now someone is raising children.

Right now, you are thinking, maybe I can . . .
Right now, you are willing to try.
Right now, the world is welcoming your apple.
Your beautiful, glorious,
astonishing apple.

Right now, I tell you that I made it out of my tiny bedroom. I made
it to New York. I made it to Paris. I have walked the steps of Cézanne
in Provence. But more importantly, I have walked the steps of my
own heart.
I have painted myself to life.
I have written my own story.
With my apple, I have filled my frame. With my apple,
I have astonished myself.
Right now, I’m looking at you. The Eiffel Tower fades.
Reds and golds and greens shine in your eyes so brightly,
and the world is ready to be astonished by you.
Isn’t that something?!!!

Do your thing — whatever that may be —
that thing that coddles your soul —
lifts your heart — challenges your mind —
makes you human —
makes you — you!
Do that — do that every day.
That’s your apple.

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When my father left and sold our green house on VanDyke road, I thought I would die. I didn’t. We brought almost nothing to our basement apartment, my mom and I, and I thought I would die. I didn’t. Someone else would dream inside my yellow bedroom walls, and I would die. I didn’t. Someone else would ride their bike into the garage and run through the screen door and eat chocolate chips from the corner cupboard and I would die. I didn’t. Someone else would lie in front of the television set (it was a set then) and eat dry roasted peanuts from the jar, and I would die. I didn’t. Someone else would wait for the school bus with wet-haired lifelong friends, and I would die. I didn’t.

We put nothing in empty in boxes and moved to Jefferson Street. My mother held my hand and sometimes I held hers, and we had everything. We learned to laugh again, and we lived. We went to the mall and tried on clothes we couldn’t afford, and bought nothing, and we lived! We parked an old blue station wagon in a shared garage and squeezed my bike on the side. The wind still raced through my hair on that bike and I was alive. Books were read and poems were written. And I was alive. Friends didn’t care where I lived, but that I lived. We had love and trust and hope and joy! Heirlooms.

Today I write the stories and give them away.  Someone else will unpack what can be survived, and they will live! That, my friends, is something, everything, to hold on to. 


The stairs

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”  Ernest Hemingway

I was getting ready for a large gallery show in Minneapolis.  I completed all the paintings. My apartment was filled. Canvases leaned against every wall, heavy object, flat surface. The show was to be in a few days and I needed to finish the framing.  My largest piece, and the centerpiece of the show, was “The stairs.” 4′ x 5′, it stood proudly in the middle of my workspace. I was finishing the last frame. It was late in the evening. I was tired. That feeling of “I should have stopped 30 minutes ago,” had come, hovered, ignored by wanting to just finish. 

I dropped the frame I was working on. Everything was in slow motion. Nooooooooo. I lept to grab it. Too late. The corner of the wood fell directly into the middle of the stairs and ripped a 6″ line through it. I couldn’t breathe. I kept hitting the “undo” button in my brain, but it remained. 
I cried. Cursed. Called my mom. Cried again. Gathered myself. Breathed. Paced in front of it. Cried. And finally fell to sleep.  

The light of day, as it often does, shown a light on the action needed.  I had matching canvas. I patched the back of the canvas. Painted over the area. Seamlessly painted the area that was damaged. It was fine. No, it was more than fine. It was beautiful. More beautiful. Now it had a story. It had a life. It was actually living the verse that I wrote to go with it. I was living the verse, again, I wrote to go with it.

I climb.

I hope.

 I reach.

I pray.

I curse.

I kick.

I laugh.

I rest.

I climb.

I hope.

These stairs. My life.

“The stairs” was the first painting I sold at the show.

Stronger in the broken places.

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Never underestimate the power of a compliment.

Yesterday I received an email from a first-time reader of my book, “I am amazed.”  She took the time to tell me how much it meant to her, and how she was going to share it with her retreat groups.  It was a small collection of words that fit perfectly into that space of my heart, and filled it.  

I am one of the lucky ones.  My mother never left me unsure of how she felt about me, how I looked, or how I performed.  She was free with her compliments. 

Without this, I’m not certain I would have had the strength to enter a creative life — a life in which vulnerability is at the very base – a life where people judge you, critique you, correct you, and often just remain silent.  Oof – that silence can be brutal.  But it is also a life in which people will share — and share not just compliments, but even better, their stories. What a gift to receive. It’s what connects us.  

I will forever be grateful for every time I picked up the phone while wiping the paint off of the chipped floor, and the person on the other end was so excited that I answered.  Me. What a feeling!  It was like someone racing to greet you at the airport. It was John Cusak holding the boombox under your windowsill. It was the cheerleader’s cartwheel. The crowds roar!  This, my friends, is the power of a compliment.

Please never be afraid to give it to anyone.  Tell them “That’s a great color on you.” “You look positively svelte in those pants.”  “I was totally impressed by your work!”  “Your phone call meant so much to me.”  “Your cake is delicious!” “You are strong!” “You are brave!” “You are joy to be around!”  

It is an amazing world, filled with amazing people.  I know I am so lucky to “fumble along beside you.”  And I am “happily, joyfully, and gratefully amazed!”


The kitchen dance

When I was a little girl, there was table in my grandmother’s kitchen with legs that stuck out at an angle. I asked her, “Don’t they get in the way?” “Of what?” she asked. I was almost embarrassed for her, “Well, the dancing, of course.”

My mother taught me that our kitchen was made for dancing. We didn’t cook together. (or separately). We did dance though. She began, with the “slow, quick-quick…slow, quick-quick.” Then eased into “1,2,3 waltz,” and the “step, place, three, cha-cha.” We did it all. I suppose as regularly as people made meals. Each day she placed the tape inside the boombox. Frank Sinatra. Tony Bennett. Dean Martin. We were part of the “pack” and we danced.

Through the years I have taught myself how to cook. And now, when returning home, I cook the meals for my mom. She apologized recently, wishing she had taught me how to cook. Why???????? “You taught me everything I needed to know,” I said, and meant it.

Everything I needed to survive I learned in that kitchen. I was given the courage to follow, to trust, when I didn’t know the way. I was given the strength to lead with compassion and joy, when it was my turn. My heart was filled. My soul was nourished.

So if you ask me today, if I have any advice for you in the kitchen, I will always reply, “Dance more.”


Birthday at Byerly’s

Yesterday was my birthday.  Well, not my real birthday.  My pretend one.  And my pretend birthday can really pop up at any time, when needed.
I used to love shopping at Byerly’s.  The store in Minnetonka had a great bakery.  They made little “birthday cake” cupcakes that were just delightful. I was checking out and the clerk passed the cupcakes over the scanner, smiling.  “Is it your birthday?” she asked. I was about to say no, but she looked so happy, so I just went with it.  “Yes!” I said.  “Oh, Happy Birthday!” she said and sang.  The carry-out man clapped his hands.  The customer behind me cheered. It was all so joyful. Why not?!!!!  I left the store feeling delightful.

Remembering that feeling, not often, but just when I really, really needed it, I would pull out that same trick.  I’d put the birthday cake or cupcakes in the cart, and if the clerk didn’t notice, I might humbly say something like, “just treating myself for my birthday…”  I didn’t always get the exuberant response, but there were always smiles, and usually singing.  

Now, I’ve only done this a few times in my life, but yesterday, I was feeling the constraints of Covid, so I put on my birthday dress (a gift for my actual birthday this year – I mean the actual day I was born). Dominique, and the fishmonger were the only ones to see, but I felt special. I smiled inside.  We barbecued the fish in the sun, pretended we were on vacation, and it was my birthday. I sang. I twirled. (It’s a good twirling dress!)

Not that long ago, I was at the dentist and I was choking.  I asked him to stop.  He said, “You’re not choking, it just feels like you’re choking.”  What’s the difference, I thought.  And so, too, it is with joy!!!!  Yesterday, I started by pretending to be joyful, and soon forgot I was pretending. It just was joyful!  Joy is joy – there is no difference.

So Happy Birthday, my friends!  Sing, dance!  I’m celebrating with you!



It’s no secret that I love to read. I love everything about it. How each word can transport you to a different world. Lead you through a different time, a stranger life. How the collection of these letters can shake your every emotion, take you on a journey of heart and mind. Of course I’m speaking of a good book. But what makes it good? For me, I can’t see “it” coming. If every detail is explained ad nauseum, if I see the next page, the next step, it’s not worth reading. I want to live in the word, not just visit it.

The real question is, how do I, we, relate this to real life. I am as guilty as anyone, wanting to know exactly what is going to happen. What are they going to do to me at the dentist? What is the weather going to be like? How am I going to get through this problem? But will I be happy? Will this be successful? How am I going to get through? Tell me every letter, every reason, every why of my story. Oof! Every “why”? Why would I want this?

I want my story to be a good one. A really good one! And by my own definition, then I can’t see everything coming. I have to feel each word. Let it take me on a beautiful journey. Feel the emotion and surprise of each day’s page. Far easier said than done, I know, but I know there is beauty in the attempt. So today I’m not going to visit my life, I’m going to live it. I don’t know what’s going to happen on this Saturday —- good! Skies are blue and my wings are strong. I feel loved and hopeful. Sure I get scared sometimes. We all do. The blue is filled with all those who timidly, nervously, wantfully, stepped out onto a limb . . . held their breath, and took the jump, a leap of faith. And so I love and leap and believe, not needing to be certain all the time . . . feeling there is more comfort in love than in certainty. And would I step out onto the next limb if I knew? Maybe not. Who wants to be stuck in certainty? I want to soar in the beauty of the unknown. This is my story. My book. It is here I will grow. It is here I will feel. It is here I will truly live.

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Roll call

At Washington Elementary School, each morning the teacher would take attendance by calling out our names.  Now, I’m sure she could have just looked to see who was there or who wasn’t there. We sat in the same seats every day. Most days each desk was filled. It would have been fairly obvious. But I guess there was more to it than that. I guess it wasn’t for the teacher’s benefit, but for ours. When she called your name, you were to respond clearly, with purpose, “Present.”  Present.  Not yeah…no grunting, but “Present.” 

I think of it now and think, wow! What a perfect way to begin each day. To claim, not just to the teacher, not just to the other classmates, but to yourself — I am here, now, ready. I am present!

The sun shone through the crack of the shutters this morning, calling my name.  I smiled, and clearly, joyfully, with purpose, replied, “Present!”

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The day I was killed by wild boars. Almost.

Yesterday I was killed by three wild boars. By killed, I mean I saw three young (but still wild) boars from the upstairs window of our house. They were down by the pool. (apparently, on spring break). Now, if you are still not terrified, let me give you the backstory.

In my second year of college, they were airing the television mini-series, The Thornbirds. If you haven’t already clutched your heart and sighed, let me explain. Richard Chamberlain played the ever-so-handsome, and ambitious priest. Once a week, Meggie, the tormented love interest, faught her desires, and each of us faught along with her, glued to the small screen in the common-room lounge.  Surely, no one had ever loved more deeply.  Midway through the third or fourth episode, Stuey, Meggie’s younger brother, was killed by a wild boar. I can still hear the savage screams.  Stuuuuuuu eeeeeeey!  Nooooooo!  

This being said, if I was able to believe that Richard Chamberlain, a gay man in real life, and a priest in the series, could somehow become the love of every girl’s life, certainly I believed that a wild boar could kill any and every human.

For my afternoon walk, I carried a stick and sang quite loudly. I was transported to my college dorm, and Drogheda, the fictional sheep station in the Australian Outback of the “Thorn Birds.”

They say we are still under quarantine.  But are we? 

After being killed, almost, by three wild boars, I should feel lucky to be alive.  And I do!  I guess that’s it, really, I feel lucky!  To be Alive!  What fun!  What fun lies ahead!  Perhaps today, a unicorn.  
Imagine your day!  It’s going to be a good one!

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Green apples

I didn’t know apples came in different colors until I visited my grandparents’ farm.  Apples were just red, weren’t they?  The good ones? 
But here they were – so many apples – green apples. Hanging from the trees. Beautiful shades of green. Some with green and pink. Some with green and red. They were so beautiful. Each tree had its own flavor, and each flavor had its own variation. 

We helped my grandmother pick the apples each year. Baskets and baskets of apples from the tree. My grandfather gave the fallen apples to the cows. Because they’re rotten, I thought. I wouldn’t give them something rotten, he assured me. Nothing was wasted. Everything had value. Even me.

George Washinton often referred to his home in Mount Vernon, as his own personal vine and fig.  “May the children…who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants – while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

In the shade of green apples, Rueben and Elsie Hvezda created our “own personal vine and fig.” Because of them, I rest there, even today.  

I believe there comes a responsibility with that, the luxury of being well rested. 

Today, take a breath and enjoy that comfort. And then, invite someone in. All must be welcomed.