Jodi Hills

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


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And stronger I ran.

They tarred over the playground of Washington Elementary. I have the scars on my knees to prove it. 

Back by the swings there were two horizontal poles. I’m guessing they used to hold the planks of wood to form teeter-totters. Maybe they thought the teeter totters were too dangerous, so they removed them. But that didn’t stop us.

I don’t know who thought of it first, but we all did it. If you wrapped one leg over the top of the pole, grabbed it with your arms underneath, forming a circle around the pole, then kicked the other leg from underneath you, you could spin around the pole like a human hula hoop. When it worked, it was glorious. Dizzying. Exhilarating. But when it didn’t…

My sweaty hands slipped from my leg and I landed hard against the pavement — so hard, the very breath that carried me, fled faster than any spinning hoop, fled from my body and flattened me against the tar. No air could get it. I panicked. So panicked I couldn’t even cry out. The weight of it all, against my chest. It seemed too much to bear. It was Shari, or Jan, or maybe even Cindy, one of them said, just wait, it will come back. The air will come back. They gathered around me. The air they breathed found its way to me. We had each other. Even then. And stronger I ran, lifted with the knowledge of having survived. It still carries me. Carries us. Stronger. Together.


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A tourist in pink.


It’s summer in Aix — our peak tourist season. We were just walking through town – going to Dominique’s dentist appointment. I wanted to feel what they were feeling – the tourists. I started looking around. Wow. It really is beautiful! I took a few pictures. The houses, the churches, the scent of the pink flowers — I saw it all again, for the first time.

We decided to stop at the fish market. We bought some sea bass (loop de mer) for the barbecue. And some vegetables for the plancha. Some rosé wine for the imagination.
We ate slowly in the summer air, and I fell in love, again, for the first time.

The world is pretty extraordinary. But we have to decide to see it, every day. I suppose that’s why I paint. In these moments, I have to forget all the “well, I’ve seen this before…” — all the “it’s just another day…” — forget the noise of “but this… and this.. and my…”. I have to just stop, and see something for the first time. Look at the flower. It’s brand new. It’s waiting just for you. I stop a bit of time, a vacation from my brain, a tourist in pink.





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Just kids.

I think it was on a Seinfeld episode – wasn’t everything? The one where George wanted to get his books back from an old apartment, or girlfriend, and Jerry said, oh, just leave them, it’s not like you’re going to read them again… But I’m with George. I like having books around. Books that I’ve read and reread. All within reach. They are a comfort. Behind my left shoulder at the moment rest three of my favorites — To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee; Just Kids, by Patti Smith; and A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway.

You are probably familiar with two of them for sure, but maybe not the one by Patti Smith — Just Kids. It is a memoir of her days growing up in New York. A New York long gone. Days of artists of all kinds, working together, in possibly the worst of surroundings, but maybe the best of conditions (these collaborations – these times of creativity, unregulated, unmatched). They were young, for sure, but they had the spirit of children. It’s like Picasso says, “Every child is an artist, the problem is how to remain…”

My mother-in-law, Lucie, is entering a new phase. It is challenging to say the least. At first glance it is heartbreaking to see the changes… I want to look beyond…but there are so many unknowns, so many questions. Patti Smith writes — “Where does it all lead? What will become of us? These were our young questions, and young answers were revealed. It leads to each other. We become ourselves.”

Lucie is talking to her parents now. She sees them. And I think, what a comfort for her. She says they are eager to be with her. She is returning to her childhood.  She is becoming an artist once again, and it is beautiful. She is being led to the ones she loves. We are all being led to each other. 

So yes, George, I need the books too. I need these words of comfort. Beside me. Within me. I read the old ones. I write the news ones. And with each word, I become a little more myself.


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I see you.

Dominique told her that her hat was lovely. She recoiled — as if the compliment was too much to bear. “No, no… this is not my color, I look pale…”

I realize the gift my mother gave me (gives me still) – this ability to accept a compliment and believe it. Find joy in it. I suppose because she was free with her compliments. Never disingenuous – she believed the words she gave. And they lifted me. And it’s not just about beauty — it’s about confidence, self-worth, courage even.

When you give someone a compliment you give them a boost, a lift, a bit of assurance that they belong to this world, and more importantly to themselves. They are worthy. And you lose nothing by offering these words. In fact, you gain something when they give you back their smile.

It is often said, “it is better to give than to receive.” I say, we have to learn to do both. To be generous with others. To be generous with ourselves.

I showed my mother my most recent sketch. She said, “Oh, she’s wearing my turtleneck.” I delighted in her response because she could see herself. What a wonderous thing. And “this”, I think, has taught me more, given me more than any compliment – to see her seeing herself. She taught me how to do the same. And isn’t this the gift we want to give everyone — the ability to see themselves?

So if I tell you, you look lovely in that color, reach out and grab the words, hold them to your heart, know that I mean them, believe that they are true – these glorious words, and fill your heart. And when your heart is overflowing, pass them along, with grace and strength. This is the beauty, the power of a compliment. I see you.


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Framed.

I suppose I thought I would remember every school day. I don’t. Some are merely flashes of bumper tennis shoes on terrazzo floors. Flying through the hallways, slipping through my heart and mind. I grab on to them. Frame them with specific memories – like standing in the window of Iverson’s shoes with my mother. Praying the new blue and white “bumpers” would be fast. And they were. It all was. So fast.

I don’t get to frame all of my artworks. And it is debatable whether they all need to be framed. I have researched, but there isn’t a great deal of information on why some paintings are framed and others not. There is the practical reason of course, to protect the piece. Also, the ease of portability. Also it separates the piece from the surrounding world, gives it importance, singularity. Separates the inside from the outside. And provides visual control.

I framed my painting of Washington Elementary, probably for all of these reasons. Mostly I suppose to contain the time — this time when everything seemed possible. Any fear could be outrun in white and blue canvas tennis shoes. I need those memories. Those feelings. Every day. So I gather them in. Framed on the wall. Framed in my heart. Separating myself from the fears of the day, the challenges of the world. Slowing it all down. I am safe. Perhaps even important. And in the framework of this very day, I am possible.


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Tap. Tap. Tap.

I don’t know enough about it – (if anyone really does) – the laws of attraction, but things happen that make me curious…

I wrote a post featuring the painting of the woodpecker just a few days ago. The day that followed, I was sitting at my desk, like I do every day, the window open, and I heard this “tap, tap, tap…”  I kept typing, and again, “tap, tap, tap…”  I stopped and looked out the window. Dominique wasn’t in the yard. It was almost silent. I waited. Moments. And there it was again. This time I was able to follow the noise, in the tree. And there it was. Just as I had painted. We have a lot of birds. We have a lot of what we call “pic vert,” similar to the bird I painted, but different coloring – green, and they normally pick at the ground, not in the trees.  Did I attract this bird? Is this the law of attraction? Or did I just open my eyes and start seeing? I don’t have the answer for this… but either way I like it. 

Whether I attract positive things, or just start seeing them, it is something positive – and I want that. I want that for me, for all of us. I remember someone saying once (don’t judge me, but I think it was Oprah, and she probably wasn’t the first), that we have to pay attention, the signs often come softly, they aren’t going to be belted out with a choir! You have to really listen. 

I don’t know how many “taps” I have missed through the years, but I want to get better. Pay attention. See the signs. Find the beauty. And I suppose to hear them, I need to quiet the sometimes din (noisy clamor) of my brain. Not the easiest task, but I’m working on it. Quietly. 

I’ll whisper the last few words – I wish you a quiet day of beauty. It’s out there. Listen for the taps.


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Fumbling toward grace.

The pond was frozen in Noonan’s park. It was the best place for skating (or the closest to our school). We all walked over, single file for a moment, until our teacher turned her head around to watch the road. It was exciting, this release from the normal school day. Mittens dangled from pockets. Jackets unzipped. We were too free to feel the cold. 

I can’t say that any of us were good skaters. I can’t say that any of us cared. We played on the ice. Pushing. Pulling. Gliding. Then eventually, it always ended in “Crack the whip.” I was at the end, and indeed the whip was cracked – I was flung, and landed on my wrist. Broken. Everyone kept playing. Our teacher knew she had to stay – there were 30 other kids to think about. I don’t remember if she volunteered or if she was asked, but selfless either way, Melissa Fristedt agreed to walk back to Washington Elementary with me to see the school nurse. 

We weren’t friends really. It seemed as though we had just met, maybe playing the clarinets for the first time together in the gymnasium. She was tall and kind. I could walk completely fine on my own, but she held my opposite elbow as we walked the sidewalks slowly, that now felt so cold. I was happy it was her — that she was there. It seemed she was born to do this — the lifting. 

Last night we went to young Margaux’s dance recital. Some glided along, as if on ice, others pushed, pulled and played. All of it beautiful. It’s easy to spot the ones that were born to dance. It seems as though the music flows from their every muscle. There was one girl, just a little larger than the rest, that was called on to do the lifting. And she did! She smiled so gracefully as she held the girls up, pointing them to the spotlight. How beautiful. As beautiful as those that posed to the sky. 

I suppose we are all in this ballet of untimely movement. Fumbling towards grace. Some days lifted, other days we will be asked to do the lifting. I hope we can all see the beauty in both.


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Gessoed.

It makes a grand difference. You might not even know you’re looking at it, but it’s there – the gesso. Before painting, it’s a good idea to prime the surface with gesso – the unsung hero of the painting. It creates a base, a surface — something for the paint to cling to.  It’s just a little rough to the touch, but oh, so necessary when building a structure that supports the image.

As the painter, you can feel it. How it responds to your paint. It’s an extra step, but always worth it.  

I suppose I’ve always been attracted to those who have been “gessoed.”  Those who have survived the days, the days a little rough to the heart’s touch. Their beauty seems to shine through, just a little brighter. And I trust this beauty, as something to cling to.

The real trick is to try and see it in yourself. See the hard days as your own gessoing. I’m trying to get better at it. I haven’t perfected it yet, but I am seeing them for what they are, perhaps just a few moments sooner, and I will take those small victories. Seeing them as the “gesso” for the next painting. Something to build on. The strength that will support me. 

I want you to know that I see you, my gessoed friends. And sometimes, I lean on you, perhaps even without your knowledge, but I do. I hope you do the same, with me, and all the rough (and I use this in the most complimentary way) beauties around you. If we can do this, we can do anything. Wouldn’t that be beautiful?


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Already flying

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The groups had already formed in high school. In this small school of a small town, the grouping off included — the athletes, the musicians, the scholars, and the good looking, the smokers, the rich, and the poor, and the religious and the lost. We disguised all the groups, covered up the broken hearts and broken homes with silk graduation gowns and marched through the gymnasium. We flung our tasseled hats as they flung us out the double doors, and we began again.

Dorothy Parker wrote the words that I copied from the school library and placed in my pocket —

“Once when I was young and true.
Someone left me sad —
Broke my brittle heart in two;
And that is very bad.”

I crumpled the paper and left for college. It was freeing this life. To begin again. To learn again. But still the groups formed as we thought we were making such grown up choices. Gown and hats, this time in the outdoor courtyard. They said words I don’t remember in microphones and flung us off again.

Without knowledge or permission, I began living the second half of the poem,

“Love is for unlucky folk,
Love is but a curse.
Once there was a heart I broke;
And that, I think, is worse.”

So if I wasn’t to be flung, or do the flinging, where did I fit in?

We are all trying to find our way. We get tossed into groups and stereotypes. Lost in should-haves and supposed-tos. And the only way that I can see to survive is to keep learning. What a glorious thing to keep learning. To get beyond the first half of the poem. Beyond the second. To write your own. And write it again. No more gowns to hide behind. No more, this need to be flung…because I was already flying, no need to fling, there was room for all of us.

What a thing it is to fly. I write the words, and begin again.


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Behind the beat.

I had to get the tree right on this one. It was as important as the bird. Not as glamorous, no, with its bright hat and striped coat, but still so necessary, and so beautiful.  

I sat outside in front of the tree, studying its nooks and cracks. Painting the full background, without the bird. And once I got it right, the bird would come to life.

I remember him telling me as a kid, out in his field, picking rock, “I can’t glamorize the dirt.” It stuck with me. He didn’t say a lot, my grandfather, but when he did, I listened. I knew it was important — to do the work. Every year he took this mess of dirt and turned it into something green, and then something gold. It wasn’t glamorous, but it was beautiful. 

I suppose he was my first tree, and my mother was my second — the strength that allowed me to flit about and find the beat of my own drum. What a gift this is. So I will take my time to get it right. They are still my “necessary”, the strength behind my beat, and I give thanks for this beauty, every day.