Jodi Hills

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

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Seeing it!

“What a horrible looking snack,” I thought as they handed me the cone. I was raised to be polite, so I didn’t say anything. I looked at the other 6 year olds in line. Were they horrified? They didn’t seem to be. I held the cone filled with… with what? What was this? Were they nuts? Maybe. Or dogfood? They wouldn’t feed us dog food? Would they? Not on a school field trip. No one else was eating it, thank goodness, as we walked single file into the Deer Park. The Deer Park. Before Funland. Before Valley Fair. Before Six Flags. This is what we had. No rides. No lights. No games. But still, we were excited. Excited because it meant leaving the classroom. Getting on a bus. Singing. Tickling. Pushing. Anticipating. We got out into the gravel parking lot. Went beyond the fence. Got our cone filled “snack” and proceeded to the deer. What a relief it was to see the first boy in line hold his cone out to feed the ever-so-tame baby deer. It was for the deer! “Ohhhhhhh!” I exclaimed, my audible realization. All the other kids turned to look at me, and so I covered with — “Oh, look, at the pretty deer!” We all smiled and wriggled in our single-file.

“Did you touch their noses? They were wet!” “I did! I touched a nose!” “Well, I was licked!” “You were licked?!” “Well,” not to be outdone, one boy professed, “I was bit!” “Bit????” we screamed in unison. Mrs. Bergstrom smoothed her stern face down to her stern skirt. “Maybe just a nibble.” he said. She continued to stare him down. “No,” he said, “I guess just licked.” She winked. Mrs. Bergstrom winked. We sang out the open windows, wishing the day would never end.

Back at Washington Elementary, our legs bounced beneath our desks. She told us to put our heads down. “Relax,’ she said. Relax? How could we relax? What we had experienced! It was so joyfully overwhelming. Heads down, we danced in the memory.

We had no cameras. We had each other. We saw and felt everything. I have no proof but for the space that remains filled in my heart. A tiny space where deer may nibble at the truth, and children may wriggle in the dream. I raise my head and see out the morning window. “OOOOOOOOOHHHHHHHHH, Look!!!!”

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Office party.

For the majority of my youth, the biggest constant in my life was the Superintendent’s Office of Independent School District #206. My mom was there. Front and center. Answering all the calls. Directing the traffic. She was the face, the heart of the school. And more than often, the cog that kept the whole thing running.

She became friends with the others — the ones with doors and titles, the ones she allowed to take credit for the daily operations of the district. But they knew. I knew. And sometimes, even she did. I suppose that’s what made this place so special — what lured me in, each day before school, each day after school.

It was Dr. Hovda who had the biggest office. Then Mr. Elton. My mom’s desk anchoring both. (Clayton, Wayne and Ivy) I can’t pretend to tell you I knew the “politics” of the administration. I know some disagreed with policies. I heard them from time to time shouting through my mom’s earpiece, running through the transferred line, behind the closed doors. But I can tell you this, for sure and for certain — what they gave to my mother (so in turn to me). They gave her her smile back. They included her, in the conversation, the joke, the discussion, the life of this office. Within those walls she became more confident. More skilled. More beautiful! And I went every day to see it. To rest in it. The grace of my mother in 206!

So that’s what real men do, I thought.

“A” was the highest grade you could receive. That’s all I wanted — “A”s. For myself. My mother. This place. When I received my report card — yes, it came on paper then, my mom told me to go show Wayne. I shook my head. “Ok, first of all, for me, it’s Mr. Elton…” “Go ahead,” she urged. “Why????” my brow furrowed. “It’ll be good,” she said. I was still not convinced. “Look,” she said, “He’s wearing plaid…”
“What difference does that make?” I asked. “I don’t know,” she giggled. My mother could send me down almost any path with a giggle. So I walked into his office. I didn’t know what to say, so I just handed him my report card. “Well, Dr. Hills, I presume…” He started calling me that — Doctor. He told me I could be anything. That I should keep going to school. He made me believe it, I, was possible.

So that’s what real educators do, I thought.

I shared with him my grades throughout high school. Then through college. We would come to talk about golf, and convertibles. My mother. How he liked to eat desserts right out of the pan. And just like my mother, I called him my friend.

The office has slowly emptied. Mr. Elton went to see my mom and Dr. Hovda. What an office party! I thought. Together! Still laughing, becoming, supporting – because that’s what real friends do.

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No separation.

The disconnect yesterday was overwhelming. It’s too foolish to mention the tiny tap against my “round ball of snow,” but I will. I couldn’t get a hair product. No longer sold in France. From there it spiraled to “Well, I can’t get anything — Nothing is familiar — I don’t belong here — And I miss my mom.” It’s hard to blame my Minnesota roots for the “snowballing” — no, this was all me. 

Before the real panic set in, (oh yeah, it can get worse), I whisked myself off to the studio. Grabbed my nearest brush. (I have canvases gessoed for just such an “emergency.”) And I began to paint. I made it before the tears. Tethered before I slid down the imaginary hill any further. My breathing slowed. Stroke by stroke. And I was saved. 

It was in kindergarten that I remember making the first connection. I’m sure there were many before, but this is one that formed. That stuck.  I can play it back whenever I need it. Five years old. Mrs. Strand hung our artwork on the wall. Lined them up as high, and just as straight as the near white bangs on my forehead. We walked hand in hand with our mothers down the line. Hearts racing, pumping, filling, standing in front of our names painted in primary colors. Was it her hand warming mine? Or mine warming hers? I couldn’t feel any separation. I didn’t from that day on.

Yesterday’s yellow bird arrived just before dinner. Dinner that I would have across from my husband. My heart. My French connection. The warmth that melts the snowballs my brain insists on making from time to time. 

In this calm, I received an email. It was a woman looking for a certain painting of mine — a painting she had seen with her mother at a gallery years before. A painting that held her mother’s heart. In this brief moment, mother, daughter, painting, all were one. Her mother recently passed. She wanted that painting. She wanted that moment. That moment of warmth. Of connection. 

If I belong to this world, if any of us are to belong to this world, it is only because of this — the warmth that passes from hand to heart — heart to hand. We are only as strong as our connections.  

I brush the hair from my face, and smile.

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No end in sight.

There was always a kid in our class that seemed to be without fear. The boy who walked across the top of the monkey bars — stepping wildly over our hands that gripped the rungs. I was never one to be reckless. I had my own formula. My goal was to keep curiousity one step ahead of fear. This would be my definition of brave. 

That is how I walked into the North End of VanDyke Road. Curiosity leading. Fear nipping at my heels. I was a rung gripper, but I wasn’t going to miss out. There was an entire world of unknowns in this undeveloped area. Pathless woods. Untamed waters. Daring. Waiting. Luring. Years later I would learn that each neighborhood has one. Each life.

As a whole, it seemed capable of swallowing a young school girl. So I took it bit by bit. Plant by plant. Sound by sound. Step by step. Slipping up sandy hills. Slugging in muddy waters. Unclenching my white knuckles. Pocketing each ribbit. Each grain. Each scent. Each time a little deeper into the North. Never giving in to the End. 

I am pleased and terrified that the world can still surprise me. That I can still surprise myself. That I can outrun the constant nips, and keep moving forward. Daily offered a new North, I set out looking to fill my curious pocket with a handful of brave. No End in sight.

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The big deal!

I mowed the lawn yesterday. It kind of beat me up. Not because of the wind and sun and pollen. While nature was beckoning with “what’s now!”, my heart was feeling a tug of “what was.” 

It might sound silly, but I wanted to text my mom. I wanted to tell her that I was about to tackle the green giant. She would say, “Oh, be careful,” and “Take some breaks…” She would check to see how I was doing. “Don’t get overheated.” And I would give the “No, don’t worry, I’m fine…” But truth be told, I liked it. Not that I wanted her to worry. (And I’m not sure it was true “worry,” but a concern.) She not only cared, but she cared enough to show it. Just tiny words strung together, but oh, what a big deal!!!

I suppose it’s always a collection of the little things. 

I moved my spring cleaning from outside to inside. Cleaning the cave, I found something small and curious. A jumbled set of tiny paper tags. It was buried in a back drawer of my husband’s storage. Little tiny tags perfect to carry the things I’m grateful for. I began writing. I add something each day. Words like mom and friends and art and books and sun and chance and growth. Just tiny words strung together, to make up this love, this life. 

If you are lucky enough to receive the random text today. The phone call. The email. Answer it. Give it all the love it deserves. These are the big deals!

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Pot by pot.

One of the greatest lessons I received in humanity at Central Junior high school, was not, in fact, in a humanities course, nor social studies… not in any of the rooms on the top floors. But it was in the basement, in art class. Our mustached teacher gave us the great news that we were going to be allowed to throw pots. Use the potter’s wheels. The room filled with “Oooohs!!”

We had tipped our toes on the wheels anxiously throughout the year, but weren’t allowed on. And then the day came. The week actually. We were shown different techniques on the glorious spinning wheel. But in order for us to succeed our teacher said, we all had to succeed. If we didn’t do everything he told us regarding our ashtrays, our bowls, our undeciphered knick knacks, we could make things bad, not only for ourselves, but for everyone. It wasn’t just about succeeding with our own creation. Because, as he explained, if we did a poor job, didn’t pay attention to the rules, the guidelines, or didn’t treat the clay with the respect that it deserved…then our projects were likely to blow up in the kiln and ruin all the other creations. No one wanted to be that bursting pot. We listened. We worked. We scratched our initials in the clay. We, as a group of seventh graders, paid more attention in this class, than any other.

On the last day of our pottery cycle, we walked into the art room. Hopeful. We watched as our teacher pulled his mustache slowly from his lips. We held our breath. And slowly he smiled. We all exhaled. He took us to the rack. No broken pots. We beamed. Were they the most beautiful ceramics ever? Certainly not. But we had created something special – certainly! We had worked together. Saw something bigger than ourselves. We wanted to succeed. We wanted everyone to succeed. What could be more beautiful than that?!

Without the aid of uniforms or cheerleaders, we had come together in the basement of Central Junior High. We waited until we were in the clearing of the hallway that day to high five each other. Celebrate this collective victory! This strange group of brains, and geeks, and jocks and nerds, and hoods…our own Breakfast Club of Central Junior High!

I think of it often as I write. As I paint. It’s a glorious thing to be creative. To be an individual. And make no mistake, we were allowed that in 7th grade. We were allowed to form and glaze our pots however we saw fit. And we proved it was possible. To be free and easy. To be joyful and unique. Not at the expense of others, but right along with them.

What if we lived like that? I want to live like that. Pot by pot. Day by day.


Permanent strokes

There was only one tree in my grandma’s yard with sour apples. They were my mom’s favorite. Little green apples, with a sour so big, it almost bit you back. A sour that squeezed through your squinted right eye, then into your clenched jaw bone. And rummaged down the back of your throat. 

What I loved most about them was that my grandma always had a brown paper sack filled to the top, with “Ivy” written in black permanent marker. I loved that she knew her daughter. 

It was with that same care that my mother packed my school lunch. A little brown paper bag. Every day, since the second day of first grade. On my first day that year, the lunch lady made me eat a pickle. A pickle!!!! Worse than any green sour… Both of my eyes squeezed shut. In horror. In prayer. That this horrible thing would be forced down my throat. 

As silly as it sounds, for me it was traumatic. And what I loved most about it, was the fact my mom never made fun of me. She knew me. She always let me eat grandma’s sweet apples. She packed my lunch every day. I saw my name. In black permanent marker. And I was loved. I was saved.

You just can’t pencil it in. This life. You have to really see people. Know them. Accept them. Love them. Love them with full, broad, permanent strokes. That is a love that never fades.


Because the sun!

Maybe it was because of what they called it – the deep end – that it seemed so ominous. They roped it off with a bright red and white warning. We weren’t even allowed in until we had passed a certain level of swimming lessons. Which was funny, because I, we, had been swimming out to the diving towers for several years already. A depth we didn’t know, or think to ask. 

And I suppose that’s what made it easier. We only thought about the tower. We had a goal, and nothing was going to stop us. Had we taken the time to think of what lurked below, deep in the darkened waters, maybe we wouldn’t have gone. But we thought about the sun. The sun that baked our shoulders on the diving platform. The figurative and literal height of summer friendships. There was nothing we wouldn’t have done to reach it.

I mention it only to remind myself. Of how to look at things. With fear, or with wonder. The choice of wonder has opened a sea of words. Of art. Of love. Sure, I trip and stumble and even temporarily sink into the unknown, but I will myself daily to keep kicking and thrashing. Raising my head above the murk. Reaching and climbing the next tower. Because the sun! 

Some will laugh when I say that arriving in France, I was actually surprised as we drove from the airport — all the billboards in French. The radio in French. They didn’t speak English. I was already in love, and hadn’t thought to ask. Are there a million things to worry about? Sure. Is the tower slippery? Yes. But the sun is so warm on my shoulders. I can’t help but wonder. I keep climbing.

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What I hold on to.

It was Mrs. Bergstrom, our first grade teacher, who asked us to write down the names of our family members. Including our grandparents. We were six years old. I was surprised that within this handful of years, most of my friends hadn’t learned their actual names. They wrote down things like gramma, or grammy. I wrote Elsie. Grandma Elsie.

It had only taken one visit to Jerry’s Jack and Jill, the small grocery store that sold the coconut marshmallows that my grandma liked, to be certain of her name. Before we walked through the door, the man arranging the carts outside the store, waved and said, “Hi Elsie!”  Inside, the woman behind the thick glasses at the first register said, “Oh, Hi Elsie!” 

It was somewhere in the first aisle that I knew she was not just my grandmother, but a woman of this town, of this world. And her name was Elsie. I was proud of her. So proud I wasn’t even annoyed at the amount of time it took to fill the cart. She had to stop and visit every few feet. Exchange a recipe. Report on the “kids.” Ask about an illness. Offer her prayers. Listen to the butcher’s joke. Repeat it as her own and laugh in aisle three. Eat some marshmallows from the yet-to-be-paid-for plastic sack. Introduce me as Ivy’s youngest around each corner. The cart was filled along with my heart.

I knew, that in knowing her name, I was a part of it all — a part of her. I was a part of this Elsie, this Ivy, and I belonged.

We said our long goodbyes in true Minnesota fashion, and followed the cart man out to my grandma’s car. He put the bags in the back. Tapped his hand twice on the roof of the car, to signify the shopping experience was complete. “You take care now, Elsie,” he said. And I knew that she would. Especially of me.

We drove with the windows open back to the farm. I knew the way by heart. I knew this life by name.

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Asparagus tart.

On my daily search for asparagus, I came across a couple on the path. She was pointing this way and that way. He all the while shaking his head no, and unfolding the map. I continued on the steep side banks. Looking. Bending. Picking. 

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a map girl. So as he approached me map first, I temporarily stopped my search for asparagus, and looked for patience. I used to run from these situations. Not confident in my language skills. I eventually graduated to pre-apologizing for my French. But then yesterday,  I just said, Bonjour. I knew where they wanted to go. I brushed aside the map and pointed out the big rock. The gravel path. Take that left. Follow the road.Turn left again to go up the mountain, or right to get to the river. When I finished explaining, they nodded. But instead of a thank you, she made sure to point out my American accent. That used to hurt my feelings. Sometimes even to tears. Yesterday, I smiled and even laughed a little. “Yeah,” I thought, “But I know where I am…”  I wished them a good day, and walked home with my handful of asparagus. 

I realize I still am living a life of privilege. I only mention it because it has opened my eyes. When I first started looking for asparagus, I couldn’t see it. Everything looked the same to me. Now, with the “asparagus eye” I can spot it in full stride. 

I had never been an other before coming to France. It’s so easy to see when it’s coming at you, harder I suppose when it’s coming out of you. I pray that my empathy has grown. When we know better, we do better. That is the path I hope to travel. Daily.

With my newly found treasure, I made an asparagus tart. It took me an hour to make the puff pastry. Kneading the cold and cubed butter into the flour. Pesto sauce. Parmesan Cheese. Slow baked in the oven. Scents wafting through the house. 

Growth takes time. But oh, it can be delicious!