Jodi Hills

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

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Nothing shouted.

The first time I visited New England was with my mother. I was just out of college. Up until then all of my “vacation” time had been used to have surgery. To say we both fell in love immediately would not be an exaggeration. The main street was lined with seemingly freshly painted white houses. Porched and welcoming. A street sweeper (by hand) waved us in. Washed windows revealed the contents. Clothes. Beautiful clothes for sale lived in this house. My mother looked at me and beamed. We walked the white stairs and opened the door. Was that the slight hum of angels singing? Or just my mother’s heart. 

It was all like this – this understated elegance. Lobster on paper plates. Lawns mowed. Cars washed. Nothing gilded. Nothing shouted – it wasn’t necessary, it showed. 

I visited again. Several times. I have never harbored a New England address. And though I may have never actually “there,” I have lived in it, here. 

There are so many gorgeous places around the world. I have been lucky enough to visit so many of them. And as the saying goes, “if you’re lucky enough to be here, you’re lucky enough.” 

I have, in the past, been guilty of waiting — waiting to be happy if I was in the right place. I’m learning, daily, to create those places, those feelings, that joy, that comfort, in the exact place that I am. Making the hotel breakfasts. Dressing up to go to the grocery store. Eating slowly. Seeing the day for the first time, because, aren’t we all? Today is really our vacation from yesterday. Our journey towards tomorrow. I’m going to take those photo opportunities along the way.

The electrician was here the other day. He finished his job. I don’t know his name. But I invited him inside. He vacationed for a few brief moments at our kitchen table. A cup of coffee. A plate of cookies. I smiled, hoping, for these few moments, that maybe I was his New England. He asked where I was from. And, as so many people do, asked which place I liked better, the US or France. How could I explain that I was trying to live in the best of places. That I carried a piece of it all within me. That I was a French breakfast in a New England town. A relic of Rome. Dancing to the joyful music in Spain. Dangling my feet in a summer Minnesota lake. Standing in front of my own painted “Mona Lisa.”  My heart jimbled at the thought. I could hear the angels softly sing, my mother now one of them. “I love it all,” I said. And meant it. 

I’m here. And I am home.

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Winning Sweepstakes.

We started off quite similar — Dominique and I comparing grandmothers. Chubby and welcoming. Sure. Always cooking. Yes. A picture of Jesus hanging in the bedroom. Of course. Chinchillas in the basement? What? This is where we began to differ.

She always had a line on something, my Grandma Elsie. Some may have called it a scheme, but I think it was more of a dream. She loved the idea of winning. Whether it was with the Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes, or the swamp land in Florida, the coupon on the back of the toasted marshmallow’s package, or raising Chinchillas in the basement. Even in her final letter to her children and grandchildren, she apologized for not making the big score that she so wanted to give them.

She was wrong. Not for trying, no. I think it was fun for her, so why not. But I’m not sure she saw the value in what she gave to us daily. This is how we won. With an aproned hug. A lick of the spoon in the batter. Lemonade on the stickiest of summer days. A Lazy Susan filled with candy. A door never locked. A heart always open.

We won with every visit. We never took naps, but instead ate our lunch in front of the tv watching Days of Our Lives. We played cards and dice – games in which she beat us desperately, but it was the time spent together that felt like winning. Most of her sentences began with “Don’t tell grandpa…” — secrets that felt like wrapped and bowed presents.

She was the last person I remember picking me up, when I was too old and too heavy, my legs dangled in the air. This is the lottery that I win every day.

The games we play may be different now. Trying to win “likes” and “followers.” And I am just as guilty as the next person, thinking, “If I only had this…” But in the quiet moments of the morning. With only the sound of my fingers typing the memory, I feel my heart fill, my legs dangle, and I know, all sweepstakes have been won.

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A passing moo!It was the first language I ever tried to learn — cow. 

Of course the car windows weren’t automatic. We had never even heard of such a thing. You had to turn the handle round and round to make the window go down. (I think I still make the cranking motion to indicate opening a car window.) 

There were lots of fields en route to my grandparent’s farm. Sitting in the back seat of the chevy Impala, I waited to see them — the giant black and white beasts. If I caught a glimpse at 55mph, I cranked the window and urged my mother to slow down. I sucked in a giant breath and mooed out the window. They stopped chewing for one brief moment. Staring at me with such confusion. Almost bewildered by what was coming out of my mouth. 

I stare into that same look quite often here in France. With deep breathed delivery, I converse in what sounds to me like perfect French, but I understand what they are hearing — a passing moo. 

Some days, I really have to crank to return to that childlike confidence. That willingness to open myself to the world around me. To be brave. Vulnerable. Present. 

I suppose we all have to do that for varying reasons. Every day. 

The sun is up. I crank my arm round and round with youthful vigor! I am ready! I am here! Mooooooo!

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Barefoot and pajamaed.

“When the barn catches fire, I am wearing the wrong negligee…” Maxine Kumin (from her poem The Longing to be saved.)

My mother’s first fire was not on the farm where she was growing up, but the dorm of her school. She didn’t want to go away to this school, but her parents were sending her older brother Ron because it was an Ag School (meaning it finished the courses early in the year so the students could go back to work on their family farms.) It was less than an hour away by car, but with no phones, no form of communication whatsoever, the distance felt unbearable. 

Of course the fire started at the beginning of the week, not long after she was dropped off. There would be no contact with her parents until the end of the week when they came to pick her up. Forced to run from the burning dormitory, to save herself, she had to leave everything behind. She stood outside in her pajamas as the flames lit the northern sky. The neighboring dorm was saved. She was able to borrow clothes during the week from another reluctant farm girl. Returning them to her lender Friday afternoon, she stood at the school’s entrance in her pajamas, waiting for her mother.

Not many words were exchanged in that long car ride home. But she was allowed to go back to her high school in town the next year.

It wasn’t her last fire. Literally or figuratively. Through the years she would be asked to run from life’s flames and save herself. To save me. And she did it, never out of fashion.

She loved poetry. She would have loved this poem. I wish I could have found it sooner. We would have read it together. Word by word. Over and over. Laughing. Crying. Saving each other. Again and again. 

I miss her. So much. Some days the embers feel too close as I stand “barefoot and pajamaed.” But then a sweet memory appears, of joy, of laughter, of love, and I feel her car pull up into heart’s view. And I am saved.

Let’s get dressed for the day!

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Seeing blackbirds.

I was shocked when she said it. I couldn’t believe my ears. I looked at my mother, who couldn’t hide her surprise either. What did she say? We were riding in the car together with my sister-in-law’s mother. Headed to some sort of family event that had spread to include a good portion of this small town. We were discussing the family tree. She asked about one of my mom’s brothers. Surely she couldn’t be thinking of Uncle Tom, I thought. “Oh, yes!” she continued, “he’s so handsome!”

No disrespect to my Uncle Tom. But this is not how he had been branded to me. He was the rough one. Tough one. Bold. Straight talking. Intimidating? Sure. Colorful? Indeed. And I guess, once we’re presented with something, we often stop looking, as if this were the only answer. 

After the event I went home and looked at the family portrait. I guess he was handsome. Huh! I wonder if he knew. I hope so.

I love to paint birds. You might think the colorful ones offer the biggest in painting lessons, but for me, that’s not really true. The black bird is a beauty that really forces you to see. Because to create the deep richness of the black, you have to see all the other subtle colors. The blues. The grays. The taupes. And browns. There is no depth without these other colors. And with no depth, there really is no beauty. 

But where does the responsibility lie? Within whom? Is it up to the person to show you their true colors? Or the viewer to see it? I suppose it’s both. And this is not a hardship – no, this is something! Because when you look, and you see it, it makes you feel special — you are allowed into all the beauty. You get to see beyond the shadowed wings of the blackbird and watch the glorious flight. You get to see beyond the expletives of your uncle’s mouth. Beyond the overalls and slight smell of cow, and think, wow, he really was handsome.  

I have been flawed. I haven’t always seen what is right in front of me. But I’m learning. I’m trying to do better. Be better. And like the Blackbird song says, “Take these broken wings and learn to fly…”


Filling pockets.

I have come to the conclusion that most of the world must be completely terrified.

Yesterday, while walking on the gravel path, I came to a violent stop, seeing what I can only imagine was some sort of hybrid weasel. My heart raced, but my legs could only tremble. He gave me a solid look, then walked back into the brush. I had to get by this area to continue my walk, so I did the only logical thing — the only form of defense I learned from the age of five — to walk briskly past the imminent danger while speaking very loudly. (Because surely nothing would harm you, not robber, intruder, ghost, nor weasel, if they assumed you to be in the midst of a conversation.) 

Obviously I made it home, or I would not be typing this today. After hearing my short tale of woe, Dominique replied, “Well, he was much more frightened of you than you were of him.” Again, I didn’t believe this at 5 years of age, nor now. He sauntered easily down the hill, while I ran on tippy toes yelling out my best franglish, never hearing any random weasel chatter. Clearly, I was more afraid.

And that’s exactly what the hybrid weasel mother told my pathmate.

As with most fear, I suppose, I’m laughing about it today. A lesson I keep learning. Filling my pockets with evidence of things survived. Maybe one day these pockets will be filled, and I can walk through this world with complete confidence. Until then, I will keep pulling out what’s needed, the proof of “look, you made it through this day.” The evidence of “you survived that, certainly you can survive this.”

I will stroll today’s path. Perhaps more curious than confident, but I’ll take it. I don’t want to miss out. I’ve got things to do. Things to see. And pockets to fill!


Good morning, Kitchen!

There was no Sunday afternoon that couldn’t be filled with a dream.

I always finished my homework by Saturday. Never one to be scrambling during the last minutes of Sunday evening. No, Sunday was for dreaming. It was in those precious hours of nothing left to do, and nothing yet to begin, that we would allow ourselves the most luxurious dreams.

Lying in front of the oversized stereo in our undersized apartment, replaying the same small stack of 45s over and over, my mother and I would dream for hours. We had several prompts, but one of our favorites was “what would you do if you lived in a big house?”

“I wouldn’t have a reading nook,” she said. “What? You love to read…” “No, she said, “I would move from room to room, reading a different chapter in every space. I would let the words wander throughout every hallway.” “Oh, yes!” I said, “Me too!” “And every room would have a mirror,” she laughed. “Of course,” I said. “And I would dress for each room. And I wouldn’t leave any space unvisited.” I jumped up from the carpet. “I would say good morning to the beds and the bathroom! Good morning,kitchen! Good morning,library!” She got up now too. “And I would dance in every room,” she said as she twirled me to the point of dizzy — to the point of believing all things possible.

Knowing this, it’s probably no surprise that I once wrote that you should fall in love with your bathroom. Nor a surprise that today I tell you to do the same with your kitchen. I changed the picture on the counter, putting up my newest portrait. The counter I face at our breakfast table. The counter that holds the bread that I make. The bread that we toast and add the jam that I make from the trees in our yard. The breakfast backed by the radio songs of “jazz and soul,” and the fuel that feeds the conversations in which we save the world. How could I not fall in love with a space that provides all of this. A space that welcomes us without regard to mood or weather. Every morning this kitchen says, “Come in, you and your heart sit down.”

Life is not perfect. But one does not love a space less for having lived in it. Glasses will break. Food will burn. Crumbs will fall. Paint will chip. But I will go on loving because I was taught to enjoy “the dreaming,” as much as “the dream come true.”

I wipe the counter and take all the morning love to my office. Hello computer! What story should we tell today?


An apple a day…

The apple used to be a symbol of a job well done at Washington Elementary. It was all I thought about as I handed in my paper of work. Spelling. Math. Telling time. Passing it up through the row of desked children, I crossed fingers and toes hoping that Mrs. Strand would take out her ink pad, press the rubber stamp deeply into the red and rock it over the top of my paper, marking it forever with a beautiful apple. Seeing the apple in the upper right corner of my returned paper, the red moved from hand to heart to cheeks. (Maybe that’s why they call them apple cheeks.)

I lingered in the classroom one day as all the other five and six year olds went out for recess. I saw that she had our papers on her desk. Ink pad resting beside. My chubby fingers rested on the side of her wooden desk. My eyes peeking just above. “You like the apple, don’t you…” she smiled. I shook my head yes. “Do you want to try it?” she asked. I shook my head briskly. She handed me my paper. “Go ahead,” she said, “You deserve it.” I gripped the handle of the stamp, pressing it into the rouge stained sponge. Pulled it up slowly, then pressed it down onto my paper, slowly rocking it back and forth, as I had seen her do a million times. I pulled up the stamp, and there it was. I gasped. So beautiful!

My lips were much more shy than my heart when I was five. I didn’t have the words to ask for what I needed. But she must have seen the apple panic on my face. (I pray teachers still have the time and inclination to look.) “Do you want the others to have one?” I shook my head yes. “Go ahead then.” She refilled the pad with ink, and the rest was, as I remember, just a glorious red blur. Perhaps I remember this day so well, not only because of what she gave to me, but what she allowed me to give to everyone else. My first lesson in humanity.

Maybe it’s why I love to paint the apples now. I live in the land of Cezanne. He once proclaimed, “I will astonish Paris with an apple.” I have often thought this is why I paint them. And it’s probably true. Partially. But looking back, maybe it was Mrs. Strand who first astonished me. Who showed me the power of something so simple. Rosy-cheeked still, I sit before the canvas and paint another. Hoping you can feel the magic, and pass it on, through hand, heart and cheeks. An apple a day… go ahead, you deserve it.

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…and then the beauty comes.

My grandfather was perhaps the first to teach me about color. Each year he planted in the black dirt. He worked under blue skies. Prayed under gray. And with the daily stroke of his hands turned the field from green to gold. It was the most beautiful canvas I had ever seen. Were it not for him, would I have seen it? I can’t be sure.

I often speak of the Sainte Victoire mountain. It rests in our daily view. Cezanne was perhaps the first to point it out to the world. Painting it again and again. Showing its beauty in every light. Dominique was the first to point it out to me as he drove me from the airport. Would I have seen it? Would I have felt it? Would I have painted it without either of them? Probably not.

Georgia O’Keeffe had her own mountain. Her own “Sainte Victoire.” She painted the big mountain (as she called it) again and again. Braving the heat and the cold. The solitude. The doubters of women. All to show us the beauty of what was around her. The beauty of what she saw.

I suppose all of it was unlikely. Seemingly almost impossible at times. But this is what gives me hope. This is what enables me to put my grandfather, Rueben Hvezda, alongside Paul Cezanne. Alongside Georgia O’keeffe. To write about him. To write about my grandmother making kolaches and quilts. My mother dressing in the crispiest of whites, even on her most crumbling days. OH, my beautiful mother! Were they artists? (…a rose by any other name…) They took what was in front of them, inside of them and made it beautiful. Not only showing me, but showing me how.

So I make the pictures with paint and words. Each daily stroke, with brushes of Rueben and Elsie and Ivy — my open fields, my sturdy mountains. What are we here for, if not to show each other the beauty? The beauty of living.

You have something. Right here. Right now. Live it. Something beautiful will come. The world is waiting to see.

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Head to toe.

I can’t tell you the exact thought that was stuck in my mind’s auto replay. Something ridiculous, I imagine — those thoughts usually are. I went into the pool. Usually with enough laps I can wash it away, or at least replace it with another. Albeit negative, this thought was fit and able to keep up with me, stroke by stroke. I said the number of laps louder in my head. Trying to count it away. Oh, but it was a good swimmer. 

I could see Dominique from the corner of my goggled eye. He was moving the sprinklers. To water the grass along the pool is tricky, and sometimes he ends up sprinkling the pool. I could see the tiny drops splash beside me as I turned to make the next lap. Again. Again. 

I suppose timing is everything. I flipped to make the next length. Stretching my arms to fingertips, my toes to tippy. It was then I felt it. Sprinkles of water covering the bottoms of my outstretched feet. Reflex brought me to underwater laughter. Sure, I have been tickled before, but never by water. I kept swimming, but my thoughts changed. Wondering if I had actually ever felt water falling on the bottoms of my feet before. Certainly not the rain. Nor the shower. No, this had to be the first time. What a delight, I thought. Such a strange and marvelous occurrence. Each lap that followed, I tried to recreate that perfect timing. I kept swimming toward the tickle. The spell had been broken. 

It’s easy to get caught up in worry.  I am not perfect. I know it will happen again. But each time, I know there is a way out. Even when I think I can’t find it, somehow it finds me. That, I suppose, is the beautiful magic of this living. And I want to feel it. Head to toe! 

If you need me today, I’ll be out there, in search of the tickle.