Jodi Hills

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


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Sketchbook.

You might think it would be the opposite. When painting, there is a looseness, a letting go, that must be learned. (Maybe it’s relearned – children seem to have it, but as they get older, it tightens up — I guess because they (we) become too aware, too concerned and it sucks the life right out of the art — I guess the same could be said about life itself.) 

Through daily practice, I gain the confidence of letting go. Letting go of the worry of perfection, and just allowing the image to come to life. Letting the canvas breathe freely, along with myself.  And the beauty comes, in my humble opinion, not in the exact line, but the movement, the strokes. 

Maybe it’s easier on the canvas, but I want the same for my daily life. To let go of the nagging need to please, to be exact. And it comes, slowly, with daily practice. Each day I can see it a little bit more clearly, the beauty of my imperfect strokes — and I have to let go of those who can’t. I suppose that’s the art of living. And oh, how beautiful it can be.


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Joie de vivre!

I remember our church was having an event to raise awareness for the homeless. Young students slept outside on the sidewalk for one night. While I wanted to celebrate the effort (anything is better than nothing) it was hard for me get on board. This was not homelessness. This was camping. This was going to bed knowing the next day you would go home. To a home. To the security of running water and soft beds. To the security of tomorrow and the day after that.

My brother in law became a US citizen this week. This is big! Huge! I can’t say exactly how long it took, but more than twenty years in the making. He has lived in the US for years – but today he is home.

The thing is, we think we know. We don’t know. Until we go through it. So how do we create empathy? We can’t possibly live out every situation to really know how it feels. But we can listen. We can read. We can be open.

I suppose I was guilty of it, before moving to France. I didn’t understand what it is like to live in another country. Be a stranger. To be singled out. To be a minority. And I’m one of the lucky ones. I have every advantage at my fingertips. I wasn’t fleeing. Running. Hiding. I was moving for love. And yet, I experienced the fear, the uncertainty. I know millions of people feel this daily. Some are unwelcomed because they are immigrants. Others because of the color of their skin. Their religion. Their social status. Reason after reason.

But being empathetic is not merely feeling the pain of others. Being empathetic means you also get to feel the joy. And maybe that’s the hook. Seeing the special. Not discriminating. Not tolerating. But celebrating. Different doesn’t have to be bad. Shouldn’t have to be bad.

So today we celebrate. We welcome my brother in law to this giant experiment. I am in France. He is in the USA. Neither of us camping. Bravo, Pascal!

Joie de vivre!


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…if I went with you

Today is Napoleon’s birthday. I’m not proud to say that I didn’t know this before coming to France. I suppose it is important to me now, because I can see that it is important to them. Empathy. 

The thing is, we think we know. I’m smiling as I type this. There is so much that I, we, don’t know. And that’s the first step to learning, I guess. Admitting it. And then doing something about it. 

I have told you how important the library was to me. So important that I used to worry about it. The night before library day at Washington Elementary, my mother would have to comfort me. Ease me into sleep. “But what will I pick out?” “What if there isn’t enough time to choose the right book?” “There are so many.” She didn’t laugh at me. She gave me a solution. “Find a series you like,” she explained. “Then each week you can pick another one from that series.” I did that. My first series was Cowboy Sam. I loved the linen covers. The drawings of cowboys. The adventures. The stories. So it’s not surprising that cowboys were in my heart from the age of six. There were so many books. I devoured them. So full, I didn’t know what I was missing.

What’s taught is what’s known. But at some point you have to take on the responsibility of learning. Teach yourself. I recently finished the book, “The Sentence,” by Louise Erdrich. It is a beautiful book. Filled with the heart and soul and voice of Native Americans. There is so much to learn. But each word lays a rock, creating the path of empathy. People always say, “I hope our paths cross some day.” When they do, and I hope they do, I pray it on this path — this path of empathy.

The epigraph to this book reads as such, “From the time of birth to the time of death, every word you utter is part of one long sentence.” — Sun Yung Shin, Unbearable Splendor.

It is within this bearable and unbearable splendor that I write each day. Continuing the sentence. Searching for the beauty. The understanding. The peace. Empathy. Hoping to look up from the dust on my own shoes, to see you, looking up, seeing me. Splendor.

Happy Birthday, Napoleon. Let’s take that walk.


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On Wobbly Knees.

Last night I finished reading the book Horse, by Geraldine Brooks. To simplify my review, I will just say, “Yes.” Was it good? Yes. Should I read it? Yes. Will I be moved? Yes. Will I learn something? Yes. Is it about horses? Yes. And more? Oh, Yes!!! It spans generations, covering the issues of slavery, racism, the Civil War, art, humanity — then and now. How far we’ve come, how extraordinarily far we have to go.

I suppose I was first drawn to read it because of the central figures of the horse paintings themselves. But then it became so much more. And that is the beauty of art. When it is done well, framed on canvas or bound in words, it conveys a story. A story so fluid that it carries you — carries you with the grace and elegance of chestnut legs in the Kentucky bluegrass.

But what’s it about??? Everyone always wants the short answer. I’m sorry, but the short answer is – read it.

It’s not lost on me that hanging above my head, as I turned from page to page, was my humble painting of a horse. It is entitled, “Unconditional.” And for me that is love. But how do we get there? The only path that I have found is empathy. And the clear path to empathy is education. When we know more — we do more. When we know better — we do better. So I read. And I read some more. And I write. And I write some more. I paint. And, well, more. And I just try to do better. Live better. Racing on my own fragile legs. Racing against time, and bigotry. Racing against everyone who is more than willing to bet against you. Racing away from the conditional.

There was a popular song when I was a teenager, by Dan Fogelberg — Run for the Roses. My mom bought the 45. I played it again and again. For I was, just as the song began, “on wobbly knees, with mama beside you, to help you along…” And I was carried by the melody. Carried by the words —

“It’s breeding and it’s training
And it’s something unknown
That drives you
And carries you home
And it’s run for the roses
As fast as you can
Your fate is delivered
Your moment’s at hand
It’s the chance of a lifetime
In a lifetime of chance
And it’s high time you joined
In the dance.”

I didn’t have the word for it then – this “empathy” – this joining in the dance. But I could see the path. And I wanted to be on it. I still do. I’m still wobbling along, but I’m still learning. Maybe we all can. It’s more than “high time.”


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A look around.

Of course I’m going to finish it. I always do. I never leave a book, just in case… But this will take some effort, this book, because so far, (and I am more than half way into it) I have yet to find a character to empathize with…no one seems real, not to mention likable.  I’m not going to reveal the title, because for you, it might be great. You might relate to one or all of the characters. And that’s for you to decide. 

In any book, I enjoy a flawed character. It’s not like I’m looking for perfection. Because the flaws make people interesting. Human. And that’s what I’m not finding in this book. And maybe that’s on me as well. I have to find a way to see them as human. Part of the journey is up to me. I have to see them.

I suppose that’s the real lesson, isn’t it? I have been proposing this since I wrote my first book, “I am amazed.” I would often take the book to schools and read to the kids, all grades. After reading, I had them do an exercise – pick another student and write down something amazing about them. I encouraged them not to just pick out their friends. And they didn’t. They wrote beautiful things about each other, and their teachers too. They could see each other. One school made a mural of all the attributes and left it up for the school year. They claimed, and I hope it’s true, that bullying decreased, and everyone was just a little more gentle with each other. That is amazing.

So I will finish this book. And I will try harder to empathize with characters not common in my world. I will try to see them. I want to be better at this. Every day. And what if we all did that? Not just with characters in books, but also the ones at the grocery store, the bank, the school, in the car next to us, all the characters who vote and wander, and read, and see us as the different ones. Maybe we all do that for each other. Wouldn’t that be amazing?


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A cow’s shoes.

My grandfather had cows. The herd had to be moved often. He explained that if he didn’t move them out of the grassy field, they would eat until their stomachs exploded. I don’t know if that’s true, or something he told us to keep us quietly watching the herd for hours, just for the chance to see one of them rocket into space.

I remember judging them. How stupid could they be, I thought. I still sometimes do, until mornings like this one. Mornings when I cross the line of just enough lavender honey to make the toast delicious — cross the line into wow, my racing heart and sleeping brain. That was a lot of honey!

It’s these humbling repeated lessons that keep my judgements at bay. (Not as much as I’d like, but I’m working on it.) We never know what the others are going through. And why they are going through it. Why something that is so easy for you is hard for them, and vice versa. I guess the only thing we can do is remember to be kind, to them, and to ourselves, because the roles will continue to reverse from day to day.

I won’t pretend to know what you are going through today. But I will tell you, whatever it is, I care. From the bottom of my honey-filled heart, I do care. And I’ll walk with you to the next field.


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Seeing it through.

“There was the man who got on his horse one afternoon and told his wife he was going to bring in the cows. She watched him ride off across the flats. He came to their two mild cows, grazing half a mile from the house, and he rode around them and kept on going. She watched him to the top of the rise, a mile away, and she waited and waited. He never came back. “I don’t know what got into him,” his wife said. “He didn’t even say goodbye.” Hal Borland from “High, Wide and Lonesome”


When I start a new painting, I like to keep quiet. Those who know me don’t ask, “What is it going to be?” I suppose there are a few reasons for this. First, I’m often not sure. What I begin might turn into something else completely. That, to me, is never failure of losing the first, that is the magic of gaining what is to be. The magic that comes from seeing it through. Allowing it to become. Never abandoning the canvas, but working with it. Not forcing it to be something it isn’t, but allowing it to be what it wants to be.


Maybe she learned it from her father — the farmer who always came back from the field. But most certainly, I learned it from her, my mother. From her I learned the magic of seeing it through. The magic of no more abandonings. So today, if you’re wondering what the next painting will be… what tomorrow will bring…if you really need to know, know this, it’s going to be magic!


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An imperfect life.

When I walked into his new condo, downtown Minneapolis, I was immediately impressed. It was curated as only Ken could do. Right down to the last detail. Just as he had curated each show in Anne’s lovely gallery by Lake Minnetonka.  It smelled fantastic, that mixture of clean and possible — you know, the kind of light fragrance that just makes you want to dress better.  “Sex and the City” was looping on the television screen. The lighting — just enough to highlight the art and keep your skin tones youthful. The bathroom – manicured. The bedroom – so warm, pillowed. And there it was. Framed. On the shelf. My poem, “Again.”

Again, I live this day

for the first time.

I feel the possibility of this brand new sky, again,

and I make promises to the world and myself

that I will make the most of this moment

again and again.

And I make the same mistakes for the first time –

and I cry old tears – and smile new hopes –

and I try and I laugh and I hurt,

and I pray for answers to the same old questions,

asked again and again –

when the answer is still and again – love.

I am blanketed by the night sky

and dream sweet and scared

and happy again – to wake to this day

for the first time –

to live in the possibility of this brand new sky,

and love, like I never thought I would, again.

Whenever I see this poem, I think of him. He is living his life in fabulous Ken fashion. As flamboyant and imperfect as only he can. And I saw him — not the curated version, not his sparkles, or feathered hats, or flashes of orange and prescriptionless glasses — I saw him. 

This morning, I page through my book, “An imperfect life,” and I read this poem and others. Each a snapshot of people I’ve seen. I’ve known. And what an honor it is. I read, “Hit by a train,” and I am with my Aunt Kay. I read, “Grace sat with me,” and I am with my grandmother. “The truth about you” — my mother. “Big girl world” — my Aunt Karolynn. What a joy it is to see people. To know people. What a privilege when they invite you in. Ask you to stay. 

I breathe in the morning air. Ready. Again. Eat croissants with the one I love. Open. Again. To see the beauty of this imperfect day. “To live in the possibility of this brand new sky, and love!  

Good morning world! I see you!


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Red Rover.

There was a game we played in grade school — Red Rover. The game is played between two lines of players, positioned apart from each other, with hands or arms linked together. The game starts when the first team, calls a player out, by saying or singing a line like “Red rover, red rover, send ‘insert name here’ right over.”

The immediate goal for the person called is to run to the other line and break the other team’s chain (formed by the linking of hands). If the player called fails to break the chain, they have to join that team. However, if the player successfully breaks the chain, they may select either of the broken “links” and take the link to join their team. The game continues until there is just one chain.

Today, it seems we continue to play this game – over and over – never able to successfully make one chain. I’m not saying we should all have the same beliefs in every “game.” But we should be able to come together, in the largest sense. Treat each other with kindness and respect, embrace each other, with all our differences…practice decency.

Decency. It sounds so simple: “Please” and “thank you,” “have a nice day” and “yes, you, too.” But what does it mean to be decent during a pandemic?

In Albert Camus’s The Plague, published in 1947, he writes about a plague outbreak in North Africa. In it, the physician Bernard Rieux says: “There’s no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency. That’s an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting a plague is—common decency.”

I guess there are some lessons we have to learn over and over. But I still believe we can come together. Red Rover, Red Rover…


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Chances are.

The statistics teacher thought that if he showed us a real life example, it would be easier for us. So he began explaining the amount of possibilities that existed for our combination locks. X could be this. And solve for Y. And what if this? And show your work. The numbers and letters banged around in my head. I left my locker unlocked for the rest of the school year.

People really love us in the clunkiest of ways. We’re all so different. And to match what is needed with what is given, well, when you think about it, (here comes all that banging around again), it’s really something that we can get along at all.

But when we are open, and let each other fumble along in our own peculiar ways, it can be so magical, so uplifting. Maybe we can all be a little better at finding the beauty in the attempts. I want to be better. Better, not just at loving you, but letting you love me. And I suppose, if we did that for each other, well, chances are, as the song says, our chances are awfully good.