Jodi Hills

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

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I was so surprised that we could afford them — these golden books. I was only five, but I knew that gold was expensive. The display was just past the shopping carts at Olson’s Supermarket. I stood motionless in front of the golden choices. It was safe in those days to leave a five year old in the book section. My mom reminded me to breathe, and went off to gather the groceries. I knew the routine. When I saw her get in the cash line, I had to make my final decision and come. I held the book in my hand. I wasn’t about to place it on the counter with all that produce. When everything had been priced into the register, I reached the book to the cashier without letting go. She smiled and punched in the 99 cents. The man bagging the groceries said, “You’re gonna wanna carry that yourself.” Yes, I nodded. We all knew the value.

Yesterday we went to Fountaine de Vaucluse, a small village about an hour away. The village of Fontaine de Vaucluse is squeezed into the sharp end of a narrow valley and takes its name from the beautiful and mysterious spring feeding the river Sorgue. This spring comes from deep underground – nobody knows how deep. In the 50s, Jacques Yves Cousteau came with a submersible to explore the depths but did not find the bottom. A paper mill still operates from the rushing water. The paper is beautiful. Each sheet contains this history. The touch of hands. The flow of the water. The strength of the trees.

I stood at the counter to buy, not surprisingly, a small collection of this paper, covered in leather — the color of gold. There was only one of these books. The man searched for the price. Opened one ledger. Then another. There were no scanners. I smiled and traveled back in time. He searched for the price. Dominique checked his watch, keeping track of the parking meter. He eventually found the price. Punched it into the register. Then wrapped the golden book safely.

It’s funny, they say they don’t know how deep this water flows, but I do. Carrying my golden treasure to the car, I am assured, it travels to the very depths of my soul.

May we all know the value of that.


Inspiration Peak.

To date, being only six years old, it was probably the furthest any of us had seen, looking out over the surrounding plains of Inspiration Peak. It was our debut field trip as first graders in Washington Elementary. True to its name, we did feel inspired, gazing at nature’s finest (within busing distance of Alexandria, Minnesota.)

Then Mrs. Bergstrom sent us down the steep hill. Wait…what? Before I had even decided I was swept up in the descent. Once a few of the boys began tumbling down, we all seemed to fall like dominos. Nervous laughter filled the air. Bumper tennis shoes above our heads. Dirt in pony tails. Skirts flying. Arms flapping. “Had I gotten the word wrong? What was the meaning of inspiration?” I thought as we clumped together at the bottom of the hill.

Mrs. Bergstrom waved her hand, beckoning us back. Some flew up the side like gazelles. Others struggled. I remember thinking, “this isn’t so bad,” as I reached the 90 percent mark. I could see Gerald Reed sitting on the top edge. Maybe I relaxed too early. He was saying something and I slowed to listen. I began to slip. I spun my legs faster. Like a cartoon character, I remained in place while my legs circled frantically beneath me. The only thing rising was the dust. I could see his mouth still moving. “Why was he talking???? I was fighting for my life here!” Others passed me. I was so close…why wasn’t I moving??? With each breath I sucked in a little more dirt. Gerald cupped his hands to his mouth and yelled, “Sloooooowwwww Dowwwwwwwnnnnn!”

In all of our classroomed days, he had never lied to me, so I stopped. Surprisingly, I didn’t fall. I put one foot in front of the other. Slowly. Firmly. And reached the top of the peak. He shook his head and smiled.

It may not come as a surprise, but I can still work myself into a panic. Getting caught in the whirl and twirl of the day. Kicking up way more dust than necessary, I remind myself, “a little less fighting for my life, and a little more living it, please.” I smile. Brush the dust from my legs. And breathe. The view from gratitude is always inspiring!

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My best yellow.

“If I were a bird,” she thought, “I would fling myself from limb to limb. The breeze would take away all the weight of being, and I would feel alive.”

“If I were her,” thought the bird, I would change out of my yellow dress and lie, pillowed, comforted, and still.”

It’s so easy to see what we think the “others” have. It takes a special effort sometimes to see it in ourselves.

Yesterday, I took two hours to hand paint a single bookmark. As the woman was coming to life on the paper, she looked so familiar. Someone I knew? I couldn’t quite place her. As I cut her, tasseled her, gave her a sleeve, I saw it — the yellow bird painting. She was the yellow bird. And that’s when I heard their voices.

I’ve heard those voices before. In my head. The ones that compare, Oh, the French do this, or the Americans have that… and I can get lost in this battle of others. It’s so ridiculous, and never makes me happy. I’ve seen people do it online, comparing their lives to the manufactured world of social media. Ugh. But it seemed so simple, when I saw the yellow birds, the yellow-dressed woman — we all have everything we need, we just have to see it. To live it — live our best yellow. When I want to fly, I must fly. When I need to rest, I can rest. There are no “ifs,” there is only YELLOW! And when comparison tries to whisper in my ear, you don’t belong here, you’d be better off somewhere else, I simply fluff my winged dress and say, “Oh, but it IS my place!”

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Join in the dew.

I suppose it’s all how we come to it. The morning light.

It’s not that different from yesterday. But it is beautiful! How can it still be mixed with a hint of surprise after all these years?

The birds see it before I do. Each in their own language of song, “Look! Look!” they say. Never one to argue with a tune, I open the shutters, and let it all in. The glistening light carried on wings.

Diamond lit are the leaves on the trees. Sparkling too with each blade of grass. Even yesterday’s weeds join in the dew. It seems that all is forgiven in the garden. Nature has it right.

I bow my head before the morning light. Humble. Vulnerable. Open. Just a hint of surprise, as my heart seems as willing as all the green to accept the sparkle. A mix of willow, wren and weed, I come to the day. I come to the garden. Ready to shine.

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I had to go back and reread it — the lesson I had “learned.” The lesson I re-learned and wrote down on paper. The lesson on paper that I typed onto the computer. The lesson I shared with you, more than once. 

“Each rock seemed to give birth to another. I was so tired. But Grandpa didn’t seem to be. He just kept picking those rocks, one after the other. He seemed to get stronger. There was precision in each movement. I watched carefully. It was like an oil pump that didn’t have a beginning or an end to its motion, but just kept going. I had been throwing the rocks with anger, but he moved them with purpose…and that was the difference.“

I was pulling weeds yesterday in our backyard. Powerful weeds that I struggle with every year. At first I just pulled them. Strong, I thought, but nothing I can’t handle. Then slowly I started to give them the weight of my anger. Stupid weeds. The weight of my bent back. You’re killing me! The weight of forever, like I was never going to win this battle. The weight of I’m going to have to do this every year again and again, and…. OH MY! I could barely lift them at this point. I started to cry. Oh, good! I thought. Now I’m watering them!

It all sounds so ridiculous after a good night’s sleep. I read the words, again, and I know, again, there is no need to give more weight to the rocks in our life.

I smile and tag myself with the familiar words — “Something will grow from all of this, and it will be me.” Thank you, Grandpa.

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Out of the back seat.

I was learning the capitals of all 50 states when they shaved my brother’s head and assigned him to the base in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I had never heard of the UP, until the weekend we went to visit him. My only reward was a dusty blue sweatshirt with the words, “UP – 51st state.”

Wearing it, I tried to memorize the capitals of the other fifty on the excruciatingly long ride home. It may have been the first of a forever lesson on the existence of others. There were other states. Other cities. Even my brother had become an other. Soon, but for my mom and I, that’s what our family would be.

I suppose the awareness was just coming into light. But I could feel the discomfort. My mother could see that I was struggling. “Just make it familiar,” she told me. I reached my head over the back of her car seat, wondering what she meant. “You know, make the connection personal. Tie the capital and the state together with something you already know.” I stared blankly. “Name a state,” she said. “Michigan,” I said — it being in our rearview mirror. “What’s the capital?” “Lansing,” I read off of the map in my hand. “What’s familiar?” she asked. I said the words over and over… quickly. Lansing. Michigan. LansingMichigan. Lanigan. Cindy Lanigan – My best friend. I smiled. “See….” my mom said joyfully. I’ve never forgotten.

I aced the test on Monday, wearing my new sweatshirt. Some laughed. Thought it was ridiculous…a 51st state. But I knew, even then, there was more out there. More of the other, that I would connect to, make my own.

My mother gave me more than a home. From the back seat of a Chevy Impala, she gave me the world.

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Place by place.

I was using it as bookmark, one of my apple paintings. Lying in the hammock, he stood over me and picked it up from my chest. “You did that,” he said. I smiled with eyes, mouth and heart. It felt like we both were “holding my place.”

From the age of six, I wrote poems for my mother. Burned the edges of the paper and decoupaged them to the panels of wood I had stained with a blowtorch. It was my humble attempt to make her feel better. To feel safe.

I suppose in my childish ways, I thought maybe life was like a lifeguard at the beach — that you only had to be saved once. But I learned that in love, in life, we would have to (get to) do it again and again. I kept writing. I kept painting.

And all those poems, those paintings, they weren’t just saving her, but me. And day to day, as we reflected smiles from heart to heart, face to face, we could look at each other and say, “You did that.”

Life’s pages keep turning. True love moves with you. Recognizes you. Holds you. Place to changing place.


Celebrating jam!

I made a small batch of raspberry jam last night. I’m surprised I even slept, with the excitement of having it for breakfast. 

When the birds told me to open up the shutters, I donned my slippers and made the bed, quick as a wink. I clipped down the stairs and saw it — as red as Christmas morning. I brewed the coffee and toasted the bread (bread that I had also made). 

“Look at that color!” I exclaimed to Dominique. The perfume of the raspberries lingered through each bite. I held up the small jar in wonder. Mid-song of my praises, I began to laugh. I was transported to my grandparents’ table. The floor above the countless jars my grandma had filled. With nine children, I can guarantee that there was never a time my grandma sat at the table, admiring her jam, saying, “Look, Rueben!  Look at that color!”  I’m still laughing.

It’s glorious to make things. I want to live in a world of makers. And we should take pleasure in it. Joy even! But before we get too full of ourselves, thanks must be given to those who made the paths. Those who didn’t have the luxury of the morning stroll, but those who labored so that we could!  

My grandmother’s kitchen was always mid-boil, mid-brew. 9 children. 27 grandchildren. She didn’t have time to teach us recipes. She didn’t even have time to follow recipes. She just added, guessed, tested. So how is it that I remember the soothing rumble of her aproned belly, as I rode in the laughter of her lap. She still had the time. Took the time. For me. Perhaps the greatest gift of all!  

So, I say go ahead and celebrate the morning jam! The morning coffee! The morning laughter! What better way to give thanks?!!!

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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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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.