Jodi Hills

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


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The go-ahead to go deep.

I couldn’t start a new book last night. I was still ruminating over the one I finished in the afternoon. I love to read. I can’t get enough of it! But sometimes, when it’s really good, I have to sit in it for a minute. Letting it wash over me, as I float through the wave of words. Bobbling, buoyed through sentences like:

“It was a form of naïveté, he thought, the way she continued to believe that all it took to get through life was grit. Sure, grit was critical, but it also took luck, and if luck wasn’t available, then help. Everyone needed help. But maybe because she’d never been offered any, she refused to believe in it.”

I started a new painting recently. I can’t tell you what it is yet. I don’t want the magic to slip away. It has to come slowly. Stroke by stroke. And this is a very personal painting. So I’m in deep. Really deep. Sometimes I think, with feelings, even the best feelings, we have this need to get through it. See how it all ends. And as filling as this is, to create a new life on canvas, sometimes it’s overwhelming. But I don’t want to rush through it. I want to feel it. I want to accept the help it offers. Because maybe that’s the best help of all — the allowing to feel, the go-ahead to go deep, and the assurance that you will be lifted, buoyed. Held. Helped. 

There are so many quotes I could give you from this last book I read, but I don’t want to rush you to my favorite parts. You should be able to experience it, just as I did. Word by word. Stroke by stroke. For the amount of books that I read, it is rare for me to recommend one. This one is “Lessons in Chemistry,” by Bonnie Garmus. 

I’m excited to paint again today. To feel it all. You will see it in good time. But today, I ask you to bobble along beside me. Assured. Held. Buoyed. In the deep.


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Looking for things to steal.

I guess I’m always looking for things to steal – two petite jars of French honey from First Class, and a glance of the Eiffel Tower through my passenger’s window on the right.

It’s a standing joke I have with friends. They have good taste. And as a compliment, I say if I were a different person, I would totally steal it. I have filled my imaginary bags of loot through the years, and we laugh. But the truth is, I am always trying to take something with me. The funniest line over dinner. Maybe a recipe. That feeling of pure comfort that only comes from true relationships. True hearts. Those moments that you can’t quite put your finger on, but want them never to end. MAGIC. That’s all I’m really trying to steal, a bit of the magic.

We just landed in Paris. My safe is full. Thank you, Mom. Minnesota. Alexandria. Friends. Family. History that begins and begins. Forever thieves of time. Of hearts. You have mine. I carry yours.


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Being a cardinal.

We never imagined ourselves as the toughest. We were birds. We played other schools that were tigers, bears, bison, wolves, eagles even… And when I say we played, we really did play. We had fun. I’m not certain if that’s why everyone joined, but I think so. And we were proud to be cardinals. Lovely red birds who played in the afternoons. No one was ever really threatened or intimidated by us, the cardinal girls, but still in the song we sang on the bus, we deemed ourselves mighty — “We are the cardinals, mighty, mighty cardinals, everywhere we go – oh, people wanna know- oh, who we are – so we tell ‘em… (and repeat).

And I think mighty be the exact right word here. Sure, we competed. We even won sometimes. But there was so much more. We did everything together. Dressed together. Hoped together. Sang together. Won and lost. Even cried sometimes. All together. And those years in school, when hope was really all I had — to do it together, was everything. And maybe only a couple of girls knew my story, but it didn’t matter. I don’t think we needed details. They didn’t seem to. I was part of something, and I, we, knew it was way more important than being the best – it was about wanting the best for each other. Being a part of something bigger than ourselves — I guess that, by my definition is mighty.

We were on the radio yesterday. Telling our story. What a delight! How did we fit together? How did we fit in this town? It felt like red and black joy. I was, again, a dancing cardinal!

It’s human nature I suppose to want to know all the details. But when you are welcomed, just for being you, brought into the colors without judgement, oh, what a feeling! People who will laugh with you. Ride with you. Win and lose with you, and still find a reason to sing — surround yourself with these people — people filled with hope, friendship and love — this is one mighty team! Everywhere I go-oh, I want people to know-oh, Yes, I am a cardinal…


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You are part of my story, and it is beautiful.

I turned onto Jefferson Street by Washington School. It occurred to me for the first time that Washington School was on Jefferson Street. I don’t know why, but I had always assumed that Jefferson Street was named after our high school, Jefferson Senior High. Ridiculous, I know. But stranger still to me is that the street remains, while Washington Elementary is now a building of condos, and Jefferson Senior HIgh is an empty lot with a pile of dirt. A big pile of dirt. 

It was at Washington Elementary, in the first grade, with Mrs. Bergstrom that I first learned the value of money. She surprised us one day with a piece of paper that would change my life. It was the Weekly Reader — a small newsletter for children. Inside this Weekly Reader, if you had permission from a parent, and the money, you could order books. Small paperbacks usually. But to me, they seemed like gold. My mother never hesitated. Of course you can order one she said. Of course — I had never loved her more. I ordered The Big Pile of Dirt by Eleanor Clymer. (I still have it.) The story is about the hopes and imaginations of a group of children living in the city. They have to make do with the limited circumstances of their childhood, but they don’t see it as a limitation – they have a big pile of dirt in their neighborhood and they love it. I never knew that we were poor. I never saw it that way. We had enough money to buy books. And within those books, there were no limitations. When the first order of books came, to the door of our classroom, I held my breath. Mrs. Bergstrom put the cardboard box on her desk. Opened her locked drawer and pulled out letter opener. Slid it along the taped edged. My heart raced. Other kids were talking. Didn’t they see what was about to happen??? Why weren’t they paying attention? The cardboard creaked as she unfolded the top. She pulled out the paper that was used for packing. She removed the stack of books. Mine was in there. Mine! In there! Not everyone ordered. I felt badly for them. Even those in their designer shoes, didn’t see how rich we really were. When she handed me The Big Pile of Dirt I held it with both hands. Felt the smooth gloss of the cover. Smelled the ink, still alive on each page. Clutched it to my heart. I had everything.
I wasn’t sad, passing the big pile of dirt yesterday. In my youth, I never saw the limitations, so why should I start now? Maybe it’s appropriate that it comes back to this — this beautiful pile of dirt. All things were possible before. And they will be again. I clutch the memories close to my heart, and drive into the new day. I have everything.


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A soft touch.

The dentist told me that I’m brushing my teeth too hard. That was humbling. You’d think after brushing my teeth this long, I would know how to do it. “Doucement,” she said. (Meaning gently.)

When they say it never rains here, it’s not like the song…we live in one of the sunniest parts of the world. It’s in my nature not to waste it. While the sun is shining I think, “I can do this, and this, and don’t forget… keep going…” And I like it. I enjoy it. I need it. But once in a while, it’s in my best interest to just slow down a little. The universe, being much more wise, saw that maybe it was time for me to be calm. But it took a darkening of the skies, and a few loud rumbles to make it happen.

I turned on my desk lamp. Opened my sketchbook. Took out the colored pencils. Rolled them through my fingers. I like the sound of the wood clinking with possibility. I sketched out a bird. Slowly. Colored in it’s wings. Feathers. Found a pastel stick to create the white areas. Pastels require the softest of touch. Doucement. And there was my bird. My gentle, little, rainy day bird.

Sometimes we are hardest on ourselves. Impatient. Unforgiving. And we need a little reminder to be gentle. Take this bird to be just that. And be kind today — to yourself. Hold the pastel of your heart softly, without judgement, and know that it’s not wasteful to be still. It’s healthy, necessary. Doucement, my friends…Doucement.


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The weight of the magic.


Not everyone liked to be called up to the black board. I did. When Mrs. Bergstrom began asking a question, I was suddenly the tallest person in the room. Everyone sank lower in their desks, to discourage her from calling on them — as if she might think, well, I couldn’t possibly ask them to walk all the way up here to the board, they are but floating heads…” It never worked. She called on everyone.


When it was my turn, I ran, hand reaching out for the chalk. I could barely hear the question over my heart racing. I loved the feel of the chalk in my chubby little fingers. Once in a while, she would hand over her personal piece of chalk – the one with the wooden holder. The weight of it was magnificent. It felt powerful and important. As I wrote the answer, any answer, it felt like my hand was sledding across the fresh fallen snow – gliding, surely, easily, making tracks of white. This feeling far surpassed any worry of right and wrong. There was only this. This magic from head to hand to board.


I’m working on some new projects with my publishers. They are in the United States. I am in France. In these separate countries, in different hours of the same day, we communicate in real time, face to face, actions and creations are immediate. Immediate. Imagine that!
In our discussion, they wanted to know my favorite pencil. I knew immediately. It is the woodless graphite pencil I purchased from the Musée Soulages Rodez. The weight of it is, once again, magnificent! It feels possible. Magic! It feels like no worry of right and wrong. It glides with youth across the page. The one I race to. That is a worthy pencil!


Without saying all of that, when they asked me why, I immediately drew this bird. In real time. Maybe a minute, or two. “Because, this!” I drew. This! With this pencil, it is “my turn.” I guess I’ve always understood the importance of that. Even when fear hides all around me, sometimes even within, I will forever race towards the weight of the magic!


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The scent of story.

I was only six when I was walked into the library of Washington Elementary. The door opened and it hit me immediately, the familiar scent. I didn’t have the words for it then. The knowledge. Certainly it could have been explained away with paper, and time. The aging, a slight dampness to it all. But I had smelled this before, this comforting familiar. And I needed no explanation, because I was home.

This welcoming scent – it was the same as the entryway to my grandparents’ home. Coats lined the wall. Dampened with work and story, they welcomed anyone who opened the door. They said, come in, you and your heart sit down. It was there I learned to trust. Trust in those who made the effort. Trust in those who worked hard to create something. Create a life.This library of coats. Of living.

When Mrs. Bergstrom, my first grade teacher, let go of my hand, I wasn’t afraid. She set me free in this open and beautiful world. There was life all around me. Book after book. Page after page. The words brushed against my arm, warm and worn, as the sleeve of my grandfather’s coat.

Some might say it is only nostalgia. But what is nostalgia? For me, it is not wanting to live in the past. No, for me, I see it as proof. A living and palpable proof of how it feels to be open. It is a reminder of how glorious life can be. A documentation of the extraordinary doors — the doors that let you in, the ones that set you free.

I don’t know what today will bring. But I know what it feels like to be open. I need no explanation. I brush against the familiar, and walk into the sun.


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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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Produce

I have professed my love for libraries, over and over. The Washington School Library. The Alexandria Public Library. One small room. One small building. Each opened a world to me that will never close. I can smell the wood that housed the paper. The slight hint of sweet mildew, like an open window.

The truth is, this was not my first impression of books. My first collection of words on pages — words mixed with colorful art – these books held the smell of fresh produce. It was at Olson’s Supermarket. My mother hoisted me into the shopping cart. The silver denting the back of my thighs. Legs dangling. Her purse beside me.

Just after the cart corral was a long display of Golden Books. I can feel my arms reaching. They were the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. She placed one in my chubby hand and I was changed. Words on paper. My arms will be forever reaching.

I can hear her voice reading each page. Night after night. Year after year. And then I started to hear my own. How do you thank someone for giving you the world? I suppose the only way I know is to use the same words I was given. Again and again.

I was speaking to the young woman who is currently working on my new website. Not a small task. She has to handle each piece of art, each word. She told me yesterday, because she is so immersed in all of the work, “I feel like I know you.” My heart is still smiling. My arms are still reaching. We are in different countries. From different generations, and my paintings of the apples remind her of her mother’s kitchen. Once again, the sweet smell of produce… My world opens, and I give thanks with the words that first saved me.