Jodi Hills

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


Something pretty.

I don’t remember ever using the word haul. I suppose I heard it when my grandfather was taking grain to town, but certainly I never used it going to the mall.

It was only by her example that I learned it – the joy of “seeing pretty things.” More times than not, we came home from Viking Plaza (Herberger’s) with our hearts full and our hands empty. She knew the names of everyone, my mom. And she spoke them freely. Joyfully. She knew the layout of the store. What was new. What would be on sale soon. Which coupons could be used on what. Coupons that were often given freely to strangers contemplating the price of a future purchase. She knew which dressing room had the best lighting – the second from the right in the denim section. The laughter we shared on what would have otherwise been a lonely Sunday afternoon, was larger than anything I’ve ever seen on YouTube. I suppose that was our “haul” — this glorious time together — something I carry with me to this day.

I’m not perfect. I too can get caught up in the end result. What will I have to show for it in the end? Painting, not for the pure joy of it, but to have a painting. Yesterday, to break that cycle, I told myself, “Today is just for fun. Nothing to be saved. Gained. Or sold. No rules to be followed. It is a Herberger’s afternoon.” With no plan, I just started to paint. The rain beat against the studio and I painted. The music played. I sang. I laughed. I paused. I painted some more. The hours passed without my knowledge. The sun came out. My heart was full. I walked away from the unfinished canvas.

Sometimes when I’d say “I need to see something pretty,” she would reply, “Look in the mirror.” Today, when I do, seeing her reflection in mine, I know I have forever made my haul.

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My freshly earned driving permit was burning a hole in my pocket. “I don’t care where it is…I’ll take you anywhere,” I pleaded with my mom. When you’re 15, a Sunday can seem as long as, well, a month of Sundays. And not to use my state issued permission to drive (with another qualified licensed driver) seemed unthinkable. “We could go see…” “Yes,” I interrupted. “Grandma,” she finished.

The roads to my grandma’s house were long, straight, and for the most part, untraveled. I got in the driver’s side of our light blue Chevy Malibu station wagon. My mom got in the passenger seat. I put on my seat belt. Adjusted the mirrors. Started the engine. Turned off the radio. Looked in every direction. Put on my blinker, even though there was obviously no one behind us in the driveway, and proceeded with caution onto the road. The football coach who taught us Driver’s Ed was fresh in my mind.

Even with the windows closed, I felt the breeze in my mind. Wide open. Such freedom. I had experienced it on my bicycle, but this was fresh, exciting, this new travel — it was indeed Malibu!

My Uncle Ron was also visiting my grandma that Sunday. He watched me pull in the driveway. He slipped the toothpick from his mouth. He said things slowly, like my grandpa. “What kind of mileage do you get?” he asked me. Not only did I not know “what kind of mileage” I got, I didn’t even know what it was, or if in fact I was actually getting it. I shrugged my shoulders. “You don’t know. You have to know,” he said. I looked at my mother. She raised her eyebrows as if to wish me luck, and went into the house. I looked at my uncle. He led me inside to the kitchen table, where all things were learned and/or decided. He took a scratch pad and a pencil from the rolltop desk and proceeded to do the most math I had ever witnessed on a Sunday.

I stared at him, which he may have mistook for attention. But it was really more amazement. This was our first conversation in 15 years. I think he actually cared about me. Sure it was all disguised in a car metaphor, but I smiled and nodded. I stashed his full proof formula inside my pocket.

Freedom isn’t always measured in distance. Sometimes it takes you to the familiar, in a way you’ve never been before.

Today’s journey is beginning. I look in the morning mirror, and give myself permission.


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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To find out who I am.

They didn’t protect us from getting lost – in fact they encouraged it — our teachers at Central Junior High. We were swung through a carousel of mini-courses, each lasting six weeks. It seems they knew that in order to find ourselves we first had to wander off the paths of our familiar.

The transitions seemed abrupt. Moving from sewing to drafting. Drafting to metals. Metals to plastics. Back up to home-ec. Back down to wood shop. My mother’s laundry room/storage area was stacked with an uneven wooden shelf, a dangerously sharp edged metal toolbox, a yellow stuffed dog sewn with red thread, a glitter filled plastic soap dish in the shape of a pear, blue prints for an undetermined office building, and a lingering bitter taste of a slightly unbaked apple pie.

I suppose it was this balance that helped to form me. Being thrust from place to place in school, and then welcomed home, no matter what I carried, in hand or in heart — I knew it, I, would be saved.

I don’t think any of us knew that we would look back on these junior transitions and think, how simple, how small, compared to the ones life now challenges us with. As we move through adult time and space, perhaps the most difficult is when people transition in and out of our lives. This letting in, and letting go. Maybe that’s what they were trying to teach us all along.

They armed us with experience. I carry it up and down today’s stairs. I’m still learning.

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A part of it all.

It’s one of the first lessons they taught us at Washington Elementary. One that I keep having to learn.

Mrs. Strand told us to sit in a circle. We wriggled our way next to our best friend of the day. Up and down. Crawling on hands and knees. Maneuvering. Pushing. Wedging our way into position. Mrs. Strand had the patience of a saint. Finally, when we shaped ourselves into something nearing a circle, Mrs. Strand told us the game — “Whisper around the World.” What did she say? (Because in fact, she did whisper it.) She said it softly again. “Whisper around the World.” And because our world was contained within these four walls, we thought for sure we would excel at it.

She would begin by whispering a sentence into a student’s ear. That student would then repeat it into the ear of the next student in the circle, and so on, until it reached the last person, and then that last person would say it out loud. Words were passed, between snorts and giggles. Laughter and spit. And more words. Other words. We leaned in close. Leaned over in delight. The last person said the sentence out loud. Then Mrs. Strand said the actual sentence. Not even close. Not one word was the same. At first it was hysterical. Then we did it again. “This time we were really going to try,” we thought. We never got it right.

I suppose the lessons were multiple. And because we hadn’t yet developed the cynicism that age can bring, we still believed it was possible. If we really tried. If we paid attention. If we asked questions. If we went to the source. Our source was a tall, soon to be pregnant with twins, woman at the front of the class. When she told us something. We heard it. We believed it. “The truth can always be found,” she told us, “if you go to the source.”

I understand today, that even hearing the words is sometimes not enough. I’ve learned to stop and ask the questions. Not just “what did you say,” but “what did you mean when you said…”

Now being actually “around the world,” it’s even more important. Distance. Time. Texting. Emailing. They can all be as easily misconstrued as a passing snort. Maybe it’s naive, but I still believe. I still believe we can get there. We can see the humor in our mistakes. And come together, with all of our ill-shaped good intentions, we can whisper our way to the truth, and be a part of it all.

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It isn’t often. It’s only happened a couple of times in 10 years, but it’s been enough to keep me humble. To keep me aware. I respect my electric saw. It cuts the angles to make the frames to enclose the paintings.

The first time it occurred, it terrified me. I can’t say why it happened. Maybe a flaw in the wood, or an extra strength… I don’t know. I always check for nails or screws in my reclaimed wood. I wear goggles. Take the usual precautions. But something snapped. And I mean cracked with the most vengeful noise and a piece of wood shot across the studio. Like a gun or canon went off! It took me several days to go back to it. To be calm enough to try again. But I did. And the fear slipped into knowledge. It became an additional tool. It happened again the other day. Less terrifying, but I knew enough to step away. To think it through, and return with a clear head.

I hope I’m smart enough to do the same in my relationships. I hope we all are. Gathering in the fear, the surprise, the anger even, and turning it into knowledge. To know when it’s time to engage, and when it’s time to step away. We are given all the tools. Right from the start — I guess we just have to keep learning how to use them.

Trust is a big one. I will admit that it has been a hard one for me to re-learn. Taken away with a bang at a young age, it took me a long time to go back to it. But I have been lucky. The door has been opened and opened again with the kindness of others. And I can’t turn away. There is beauty to be made. Joy to be felt. Love to be loved. Life to be lived. The day begins – my heart is a tool – I’m not afraid to use it.

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Heart bound.

We lived in three houses on VanDyke Road. We didn’t stop until we reached Grandma Mullen. For this brief moment in time, we were wedged between the two grandmas — Dynda and Mullen. The fact that we were related to neither of them, didn’t make the grandma bookends any less special.

We choose what holds us up. What keeps us together.

I remember thinking that gold was actually the color of white. Because in all of the fairy tale books beside my fairy-tale-needing bed, the women had hair “spun from gold.” The two grandmas had the finest, whitest hair. Hair that seemed so different, so magical, that my chubby fingers could do nothing but reach out and make a wish. A golden wish — that I would be forever held.

We lost that house. My mom and I moved into town. The grandmas passed away. They paved the road. I left the city. The state. And eventually the country. Some might say, “Well, that golden wish sure didn’t come true…” I guess it’s all what you choose to see. I think it has. I think it continues.

We used to play a game. Telephone. Strings and tin cans. Whispering into the tin, our voices traveled through the string into the other can. We said things that we didn’t dare say out loud in the light of day. Words only safe on magical white string. Sometimes, before I fell asleep, I’d imagine that Grandma Dynda would whisper a secret. One that would travel across the vacant lot. Through my open window. Translated by my heart. Passing through the trees, into the bedroom of Grandma Mullen. We were all connected.

You might say that VanDyke road was the place where everything fell apart. Or you could say, it is the place that gave me the tools to keep everything together. That’s what I choose. Daily. What lifts me. Daily. What holds me together. Forever wedged within the magic. Heart bound in the belief that we are all connected.

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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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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.