Jodi Hills

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

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Finding shine.

I suppose it’s only natural to get used to things. Even the things we dreamed about for years can become ordinary while living them. And we all want to be comfortable. There’s nothing wrong with that. But the shine, I don’t want to lose that. So I make the small changes. Daily.

It might sound silly, but for me, it’s the little things. I change the painting in my direct view from the breakfast table. And this brand new, this shiny comfort, reflects my smile, and the day begins. 

After lunch is my usual reading time. I switch up the place. Moving daily from chair, to bed, to outdoor hammock. Yesterday’s sun jumped off the pages as I swayed above the grass. 

Being my mother’s daughter, it is not only my joy, but my responsibility, to change my clothes frequently throughout the day. The more challenging the day, the more changes. I will hold the conversation in my head. Clutching my pearls, sometimes real, sometimes imaginary. Humbly offering my thanks. Accepting the worked-for shine that only a mirror and a mother’s memory can reflect.

Now some might say, well it’s easy for you, you live in a beautiful country. You have inspiration all around. Yes, that’s true. But I don’t eat breakfast under the Eiffel Tower each morning. I, like everyone else, am not given a reason to get out of bed…I (we) have to get out of bed and go find that reason every day.

I don’t know what today will bring. I’m not even sure what I’ll wear, or how long I’ll wear it. The clouds overhead say, “you’re on your own today.” I smile. “I’ve got this,” I say. And set out to find my shine.


Scraps of life and growth.

I began using the paper purchased this summer at the Fontaine de Vaucluse. It’s handmade. The mill sits right next to the river. It is the most beautiful, accepting paper I have ever used. I suppose because it’s natural. Nothing to fight against. The paint goes on so smoothly and becomes a part of the paper. And the most amazing thing is I’m low on paint. I need to reload. I’m down to my most average. But even this paint takes on a whole new life when combined with this paper. 

And the paper is far from perfect. No, in fact, that’s probably what makes it so special. You can see, feel, all the flecks that go into it. The scraps of life and growth. Beautiful!! No shame of imperfections. 

Maybe it’s too simple to say, but I’m not sure everything has to be so hard. I think we need each other. And I’m pretty sure we can bring out the best in us if we want. So I come to you daily, with my humble, most average of self, and ask you to join me. You, the imperfect paper. Together, we can make something beautiful. Together, we become!

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The differences were many between my grandma and my mother. Grandma Elsie was much more of a Ben Franklin to my mother’s Woolworth’s. Grandma Elsie was penny candy and Crazy Days!  Grab bags and colorful aisles. Rules were loose and chance abundant. As a young girl, this was delicious, this fluorescent lit certainty — but not for every day. 

Perhaps it wasn’t as flashy, but I loved a Saturday morning at Woolworth’s with my mother. We went just as it opened. While most of my schoolmates rested on elbows before the television, fueling themselves with cartoons and Captain Crunch, I sat at the table in the back of Woolworth’s, thumbing through the Butterick sewing patterns. The ladies pictured on the front of the patterns were so glamorous. They not only showed you what the dress would look like, but what they would do while wearing it. 

My mother loved to sew. And she was good at it. Time didn’t allow her to pay a great deal of attention. Most of our Saturday mornings were spent at the laundromat, or the grocery store. But on those occasions when she placed the dream above the duty, we sat for hours inventing the lives we would live in pure Butterick style. 

I didn’t know for years that you could actually buy the patterns. I thought it was more of a library. They were expensive. So we pocketed the ideas. The dreams. And mostly, the time together. 

I can easily and often be overcome with Ben Franklin brain. The fast paced, bright colored, crazy day, sugariness of it all. It’s then my heart sits me down. Slowly. And says, let’s not be so sure for a while. Let’s just sit here and thumb through the dream a bit. It’s in this peaceful uncertainty that I can feel it — my mother’s lotioned hand, grasping mine. The glorious time slows to a Butterick pace. And I just breathe. In perfect pattern. 

“Not all of her dreams came true, but she was never sorry she had them.”

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Beating Ben Franklin.

It’s probably the worst time to tell you this, but it is true, I never had a Barbie. I don’t remember ever even wanting one.

There was nearly an entire row dedicated to the Barbie world at our local Ben Franklin store. Straight down from the candy. I saw classmates ooohing and aaahing and but, please, mommy-ing as they fogged the plastic containers. I was always two aisles over. In the craft section. Glues and paint and glitter and paper. All I ever wanted to do was make something.

The first time I opened a “grab bag” from Ben Franklin with my grandma during the summer Crazy Days Sale and found the plastic face glued to the crocheted Kleenex box holder, I was hooked. It wasn’t that I loved that “prize.” No, far from it. But I knew, even at 5 years old, I could do much better. I would beat Ben Franklin with their own supplies.

While my friends filled sacks of penny candy to go to the matinee at the Cinema next door, I wandered over to my aisle. I was often alone, or with a grandma look alike who nodded in my direction, understanding the addiction, smiling as if to say it would never end. And it hasn’t. I need to make something every day.

Sure my “aisles” have changed. The daily creation may be making a frame from reclaimed wood. Stretching a canvas. Painting a portrait. Making jam. Writing on scraps of paper with words that glitter in sweet alliteration. Living not in Barbie’s dream world, but certainly mine.

They won’t make a movie about a half-faced plastic girl stuck to a Kleenex box holder.
But I’ll be more than ok. I found my inspiration long ago. I smile as the words rhyme again and again in my head – glitter and “alliter”…. What a theme song!

I’ve had my breakfast of yesterday’s art – homemade bread and jam. I am sugared pink and ready to start the day! Let’s make something of it!

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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…”

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The 6th of July!!!!!!

I suppose it was delightfully confusing as a child — all the excitement of having a birthday. So much attention in the air. And sugar. And presents. Or maybe it was because my mother was so inclusive — every compliment returned, every celebration gathered in. When I was wished a happy birthday, the first thing that always bubbled out was “Happy Birthday to you too!”  Bubbling joy is meant to be shared!

She loved lemon boats. And yellow tulips. And extra-hot skim vanilla lattes. More frosting than cake. And no-salt margaritas during happy hour. She loved dressing for all of it. Oh, the getting ready! Maybe that was the most joyful part of all. Nobody did it better. And she knew it. So when it came to the big reveal — what she was wearing for her birthday celebration — she entered the room that I was getting ready in (we each had to have our own room, with our own mirror) — and before I could get any words out, she would say, “You look nice too!” Oh how we would laugh!  

That’s how I want to carry myself. With that playful confidence. That inclusive spirit of beauty and grace and laughter. Especially today. On her birthday. My mother’s birthday. So, I ask you today, on this 6th of July, to drink the coffee and buy the flowers. Frost the cake. Light the candles. Smile in the mirror. Enter the room with confidence and joy. Be the compliment you need to hear, then give it away, freely!  Be bigger than the 4th!  Be the 6th!  

Happy Birthday, Mom! I smile at her picture, and say, “You look nice too!”


True colors.

It’s odd to think of Christmas in this French summer heat, but there it was, along my daily gravel path. The color of the wild flowers against the sea of green — the same combination my friend Deb used for her Christmas decorations. 

Lounging in our chairs at the Starbuck’s near my apartment, drinking extra-hot vanilla lattes in the still-welcomed air conditioning of the lingering September summer, we thumbed through the Jonathan Adler catalog, already dreaming of Christmas. We could never start too early. We both loved decorating for the holidays. It was here, eleven years ago, that she changed her color palette. And a bold palette it was. More pink than red. More yellow than green, but still a nod to the tradition. Each holiday piece that she put out was in this new palette. Right down to the candy purchased in Stillwater, Minnesota. 

With French pebbles still in the soles of my shoes, I stepped directly into her apartment. The familiar scent of candles. The corner tree blinking. Shelled pistachios next to chocolate covered in a deep pink candy shell. (Ever in the palette.) And just like with the catalog, we went through her apartment and pointed out, praised, loved each and every detail. 

If you think this all shallow, you would be wrong. Because I knew what this break from the traditional palette meant. I knew what not fitting into the norm of it all felt like for her, for me, (for so many). I knew the pain she had suffered losing her husband first to mental illness, then divorce. The jobs she had lost. The lifestyle she tried to regain. The navigating of keeping tradition for her son, creating a new life for herself. I knew her colors, inside and out. She was my friend.

And isn’t it just like a friend to show up with a wink and smile, lifting your heart and heat weary feet on a gravel path. I suppose that’s what real friends do, at any time, any distance, they show you their true colors, and allow you to walk in  yours. 

If you see a spring in my step, you know I had such a friend.

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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.

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Red rubber hearted.

We were the first class of six graders to move to Central Junior High School. The only ones really happy about this were the incoming seventh graders – no longer would they be at the bottom of the hierarchy. Leaving Washington Elementary, we left behind our giant playground. Filled with monkey bars, swing sets, tethered balls, a baseball field, a jungle gym, teeter totters — all which we ruled as 5th graders. Central Junior High had none of it. No playground whatsoever.

There was a small nook between building additions. It was covered with tar. It didn’t take us long to claim it. (Not to mention that no one else wanted it.) We took chalk from the art room and outlined the four squares. Kept a red rubber ball after gym class. We were all set. Four-square. We didn’t just play. We became champions. We had moves. Giant arm swings that would indicate a hard ball on the way, only to tap it slightly with fingertips, leaving the person in the next square open-jawed and back to the end of the line. We made alliances. We laughed. We cheered. We ruled that tiny piece of real estate that few even knew existed. 

We heard the rumors. Sure. Parents. Teachers. People of the town. “This part of the school wasn’t safe.” “It shouldn’t be open.” “What will they do?” We couldn’t really be bothered with it all. We simply found a way. We found our own way. The voices in our own heads were so much stronger. Now that I think about it, maybe they weren’t any louder than the voices in our heads today, but maybe we just listened more. I want that. I want to listen to that voice that tells me to color outside of the lines. To laugh until I can’t stand. To embrace my friends openly. To take what I’m given and celebrate! To love and play over the din of doom. To feel the bounce of my red rubber heart! I can hear that joy! You can hear it! I know we can do this! Whatever this day may bring, let’s find a way – our own way – to have a little fun!

What was it all for, if we didn’t have a little fun?