Jodi Hills

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


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Being small.

John Prine sings, “I remember everything…every single blade of grass holds a special place for me.” I hear the words in my heart and I’m back on VanDyke Road. It’s a summer day. Bits of green stick to my legs and I’m soaked in sun. Red shoulders. Cheeks. Carrying a plastic bow and arrow from Target. Arrows not strong enough to puncture the ground, but strong enough to make me a cowgirl, a big girl, as my mother told me to be. A big girl that could stay alone during school’s summer vacation and imagine a ranch of hired hands, working cattle and horses, and filling a backyard with “Big Valley” moments, “Bonanza” rescues, and every Disney movie hero. Only until 4:30, then my mom would come home from work. I let the bow drop from my hand into the blades of grass I counted. Each a different color of green. I dropped my arrow. And I was gloriously small. I was saved. She held me close. Every day. My heart beat full. I remember everything.


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First, the field…


I have been commissioned to paint a field of poppies. Looks pretty green for poppies, you’re thinking. Yes, for now. But first the field… my grandfather taught me that, I suppose, on his farm. Each year he would take the browns and turn them into greens, and eventually into gold. “You can’t glamorize the dirt,” he said. It was work. So much work. Rocks needed to be picked. Dirt turned. Seeds planted. Watered. Care. So much care.


And so I paint the same way. I cut the wood. Stretch the canvas. Gesso. Prepare. Underpaint. Start with the field. My hands dirty. My heart full of promise that the flowers will come. Patient. Care. So much care.


Life is very messy. Terribly messy. My Uncle Nick passed away yesterday. I can’t glamorize that. I know he suffered. But I believe in the golden fields. Those of my grandfather. I believe they are there now. Together. Held with care. So much care.


Today, maybe, the poppies…


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Hold on to.

We asked for directions to the museum. She said we go up to the store “that has red things in the window, you know like tractors… sometimes they’re open, sometimes they’re not, but either way, turn right there, and go to the park and walk through in at an angle, no need to walk around, and then go up the hill, you can walk it, it’s easy, I walk there, and then there it is – right there!” She said it all in one breath. Dominique looked at me, “What?”

We got to the store with the red things. They were wagons. We had one as kids. I suppose it was my brother’s first. So many things were. But I do remember getting dragged behind him. Rust on my white summer shorts from the chipping red. (He had used that wagon for many years before I arrived.) I was dirty, but happy to be included at arm’s and wagon handle’s length.

As we got older, he no longer got to do all the firsts. I find my own, and my others. But he was there. I have the rust stains to prove it.

We don’t see each other often. We are sometimes open, sometimes not. The directions aren’t always clear. But I trusted him once. To lead me. To carry me. That is something to hold on to.


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No slip of beauty


I don’t know if she was born with it. Maybe all kids have it, if given the freedom. But she has something – some may call it confidence, or a lack of shame. Maybe it’s a mixture of both, combined with the essence of youth.


She isn’t afraid to try anything. And she isn’t afraid to fail. In fact, she doesn’t see it as failure. She can finish a painting that some may see as juvenile, or crude, but she thinks, “Voila!” – and couldn’t be more proud. She can put on a swimsuit, never giving a thought to her baby fat that still clings around the middle. Not a worry. She’ll even run in her swimsuit – (a nightmare for most of us.). She’ll sing songs with no idea of the lyrics. OUTLOUD! She attempts a new language with no fear of mispronouncing the words – in fact it’s your fault if you don’t understand. She dances. She laughs. She is a super hero!


I don’t what the years will bring. I don’t know what she’ll become. Who she’ll become. I only pray she keeps the tightest hold on this – whatever this is – this confidence, this youth, THIS!


I see it in her, and I can still feel my own. Feel myself flying on my banana seat bike, without boundaries or limitations. Believing! I am so grateful for the reminder she brings. And if she’ll let me, I will help her hold on, hold on with the might of youth, so she’ll never feel the fear that living can bring, the shame in any attempt, the slip of beauty. We need to protect her. Protect THIS! Celebrate THIS! We ARE her, we are THIS!


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An education.

We have visited most of the Ivy League schools now. Stepping on to each campus, I can feel it. Maybe it’s the knowledge, the learning, but most probably, I think it’s the curiosity in the air – the possibility. It’s not lost on me that the most glorious beam of sun just shone through the window at the moment I was typing “curiosity in the air.” And I guess that’s the real beauty, isn’t it? It is everywhere. And I want to feel it everywhere. Now some might think it shines only for the elite, but if you can see yourself, in the grasp of that morning beam, then aren’t you too, one of the elite. Aren’t we all?

But we must be curious. We must be able to see the possibilities – feel them. I feel it right now, as I’m telling you this. And I want you to feel it. The lightness in your feet. The extra rhythm of your heart. Eyes wide open.

I didn’t attend an Ivy League University, but I feel privileged. I got a good education from the University of Minnesota. I got an “Ivy” league (my mom’s name is Ivy) education from my mother in how to survive anything with grace and dignity. Combining the two, along with the ever curious spirit I was given, we were all given, at birth, I feel more than elite, I feel heart-filled, mind-filled, joyously alive.

Today is filled with possibility. The world is your campus. Wander. Enjoy. Learn. Live!


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Set up to fly.

She was really too petite to be a Barbara. We called her Barbie. Barbie Smith. She was the setter on our volleyball team in high school. She was excellent in her role. She knew each player. How high they could jump. When they were ready. Quick set. High set. And when she did it perfectly, the hitter got all the credit with the perfect spike. But we knew…without her, there was none of it.


I’m not sure we value these people enough. The setters. Those that set us up for success. As school is about to begin around the globe, maybe it’s a good time to recognize those that have lifted us, lift us now.


My mom worked in the Superintendent’s office at our high school. She took all the calls. She was the first to handle the ball. She welcomed the teachers, new and old. She directed the parents, upset or confused. Kept the administrators smiling. Not only made the school run, but made it look good. The perfect setter.


And the teachers. To say I can’t thank them all would be wrong. I do thank them all. They gave my broken world structure. Gave it a play. Popped the ball in my direction and told me to jump. Jump as high as I could. And I did! I still do it. Every day. Because they set me up. Sure, they offered up the words and the skills and the rules…but they also gave me a reason to stretch my every muscle, a curiousity, a belief that I was part of the game. And I am. They “Barbied” me into a wider world. What a gift!


Today, let’s look behind the curtain. Give thanks to all those who lift us without reward or recognition. The every day heroes — I don’t say everyday because they are not ordinary — they show up every day, they lift us. They give us not just a chance at winning – but a chance to fly!


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Cardinal on my sleeve.

We sang a cheer in high school –


“We are the cardinals!

Mighty, mighty cardinals!

Everywhere we go – oh,

people wanna know – oh,

who we are,so we tell ’em…

We are the cardinals… (and repeat and repeat)


I never thought about it then, really, but what a lesson. I’m not sure that people often describe cardinals as mighty, but we did. And why not? It was our decision after all. We were cardinals. That was the mascot we were given. We could choose to wear it proudly, or sink behind someone else’s fragile truth.

So the black and red became a symbol of strength to us. A symbol of celebration in victory. A symbol of perseverance in loss. And we were nothing, if not mighty!


You get to decide what makes you strong. You get to decide who you are. Stand up in the colors you were given, and the colors you create. Even with the most fragile of wings, you can choose to be mighty!

I paint the birds again and again. They are my heart. My fragile, but ever-winged, mighty heart! The heart I wear proudly on sleeve, and in song, because I still think, maybe, you just “might wanna know – oh…”


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I have to believe my feet will take me where I need to go.


When I was in high school I had surgery on my right ankle. For the first time, and eventually the sixth time. For many years, and for good reason, my ankle was very weak. The doctor recommended that I wear work boots. Work boots. This would be a new addition to my wardrobe. I wanted to be a girly girl, like the girly girl my mother was. Fashionable. Pretty. I saw her get dressed for work. Taking care with each piece of clothing. Right down to the shoes. Shoes. Not work boots. But I needed them. So there was only one thing to be done. Not hide them. Celebrate them. (This was long before chunky was in. Long before Dr. Martens boots.) I had to make them my own. So I wore them with everything. Pants, rolled up and pinned, of course! Dresses! Full view. I was proud of them. I had my own style. I walked steady, and sure — even when I wasn’t — probably the greatest lesson my mother ever taught me.


It wasn’t easy for her, to get dressed for work each day. Answer the school phones with a greeting that people still remember to this day. But she did it. Broken, weak, for sure, (also for good reason) but she put one foot in front of the other and did it with style. I would do the same, in my own way.


Some people in this world stomp and trudge and carry on. While others, they make a path — believe in those people. Be one of those people. And your feet will take you where you need to go.


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Come in, you and your heart sit down.

For many it is a tradition to drive around neighborhoods to look at all the houses lit up for Christmas. That’s fun, I suppose, but for me, I looked at it a little differently. I was never so much in search of the light, but the warmth.

Since giving up our home when I was a little girl, I began the search. I would walk by. Bicycle by. Look at the homes. Wondering what they were doing inside. How did it feel? What was it like to be gathered in? Wrapped inside the warmth. Not the heat, nor the light. For it wasn’t about that. It could be a summer’s day, and I would search for the warmth.

What was that warmth? If I had to give it a definition I would say the feeling of belonging. The feeling that if you went there, they would not just have to take you in, but delight in it. They would sigh with hearts, that you made it here – home. They would not care how you got there, just that you were there, here, in the warmth of this place.

And so I painted. Houses. A yellow house. A green house. White houses. Doors. Entries. Windows. Shutters. I painted it all. Willing it to life. And I did, you see. I found it in the search. The destination was my heart. (I guess Glinda from the Wizard of Oz was right — “You had the power all along, my dear”)

I still paint the houses, even though I have found my way home. I’m no longer searching, but presenting. Maybe you need to find it too. So I paint them. Again. With a palette that will draw you in. Open arms. No judgements. No restraints. I want everyone to feel that. Not just Christmas in December. Or July. But every day!

Welcome home.


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Stumbling into joy.

It was no surprise that we stumbled upon the Storybook Sculpture garden in Abilene, Texas. I’ve been trying to get there my whole life. I didn’t know this sculpture garden existed, but storybook land…I stepped foot into it when I was a toddler, grocery shopping with my mother at Olson’s Supermarket, and in many ways, I’ve never left.

The shopping carts were lined up just after the automatic doors, in front of the large front windows. The sunlight seemed to lead directly to the first display of books and magazines. The bottom row, just in reach, was set aglow with Golden Books. And what a perfect name for them – for they were golden — treasure! Less than a dollar each, my mother allowed me to pick out one, not every visit, but quite often. My legs dangling from the silver cart, I held it. Smelled it. Hugged it. Knowing the adventure that would come when it was read to me that evening.

Soon, I no longer fit into the cart, and Mrs. Bergstrom taught us to read in the first grade at Washington Elementary. I picked out the books now by the title, and not just the pictures. I could read them myself, sometimes even before the shopping was done. What a world! Opening golden! I knew I would never leave.

I have traveled around the world. I really believe it has been possible, only because I started in these words, these books, this land where all things were possible. And it all still seems as magical to me as the day I was placed in front of the bottom row of books at Olson’s Supermarket.

I still keep a stack of Golden Books on my bedside table — a reminder to live in the magic, to keep believing, to keep dreaming, keep searching for the daily treasure.

I will be the first to admit, I sometimes wander off the storybook path, and get lost in the worries of the day, but somehow, I always find my way back, stumbling into joy. How golden!