Jodi Hills

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


Leave a comment

Given my song.

When I first picked up the clarinet, it was completely foreign to me. It didn’t feel securely balanced on my right thumb. It felt wobbly. So instead of just cupping my lips gently on the mouthpiece, I dug in with my front teeth. The marks remain today. 

I eventually learned to hold it correctly. To trust the balance. But it didn’t come overnight. It took years. I had to practice daily.  I knew I would never be great at it – but that was never really the point. I practiced to be a part of something. The routine was comforting. I knew I would forever hear the music. 

When a Benny Goodman song comes on the radio. I understand that I wasn’t the best, but I was a part of this beautiful music. I always will be.

I saw my mom’s picture in the paper today. Oh, how I wanted to love her perfectly. She deserved that. She was Benny Goodman and I was second chair in the fifth grade band. When I see her face, hearing that beautiful music of her heart, I truly know that I wasn’t perfect, but I was a part of that. I was a part of her beautiful heart’s song. And I always will be.  

Today, I may wobble, but I trust the balance, the magic of the music, and, oh, how I’m listening.


Leave a comment

Possibility

I was thrilled when I heard that all the girls had to take shop class — thrilled, that is, until I learned that it wasn’t going to be at the mall, but in the lower level of Central Junior High, with the saws, sanders, wood, and the three-fingered instructor.

Looking back, it was quite progressive. At the time, I didn’t realize how lucky we were. Everyone took everything – no question of gender. We had the funds, not only for these courses — woods, plastics, metals, drafting, cooking, sewing — but we also had band and choir and gym and swimming! Exposing us to a world beyond the brick walls. (Even beyond the mall.)

I suppose it was the smell that I first fell in love with – the smell of cut wood. It had the air of possibility. Week by week our projects progressed. “It has to be flush,” he said. So we sanded again and again. We built small bookshelves. Carrying it home on the bus, was one of my proudest days. It trophies in my hands and lap. The younger kids brushed their hands along the wood, to see if what I was telling them was true, that we had spun the wood like magic into these silky smooth creations. I have been in love with wood ever since.

Yesterday, a friend of ours drove two hours from the mountains to our house. He handed me a stack of wood. Freshly cut. Freshly sanded. Spun magic. I placed them on the work bench, like the trophies they were. I asked Dominique later in the evening, what else was he doing in town. Nothing. He had driven four hours just to give me this gift. My seemingly full heart swelled a bit more. I brushed my hands along the wood to see if what he was telling me was true. It was. We have the magic of such a friend. On a day, perhaps when I needed it most, I was given the air of possibility.


Leave a comment

Down a gravel road.

There was a simplicity to friendship, growing up on a gravel road. An afternoon could be filled with one stone and a one mile walk to town. Out of the driveway a mere few steps, I would begin kicking a stone down the road. Small kicks at first. Just in front of me. Then maybe a little harder as confidence increased. Avoiding the ditches. Making bargains with the stone itself — if I make it to Lee’s house without losing the stone, then this will happen, or if I make it to the Lake, for sure this — or maybe even to town, then I could really choose my fate. 

On the best of these days, I would hear running footsteps behind me. A neighbor. Maybe a Norton. A Holte. But always friendly steps. And without question, they would begin helping me kick the stone down the road. They never asked where we were going, or for how long. They never asked why. Just walked beside me. 

To have that clarity is a pure gift. If you have that now, and I can joyfully say that I do, then you have more than a friend, more than even family — perhaps we need a new word for these people — these glorious humans that will just help you get your stone down the road. 

My shoes are dusty. There are no more bargains to be made. Only the journey. The beautiful journey of this gravel road. And I give thanks every day, that I, we, don’t have to make it alone.


Leave a comment

The new math.

She started us off with the times tables. Each day Mrs. Bergstrom would hand out a new sheet. The ones and twos were easy. Then they got a little harder. Threes and fours and up the multiplication ladder. This times this. Over and over. We learned them all. We could feel ourselves growing. Taller in our wooden chairs with each number, multiplied again and again. And just as our spines straightened, she let us have it! Right between our confident hands. Division. If we hadn’t already learned it on the playground, here was proof positive that everything was divisible. 

We started off slow, but then came brackets and points. New math. Always new math. Our erasers shrank as our brains tried to grow. And with each change it became more clear — there would never be just one way to do things. 

I bought an empty frame at Emmaüs (our version of Goodwill). I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with it, but I knew it would be something. I looked through my completed paintings. Nothing quite fit. The standard route of painting a picture, then framing it, was not going to be possible. I had to come at it from the opposite way. I needed to paint something to fit the frame. 

It doesn’t exist anymore, this “north end” as we called it. The wild untouched land at the end of Van Dyke Road. I have no photographs, but for the ones in my heart’s memory — this strange mix of fear and possibility. I tiptoed down the gravel road in trepid tennis shoes. Everything was divisible, and when I did, divide fear with possibility, I always came up with this, an adventure, a life. 

I painted my north end. A combination of Minnesota and France. And it fit beautifully into my frame. Into my life. This times this. This divided by that – I am, and always will be, whole.


1 Comment

Sunday. Sun day.

The grandkids now have an exchange student staying with them from Germany. Yesterday, in the afternoon sun, wearing the Minnesota Vikings caps we gave to them, we played our version of baseball in the backyard. Two French kids, one German, one American, wearing football caps, playing baseball in the south of France. Not a bad Sunday afternoon.

When I was in highschool, we called them foreign exchange students — but there was nothing foreign about this kid. He fit right into our cornucopia. After, what I loosely call, “the baseball game,” they wanted to go to my painting studio. He looked at everything. Each painting. Wanted to know the stories behind them. He was thoughtful and interested. After looking, touching, he went to one of the smallest paintings I have, right by the front door. He said with all certainty, “This one is my favorite.” I smiled at Charles, because we knew the story. 

When Charles was very young, he came into my studio. I had just started a new painting, immersed in the blue of a new sky. “But where is the sun?” he asked. I hadn’t gotten to the sun yet, so I told him it was coming. He watched, eagerly. And as it appeared, for one brief moment, I held his sun in my hands. 

“That’s Charles’ Sun,” we both said at the same time. Now, that might seem like a small thing, but it felt like magic. 

Most people gravitate to the largest of my paintings. The grand scene from New York – 8 feet tall. Or the people swimming in a 7′ sea. But this kid, German, but not foreign at all, went directly to Charles’ Sun, and he connected us all. 

It’s easy to find the differences. But really, we all just want a Sunday afternoon. With room to play. Room to grow. To learn. To connect. We can do this. For each other. For our world. We’re holding the sun in our hands.


Leave a comment

Heart giggles.

“Sit up straight. And settle down.” These were very confusing directions for us, the six year olds of Mrs. Bergstrom’s first grade class. We breathed in. Slouched over. Looked around. Up. Down. Got the giggles. Giggles so loud that she repeated it again – “Sit up straight and settle down!” Snorts and hoots shot from our hand covered mouths. Giggles should never be contained.

Oh, but they tried. Tried to contain us. Keep your desk orderly. Sharpen your pencils. Eyes to the front. It was like this in every class. Even in gym class there were rules to be followed. But once a week, in the lower level of Washington Elementary, we were marched in, single file, and then set free! It was Mr. Opsahl’s art room. It was filled with color. Paper. Glue. Paint. Sticky things. Beautiful things. Possibilities. Here our imaginations were not only welcomed, but encouraged. Imagination – or mind giggles – burst into full color, like the NBC peacock!

It was a garden view classroom, meaning our heads were at street level. We could see the cars, sometimes the pedestrians. In all the other classrooms, I, we, looked out the window, in hopes of joining this outside world. But not in the art room. Here, I hoped people could see in, see into our magical world. See us making hand puppets, face masks, flower pots. I guess I knew, even then, how beautiful this world was. And I wanted everyone to feel it.

Some might say, well, it’s because you were (are) an artist…but it was more than that, more than art. It was freedom. It was joy. And what a glorious way to learn. One day, Mrs. Bergstrom took a break from the rules, and said we could experience our English lesson by using the hand puppets we made in art class. The hand puppets that were created from empty toilet paper rolls and papier-mâché. Fingers full of promise, behind a sheet of plywood with a stage cut window, we put on magical, nonsensical, plays and songs that contained the day’s vocabulary list. I fell a little more in love with art that day. A little more in love with words. And a little more in love with Mrs. Bergstrom. We expected this from Mr. Opsahl, this loosening of the reins, but with Mrs. Bergstrom, donned in her pencil skirt, and neatly bunned hair, this was something! Truly something!

If you can, do that for someone today. Loosen the reins, give the unexpected compliment, the unsolicited kindness. Be the giggle in someone else’s heart.


2 Comments

I see you.

Dominique told her that her hat was lovely. She recoiled — as if the compliment was too much to bear. “No, no… this is not my color, I look pale…”

I realize the gift my mother gave me (gives me still) – this ability to accept a compliment and believe it. Find joy in it. I suppose because she was free with her compliments. Never disingenuous – she believed the words she gave. And they lifted me. And it’s not just about beauty — it’s about confidence, self-worth, courage even.

When you give someone a compliment you give them a boost, a lift, a bit of assurance that they belong to this world, and more importantly to themselves. They are worthy. And you lose nothing by offering these words. In fact, you gain something when they give you back their smile.

It is often said, “it is better to give than to receive.” I say, we have to learn to do both. To be generous with others. To be generous with ourselves.

I showed my mother my most recent sketch. She said, “Oh, she’s wearing my turtleneck.” I delighted in her response because she could see herself. What a wonderous thing. And “this”, I think, has taught me more, given me more than any compliment – to see her seeing herself. She taught me how to do the same. And isn’t this the gift we want to give everyone — the ability to see themselves?

So if I tell you, you look lovely in that color, reach out and grab the words, hold them to your heart, know that I mean them, believe that they are true – these glorious words, and fill your heart. And when your heart is overflowing, pass them along, with grace and strength. This is the beauty, the power of a compliment. I see you.


Leave a comment

On top.

Perhaps one of the biggest dangers of social media is the act of comparison — comparing your life to what you think is the life of the other person on the screen. And I say, “what you think” because you really don’t know how the other person is living. You just get this small glimpse of perhaps what they had for dinner. You might see them in their best outfit. On vacation. Their best photoshopped image. And even if it is “real,” it doesn’t change your life. You decide if your life is big or small, happy or sad, empty or full – and believe me, you will probably experience all of these – more than probably.

The birds in our yard love the cherry tree — and I don’t blame them. Cherries are delicious. Someone told us to hang cd’s from the branches, and it would scare the birds away. The cherries are all gone. Turns out they were not afraid, but perhaps even enjoyed the music while they ate. You just never know. I imagine the fun they had in the tree – their own social gathering place – singing along to the shiny objects. I could waste my time and feel bad about not eating cherries, but nothing would change, so I’m going to be happy for them! After all, they sing for us every morning.

Remember, you will not always be the biggest bird. You will not always be the smallest. Find the joy in both. The grace in both. That is the cherry on top!


1 Comment

My mom thinks I’m pretty.

I made a magnet of that years ago. It made me laugh. I used to say it, when I made a mistake, or did something stupid…”My mom thinks I’m pretty.”  (as if to say, well, sure I did this, but nevertheless…)

It still makes me laugh, but I suppose, there’s a lot of truth behind it. I knew, I know, always, even in my lowest moments, in her lowest moments, she loves me. And that tickles my heart in the most glorious way.

And to think she knew how to do it, when her mother (bless her heart) wasn’t fast and loose with the compliments (it just wasn’t the time, nor the way.) But if I think again, maybe that’s exactly why she knew how to do it. 

It isn’t because they’ve never been knocked down, these people who stand so tall — I think it’s probably because they have. Surround yourself with these people, these unexpected beauties! They will have a story to tell and a heart to share. They will make you laugh, and help you cry. Not much more beautiful than that!


Leave a comment

The good review.

I was listening to an interview yesterday with the author, Ann Patchett. You may know her from her books, Commonwealth, and the Dutch House. She is an accomplished writer. She has won many awards and her books are best sellers. The interviewer asked her about reviews and she said she rarely read them, and certainly never the bad reviews. She said she has a group of people around her, good friends, that shield her from these. But the crazy thing is, she explained, strangers, people who love her books, buy her books, wait in line for her to sign the books, some of these people still want to remind her of bad reviews. She said people will even take the time to cut out a bad review from the newspaper and bring it to her when they want their book signed. What?????And in all the years she has written, all the book signings she has done, no one has ever cut out a good review and brought it to her. This seems insane for so many reasons.

I have to believe this is some sort of flaw in these particular people. This can’t be human nature –this need to bring people down, the people you like, respect, love even… Because if it is a flaw, it can be fixed. And it must be fixed. Perhaps it is insecurity, jealousy, anger… I don’t know… but it has to end.

There is an old Native American Proverb —
No tree has branches so foolish as to fight amongst themselves. Perhaps we could be as smart as the trees. Grow together. Learn together. Support each other. Stand in line. Slip gently across the table, the good review.