Jodi Hills

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

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Donned and feathered.

We were in the car this morning. Dominique said something about used pickup trucks… or cars, or something… I don’t really know. When I didn’t respond he asked what I was thinking. I said, “I was thinking that Meryl Streep was the first to perfect the linen blouse and and khaki pants ensemble in the movie Out of Africa. And I was thinking that perhaps no one has done it better…until today…” I gave the Vanna White motion over my outfit, and smiled. “We really are wired differently,” he said. I smiled, because now I was thinking that no one ever used Meryl Streep and Vanna White in the same sentence. Off we flew to the grocery store.

We are all so different. But isn’t that the real beauty? We should be able to see it. To live it. Not fight it. No more square pegging in round holes. It’s exhausting. We can do that for each other. Be loving. Be accepting. But first, I think, and maybe most importantly, we have to do that for ourselves. I wrote many years ago, “What a relief to be myself.” I hope you can feel that. Truly feel it. Then you can celebrate it. Find others, in the relief of being themselves, and we can all truly enjoy the company — the company of all those strange, wonderful, possible, joyful people — donned and feathered with hearts on sleeves and smiles on faces!

This new day is here — how are you going to wear it?

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Simply the best.

It’s funny, but I didn’t remember the names of the two women who took me to the concert. We had only just met. I started this job right out of college. I was in gathering mode. There was so much information to take in. I stepped into the business — this wild adult playground. This playground of a school that everyone had attended for years, and I was the new kid. I was employed now – whatever that meant. I navigated through this unfamiliar jungle gym. It was in that first week of chaos that I heard them, these two women, yelling above the crowd, urging me to join them at Double-dutch. “You have to come with us to the Tina Turner concert,” they yelled. I timed the ropes with my hands and I jumped.

I didn’t recognize them at first when they picked me up. No longer in office attire, they seemed younger. More wild. They honked the horn and turned up the radio. I got in the back seat. Is this how adults made friends? Is this how you survived the work? I had no idea. The wheels sped down the freeway to the stadium. In the parking lot, the taller one said she “had to pee.” I turned my head to find a restroom. In the few second it took to turn my head back, she had already squatted with pants around her ankles. I couldn’t breathe. What had I done? I didn’t know these women. Why had I just joined them? So easily I got in their car. It had only been a week. Sure, I liked Tina Turner, but I didn’t own the cds. My feet, without my knowledge or permission, raced with them to the stadium door.

Our seats were actually good. Just left of the stage. Cigarette lighters flickered in the darkness. People squirmed and danced in their seats, eagerly awaiting Ms. Turner. I looked at the two women next to me, trying to remember their names.

I don’t know the song. It all happened so quickly. Suddenly she was there on stage. So close. A force of nature. She was not young, Tina Turner. And she was so petite. Just a tiny woman. But I had never heard, felt, witnessed anyone so powerful. Hair, dress, torso, thighs, heels — all moved in time to this thunderous voice. And it may surprise you to hear, but it was the most elegant thing I had ever seen. She moved like a gazelle to our corner of the stage. We were beyond the zoo now. Animals, all moving on instinct. There was no time. No space. No cages. Primal. Beautiful. Dance. 

It wasn’t my only glimpse of freedom. But it may have been one of my first. And upon it, I would build. Adding enough courage, wisdom, to walk out of this building, to my own humble corner of stage. To dream my own dream. Stand strong on my own two feet. Even dance. 

Our journeys are full of choice. And chance. We wander the strangest paths, to simply find our own best lives. Along the way, we remember the ones who lift us. Hoping one day to do the same for someone else. Today, I remember Tina. Let’s dance.


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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I had to go back and reread it — the lesson I had “learned.” The lesson I re-learned and wrote down on paper. The lesson on paper that I typed onto the computer. The lesson I shared with you, more than once. 

“Each rock seemed to give birth to another. I was so tired. But Grandpa didn’t seem to be. He just kept picking those rocks, one after the other. He seemed to get stronger. There was precision in each movement. I watched carefully. It was like an oil pump that didn’t have a beginning or an end to its motion, but just kept going. I had been throwing the rocks with anger, but he moved them with purpose…and that was the difference.“

I was pulling weeds yesterday in our backyard. Powerful weeds that I struggle with every year. At first I just pulled them. Strong, I thought, but nothing I can’t handle. Then slowly I started to give them the weight of my anger. Stupid weeds. The weight of my bent back. You’re killing me! The weight of forever, like I was never going to win this battle. The weight of I’m going to have to do this every year again and again, and…. OH MY! I could barely lift them at this point. I started to cry. Oh, good! I thought. Now I’m watering them!

It all sounds so ridiculous after a good night’s sleep. I read the words, again, and I know, again, there is no need to give more weight to the rocks in our life.

I smile and tag myself with the familiar words — “Something will grow from all of this, and it will be me.” Thank you, Grandpa.

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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.

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Pot by pot.

One of the greatest lessons I received in humanity at Central Junior high school, was not, in fact, in a humanities course, nor social studies… not in any of the rooms on the top floors. But it was in the basement, in art class. Our mustached teacher gave us the great news that we were going to be allowed to throw pots. Use the potter’s wheels. The room filled with “Oooohs!!”

We had tipped our toes on the wheels anxiously throughout the year, but weren’t allowed on. And then the day came. The week actually. We were shown different techniques on the glorious spinning wheel. But in order for us to succeed our teacher said, we all had to succeed. If we didn’t do everything he told us regarding our ashtrays, our bowls, our undeciphered knick knacks, we could make things bad, not only for ourselves, but for everyone. It wasn’t just about succeeding with our own creation. Because, as he explained, if we did a poor job, didn’t pay attention to the rules, the guidelines, or didn’t treat the clay with the respect that it deserved…then our projects were likely to blow up in the kiln and ruin all the other creations. No one wanted to be that bursting pot. We listened. We worked. We scratched our initials in the clay. We, as a group of seventh graders, paid more attention in this class, than any other.

On the last day of our pottery cycle, we walked into the art room. Hopeful. We watched as our teacher pulled his mustache slowly from his lips. We held our breath. And slowly he smiled. We all exhaled. He took us to the rack. No broken pots. We beamed. Were they the most beautiful ceramics ever? Certainly not. But we had created something special – certainly! We had worked together. Saw something bigger than ourselves. We wanted to succeed. We wanted everyone to succeed. What could be more beautiful than that?!

Without the aid of uniforms or cheerleaders, we had come together in the basement of Central Junior High. We waited until we were in the clearing of the hallway that day to high five each other. Celebrate this collective victory! This strange group of brains, and geeks, and jocks and nerds, and hoods…our own Breakfast Club of Central Junior High!

I think of it often as I write. As I paint. It’s a glorious thing to be creative. To be an individual. And make no mistake, we were allowed that in 7th grade. We were allowed to form and glaze our pots however we saw fit. And we proved it was possible. To be free and easy. To be joyful and unique. Not at the expense of others, but right along with them.

What if we lived like that? I want to live like that. Pot by pot. Day by day.

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Asparagus tart.

On my daily search for asparagus, I came across a couple on the path. She was pointing this way and that way. He all the while shaking his head no, and unfolding the map. I continued on the steep side banks. Looking. Bending. Picking. 

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a map girl. So as he approached me map first, I temporarily stopped my search for asparagus, and looked for patience. I used to run from these situations. Not confident in my language skills. I eventually graduated to pre-apologizing for my French. But then yesterday,  I just said, Bonjour. I knew where they wanted to go. I brushed aside the map and pointed out the big rock. The gravel path. Take that left. Follow the road.Turn left again to go up the mountain, or right to get to the river. When I finished explaining, they nodded. But instead of a thank you, she made sure to point out my American accent. That used to hurt my feelings. Sometimes even to tears. Yesterday, I smiled and even laughed a little. “Yeah,” I thought, “But I know where I am…”  I wished them a good day, and walked home with my handful of asparagus. 

I realize I still am living a life of privilege. I only mention it because it has opened my eyes. When I first started looking for asparagus, I couldn’t see it. Everything looked the same to me. Now, with the “asparagus eye” I can spot it in full stride. 

I had never been an other before coming to France. It’s so easy to see when it’s coming at you, harder I suppose when it’s coming out of you. I pray that my empathy has grown. When we know better, we do better. That is the path I hope to travel. Daily.

With my newly found treasure, I made an asparagus tart. It took me an hour to make the puff pastry. Kneading the cold and cubed butter into the flour. Pesto sauce. Parmesan Cheese. Slow baked in the oven. Scents wafting through the house. 

Growth takes time. But oh, it can be delicious!