Jodi Hills

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


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Ensemble.

It was our first trip to New York together.  After my first show, I was getting my portrait taken by a photographer for a national magazine. This was a lot of first for one trip.

We were both high with excitement. It was all makeup and wardrobe changes and flashing lights. Neither my mom, nor I, could quit smiling. Near the end of the shoot, they even took our picture together. And we both ended up in the magazine!

They had a limo take us to the airport. Another first. I can’t imagine, any previous passengers  – even those laced with champagne – could have giggled more than we did. We weren’t even considering airport regulations. I arrived in my last outfit change, which was a red leather jacket (to go with my Slap on a little LIpstick book). It was a very light leather that snapped up the front – technically, it was just a top. And that’s how I wore it. But when we reached the security point, they immediately said I had to take off my “jacket.” But I’m not wearing anything else, I said. Pleaded. And even though I had the laws of fashion on my side, they had the actual law law, so I took it off. Put it in the bin, and walked through with only my bra on. Of course there was a large group of people traveling back to Wisconsin behind me, who found it all quite amusing. I put my “top” back on as quickly as possible. My mom walked through behind me. She looked at me in utter amazement and said, “They would have had to tase me.”

Ensemble was a verb for mother. She loved fashion. When she would come to my apartment in Minneapolis for the weekend, (which could often be just a day and a half) she would have a suitcase, hanging clothes, two or three bags for make-up and moisturizers, a bag for shoes, one for jewelry, and often an extra coat or two, just in case. It seemed exactly right to me. These weren’t “material things.” Those bags held confidence, and joy! They held dreams come true. And dreams to come! 

As I am packing my carry-on to come to Minnesota, for a mere few days, I am wondering how to explain all of this to the security guards, as they rifle through my make-up and jewelry. But I will stand tall, knowing everything I really need is already packed in my heart.

But if you see me, the next day off the plane, please forgive my appearance. For there will be jetlag, and it’s quite possible, I will have been tased.


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Barely more than air.

It was common knowledge on the playground of Washington Elementary that if you skinned your knee, the immediate solution was just to blow on it. Because the monkey bars, swings, jungle gym, all rested on paved ground, this was an everyday occurance. And it was your truest friends who, when the scraped area was just out of reach, took over the duties, and eased the sting with this balm, barely more than air. 

I want you to know that I felt that yesterday, as you commented again and again with words of love for my mother.. Each letter, each phrase, relieving the pain of my skinned heart. 

We made it through recess together. Limping, hand in sweaty hand, we went back to the classroom with the love and knowledge gained on this sometimes battlefield. It’s comforting to know we can still do that for each other. Thank you, my friends, from the bottom, top and middle, of my ever-healing heart.


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Hand in hand.

I wave to it every day – the Sainte Victoire montagne. Even on the days when the clouds are low, making the mountain almost disappear (which is very rare), I offer my best parade salute, because I know it hasn’t gone anywhere. It is sure, and steady. Beautiful, whether I see it or not.

When I was in the third grade, in the days when an 8 year old could walk unaccompanied through the streets of a small town, we began what we called “Wednesday school.” For those who wanted, you could take the hour or two to walk to your church for religious studies. The church we attended did not offer a class, and wasn’t in town, so I was told I could walk to First Lutheran. I had never been there before. The group of girls that knew the way took off running down the street. I had to go to the bathroom. I was sure I could catch up. But when I opened the front door of Washington Elementary, they were gone. Never was the speed of youth so prevalent. I started walking. I got to Broadway. Looked left. No one. Looked right – only Big Ole, the statue that claimed America’s birthright. I crossed the street. It’s funny how my heart began to beat faster, but my feet were moving slower. I turned left. Then maybe right. Sweating. No longer moving in one direction or the other, only spinning. I called out to no one. And that’s who answered. I bent down to grab my knees. I pretended to be tying my shoelaces, but really it was the only way I knew to give myself a hug. I breathed in the slowness and certainty of the path that got me here, and I started walking back. There was Broadway. There was Big Ole. Still there. My heart started to calm. I crossed the street and opened the big wooden doors. Walked up the terrazzo stairs to my classroom. The door was closed. Gerald Reed was sitting alone beside the door. I waved, and smiled at his familiar face. I sat down beside him. Neither one of us asked why we were there. Our hands were right beside each other on the floor. I don’t know if he took mine, or I took his, but we sat quietly, together, hand in hand, until the others returned. Acceptance, without question. We had received maybe the best lesson after all.

I don’t know what today will bring, but I wake and wave joyfully at all that is seen and unseen, because I still believe in the beauty, the goodness that rests just within reach.


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Sable.

It is more fragile, for sure, but oh the feeling, as you glide the sable brush across the paper. The paint seems to love the ride. So willing to cling to the brush in your hand and then release itself ever so gently onto the paper. 

I suppose any woodworker will have the same story of a favorite tool. A farmer. A baker. A mechanic. A musician. Each finding the best way to gather and release the vulnerability, the creativity of the attempt. In any creation, there needs to be this combination. And never is that more clear, than with the heart — perhaps our finest, yet most fragile tool. 

Since I was five years old, I put crayon to paper. I would present the crude, but purely honest creations to my mother, and she would clutch her imaginary pearls. One movement of her hand to heart. One movement of my hand to paper. Nothing was easier than this love. So I showed her. Again and again. 

I painted with my new sable brush yesterday. I bought in Minneapolis. I painted with my trusting heart. My mother gave me that so many years ago!


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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.


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In close.


I rarely saw my grandmother without an apron. There were so many children. Grandchildren. The kitchen was always in motion. I liked standing next to her. So close. When she wore the embroidered apron – the one with the flowers – I would press my head as close to her hip as I could. This hug, when held for longer than she had time for – (yet she never pushed me away) – this hug could produce an imprint on my cheek of the same flowers. An imprint that didn’t last long on my face, but still remains on my heart.

Dishes clanked. Smells arose. Voices jabbered. And then the whirlwind would stop. She needed something from the basement. She told me to run and get it. The basement. I’ll admit I was afraid. Being only apron high, it wasn’t unusual, but I wanted to be brave. My grandmother canned. There was a whole wall of canned good down there. But to get to what she needed, I would have to go descend the darkened stairs. Past the hooks of overalls that looked like men waiting. I would have to tune out the furnace. The creaks of wood. She pushed the small of my back in the direction of the stairs. Of course I would do it. I held my breath, as if going under water. Raced my bumper tennis shoes down the steps. Grabbed the glass jar filled with what I could only imagine was a science experiment and ran back up the stairs. I handed it to her beaming. She had no idea what I had risked, but she hugged me just the same.

Yesterday, we went to see Dominique’s mother. She clings to the day. Leaving, sad, I heard through the open windows of the house next door, the clanking of the dishes. Silverware. Glass. Stove. A woman singing over the din. The sounds of life. I smiled, feeling the embroidered flowers on my heart.

This love. Knowing your heart, if you’re giving it all, will break and mend and break again. Still, I, we, will risk any darkened stairs to experience it. The sun begins to light today’s path. To this day, this life, I make a promise to feel it – really feel it – and, joyfully, I pull myself in close.


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Journey home.

It’s funny how sure adults were of what would and wouldn’t kill you. “It wouldn’t kill you to clean your room.” “It wouldn’t kill you to do your homework.” And it turns out they were right. So far. 

There was an early and late bus that took students home from school. The early bus took the kids up to the sixth grade. Brought them home, then returned to the junior and senior high schools and made the same route. 

I rode the early bus. My brother and sister, if they rode at all, having friends with cars, came later. One day, feeling particularly alone — alone with the knowledge that I was assigned my first book report — I decided not to get off the bus. My plan was to ride back with the bus driver to the high school and wait for the older students, hoping my brother and sister would come along and help me carry this new burden of schoolwork. The bus driver stared at me. I could see he wasn’t thrilled with my plan. We sat outside the high school. Waited. And waited. Nervous sweat collected between my thighs and the green pleather seat. Neither my brother, nor my sister came. No one came. Not one student. All the other buses left. I smiled nervously as he stared at me in the rear view mirror. Would he still bring me home? What had I done? My plan not only left me alone, but I wasn’t even at home. I didn’t speak. I clutched my notebooks to my chest. I didn’t know if he could see my lips moving, as they pleaded silently, “Please please please bring me home.” He started the engine. My heart beat once again. He drove from the high school to Big Ole – the giant Viking Statue one mile from our house. He pulled the giant silver handle that opened the door. “It wouldn’t kill you to walk from here,” he said. I stared only at my feet as I raced out the door. 

“Wouldn’t kill you… wouldn’t kill you…” The words repeated in my head as I kicked the dirt down the gravel road. What did he know? And wasn’t there anything in between? Nothing between this fear and death?  These were my only options?  

Step by step I got closer to home. I walked past the geese. Up the hill. Past Vacek’s. Lee’s. The Lee kids had gotten off the bus. Lucky ducks. I heard dishes clanking through windows. Voices talking on telephones, as the long phone cords were stretched through screen doors onto the front steps. I wasn’t alone. The sounds of life on VanDyke road carried me to the green house. Through the garage. Into the living room. I opened the encyclopedia that began with the letter of my project. And began. Stronger. 

Maybe this is where I learned to trust my own feet. Began to believe they would carry me where I needed to go. They have. Rocks in shoes have been as much gifts as well lit paths. And I am strong. 

Today, listen for the sweet sounds to carry you. Trust in each step. Look around. This is our long, and beautiful, constant journey home.


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…if I went with you

Today is Napoleon’s birthday. I’m not proud to say that I didn’t know this before coming to France. I suppose it is important to me now, because I can see that it is important to them. Empathy. 

The thing is, we think we know. I’m smiling as I type this. There is so much that I, we, don’t know. And that’s the first step to learning, I guess. Admitting it. And then doing something about it. 

I have told you how important the library was to me. So important that I used to worry about it. The night before library day at Washington Elementary, my mother would have to comfort me. Ease me into sleep. “But what will I pick out?” “What if there isn’t enough time to choose the right book?” “There are so many.” She didn’t laugh at me. She gave me a solution. “Find a series you like,” she explained. “Then each week you can pick another one from that series.” I did that. My first series was Cowboy Sam. I loved the linen covers. The drawings of cowboys. The adventures. The stories. So it’s not surprising that cowboys were in my heart from the age of six. There were so many books. I devoured them. So full, I didn’t know what I was missing.

What’s taught is what’s known. But at some point you have to take on the responsibility of learning. Teach yourself. I recently finished the book, “The Sentence,” by Louise Erdrich. It is a beautiful book. Filled with the heart and soul and voice of Native Americans. There is so much to learn. But each word lays a rock, creating the path of empathy. People always say, “I hope our paths cross some day.” When they do, and I hope they do, I pray it on this path — this path of empathy.

The epigraph to this book reads as such, “From the time of birth to the time of death, every word you utter is part of one long sentence.” — Sun Yung Shin, Unbearable Splendor.

It is within this bearable and unbearable splendor that I write each day. Continuing the sentence. Searching for the beauty. The understanding. The peace. Empathy. Hoping to look up from the dust on my own shoes, to see you, looking up, seeing me. Splendor.

Happy Birthday, Napoleon. Let’s take that walk.


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Body and Soul.

It was the only sheet music I remember seeing on my grandparent’s organ – “Body and Soul.” It didn’t seem strange then, this large instrument. When I think of it now, they were probably the only farmers in the area to have an organ in their living room. 

They bought it for my Aunt Sandy. She was the youngest of nine, this Dairy Princess, and when she asked for something, she usually got it. So there was an organ in their living room. I never heard her play it. Nor anyone else – not seriously. Most of us thought of it like a big toy. One cousin would crawl underneath the bench and play the foot pedals by hand, while another cousin or two pressed the keys with as much flare as previously seen on the Lawrence Welk Show — something that also seemed to be on continuously in my grandparent’s living room. 

My Aunt Sandy has passed. I don’t know where the organ ended up. But the song lives on. I heard it this morning, on the radio, in France. Body and Soul. 

We are scattered — those of us that began on this farm — scattered by jobs, and hopes and dreams, scattered by loves and heartbreaks and loves again. Bit by bit, we puzzle together the pieces of our own lives, string together the notes of our own songs. And it takes a long time — a long time to build a soul. 

I thought, when I was young, with fingers glued against the keys, that we would be given all the answers. And that would be that. But we, like everyone I suppose, were not given the answers, but options. And somewhere between field and keyboard, I suppose, we made our way. 

The song fills my heart this morning. Along with the coffee. The conversation above the tune. Joyfully, not complete, but beginning. Again. What a pleasure it is to begin. The sun comes through the window, and another piece of my soul fits together.

The music never ends.

building a soul framed web.jpg


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Ten thousand and one.

Maybe it’s because the brain and the heart are composed of about seventy percent of it. Or maybe it’s because I grew up in the midst of 10,000 lakes. But I have always been comforted by the water. The color blue.

It feels certain – this color blue. Like the words of a favorite song. Words that come so easily. Without thinking. Rolling gently in. Words that comfort. Caress. Hold. Gather. So I paint it, this song, this color and I am home. 

When I was a young girl, and we lost our home, we (my mother and I) moved to an apartment. And when you lose a home, you don’t just lose the walls — you lose the familiar, the comfort, the neighborhood. You lose the sound of screen doors swinging. Mothers calling kids home for dinner. 

Everything changed. I could no longer identify the cars passing merely by the sound of their tires on the gravel. I couldn’t smell the lake from across the street. I had lost the certainty of “blue.”

And being young, I could only see so far ahead. I believed what was in front of me. I believed there were these 10,000 lakes. No more. I believed there was a home. One home. No more. We were given only so much. 

OH, to be so joyfully wrong! Well, I was right about one thing – we are “given” a finite amount – but that doesn’t mean we can’t go out and get more on our own. Find more. Search. Build. I learned if I wanted to have a home, I had to make one. First in my heart. Then in my head. I needed to feel the water flowing through them both. The cool, comforting blue carried within. This was my home. Is my home. My 10,001. (and counting.) No one can ever take that away.

The world, people, will always throw out limitations. Struggles. It, they, will try to block you, box you in. But you don’t have to be one of them. They can tell you that “you can’t…” “you don’t…” you aren’t…” But listen to the water. It’s still flowing. Softly, gently, telling you, “aaah, but I am!”