Jodi Hills

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


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Carry the impossible.

My cousins Shawn and Kalee first introduced me to Knox Blox. The Jello (gelatin) that you could eat with your hands. What had previously been limited to spoons, bowls and tables, was now portable. You could run with it. Squeeze it through the space your last baby tooth left behind. Take it downstairs. Outside. It was indestructible really. You could stomp on it. Throw it. Take it in the pool if you like. The only problem, it didn’t taste very good. Soon, the remains of abandoned red rubber lined the Tupperware container, and we set off to carry the impossible.

There seems to be a lot of people running around this world with hearts made of Knox Blox. No worries. No consequences. And I have envied them at times. Me, struggling with spoonful after spoonful of fragile feelings. But if given the chance, I wouldn’t change it. I want to feel and taste it all. Even this sweet pain of love and loss.

I suppose we all knew, even then, it wasn’t going to be easy. But we didn’t crave easy. We hungered for the challenges under the summer sun. We craved the skinned knees and knuckles. The sun-burned shoulders. Legs that wobbled weary at the end of the day. We wanted it all. Each morning, the screen door slamming behind us, we dared the day. Dared our hearts. To bring it all. Feel it all.

With eyebrows raised, the sun smiles in my direction. OK, I say. Heart and hands full, I reach for the door.


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Eager hearts and fingers.

Mr. Opsahl’s art room was lined with windows. Street level. In all the other classrooms of Washington Elementary, you would be reprimanded for staring out the window. But not here. Not in the art room. We were encouraged to look at everything. Even out the window. Find your palette, he said. I’m not sure we even knew what that meant, but to be free to wander, beyond the glass — glass smudged with eager hearts and fingers — this was something! He gave us, not just a way beyond, but a way home.

My palette has changed from time to time. From year to year. Adapting to the ever changing needs of hearts and fingers. Today I live here. In the calm of blues and greens, browns, tans, beiges and taupes. Grays and creams. All things natural. Telling myself — all is as it should be. Resting in earth and sky. The here and there melding together. One. A gift I was given. A gift I continue to give.

Take a look around. Find your palette. Give yourself permission to create the world you need. Dare to smudge the windows with hopes and dreams. Find your colors of comfort and beyond. Find your way home.


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Paying attention.

Cluttered with nightmares and nonsense, I don’t normally put that much stock into my dreams. But all last night, I was trying to sign up for another year of university. Hour after hour I searched for the registration. Went through the pamphlets. Made appointments with my advisor. Even after waking up twice, I went right back to it. Would I rent the apartment near campus? Would I get an advanced degree? Academia all night long. I’m not complaining – it was far from the normal hauntings. So was it a sign?

Signs are funny things. They are probably all around us – all the time. Some meant for us. Some maybe not. Some gathered in. Some trampled over. I guess it is what we choose to see. And maybe when we miss it, it repeats itself. Over and over again. Until we pay attention. 

I guess it’s time for me to keep learning. Or maybe, it’s a sign to tell myself that I AM still learning. I will forever be learning. And that is not a nightmare, but a gift. And that’s a hard one for me to, well, learn. I can get myself trapped in a worry. Stuck in a pattern of fearing the unknown. But it will always be there — through all the nightmares and nonsense — there will be growth. There will be challenges. There will be learning. Beauty in it all. 

The sun rises brand new, telling me, “If I’m not happy in this time, in this place, I’m not paying attention.”


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Lighthouses.

It sold almost immediately after she put it in the window of her gallery in Wayzata — this 4’ lighthouse painting. I suppose we are all looking for the light. We painters and sailors. We who bob up and down. Knocked over, then lifted, by the same waves.

I’ve always been a morning person. Everything seems possible in the morning. Everything lightened, not just in color, but weight. But, oh, that nighttime. That darkness. Oooh, that can really get away with me. I’ve always tried to fight it. But recently, I’ve tried something new. Not fighting, but challenging. Not going toe to toe with it, round and round with it in my brain. When those thoughts start creeping in, I acknowledge them. “I see you,” I say. “But not tonight. We can talk about it again in the morning if we need to.” It’s not a perfect system, but it seems to be helping.

I have always been up for a challenge. But rarely a fight. My grandfather taught me that in the fields. My mother taught me that in the trenches. Both houses of hope, of light.

I heard a line in a song once, “My heart is a boat on the sea.” That feels about right. So I keep riding the waves, toward the light. Hopeful for all the light to come. Grateful for all the shine I have been given.

The gallery was named The Good Life. How appropriate I thought, it is indeed. I woke to all of the possibilities coming through my window, and said to the sun, “Challenge accepted.”


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I called it.

We were always running. To the neighbors. On the field. In the sand toward the water. To our bicycles – to go even faster. Racing to the joy of it all. But there was something so special about riding in the front seat of the car, we not only raced toward it, we “called it.” And for some reason, we abided by these rules – even if you didn’t get to the car first, if you, in fact, had shouted out “I call the front seat,” then it was yours. The power we held.

I was thinking, wishing actually, praying even, for some of that power. Some of that joy. “If only I was able to reserve it – call it out to be mine.” And as I was thinking, my mind racing in bumper tennis shoes, it occurred to me, maybe I still do. What if I decided today was going to be filled with that speed, that speed that only comes from pure joy? That feeling that blows your hair back and your heart forward. That’s what I want. What if I just “called it?” 

We raced through the streets of Chicago. New York. My mom and I. It never occurred to me that she was aging. We ran. Arms draped with packages. From the Magnificent Mile (and it was true to its name!) to the city that never sleeps. We ran. Nothing but joy. And the thing is, in my heart, it’s still happening. My heart races in the memory of it all. 

Today might not be easy, but there will be joy, lifting my feet, lifting my heart. I believe in it. I have to. I already called it!


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The playground

I suppose I’ve always been a dreamer. But I’m not sure it would be possible to live, (not just survive, I mean really live) any other way.

On the playground at Washington Elementary, it was something of a right of passage to display your bruises – your badges of courage. We’d line up under the monkey bars, and point out our battles survived. “This is when my foot got caught in the jump rope and I landed on my knees.” “Oh, yeah, but look, here’s when we were playing tug of war and the rope got caught under my arm.” “Look at my eye – the football hit me right in the face – the FACE!”  Never broken, but bruised daily. Because we were participating – joyfully!

I’d like to think the same of my heart. I continue to send it off to battle. It knows, from past experience — this daily beating on life’s playground — that it is going to be bruised. Love will do that. Every time. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

Maybe my biggest dream is that we could all do this — love this big! Risk it all, believing  in the beautiful resilience of the heart. 

My heart will not be broken – it is not a block of ice. It is a juicy pear, bruised for sure, but forever delicious! So I run to the playground again and again, proud of what I’ve been through, what you’ve been through! We’re here. Today. Let’s play!


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Reflections of the heart.

I was watching the British National portrait challenge. A variety of artists are given four hours to paint the portrait of a person. All are good at their craft, for sure. And it’s interesting to see the different techniques they use in their respective mediums. But the most fascinating thing for me is seeing the different ways in which they see a person. When completed, most portraits look like the person sitting, but often the portraits look nothing like each other. One subject commented, “They all look like me, but they are all so different.” Another man was simply moved to tears because he had never seen himself in this way. The subjects get to choose their favorite portrait of themselves and take it home. Interestingly, what they choose is often not what the judges deem the “best” portrait.

So how do we see people? How do we see ourselves? The only answer I can come up with is to keep looking. See people in every light. When they are happy, or sad. Winning or struggling. And give them a reflection. I don’t mean we all have to be portrait artists. Of course, if you can paint someone, show them what you see. Or send them a letter.  Return the smile they give you. Or catch their tears. If they are reaching out – reach back. Reflect the heart offered. The same applies to the face in the mirror.

When I painted my mother’s portrait, she said, “That woman doesn’t look like she needs to be afraid of anything – maybe I don’t either.” I pray every day that this is true — reflecting the heart she has always so generously offered to me.


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Welcome to the garden.

I found out yesterday that I have been gardening since the age of five.

I certainly never wanted to get my hands dirty. Some of the neighbor girls made mud pies — the thought of it…. no! I constantly checked to see if the outdoor hose was working, just in case. 

My grandmother made real pies, but still, her hands… deep in the garden, she pulled and cut the rhubarb. You could see it from the dining room window. And I was fascinated that the day before, or even that very morning, it was in the ground, and now, here it sat, round and steaming, crusted, on the table.

I was asked the other day at what age I started to write, to paint. 5 years old. Did you share it? she asked. Oh, yes! With my mother. I would come out of my bedroom, arms straight out – holding it like the steaming pie I imagined it to be, and presented it. Words and paintings, I thought, were meant to be devoured.  

Mid-feast in my newest read, “Our Missing Hearts,” by Celeste Ng, I read that the word “author” means to bring to life, to grow. Like a gardener, I thought. 

She asked me if there were other writers, artists, in the family. No, I said, but there were gardeners, farmers — people with hands and hearts, dirtied by life’s abundance of heartache, challenge and joy. Teaching, inspiring, giving everything, with arms reaching straight out — the authors of living.

Each day, ready or not, we will be asked to grow, to give. The sun comes up, and says, “Welcome to the garden!”


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Choosing yellow!

Today our yard burst out with yellow flowers of joy! I can think of no other reason than it was just so happy to see us.

You have to go to the edge of our property – in the tree line. You won’t see them just in the middle of the lawn. We were cleaning up the yard after being gone for a month. Moving slowly with the jet lag. I don’t know why I looked down the slope, but there they were. Hey!!! Look! I was awakened by a sea of yellow.

I suppose everything is about perspective. How we choose to see things. Yes, a new season is approaching. We’ll close the pool. Change our routines. And at first glance, that can seem a little, if not sad, melancholy, but then the garden tells you – “Hey, there’s life here too! Don’t forget about us! Take another look!”

There are some things bouncing around in my head. Someone did something recently that I didn’t like — I mean really didn’t like — and my weary brain likes to keep dribbling that ball of negativity. But I have to be the one to let it go. No one else can. And that’s not always easy, but I had a thought last night. You know those late night thoughts that keep you up. A line occurred to me — “I take it back.” Now some might think that means I take back all the things I said in my head…no, I meant those things. Still do. My brain would still keep saying them if I let it, and maybe even more… like saying “No!” more, and saying “No more!” But what I take back is my own life. My own joy. I have a sea of yellow blooming just for me, and this is what I have to choose. Yellow! I choose to be yellow!!! So when those thoughts come creeping, as they are famous for, I will grow over them and take it back. I will take it all back. My yellow life.


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Crossing over.

It’s no surprise that I write about my grandparents, my mother, my childhood experiences. The stories, not only on the page, but on the canvas, straight from my heart. It is the most vulnerable, but the most rewarding thing that I do.

I suppose I have been practicing since I was a child. Showing my work, my heart. Building my courage, my strength. More confident in myself, my story. So it came as a bit of a shock when I moved to France and realized I would not only have to start over, but build a bridge, and cross over. A bridge on paper, on canvas, on heart.

I’m not going to say it’s not terrifying, this vulnerability, but when you get something back, oh my, there is nothing like it! Each day when I write these blogs something magical happens. I tell you a bit of my grandmother, and you respond with your memory of yours. Bike for bike, we exchange our stories. Our stumbles on gravel roads and our victories in schools. This is glorious. This is living — this sharing — these connections.

The French, as a whole, are pretty protective of their feelings. They are not fast and loose with praise or compliments. I’m certain that I can be terrifying to them at times, running with arms waving, hugs approaching, feelings everywhere, heart dripping from my sleeve… but it’s the only way I know how to build this bridge, make a connection.

Yesterday, on Instagram, I received a letter from a French woman. She wrote, in French, that her daughter had sent her one of my pieces of art, because it reminded her of her grandmother. She told me that her mother, who has passed on, loved art, but never dared show anyone. She thanked me for the reminder of her mother. How it connected her to her daughter. And wished me well with my art — hoping that I would sell lots of work from my gallery!

This is amazing for two reasons. First, that I read and understood her message, in this new language. This has been a long time coming. And I don’t want to gloss over the victory! Second, that she, this French woman, risked all of her Frenchness and exposed her heart. She dared, as her mother hadn’t… and we connected! For me, (and I hope for her too) this is heart waving fantastic!

I know it’s not easy, this offering of your heart, but oh — OH! — how important it is! If you can, today, offer someone a compliment. Tell a bit of your story. Be vulnerable. Feel everything! Connect. Risk. Build a bridge. DARE to cross over.