Jodi Hills

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


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Joie de vivre.

Someone was assigned to pull down the 8′ black shades and the white screen at the front of the class. Another student was assigned to wheel in the projector. The rest of us squirmed in our seats with hearts beating like gerbils on a wheel. Movie day at Washington Elementary was like no other. Nearly two hours of no memorizing. No reciting. No confusion. No pressure.

The sound of the wheel clicking into place. Then the film snaking into position. The projection light coming cn. It was almost unbearable. We had watched the same film for years. First grade. Second grade. Again in 3rd, 4th and 5th. It didn’t matter. It was the memory of pure and uncomplicated joy.

It has been decades since I sat at those desks. But I can feel it as though it were yesterday. Today, memories of my mother turn round and round on my heart’s movie reel. This joy is almost unbearable, but I know I will carry it with me, forever — for that’s what she was, pure and uncomplicated joy.


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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.


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Took comfort.

“This is the new normal,” they say. If that’s the case, then for the past decade, (possibly my whole life) I have been racing through normals at record speed.

Each day I do my French lesson. Each day new scenarios arise. Like trying to learn the difference between who and what (qui and que). Sounds basic, right? Sounds simple. But the who and the what jump from sentence to sentence, so I ask for the rule? Most of the time the answer is you just have to accept it – this randomness – and memorize it. Aaaaah, accepting, like that ever comes easy…

I used to sell my work at an annual event held by The Hazelden Treatment centers. I do not happen to struggle with addiction, but as they read through my work, it was easy to see that the “what” could be anything, at any time, and the “who” certainly was all of us. I guess it all comes down to life. To living. And I take comfort in the pure randomness that surrounds me, accepting that no one escapes, knowing that it could happen to anyone, at any time…pain, happiness, confusion, even love.

They say a prayer that I’m certain most people know. I know it. But sometimes knowing it isn’t enough. I have to know it, and accept it. And as I type the word accept, I understand, it is a word of freedom, not unlike forgiveness (and I’ve struggled with that one too). Accepting, as I see it in this new light is a release, a letting go, not a giving up, or giving in, not bending over, but learning to fly. 

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can, And the wisdom to know the difference.

I finish my French lesson for the day. Instead of shaking my fist at this language, I am going to keep flapping my wings, taking comfort, joy, in this beautiful random of blue.


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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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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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Language of youth.

“That’s where I went to school,” I said as we drove past Washington Elementary. “Do you want me to tell you every time?” I smiled as asking. (It’s a small town. That could easily happen daily.) “Yes,” he said.

Washington Elementary is now a set of condos. Central Junior High – offices. Jefferson Senior High – gone. I still carry the evidence that it was there. In my heart. In my mind. I hope, in my actions.

There is a universal sound of children on a playground. In every country. It doesn’t matter the language, you understand it when you hear it. Let loose from the weight of the classroom, the laughter and excitement explodes into energy. Through unlocked doors into the open air, this collective sound of belonging, growing, building, LIVING. No burden of trying to understand — they just do — understand that this is their time, their joy, and they are free. It is the cartoon language of youth.

I hear it in France. I heard it yesterday in Alex, as we drove by the condos of my education. Maybe we all want to keep it alive. Hear the sound of possibility. So, I tell my husband every time, and we smile. We hear it. No burden of trying to understand, we just do.

I suppose that’s why I write each day. To keep the language of youth alive for all of us. Can you hear it? Oh, please hear it. If, you like, I’ll tell you again tomorrow — because, my friends, this is our time, our joy — and we must LIVE!


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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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Prescription Filled.

I could see her from the kitchen window. Her head just above our gate. I couldn’t breathe. It was the old woman from the pharmacy who had just accused me of being a drug dealer, or addict, who could be sure… 

I had been to the pharmacy twice that week. Leaving each time with two garbage bags full. Both Dominique and his son were recovering from surgeries at home, and I, being able bodied (but not yet of sound French mind — not that I am now) was left to go to the pharmacy. I handed the pharmacist my stack of prescriptions, which apparently included an extraordinary amount of morphine. I returned her stare with an apologetic smile — it was my go to response for most things foreign. Then the questioning began. I understood little but the tone, and this was not good. I could feel the heat from behind the counter, and the glare of those waiting in line behind me. I stumbled and fumbled with the few words I knew for husband and back surgery and I’m sorry. They finally allowed me to leave with my “stash” and I sulked out the front door and loaded the car. 

If I hadn’t been sure before, I was now, that certainly I would never get my own insurance card, not to mention visa. I was now a wanted criminal. My worries were confirmed as I saw her face, this pharmacist, waiting at our gate. I screamed something to the likes of “she’s come to get me, and now I’m going to be deported.” Dominique laughed. (Which was less than reassuring.) 

It turns out she had checked out the prescription. Confirmed it. And was bringing the remainder of the drugs that she, by law, had to confirm before distributing. It all makes sense. Now. We laughed about it again this morning, from the safety of our kitchen table. 

When I look back, there have been countless situations like this through the years — not so much drug related — but situations that I thought were simply unsurvivable. It’s almost embarrassing typing that now — unsurvivable. Oh, what we can survive!  I try to keep these memories close at hand, for my own education, but being human, I so easily forget, and I find myself slipping into another trauma — a “trauma” like deciphering shipping codes for FedEx.  Oh, how soon I forget. This is not trauma, but something to be laughed at from a kitchen table.

It gets easier to let these situations go. I still go through them, but I find myself laughing sooner — and I suppose that’s progress. We take our victories where we can.  

Today started out with laughter. They say that’s the best medicine of all. I sit at the kitchen table, prescription filled.


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Daring greatly.

It seemed easy to make friends in school. They sat you next to about 30 options. Gave you subjects to talk about. Offered common enemies like rules and detention. Supplied the games and gyms. Put you in pools and on buses, all together.

And that was enough for most. But it seemed like there should be more. “Wasn’t there more to it? Wasn’t it all supposed to mean something?” I asked my best friend in my yellow bedroom on Van Dyke Road. Cindy thought about it. I mean, she didn’t laugh, but really thought about it, and I suppose that’s why we were friends. We understood each other. Even in our preteens, we sought more than they could possibly offer at Washington Elementary, or even Central Junior High.

We both agreed that there had to be more. But how did you get it? That was the bigger question. I searched for years. I can’t tell you the exact moment. They came in whispers. Small bits. I wrote words for my mother. And we connected deeply. A poem for my grandfather’s funeral. And I was a part of a family. I began to expose my heart. I suppose I stopped looking for what could be offered to me, and began to offer what I had. And it was bigger! Better! It meant something! It meant all and more than I had dreamed of in shades of yellow. This is how I would connect. How I still connect.

He said I could pick out anything from his wood pile. Maybe that doesn’t sound like much, but for me it was priceless. A way for us to connect. And I had a long way to travel to catch up to this life-long friend of my husband. He helped me load the back of our car.

I cut the first strips of wood to stretch the canvas. No plans yet of what to paint, that would come. It always does if I just give it a path. I gessoed the canvas. And began in blue. The sea and sky and sand opened before me. The boats and nets and the fishermen — all daring greatly.

I searched my newly attained wood pile for the longest, straightest pieces. Sanded each length. And sanded again. And again. I cut them to length. Nailed them with the rusted hammer — once belonging to my husband’s father. Squared. Stained. Sanded again. Cut the strips for the backing. Placed the painting inside. It should also be mentioned that Michel, the man who let me pick freely from his pile of wood, was, for the majority of his life, a fisherman. A fisherman, I pause and smile. The blank canvas knew, perhaps even before I did. And this is how we connect. Connect our hearts. Our stories. By doing the work.

There is more. There is always more. But it won’t be given. We will have to search and throw our nets out to sea, continuously doing the work, ever daring greatly.