Jodi Hills

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


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Carry it with you.

I would often receive pictures of men cut out from the Banana Republic catalog with a note, “He’s on order. Feel free to call him dad.” 

I knew my mother’s handwriting. I knew her sense of humor. 

I can’t stop smiling as I read through her journals. 

July 9th, 1992

“I’m still celebrating my birthday. My philosophy is to live life to the fullest. Don’t just taste or sample it – devour it and have a second helping. Love a lot and laugh a lot. (And since I have not done much loving of late — I’m laughing a lot!!!) I hope before I finish this book I’ll be doing both! Just keep reading.”

While painting a series of portraits in France, I knew exactly what to do with the man in the hat. I made a copy and sent it to my mother. “Sorry for the delay. Your order is on its way.” 

Write it. Record it. Memorize it — this soundtrack of laughter with the ones you love. Nothing is lighter than joy. Carry it with you.


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No goodbyes.

We always made one last trip to the lake, my mom and I, after running along the Magnificent Mile for two days. In measured steps, we walked the quiet Sunday morningsidewalk. Past the water tower. The drowsy Drake hotel. Then under the street. Up to the beach. There it was. Lake Michigan. Always important. Never urgent. And we breathed. Offering thanks, with the slow reverence it deserved. Both of our wrists still marked by the weight of shopping bags, we held out our hands and waved, not goodbye, but in recognition.

Some days, I still try to urgent away the emotion. I could vacuum. And dust. Ironing needs to be done. And I could write lists of more things to do. But then there is the important. Calling. In waves. So I take out my sketchbook. My paints. Tape off a square. Imagine the calm. And with blued brush, I gently put it on the paper. And I feel it all. The tender of memory and time. I smile and breathe in the important, and watch the urgent roll on by.


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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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Bear Witness.

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”

— James Baldwin

I have never recommended a book before finishing, until today. I am reading “Demon Copperhead,” by Barbara Kingsolver. And I hesitate here to even use the word reading – it doesn’t seem to be exactly right. Perhaps it’s more like “experiencing.” And for me, that’s when the author gets it right. When pages become doors. Words become feelings. Knowledge becomes empathy.

Empathy. I didn’t have the word for it then, when I began to write. But I can see it was the reason. As I read through poems I wrote for my mother. Scratches on paper. Childlike (well, I was a child) attempts at painting words on wood. All to let her know that I could feel what she was feeling. And I cared. We were, are forever, connected.

Once, I began selling my work throughout the country, it became ever so clear, we weren’t alone. People would hold a framed phrase in their hand and say, “This is so me!” And I would smile at my mother, she wearing the look, “Well, actually… it’s about me.” But that’s what connects us, you see – connects us all. And oh, what a comfort, what a joy, to be connected! It’s really all we have — it’s everything!

So I reach out daily. Offering my story, in hopes you will share yours. We are all here to tell a story.


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Something close to hope.

I battled my French lesson this morning, word by word, accent by accent. And “they” know when you are struggling — a little prompt comes up — “Even when you make mistakes, you’re still learning.” I smile and pray it is true, with everything I do.

Sometimes I’ll say a few words to a stranger in French, and they will answer in English. “Wow,” I think, “it’s really that obvious?”…as if the crutch of my broken language is dangling from under my arm. If only the real struggles of everyone were that easy to see.

It’s so easy to be unkind. To be impatient. I know it is a lesson, I, we, must work on daily. It’s impossible to see what everyone is going through. The “how are you”s and the “fines” just don’t tell the whole story. The limps of the heart go undetected. So I guess the answer is to just keep trying. Trying each day to be more kind. More empathetic. And even on the days we fail, when others fail, to understand that we are all still learning. Arriving at something close to hope, and beginning our journey again.


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The art of soulful living.

Sometimes when someone gives you a gift not attached to a holiday, we say, “for no reason.” But I say, for the best reason of all!

She handed me the heavy object. I knew it was a book. So I knew I would love it! I gently tore off the paper to reveal the cover – “The art of soulful living.” “I saw it,” she said, and immediately thought it was perfect for you!”  The book is gorgeous. Beautiful images. Elegant writing. But she saw me. She sees me. This is the greatest gift of all!  

A season of giving is about to begin. And it’s fun, as it should be. But it can get hectic. Racing here and there. And I don’t want to analyze it, or suck the life out of it, but just offer a small reminder — really, when it comes down to it, we all just want to be seen. We want to be balmed and healed by the moments we give to each other — the moments we take to say — for you, I’m not too busy.


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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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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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My heart’s umbrella.

I woke up to the rain. It hasn’t rained here since the spring. I listened to the drops against the window. The trees must be so happy, I thought. The grass. The plants. They’ve all been suffering.

Growing up in Minnesota, whenever it rained, someone always said, “Well, we needed it.” I guess that happens everywhere. There must have been a time when this wasn’t true. Louie Anderson even had a bit on it, saying, it could be flooding and someone will still say, “Well, we needed the rain…”  or they’d often throw in – “Well, the farmers…” Like anyone knew what the farmers needed. 

So I was happy for the trees, the garden, smiling even, until I walked into our office. That so lovely and needed rain had pounded through our windows. The floor was wet. Paintings were wet. It was a mess. It has happened before. We thought we had the problem fixed. Apparently not. I’ve cleaned up most of it. Paintings are drying. And I didn’t even cry. (This matters because I’m a big crier. It doesn’t take a lot to make this happen.) But not today. I wiped with towels. And more towels. Put them in the washer. And did my French lesson. Still no tears. 

It didn’t matter if I was happy about it or not, the trees and grass were still happy. And I could hear the Louis Anderson of my Minnesota heart saying, “Well, we needed it…” and I smiled.

My cheeks are dry. We don’t always get what we want, sometimes we get what we need.


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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.