Jodi Hills

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


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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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Pebbles and paths.

It’s unlikely they are Laura Ingalls Wilder fans, but she is my first thought as I pass the sign each day on my walk. It points and reads, “La Petite Maison” — the little house. Surrounded by trees on the gravel path, I am transported from the south of France to the northwest of Minnesota, crouched in the corner of our living room, reading “Little House in the Big Woods,” by Laura Ingalls Wilder. 

I read all of her books. Each one a safe haven to dream. Moving me forward from place to place. Opening doors. Revealing the possibilities of words, of stories, of living. They were the cars of my underground railroad. 

With each gift comes a responsibility. I, we, were given so much. So easily. And I don’t think it’s enough to just give thanks — thanks for the path. We need to keep digging. Keep paving. Putting up the signs, as small as they may be. Because someone will see them. Will feel them. These small acts of kindness. These words of hope. These gravel roads to possibility. 

I continuously have a rock in my shoe. I think that’s the wink of the universe. A reminder of where I’ve been. A reminder to keep going. That my tiny life, as petite as it may be in this “Big Woods,” has to matter. Has to mean something. So I gather the words and the pebbles and make paths. Walking ahead. Walking behind. Walking beside. Always with you.


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Shoe horned.

From the outside it looked like any other shoe store. The shoes were brightly lit against the wall. So many choices. I had a pair in mind. In the past few days I had searched for them. Rifled through the stores with boxes all in a row. Never matching the right color with the right size. I wasn’t all that hopeful, but I asked the man for my size in a few possibilities. He went in the back and returned, behind a stack. He kneeled down in front of me. And started unlacing the shoes. I reached down, but he said, “I’ve got this.” Suddenly I was 6 years old at Iverson’s shoes. He opened the laces around the tongue. I pointed my toes and he shoehorned my foot inside. All I wanted to do was run around the store to see if they were fast. He went in the back to grab a few more, and I did. And they were. I loved them.

I placed them in the “probably” chair next to me, and tried on the rest. It was always the first pair. That first perfect pair. I tried them on three times in between the others, just to be sure, just to return to my first love. 

I said I hoped I wasn’t wasting his time. It’s funny that we are conditioned to go there. “Absolutely not,” he said. He was cheerful and kind. Offered to spray the shoes to protect from the elements. I joyfully agreed, even knowing the whole while I would never expose these beauties to such things.  

Some might say it is only nostalgia. Maybe a little. And I don’t think it’s just about service. It’s about being seen. Having an interaction with another human. An exchange of kindness. This is now. Forever. 

It took years to grow into my size nines. To stand on my own. But I didn’t get there by myself. No one does. And if we can offer it from both sides, this grace of giving, this grace of receiving, then maybe life will be a little sweeter, always fast, but a little more joyful, as we slip gently against the smooth path, easing ourselves into the journey. 

Softly.


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The exchange.

She has short term memory loss, my mother-in-law. She arrived with flowers for me (courtesy of her other son). I thanked her. Hugged them close to me, draping myself in the fragrance. I held them out to her so she, too, could breathe them in. She thought I was giving them to her as a gift. She smiled with a grand “merci!” — and I was gifted again.

It’s not always clear who is gifting whom. Who is the one helping. Most of the time, I think we all receive in the exchange. And we need to move freely between the roles. Sometimes I think it is maybe easier to be the giver, the strong one. Allowing yourself to be the one who is vulnerable, perhaps this takes the most strength of all. 

I leaned on you today. I’m not sure if you even knew, but I wanted to thank you. I felt you holding my heart. It made me happy. And I was strong. I hope I can do the same for you, if so, we can do anything.


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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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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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On Wobbly Knees.

Last night I finished reading the book Horse, by Geraldine Brooks. To simplify my review, I will just say, “Yes.” Was it good? Yes. Should I read it? Yes. Will I be moved? Yes. Will I learn something? Yes. Is it about horses? Yes. And more? Oh, Yes!!! It spans generations, covering the issues of slavery, racism, the Civil War, art, humanity — then and now. How far we’ve come, how extraordinarily far we have to go.

I suppose I was first drawn to read it because of the central figures of the horse paintings themselves. But then it became so much more. And that is the beauty of art. When it is done well, framed on canvas or bound in words, it conveys a story. A story so fluid that it carries you — carries you with the grace and elegance of chestnut legs in the Kentucky bluegrass.

But what’s it about??? Everyone always wants the short answer. I’m sorry, but the short answer is – read it.

It’s not lost on me that hanging above my head, as I turned from page to page, was my humble painting of a horse. It is entitled, “Unconditional.” And for me that is love. But how do we get there? The only path that I have found is empathy. And the clear path to empathy is education. When we know more — we do more. When we know better — we do better. So I read. And I read some more. And I write. And I write some more. I paint. And, well, more. And I just try to do better. Live better. Racing on my own fragile legs. Racing against time, and bigotry. Racing against everyone who is more than willing to bet against you. Racing away from the conditional.

There was a popular song when I was a teenager, by Dan Fogelberg — Run for the Roses. My mom bought the 45. I played it again and again. For I was, just as the song began, “on wobbly knees, with mama beside you, to help you along…” And I was carried by the melody. Carried by the words —

“It’s breeding and it’s training
And it’s something unknown
That drives you
And carries you home
And it’s run for the roses
As fast as you can
Your fate is delivered
Your moment’s at hand
It’s the chance of a lifetime
In a lifetime of chance
And it’s high time you joined
In the dance.”

I didn’t have the word for it then – this “empathy” – this joining in the dance. But I could see the path. And I wanted to be on it. I still do. I’m still wobbling along, but I’m still learning. Maybe we all can. It’s more than “high time.”


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A look around.

Of course I’m going to finish it. I always do. I never leave a book, just in case… But this will take some effort, this book, because so far, (and I am more than half way into it) I have yet to find a character to empathize with…no one seems real, not to mention likable.  I’m not going to reveal the title, because for you, it might be great. You might relate to one or all of the characters. And that’s for you to decide. 

In any book, I enjoy a flawed character. It’s not like I’m looking for perfection. Because the flaws make people interesting. Human. And that’s what I’m not finding in this book. And maybe that’s on me as well. I have to find a way to see them as human. Part of the journey is up to me. I have to see them.

I suppose that’s the real lesson, isn’t it? I have been proposing this since I wrote my first book, “I am amazed.” I would often take the book to schools and read to the kids, all grades. After reading, I had them do an exercise – pick another student and write down something amazing about them. I encouraged them not to just pick out their friends. And they didn’t. They wrote beautiful things about each other, and their teachers too. They could see each other. One school made a mural of all the attributes and left it up for the school year. They claimed, and I hope it’s true, that bullying decreased, and everyone was just a little more gentle with each other. That is amazing.

So I will finish this book. And I will try harder to empathize with characters not common in my world. I will try to see them. I want to be better at this. Every day. And what if we all did that? Not just with characters in books, but also the ones at the grocery store, the bank, the school, in the car next to us, all the characters who vote and wander, and read, and see us as the different ones. Maybe we all do that for each other. Wouldn’t that be amazing?


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A cow’s shoes.

My grandfather had cows. The herd had to be moved often. He explained that if he didn’t move them out of the grassy field, they would eat until their stomachs exploded. I don’t know if that’s true, or something he told us to keep us quietly watching the herd for hours, just for the chance to see one of them rocket into space.

I remember judging them. How stupid could they be, I thought. I still sometimes do, until mornings like this one. Mornings when I cross the line of just enough lavender honey to make the toast delicious — cross the line into wow, my racing heart and sleeping brain. That was a lot of honey!

It’s these humbling repeated lessons that keep my judgements at bay. (Not as much as I’d like, but I’m working on it.) We never know what the others are going through. And why they are going through it. Why something that is so easy for you is hard for them, and vice versa. I guess the only thing we can do is remember to be kind, to them, and to ourselves, because the roles will continue to reverse from day to day.

I won’t pretend to know what you are going through today. But I will tell you, whatever it is, I care. From the bottom of my honey-filled heart, I do care. And I’ll walk with you to the next field.


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I’ve been there.

We all wore them at Washington Elementary – the great equalizer. For one hour we not only exercised our bodies, but our humility, by donning the Phy Ed onesie – blue and white stripes on the top, elastic waist, blue shorts. Flattering no one. Winning and losing became irrelevant. You couldn’t get too arrogant if your side of the gym won the day’s event, because, I mean, look at you, you still look as ridiculous as the rest of us. So we just played. And we laughed. We had to. 

The classes after gym always seemed a little easier. Bonding for that hour, made math a little more bearable. It was the same after swimming class at Central Junior high, as they forced us to wear the dreaded green swimsuit. We didn’t make fun of the girls who arrived to class with wet hair and clothes disheveled after the allotted five minutes to change — we all knew we would have to go through it on our next cycle day.  

As we aged into high school, then adult life, we dropped all of the symbols of our survival. It gets harder and harder to tell what others have been through. And it’s not like I want to wear the uniforms anymore, no thanks, so we have to talk to each other. Share our stories. So we know we’re not alone. So we can be empathetic. Encouraging. So we can help, and be helped. Because we’re all going through something. Every day. Every minute. And wouldn’t it be comforting, as you arrived now to this day, maybe your heart bruised, or broken, your soul weary (straggly wet and disheveled from life’s lesson), wouldn’t it be nice to see the half smiling nod of the girl in the seat next to you saying, “I know… I’ve been there. I know…”