Jodi Hills

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


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Let’s talk all night.

When I was a little girl, my mom would gather blankets and pillows in a pile for me beside her bed. She called it my nest. 

I fell in love with Dominique ping by ping. Our first correspondence was on the phone. Text by text. Word by word. 

My mom came to help me with an event. I inflated the air mattress for her to sleep on. First, we put it in the living room. But then, because of the time difference in France, as our night began, so did Dominique’s morning, and my phone began to ping. He was on the fast train to Paris. I ran out to the living room to show my mom. After several pings, and giggles, we squeezed her mattress beside my bed. A nest. “Let’s talk all night,” we agreed. There are some moments you never want to end.

We did it often. The magic was never lost on us. We did it in Minneapolis. Chicago. New York. After a show. A book signing. To fit into this world of laughter and praise and love. Art and music and wine and food. It was glorious. And we wanted it to last. To never end. I still do.

I am nested in the memory of it all. Here in the south of France, beside the one I love. I was sent off with a glorious giggle and a love that still nests beside me. In my head, my heart, I am gathered in, and I know, still, if I but ask, we can talk all night.


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Down a gravel road.

There was a simplicity to friendship, growing up on a gravel road. An afternoon could be filled with one stone and a one mile walk to town. Out of the driveway a mere few steps, I would begin kicking a stone down the road. Small kicks at first. Just in front of me. Then maybe a little harder as confidence increased. Avoiding the ditches. Making bargains with the stone itself — if I make it to Lee’s house without losing the stone, then this will happen, or if I make it to the Lake, for sure this — or maybe even to town, then I could really choose my fate. 

On the best of these days, I would hear running footsteps behind me. A neighbor. Maybe a Norton. A Holte. But always friendly steps. And without question, they would begin helping me kick the stone down the road. They never asked where we were going, or for how long. They never asked why. Just walked beside me. 

To have that clarity is a pure gift. If you have that now, and I can joyfully say that I do, then you have more than a friend, more than even family — perhaps we need a new word for these people — these glorious humans that will just help you get your stone down the road. 

My shoes are dusty. There are no more bargains to be made. Only the journey. The beautiful journey of this gravel road. And I give thanks every day, that I, we, don’t have to make it alone.


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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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Shine.

There are many reasons that I write each day. A writer writes. 

There are many reasons that I paint each day. A painter paints. 

But I must admit, I had this idea, that maybe, just maybe, if I wrote the words down, they would form a string, a line, a ladder, and connect to my mother. I thought if I finished the painting, finished the book, they would be the lifeboats to carry her. A believer has to believe.

And for 586 days it has been true. But maybe the real truth is that it has saved me. I suppose that’s love. It must be love. And perhaps the only real reason to do anything.

Years ago, I wrote about my mother – 

“You do the impossible every day. You warm people with your own brilliant light, and make them believe it is they who really shine.”

I write. I paint. I believe. I love. All because of her brilliant light. I will do it today, and for the rest of my life. And I will be saved.


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In from the cold.

Maybe it was fun, for a few minutes. Or maybe it was out of pure necessity – I mean, what was the alternative? If we didn’t go out in the wintertime, we’d lose nearly half the year. So we did it. We bundled. From head to toe. Sweaters and snowsuits. Hats. Mittens. Hoods wrapped in scarves. At this point, not being able to bend over, our mothers would force our twice socked feet into our older siblings’ boots, and open the door.

The cold air felt like a slap to the only exposed area around our eyes. We blinked as our eyelashes doubled with frost. We winter-waddled through the yard as long as we could. Hoping to stay out at least as long as it took to bundle. Rolls of snowmen heads were started, then abandoned, and soon we ran (like penguins) to the nearest door. I guess for me, this is what it was all about – that full body sigh of coming in from the cold. Into the warmth of my mother’s arms. Warm kisses on red cheeks.Brought back to this world, mitten by mitten. Boot by boot. Sock by sock. I was home.

And I would do it again. And again. I suppose that’s what love is. Coming in from the cold.

What a thrill. What a blessing! To know this. To carry this warmth in my heart. As harsh as this world can be at times, I would, I will, brave the elements of whatever the day may bring, knowing, certain, my heart has a place to come in from the cold.


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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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The twirl.

Some mothers make a path. Mine made a runway.

It was my first job out of university. Just sixty miles from my hometown, but it was a huge step – maybe all first steps are. I was to make a fashion show for wives of clients. I had never done anything like it before, but Crossroads mall was just down the road, and I had indeed been training there, with my mother since I was a little girl.

I don’t remember her first response. I wasn’t even really asking. We both knew she was going to be in it. She had loved fashion her whole life. She was made for this – the runway. Even if others in her small town didn’t always see it, I could. So clearly. What a joy. A privilege. To see someone.

We went to the mall for fittings. Confidence grew from giggles to twirls. It all went so fast. Soon the music was playing and the lights were shining. Her outfit was ahead of mine. My heart was beating so quickly. And then I saw her. At the end of the runway. Everything was in slow motion. I saw her twirl. And in that moment, I knew I could do anything.

The music, that seemed now to be coming directly from my mom, carried me down the runway.

There’s a song that asks the question, “How do we keep the music playing?” I just smile, and know, for me, it will never end.


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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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Wearing my world.

I bought them at Ragstock in Minneapolis. A midnight-lake blue pair of corduroys. They are soft, sure. Great fit, yes. But why did I love them so? I mean, I woke up thinking about them. Excited to put them on. Even for me, that’s a bit much.

Yesterday, in a half run, eager to get into the studio to work on my current painting, it occured to me. I’ve had these pants before.

I was in the 5th grade. Herberger’s was still downtown, not at the mall. My mom bought this pair of pants for me. It was the end of the season sale. Summer was about to begin. No one wanted corduroys. Up until then, I hadn’t really thought about fashion. But there was something about these pants. The color of Lake Latoka after sunset. I looked at the tag. There was a big red slash. And I was hopeful. I tried them on. My legs slipped in like water. “They feel like I’m swimming,” I told my mother. Not a big fan of the water, I’m not sure she understood the reference, but she did understand the love of a new garment against your skin. She checked the tag, and smiled. Handed them to the woman behind the counter, who folded them, and put them in a bag, and handed them to my smiling hands. 

I wore them almost every day that summer. These corduroy pants. Even to Valley Fair with my cousins. They couldn’t understand why I would wear such hot pants on a humid summer day. “Maybe she likes them,” my aunt explained. I smiled. That seemed to be enough for them. I didn’t know how to explain that these weren’t just pants, they were a symbol of something bigger. They were a symbol of when I asked for the world, my mom could give it to me. 

I sat in front of my painting, wearing my world. Confident. Vulnerable. Open. I will never let that go.


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Life’s couture.

Yesterday I saw a photographer on Youtube manipulating a photo to make it seem old — like it was a memory lived, I suppose. The technique took some skill, certainly. And while the end result was interesting, I thought it lacked what the photographer wanted — the depth of an actual experience.  That feeling is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to manufacture.  And I began to think, would our time be better spent trying to capture real experiences, by, well, living?

Once the thought was in my head, spinning around like a kid on a ferris wheel — my brain urging “go ’round again, go ’round again — I began to see it everywhere, this attempt at manufacturing a life. I saw it in the catalogs. Buy our ripped jeans! What if we did the work in the jeans we owned? Wore them in the yard, the garden? Hung tools from belts? Bent? Stretched? Bounced children on bent knees? Wore them thread bare by living? 

I saw the paint splattered jeans on the next page. Couldn’t we just actually paint? Splatter our own clothes with life experience? These are the colors that I want to live in — the colors flung from my own hand and heart. 

It was everywhere. This manufacturing. Even with so-called friends. This trying to fill the life-size holes within us, with “likes” and “followers.” Certainly it has its place. I use it here, every day. To connect. Keep the strings attached through time and distance. But nothing will ever replace human contact. Sitting outside on a sunny day, laughing so hard with friends that waists become rendered useless, bent over by the weight of joy and memory. Nothing can replace the feeling of hugging someone, just a little longer. A kiss of a hand. An empathetic, no words needed, smile. A wave that can’t be contained in the hand, but must be lifted in the air with feet jumping! 

I sit here typing, with paint on my shirt. It is valuable, not because it will sell in a catalog, but because I lived in it. Life’s couture. And I will again today! My heart, threadbare as my jeans, telling my brain, “let’s go ’round again, ’round again!!!”