Jodi Hills

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


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Beyond fear.

My mother was in grade school when she hit Arnie Zavadil in the head with her metal lunch box. He was making fun of her younger brother Tom. She was the eldest daughter of Rueben and Elsie. And she took it seriously. She would later drop “eldest” and trade it in for “prettiest,” when describing her familial role, but she never lost her protective spirit.

I counted on that protective swing my whole life as we navigated through the world, often filled with “taunting Arnies.” Even when she traded in her lunch box for white ruffles, dangling earrings and Red Door perfume. I always felt safe. I felt protected. What a gift she gave us all.

Never underestimate the strength of a Hvezda girl armed with love — she is grace beyond fear.


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Comic strips and soap operas.

I started a new book recently. I’m really enjoying it. This is the point where most people ask “What’s it about?” I always think of the quote by the author,
J.R. Moehringer, “I hate when people ask what a book is about. People who read for plot, people who suck out the story like the cream filling in an Oreo, should stick to comic strips and soap operas. . . . Every book worth a damn is about emotions and love and death and pain. It’s about words.”

I don’t know the first thing about farming. I can barely name the machinery. But I do know about farmers — or at least one — my grandfather. I can tell you about a pipe in the top pocket of striped overalls (the stripes carrying each season like the rings of a mighty oak.) Walks from the house to the middle of the field. A foot in each furrow. Rocks picked with roughened hands (hands that we all reached for.) Words of wisdom, scattered like seeds. Faith, that keeps you planting, again and again. Red paint chipping. Hair lines receding. A love that never stops growing. As far as I know, that’s what farming is about. Beautiful!

For me, books, paintings, days, are all meant to be lived. Really lived. Not driven by plot, but by heart. And that heart is meant to be roughened, reached, scattered, and planted. Forever growing.

Today, set aside your daily planner, and really live — that’s when the beauty comes — and maybe, just maybe, that’s what it’s all about.


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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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Trust in your own length.

I wish I had the same patience with myself as I do with a block of wood.

I searched my woodpile for wood that could be made into a frame for my newest painting. First, I had to find enough length. I did. Two pieces that could be cut into four. Imperfections everywhere, but the length was there. So I began sanding. And sanding. Ending each day covered in dust, filled with the scent of possibility. I filled previous nail holes with putty. And sanded again. I will continue this process for days. I trust in it.

I asked my grandpa when I was about six or seven — (I calculate my age in the length of my steps compared to his) — “…but who tells you what to do?” We were walking back to his tractor in the field. I was always amazed that he could fix anything. The tractor. The mower. The combine. Whatever it was. He made the walk to the garage, or the barn, found the right tool and fixed it. I was fascinated. And it wasn’t just that. How did he know when to plant? Where? When to harvest? What to do every day? “I’ve made this walk before,” he said.

I’m not sure I understood the answer, but I knew enough to try to keep up. 

I suppose nobody can really tell you how to make the journey. You have to put in the steps. Believe in them. Trust in your own length. It’s difficult for sure. But I see myself making the journey with a piece of wood. It’s just a small journey, I know, but it gives me patience. It offers me faith. And I take another walk, each time a little less afraid. A little more forgiving. 

Somedays, it may feel like you are being asked to do the impossible. Be patient with yourself…kind. Believe. You’ve made this walk before.


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Hello!

I thought about it a lot yesterday while I was painting our front gate — this gift of time.

My grandfather died my first year in college. I was studying creative writing. Words had always saved me, since I was a little girl. When I found out he was ill, I started writing. Reaching out with each letter. To save him. To save myself.

I picked up the community phone in our dorm. It was my Aunt Sandy who called to ask if it could be read at his funeral, this poem. The tears were streaming down my face. The two popular girls from South Dakota, their room adjacent to the community room, stood beside me, trying to catch the tears in their hands.

I was so brand new, in almost every way. The language I was living was filled with hellos, and on his paper, his poem, I was writing his goodbye. In one line I spoke of him wanting to repaint the barn, but he thought he wouldn’t live to see it dry. The words break me, even as I type it. Even as I painted the front gate. But in this cracking of my heart, this opening, it became so clear. I do have the time. Today. And the choice of how to fill it. The choice to live each moment, the best that I can.

I caught the paint drops in my hand and made our front gate just a little more welcoming. I did the same with my heart. This day, this time, this brand new, will not be wasted. It will be lived. And it will be beautiful! With each word I type, I know that I won’t be safe, but I will be saved.


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Rock solid.


We always raced toward the stillness. We began at the stairs of my grandparents’ house — 4 or 5 cement steps that led to the door that no one ever used. On your marks, get set… Go! And we were off, my cousins and I, wheeling and willing ourselves to the first base – the giant rock at the end (or beginning) of their driveway. The stone had to be touched, then we made a sharp right to the first apple tree, touching the boards that were hammered into the trunk for stairs . Then came the field. The cow field. We were supposed to touch the nearest cow. This meant you would have to duck under the electric fence, avoid the cow “pies” and dare to get get close enough to touch one of those giant beasts. They, not wanting to play, looked at us with faces that said, move on to the next base. We slightly bent down as we ran near the fence and waved in the direction of a moo, and this satisfied us all. We ran around the back of the house, past the rhubarb in the garden, touched the garage, ran to the barn, touched a tractor, then raced back to the front steps.

The rules were loose. The laughter was free. The races were never won or lost. Perhaps we were just gathering it all in. Each touch preserved in time. I can feel it — all — still. Sometimes I think, how smart we were — to take it all in. I have to will myself to be that smart now. It’s so easy to get caught up in the daily race. But I remind myself to take the time to touch it – the stillness around me. I suppose it is there, in this stillness, that we gather in the meaning — the laughter, the love, the rock solid joy of being alive.

Summer is racing towards autumn. I can feel the slight change in the air. We sit on the front steps for a moment. Talk about what a run we had! The slips on corners, and grass stained knees, and we laugh from the lowest parts of our bellies. We look through the corners of eyes and feel the sun… “You wanna go one more time?” Yes! The answer was, and always will be — yes!!!


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In close.


I rarely saw my grandmother without an apron. There were so many children. Grandchildren. The kitchen was always in motion. I liked standing next to her. So close. When she wore the embroidered apron – the one with the flowers – I would press my head as close to her hip as I could. This hug, when held for longer than she had time for – (yet she never pushed me away) – this hug could produce an imprint on my cheek of the same flowers. An imprint that didn’t last long on my face, but still remains on my heart.

Dishes clanked. Smells arose. Voices jabbered. And then the whirlwind would stop. She needed something from the basement. She told me to run and get it. The basement. I’ll admit I was afraid. Being only apron high, it wasn’t unusual, but I wanted to be brave. My grandmother canned. There was a whole wall of canned good down there. But to get to what she needed, I would have to go descend the darkened stairs. Past the hooks of overalls that looked like men waiting. I would have to tune out the furnace. The creaks of wood. She pushed the small of my back in the direction of the stairs. Of course I would do it. I held my breath, as if going under water. Raced my bumper tennis shoes down the steps. Grabbed the glass jar filled with what I could only imagine was a science experiment and ran back up the stairs. I handed it to her beaming. She had no idea what I had risked, but she hugged me just the same.

Yesterday, we went to see Dominique’s mother. She clings to the day. Leaving, sad, I heard through the open windows of the house next door, the clanking of the dishes. Silverware. Glass. Stove. A woman singing over the din. The sounds of life. I smiled, feeling the embroidered flowers on my heart.

This love. Knowing your heart, if you’re giving it all, will break and mend and break again. Still, I, we, will risk any darkened stairs to experience it. The sun begins to light today’s path. To this day, this life, I make a promise to feel it – really feel it – and, joyfully, I pull myself in close.


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The scent of story.

I was only six when I was walked into the library of Washington Elementary. The door opened and it hit me immediately, the familiar scent. I didn’t have the words for it then. The knowledge. Certainly it could have been explained away with paper, and time. The aging, a slight dampness to it all. But I had smelled this before, this comforting familiar. And I needed no explanation, because I was home.

This welcoming scent – it was the same as the entryway to my grandparents’ home. Coats lined the wall. Dampened with work and story, they welcomed anyone who opened the door. They said, come in, you and your heart sit down. It was there I learned to trust. Trust in those who made the effort. Trust in those who worked hard to create something. Create a life.This library of coats. Of living.

When Mrs. Bergstrom, my first grade teacher, let go of my hand, I wasn’t afraid. She set me free in this open and beautiful world. There was life all around me. Book after book. Page after page. The words brushed against my arm, warm and worn, as the sleeve of my grandfather’s coat.

Some might say it is only nostalgia. But what is nostalgia? For me, it is not wanting to live in the past. No, for me, I see it as proof. A living and palpable proof of how it feels to be open. It is a reminder of how glorious life can be. A documentation of the extraordinary doors — the doors that let you in, the ones that set you free.

I don’t know what today will bring. But I know what it feels like to be open. I need no explanation. I brush against the familiar, and walk into the sun.


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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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Another rock on the trailer.

I have told the story before — picking rocks in the field with my grandfather on his farm, but sometimes, I, maybe we, need to hear it again, and again. The following is an excerpt from “Something will grow from all this”:

“Each rock seemed to give birth to another. I was so tired. But Grandpa didn’t seem to be. He just kept picking those rocks, one after the other. He seemed to get stronger. There was precision in each movement. I watched carefully. It was like an oil pump that didn’t have a beginning or an end to its motion, but just kept going. I had been throwing the rocks with anger, but he moved them with purpose…and that was the difference. That’s how he could take such a mess and later make something grow out of it. The black that surrounded us would turn to green and gold. It amazed me and I wanted to be a part of it. It was hard, but that was ok. I did want to stay. My lip stopped quivering and I placed another rock on the trailer.”

There are so many challenges. It’s easy to get angry. And that’s ok if it thrusts us into doing the work, but that’s where we always need to get to – the place of doing the work. I have thrown my share of rocks with anger, but I want to move them now – move them with purpose. Make a difference. Make something grow. Just like my grandfather. 

The sun is coming up. It is not the beginning, it is not the end, it is the time to do the glorious and sometimes unglamorous work. I give thanks for the opportunity, smile, and place another rock on the trailer.