Jodi Hills

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


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Learning to fly.

It was rare for someone not to get smacked in the face with the tethered ball. Yet we played. Again and again on the playground at Washington Elementary. Just a ball, tied to a pole. You hit it and hit it until it couldn’t go around any more. It was a strange way to win or lose, this inability not to be able to play anymore. After the brand name of the ball was imprinted on my face, I would think, you know I could just go to the swings.

Some days I feel like I’m beating the same ball around and around. Trying to learn the same lesson again and again. Then it smacks me in the face, and I realize, “You’ve done this before. You’ve learned this. You can learn it again, and move on.”

Sometimes we are our own worst enemies. Tethering ourselves to the negative thoughts that spin round and round. Replaying them until they make an imprint on our hearts and brains. Today, I give you permission, I give myself permission, to just walk away. Try something new. Let yourself be free. Untethered. Maybe today, you try the swings. Maybe today, you learn how to fly.


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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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Heart giggles.

“Sit up straight. And settle down.” These were very confusing directions for us, the six year olds of Mrs. Bergstrom’s first grade class. We breathed in. Slouched over. Looked around. Up. Down. Got the giggles. Giggles so loud that she repeated it again – “Sit up straight and settle down!” Snorts and hoots shot from our hand covered mouths. Giggles should never be contained.

Oh, but they tried. Tried to contain us. Keep your desk orderly. Sharpen your pencils. Eyes to the front. It was like this in every class. Even in gym class there were rules to be followed. But once a week, in the lower level of Washington Elementary, we were marched in, single file, and then set free! It was Mr. Opsahl’s art room. It was filled with color. Paper. Glue. Paint. Sticky things. Beautiful things. Possibilities. Here our imaginations were not only welcomed, but encouraged. Imagination – or mind giggles – burst into full color, like the NBC peacock!

It was a garden view classroom, meaning our heads were at street level. We could see the cars, sometimes the pedestrians. In all the other classrooms, I, we, looked out the window, in hopes of joining this outside world. But not in the art room. Here, I hoped people could see in, see into our magical world. See us making hand puppets, face masks, flower pots. I guess I knew, even then, how beautiful this world was. And I wanted everyone to feel it.

Some might say, well, it’s because you were (are) an artist…but it was more than that, more than art. It was freedom. It was joy. And what a glorious way to learn. One day, Mrs. Bergstrom took a break from the rules, and said we could experience our English lesson by using the hand puppets we made in art class. The hand puppets that were created from empty toilet paper rolls and papier-mâché. Fingers full of promise, behind a sheet of plywood with a stage cut window, we put on magical, nonsensical, plays and songs that contained the day’s vocabulary list. I fell a little more in love with art that day. A little more in love with words. And a little more in love with Mrs. Bergstrom. We expected this from Mr. Opsahl, this loosening of the reins, but with Mrs. Bergstrom, donned in her pencil skirt, and neatly bunned hair, this was something! Truly something!

If you can, do that for someone today. Loosen the reins, give the unexpected compliment, the unsolicited kindness. Be the giggle in someone else’s heart.


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The next flight awaits.

I painted a new bird this week. I love to paint birds. For me, one is completely different from the other (and I’ve painted a lot of them.)  Some might ask, “Don’t you get tired of it, painting the birds?” To this I would reply, “No, do you get tired of feeling good?”  

Because I do, feel good, when I paint them. I love how they are always looking. They were given wings, the chance to fly, and it doesn’t seem like they want to waste it. So playful in the sky. Stopping for brief moments on branches, then looking, knowing, the next flight awaits. The goal is not to finish, but to continuously become!

I’m launching a new website today. A new flight. It’s exciting! I feel perched, but ready to fly again. What a glorious feeling to become. To know my story isn’t finished yet. 

If you are reading this, your story is just beginning as well. Today is the branch that will launch you into the sky. A sky filled with beginnings — if you dare to take them. And oh, I hope you take them! Please take them! I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, “One way or another, I am going to fly!” I’ll see you up there!


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Freedom.

It’s remarkable, I suppose, but there has never been a time in my life when I haven’t felt free. Imagine that. Oh, sure, there have been so many obstacles and challenges. Churches that said you can’t come here. Schools I couldn’t afford. (Lots of things I couldn’t afford.) But in my heart and mind, I have always felt free to make a choice, sometimes a different one when one path failed, but always free to make that new choice.

Maybe it’s because I had a mother, who passed by the inexpensive levels of the department store and dared to believe that she deserved something beautiful, sometimes even if it was just to look. Maybe it’s because I had teachers who, without knowledge of my position or circumstance, said you can be a writer, you can be something, anything. Maybe it’s because, even in my darkest hours, the sun had the audacity to rise each morning, and dare me to come along. Maybe it’s because in those sunlit mornings I could see that even when some of those churches, schools, country clubs, stores, were maybe off limits or out of my budget, I could see that the roads were always open. So I took them.

Not to be all Pollyanna. There are no free rides on these open roads. There will be days you have to fight your very soul to take that next step, only to climb over the next road block. But keep moving. Keep moving. Rest when you need to, but never quit. Freedom isn’t given, it’s worked for, step by step.

Yesterday, here in France, we were having a family barbecue. I learn a little more of the French language, word by word, day by day. It used to feel like drowning, being in a group of people all laughing and talking when I had no idea what was going on. But each day I kick and thrash and burst my head above the water and I join in the conversation, because I want to, I need to, and I am free to do it! What a glorious feeling that is – to be a part of something bigger than myself, bigger than my own country even – this is freedom! And even though it was only the 3rd, I laughed and smiled and I celebrated! I hope you can do the same. Today, and every day after. Happy Fourth of July!


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To grow.

My mom had two uncles named Wally. One had a stutter. I’m ashamed to say that the way we differentiated them was, Uncle Wally and Uncle W-w-w-wally. Never to his face of course, but still horrible now that I think about it.

There are a million things to improve on. We can’t go back in time, but we can always do better, from this day forward. 

This morning, I made the tour around the house, opening the shutters. Summer mornings are nothing short of magical. Birds singing. Sun shining. Legs and arms bared. So freeing. Everything is young, just waking up. 

We have the start of a walnut tree by our front door. Dominique just threw a walnut in the ground, and it decided to grow without our knowledge or permission.  How glorious! At first it was just a stick. Now it is coming to life, so of course I named it. Uncle Wally. This morning I saw that Uncle Wally needed a little help. Bent over from the weight of a summer spurt. I made a brace to help him stand. 

Maybe it’s an apology too late in coming, but it’s an apology just the same. An apology and a promise that I can do better. And tomorrow I might have to make the same apology to today, but I want to keep trying. Keep growing. And I hope the world can see the love in that.

I walk around the house, clinging to the summer of my life, comforted by the understanding, all need not be green to grow.


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The yellow dress.

I certainly didn’t know any artists. No painters. No writers. But I knew I loved both. Still, there was no outlet really. So I tried everything available. Played in the band. Sports. Wore the red and black — our school colors. We were the cardinals. And I blended in. 

It was in college that I began to see the different colors. Of people. Of opportunities. Still uncertain though of how that applied to me. Paths can be followed, or made. And I suppose that’s not a one time decision, but a daily one. A step by step. Because it takes courage — so much courage — to put one foot out, then the other. To shed the colors placed, colors assumed, and replace them with the colors of your heart. 

We went to the Raoul Dufy exhibition yesterday in Aix en provence. (I’m only now imagining the amount of steps it took to get from Alexandria, Minnesota to Aix en provence.) I stood in front of the painting, The Houses in Trouville, Normandy. Immediately I was drawn to the woman in the yellow dress. In a sea of red, black and blue, there she was, all in yellow. And I smiled. I don’t know if she was afraid when she stood in front of her French mirror. If she thought, today I’m going to be brave, I’m going to be different, I’m going to be me… It must have taken courage. And he saw that, Dufy did. And showed it to the world in the most beautiful way. Confirming what I have always thought, hoped for really, that you don’t have to blend to belong.  

We all want to be a part of something. To belong. But that doesn’t mean we have to hide who we are. I, we, belong in the painting, in the big picture. And how beautiful!  

There will always be a part of me that is a cardinal. And I’m proud of it. But I’m not only that. And I’m not only a yellow dress. I will choose my color, my path, daily, and light it up as best I can — hoping maybe, just maybe, it shines a light for you to see — not to find my path, but your own.


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Under today’s sun.

My Grandma Elsie bought the breakfast cereal variety pack. Those animated boxes in every color! OH how we loved them. To reach into the cupboard and choose! This was something! Each box fit perfectly into our palms – already sweaty with the anticipation of sugar. Moons and stars and loops that changed the color of the milk, and our collective heart rates. Our legs fueled, we began the day running. There was so much to see on the farm, and we couldn’t do it fast enough. We didn’t want to miss a minute under the sun.

My cousins and I couldn’t be more different now. Living separate lives, in separate countries even. A variety pack for sure. What a glorious gift to have been given options. Choices. I suppose when you have it, this freedom, it’s easy to forget about it. But I don’t want to take it for granted. So many do not have this luxury. And it is a luxury!

Gratitude’s sweet sugar fills my heart, and I’m still racing. To write the words and paint the painting! To see the day! To live the life! I was given a gift and I don’t want to waste one minute, miss one minute, under today’s sun.


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Freshly broomed.

There is an intimacy to this life that I don’t want to miss.

We were visiting Burano, Italy – an island near Venice. It is known for its lace work and brightly colored homes. These homes are stunning. I even painted them. But it’s funny, I have this memory that is even more vivid. It was morning. We were strolling the near empty streets to find some coffee. And there was an older woman sweeping her front stoop. Just an old woman, with an old straw broom. But never “just.” This was her home. Her life. A life she dressed for. Already in a skirt and apron, she cleaned her front step to prepare for the day. In this tourist village, where people spent all their vacation dollars to see these brightly colored homes, she had a life. A life she cared for. Dressed for. And lived. And how lucky I was to see it!

I want to see it every day. With neighbors and strangers and family and friends. I want to see it on the news. Feel it. These are people. With lives. Each one special. Intimate.

There is a connection in the simplest of things. If we can see the broom. We can see the hands. If we see the hands, maybe we can feel the hearts. If we can see the hearts, then maybe, just maybe… our world – OUR world could open its morning doors, step on to the front stoop and feel safe, feel loved, feel alive. I won’t believe it’s “just” a dream.


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…and if I did that for you

I am working feverishly to prepare for the launch of my new website. Taking photos, scanning, making new prints, cards, displays. I am always surprised at how subjective the eyes are. At first glance, I see what I want to see. Then I look again. Wait. Is that the best scan? Is that the right color? Then the camera shows  a different look. Then I put it on the computer, and there is something else I didn’t see. And wait, print it out on paper – oh, yes, another look. And still, I show it to someone, and they see something different. 

When I painted this wren, I know what I was thinking, so my eyes saw that story. When I showed it to my friend, she saw her sister. And I saw her heart. When I painted the image of our coffee pot, my husband’s son said he could see our reflection in the image. Did I paint it there, or does his heart just know us, know our home, our kitchen, our breakfast table? 

We see the world with our hearts, our minds, our experiences. And if we’re lucky, we see, too, through the eyes of those around us. It’s really not enough to just look. We have to start seeing each other in every possible light. 

…and if you did, see that I am not just my face, but all that I have faced, and if I did that for you…