Jodi Hills

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


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Into the blue.

We’re seeing the blue of the lakes now, not the frozen white of our last visit. Both will take your breath away, but for completely different reasons.

I’m not sure that we ever heeded the warnings, or even saw them, but they were there – “No life guard on duty. Swim at your own risk.” But the lakes were always open. Maybe that’s what I loved most about them. The beaches were public. No discrimination. (Even though our diversity at the time ranged mostly from pale white to deep red.) There was no concern for money or status. The blue waves didn’t know if you belonged to the golf club. What church you went to, if at all. No question of status. The water was open. So warning or no warning, I, we, would go in. The only risk seemed not to participate. Every day was a gift. Perhaps because we new the impermanence. Those waves would soon be still. Frozen. So we raced in. Under the sun.

I didn’t know at the time how telling it was. Everything would always be “at your own risk.” There would be nothing to protect you as you went into the deep end, of love, of life. But I remember. First toes. Straight out of winter boots, feeling the cool sand. Then wet. Colder still. But my heart is saying, you’ll adapt, go further. White shins, almost lavender, walking forward. Thighs shivering. You could wait. No, I can’t wait. Up to the bottom of my suit now. No turning back. Belly button retreating out of fear, like a turtle. Arms raised to prolong it. Brain saying retreat. Heart saying Go! Feet – always following the heart. Hands coming down. Splashing. You’ll be fine. It will be great. Heart beating – go -go, go-go. Diving under. Everything slows. Free now. Am I a fish? A bird? Everything is wild and easy and light. I belong. I am free. Nothing wasted.

The sun is coming in from the window. Blue shimmers all around. There will be chance. Choice. Risk. Love. I smile. Toes wiggling, I listen to my heart as it speaks daily, “Go further. Deeper. Into the blue.”


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This table is strong.

Some said it was in the way, my grandparents’ kitchen table. But for me, for my mother, it was something to lean on. The stability we craved.

The legs were at an angle, protruding just a little beyond the table top. You could kick it. Bump into it. Throw groceries, suitcases, all of your worries, on top of it. It was never going to crumble.

It took a while for my mother to get her legs beneath her. But she did. Oh how she did! And not just holding her up, but at that slight angle – that confident stride. Maybe they saw it in her first – the people of Alexandria. “Oh, I saw you walking yesterday.” “I see you out walking all the time.” “Aren’t you that lady that I see walking?” And when she answered yes to them, maybe she started to hear it herself. Yes. See it in herself. Yes, I am that lady.

I suppose we all have to become the stability that we crave. Table by table. Step by step. The sun rises with one question, we rise, and say simply, joyfully — Yes!

Whatever you need, this table is strong. Jodi Hills


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Ten thousand and one.

Maybe it’s because the brain and the heart are composed of about seventy percent of it. Or maybe it’s because I grew up in the midst of 10,000 lakes. But I have always been comforted by the water. The color blue.

It feels certain – this color blue. Like the words of a favorite song. Words that come so easily. Without thinking. Rolling gently in. Words that comfort. Caress. Hold. Gather. So I paint it, this song, this color and I am home. 

When I was a young girl, and we lost our home, we (my mother and I) moved to an apartment. And when you lose a home, you don’t just lose the walls — you lose the familiar, the comfort, the neighborhood. You lose the sound of screen doors swinging. Mothers calling kids home for dinner. 

Everything changed. I could no longer identify the cars passing merely by the sound of their tires on the gravel. I couldn’t smell the lake from across the street. I had lost the certainty of “blue.”

And being young, I could only see so far ahead. I believed what was in front of me. I believed there were these 10,000 lakes. No more. I believed there was a home. One home. No more. We were given only so much. 

OH, to be so joyfully wrong! Well, I was right about one thing – we are “given” a finite amount – but that doesn’t mean we can’t go out and get more on our own. Find more. Search. Build. I learned if I wanted to have a home, I had to make one. First in my heart. Then in my head. I needed to feel the water flowing through them both. The cool, comforting blue carried within. This was my home. Is my home. My 10,001. (and counting.) No one can ever take that away.

The world, people, will always throw out limitations. Struggles. It, they, will try to block you, box you in. But you don’t have to be one of them. They can tell you that “you can’t…” “you don’t…” you aren’t…” But listen to the water. It’s still flowing. Softly, gently, telling you, “aaah, but I am!”


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The candy dish.

I’m certain it wasn’t expensive, but it was priceless, this candy dish. White milk glass, with matching cover. My mother kept it on the end table, just as you entered the front door of her apartment on Jefferson Street. I don’t know if it was ever full, but I guarantee it was never empty. My mother made sure that when Josh and Rachel (her grandchildren) entered her apartment, lifted that cover, there was a special treat, just for them. They knew it would be there. They looked forward to it. Counted on it. Just as they did with her.

This certainty was something she had always given me. Still gives to me. Even at her lowest points in life, when her own heart wasn’t full, it was never empty — not for me. She always had something for me. 

On the phone the other day, she questioned herself out loud, “Did she have a home? Did she ever have a home?”  You can never tell someone how to feel. But I can tell her, with all certainty (and I only have it because she gave it), that she gave me a home. She gave Josh and Rachel a home. She gave us something sure and sweet and constant. So yes, there was a home, there was always a home for us. Always will be. And she lived there too. 

Never empty. Because of her.


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Racing the wheat.

I’ve always gotten up early. Even as a kid, even (and maybe especially) in summertime. This extra light given, after a long Minnesota winter, this was something not to be missed. I would start wearing shorts as soon as the last patch of snow disappeared. My white winter-hidden legs were almost lavender. Exposed to the fresh, crisp air of sun’s warmth and freedom. It was as close to being a newborn as I could imagine. 

I suppose it was the possibility that I loved most of all. To be out in it. To be a part of it! Sun in my face, light breezes carrying, even lifting my knees, urging them to race — this is summer — this is life! And so I ran. I ran on gravel. I ran on tar. Slipped in morning’s wet dew. I ran in fields behind our house, racing the wheat – who would grow faster? 

It was always a surprise when the fields were cut. And my legs were tan. Where did summer go? But wasn’t it wonderful to still be surprised?!

I got up early this morning. Kissed by sun and warmth. Born again. Legs exposed — heart too – still believing that summer will never end.


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Just breathe.

There seemed to be holes everywhere in our neighborhood. Someone was digging a well. Planting a tree. Burying something you preferred not to know about. And as kids, in this neighborhood full of holes, we seemed to be constantly running. Chasing the sun, knowing it would set long before we were ready, and we would be called home.

It was behind our green house that I fell into my first hole. Maybe it was for the sewer pipe, I don’t know, but we were running. I was just a little ahead of Cathy. I turned the corner at full speed, laughing, not looking for danger (I had not yet been exposed). And then, from her perspective, I dropped out of sight. Literally. Flat on my back. I’m not sure who was more surprised. I couldn’t breathe. The wind was knocked out of me. I signaled with my shifting eyes, and head, and somehow she knew, like in every Lassie conversation, to go get a ladder. I say “a ladder,” because in this neighborhood full of holes, there would always be a ladder leaning against someone’s garage door.  By the time she returned, my lungs were once again filled with summer air and I climbed up the wooden rungs. 

Because that’s what we did, you see. We saved each other. And most importantly, I suppose, we offered up the reason to believe that someone would be there for us. And this is what kept us running. For me, it still does. It gives me the strength to keep going, even with the knowledge that life’s path is full of them – these holes that will try to swallow us. I still believe in the kindness of those around me. The ladders that will be offered. The strength to get myself higher. Forever chasing the sun.


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Further, deeper…

Before I could ride a two-wheeler to Lake Latoka, my mother would have to drive me there. Well, she didn’t have to, but she did. And certainly it wasn’t fun for her. She didn’t like heat, nor the water… But still, I would tug on her shirt, as she bent over the laundry that couldn’t be done during the work week, the laundry that ate up her Saturday morning. “Please, just for a few minutes,” I would plead. I didn’t know then that it would mean staying up hours later, when she was already tired, or maybe I wouldn’t have asked, but I’m not sure that I carried enough empathy at this young stage of life. Already sweating in my one-piece sailor swimsuit, I’d smile into her eyes, and she put down the basket. 

She placed her folding lawn chair as near to the shade of the one tree on the beach as possible. I splashed and waved and swam, as the straps of the chair made a pattern on the back of her thighs. All the youth of the surrounding Latoka area screamed, “look at me!” as their heads and feet popped up through water! The most comforting thought perhaps that I’ve ever had, is not feeling the need to yell the same. Because each time I turned, or spun, or splashed, or did a trick, and then looked up, her eyes were directly on me. She was always watching. Always there. The life-line that allowed me to go further, deeper, because she, you see, connected me to the shore.  

People often ask me, “How did you have the courage to start your own business…to dare expose yourself through word and canvas…move to another country???” I suppose the answer to it all, I always had the comfort of shore.


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The promised land.

“Don’t touch them,” I heard him say, while I was touching them. It was my grandfather’s voice in my head. He had said it when I found a fallen bird’s nest on his farm. The little bird beaks seemed to be crying out for me, but he said no, if I touched them, the mother would never come back. But surely it couldn’t be the same for bunnies I thought. Not the same for these beautiful cuddly little bunnies that I found on this day in the field next to our house. Bunnies were meant to be touched. To be held. They were accessible. Not like birds. Why, there was the Easter Bunny, and Bugs Bunny… chocolate bunnies, stuffed bunnies… Yes, I told myself, bunnies were meant to be held. There were three of them. No mother in sight. I placed one from each hand, back with the other. They squirmed and nestled and smiled. See, I told myself, they were just fine. The mother would come back.

I told my brother that afternoon what I had found. How I had picked them up. “Now you have to kill them,” he said.

“What?????? Noooooo! I would never!”

“Well, they are going to die anyway. Starve to death. Because the mother doesn’t like your smell.” And he walked away.

I stood motionless. How could he deliver this news and just leave me standing there. I was a murderer, and apparantly, I smelled.

I thought about getting my bow and arrow. The plastic one my aunt had purchased for me at Target. I could “do the right thing” (according to my brother) and kill them. I went into the garage to find my bow and arrow. I touched the string. Slid my finger along the faux feathers of the arrow. There was no way I could kill them. No way. I sat in the gravel at the end of the driveway, now not even certain that my own mother would return to me from work. Why would she? I was a smelly murderer.

When she finally pulled in, she didn’t even put the car in the garage. She stopped beside me. Opened the car door. I told her everything. She assured me that I was nothing of the sort, that mothers do come back. And as I sat on her lap next to the steering wheel, I could only believe her. She was proof.

The next day I searched for the bunnies. Praying for their mother’s return, as the weeds scratched my legs. I searched for hours, or maybe ten minutes, but there was no sign of any of them. No babies. No mother. My own mother went straight to the happily ever after…. “See, she said, “the mother came back and brought them to a new house and they are all just fine.” I believed her.

Years later, the first grown-up book we were assigned in middle school was “Of mice and men.” Lennie, the rabbits. It was all so sad. I wept for the story. For them. And I wept because I felt it all slipping away. I knew now. How could I go forward with this knowledge of unhappy endings? How did they carry it? I wept for my brother. My grandfather. How long had they carried this knowledge? I wept for my mother, who had to have known, but still lived on as proof — still passed on the possibility of happy endings. They all carried it, as best they could.

John Steinbeck says, “In every bit of honest writing in the world, there is a base theme. Try to understand men (humans), if you understand each other you will be kind to each other.” I would have to choose my own path. Walk in my own truth. I suppose we all have to do that. And with each word that I write, maybe I understand them, and myself, just a little bit more. See the beauty of it all, just a little bit more. This I can carry. I smile, and walk on.


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Produce

I have professed my love for libraries, over and over. The Washington School Library. The Alexandria Public Library. One small room. One small building. Each opened a world to me that will never close. I can smell the wood that housed the paper. The slight hint of sweet mildew, like an open window.

The truth is, this was not my first impression of books. My first collection of words on pages — words mixed with colorful art – these books held the smell of fresh produce. It was at Olson’s Supermarket. My mother hoisted me into the shopping cart. The silver denting the back of my thighs. Legs dangling. Her purse beside me.

Just after the cart corral was a long display of Golden Books. I can feel my arms reaching. They were the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. She placed one in my chubby hand and I was changed. Words on paper. My arms will be forever reaching.

I can hear her voice reading each page. Night after night. Year after year. And then I started to hear my own. How do you thank someone for giving you the world? I suppose the only way I know is to use the same words I was given. Again and again.

I was speaking to the young woman who is currently working on my new website. Not a small task. She has to handle each piece of art, each word. She told me yesterday, because she is so immersed in all of the work, “I feel like I know you.” My heart is still smiling. My arms are still reaching. We are in different countries. From different generations, and my paintings of the apples remind her of her mother’s kitchen. Once again, the sweet smell of produce… My world opens, and I give thanks with the words that first saved me.


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How it should be.

It was at the State Theatre in Minneapolis that I first heard the Indigo Girls. Dayton’s used to put on an extreme fashion show each year for charity. Oh, just saying Dayton’s does something to my heart.) The theatre was dark and suddenly they blasted the intro for Fugitive by the Indigo girls, and the first model stepped out. It was a mixture of clothes and music, and city and night, art and diversity, and they sang, “Remember this as how it should be.” Oh, how I wanted to remember. 

My mother and I loved Dayton’s. Saturday mornings. Always before lunch. Trying on clothes at our thinnest. No need for food. We were fueled. Hands gently touching racks. Filling dressing rooms. Mirrors admired. Compliments given. Hearts full. Then with hands bagged it was off to lunch. To sip at the wine, and pull out each item, tell the story, live it with laughter and praise, and before I knew the words to the song I thought, “Remember this as how it should be.”

I was mowing the lawn yesterday. Listening to a podcast. They were interviewing the Indigo Girls. I couldn’t hear every word over the hum of the motor, but my heart… I can’t tell you what the models were wearing that beautiful evening, but I can recreate the feeling of hope and desire and pure excitement for a life recognized. I don’t recall every garment tried on or purchased with my mother, but as I sit here in my new Saturday morning, my heart is filled with laughter and praise. 

I suppose that’s the way it is for everything. And that’s how it should be — the experience. Today we plan to go visit a vineyard. I know I will forget the wine. Probably even the place. But the time…my heart is already singing.