Jodi Hills

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


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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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Buoyed



I suppose it’s cliche, but it all seems so small. The lifeguard stands. Only a few steps up. But I guess they didn’t need to see that far — were the buoys always in that close?

The risks were real though. For some reason, it didn’t seem that frightening. The signs were clearly marked — “Swim at your own risk,” but in we ran, past the lifeguards, without a care.

I carry those words with me, even today – “Swim at your own risk.” Because that was the real lesson. I learned it early. We were all on our own really. Even with the lifeguards in their stands. The chances we would take, our own. But with them came the greatest rewards. Mostly confidence and joy. When I think about it, the real joy, (and I’m talking belly-full of buoyed kind of joy) came only from taking the chance.) That’s how I want to live. Forever.

She asked me if I thought everyone was an artist? Yes, I said. But people don’t believe it, she said. No. I guess mostly they are afraid. To allow yourself to be that vulnerable, that open, that means taking a chance. A big chance. But children can do it. Yes, I said. And I see it now, so clearly. Maybe children can do it because everything seems so big. The giant lifeguards in their giant stands. They seemed huge — it all seemed so certain. As we get older, bigger, we see the things put in place to “save us” aren’t really that big at all — actually quite small. And the certainties seem few. So we think smaller. Take fewer chances.

But I don’t want to live like that. I climbed into the lifeguard stand. I would be asked to save myself, again and again. I am a swimmer. And an artist. I am going to be scared, sure, but I am going to be buoyed by the pure joy of taking the chance! Belly-full!


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Buoyed.

I could feel our friendship slipping away at Le Homme Dieu beach. We had been best friends. Inseparable really, for the whole school year. Sleep overs every Friday night. A secret language whispered across the desks of the classroom. Navigating through all the changes together. Would it be time to start wearing a training bra? And what were we training for? It was all so exciting. So thrilling. A little terrifying, but we were doing it together.

That summer, she living in Victoria Heights, went swimming at Lake Le Homme Dieu beach. I was a Latoka girl – had been ever since I could ride a bike. It was mid summer when she invited me to a small party, probably birthday, at Le Homme Dieu. My mother dropped me off. There was splashing and high pitched squeals. Water flying. Sand kicked up from heels. The same thing was happing at Latoka, but it felt different. I felt different. They all seemed to be in step. They knew each other’s moves. They had their own water dance. I tried to feel my way into the crowd, timing it, like Double Dutch. I felt like I was tripping. My best friend was making new friends. She fit into a new crowd. I was happy for her, and a bit sad. I didn’t have the word for it then – this melancholy – , but I knew the feeling. I knew the school year would bring changes. We would go in different directions. It had already happened before. A couple of times. Each change survived, and thrived. The newness conquered. Then enjoyed.

Yesterday, I went swimming at that same Le Homme Dieu beach. Just a slight touch of autumn whispered in the air. I was a child again. Buoyed by the same waters of youth. I now live in the French language of this lake. Bigger changes than I ever could have imagined. But life gave me the tools. I suppose it always does.

There is a melancholy in air. I feel it every year. And it doesn’t scare me. I enjoy it actually. Change is going to come, going to be survived, enjoyed even, as we kick up the sand, splash in the water, and navigate life’s dance.


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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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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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Washed clean.

I walked through the garage and into our front yard. The grass was damp. I could see that Cathy was in the empty lot before Dynda’s house. It had just rained, this being spring. I didn’t walk on the road because I didn’t want to get my shoes dirty. I chose wet instead. I crossed through the line of trees that separated the lots. The leaves dampened my shirt. She sat there, near a big puddle. Her hands were covered in mud up to her elbows. It was hard for me to breathe. “Let’s make mud pies,” she said. I liked neither mud, nor pie, but I did like Cathy, so I walked a little closer. She passed to me a clump of wet soil, as if it were a gift. I held on for as long as I could, mere seconds. “My mom is calling,” I lied. She looked confused as I dropped the muck. I ran with arms extended. “Maaaaaaaaaaaaam!  Mom!” I yelled as I got closer. She ran out the door with the urgency I required. “What????” she asked. Not seeing my most obvious emergency. I thrust my hands in her direction. I shook them towards her. How could she not see?  Look! My hands. She smiled in acknowledgement. She knew I didn’t like my hands dirty. “Please…” my outthrust hands pleaded. She grabbed the hose, and I was saved.

I don’t know why it terrified me so – to have dirty hands. But it did. My mother never made fun of me. Never questioned why. Never told me how to feel. She just helped me wash them. And later, we had a good laugh. 

Through the years, there would be countless times that I, or she, would find ourselves in a mess. Sometimes created. Sometimes thrust upon us. But I never felt judged. We simply helped each other cry — washed ourselves clean. Helped each other grow. Helped each other laugh. And we were saved. 

I hope you have this. This person beside you. Who will reach out to your dirtiest of hands. Who will help you cry. Help you laugh. Just be there. Be there for you as you battle through love and fear. Battle through the letting in and the letting go. Be there when you call their name, with outstretched hands. And even more than this, I hope you ARE this person. (Just as I hope that I am.) 

Be there, as we all try to come clean.


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Disguised in blue.

I started telling my secrets — small secrets, secrets that fit into the basket of my banana seat bike — telling these secrets to the tiny waves of Lake Latoka. They were not big waves, but they were not big secrets. And so they would roll out, back to the deep water, dark water, and I would be free. Free from carrying them.

What a relief to be free. As I got older, some secrets (or worries) got bigger. But so did my lakes. On the shores of Lake Michigan, I released more than I could carry. And again, I was free.

And when I needed a bigger tide, there was the ocean, the sea…and never have I been turned away. Each wave telling me, go ahead, I can handle it. Let me carry it.

This comfort of shore, what a gift. So I paint it again and again, to remind me of all that it has offered to carry. And for all those people, disguised in blue, who have done the same. I give thanks for you, every day.

I see you standing there, toes dug in the sand. I nod my head and smile. We both know what we’re thinking, “Roll tide!”


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Winter boats.

It’s easy to love the summer of someone. The well lit, sun filled long days of them. But when the tanned shoulders are covered, with no aid of chilled rose wine in clinking glasses, you have to really love them. Just them.

But, oh, the winter boats. They are so beautiful. Resting on the shore. This is when you know. You know you can trust the love of the winter boats. The ones who will sit with you when the waters have cooled. Will be there, when no fireworks light July’s sky. Will be there, just be there, for you.

What a joy it is to not look back, nor forward, just beside. True love rocks gently.


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Summer of ‘63

I was given a small photo of three boys fishing at the lake. He was commissioning me to create a large painting of the image. First I made the lake. The shoreline. The dock. Then each brother, in order of their age. Just as they would have entered this life, they appeared on the canvas. I don’t paint anything I can’t feel, but honestly, I wasn’t expecting to feel this much. Perhaps it was so emotional because this is where I, too, began. Near this lake. In this small town. Perhaps because I knew what their futures held. Part of me wanted to tell each one what was to come…but that wouldn’t be right, even if possible. For they, all three were safe in this moment. Pure. And this is where I would capture them. Forever innocent, in the summer sun of 1963. Full of hope.


I didn’t notice until I was finished the date on the side of the photograph – it was January, 1964. Clearly this picture wasn’t taken in January in Minnesota. But I imagine the photographer, the boys’ mother or father, must have been waiting to finish the roll of film. We used film back then. And if you bought a roll, of say 36, then you waited patiently, or not patiently, until you finished the roll, and then brought it to the film corner in the drug store to be developed. I imagine they finished the roll at Christmas time, and then had it developed.


Maybe time moved slower then. Summers lasted longer. Still, they, we, couldn’t stop it. Probably the best we can do is capture the moments. On film. On canvas. In our hearts. And feel everything. Feel the heat of the sun. The possibility rolling in with each gentle wave. The time when the common goals of youth kept us together. Easily. Slowly.


Today, these three young boys are fishing together in the south of France. Hopeful, excited, ready to go home.


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10,000 lessons.

We’re crossing bigger waters today, but we always find our way to the comfort of shore. And how would I have ever dared without the waves that first rocked me? Gently. Easily. Each one saying, you know there’s more…we taught you well. Go see. And they did teach me well – these 10,000 lakes, this Minnesota. With each arm splashing, leg kicking, breath-losing, breath-taking wave – taught me when to dive, when to keep my head up. Gave me laughter. Washed me clean.

Today is a day to keep my head up. I won’t let my teachers down. Thank you, Minnesota.