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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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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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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A place for us.

Before my mother became the voice of Independant School District #206, she worked at 3M. I was pretty young. I have no idea what she did. She brought me to the office one day after school. It was huge. I saw rows of desks. Some men in polyester suits and wide ties. Women with phones attached to their heads. One man with hair greased smooth, bent down, reached out his hand and tossled my hair. I didn’t like it. I didn’t know him. His smile was too toothy. “We invented this here,” he proudly held out the famous yellow sticky note pad. “You can write all your notes on it,” he said, still grinning. So far, I had nothing to keep track of, nothing but the hem of my mother’s skirt.

I had to go to the bathroom. We walked through the kitchen. I could smell the coffee in continuous brew. I imagined it took a lot of coffee to keep those faces in constant grin. A woman was bending near a giant machine. It had a glass cover, displaying food items. She pulled a long silver handle, and the tin can made a thud. I’m not sure I could read yet, but I saw the picture on the can. It was spaghetti. Spaghetti in a can. Now this was something! It was ready? Immediately? I couldn’t believe my eyes! What an invention!

I begged and pleaded. I had to have a can of spaghetti. I must. It’s right there! Please! Please! I wasn’t one to really beg for things. And she was at work. No need for a scene. “But you’re not going to like it,” she said. I disagreed. Oh yes, I would love it! I returned from the bathroom to find my mother with a can at a table. I beamed. I beamed as I flipped the top open. I beamed as I inserted the plastic spoon. And then I stopped beaming. It was horrible. I didn’t want her to have to come here, every day. I didn’t know what “better for her” was, but I know I wanted it.

She worked at the clinic for a short time after this. And then the dream job — Alexandria Public Schools. Some kids would always ask me, “You like having your mother at the school? Right there with you???” And I did. I really did. I was proud of her. And with all due respect to Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing, I was so happy that she found her place – her place to shine. And each time I walked past the large plate windows of the Superintendent’s office, on my way to gym, or band or choir, she would wave and smile. I waved back, and yes, I beamed! We joyfully kept “track of each other.” Always have. Always will.


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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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Lucky.

Most of the houses on VanDyke road had screen doors for the summer. There is a freedom in the sound of that screen door gently banging itself shut, because no matter who’s door you were racing through, who’s house you were leaving, you simply ran fearless out into the wild, the wild of a gravel road and more time than our school free minds could imagine… still, we ran, with newly tanned legs, in and out of neighbors’ houses, never looking for cars, or danger of any kind. 

It is something to grow up in a neighborhood. Not just a place where people lived near one another, but a true neighborhood, where you were part of something bigger than yourself. You were part of every home behind each swinging door. You were cared for, and watched over. You were free to roam under every sun, and gathered home each night with your mother’s call from the front stoop. To look, wander, and explore, unafraid, that made us not only rich, but the luckiest kids alive. 

They say if you see a bird looking away from itself, it is a sign of good luck because it means that bird doesn’t feel like it has to protect itself from danger. I suppose that’s what we were — young birds – flitting and flying about Van Dyke Road, never worried, free to look in any direction. 

And then one day, we all flew away, with all of our wildly different high hopes.  

What a gift we were given. These open skies over Van Dyke Road. Sometimes, even now, if the summer breeze gently blows my cares away, I look around without worry, and think, how lucky I was, to learn to fly.


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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.


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Picture this.

By the end of the day, I am tired — which is a good thing. It’s a lot to keep one’s house in order. I don’t mean making sure there are no dishes in the sink (Well, of course I mean that too. I hate dirty dishes in the sink) but I mean the bigger picture. The bigger picture for me is working at my craft, painting, writing; learning (oh boy, I have so much to learn, not the least of which, French, and the toughest one, learning each day to be a better human); attending to the needs of those closest to me, which often includes just listening, caring, loving. My big picture might seem small, but it seems to fill my day. I can’t understand how people have the time to police the actions, thoughts, beliefs of others. It seems to me we all have enough to do to keep ourselves in order. How little exists in the life of a person who tries to control someone else?

Now I’m not saying we turn a blind eye to the events around the world. No. Absolutely not. (This for me falls under the being a better human category.) We stand up for what we believe in. But, in my humble, and maybe naive mind, I don’t think standing means knocking down the so-called others. But for one, aren’t we all others?

Being a human. This is something. Overwhelming at times for sure. But when my big picture gets way too big, I try to simply look around. Is there love? Yes. Is there hope? Sure! Is there joy? And how! Is the sink clear? You bet! (or that’s betcha for my Minnesota friends) I grab the nearest sketchbook and paint a pear. I call my mother. I kiss my husband. I take a walk in the sun. More than enough to fill my heart, to fill my day.