Jodi Hills

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


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Look what we’re protecting.

The Art Institute of Chicago was the first major museum I ever visited.

It felt like I had been walking forever in the cold and wind from the hotel. Barely looking up. The cold of the sidewalk seemed to seep into my shoes, up my legs, slowing each step. The sidewalks were clear of snow, but I still felt like I was trudging. I could see the crowd of feet before me. The stairs. I stopped. Looked up. There they were. Standing guard. The lions. So majestic. So beautiful. Proud even. And why not?! Look what they were protecting! Before I stepped one foot inside the museum, I knew this was important.

It was easy to recognize what the lions represented. I had seen it my whole life. I had lived it. My mother had always been the lion who stood guard in front of my heart. Told the world it was important. Valuable – this life. As I grew older, I tried to do the same for her. I hope I did. I hope I still am. Because it is something. She is something!

The roles can and will reverse, at any given moment, throughout our lives, switching back and forth from the protector to the protected. But if we can approach both roles with a ferocity of grace, then each cold and trudging step along the way, will be more than worth it!


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Speak the words

I was twelve, maybe thirteen when I first read the poem, An elegy for Jane, by Theodore Roethke. I was in Mr. Rolfsrud’s classroom, top floor of Central Junior High. It was a warm day, nearing the end of the school year, so the classroom was closed in with stale air, and we were restless. But not Mr. Rolfsrud. He still donned a suit and bowtie, and never seemed to sweat. He loved poetry, and so did I. I loved to listen to him read aloud. Each word had importance, and he showed this by the way he spoke, and the way he dressed. When he got to the end of the poem, we knew the girl had died, and that the person writing the poem was not related to the girl, nor romantically involved with the girl, but he loved her all the same.

“Over this damp grave I speak the words of my love:
I, with no rights in this matter,
Neither father nor lover.”

Some of the boys snickered. Girls coughed. We had no idea of love, not yet. How could we? Yet we were left to consider the impact of one human life on another outside the context of romantic or familial love. I’m not sure I understood then, but the words were crisp and strong and true, so I put them in my heart’s memory to unpack when needed.

And thankfully, and I do mean with thanks, I have unpacked them through the years. It may seem strange to say thankfully here because we know that someone would have had to die for these words to make sense. But what a privilege to love someone. To love someone enough to feel the pain of the loss.

Yesterday, when I saw that he had passed, the tears flowed. I certainly had “no rights in this matter,” but I knew my mother had loved him – she having “no rights in this matter” either. But he was her friend, her brother. I wish there was a different word to use here. Because it feels like more than that. He showed my mother respect and support in a time of her life when she needed it the most. All done with strength, human compassion, and a sense of humor. And in seeing this, still a teenager, I learned the value of respect. The value of human connection. He was a man who loved his wife, and his children, and still could offer love, not romantic, not familial, but love all the same, to the others around him. What an honor to see this, to know this man.

We are given examples of greatness throughout our lives, from poets to teachers, to generals. Often the world gets too closed in with stale air, and we become restless, distracted, but I pray I always find the time, in honor of people like Mr. Rolfsrud and Dr. Hovda, to “speak the words of love.”

(My deepest sympathies to Judy Hovda, David Hovda, and Kari Hovda Schlachter)


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Looking up

The track meet was nearing the end when the coach approached us on the grass. I had one event to complete, and Colleen was finished for the day. The mile race was coming up and we had an extra space to fill. It didn’t have to be filled of course, but if someone competed in this spot, we were sure to get a point just for completing the race. That point could make a difference on whether or not we won the meet. He was looking at Colleen. She seemed confused, because she had never been a miler. I could feel the inner shaking of her head. It would be really difficult. You need to train for something like that. Just jumping in at the last second would surely be almost impossible. Clearly she wouldn’t win, and probably would be embarrassed. There could even be puking. The coach would never force her to do it, he only asked. She got up. I smiled. I was so proud of her! That’s my brave friend, I thought. There were no real surprises. The other contestants raced out in front of her. She kept running. Her heart and lungs fought for her attention. She kept running. Her legs turned to stone. She kept running. The others finished. She kept running. And running. She could have stepped off the track. No one would have blamed her. But she kept running. She finished. I hope she was proud of herself. I hope I told her just how amazing I thought she was! I can’t tell you if we won the meet. If we had a good season. But I do know this – at sixteen – I witnessed strength. Courage. And pure will. When I saw her going around that track, she wasn’t just running, she was flying, and the most beautiful bird in the sky!


My mom ordered a dress from the Sundance catalog. It should be arriving today. Why is this a significant event? She is currently surrounded by friends and family who are giving up. And she could do the same. Who would blame her? But she keeps believing. She keeps dreaming. She orders the dress and believes in a tomorrow where she looks beautiful! And she will. Because she keeps running. I have never been more proud of her. She will put on that dress of blue and teal and white, and she will be the most beautiful bird flying in the sky!
If you want to believe in miracles, sometimes, you just have to look up!


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A rose by any other name

I showed her a picture of the roses outside our front door. She breathed deeply into the phone and asked if I looked at them every day. “Yes,” I said. I could feel her smiling on the other end of the phone. She had taught me that – to pay attention to the details – be grateful for the little things, the impermanent things.

On Sunday evenings in our small apartment, the apartment where you couldn’t drink the water from the tap, we would lie by the record player (it was that big) and dream out loud of all the things we would do. She said, “If I had a big house, I would go from room to room. Not in a hurry. But slowly. And enjoy each space. I would read a different book in every chair. Sing a different song out each window. It would welcome me and it would feel glorious and I would belong – in every room.” I have that now, what my mother dreamed up (because I believe that’s what we do, for ourselves and each other – create the dreams, manifest them). And I am grateful. And I do belong. In every room. I claim the spaces with books and paintings and flowers and songs and love. And I am home.

I see the roses when I open the shutters each morning. I see them out the kitchen window as I make the coffee. I really see them. I appreciate them. (And yes, I stop to smell them.)

I was watching a YouTube video by Bryce and Hailey (a young couple from Alexandria, MN — my hometown, where my mom still lives). They were visiting all of the thrift shops and I went along with them. Each street. Each store. The last thrift shop they were in was about a block from my mother’s apartment. I watched the video again and again, willing them to go just that one block over and see her. See her waving out the window. Walking down the street. “She’s right there,” I kept telling the screen. Please go see her. I know she’s there.

I fill the coffee pot with water, smile at the roses, and dream up another beautiful day, because that is what I was taught to do.

I watch the video again and know she is there. I move from room to room and know she is here. A rose, by any other name.