Jodi Hills

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


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Nothing small.

“Why didn’t you tell me I was small?” she asked her mother.
“Because I never thought so,” she replied.
“No really. Am I small?” she asked again.
“You fill my heart with joy. Could anything small do that?” her mother replied.
She smiled. And felt a world of possibility.
“I wish I were beautiful,” she told her mother.
“You light up the sky, my love.” Her mother showed her the stars.
“What if I’m not smart enough?” she cried before leaving.
“You are stronger than you think.” Her mother held back her tears.
“What if I’m not strong enough?” her mother asked the open sky.
“I love you,” she sang to her mother as she flew.
Love held her. Could anything small do that?

(Chickadee – from the book “Bird Song” by Jodi Hills)

I found something huge yesterday. (Yes, I’ve been deep diving in the cleaning department). Well, what I found is only about 1″ x 1/2″, but to me it’s huge! A pencil sharpener. Even in its original packaging. Unopened. Sometimes the universe just knows what you need. (Or maybe it always does, and we’re just not looking.) And the most important thing of all – it works!!! That may not seem extraordinary, but believe me, I have a lot of pencils, for all types of drawing, and I, until yesterday, did not have a pencil sharpener – that worked. I have one that you just spin and spin and spin and nothing ever happens. I don’t think you should have to lose weight while sharpening a pencil. I have another that, no matter what you put in, it only takes out that one side, and you’re left with the shard of wood that you try to pick off, and it gets stuck in your fingernail, and you start all over again, getting the same result. I have another that absolutely fits no pencil that I own. I have no idea what it’s for. And my last one, has the most voracious appetite, eating everything inserted. None of these I actually purchased. They were all left behind from Dominique’s family. (Maybe left behind for good reasons.) But yesterday, aah yesterday, I found it. I opened it with such hope — oh, the tenacity of HOPE! — yes, I opened it and tried the closest pencil. The most perfect point. I tried another. Perfect. Easy. I tried charcoal. Yes. Lead, yes! Colored – sure, why not! Soft – no problem. Perfect points all. I wanted to fling open the doors of the studio and shout to the world – it works – it really works! I raised up my best Sally Field’s impression to the sky, “You like me – you really like me!”

I know it’s a pencil sharpener, yes, it’s small, but it takes that one thing in my life and makes it so much easier, makes it delightful. Nothing small can do that.

I guess it’s always the little things that make up a grand life. If you look at the ingredients of a croissant, it’s almost nothing, and extremely ordinary, but rolled and rolled, it becomes something magical. And shared with someone you love — even better. While eating our croissants at breakfast my husband said, “We have to find or make these for your mother, because she would really love them.” I told my mom that later in the day. She beamed – I could feel it over the telephone. He had thought of her. Just a little thing, but oh, so magical. The universe does this for us every day. Certainly we can do it for each other.


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If she did worry, it never showed in her hands. She held. She gave. She touched.

It can’t be too personal. That’s what they taught me about writing at the University. The reader doesn’t want to know that anyone could have written it. They wanted to know that you wrote it. You knew it. You felt it. And you shared it with them. And so I did. 


When I paint. When I write, it is never generic. It is specific. It is personal. When I write about a house, it is a big, yellow, house, with a yellow so inviting, that if you were to walk by, just being you, it would call to you, “come in, you and your heart sit down.” When I write about my mother, people say, “Oh, that’s my mother.” “That’s my sister.” “That’s so me.” When I write about my heart, being overwhelmed or overjoyed, people say, “How did you know exactly what I was feeling?” And the power of these words show me, every day, I am not alone. We are not alone.


I made a painting of my grandmother’s hands. It has been purchased from Chicago to San Francisco. And I know that a piece of my grandmother gets to go there. She gets to pass over Wrigley Field, through the Magnificent Mile, into the loving arms of Illinois. She crosses the largest bridge a girl from Minnesota could ever imagine. And she shows them her hands. These strong and beautiful hands. These hands that could raise nine children, could also build bridges and stadiums, and we were not that different. We were a part of it all. She was. I am.

Each painting holds a story. Each picture, each phrase, is me, with my nose pressed up against the window pane, on Van Dyke Road, nearly wearing the window through with wishes and plans and dreams. Connecting us all, they would take me farther than I even dared to dream.


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It’s not what I have, but what I hold on to.

One day in the late 1930’s a boy came up to his librarian and she suggested the he read about King Arthur. The boy replied, “Aw, I don’t want to read about kings. I want to read about human beings.” The librarian, Miss Beverly Bunn, knew what the boy meant. As a child she had felt the same way – she was sick of reading “wealthy English children who had nannies and pony carts or poor children whose problems were solved by a long-lost relative turning up in the last chapter. Beverly wanted to read stories about the sort of children she knew.”

This was the beloved children’s author Beverly Cleary. I did not google this information. I researched her in our University Library. I will sound old, perhaps, but consider me lucky. I was born before google. I was born when you had to go across campus, in the winter, (oh dear, this is almost sounding like one of those I walked a mile to school every day stories, but stay with me), look for your book titles in the card catalog, in other books. Find the aisle. Run your fingers across the shelves. Grab your book with delight, grateful that it wasn’t already checked out. Do this over and over. Then go to a silent table and read. Yes, read. You had to read complete books, not just a blurb spit out by a computer. Sometimes you would read an entire book, and realize it just led you to another book. But what a glorious gift. The smell of the leather, and slight must of the pages. The silence all around. You could feel the power of the words.


And so I researched Beverly Cleary. The assignment was to write about an author who had a great influence on you as a child. And she did. Every Wednesday, at Washington Elementary, the year after I had finished the Cowboy Sam series, and before I started the Little House on the Prairie books, I read Beverly Cleary. They lived on Klickitat Street, Henry Huggins, Beezus,Ramona (the pest), Henry’s dog Ribsy, the neighbor Scooter. You could say they lived in a world where nothing was special, but in that, I thought everything was special. The Huggins home was as real as the Norton home to me. As real as my VanDyke Road. It was a neighborhood I visited every week.


Perhaps the best gift that an author can give you is a glimpse of yourself. When you see a reflection of yourself, you see possibility. You see hope. And you begin to see yourself, just a little bit more.

On my returned assignment, the professor wrote, “Perhaps you should think of doing some professional writing yourself!” An exclamation point. For me! I had been punctuated.

No one should be denied a chance to live on Klickitat Street, or VanDyke Road. So I write.


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Sing.

I went for a walk this morning.  The sky was mostly gray. The ground wet from last night’s rain. I listened to a few podcasts for inspiration. The words were good, but they didn’t really leap into my heart.  So I kept walking. Looking. Turning corners, passing trees. And then the prettiest little bird flew directly in my path, landing in the tree that guards our garage. The most elegant mix of blues and yellows. I know that bird. I have painted that bird.  It was, in fact, the first bird I painted in France.  The first bird I heard in France. With a song, so delicate, so lovely, saying, “Every day she decides to be happy, and sings.”  


I was visiting with my mother on the phone yesterday. Remember when I told you that I know my grandmother’s handwriting, and how important that is? Well, maybe even more importantly, I know my mother’s laugh. It starts almost as a little chuckle and grows into the most delightful giggle. In this laugh she is young, and possible and cancer free, and she sings. She sings a song so beautiful, that when I start to laugh with her, it becomes a dance.  Because it was just yesterday when she felt the breezes from Lakeside Ballroom, dreamed of Frank Sinatra, gave her heart, smelled the youth of her children, broke her heart, and trusted her heart again…It was just today when the wind brushed her skirt, and she hoped and twirled like a little girl.

What a gift she gives me with her song. What a gift we all have been given – another day!  Another day!!!!  Be happy!  Sing it out loud!


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Shoulders.

The first time I took my mother to New York, we both got to be models.


Go ahead and underestimate the amount of confidence I carried with me growing up in Alexandria, Minnesota.  Now underestimate a little more, and you might reach my mother.  Oh, we survived, and even had a little fun. We looked at catalogs (nothing was online then) and dreamed, even walked the malls each weekend, and dreamed a little more.  We tried on outfits and gained a little more confidence. We went to Minneapolis and grabbed on to a little more.  Then Chicago – look at us in Chicago!  Our strides got a little longer, our backs a little straighter, and sometimes we even dared to say, “Hey, we look pretty good.”  Which may sound vain – but no – that was pure joy! 

Maybe you need to know a little backstory.  My mom, one of nine farm kids, wasn’t nurtured in fashion.  Practical, stained, sturdy, this was the norm.  There’s nothing wrong with that – it’s very functional.  But function is not often what dreams are made of. And so this little girl dreamed. Alone. Her mother, forever aproned and cooking – nine children – still found time to sew. And my mom, forever washing dishes – eight siblings – became a fashion designer, in her heart.

Now, dreams really don’t amount to much without confidence.  And that’s another hurdle.  How my mother found it, was nothing short of fantastical, but she did. Shedding rumors and divorce and illness, she still managed to dress herself, every day, in something that made them think, “She’s from Alex?”

  
And she was.  We were.  And off we flew New York.  I had just finished the book, “Slap on a little lipstick, you’ll be fine” — again, thanks to my mother — and Guideposts magazine was going to do a feature story on it. My mom accompanied me. They picked us up in a limo, drove us to the meat packing industry, to a giant loft of an acclaimed photographer. They plucked my eyebrows and did my makeup, slid red leather over black silk and I was delighted, transformed, giddy!  My mom watched from the corner as they took photo after photo, smiling and smiling more – no direction needed!  And then the photographer said, why don’t we take a few with your mother!  Yes, yes!  I said.  Oh, I don’t… my mother hesitated. (It takes a while to build a confident soul.)  You have to!  You must!  I want you to!  And she came – into the shot.  And we hugged and smiled and captured it forever!  Look, Grandma!  We’re models! 

 
They put the pictures in the magazine – even my grandma!


This week, the young poet, Amanda Gorman, asked us to acknowledge the shoulders we’ve stood on, and what we stand for now.  These are the women that have held me up.  


My grandma’s photo sits next to my sewing machine.  I once drew a picture of her hands, and wrote, “If she did worry, it never showed in her hands.”  Perhaps that was the strength that allowed my mother to dream.  Shoulders.

I painted a picture of a dress designer’s mannequin for my mom, and wrote, “Not all of her dreams came true, but she was never sorry she had them.”  Shoulders.

These women gave me the strength to dream, to fall in love, to live. They are the reason I believe.  These beauties of strength, survival, endurance, and joy — no one has ever worn it better!  
Look, Grandma!  Look, Mom!  You’re models!!!!!


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Into the spotlight

Print allIn new windowSometimes when I’m walking and listening to a podcast, the words clop along with each step, coming in and out of the path like an autumn leaf.  Then other times, like this day, the words are so clear, so near, so understandable, it’s like the slight touch of an old friend, words that you not only recognize, but ones that find their way into that empty space in your heart, and fill it.  These were the words.  This musician spoke of being at an awards show in the early 2000’s.  She was to go onstage after June Carter and Johnny Cash.  It was the old fashioned kind of stage, steps on the side that you climbed in the almost darkness.  She watched Johnny climb the stairs, slowly, carefully, like an old man.  She noticed he looked fragile, frail.  And then at the final step, he straightened, chest out, and as he walked into the spotlight he became “Johnny Cash.”  He was tall and strong and new every word to every song.  He was amazing.  He was, well, he was JOHNNY CASH!”  
It was just after her first cancer surgery that I was showing at Art in the Park in Alexandria.  It was one of my first shows and I was a little nervous, and I was alone.  My mother was still weak.  Still fragile.  On the last day of the show, I looked up from my booth, and there she was, coming down the hill, the sun lit just for her.  She was wearing a new off-white outfit (maybe pale yellow) that she had purchased from a store in Las Vegas, just out of her price range, completely within her style.  She walked slowly down that green path and my arms cheered above my head – the stage was complete!
My mother has never sung or played guitar, but oh, how she has shined.   Darkness has tried to cover her through the years, with divorce, illness, life’s uncertainties, but nothing has been able to put out her light.  When she is with me, it sometimes takes a minute, sometimes more, but she climbs the stairs, steps onto the stage, and the crowd in my heart cheers, because she is my MOM!   MY MOM!  Bigger than any star I could imagine.  
Today she is living with cancer.  We continue to laugh and shop online and dream of outfits from the Sundance catalog, and what Robert Redford might actually think of us in them.  So if you ask me how my mom is doing, I will smile and say, “Well, she’s JOHNNY CASH!