Jodi Hills

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


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One

She, at the age of ten, already has a vastly greater grasp of the french language than I do. It is humbling for sure, and that’s not a terrible thing, but sometimes I wonder, what do I have to offer if I can’t convey it? Then we go to the studio. My paint. My brushes. My canvas. This is my language. And she wants to learn. I give her a small canvas and ask her what she’d like to paint. Immediately she looks around – at everything I’ve done. (And that’s when I think, I do have something to offer.) The apples. She wants to paint the apples in a bowl. I place that painting in front of her. Tell her to just draw in pencil at first. Give herself a good start. She chooses the paints. We create a palette. Slowly we go through each step. The light. The shading. The mixing. She is interested. Curious. And she is learning. It is a beautiful thing. We are different in age and culture and language and knowledge, but here, we are one heart, one creation, and that is everything.

It’s not easy to come together. Efforts need to be made. Egos must be put aside. We have to be curious. Interested. Yes, it can be difficult, but the rewards — immeasurable. Stop looking for the things that make us different – because you will find them — it’s so easy. Look for the things that can bring us together. And look again. And again. One creation. One heart. Everyone. That’s everything.


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My most expensive finger.

I hit it on the door yesterday, my most expensive finger. It seems it is always taking a beating. It’s my left index finger. I am right handed, and an artist, so my right hand gets all the praise and the protection. But perhaps my left hand is the unsung hero. It’s always being asked to do the, at best unglamorous, sometimes dangerous, things, like – “Hold this nail, don’t worry, it’s just a hammer,” or “Brace the ruler while I cut with this knife.” It has been cut and battered and bruised, and it still supports, every time it is asked.

I had only been in France a short time when I cut this finger. Cut it deep. Even the tendon. I needed surgery. I had no insurance, or faith in the system, or a grasp of the language even. I was afraid. Afraid of the doctors, the procedure, how I was going to pay for it… everything. But the fear was wasted, as it is most of the time. The surgery worked. I sold a painting. My finger healed. The bill was paid. (How fitting that the right would in turn support the left.) And this most expensive finger now continues to show up daily to perform the uncelebrated tasks.

But I want to celebrate them. This finger. The unsung heroes. Those who have shown up for me daily. I hope I thank them properly. Invest in them. With time and resources, emotions and praise. They deserve it. I know I can do better. I know we can do better – investing in these everyday heroes who show up, only asking, “How can I help?”

I grab the brush with my right hand and give thanks.


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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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A change is gonna come


Our nephew turns 16 today. In the US, that means one thing – driver’s license.


The first time I was behind the wheel was when I was 12 years old. My sister had her license and she was driving us out to see my grandma. We were in a more than sensible car (meaning huge) and on equally large, unoccupied, roads that led to the open fields of farms. For the most part, it was safe. She asked me if I wanted to try, (asking in a way that a younger sister couldn’t really refuse.) She pulled over to the gravel shoulder and we switched sides. Gas. Break. Wheel. The essentials were slightly explained. I pushed on the gas slowly. Never had I felt so disconnected. The steering wheel certainly wasn’t connected to the tires. My rubber arms were not connected to the wheel, and my brain seemed to be separated from the whole experience. You know how when you wiggle a jump rope against the ground and it jumps back and forth in a squiggle – that’s how it felt to be driving. I drove for what felt like a lifetime (probably less than half a mile). I was never so happy to see the driveway of my grandparent’s house. I stopped the car. My sister made the turn toward the house. My heart started beating once again.


We didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t want to. But I must admit there was a tiny spot in my heart that was changing from fear into excitement. I guess that’s what we call growth.


In a few years I would take the classes, behind the wheel and in the classroom. I would be given all the tools I needed to make the transition in my life. To take the steps toward this glorious freedom.


Today, when faced with any new challenge, when I feel the rubber arms and heart of uncertainty, I think of guiding that beast of an Impala along the road, and know that I will be given the tools, the gifts, the lessons, to change fear into life, and keep moving along this exciting path. The state of Minnesota gave me a license to drive. The universe gave me an open road.


Happy Birthday, Oliver! Happy Travels!!!!

(Not the Impala, but I haven’t painted one of those yet. )


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Give

There was a slowness of time that gathered at the farm. We raced with youthful legs – legs that spun underneath us like on the cartoons – and yet the day seemed to last forever. Legs that carried no weight of worry, but only the sticky pink of dripped watermelon.
My grandfather didn’t play with us. He had work to do. The farm demanded it. And he did it. He didn’t join us for birthday parties. I don’t imagine he ever wrapped a present. But he gave me a gift I still open, almost daily.
He didn’t say much, but when he did, you listened. Pipe in one hand, the other smoothing out the line of his overalls. He spoke slowly. My father was gone. My mother was sad. My legs gave way to the weight of it all. “Focus on someone else,” he said. Someone else??? What was he talking about? My legs couldn’t move. “Give your attention, your time, anything, to someone else. Trust me.”
How did he know? Maybe because he gave his hands to the soil. Maybe because he had nine children. He knew.
I can get overwhelmed. Easily. And it can swallow my attention – me, me, me. And then I remember, I open the gift. That beautiful gift. Focus on something else. Someone else. And I am saved.
My legs are strong today. Strong enough to run beside you under the sun of this possible June day. Strong enough to give.


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Visit your library

Grateful

I’m so grateful that I had to walk to the library, search through the card catalog, follow the Dewey decimal system, find the books, read every one to get the one quote I needed for my paper — instead of using Google.

I’m so grateful that I learned to write in cursive, and not emojis.

I’m so grateful that I had typing class, using all of my fingers, and not just my thumbs to text.

I’m so grateful that I wandered without GPS.

I’m so grateful I waited for my favorite shows to come out once a year at Christmastime, and couldn’t view them every day online.

I’m so grateful that I learned to draw without my ipad.

Don’t get me wrong. I love all the new inventions. I make books on my computer. Write my blog every day on my ipad. I use the ipen, draw with Procreate, and read ibooks, and I try to learn all the new apps. I watch Youtube and Netflix and rely on my GPS. But I had to learn how to learn, without technology. This I think was a gift. With it comes patience and problem solving. Not to mention the joy of creating.

You can spellcheck and grammarly your way through creating a “correct” paragraph. You can hit the prompted replies that Gmail offers. And Procreate will straighten the lines you draw. But what did you show the world? Did you show the world your heart? your brain? or ingenuity? or just your technology.

Am I old? Probably. But I’m still learning. And that is the joy. Whatever you love, learn it. Get your hands dirty. Get frustrated in the attempt. Search for the answers. Maybe even visit your local library. Then, when you’ve mastered it with your whole spirit – then, by all means, add everything you want to enhance it. Tools are tools, use them all. Technology and all the advancements that go with it can be extremely useful. Just live a little first. Then you will have something to offer. You may not always be perfect, but what you might end up being is interesting.

I have a computer — I can get all the apps — you don’t need to show me yours. Today, let me see your heart and hands, and I will be so grateful!

It being almost spring, and at the New York Library, I had the choice of going in the front doors, like and between the lions, but I chose the quiet entrance, 42nd street (and lamb).
I had maybe always entered the library that way. Quiet as a lamb. Shy as can be, I had no certainty in myself, in the world, but for the first time, in the Washinton Elementary library, I felt sure. Sure that the answers were here. The questions. The possibilities. All of it. Here were the dreamers and the doers. And me.
The library, any library, had always carried me. Spoke the words I wanted to hear. Knew my name. Held me. Launched me. But the New York Public Library, this almost spring, now that was something extraordinary. It was New York, after all.
I placed one foot in front of the other. Quietly, firmly, on hallowed ground. Smiled at the portraits on the wall, up to the first desk. And there she was, in a tan blazer and cowel neck sweater, and matching hat. Still with a glow of pink from the fresh air of winter’s remains and spring’s knockings, her coat of the same color rested on the back of her chair. She looked up from her clipboard and smiled. And suddenly I was flying over open water, years ago, my head straining to see the lady in the harbour, searching for my welcome… wait, there, yes, there she is…seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time, feeling welcomed, welcomed with complete unknown possibilities, welcomed with dream upon dream, talent and desire, and grit… welcomed with a toughened grace, like I had never seen… and there she was again, on this almost spring day… at the New York Public Library. Welcoming me to it all again. I smiled, wanting to tell her, that she was all of that – she was the welcoming lady in front of a sea of words. I continued to smile, hoping she knew, knowing she must. I only asked if I could take her picture.
Now I paint her and that feeling is all around me. Even in quarantine, I am filled with possibility and hope and certainty. Each letter. Each book. Each dream. I still live in the word. Flying above the water, knowing that all will be welcomed again. And again.


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Building a soul

I try to create content every day that “matters.”  But does it?  When I see channels on Youtube featuring vases that sell for one dollar, and they get a million views, I really wonder how do I compete with that???  But I guess I’m not competing with that. Never can and never will.  

So what matters?  It’s very different for everyone. There’s nothing wrong with wanting a haul from IKEA. They are very good at what they do.  I, too, have wandered through the maze and been lured by a golden garbage can, or a one dollar candle. And better than anyone, they can fill a house — but how do I fill my soul?


I am the curator of my soul. I search through the alphabet and gather the letters to form the words that make the sentences that create the stories that fill my brain that leak out my ears and turn the corners of my mouth. I spread the colors that join my brushes that collide with the canvas to form the shapes that become my heart’s familiars and beat with pure joy. I search the scrap pile for pieces of wood that get cut into lengths that get nailed into angles that gather in the painted words and painted figures and hold them with a bold strength and a comforting smell that only cut wood can carry. 


It takes a long time to build a soul. And I guess that’s what I’m making, aren’t I?  What I’m building — a soul.  So does it matter.  To me it does. Will it get a million views?  I doubt it. Will it save me, more than a million times?  Oh, yes. I think it already has.  

Once you know your vision, your core, your strengths, your special gift — the only thing left to do is live it. Success can come in every degree, but remember, the work itself — whatever it is: the writing, the painting, the dancing, the living of your uniquely gifted being — can give you everything.

You know best for you. You know what will fulfill you. You set the bar for yourself.

Others’ successes do not hurt you. Be happy for them. Others’ failures do not lift you. They may not even feel they’ve failed. They get to decide that for themselves.

Find joy in the doing. The being. You decide who you are. And the definition is decided by you. A writer writes. A painter paints. You are not defined by awards or titles, or even “likes.”  You are defined by you. Enjoy that. Every day!


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And so she would dance

Perhaps the most useless thing I almost learned in junior high was square dancing.
At Central Junior High, 6th – 9th grade, the girls took physical education, not in the gym, but in the girls’ gym. To get to the girls’ gym, you had to take the back staircase, down a small tunnel-like hallway (which they painted pink, as if the point hadn’t already been made), through the final doorway into a windowless box. 

Once a year, we were invited into the center of the school, gleaming wood floors, bleachers, windows, two entrances, and a stage — the boys’ gym — for square dancing with the boys. 
It was almost shocking at first, the glow of it all, but reality unpacked its bags as we were dosie-doed for one week, then returned to the pink of the back stairwell. 


I loved sports in both junior and senior high, but it wasn’t until after college that I found my place. I began to run and bike, by myself. The open roads. The wind in my hair. The thoughts. The music in headphones. The books on tape. This was my world. This for me, was winning.


On my morning walk, I listened to a podcast about Choreographer Twyla Tharp, the legendary choreographer and dancer, who got her start performing on subway platforms and rooftops in the 1960s. She knew she did not have the perfect body for ballet, the perfect technique, but she was strong, smart, and she loved dance. She knew her path was to be made, not followed. And she did. She combined modern moves, with classical moves, she introduced new music, and she created a world of dance that no one had ever seen, or felt. And they followed her, men and women alike.


Today the sun is shining. My legs are strong. And I am happy.  You can take what they give you. You can envy what the others have. Or you can find your own way, and really dance!


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Grace.

Boxing has been described as one hurt demanding another.  One punch thrown, and then the counter.  It would have been easy for her to live this way.  She had been hurt so much.  She had taken punch after punch.  And she knew some became used to it.  Some embraced it.  It’s hard not to. It hard to turn from the violence that climbs in the ring with you each day.  But she didn’t want to fight anymore.  She didn’t want to carry pain with her, heavy, like a broken promise.  So maybe one hurt did demand another.  The only way out was to stop hurting.  Stop being hurt.  And so she climbed between the ropes.  Left the smell of sweat and anger behind.  Prayed that one act of bravery demanded another.  Prayed that one smile demanded another.  Prayed that one joy demanded another.  And it did.  Gentle people surrounded her now.  People with love and laughter.  People with hearts.  She is living proof that one grace demands another.  


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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.