Jodi Hills

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


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Something cracked, something broken.


The first time I wore plaster was in the fifth grade. I broke my arm ice skating during the Valentine’s Day party. I waited patiently in the nurse’s office of Washington Elementary. My mom came from work and drove us to the clinic. The sleeve of my winter coat dangled from the left side as I breathed in the antiseptic smell. My mother touched my knee so I would stop kicking the bed as we waited for the doctor to return with the xrays. He clicked the black sheets into the light that hung on the wall and said, “See right here… that’s where it’s broken.” We both agreed, but I’m not sure either one of us saw it. He dipped the strips of plaster and wrapped it warmly around my arm. It was as white as his coat. “Tomorrow all your friends can sign it,” he said. Oh, he didn’t have to tell me. That was the only thing I was looking forward to. I barely slept through the night.

Maybe the teachers gave them the permanent markers. They must have. Soon I was encircled with eager fifth graders, armed with all colors of opened Sharpies. Almost high from the smell and the attention, I presented my open canvas and each kid fought for the prime real estate of my cast. 

I don’t know how we knew. But we all did. Maybe it was a right of passage. This ritual. This coming together over something cracked, something broken. It was so beautiful. It would have felt no different had they lifted me above their heads and passed me around the classroom. 

It happens less frequently now. And maybe with less fanfare. Maybe it’s because the wounds get less visible when we’re older. Maybe our collective groups get smaller. But I consider myself lucky. Blessed. I still have those people in my life who surround me with support. Sometimes with just a few words, but they fit into the prime real estate of my heart and fill it. And I am lifted, with a permanent high. 

All we have to do is be good to each other. Be there, for something cracked. Something broken.


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I am here.

In the fifth grade team room of Miss Green, Mr. Andert, and Mrs. Pohlman, we were allowed to begin. And I mean begin anything. Without plans. Without direction. Without fear. 

The janitor’s closet was directly across from our classroom. During a rainy day recess, Wendy Shoeneck, Lori Patri, Barb Duray and I used it as our office. Amid the smell of disinfectant and the wet mop in the bucket, we came up with the idea of putting on a play for our classmates. We had no reason to believe we would be good at it. We had no reason to believe we wouldn’t be… so we continued. We had no script. No decisions were made other than to just do it. 

We flung the door open and told Miss Green of our plans. I don’t remember asking, maybe we did, I hope we did, nonetheless, she said sure, and when the class convened after recess, we began. We drifted between themes of don’t use drugs, be nice to everyone, some school bus songs…I remember jumping and waving, and soon the whole class was singing. It maybe lasted 5 minutes. But you don’t need a long time to get a real taste of freedom, a real taste of joy.  

We were rangled back to our desks and the day continued with books and structure. But the afternoon smiles never left our faces.  

I had been shy for my first four grades. Some said painfully — I had never seen it as pain. When they mentioned it on my report cards, my mother always told them, “When she has something to say, she’ll say it.”  My mother never lied to me, so I believed her, and lived in my quiet world pain free. She was right, and it happened for me in fifth grade. Maybe it was due to the open team room. Maybe it was because of the open teachers. The safety of friends. Or maybe it was just my time. But I give thanks for it all. I never turned back after that. 

I have no real plan for the day. I have no reason to believe it won’t be good. I fling open the door — here I am — powered by the freedom to live my joy.


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Thumbs up.

There is a certain group of people that will forever remain in the Mr. or Mrs. categories for me — my teachers.

As an adult, even becoming friends with some of them, it still seems almost impossible not to refer to them in a proper way. And how lucky, I suppose, that this remains. This simple sign of respect. 

My first gym teacher at Washington Elementary was Mr. Christopherson. His job, I see now, was almost impossible. Rounding up these groups of children, on the brink of Lord of the Flies…so filled with the agony and frustration of grammar and times tables…bursting at the seams of our gym uniforms to release the energy of learning. But somehow he did. Separating us into teams. Arming us with red balls. Allowing us to throw and run and scream and laugh, and sometimes cry. But then, and here comes the amazing part, he had the strength, the respect, to wind us down. Make us pick up the balls. Place them neatly in the ball rack. Stand in line. March to the lavatory. Shower. Change back into our “civilian” clothes. And walk quietly, calmly, (a little lighter of educational worry) single file, back to our classroom . This is something. This is why he will, and should, forever remain “Mr. Christopherson.”

When I became an adult, and would visit my mother for the weekend, I would go out running in the morningtime. And I would see him out there. Even on the coldest of winter days. Well into his later years. Still running. Still fit. Still in charge. Still inspiring. I would see him from a distance. I knew how he ran. I could feel myself pick up my pace a little. Puff up my chest. Run a little taller, straighter, stronger. When we crossed paths, he would smile and give me the thumbs up. Approval. It mattered. It still does. 

Today we say goodbye to this forever Mister. I sit up in my chair. A little straighter. A little stronger. And type the words of thanks.


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If I had a hammer…

We visited the home of Thomas Jefferson. I took a picture of his work space on my ipad. I have the same hammer. I use the same hammer. In some ways we have come so far — I don’t know that he ever could have dreamed about an ipad, but he loved learning, progress, so I think he would approve. In other ways, the world hasn’t changed that much. The basics. The hammers. The tools of our daily living. I think the goal is to use what still works, but then keep learning. We have so many more tools at our disposal now. But are we doing better? I want to do better. I’m sure I’ve mentioned it before, but I always go back to one of my favorite people, Maya Angelou — she said, “When you know better, you do better.” We can do better. We can pick up the hammers that still work, and build with them, build on them. Use the tools we have today and go further.


It’s easy to type the words. Harder to live them. I know. Yesterday I got clogged in a mess for a couple of hours. I don’t want to give it more time, so I’ll just say, toner. Stupid toner. Stupid printer. My first thought was, “you’re wasting my time!” I said it over and over in my brain. Then it occured to me, that it was actually just me. I was wasting my time. I can do better. Today, I will do better. My hammer still works. My hands still work. My brain still works (well…as it does), and I will build a better today.


Thank you, Thomas. Thank you, Maya! Thank you, new day! Let’s begin!

Watch for this image. It’s going to be the cover of my newest book – a collection of these blogs!


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Go higher.

We almost past by this store yesterday, until we saw the sign, “This store voted number one in Midway, by owner.” We turned around and went inside. A store with a little pride and a big sense of humor, we couldn’t miss that! It was a delightful store. And we almost missed it. The people inside were welcoming. Funny. And they had great merchandise. And we saw it all because they presented themselves in the best manner. Maybe we could all do that.

Even at our most poor, my mother always looked like a star. She dressed well. Put on her make-up. Put on a smile, sometimes gutted there by pure will, but it was always there. She looked great! Still does. Because she cared. We were at the downtown Minneapolis Dayton’s store. It had many levels. The levels got more expensive with each escalator ride. She didn’t even look at the first level. At the second, she glanced around and said, “Ewwww, this looks like stuff we could afford…”. We laughed and went higher.

Through the years she found the sales. Put things on lay-a-way. Saved. Wished. Styled. And always looked wonderful. She taught me that. What a gift. It’s never about money. It’s about style. And if that style can include a little pride, self-esteem, and a great sense of humor, that will take you pretty far, and you’ll look good along the way.

She will always be voted #1 mother, (by her daughter.)


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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.