Jodi Hills

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

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A head start.

My favorite breakfast is toast with lavender honey. And not just any toast — toast from my homemade bread. I don’t think it’s bragging to say I like my bread best. I think it’s lucky. How great is it that I have the power to make my favorite bread?!  If I want it – I can make it. For me, that’s beyond just “Oh, I like the taste of that…”  It means that I can start the day with something I love. I can begin the day and know that even if nothing else spectacular happens the rest of the day — it started out really well.

We all need to do this for ourselves, every day — give ourselves a head start — a fighting chance as we make our way. So much is out of our control. But we can do the little things. Like making bread. Or simply being kind – to each other — to ourselves.  

I don’t know what the day will bring. None of us do. But I do know this, mine has started out sweet. And I am on my way.

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Music’s permission.

If you don’t believe in souls, you probably just haven’t listened to the right music yet.

There were four of us. We only had enough money for two tickets. And barely that. We knew the bartender who worked the bar across the street from the State Theatre in Minneapolis. He let us drink water for free in the corner booth. Two of us went to the first half of the Lyle Lovett concert. While the other two waited anxiously to switch at intermission. 

Oh how we loved his music. They hadn’t even labeled him yet as “alternative” — we weren’t looking for labels then, only experiences. We loved his music. It was different. Accepting. Stories that made you laugh. Feel. Glorious stories that were played loud and clear at the Loring cafe. Combined with too much coffee, we drank in each song and hopped from used velvet sofas to bursting overstuffed chairs, and we began creating our own stories. It was youth. It was permission.

Driving home from Marseille yesterday we were stuck in traffic. Our travel time tripled. I turned up Lyle’s Road to Ensenada. Even Dominique knows all the words. (I’ve played it before.) We sang loudly. No longer trapped, but transported. To Louisiana. Alabama. Texas. Open free flowing roads of love and heartbreak and laughter and youth. Words tangled and twisted in different directions — telling the familiar stories in the most unique ways. And there was no time. Only permission — permission for our souls to travel, to feel!  To be free!

John Prine puts me on the back of a motorcycle. Lucinda Williams in Lake Pontchartrain. Madeleine Peyroux strolls me through Paris. Paul Simon vacations me everywhere with Dominique. Frank Sinatra rests me on Sunday afternoons with my mother. I believe in souls. I’ve heard mine sing – “sings, how it rings in my ears…” 

Turn it up, my friends! Take your soul for a ride.

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There was certainly no time to sew. No time to sketch. With her 8 siblings constantly underfoot, there was barely room to dream. How hers, my mother’s fashion designer dreams, didn’t get buried under the pile of dishes in the sink, the stacks of laundry, the diapers, the farm reports, the never ending mound of “well, someone has to do it…” – this was nothing short of miraculous.

My grandma was very loving. But she didn’t have the time to sit down and tell all nine of her children that they were possible. My mother found that on her own. She dared to step away from the flock. Find her own path. Put down the apron and gather herself in ruffles. And oh, how that farm girl could shine!

This was the gift she gave me. The greatest gift she continues to give me. This idea that it’s OK not to follow. It’s OK to brave that uncharted course. So if you see me, ruffled in France, you know the miracle that got me here. The glorious miracle that didn’t lead, but dared me to wander, dared me to dream. Gave me the strength, the opportunity — the luxury of time to sit down and tell you – you, indeed are possible.

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Breathe in that wow.

Almost a year ago I began preparing…though I didn’t know it at the time.

I had never painted a bird before coming to France. The first one came so easily. And then another. And another. I painted 40. Sold 40. It kept me connected. I was still a part of something. Fluttering, so small, barely more than air in this gigantic French sky, I was not lost. Not alone. My path, this seemingly random flight, was exactly what I needed. 

It came as quiet and unannounced as my first bird, this rebuilding of my website nearly a year ago. A new look, a new palette. We hadn’t really planned it, my publisher and I. I was working on a couple of pieces, just a flutter, I suppose, and soon we were redoing the whole site. Building a cohesive palette. Creativity amid the calm. Our motivation, we agreed, was that if you entered, you would want to live there, nestled in. Comforted. Inspired. Loved. 

Oh, how I would come to need it. I DO need it. Daily. This palette. And when I think of it, the best part of it all is that these tools of care were busy at work before I even knew I needed them. I breathe in that wow. And rest a minute, nestled on this offered branch, giving thanks for the magic of it all.

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Keep the beauty from passing.

Some call it an “art attack.” The official name is Stendhal syndrome. It  is said to develop as a result of encountering something overwhelmingly beautiful — so beautiful that it increases your heart rate, and may even cause you to pass out. Stopping time.

I have often been moved to tears in museums, but to date, I have remained on my feet. One of the first places we visited together in France was the studio of Paul Cezanne. We tiptoed in reverence. It is one thing to regard his finished artwork — gorgeous — but to see where it began, to see the traces of work splattered on the floor, the tools used… tools still warmed by creation… I can feel my heart racing as I type. No pictures are allowed inside. Dominique thought himself more clever than the guard sitting in the corner. Just out of pocket, he pointed what he thought to be his silent phone at Cezanne’s workbench. The din of the simulated shutter click bounced off the hallowed walls. We froze. It was no “art attack,” but it was close.

The guard nodded her head. It wasn’t the first time. I suppose we all want to capture the beauty. Somehow. Some way. To stop the time. To keep the beauty from passing. It’s why I paint. Why I write. To keep my grandfather forever reaching for the pipe in his overalls. To keep my aproned grandma in the scent of family dinner. To keep my mother beside me, everywhere. Willing to break the rules of grammar and being. Willing to get paint splattered and covered in creation’s mess. Willing to risk being caught again and again in love’s overwhelming beauty…
Forever warm.

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Trusting the tumble.

I remember shopping for this top with my mom. It was called a poet blouse. I knew it would be perfect for her. It had been sewn for her by name.

She loved poetry before I knew what words were. She recited them to me. Read them to me. Maybe it was the rhythm, the flow. I couldn’t have understood what the words meant — not yet — but I could feel them, as they gently tumbled from her mouth, sometimes with a smile, sometimes with a tear. I followed both. Trusting the path.

When I was able to understand the words, I began to write my own. And most were for her. I rolled them out in new order. Changing nouns to verbs as needed — (“your heart pillows to mine, and I am home.”) The freedom was delicious. Filling. Energizing. Each word lifted us from the ordinary to the extraordinary. A language we traveled. Together.

I wore that poet blouse yesterday. I could feel it all the way to my toes. I, we, rode the tumbling poem of yesterday, with a smile, with a tear, together.

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Took comfort.

My heart was feeling this constant pressure. It felt too big for my chest. The blood left tracks as it moved from limb to limb. From heart to brain. This awareness ruled over everything. Blurring. Distracting. All encompassing. But I wasn’t in pain. I was falling in love. 

A surgeon once told me, the brain has a hard time deciphering things. It will mix up fear, with pain. Being cold, with pain. And if you stopped to think about it, really think about it in the moment, you could go through the check list. Am I actually in danger? Am I in physical pain? Normally the answer was no. Maybe I was cold. Maybe I was a little scared. But it didn’t have to necessarily be associated with pain. And in doing this, I could change my mind. Not always easy, but possible…and brilliant. 

I enjoyed the feelings when I was falling in love with Dominique. I still do. Sometimes my heart will give a flutter, when he walks into a room. This is never pain.  

Yesterday, with thoughts of my mother racing through my head, my heart ached. So big. So heavy. It traveled to each limb. I placed my hand on my chest. And it occurred to me, for just that moment…a flash in my heart that begged my brain to see, this wasn’t pain, this was love. Love. Never easy, but possible…brilliant.  

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I’m going to need a lot of lipstick.

It’s still surprising when something I wrote almost 18 years ago can be brand new to someone. I posted a picture yesterday of my book, “Slap on a little lipstick…You’ll be fine.” Many different people said, “Wait, that’s you?” “You wrote that?” “I’ve had that magnet on my refrigerator for years!” “I have that card on my mirror.” “I didn’t know that was you!” Yes, it’s me.

My mother used to tell me that before I was even of lipstick wearing age. And I learned quickly. She had practiced this self care for years…carrying her “bootstraps” in her purse, in the shade of rose red.

I wanted to start setting up for Christmas yesterday. I knew it would be hard – this first year without my mom here – but I didn’t anticipate the depth of it. I pulled out her little stockings. So beautiful. So delicate. So innocent and full of belief. And the tears began to flow. Make-up drowning tears that washed all of the season away. But there was her face. Right there on the shelf. On the front of the book. Smiling. “Still here,” she said. Still with the same advice. “It’s never wrong to try to be happy…” “You are this day’s survivor, and a thing of beauty…”

When I was having so many surgeries as a teenager, we needed those words quite often. Coming home from the hospital, I would be tired, sad, still trying to shake the anesthesia. “I’m going to the mall…” she would say. “But wait, I don’t think I can go…” “Well, you’re going to miss out then,” she said. “But I don’t want to miss out…” “Then let’s go!” she said. “But I look terrible and I feel terrible,” I whined. “Oh, slap on a little lipstick, you’ll be fine.” she replied. Again and again. And so it was born. I did. I was. And I didn’t miss out. Because of her. She taught me that strength could be a thing of beauty.

I’m sitting next to a little baby Christmas tree this morning. Everything seems different, brand new even. But the tree is decorated. Blinking with delicate hope. And I don’t want to miss out. Everything is still beautiful. I smile, believing in mother’s simply brilliant words, “Slap on a little lipstick, you’ll be fine.”

I will.

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18 hours in Canada.

It seems only a moment ago that I was saying I just have to make it to Amsterdam. And now I’m back in Amsterdam again. 

They always ask you passing through customs “why?”  I don’t say it out loud, but the answer always goes through my head, “for love.” 

Before I got my long-term visa for France, Dominique and I traveled back to the US, in hopes of obtaining it – or at least applying – in Chicago. It was somewhere between the agent taking my passport and him saying that it could take months that I started to cry. At that moment I no longer had a passport. I didn’t live in Chicago. And we weren’t sure what to do…so we went to my mom’s in Alexandria. “Why?” For love. We had a plan. Get my passport back and just return to France, hoping for the best, and applying there. My brother said I would end up in jail or hell – he, always with the delicate support. We called Chicago and had them mail my passport back explaining we had a sudden need to “go to Canada.” Which wasn’t a lie. We wanted to make sure my passport wasn’t flagged in some manner. My mom, with still no stamp on her passport, needed to come with – no need to ask why.

When we got to the border, they pulled our car over, told us to come in. They ushered Dominique and I into the back. My mom remained at the door. They asked every question – why were you here, why are you together, why did you get married? This time I did answer –  love. The questioning lasted about 20 minutes, and then they set us free. We walked up to the door – my mom still standing there. She looked around and said, “Doesn’t anybody care why I’m here?” 

We laughed about it for the next 18 hours in Canada and then returned back to Alex. Spoiler alert – it all worked out. My mom got a stamp on her passport and I eventually – heavy emphasis on eventually – received my residence card.

It all seems like only a moment. Maybe that’s what this life is – a beautiful moment. And I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I think, if you’re going to do anything, it better be for love.

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This beautiful mess we’re in.

We were unloading the car in the blustery wind. Cold. Emotional. Weary. We flung ourselves back into the front seats. Caught our breath. She looked at me and said, “Did you just put on make-up? You look great!” “I have frostbite,” I replied.

I suppose it’s our challenges, our most vulnerable moments, that give us beauty.

A year ago we visited the foundation of Van Dyke Road, the Norton family. Jim took me to the basement. I stood in front of the wall of fame – the family pictures. There was Phyllis, his beautiful young bride. “Wow,” I thought, “She was a dish!” Jim nodded in agreement. She was coiffed, snuggly dressed, as sleek as the car she leaned against. A real beauty!

In the past few days I have seen tear-stained, aging faces. The last living mother from Van Dyke Road, Phyllis Norton, approached me at my mom’s funeral. Fragile. Obviously shaken. She said it all went too fast. It all came too soon. And all around her flashed sunburned shoulders, tennis shoes kicking up gravel, and wet haired, knee skinned days of summer youth. She gathered me into it all with a mother’s arms. As I came out of the embrace, her reddened, wrinkled eyes, never looked more beautiful!

Allow others in. Allow yourself in. Grace can be messy, but nothing will give you more.