Jodi Hills

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


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Stumbling into joy.

It was no surprise that we stumbled upon the Storybook Sculpture garden in Abilene, Texas. I’ve been trying to get there my whole life. I didn’t know this sculpture garden existed, but storybook land…I stepped foot into it when I was a toddler, grocery shopping with my mother at Olson’s Supermarket, and in many ways, I’ve never left.

The shopping carts were lined up just after the automatic doors, in front of the large front windows. The sunlight seemed to lead directly to the first display of books and magazines. The bottom row, just in reach, was set aglow with Golden Books. And what a perfect name for them – for they were golden — treasure! Less than a dollar each, my mother allowed me to pick out one, not every visit, but quite often. My legs dangling from the silver cart, I held it. Smelled it. Hugged it. Knowing the adventure that would come when it was read to me that evening.

Soon, I no longer fit into the cart, and Mrs. Bergstrom taught us to read in the first grade at Washington Elementary. I picked out the books now by the title, and not just the pictures. I could read them myself, sometimes even before the shopping was done. What a world! Opening golden! I knew I would never leave.

I have traveled around the world. I really believe it has been possible, only because I started in these words, these books, this land where all things were possible. And it all still seems as magical to me as the day I was placed in front of the bottom row of books at Olson’s Supermarket.

I still keep a stack of Golden Books on my bedside table — a reminder to live in the magic, to keep believing, to keep dreaming, keep searching for the daily treasure.

I will be the first to admit, I sometimes wander off the storybook path, and get lost in the worries of the day, but somehow, I always find my way back, stumbling into joy. How golden!


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Delivered.

When riding with my Grandma Elsie in her car, we would always listen to the station that played Paul Harvey, along with the grain report. I knew the language. So when I found the journal of my great grandmother in Grandma Elsie’s house, I recognized the words immediately. She wrote the daily farm report. The prices of grain. The weather. The needs of the house. The needs of the farm. She never wrote of emotion. The closest she came was reporting the neighbors who stopped by. All with the same equal tone. Life went on with the planting, the harvesting, and the rest. When her husband got cancer, in the throat, she wrote of the progress, with the same distinctions. Listing of medicines and sleep patterns. No change in her voice. He got worse. Slept less. More pain. She kept writing. His life was failing, along with her pencil. She wrote less. Felt more. And then one day, the only entry was this – “…my heart…” And I knew exactly what she meant.

She may not have recognized her journal as art, but that’s exactly what it was. She was making art. Brene Brown tells us that the magic of art is to both capture our pain and deliver us from it at the same time. That’s what my great grandmother was doing. And I suppose it is what I do. It is what I have always done — before I heard of Brene Brown — before I heard of my great grandmother. I began writing and drawing from the age of five or six. My mother says I would go into my room and whatever I was feeling, happy, sad, I would capture on paper, and then let it go. I’m still doing that.

The beautiful thing is, we can all do this. Now, you might say, oh I can’t draw, I can’t write, I can’t sing… but I disagree. You can do all of these things. If you can think, you can write. If you can feel, you can draw. If you can move, you can dance. If you can speak, you can sing. Art is simply the release of your emotion – in any form that you choose. And the same release can be experienced by reading, by viewing. If I write something and it makes you feel your own story, that is art. If you hear a song on the radio and it makes you dance in your kitchen. This is art. It is everywhere. It is healing. It is beautiful.

Today, and every day, is filled with this magic. Yes, it is exciting. Yes, it is painful. Yes, it is joyful. Yes, it is challenging. Yes, it is so very beautiful! I feel it! And, oh, my heart…YES!


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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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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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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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Remembering Corsica

Paper is one of the few materials that has a memory. If you fold a piece of paper, crumple it, it remembers that fold, those lines, that wrinkle. You can unfold it, heal it, but the memory, the mark remains. Some might say it is damaged, but I think, maybe, that it is just more interesting. I think words can do that to a book. This collection of imprints on a page, lines, dots, all embedded in the sheets of paper. This book becomes alive. Touched by hands, dog-eared, embraced. It holds the memory.

I was walking along the beach in Corsica and I watched this woman reading in the sand. As time went on, the tide kept rising, but she remained fixed in the pages. The water grew up her thighs and her focus never wavered. She was becoming part of the page. The magic of the words.

I knew I would paint her, this stranger on the beach, because she was a stranger no more. I knew her heart, also made of paper. It had been folded and wrinkled and healed, but the memories remained. And she, we, had become, only more interesting.

There were no borders between the sea, her body, the words, her heart. No borders between her and I.

I clutched the folds of my own heart, smiled, and kept walking.


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Play the way you feel.

Today’s subject was obvious. Too obvious. Blowing at furious speeds, seemingly in every direction on my morning walk. The wind. I have written about the wind for years. I know this subject. My first poem framed was this:

It was so windy that day,

I couldn’t stand up straight.

It blew my hair this way and that way,

and sucked the tears right out of my eyes.

It was so windy that day,

I tried to tell you I loved you,

but you couldn’t hear me.

Deaf to my cries, your ears heard a different calling.

It was so windy that day.

On hands and knees I crawled to your side.

I reached up to you, begged you to hang on.

I closed my eyes with visions of our hands joined,

like they were before the storm.

The wind shook my insides, leaving me hollow.

I opened my eyes and you were gone.

It was so windy that day.

What used to blow through me, now gives me wings.

It hangs in my mother’s apartment. I know this wind that beats against my face today. But the podcast I was listening to, told me to do just that — listen.

NPR was reviewing the life of pianist, keyboardist and composer Chick Corea who died last week at the age of 79. To be honest, I recognized the name only because my nephew posted about this loss to the jazz community, to the music world, to his world. My nephew lives in this sound. He listens, he loves, he creates. This is the wind that blows through him, every day.

I guess the only way to really know people is to listen. I want to know him. I want to know my family. I want them to know me. So I listen. The podcast continued and I walked. Corea passes through Latin bands and I walk. Straight-ahead jazz bands, and I walk. Miles Davis joins him, and I keep walking. He plays through Mozart and Monk and I keep walking. I walked much longer than I had planned, because I was now being carried by the music. That is how, I imagine, my nephew Vincent feels, to be carried by the music.

I am not a musician. Oh, I played the clarinet in the high school band and now it serves as eclectic decor in our library, but I don’t live in the music – I live in the paint, the word. But I am not trapped in this world. I am free, and I am lucky to visit all the worlds around me. What a pleasure to travel in another world. Learn a bit of the language. The reviewer said that diversity was Corea’s greatest strength. Maybe that is true for us all.

Play the way you feel, and then listen.