Jodi Hills

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


Crossing over.

We felt like we knew a secret. Decoding DKNY. Donna Karan New York. She was one of the first designers displayed as you entered City Center in downtown Minneapolis. My mom and I thought it was like entering the magic kingdom. The greatest part was that we shared the key.

We spent most of our time in the designer sections. We couldn’t afford to buy it. We couldn’t afford to miss it. We tried on everything. And the matching shoes. It was never about having, it was about seeing. Experiencing. Adoring, not only the clothes, but this time together.

Yesterday, walking in Aix en provence, I was listening to a podcast. It was the designer that first helped Donna Karan launch her brand. They were both just starting out. Both New Yorkers, with all the love that entails. The designer listened as Karan expressed her love for New York, as they sat under the Brooklyn Bridge. It reminded him of the story of why he was in love with this city. As a young boy, his grandfather — a fishmonger — would bring him to this bridge in the middle of the night. They set up for the early morning sales. His grandfather gave him this bridge. Gave him this dream. With this beating inside of him, it was so natural, so easy for him to create the branding for Donna Karan. He included the image of the bridge. The words New York. And gave birth to both of their careers.

I imagine my mother, sitting in my grandfather’s pickup. Sweaty legs against the vinyl seat, at the last stoplight before turning into town. Waiting anxiously for him to put the truck into gear, place his foot on the gas, and take her across the “Brooklyn Bridge” of her heart and into the city of Alexandria.

He took her to Alex. She took me to Minneapolis. I eventually took her to New York. Love always leads us. Helps us cross over, to the beauty that lies ahead.

No dream left unspent.

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Pink tornado.

I have sat cross legged on cement basement floors many times, waiting for a tornado.  I have heard sirens. Nestled against transistor radios. Imagining flying cows and houses. Everything in black and white. Waiting for the technicolor of the Wizard of Oz’s ending. Sweaty hands folded, I stayed until given the all-clear. Then climbed the stairs to blue skies. 

I never saw one – a tornado – until last night. It was pink. In my dreams. It sped toward the house. Terrifying, but almost beautiful. In full color, right from the start. I waited in the corner. Holding my breath. Wanting to close my eyes… watching. A pink blur passed by the house. I survived.

In moments of imagining the worst, I have been my own tornado. The wind twirling and blowing in my chest. It’s too full. Too much air. I can’t breathe. I blow and I blow, praying to slow it all down. Breathe. Just breathe. Praying for the all-clear. Please give me the all-clear. Eventually I give it to myself. I suppose Glenda was right — “You’ve always had the power, my dear, you just had to learn it for yourself.”

So I learn again and again. To just breathe. To be patient with myself — amid the winds of change. Within my heart’s tornado — it’s almost beautiful — it IS beautiful! I breathe, and climb the stairs.

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Paying attention.

Cluttered with nightmares and nonsense, I don’t normally put that much stock into my dreams. But all last night, I was trying to sign up for another year of university. Hour after hour I searched for the registration. Went through the pamphlets. Made appointments with my advisor. Even after waking up twice, I went right back to it. Would I rent the apartment near campus? Would I get an advanced degree? Academia all night long. I’m not complaining – it was far from the normal hauntings. So was it a sign?

Signs are funny things. They are probably all around us – all the time. Some meant for us. Some maybe not. Some gathered in. Some trampled over. I guess it is what we choose to see. And maybe when we miss it, it repeats itself. Over and over again. Until we pay attention. 

I guess it’s time for me to keep learning. Or maybe, it’s a sign to tell myself that I AM still learning. I will forever be learning. And that is not a nightmare, but a gift. And that’s a hard one for me to, well, learn. I can get myself trapped in a worry. Stuck in a pattern of fearing the unknown. But it will always be there — through all the nightmares and nonsense — there will be growth. There will be challenges. There will be learning. Beauty in it all. 

The sun rises brand new, telling me, “If I’m not happy in this time, in this place, I’m not paying attention.”

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This table is strong.

Some said it was in the way, my grandparents’ kitchen table. But for me, for my mother, it was something to lean on. The stability we craved.

The legs were at an angle, protruding just a little beyond the table top. You could kick it. Bump into it. Throw groceries, suitcases, all of your worries, on top of it. It was never going to crumble.

It took a while for my mother to get her legs beneath her. But she did. Oh how she did! And not just holding her up, but at that slight angle – that confident stride. Maybe they saw it in her first – the people of Alexandria. “Oh, I saw you walking yesterday.” “I see you out walking all the time.” “Aren’t you that lady that I see walking?” And when she answered yes to them, maybe she started to hear it herself. Yes. See it in herself. Yes, I am that lady.

I suppose we all have to become the stability that we crave. Table by table. Step by step. The sun rises with one question, we rise, and say simply, joyfully — Yes!

Whatever you need, this table is strong. Jodi Hills

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Just breathe.

There seemed to be holes everywhere in our neighborhood. Someone was digging a well. Planting a tree. Burying something you preferred not to know about. And as kids, in this neighborhood full of holes, we seemed to be constantly running. Chasing the sun, knowing it would set long before we were ready, and we would be called home.

It was behind our green house that I fell into my first hole. Maybe it was for the sewer pipe, I don’t know, but we were running. I was just a little ahead of Cathy. I turned the corner at full speed, laughing, not looking for danger (I had not yet been exposed). And then, from her perspective, I dropped out of sight. Literally. Flat on my back. I’m not sure who was more surprised. I couldn’t breathe. The wind was knocked out of me. I signaled with my shifting eyes, and head, and somehow she knew, like in every Lassie conversation, to go get a ladder. I say “a ladder,” because in this neighborhood full of holes, there would always be a ladder leaning against someone’s garage door.  By the time she returned, my lungs were once again filled with summer air and I climbed up the wooden rungs. 

Because that’s what we did, you see. We saved each other. And most importantly, I suppose, we offered up the reason to believe that someone would be there for us. And this is what kept us running. For me, it still does. It gives me the strength to keep going, even with the knowledge that life’s path is full of them – these holes that will try to swallow us. I still believe in the kindness of those around me. The ladders that will be offered. The strength to get myself higher. Forever chasing the sun.

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Being Georgia.

I’d like to say that I have a healthy respect for our garden tools – the weedwacker, the chipper – when in fact it would be more accurate to say that I am actually afraid of them. It doesn’t stop me from using them though. 

When Dominique uses the weedwacker, he finishes with little red welts all over his body. Me, I dress like I’m part of the New York City Bomb Squad. A cap. Safety glasses (and a visor, or two masks). Jeans. Gloves. And knee high steel toed boots. Yes, it’s hot. But it makes me feel safe.

We all have our own comfort zones. With everything. We have our own way of coping. Surviving. Living. I don’t think people would make fun of me for wearing what I wear in the garden — and to be honest, I really wouldn’t care if they did. I have to remember this for all of life’s challenges. I will cope as I see fit. And if it works for me – then it works for me. I have to give myself that freedom. And offer the same to you. 

Life is messy and at times frightening. As I stripped down in the afternoon sun — taking off all of my protective gear — I eagerly made my way to the pool. The glorious reward. Nothing feels better. Another challenge survived. 

It was Georgia O’keeffe who said, “I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life—and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.” Today, as I step into life’s garden, I will don my protective gear, smile as I channel the brave and elegant Georgia, and I will dare to make it beautiful!

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The captain’s table.

It was my first job after college. To say I was green would be an understatement. I had heard once in college the best way to keep the conversation going was to say, “Yes, and…” So that’s what I did, with everything. Even to things that clearly the correct answer would have been no. Like do you know how to work on the computer. Certainly I did not. I didn’t even own one, but yes, I said, and I learned. Quickly. Do you know how to layout a catalog, work with Adobe programs — certainly I did not, but yes, and I learned. They asked me to design the flyer for the company cruise. I remember the tag line, “Oooh weee, Oooh wee baby…” (for those of you who don’t know, that song continues – “won’t you let me take you on a sea cruise?”) The most joyful yes I knew. They asked me if I wanted to go along, be the “Julie” from Love Boat. Yes, I said. You can take someone, they said, a friend, or significant other. I didn’t have a boyfriend, well, not one that I was willing to invest a week in. So I asked my mother. She said yes. 

Now to put it in perspective, it was not that long before that we had lived in an apartment where you couldn’t drink the water. It was not that long before that my mother lived on Heath Ice cream bars, because she was just too broken hearted to eat.  So to find ourselves at the captain’s table was more than a delightful surprise. We dressed up, made our faces up, our hair up, and our chins up, and sat as if we had always been there – up! Smiles, through course after course, we seemed to get higher and higher. And looking at my mother, I knew this is where she had always belonged. Where I had always seen her, even on dry ground, the dryest ground of a gravel road.

They, he, and she, will all try to tell you no. In their own fear, they will want to keep you down. “No, you can’t! No, you don’t belong here. No.” Just make sure your heart isn’t one of them. Make sure your heart believes in you – gives you the courage to look up – to say YES!

I see my mother at the captain’s table, and think, what a gift she gave herself – and what a gift she gave to me! Over all the negative voices that surrounded her, surrounded me, she said, YES! And I still believe.The sun is coming up – Oooooooh weeeeeeeee, Baby!

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“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.” Jodi Hills

I love to paint birds. Perhaps because the woman who raised me is one – a bird. A beautiful, delicate, resilient bird. And it seems so obvious to me, to represent strength in this form.

It has been so windy here for several days. And not just breezy, I mean wind. Stronger than Minnesota wind. Stronger than Chicago wind. WIND! Even the giant pine trees in our yard succumbed to the pressure of it all. We woke to find giant branches lying across the lawn. And these weren’t old brittle branches, these were strong, still dampened with the hold of youth, lying in defeat on the ground. But the birds are still singing. I hear them. Living through it all, these tiny little birds, still vibrant, still singing.

I guess it’s a choice, every day. You can fight the wind, like a branch, or ride the wind, like a bird. I know this song… it has called me for years, lifted me. I’m not afraid. I’m flying.

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I have to believe.

I graduated high school with a cast on my ankle. I graduated college with a full length cast on one leg and an ankle cast on the other. I had over 20 surgeries. And I never thought of myself as weak. I think if you carry, (sometimes kick) your backpack filled with hardcover books across an icy campus, while on crutches, you can consider yourself strong.

In between the plaster I wore what Fleet Farm would call work boots. I wore them with jeans. I wore them with dresses. If this had happened in today’s fashion world of “the clunkier boot the better,” no one would have noticed, but I was well ahead of my time. And they did get noticed, and people were not always complimentary.

My mother, knee deep in grief during my teenage years, found a way to get herself dressed, and not just dressed, looking good dressed, fashionable well beyond her monetary and emotional means dressed, carrying herself with dignity, with purpose, with strength well ahead of her time. How could I not put on a pair of boots and believe that my feet would take me where I need to go?

Yesterday I wrote in permanent marker all over my Dr. Martens. These boots, I thought, need to tell the story I’ve been writing for years. These boots need to walk in the strength of all the words that have carried me. Remind me of where of where I’ve been. Take me, wherever I need to go. I believe.

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Scraps of scraps

I found some scrap wood the other day to make a frame for my new cowboy painting.  I found four lengths with hardly any to spare. I knew I couldn’t make any mistakes on the cuts. I slowed my brain down, (not an easy task), took a few breaths, sang a slow song, and cut the wood. Aaah, that smell. They fit together perfectly and gave my cowboys the home they were searching for in love’s west.

There were just a few pieces left from the ends.  I cut the angles. Used my homemade square and pieced together another frame. It looked like it might fit the small painting of my two people walking together — “Would it be easier for you if I went with you?” Sometimes the sun and the universe smile together – it fit perfectly.  All I needed was backing for it. I found a piece of wood from an old wine crate and cut it to fit the back of the frame.  (We live in France — we have purchased a bit of wine :)).  It all fit together, as if it were meant to be. And not only that, it had a personality, a life. The grains of the wood aligned with the vineyards, and the movement of my hands, to make a piece of art. Bon Vivant!

I used to go to New York every six months to sell my art. I would fill a pallet with my goods. Arriving at the show, they would bring the pallet, they store it for you during the show then bring it back when it was time to pack up. When they returned the pallet on this, my second show, it came back in pieces. It was connected by a wish and prayer. They laid it in a heap in front of my booth. There was nowhere to get a new pallet after 10pm on a Sunday evening in New York. And no one to ask for help. It was just me and my mom who had made the trip, not to pack, but her role clearly was to pray!  I had to make this work. I pulled nails out of walls and tried to straighten them enough to hammer into the pallet. I used string and rope and tape and more tape. I stretch wrapped in circles until I could no longer see, and then just had to believe. 

A week later it arrived in Minneapolis. In one piece. A tiny shipping miracle, or proof that, once again, we truly are given everything we need.
Some days, it doesn’t seem like it.  Some days seem like nothing will fit, and it’s just too hard. But during those times, I open these gifts of memory – the gifts of miraculous pallets, frames made from scraps of scraps, and I know I can make it through. I know there is beauty! I just have to look around. Pay attention. And believe. I have everything I need.  

Knowing this, I have the strength to turn to you and ask, “Would it be easier for you if I went with you?”