Jodi Hills

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


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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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Wings.

“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?”


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The forest door.

I saw a door in the forest…a forest I had passed through so many times before. Looking only with my eyes, it had always seemed so typical – whatever that means. Maybe typical is what everyone tells you is supposed to be there. Well, my everyone had never mentioned a door before, so I looked around, as if not to mention it myself.

Left, no one.
Right, no one.
Behind, nope.

It’s like you think you’re safe or something, if you can just walk away without notice. But what you don’t realize is, you’re wrong…you’re not safe really, just alone.

Memories that force hesitation kept me still. If I went forward, what would happen? I had never travelled beyond the shortcut of disbelievers.

I was afraid. Afraid to stay…afraid to leave. Afraid to see beyond the trees. Afraid the door would disappear the moment someone told me it wasn’t there.

A door in the forest. A door in the forest. Repetition didn’t even make it sound right.

I opened and shut my eyes. It was still there.

I pinched my arm. Still there.

“Would you like to enter a world like no other?”

Now it talked? A talking door in the forest?

No. NO! No, I didn’t want to go. No, I didn’t want to stay. No, this wasn’t happening. And no, doors don’t belong in the forest. There was no door in the forest. Just me. Walking through like I always did. Going nowhere. But always getting there. No. No, I didn’t want to go.

My negations weren’t out loud, but the door responded anyway. “Would it be easier for you if I were a tree?”

A tree. Now a tree sort of made sense. A tree, strong and familiar. A tree could lift you to this other world.

I shook my head yes.

Out of the door grew branches and leaves. Branches and leaves that reached higher than any other bark. A tree that lifted me with such strength and gentleness, beyond the greens and browns of familiarity into blues and yellows and whites…opening my breath to the clean smell of hope.

With the branches blowing in the breeze, the tree asked me if I wanted to go farther…go farther and faster and higher and farther and faster and higher.

“Trees can’t fly.” I said.

“Would it be easier for you if I were a bird?”

A bird. A bird could maybe do that. “Of course,” I said.

Leaves became feathers. Branches stretched into wings. We flew through the clouds and passed the sun. So peacefully unfamiliar, I strangely knew that this was what heaven must be like. And stranger still, it was the first time I even let myself believe the possibility.

“Would you like to fly through it?”

“Heaven?” I asked.

“Birds can’t go to heaven,” I said.

“Would it be easier for you if I were an angel?”

I smiled as a flow of white surrounded me and we sailed further… beyond the sky, straight into love. I knew it was love, because it had no beginning and no end and I had no desire to look for either.

I don’t know how long I was there. There seemed no need for time.

I hadn’t even noticed how sure and steady my heart was beating, until the angel told me I had to go back.

“But I can’t go back to the ground. I can no longer walk in a forest without doors.”

“Would it be easier for you if I walked with you?”

“Angels can’t live in the forest,” I said, now surrounded by trees.

“Would it be easier for you if I lived in your heart?”

Knowing it would, the angel crawled inside of me and blanketed my heart. It beat sure again, without my urging.

The greens became greener and the browns more brown. I walked on familiar ground, that I had never really felt before.

Then I saw you, lost in a spot, no doubt you had frequented…looking forward and back, side to side.

“It’s a door,” I said.

“No,” were the tears you cried.

“Would it be easier for you if I went with you?” I asked.

Together we walked through the door in the forest.


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Rolling.

There was a Ben Franklin store in the middle of Broadway. It was right next to the theatre. They sold penny candy. Before the matinee, we would take our quarters and buy full sacks of candyand take them to watch the feature movie.
As a kid, I didn’t think there could be anything better. But my grandma did. She loved the Ben Franklin too, but more than the candy. In the middle of summer, the local merchants held Crazy Days. Often spelled Crazee Daze, or with a backwards“c” – maybe a crooked “d” – anything to promote just how crazy these deals were going to be. They lined the sidewalks with all kinds of product. It looked like a carnival when you were a kid,or a grandma who was waiting for the next big deal! Most likely it was just the unsold merchandise they wanted to get rid of before the next season, but that reality had not yet set in – for either of us. I’m not sure for my grandma, if it ever did.


At Ben Franklin they had “grab bags.” Brown paper sacks filled with mystery merchandise. Each had a small price written in marker on the front, and you had to buy it sight unseen. Now, some told of the great surpises that were found, for only a nickel, only fifty cents – why it just can’t be – how lucky! My grandma told of these stories too, but had never actually experienced such a thrill. “But maybe this time…” she wouldalways say. I walked the crazy sidewalks with her and we finished at Ben Franklin. She gave me a quarter to pick out any sack I liked. She picked out many.


You have to know a little bit about my grandma. She loved to play games of any kind. Cards. Dice. She wasn’t the kind of grandma to let you win. No, she enjoyed beating you. Not in a mean way, but like in a kid-like way… like your older sister of brother would. She loved to play. She wouldn’t teach you the rules, she said you’d pick it up as we played – meaning she would beat you and beat you until you finally caughton. There was a dice game. You had to roll the numbers in a certain sequence, and if you didn’t, you lost your turn. And the pure joy she got when you lost your turn was beautiful. She would swipe in with her swollen farm hands and scoop up those dice before you knew what happened. “Ooooooo, she lost it!” she would say, almost giggling. She loved to play so much that it was infectious. You never felt hurt or sorry, just watching her play, made you want to play. So we rolled the dice. And we kept rolling.


We brought our Ben Franklin sacks to her car and opened them one at a time. With such anticipation I removed the top staple. Unwrinkled the sack. I pulled out a plastic face that was knitted into a cover for a kleenex box. It was the ugliest thing I had ever seen. “Ooooooo,” my grandma said, “She lost it!” And oh, how we laughed. My grandma knew how to laugh. She knew how to play. We would go back the next year, and roll again.


My mother loved Frank Sinatra. We listened to the same records over and over on our giant stereo. It looked like a piece of furniture. About the size of a small sofa. Speakers on each end.On long Sunday afternoons, we would each lie on opposite sides of the stereo, our heads in front of a speaker, and Frank would sing. Sunday afternoons were long. My father was gone. My mother was sad. The sun went down early on winter days. In the dark. No money. No company. We lied beside Frank and he told us, with such certainty, we had to believe, “Maybe this time,” he sang, “I’ll get lucky… all of the odds are in my favor, something’s bound to begin… maybe this time, maybe this time, I’m gonna win…”


Was it the American spirit? The Hvezda spirit? The spirit of women? Something made us believe. Something made us keep rolling. Keep trying. Something made us believe beyond the season. Maybe this time it’s going to last. Maybe this time we might win. We believed. We all kept rolling.


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Mother helped me believe not all things are bad, many things are good.

How do you know to believe if no one has ever believed in you? 
After the publication of my second book, “Believe,” I was asked to read it to a group of inner city kids in Minneapolis.  I’m not sure I like the term inner city.  In the US, the term inner city has been used as a euphamism for lower income residential districts. I wasn’t labeled this as a kid, probably because I was white, but certainly, in terms of income, I was no different.  Maybe the only difference between us was I had someone who believed in me. My mother.


When I finished reading the book to them, which ends, “I believe in you,” most of the kids were quiet, almost stunned.  I looked around, hoping for some reaction.  I looked directly at the largest boy in the group.  I knew if I could get a response from him, the others might follow.  I smiled in his direction. I kept smiling.  He made eye contact, so I asked how he felt about the book, did he have any thoughts?  He said, with no pity, no hesitation, “No one has ever told me they believed in me before.”  The others nodded.  


My heart wanted to cry, but I kept smiling. I was honored to be the first, I said, but I would not be the last. Once you hear it, it cannot be denied. Never unheard.  Now you must live it. 

We painted a mural for their school with the words below. They grabbed brushes confidently, loudly, boldly, and painted themselves a future.


We are born with our eyes and our hearts wide open. Innocence and youth make it so easy to believe…so easy to fall asleep in someone’s arms, to trust in smiles, to see animals float across the sky…to believe your summer will never end.This gift that we’re given – to not just hope – but truly believe in people and feeling and all these things under the sun…this ability to act like it all matters…where does that gift go? Why does time and experience have to wear it away, instead of building on it? At what point do we lose the courage to believe and then just start hoping? And why do some give up completely?Now, I am not the most courageous of sorts…but I’m not willing to give up this most precious gift, for me or for you. I know it won’t be easy, and I know it shouldn’t be. And I’m going to fight for it, every day. Because inside this beautiful struggle to believe, we are given the power to comfort, to heal, to inspire and to love.As I get older, I know my summers may not last forever, but I’m not going to stop believing in the chances that rise with each morning sun. And I know it matters…it always does…the things we do, the things we say, the lives we lead, and the hearts we touch.I want to see giraffes float by, instead of gray clouds. I want to feel the sun, deep inside of me, even when it isn’t shining. I have to believe in myself enough to have the courage to say “I love you,” and mean it…and have the strength to hear “I love you” and really feel it.I believe all this can happen for me, and I believe it can happen for you.

We hung this in their school. I pray it reached their inner-most souls.  

Hang this on your heart today, “I believe in you.”