Jodi Hills

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


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Hope chest.

Before I knew what it was, I began filling mine. I had overheard some older cousins and aunts talking about it around my grandmother’s kitchen table. From what I knew of hope, you couldn’t actually see it, nor did I see any physical “chests” within this conversation, so I took it literally, as children often do, and assumed it was my own chest, the chest that housed my heart, and this I thought, was the place to put all the hopes that I could carry.

I walked around the farm that day. And I listened. My grandfather hoped for rain. I put it in my chest. My mother hoped for peace and an appetite. They fit in nicely. It felt exciting to fill my hope chest. I hoped my older cousins would pay attention to me. I smiled and put it in my chest. I felt safe, and almost powerful. And surprisingly, lighter. With everything I put in, I just became lighter. This was the real treasure, I suppose, learning that hope will never weigh you down.

Even when I learned the so-called truth of these hope chests years later, I stuck with my own version. I went to France with almost no belongings. They would have cost a fortune to ship. But what the airlines didn’t know, didn’t weigh, was “my hope chest” — my hope chest that was completely full, bursting even. Loaded with every story, every life event, every day survived, every smile, every dream — every, well, hope really — all still within me. 

And in my hope chest, there are no expiration dates. Everything remains fresh, light, and new. A small cage of ribs protects them easily. They are mine. As long as I’m willing to carry. 

You have one too, you know. Oh, how I encourage you to use it. Fill it. Walk with it daily. And see it for the real and only treasure there is – a heart filled with hope.


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Wings or weights.


Yesterday I was watching a short video on Youtube. I clicked on it because it was a beautiful, elderly woman, in her eighties, painting portraits. She was wearing a lovely scarf and skirt and smiling, with eyes and mouth. And it had the most interesting title – “All cats are black.” She had one of those voices that immediately drew you in. She began, “I’m just going to say it, I wanted to be beautiful…that’s all I wanted, there, I said it.” She went on to explain that she wanted to be beautiful because then she thought maybe her mother would love her. And, oh, how she wanted, needed to be loved. Just a mere baby, she was sent off to boarding school. On a visit home, still a baby, she was in the back seat of their car, driving home at night. She said to her mother, “I think I might look pretty in this light.” Her mother replied, “All cats are black at night, I suppose.” I will pause here to let you catch your breath. I know I needed to. What a horrible thing to say! My heart broke for her. Just a string of eight words. A string of eight words that slipped so easily off of her tongue. Slipped so easily off her tongue and (you might think I will say “broke her daughter’s heart) weighted on her daughter’s heart. I say weighted, because broke would be too simple. Broke means maybe you can fix it. Repair it. But weighted. Weighted is constant. A continuous burden. And she carried this burden for 65 years. A string of words for 65 years. Finally, through life, and living, and constantly searching for beauty, through painting portraits, she started to see it in others. See the beauty, even in herself. And she let it go. She let it go…. What a relief to save yourself. And she did. I suppose this is what first caught my eye – this was her beauty!

There are so many things I could say here. About how lucky I was to have a mother that always made me feel beautiful. Who still does. What a glorious gift. I could offer the warnings of how hurtful words can be. How we have to choose them so wisely. How easily we can hurt others. I could speak of the need to always be searching for and recognizing beauty in ourselves and others. I could speak of forgiveness, for that is really all forgiveness is, just letting go. Maybe it all comes down to weight. Each day a decision has to be made, perhaps moment after moment in each day, deciding to be the person who lifts, or the person who brings down. Wings or weights. As one who has seen the height and depth of each side, please, please let me be the wings, let us be the wings. Let’s choose to be kind, and fly!


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Heart giggles.

“Sit up straight. And settle down.” These were very confusing directions for us, the six year olds of Mrs. Bergstrom’s first grade class. We breathed in. Slouched over. Looked around. Up. Down. Got the giggles. Giggles so loud that she repeated it again – “Sit up straight and settle down!” Snorts and hoots shot from our hand covered mouths. Giggles should never be contained.

Oh, but they tried. Tried to contain us. Keep your desk orderly. Sharpen your pencils. Eyes to the front. It was like this in every class. Even in gym class there were rules to be followed. But once a week, in the lower level of Washington Elementary, we were marched in, single file, and then set free! It was Mr. Opsahl’s art room. It was filled with color. Paper. Glue. Paint. Sticky things. Beautiful things. Possibilities. Here our imaginations were not only welcomed, but encouraged. Imagination – or mind giggles – burst into full color, like the NBC peacock!

It was a garden view classroom, meaning our heads were at street level. We could see the cars, sometimes the pedestrians. In all the other classrooms, I, we, looked out the window, in hopes of joining this outside world. But not in the art room. Here, I hoped people could see in, see into our magical world. See us making hand puppets, face masks, flower pots. I guess I knew, even then, how beautiful this world was. And I wanted everyone to feel it.

Some might say, well, it’s because you were (are) an artist…but it was more than that, more than art. It was freedom. It was joy. And what a glorious way to learn. One day, Mrs. Bergstrom took a break from the rules, and said we could experience our English lesson by using the hand puppets we made in art class. The hand puppets that were created from empty toilet paper rolls and papier-mâché. Fingers full of promise, behind a sheet of plywood with a stage cut window, we put on magical, nonsensical, plays and songs that contained the day’s vocabulary list. I fell a little more in love with art that day. A little more in love with words. And a little more in love with Mrs. Bergstrom. We expected this from Mr. Opsahl, this loosening of the reins, but with Mrs. Bergstrom, donned in her pencil skirt, and neatly bunned hair, this was something! Truly something!

If you can, do that for someone today. Loosen the reins, give the unexpected compliment, the unsolicited kindness. Be the giggle in someone else’s heart.


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A place for us.

Before my mother became the voice of Independant School District #206, she worked at 3M. I was pretty young. I have no idea what she did. She brought me to the office one day after school. It was huge. I saw rows of desks. Some men in polyester suits and wide ties. Women with phones attached to their heads. One man with hair greased smooth, bent down, reached out his hand and tossled my hair. I didn’t like it. I didn’t know him. His smile was too toothy. “We invented this here,” he proudly held out the famous yellow sticky note pad. “You can write all your notes on it,” he said, still grinning. So far, I had nothing to keep track of, nothing but the hem of my mother’s skirt.

I had to go to the bathroom. We walked through the kitchen. I could smell the coffee in continuous brew. I imagined it took a lot of coffee to keep those faces in constant grin. A woman was bending near a giant machine. It had a glass cover, displaying food items. She pulled a long silver handle, and the tin can made a thud. I’m not sure I could read yet, but I saw the picture on the can. It was spaghetti. Spaghetti in a can. Now this was something! It was ready? Immediately? I couldn’t believe my eyes! What an invention!

I begged and pleaded. I had to have a can of spaghetti. I must. It’s right there! Please! Please! I wasn’t one to really beg for things. And she was at work. No need for a scene. “But you’re not going to like it,” she said. I disagreed. Oh yes, I would love it! I returned from the bathroom to find my mother with a can at a table. I beamed. I beamed as I flipped the top open. I beamed as I inserted the plastic spoon. And then I stopped beaming. It was horrible. I didn’t want her to have to come here, every day. I didn’t know what “better for her” was, but I know I wanted it.

She worked at the clinic for a short time after this. And then the dream job — Alexandria Public Schools. Some kids would always ask me, “You like having your mother at the school? Right there with you???” And I did. I really did. I was proud of her. And with all due respect to Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing, I was so happy that she found her place – her place to shine. And each time I walked past the large plate windows of the Superintendent’s office, on my way to gym, or band or choir, she would wave and smile. I waved back, and yes, I beamed! We joyfully kept “track of each other.” Always have. Always will.


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The next flight awaits.

I painted a new bird this week. I love to paint birds. For me, one is completely different from the other (and I’ve painted a lot of them.)  Some might ask, “Don’t you get tired of it, painting the birds?” To this I would reply, “No, do you get tired of feeling good?”  

Because I do, feel good, when I paint them. I love how they are always looking. They were given wings, the chance to fly, and it doesn’t seem like they want to waste it. So playful in the sky. Stopping for brief moments on branches, then looking, knowing, the next flight awaits. The goal is not to finish, but to continuously become!

I’m launching a new website today. A new flight. It’s exciting! I feel perched, but ready to fly again. What a glorious feeling to become. To know my story isn’t finished yet. 

If you are reading this, your story is just beginning as well. Today is the branch that will launch you into the sky. A sky filled with beginnings — if you dare to take them. And oh, I hope you take them! Please take them! I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, “One way or another, I am going to fly!” I’ll see you up there!


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On top.

Perhaps one of the biggest dangers of social media is the act of comparison — comparing your life to what you think is the life of the other person on the screen. And I say, “what you think” because you really don’t know how the other person is living. You just get this small glimpse of perhaps what they had for dinner. You might see them in their best outfit. On vacation. Their best photoshopped image. And even if it is “real,” it doesn’t change your life. You decide if your life is big or small, happy or sad, empty or full – and believe me, you will probably experience all of these – more than probably.

The birds in our yard love the cherry tree — and I don’t blame them. Cherries are delicious. Someone told us to hang cd’s from the branches, and it would scare the birds away. The cherries are all gone. Turns out they were not afraid, but perhaps even enjoyed the music while they ate. You just never know. I imagine the fun they had in the tree – their own social gathering place – singing along to the shiny objects. I could waste my time and feel bad about not eating cherries, but nothing would change, so I’m going to be happy for them! After all, they sing for us every morning.

Remember, you will not always be the biggest bird. You will not always be the smallest. Find the joy in both. The grace in both. That is the cherry on top!


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The day after.

We do love our “holidays” in France. The Monday after Easter is a holiday. Everything is closed. Not that that’s different from every other Monday. If you want something special for a Tuesday, you will be wise to get it the Thursday before, just to be sure.  

I still forget. Even Dominique forgets. And it can be annoying. It’s so easy to slip into the mode of “Why isn’t everything open all of the time?”  — doing my best Veruca Salt – “I want it now!” 

But today, still enveloped in the beauty that was yesterday, Easter Sunday, I’m glad it’s a holiday. I don’t really want the feeling to end. And why does it have to? Tomorrow even! Well, maybe a little less sugar, but I want the feeling to live on – this fluttering in my heart. 

I don’t think the birds know if it’s Sunday or Monday, as they bounce in the air, singing all the while. I suppose that’s the magic of living – keeping that flutter. 

And today doesn’t have to be different. The violet trees bloom under the blue sky. The grass is greening. I still love who I love – what could be more special than that? 

So I direct the question, not to the stores in the street, but to my eyes, heart and mind, “Why isn’t everything open all of the time?!!” Let’s celebrate. Wide open! Today. The day after. And the one after that!


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Rabbits and bells.

I still get excited. And why not!? Everything is in bloom. There is candy on the table and kindness in the air. Eggs of many colors. Family soon to arrive. Everything feels like hope.

My first Easter in France was so different from that of my childhood. There is no Easter bunny here. They have bells. Bells deliver the candy and hide it. Not in baskets, but behind trees and throughout the garden. Bells, I thought, how ridiculous – everyone knows a rabbit… I know. I heard it too. And so I joyously rang the bell, and let myself believe. It made no difference how the magic arrived. It was there, filling the trees. 

My mother used to change the words to Peter Cottontail. As she skipped through the house with a basket of candy she sang, “Here comes Peter Cotton-fuzz, best little bunny that ever was…”  Different words. Still magic!!!

There is room in the sky for all of it. All of us. Whether you celebrate Passover, Easter, or Ramadan, or just the bloom of spring. I think we all want to believe in the best of us. The renewal of goodness. The spirit of kindness. The lightness of hope. Let the message be delivered in every way possible – even on wings!


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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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Shiny black and blue.

When it comes to reading, I suppose I am a bit of a magpie – chasing after the words – grabbing, feeding off of them like shiny objects. They are all so beautiful. I want to gather them in my little nest of daily stories. 

There was a woman in our home town. She picked through the garbage cans of main street. This was long – long before it was cool. Long before people made Youtube videos of treasures found. She was alone in her picking, and we made fun of her. Not to her face, but I can see now that doesn’t really matter. I can blame youth. Inexperience. But now that I see… I have no more excuses. 

When you first look at a Magpie, you think you know, well, of course – it’s black and white. But when you really look – I mean really – you see the blacks are not just black, but so many shades of blue – maybe brown eyes – maybe a hint of green in the changing light. I paint them now and discover all that I haven’t seen. 

Her name was Bernice — this woman who had the courage to search for treasures in our home town. I see her now, so black she is blue – such a beautiful blue. And I thank her for giving me a chance to really see. A chance to wonder about what else I am missing. A chance to search for the shiny objects, hidden in plain sight. And so I read, and I write, and I paint, and I fly! Singing thanks to the Magpies, thanks to Bernice.