Jodi Hills

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


Story books.

I don’t know when it changed — the moment we dropped the word story and just started calling them books. A part of me wants to bring it back. 

The story books were in the basement of the Alexandria Public Library. Maybe it was because we didn’t know how to use the card catalog yet, but so many were on display, not by spine, but full cover. I can still see the bright blue cover of Jonathan Livingston Seagull. It was still above my reading grade, and sat perched on the very top shelf. I thought if I finished all the books on the lower shelves, read each and every story, worked my way upwards, that I too could fly. 

My mom dropped me off every Saturday morning. I climbed up the outer steps, then climbed down the inside ones. I read for hours. Just before my mom picked me up, I checked out as many books as my orange book bag would hold, and the librarian would allow. She never complained about having to come in and get me. Most of my friends from school sat outside waiting for their rides. Running around in the grass, soon and easily fed up with the quiet words of the basement. But not me. I wanted every moment. And my mother, being an avid reader, understood. She parked the car behind the Ben Franklin store and walked over to get me. 

I wasn’t thinking about it when I wrote the book Bird Song. Covered in the same blue, it is a collection of stories (a story book) told by the beautiful wings that carry them. But of course it lives within me. The days at the public library. Each word read. Each shelf climbed. I know they brought me to this place. They lifted me. Dared me. And faster than any childhood Saturday morning, I learned to fly. 

The stories we create are not weights, but branches. Out on the morning limb, I heart gather all the words – of mother and love and youth and chance and choice and story — I spread my wings, and I fly.

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Guts. Grace.

I was reminded of it yesterday while doing a podcast. Something I had written years ago. Words I carry with me — “Now is the time for guts and grace.” Of course the words “guts and grace” are key, but perhaps they are far less important without the word “now.” Now means ever and always. 

Some might say, “well, from time to time, sure, but I don’t need guts every day.” I’m not sure I agree. For me, I think if I’m doing it right, living the way that I want to – I DO need them daily. Because if I need them, that means I’m pushing myself to do more, to be more. It means I’m taking risks. Trying to grow. Letting people in. Feeling everything. And all of that takes real courage — real guts!  But I don’t want to be bulldozer brave – knocking over everything, everyone in sight. Hence, the grace. And what a delicate balance to stumble through. And I do stumble. I do fumble. So I carry the words with me. Now.

They asked me in the interview yesterday if my mother was an artist. “Well, she made me, didn’t she?” Her openness, her pure love and joy in allowing me to be me, was more of an artistic gift than if she had handed me the paints and brushes and guidebook of Cezanne himself. Her standing tall, shoulders back, bloused in white ruffles, lips rouged above a softened, forgiving jaw, even as her heart dragged behind her size 10.5 Herberger shoes, was the most beautiful, the most artistic example of guts and grace I had ever seen. These words were written long before they settled on paper. I carry them now. She is with me now.

It’s not to say she wasn’t worried about being brave. She often did. Who doesn’t? (I guess to answer that — those not really living.) I don’t know what today will bring, but I do know what I’ll carry with me — what has been passed from my grandmother to mother to me. From their now to mine. Ever. Guts and grace.

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The Italian

She always wanted to be Italian, Dominique’s French cousin. She dreamed about everything Italy since she was a little girl. She loved the language and the people. How did she know? Who tells the heart what to love? Where to fall? Somehow it knows. 

I hadn’t been living in France that long when we went on an Italian excursion.  We saw glorious things. Me for the first time. Drove Italian fast, round round-a-bouts. Monuments, relics, at ever exit. Stood along with the other tourists as they tried to push or hold up the leaning tower. Bello! 

I thought it would be a complete let-down to visit this cousin on our way home. She opened the door. Flowers in hand. Smile on face. A warmth that transcended any language. I barely spoke any French, and certainly no Italian, but somehow, I felt at home. I suppose the heart can recognize another that has found its way.

I have seen extraordinary things. We have returned to other parts of Italy. I have seen the Colosseum. The Pantheon. The Vatican. Civilizations. Empires. Each standing stone, evidence. 

Maybe it all comes down to those who dare to dream. Maybe that’s why I think of her so often. Some might ask what difference does it make? What difference did she make? How can any one heart matter? But I say it is something! Something extraordinary. I can still feel the love in that room. That Italian room. That French heart. The dreams of that little girl floating around the room, filling it with the evidence of risk, of hope, of pure love. 

You can travel the world looking for guarantees. You won’t find them. But you will find examples. Monumental examples of the human experience. Sitting a country away. In my American/French heart, the evidence remains, and oh, how I believe!


With all those who dare.

I must have thrown myself down the grassy slope of our house on Van Dyke Road a million times. Maybe it was aided by winter’s covering of snow, but our summer grass was always lush. A carpet of green.Safe for toes and hands. Welcoming of backbends let go and fallen cartwheels. I could tuck and roll, and only feel the tickling of blades.

I was living free from context. All was as presented, until it wasn’t. I remember the day perfectly. It was just as the day before.  The sky blue. The sun yellow. The green sprouting between summer-free toes. And I was pushed down that hill. It’s funny how something can happen so fast — your world changing in an instant — and yet, it all seems in slow motion. That same glorious grass felt sharp and so unfriendly. I remember thinking with each unstoppable roll, “you used to love me.” 

It took me years to get it back. I carried that unwanted knowledge for decades. I suppose I still do. I suppose we all do. But it’s ok, because I figured out a way, on the most welcoming still of summer days, to let it go, lay it beside me. Rest it in the supportive grass. The grass who was never to blame. And trust the freedom of greening giggles. Trust myself. Trust the day. Trust those standing beside me with wiggling toes, those, too, laying their knowledge down in order to trust. 

The grass grows thick with all those who dare. Welcome to the garden.

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Into the blue.

We’re seeing the blue of the lakes now, not the frozen white of our last visit. Both will take your breath away, but for completely different reasons.

I’m not sure that we ever heeded the warnings, or even saw them, but they were there – “No life guard on duty. Swim at your own risk.” But the lakes were always open. Maybe that’s what I loved most about them. The beaches were public. No discrimination. (Even though our diversity at the time ranged mostly from pale white to deep red.) There was no concern for money or status. The blue waves didn’t know if you belonged to the golf club. What church you went to, if at all. No question of status. The water was open. So warning or no warning, I, we, would go in. The only risk seemed not to participate. Every day was a gift. Perhaps because we new the impermanence. Those waves would soon be still. Frozen. So we raced in. Under the sun.

I didn’t know at the time how telling it was. Everything would always be “at your own risk.” There would be nothing to protect you as you went into the deep end, of love, of life. But I remember. First toes. Straight out of winter boots, feeling the cool sand. Then wet. Colder still. But my heart is saying, you’ll adapt, go further. White shins, almost lavender, walking forward. Thighs shivering. You could wait. No, I can’t wait. Up to the bottom of my suit now. No turning back. Belly button retreating out of fear, like a turtle. Arms raised to prolong it. Brain saying retreat. Heart saying Go! Feet – always following the heart. Hands coming down. Splashing. You’ll be fine. It will be great. Heart beating – go -go, go-go. Diving under. Everything slows. Free now. Am I a fish? A bird? Everything is wild and easy and light. I belong. I am free. Nothing wasted.

The sun is coming in from the window. Blue shimmers all around. There will be chance. Choice. Risk. Love. I smile. Toes wiggling, I listen to my heart as it speaks daily, “Go further. Deeper. Into the blue.”

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Crossing over.

It’s no surprise that I write about my grandparents, my mother, my childhood experiences. The stories, not only on the page, but on the canvas, straight from my heart. It is the most vulnerable, but the most rewarding thing that I do.

I suppose I have been practicing since I was a child. Showing my work, my heart. Building my courage, my strength. More confident in myself, my story. So it came as a bit of a shock when I moved to France and realized I would not only have to start over, but build a bridge, and cross over. A bridge on paper, on canvas, on heart.

I’m not going to say it’s not terrifying, this vulnerability, but when you get something back, oh my, there is nothing like it! Each day when I write these blogs something magical happens. I tell you a bit of my grandmother, and you respond with your memory of yours. Bike for bike, we exchange our stories. Our stumbles on gravel roads and our victories in schools. This is glorious. This is living — this sharing — these connections.

The French, as a whole, are pretty protective of their feelings. They are not fast and loose with praise or compliments. I’m certain that I can be terrifying to them at times, running with arms waving, hugs approaching, feelings everywhere, heart dripping from my sleeve… but it’s the only way I know how to build this bridge, make a connection.

Yesterday, on Instagram, I received a letter from a French woman. She wrote, in French, that her daughter had sent her one of my pieces of art, because it reminded her of her grandmother. She told me that her mother, who has passed on, loved art, but never dared show anyone. She thanked me for the reminder of her mother. How it connected her to her daughter. And wished me well with my art — hoping that I would sell lots of work from my gallery!

This is amazing for two reasons. First, that I read and understood her message, in this new language. This has been a long time coming. And I don’t want to gloss over the victory! Second, that she, this French woman, risked all of her Frenchness and exposed her heart. She dared, as her mother hadn’t… and we connected! For me, (and I hope for her too) this is heart waving fantastic!

I know it’s not easy, this offering of your heart, but oh — OH! — how important it is! If you can, today, offer someone a compliment. Tell a bit of your story. Be vulnerable. Feel everything! Connect. Risk. Build a bridge. DARE to cross over.