Jodi Hills

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


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Growing poppies.

My grandmother was a dreamer. My grandfather was a worker. And together they created a life of faith. I think that’s what faith is, believing in things some people may call unimaginable, but you imagine them anyway, and work towards them. My grandfather was the muddied rack of coats that hung just inside of my grandmother’s unlocked door, the door she kept open, hoping to let in her next big thing! And it worked. The house – this home – this giver of nine lives, stood strong.


I knew the poppies would come. Because I put in the work. Because I believe in what I imagine. I show you the painting today, so you too, can believe in all of the things clearly and unclearly imaginable and reach out your own weary and working hands, and grow your fields of rouge!


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I handed him my business card, the one with my grandfather on it. Is that Rueben? It’s hard to explain the joy I received with those three words. He knew my grandfather. Remembered his name. Said it out loud. Such a small thing I suppose, but oh, how those small things can swell with pride, and connection. Oh, how they can jump through those tiny cracks in your heart and completely fill them. My grandfather had 27 grandchildren, fifty-some great grandchildren. And on. It was hard to stand out in that crowd. To hold that farmer’s hand for more than a few minutes. But yesterday, in this Caribou, with this Dave’s recognition, I was holding it all in my hand, holding once again this overalled man’s hand, my mother’s father’s hand in mine, and we were all connected.


I have told you before, we called it “the farm.” (My grandfather’s place) “The” – as if it were the only one. And for us, it was. Yesterday, after Caribou, we went to the bank. I had met the teller once before a year ago. I asked to make a deposit. He said, “Aren’t you the artist?” The artist. “Yes,” I said, heart swelling still and again.


To see each other. To give each other the greatest gift of all. “The gift.” May we all be forever generous.


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BIG HOUSE, LITTLE HOUSE, BACK HOUSE, BARN.

The farmsteads in Maine and throughout New England evolved over time as barns and other structures, including farmhouses, were built. Throughout the 1800’s, a unique layout of connected farm buildings developed, based on functional needs including shelter from the winter weather. They were referred to as Big House, LIttle House, Back House, Barn. This connection created greater comfort for the family as the farm grew.

The first time I visited, I fell in love with Maine. The color palette drew me in. A greyish blue sky, that held both the promise of sun, and rain. The guarantee of warmth and growth. The houses and barns, never thick with fancy, but filled with a gentle strength. Such beauty in the simplicity. I wanted that simplicity. That strength. Those connections.

To connect — I suppose that’s everything. Barn. To know the work, the hard, back breaking, “foot in each furrow” labor of living. Back house. To be forever welcomed through back doors, no matter how stained and weathered from the day. Little house. To rest in the comfort and familiarity of the ordinary. Big house. To celebrate the grandeur of the extraordinary!

Big House, LIttle House, Back House, Barn — a world away, I wander through each on a daily basis, giving thanks, knowing that I am home.


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Above the wheat

She packed her orange book bag with the same things each morning of her summer vacation. (It was the orange corduroy bag her mother had made for her 5 years earlier when she had to go to the hospital. Her first book in that bag was “The Little China Pig.” She read it over and over to the crying girl in the bed next to her. )

Inside the bag were two thermoses. Her brother had made them in shop class. They were glass jars covered in styrofoam. They were hers now that her brother had gone into the service. The service – that’s what they called it then. It seemed so harmless. It was long before 9/11 – when September just meant “back to school.” There was no threat of war. She never thought about war. She never thought about lonely. Or love.

She had painted the two thermoses to differentiate. Inside the thermos painted with stripes was ice water. Inside the solid black thermos was Campbell’s chicken noodle soup. She brought a spoon. One book from her Laura Ingalls Wilder series. A pencil. A stack of paper. A handful of chocolate chips, if there was a bag open in the top cupboard. She left every morning around 9am and was rarely gone for more than thirty minutes.

She walked along the field behind her house. It was farmed by Hugo. Hugo grew a field of golden wheat. When the wind blew it brushed against the nearness of her legs. Legs now released from long winter pants. Legs that tingled in the freshness, set free into the Minnesota summer. Legs that longed to disappear in a golden blaze. With a gentle whisper of wheat against her shoulder, her waist, her knee… she was reassured from the field , this tender field, that whatever was to come, everything was going to be ok.

She normally finished her soup at home, hours later. She washed her thermoses and read her book on the swing in the backyard.

Her mother came home about 4:30. Her father came home around 6. Their timing was always just a little off. In the years to follow, their timing grew further apart, as well as their hearts, and their lives.

But for a minute, she and her mother lived in the brown house alone. It was their third house on VanDyke road, behind Hugo’s field. Her mother kept a bottle of sleeping pills beside her bed. Each night she counted them when her mother wasn’t looking. Each night she prayed the bottle would remain full.

Some nights, in a dream, or the thoughts that come just before sleep, she imagined the golden fields. She imagined the wheat so high you could stand in the middle and disappear. She thought about the sleeping pills. She thought of her mother’s hurt and desperation. How she had asked them to just put her in the hospital for a week so she could rest, recover. She imagined the wheat around her mother, so high now that she couldn’t see her face. She imagined Hugo in his combine harvester. Was it a combine? The large machine that cut the hay? A thrasher? What did they call it? She wanted to yell out to warn her mother, but she couldn’t remember the name. She knew her mother could hear it. Why didn’t she move? She was so tired and so sad. She just stood there. It got closer and she yelled to her mother in her silent dream voice. The wheat thrashed! She jumped out of her bed. Ran to her mother’s room and recounted the pills. All still there. They wouldn’t put her in the hospital. She had to stay visible, present, above the wheat.

They lived in the brown house briefly. One day, when she came home from school, a sign was posted in the front lawn. Sold. She walked the path beside the field one last time. They moved again. This time into town. Who was watching the fields? Was someone supposed to watch the fields?

She learned to love the city. Her mother slept with no substances. And they grew strong, and happy and golden, just as the field had promised.

It’s hard to imagine now. These memories are mostly just flashes of color. Flashes of a different life. She didn’t feel bad when they passed through her. She felt strong. And proud. Of herself. And her mother. To keep your head above the wheat is something. To never give up. This is something, she thought, really something, and she drifted off to sleep.


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Give

There was a slowness of time that gathered at the farm. We raced with youthful legs – legs that spun underneath us like on the cartoons – and yet the day seemed to last forever. Legs that carried no weight of worry, but only the sticky pink of dripped watermelon.
My grandfather didn’t play with us. He had work to do. The farm demanded it. And he did it. He didn’t join us for birthday parties. I don’t imagine he ever wrapped a present. But he gave me a gift I still open, almost daily.
He didn’t say much, but when he did, you listened. Pipe in one hand, the other smoothing out the line of his overalls. He spoke slowly. My father was gone. My mother was sad. My legs gave way to the weight of it all. “Focus on someone else,” he said. Someone else??? What was he talking about? My legs couldn’t move. “Give your attention, your time, anything, to someone else. Trust me.”
How did he know? Maybe because he gave his hands to the soil. Maybe because he had nine children. He knew.
I can get overwhelmed. Easily. And it can swallow my attention – me, me, me. And then I remember, I open the gift. That beautiful gift. Focus on something else. Someone else. And I am saved.
My legs are strong today. Strong enough to run beside you under the sun of this possible June day. Strong enough to give.