Jodi Hills

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


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Stumbling into joy.

It was no surprise that we stumbled upon the Storybook Sculpture garden in Abilene, Texas. I’ve been trying to get there my whole life. I didn’t know this sculpture garden existed, but storybook land…I stepped foot into it when I was a toddler, grocery shopping with my mother at Olson’s Supermarket, and in many ways, I’ve never left.

The shopping carts were lined up just after the automatic doors, in front of the large front windows. The sunlight seemed to lead directly to the first display of books and magazines. The bottom row, just in reach, was set aglow with Golden Books. And what a perfect name for them – for they were golden — treasure! Less than a dollar each, my mother allowed me to pick out one, not every visit, but quite often. My legs dangling from the silver cart, I held it. Smelled it. Hugged it. Knowing the adventure that would come when it was read to me that evening.

Soon, I no longer fit into the cart, and Mrs. Bergstrom taught us to read in the first grade at Washington Elementary. I picked out the books now by the title, and not just the pictures. I could read them myself, sometimes even before the shopping was done. What a world! Opening golden! I knew I would never leave.

I have traveled around the world. I really believe it has been possible, only because I started in these words, these books, this land where all things were possible. And it all still seems as magical to me as the day I was placed in front of the bottom row of books at Olson’s Supermarket.

I still keep a stack of Golden Books on my bedside table — a reminder to live in the magic, to keep believing, to keep dreaming, keep searching for the daily treasure.

I will be the first to admit, I sometimes wander off the storybook path, and get lost in the worries of the day, but somehow, I always find my way back, stumbling into joy. How golden!


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One

She, at the age of ten, already has a vastly greater grasp of the french language than I do. It is humbling for sure, and that’s not a terrible thing, but sometimes I wonder, what do I have to offer if I can’t convey it? Then we go to the studio. My paint. My brushes. My canvas. This is my language. And she wants to learn. I give her a small canvas and ask her what she’d like to paint. Immediately she looks around – at everything I’ve done. (And that’s when I think, I do have something to offer.) The apples. She wants to paint the apples in a bowl. I place that painting in front of her. Tell her to just draw in pencil at first. Give herself a good start. She chooses the paints. We create a palette. Slowly we go through each step. The light. The shading. The mixing. She is interested. Curious. And she is learning. It is a beautiful thing. We are different in age and culture and language and knowledge, but here, we are one heart, one creation, and that is everything.

It’s not easy to come together. Efforts need to be made. Egos must be put aside. We have to be curious. Interested. Yes, it can be difficult, but the rewards — immeasurable. Stop looking for the things that make us different – because you will find them — it’s so easy. Look for the things that can bring us together. And look again. And again. One creation. One heart. Everyone. That’s everything.


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The cracks

I wish I could have learned everything when I was six. I wasn’t afraid then. I took swimming lessons every Saturday morning at the community pool. It was so easy to jump into the water. Even before we knew how to crawl stroke, we splashed and floated and became one with it. I guess that was the key. We didn’t fight the water. Oh, there was always one kid, terrified, kicking, thrashing, who would disappear from the pool never to be seen again. Never to learn how to swim. Never to join in the birthday parties, or summer afternoons at one of the 10,000 lakes. What a thing to miss!


Adult days can be overwhelming. We face unimaginable things. Things that seem unpassable. But there is always a crack to get through, if we become like water. Water can always get through, even the smallest opening. When Bruce Lee said, “be like water, my friend” he simply meant to be flexible in both mind and body. It’s about not being rigid and stubborn in your beliefs and practices. But instead, about being open-minded and able to change and adapt to the circumstances we are put into. The older we get, the easier it is to be rigid. But I don’t want to live like that. I want to be forever six, loose and open and possible!


Perhaps that’s why I paint the water, again and again – as a reminder to “be possible,” I tell myself with each stroke – find the openings, become the water, get through. The water moves through my hands, my heart, my head, and I learn today’s lesson again. And, I give thanks for the cracks, thanks for the six year old heart that beats within me and says, “Everything is possible! Don’t be afraid.” Because this day, what a thing to miss!


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A nice thought.

We arrived at the Georgia O’Keeffe museum in Santa Fe a little later than expected. It was only going to be open for about an hour longer. We went to the cashier to buy our tickets. She greeted us nicely, but we could tell she was a bit distracted. Her computer was giving her problems. We’ve all been there and know how distracting that can be. “Two?” she asked, and kept willing the machine to work. “Yes,” we smiled. I could see the beautiful works out of the corner of my eye. I was so excited to go inside. I had read books on Georgia. Read her letters. Studied her paintings. Visited her home. Even painted her. My smile must have been huge – as I’m smiling while I write this. “Go ahead and go in,” she said. Not out of frustration any longer, just kindness. “Oh, wow – that’s great! Thank you!” It made the whole experience even better than I could have imagined. Kindness will always do that I suppose. In the best of situations. In the worst.

Georgia wrote in a correspondence to a close friend, “You are one of my nicest thoughts.” I think about the museum — the woman who let us in for free, even though she was clearly having a hard time. She created an image as lovely as the paintings inside. We are all creating images, all the time. With our actions, our interactions. Our faces. Our hearts. I think the best we can do is to try and make them beautiful.

We may not always succeed, but there is beauty in the attempt, and anyway, it’s a nice thought.


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Growing the herd.

I first learned about herds on my grandfather’s farm. He had a herd of cows. “Why do animals need to be in a herd?” I asked him. “If the herd doesn’t pull together, it can be in danger. The herd knows its survival is dependent on the herd.” I shook my head. It made sense, but it also made me nervous. We, my mother and I, were in trouble. We had lost our herd. He could see me doing the math in my head, subtracting all those who had gone away. “How many does it take to make a herd?” I asked, hoping, pleading, begging with my heart for it to be a small number. I’m sure he could see my desperation for a clear and concise answer. “Two,” he said, and took my hand. Looking back, I’m not sure if he meant him and me, or my mom and me, but either way I was happy. I was a part of something. I would survive.

I’ve heard it used, and overused, the phrase – “We’re all in this together.” (I think I’ve used it myself.) But are we? Humans are herd animals. We do need each other. In a perfect world, I guess we would be – one human race – one herd, helping each other live a little better, a little stronger.

Each day I reach out my hand with words and paintings in hopes to strengthen the herd. You reach back by telling me your experience. And we find out a few more things about one another. My mom exclaimed in delight the other day, “I didn’t know Lynn Norton liked Jeopardy!” And we are all a little more connected.

The herd is as strong as we make it. Reach out your hand.


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My most expensive finger.

I hit it on the door yesterday, my most expensive finger. It seems it is always taking a beating. It’s my left index finger. I am right handed, and an artist, so my right hand gets all the praise and the protection. But perhaps my left hand is the unsung hero. It’s always being asked to do the, at best unglamorous, sometimes dangerous, things, like – “Hold this nail, don’t worry, it’s just a hammer,” or “Brace the ruler while I cut with this knife.” It has been cut and battered and bruised, and it still supports, every time it is asked.

I had only been in France a short time when I cut this finger. Cut it deep. Even the tendon. I needed surgery. I had no insurance, or faith in the system, or a grasp of the language even. I was afraid. Afraid of the doctors, the procedure, how I was going to pay for it… everything. But the fear was wasted, as it is most of the time. The surgery worked. I sold a painting. My finger healed. The bill was paid. (How fitting that the right would in turn support the left.) And this most expensive finger now continues to show up daily to perform the uncelebrated tasks.

But I want to celebrate them. This finger. The unsung heroes. Those who have shown up for me daily. I hope I thank them properly. Invest in them. With time and resources, emotions and praise. They deserve it. I know I can do better. I know we can do better – investing in these everyday heroes who show up, only asking, “How can I help?”

I grab the brush with my right hand and give thanks.


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Grace. For now.

Grace. For now.

I opened the wood filler to repair the corners of the frame. I rolled it around my fingers as instructed and this scent came to life. What is that? I know that smell. And then it took me – one straight shot from the south of France to the New Brighton basement of my aunt in Minnesota. My aunt Karolynn was a hairdresser. She had a full set-up in her basement. And by full set-up, I mean a chair, a mirror, and a sink. I’m neither ashamed, nor proud, to tell you that she used to, right there in that basement, give my hair a “perm.” (A permanent wave for those under a certain age.) I suppose it was a hairstyle. I suppose it was a trend – this completely unnatural kink of blonde curls. Oh, I wanted it at the time. I really did – along with so many others. Everyone had one. Women and men alike. And that was the smell — the lingering odor of my first lesson in the grace of not getting what you wish for. Yes, I wanted the permanence of this “perm.” I wished my hair would stay this way forever. Thank goodness it didn’t!

Through the years, I know that I have wished, and hoped, even prayed for some things to happen — some things that I was just certain would be great for me — devastated in the moment they didn’t happen — thrilled years later when I see and live the alternative! Relationships, jobs, moves, life… it’s funny how we can be so certain, and so wrong. Be careful what you wish for, they say…and I suppose they are right. But I’m not sorry for the wishing, the trying, the impermanence, the lessons, the growth. How would I know anything if I didn’t stay in motion? And on my way I try to remember that certainty is not the reward — it’s grace through the uncertain times, this is the gift, the only thing to really hold on to.

I repair the damaged frame, knowing that it won’t last forever — knowing that I will make it beautiful for now, and that is enough, more than enough, that is good – always.


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Delivered.

When riding with my Grandma Elsie in her car, we would always listen to the station that played Paul Harvey, along with the grain report. I knew the language. So when I found the journal of my great grandmother in Grandma Elsie’s house, I recognized the words immediately. She wrote the daily farm report. The prices of grain. The weather. The needs of the house. The needs of the farm. She never wrote of emotion. The closest she came was reporting the neighbors who stopped by. All with the same equal tone. Life went on with the planting, the harvesting, and the rest. When her husband got cancer, in the throat, she wrote of the progress, with the same distinctions. Listing of medicines and sleep patterns. No change in her voice. He got worse. Slept less. More pain. She kept writing. His life was failing, along with her pencil. She wrote less. Felt more. And then one day, the only entry was this – “…my heart…” And I knew exactly what she meant.

She may not have recognized her journal as art, but that’s exactly what it was. She was making art. Brene Brown tells us that the magic of art is to both capture our pain and deliver us from it at the same time. That’s what my great grandmother was doing. And I suppose it is what I do. It is what I have always done — before I heard of Brene Brown — before I heard of my great grandmother. I began writing and drawing from the age of five or six. My mother says I would go into my room and whatever I was feeling, happy, sad, I would capture on paper, and then let it go. I’m still doing that.

The beautiful thing is, we can all do this. Now, you might say, oh I can’t draw, I can’t write, I can’t sing… but I disagree. You can do all of these things. If you can think, you can write. If you can feel, you can draw. If you can move, you can dance. If you can speak, you can sing. Art is simply the release of your emotion – in any form that you choose. And the same release can be experienced by reading, by viewing. If I write something and it makes you feel your own story, that is art. If you hear a song on the radio and it makes you dance in your kitchen. This is art. It is everywhere. It is healing. It is beautiful.

Today, and every day, is filled with this magic. Yes, it is exciting. Yes, it is painful. Yes, it is joyful. Yes, it is challenging. Yes, it is so very beautiful! I feel it! And, oh, my heart…YES!


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The curator

I have always loved to decorate and redecorate. Arranging and sorting and assembling. I love mixing textures. Gathering hard and soft items. It makes everything more interesting. It’s a continuous process. Sometimes I sell a painting and it needs to be replaced. Or I make something new and it “would just go perfectly there.” Or the light changes with the seasons and I switch things up. Or maybe I learn something, I feel something different, I grow. It all reflects in the museum of my home. For it should be a museum. A collection of life. A collection curated with each lived experience.


The curators of the finest museums decide what stays and what goes. What is given importance. The art of saying no to some things and making the most of the best. And it’s forever changing. And these curators (the good ones) don’t say, “Well, I changed it once – it has to stay this way forever!” They enjoy the process. This beautiful process of balancing the permanent pieces – the core of their identity – with the temporary pieces that are highlighted and then passed along.


I love being the curator of my home. It doesn’t frighten me. It inspires and invigorates. This is the way I want to look, too, at my life, not just my home. I want to be the curator of my life. Enjoying the process. Hanging on to my core, but not being afraid of change. Adapting to the changing light and season. Learning. Growing. Embracing the permanent hearts, and letting go of those who were only meant to be temporary. To confidently say no. To joyfully say yes! It will be a constant process. And it will be beautiful!


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I stand.

I mowed the lawn yesterday. It’s two hours of pushing, seemingly all uphill. It’s not bad at the beginning. I am plugged into a podcast or music, the sun is shining, and my legs are strong, having forgotten about the last mow. About half way through, it gets hotter, my legs get weaker, but I turn up the volume on the music and trudge on. I push and the mower fills with clippings. I stop. I empty the container. (At the start I lift and dump, and eventually near the end, just kick it until the clippings fall into a pile.) I pull the string to restart. Push, kick. Pull. Push, kick pull. I shove my sweaty hair deeper into my hat, tighten my shorts and keep mowing. My shoulders feel hot. My belly feels empty, and I keep pushing. When about 90% finished, I start to think I’m really going to make it. This time I will finish without having to refill the gas tank. I’m sure I mowed much faster this time and I won’t need to refuel. Yes, just a few more times up and back and… chug, chug, stop. Bad words race in my head. I push the mower to the garage. Lift the gas tank, which now weighs more than I do, refill the tank, pull the string. Pull the string again. And again. It starts. I walk it back and finish the mowing. Done. Sweet and glorious done. I walk the mower back to the shed, not kicking out the last clippings, oh, I’ll do that next time… I take off my gloves, my hat, my shoes, sit at the outdoor table and look at my work. It’s beautiful. Has there ever been a greener lawn? Has grass ever looked so inviting? I mean, it is magnificent! Worth every step. I think that people should see this. Maybe we’ll have a barbecue, with family. They’ll ask if I mowed the lawn and I will beam – yes! of course! Take your shoes off, I’ll say. Drink the wine. Feel that carpet of green. Yes, yes, we will celebrate this mow! It is glorious. It is summer! I stand on grass stained legs, and feel lucky, proud even. I mowed the lawn!
I think of my gay friends. Some people wonder, “Why do they have to have a parade?” Why? Why? Think of all they have been through! All the uphill trudging just to be seen. I am ready to throw myself a parade after mowing the lawn. If they had a “green lawn mowing flag” I’d be waving it up and down the streets of Aix en Provence. Yes, I say! Have the parade! Wave those colors! It’s glorious!


I think of my cancer-surviving friends. Some may wonder, “Do they really need to buy the survivor t-shirt?” Do they?????? Yes! Yes, of course they do! And they should. Cover the world in pink and celebrate each glorious survival! Wear the banner proudly! You did survive! How beautiful is that??!!!! Feel the glorious earth of another day under your feet! You did it. You can feel lucky, proud even! You DID survive!


We shouldn’t be afraid to celebrate our victories, our accomplishments. And we must never block the way of others celebrating theirs. You can join in, or not, but clear the way when the flags of joy are raised. Remember in the book, To Kill a Mockingbird, when Scout, at the end of the trial, is told “Stand up, your father’s passing…” That’s what I think of – when I see the struggles, the trials, you have endured. For you, (and maybe even me), I have nothing but respect. And so I stand.