Jodi Hills

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

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By name.

She called me by my mother’s name in the grocery store. Just three letters — Ivy. And the tears flowed. She caught herself quickly, and threw in a “Jodi.” “I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings…” She hugged me so tightly, trying to collect the water, build a dam. But I wasn’t hurt. I assured her as our coats meshed together. Groceries on the floor. It wasn’t a mistake, but a connection. What a gift to still be so close. So intertwined.

There are a million things I want to “get over” in this world. Loving is not one of them.

I suppose I have always been a feeler. Deeply. Wearing my Cardinal t-shirt this morning, I remember the teams. Not the individual games. Barely the competition. What I remember is crying in the locker room with the other teenage girls. I can’t say for sure what it meant for them, but for me, it was not about losing the game, but ending the season. Because with the season’s end, would I still be a Cardinal? Would I still be a part of it all? Decades later, in black and red, I can say that I am. We make the choices. Endings do not have to mean separations, nor exclusions. We decide. With hearts, hands and voices, how to stay connected.

And so it is with all whom we love. Miles between and breaths removed cannot take it away. We decide. Do you understand? Feel what you feel. Without fear or reservation. Fling your groceries to the floor and arms wide open. This is what will call you. What will hold you. What will save you.

I am a Cardinal. I am my mother’s daughter. Love continues to call my name.

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What remains.

Throughout all of history, hearts have laughed at what the hands try to carry.

I always overpack. It all seems so necessary, so “I can’t live without it,” until I have to drag it from car to hotel to car again.

I write the stories of my hometown daily. I have them with me, even a country, and what some may call a lifetime away. Truth be told, driving into town yesterday, almost none of it is there. The pool were I learned to swim is gone. My high school is an empty lot. What’s left of my middle school is part of the courthouse. Washington Elementary — condos. Even the old public library — empty. So why do I still hear the words? Feel the splashes? Raise my hopeful hand in a class that isn’t there?

Waking up in the Best Western, I certainly can’t call this home, can I? My bursting suitcases try to make the case, with things that I brought from France. Things I picked up in Minneapolis. Duluth. Brainerd. Vintage shirts purchased from the Alex thrift store reminding me of when I was a Cardinal. I suppose we’re all trying to gather in the proof that being here matters. (Wherever that here may be.) And we struggle to drag that proof beside us. And the funny thing is, I know the answer. I have written it. Painted it. Lived it. What remains may only be in the heart.

Sitting with friends yesterday in memory’s laughter of burned pizzas, and chances taken, tears shared and future plans, everything is still alive. Pools and teachers and libraries and mothers. Everything remains. Brushing against arms. Leaning into hugs. I know my heart is the only suitcase I need. And it fills, even when full. It’s all that matters.

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My heart is well traveled.

What we lacked in maps, clues, or even plans, we made up for with imagination. Willie Nelson sang “On the road again,” and we were off.

Travel choices with my mother were based on song lyrics, books, catalogs and handsome men. We traveled to Bozeman, Montana in hopes of getting a glimpse of Sam Elliott; countless cities featured in the Sundance Catalog, wearing the outfits and approval of its founder Robert Redford; Galveston, Texas because Glen Campbell sang “I still see your sea waves crashing…” and even to Iowa, not so much for the covered bridges of Madison county, but perhaps the love of someone who wouldn’t let the screen door slam (if you read the book, you’ll know.)

I loved that she believed in the romance of it all. And I don’t mean just handsome men. She loved the possibility of things. It wasn’t about the finding, but the being. Living in the dream. “Carry one in your pocket,” she always told me. And I do. She didn’t give me a path. We all have to make our own. She didn’t offer a map. We have to find our own way. But she gave me the spirit. The wonder. The freedom.

Packing up to move down the road, Dominique and I have French croissants from a Duluth bakery. (There are beautiful surprises everywhere!) The only thing certain is that our pockets are full. The next dream awaits.

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Nothing here I can’t rise above.

It won’t make the visitor’s guide, but Duluth, for me, is famous for two things. It is home to one of the largest speeches I ever gave, and it ended my mother’s self-imposed waffle ban.

I felt like I was paying attention when I booked the event, but for some reason, I had it in my head that it was for a group of 50 people. I asked my mother to come along. No one could sell my after-speech merchandise like my mother. They gave us a lovely room overlooking Lake Superior. We changed our clothes and met the director at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center (DECC). She opened the door to the largest room I had ever seen — Beyoncé big. Without speaking, I made eye contact with my mom. “It’s a little big, isn’t it?” I said, still assuming the 50 guests. “Oh, no,” she replied, it will easily seat the 700.” I could no longer look at my mom. 700? It wasn’t like I was limiting myself, but I had always thought of myself as an intimate speaker, a story teller. This would be a leap. I would have to break out of my small shell and lead this group. My mom knew. She knew everything. “50, 700, so what,” she said. “You can totally do this!” She was always on my side. She sat in the front row, and I led them. With words and heart and flinging arms, a little singing, and stage racing…I had them, all 700. And it was glorious — for me, Superior!

We woke to smell of baking the next morning. What was that delicious scent? We went down to breakfast. Still intoxicated by yesterday’s accomplishment, we were starving. Waffles. That glorious smell was waffles. You have to know the back story to know why this is significant. When my father had left decades earlier, he took with him the waffle iron. My mother was the only one who liked waffles. Of all the blows to ego and heart and soul and mind, this was the easiest one to fight, and so began the great waffle ban. Neither of us would eat them. This included any syrup enriched breakfasts such as pancakes, but the waffles were the banner of the banning.

Sometimes we choose to grow. Sometimes growth is thrust upon us. We were not the people we used to be. None of us. There were no more limits but the ones we placed on ourselves. We had chosen life. Joy! Chance! We were proud of our story. Ready to tell it! Ready to live it! We ate those waffles, and never spoke of the ban again.

It’s not lost on me as I see the lift bridge of Duluth today. Rising up, letting things pass. I suppose we all have to do this. Life is as sweet as you make it!

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Peppermint Patty.

It was a time when you waited for things. Like television specials, or happiness.

Even before I knew he was one of us, I loved Charles Schulz. All the Peanuts characters. They were only on tv a few times a year. The Valentine’s Special — in which Charlie Brown says, “I know nobody likes me. I don’t know why we need a holiday to prove it.” It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown. And of course, A Charlie Brown Christmas. And maybe it was so special because you had to wait for it. And plan for it. Watch it when it aired. We had no recording devices. And maybe it was because you knew all of your friends were glued in front of their tvs at the same time. Feeling the same Charlie Browniest!

My mother’s favorite was Peppermint Patty. She saw her skate on one episode and liked it. My mom didn’t know how to ice skate, but she knew how to imagine. And she imagined herself twirling around that ice. Gliding. Free. Delicate. Joyful. I suppose this was one of her best qualities. One of the best gifts she gave to me. To imagine the good. Believe in it. Wait for it. Even on the slowest of dark Sunday evenings, when the seven o’clock air time dragged its feet. Even when the saddest of days seemed like they would never end, she whispered in my ear, “One day, it’s all going to be so happy, and the speed of it…we will need those skates, just to keep up with all the joy.”

I can’t tell you the day, nor the time. But it did happen. Maybe joy has a way of sneaking in, if you leave the door open. And it did. And without my knowledge or permission, it Peppermint Patties all around, joyfully whirling and twirling and gliding about.

My husband and I went to see the Charles Schulz exhibit in St. Paul yesterday. And there I was, sitting in the everything that was possible. No abandonings. Holding my mother’s peppermint hand, believing still, in the patience and joy of living color.

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Night swimming.

Night swimming.

We weren’t allowed to swim at night, for obvious reasons. I suppose they were the very reasons why we did it.

I was staying over night at her house. She lived just across the road from one of 10,000 lakes. We had put on our pajamas. Gone through the list of “have you ever”s… been kissed by a boy…stolen penny candy from Ben Franklin…snuck into the Andria Cinema… all the usual questions that we knew all the answers to, but asked them just the same. When we heard her parents turn off The Tonight Show and slipper down the hall to bed, we changed from our pajamas into our swim suits. Neither one of us would ever claim ownership to the plan, it was just something we were doing. Night swimming.

There was always talk of it late in the school year on bus rides home. The teenagers would speak softly of the magic. The lure. Still in our preteens, time couldn’t go fast enough. We felt immortal, and ready to prove it at any given moment.

Our hearts fueled with Mountain Dew and no previous knowledge, we barefooted out the back door, through the yard. Stopping dead in our tracks like spiders on a wall as one of us clinked the chain from the swingset. No lights turned on. We proceeded. We thought of flashlights after the fact. Even our hindsight was dim. Each step became slower. Each night sound became louder. And creepier. The sounds of our breathing said we were both willing to turn back if only one of us would admit it. Neither did. It was hard to tell the difference between grass, sand and water. But for the feel, all were black. Toes were dampened first. Then ankles. Our hands reached out at the same time. Grabbing tightly, we walked to our knees, sure that our heads were already under water. We grabbed the opposite hands, forming a circle now. We stood still.

There is an unexplained magic to friendship. We are given the right gifts at the right time. “I want to go back,” we both trembled the words together at the same time. “Jinx!” We laughed. Hooked our pinkies together. “What goes up the chimney… Smoke!” With linked fingers we ran on bare tiptoes back to the house.

There are a million challenges that I have gotten beyond because of friends. Through the darkest times they have been there, clasping hands. No common blood pulsing through our pinkies, just trust, just love. They have challenged me. Lifted me. Saved me. I give thanks for them, for you, every day.

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Making space.

It was a cathedral I had to fill, my first solo show in France. I laughed as I made one canvas larger than the next, because it had been all I had prayed for — space.

I used to paint in my small apartment’s bathroom in Minneapolis. It was the only place that I could spill and clean. The seating was built in. Small canvases were easy. Large ones I could balance on my legs, the towel bar and the edge of the tub. I guess I hadn’t been all that specific in my prayers. I didn’t know the answer would come with a move to another country, but there I was, in the south of France, covered in paint, love, and “well, this is what you asked for…” so I filled the space with my story. Canvas by canvas.

Perhaps it is the most open I have ever been. And maybe that’s what love gives you — space. And I don’t just mean romantic love (which does help a great deal!) but also love for yourself, love for the chances that life offers, love for the answers that come as a complete surprise.

I have it now, in home and country and studio, but I still pray for it daily, for my heart That I will find the space for all those trying to share their stories, their talents, their imperfections, their lives. May I be open to them all.

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Snow birds.

In the winter of my Minnesota seventh grade, I took my first airplane ride to Cocoa Beach, Florida. I didn’t know what a snowbird was, and I must admit there was a small part of me that hoped they would be donned in feathers. I spotted them immediately at the gate, my grandpa still in overalls and my grandma in a flowered dress, only missing the apron.

I heard the ocean before I saw it. The sound was as big as the sight. I stood in the sand, paralyzed by one thought — that it all was real. It had taken 6 years for Mrs. Bergstrom’s globe to come to life. But there it was! All the blue that she had passed around to us. The blue that we spun with our hopeful fingers. It was right there in front of me. I turned back to my grandparent’s. They shook their heads. I took off my shoes. My pants. And ran into my first dream come true.

It didn’t take long for my lavender winter skin to turn a bright red. I slept soundly on their condo floor.

They took me to all the attractions. Cape Canaveral, the dog track, the outlet mall, and the 4:30pm dinner special. We didn’t go to the “happiest place on earth,” but to be honest, I couldn’t imagine being happier. I basked in the unexpected warmth of winter sun, and their full attention.

Returning to Central Junior High, all smiles, and one less layer of skin, all the other seventh graders, knowing I went to Florida, asked how I liked Disney World. We didn’t go, I said, to their utter shock and dismay. I had no photos. I didn’t own a camera. I had no souvenirs of Mickey or Minnie. “So what did you see?” “Snowbirds,” I said. “They’re real?” “Yes,” I smiled. It was all real. And I had everything. Still do.

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In the white space.

One of the best lessons I learned as an artist was not in the creation, but in the white space. Whether it is on the canvas, or the wall around it, there has to be space for the eye to rest. The white space. To see the art, to really be able to feel it, there must be space around it, so it can breathe, it can live. When it all becomes too cluttered, then nothing can really be seen. Not even the best of art.

I suppose it’s the same with living.

There are a million books written about it. Grief. It only recently occurred to me — looking at my grandfather’s portrait. I’m living in that white space. Missing my mother. (My grandpa and grandma too.) But it made me feel better, seeing it this way. It’s all part of the big picture. This white space — this emptiness — it shows us the real beauty of life. And it’s not separate from the art of living, it’s a necessity. So I feel it. And I know that I’m lucky. What a privilege to be a part of these glorious lives. To rest in the space beside them. Knowing that we are all a part of the same work. We are together. Always.

I only mention it because maybe you are missing someone. Maybe you are resting in this space. And maybe, for a moment, you too can see the beauty of it all — the endless art of this living…

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Shopping small.

If Herberger’s was ever low on pantyhose, there was a distinct possibility that my mom just restocked her drawers.

She was always prepared. Had she been a scout, and they offered a fashion badge, her sash would have been decorated immediately. Eagle status. Not only did she have the right pair for every outfit, and any future outfit, she kept them in pristine condition. After wearing and washing, she folded them back into their original packaging and filed them neatly, easily visible by color, into her pantyhose drawer. On days when the world just didn’t make sense, I, we, could look to that drawer and find hope.

Sure, it may sound silly. And it probably was. But so what. It brought her joy. It brings me joy. Still. When I see the advertisements to “Shop Small,” this holiday season, I think of her drawer. I think of all the little things she gave to me.

I think we can all get caught up in the “it has to be bigger, grander, more expensive,” to mean something. But, I suppose, it’s always the little things. With gifts. In life. In love. It’s the small things that we will carry. That will fill us for our entire lives.

I bought a pair of green pantyhose two days ago. They match perfectly with my green dress. I wore them yesterday, with all of my mother’s pride. And I saved the packaging. My heart is filled with small mercies.