Jodi Hills

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

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Days of thanks.

This past Labor Day, we visited Washington, D.C. It was a warm day — just enough heat to let down your defenses and let you feel at one with nature. No difference between your body temperature and the air surrounding you. We walked freely and easily to each monument. The stairs to Lincoln were long and high, and worth each sweaty step. I couldn’t help but notice each of us wore a warm and glistening glow, from the sun sure, the labor of the steps, but mostly, I think, from the hope and promise that sat before us.

With the Thanksgiving holiday upon us, it is good to remember how Lincoln transformed this holiday for us all. There is much controversy with the holiday beginnings, as there should be, I suppose, but Lincoln took the holiday and turned it into a day of thanks, for all to celebrate.
It was Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of the popular magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book, who began using her columns to push for nationalizing Thanksgiving and celebrating it on the last Thursday in November. (A good woman behind every man as they say – and this time – out in front). She wrote a letter to Lincoln, stressing the urgency of making Thanksgiving “a National and fixed Union Festival” that would offer healing to a torn nation.

After receiving her letter, Lincoln declared the last Thursday of November as a day when we would give thanks “as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People,” including “my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands.”

This “sojourner” wants to give thanks, every day. I understand how blessed, I am, we are, to stand in the labor, the hope that each day brings.

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This little light of mine.

We got a new vacuum cleaner. It has a very bright headlight. It was amazing, and a little bit frightening, what I could see in the corners, under furniture — see what I had been missing. The great revealer, this light. It was so satisfying to know that I was actually making a good cleaning. It felt good, and I found myself vacuuming with enthusiasm. I can’t go back now, to the old vacuum, the old way…I know too much.

I suppose it’s that way with everything. At least I would hope so. But in so many ways, I think we are failing. In the few minutes of news a day that I allow myself (my heart can’t take too much), I see, what I can only call filth. The absolute worst of us, making the same mistakes over and over. And we allow it. We shine the light on it, and still refuse to see it. We have to do better than this. We know better. Right and wrong are not that difficult to see.

Get your house in order, they say. And I guess that’s right. I will do my best in my little corner of the world. Try to make it as beautiful as I can. It was what we were taught, wasn’t it? This little light of mine? I’m gonna let it shine.

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Easy now…

When I’m painting a portrait, I like to find what I call the soft beauty. The resting face. So comfortable in their own skin. The true elegance of ease. It’s the face that a person gives you when they trust you. No tension. No tightening. Nothing awkward. Nothing to worry about. Just the welcoming softness of being.

I want to feel that softness in my own face. Oh, to trust you. What a relief. But perhaps, even more, I want to be the face that allows you to feel the same. The face, that when you look at me you think, this is a safe place, for my feelings, my fears, my joys, my dreams, my not so secret garden.

If we could do that for each other, be a safe place to fly, a safe place to land, oh, my, how beautifully gentle, how elegantly soft this world could be.


Nothing small.

“Why didn’t you tell me I was small?” she asked her mother.
“Because I never thought so,” she replied.
“No really. Am I small?” she asked again.
“You fill my heart with joy. Could anything small do that?” her mother replied.
She smiled. And felt a world of possibility.
“I wish I were beautiful,” she told her mother.
“You light up the sky, my love.” Her mother showed her the stars.
“What if I’m not smart enough?” she cried before leaving.
“You are stronger than you think.” Her mother held back her tears.
“What if I’m not strong enough?” her mother asked the open sky.
“I love you,” she sang to her mother as she flew.
Love held her. Could anything small do that?

(Chickadee – from the book “Bird Song” by Jodi Hills)

I found something huge yesterday. (Yes, I’ve been deep diving in the cleaning department). Well, what I found is only about 1″ x 1/2″, but to me it’s huge! A pencil sharpener. Even in its original packaging. Unopened. Sometimes the universe just knows what you need. (Or maybe it always does, and we’re just not looking.) And the most important thing of all – it works!!! That may not seem extraordinary, but believe me, I have a lot of pencils, for all types of drawing, and I, until yesterday, did not have a pencil sharpener – that worked. I have one that you just spin and spin and spin and nothing ever happens. I don’t think you should have to lose weight while sharpening a pencil. I have another that, no matter what you put in, it only takes out that one side, and you’re left with the shard of wood that you try to pick off, and it gets stuck in your fingernail, and you start all over again, getting the same result. I have another that absolutely fits no pencil that I own. I have no idea what it’s for. And my last one, has the most voracious appetite, eating everything inserted. None of these I actually purchased. They were all left behind from Dominique’s family. (Maybe left behind for good reasons.) But yesterday, aah yesterday, I found it. I opened it with such hope — oh, the tenacity of HOPE! — yes, I opened it and tried the closest pencil. The most perfect point. I tried another. Perfect. Easy. I tried charcoal. Yes. Lead, yes! Colored – sure, why not! Soft – no problem. Perfect points all. I wanted to fling open the doors of the studio and shout to the world – it works – it really works! I raised up my best Sally Field’s impression to the sky, “You like me – you really like me!”

I know it’s a pencil sharpener, yes, it’s small, but it takes that one thing in my life and makes it so much easier, makes it delightful. Nothing small can do that.

I guess it’s always the little things that make up a grand life. If you look at the ingredients of a croissant, it’s almost nothing, and extremely ordinary, but rolled and rolled, it becomes something magical. And shared with someone you love — even better. While eating our croissants at breakfast my husband said, “We have to find or make these for your mother, because she would really love them.” I told my mom that later in the day. She beamed – I could feel it over the telephone. He had thought of her. Just a little thing, but oh, so magical. The universe does this for us every day. Certainly we can do it for each other.


Empathy (just a little more)

I painted Judy Garland about nine years ago for a show in Chicago. She’s started at 8 feet, and through mounting and unmounting, she’s maybe closer to seven now. Chicago was only the first part of her journey. Since then, she made the voyage to France. She has suffered through each leg, not unlike real life, I suppose. She is cracked and chipped, some may say even damaged, but I think that makes her beautiful. I think that makes her real.

I don’t know how she lived her life. I wasn’t there. But I do now how she sang a song. Almost as if her heart were breaking with each note. This is something to me. This is how I see her on the canvas. Without judgement. Because, no one escapes, do we. We all have to survive our wounds, those thrust upon us, those self inflicted. This is how I want to see people. Looking beyond the damage and the dust, to the pure music of their lives. Because it’s there. Let go of the judgement – it’s so noisy! Listen to the music. It’s beautiful.

Judy is recorded as saying,
“…wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all be a little more gentle with each other, a little more loving, and have a little more empathy, and maybe, next year at this time we’d like each other a little more.”

Good morning, World! Today I like you – even more!

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The parking spaces in France are incredibly small. Whenever we enter a garage we always look for a double opening — or as I like to call it, a two-fer. With a two-fer we have plenty of room to get in and out. No damage to our car, or the ones next to us. No worries. Luxurious. It’s just that little something extra that makes our lives easier, and so much better. Why wouldn’t we always look for that – in everything? Especially with each other. What if we gave this to those around us, the space to move freely, the luxury of no worries, no damage…

I painted a sweet little bird the other day on a panel. It seemed so obvious to paint another one on the other side. Whoever buys this bird – or that one, will get a little something extra — for no other reason than just to feel special.

I hope you can find that space today – that two-fer – in your travels, in your heart.

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A beautiful mess

There is a trend on Youtube where creators give sketchbook tours. They film as they page through their perfect sketchbooks – each page the best work they can possibly do – masterpieces. It’s not unpleasant to look at – but it feels a bit inauthentic. (I’m not sure I even sure I like that word – “authentic” – since Oprah it has become so overused – ironically taking out the authenticity of even the word.)

The sketchbook was created as a place to work things out. Find yourself – your strengths, your weaknesses. Explore new ideas. A safe place to simply try. I look at it like a true friend, maybe a family member. That person who not only allows you to be yourself, but encourages it. That person who wants nothing more than for you to create the best you. And the only way to do that really is to explore the options. This true friend, this sketchbook, allows you to take that trip. Fall. Rise. Change. Grow. And they remain, steady, true, with you throughout the journey.
To not embrace the beauty that the sketchbook allows, to me, is really saying, “I don’t trust you enough to show you myself, all of my imperfections and talents.” The gift exchanged between sketchbook and hand, is the trust, the journey. These are the gifts exchanged, I believe, between real friends.

Each day, I trust the pages and playfully explore the gifts I’ve been given. I am not perfect. But I am me.
What a blessing to be yourself. I give thanks each day for the open pages, the people in my life who allow me to be me. I hope, I pray, I promise to try to return the favor every day — to open this day and get joyfully, imperfectly, and delightfully messy.

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Limping down the freeway.

Limping on the freeway.Yesterday we went to the big Casino, a large grocery store near our house. After a somewhat quick trip on the freeway, the tangled exit (which the city calls an improvement, but really almost makes it impossible to find the store), we picked the goods, put them in the cart, thought about the Easter menu, priced the items through the self-checkout, (with three calls to the assistant to reset the machine), pushed the items to the car, loaded them in the back, put the cart back, navigated the “improved” exit and got back on the freeway. We were mostly quiet. The radio wasn’t even on. The cars in the multi-lane freeway began to slow. Maybe an accident ahead. No worries really. We crawled along with the traffic. There was no honking, which is unusual for our country. The car in front of us made a quick lane change and our hearts stopped. In front of us, a one-legged man (with a prosthesis), walking down the middle of the freeway. My husband turned quickly, I imagine before we both started to breathe. We didn’t speak for a minute. What had we just seen? It was real? But it was more than strange. It was terrifying. Truly terrifying. Soul shaking. What was happening? What would happen to him? What were we all witnessing?

We put the groceries away, as if we could just get on with our day, and forget about it. But could we? Could we drive down this freeway and ever feel the same?

Our usual routine is to watch a small feed of the American news before lunch. The George Floyd trial was on. They showed the videos again and again. I can’t describe them in detail, for it too, is unimaginable. What are we witnessing here? How can this be real? How can this possibly have happened. The same soul- shaking feeling gripped my insides, and I knew, what we are watching is our collective humanity dangerously limp down the middle of the freeway.

Our pure, but broken, humanity is in grave danger. But just as sure, it is alive. It is living.

They have done studies in France to calculate the estimated time one has to remain alive on the side of the road, say, if your car has broken down. The time is surprisingly short. There are no studies estimating your chances in the middle.

We don’t have the luxury of time here. We have to save our humanity. This minute. This very second. I don’t have the answers, so I can only work on myself. In this springtime air, this moment of rebirth, we have the chance to begin. We have the chance to make a change, make a difference, to say, “Let it be me.” Let it be me.

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A drink from the fountain.

The first movie (without Jiminy Cricket) I remember seeing in grade school was The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, starring Cicely Tyson. The teacher wheeled in the television, pulled all the shades, and we sat on the floor with our legs crossed (I am ashamed now that we called it Indian style – I won’t any longer – when you know better, you do better). It felt important, and it was.  Miss Pittman aged before us like magic.  And I wasn’t sure if it was happening in real time. I was so young, and television was still magic, and I didn’t know if Cicely Tyson was young, or if she too, was 100 years old. I know when she drank from the “whites only” fountain at the end, I cried. I know I went home from our all white classroom to our white house and talked to my mom about it. But what did I say? What did she say?  I’m not sure. I hope we talked about the civil right movement. But did we?  I can’t be sure.

And in a blink of an eye, as quickly as Ms. Tyson aged on that screen, she did the same in real life, and the year became 2021. She died a few days ago. I wonder if it felt as fast to her. Two blinks. Two lifetimes. Has anything changed? I can’t be sure.

Blessed Assurance.  The choir sang it to her, with her, around her, at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2015. She was being honored for her lifetime achievements – so yes, some things were changing.  But were they really?  People were marching in the streets with signs of Black Lives Matter. Things hadn’t changed enough.  People are still questioning it. People aren’t assured. I think the best explanation I have heard for the Black Lives Matter movement is this — I know people say, well, all lives matter, we should just say all… and yes, all lives do matter, but now, now more than ever, we need to recognize this movement. Take for example, when a country or a state has a problem, a hurricane, an earthquake, a shooting, we post their flags on facebook – saying Spain matters, or Texas matters  – and we raise up their symbols or flags. In doing so, we aren’t saying that other countries don’t matter, other states don’t matter, but we are saying at this time, our neighbors, our friends, in this hour of need, they matter.  Well, my friends, in this hour (because we are here now, no magic of screens) our black friends need us – they need us to raise their flag and say that they matter.  In doing so, I think, I have to believe, that that blessed assurance can, and will come.  

I don’t have the innocence of youth to rely on.  I have to be better, because I know better. We all have to be better. We have to talk about the difficult things, the important things, and make action of our words, live out the lessons we have been taught, from Miss Jane Pittman, to Martin Luther King, to Maya Angelou…when we know better, we do better.  Stacey Abrams can’t be the only verb in our sentence.  We must all be in the conversation, the difficult, uncomfortable, growth of humanity. Because isn’t that where all the blessings lie, in these difficult, most beautiful truths?  

It all goes so fast, but I want to capture a moment between the blinks. I want to be sure that I tried. Blessed Assurance, in knowing we tried. Let’s roll up the shades, and let a little more light in.