Jodi Hills

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


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…if I went with you

Today is Napoleon’s birthday. I’m not proud to say that I didn’t know this before coming to France. I suppose it is important to me now, because I can see that it is important to them. Empathy. 

The thing is, we think we know. I’m smiling as I type this. There is so much that I, we, don’t know. And that’s the first step to learning, I guess. Admitting it. And then doing something about it. 

I have told you how important the library was to me. So important that I used to worry about it. The night before library day at Washington Elementary, my mother would have to comfort me. Ease me into sleep. “But what will I pick out?” “What if there isn’t enough time to choose the right book?” “There are so many.” She didn’t laugh at me. She gave me a solution. “Find a series you like,” she explained. “Then each week you can pick another one from that series.” I did that. My first series was Cowboy Sam. I loved the linen covers. The drawings of cowboys. The adventures. The stories. So it’s not surprising that cowboys were in my heart from the age of six. There were so many books. I devoured them. So full, I didn’t know what I was missing.

What’s taught is what’s known. But at some point you have to take on the responsibility of learning. Teach yourself. I recently finished the book, “The Sentence,” by Louise Erdrich. It is a beautiful book. Filled with the heart and soul and voice of Native Americans. There is so much to learn. But each word lays a rock, creating the path of empathy. People always say, “I hope our paths cross some day.” When they do, and I hope they do, I pray it on this path — this path of empathy.

The epigraph to this book reads as such, “From the time of birth to the time of death, every word you utter is part of one long sentence.” — Sun Yung Shin, Unbearable Splendor.

It is within this bearable and unbearable splendor that I write each day. Continuing the sentence. Searching for the beauty. The understanding. The peace. Empathy. Hoping to look up from the dust on my own shoes, to see you, looking up, seeing me. Splendor.

Happy Birthday, Napoleon. Let’s take that walk.


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Hope chest.

Before I knew what it was, I began filling mine. I had overheard some older cousins and aunts talking about it around my grandmother’s kitchen table. From what I knew of hope, you couldn’t actually see it, nor did I see any physical “chests” within this conversation, so I took it literally, as children often do, and assumed it was my own chest, the chest that housed my heart, and this I thought, was the place to put all the hopes that I could carry.

I walked around the farm that day. And I listened. My grandfather hoped for rain. I put it in my chest. My mother hoped for peace and an appetite. They fit in nicely. It felt exciting to fill my hope chest. I hoped my older cousins would pay attention to me. I smiled and put it in my chest. I felt safe, and almost powerful. And surprisingly, lighter. With everything I put in, I just became lighter. This was the real treasure, I suppose, learning that hope will never weigh you down.

Even when I learned the so-called truth of these hope chests years later, I stuck with my own version. I went to France with almost no belongings. They would have cost a fortune to ship. But what the airlines didn’t know, didn’t weigh, was “my hope chest” — my hope chest that was completely full, bursting even. Loaded with every story, every life event, every day survived, every smile, every dream — every, well, hope really — all still within me. 

And in my hope chest, there are no expiration dates. Everything remains fresh, light, and new. A small cage of ribs protects them easily. They are mine. As long as I’m willing to carry. 

You have one too, you know. Oh, how I encourage you to use it. Fill it. Walk with it daily. And see it for the real and only treasure there is – a heart filled with hope.


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Daring greatly.

It seemed easy to make friends in school. They sat you next to about 30 options. Gave you subjects to talk about. Offered common enemies like rules and detention. Supplied the games and gyms. Put you in pools and on buses, all together.

And that was enough for most. But it seemed like there should be more. “Wasn’t there more to it? Wasn’t it all supposed to mean something?” I asked my best friend in my yellow bedroom on Van Dyke Road. Cindy thought about it. I mean, she didn’t laugh, but really thought about it, and I suppose that’s why we were friends. We understood each other. Even in our preteens, we sought more than they could possibly offer at Washington Elementary, or even Central Junior High.

We both agreed that there had to be more. But how did you get it? That was the bigger question. I searched for years. I can’t tell you the exact moment. They came in whispers. Small bits. I wrote words for my mother. And we connected deeply. A poem for my grandfather’s funeral. And I was a part of a family. I began to expose my heart. I suppose I stopped looking for what could be offered to me, and began to offer what I had. And it was bigger! Better! It meant something! It meant all and more than I had dreamed of in shades of yellow. This is how I would connect. How I still connect.

He said I could pick out anything from his wood pile. Maybe that doesn’t sound like much, but for me it was priceless. A way for us to connect. And I had a long way to travel to catch up to this life-long friend of my husband. He helped me load the back of our car.

I cut the first strips of wood to stretch the canvas. No plans yet of what to paint, that would come. It always does if I just give it a path. I gessoed the canvas. And began in blue. The sea and sky and sand opened before me. The boats and nets and the fishermen — all daring greatly.

I searched my newly attained wood pile for the longest, straightest pieces. Sanded each length. And sanded again. And again. I cut them to length. Nailed them with the rusted hammer — once belonging to my husband’s father. Squared. Stained. Sanded again. Cut the strips for the backing. Placed the painting inside. It should also be mentioned that Michel, the man who let me pick freely from his pile of wood, was, for the majority of his life, a fisherman. A fisherman, I pause and smile. The blank canvas knew, perhaps even before I did. And this is how we connect. Connect our hearts. Our stories. By doing the work.

There is more. There is always more. But it won’t be given. We will have to search and throw our nets out to sea, continuously doing the work, ever daring greatly.


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Lucky.

Most of the houses on VanDyke road had screen doors for the summer. There is a freedom in the sound of that screen door gently banging itself shut, because no matter who’s door you were racing through, who’s house you were leaving, you simply ran fearless out into the wild, the wild of a gravel road and more time than our school free minds could imagine… still, we ran, with newly tanned legs, in and out of neighbors’ houses, never looking for cars, or danger of any kind. 

It is something to grow up in a neighborhood. Not just a place where people lived near one another, but a true neighborhood, where you were part of something bigger than yourself. You were part of every home behind each swinging door. You were cared for, and watched over. You were free to roam under every sun, and gathered home each night with your mother’s call from the front stoop. To look, wander, and explore, unafraid, that made us not only rich, but the luckiest kids alive. 

They say if you see a bird looking away from itself, it is a sign of good luck because it means that bird doesn’t feel like it has to protect itself from danger. I suppose that’s what we were — young birds – flitting and flying about Van Dyke Road, never worried, free to look in any direction. 

And then one day, we all flew away, with all of our wildly different high hopes.  

What a gift we were given. These open skies over Van Dyke Road. Sometimes, even now, if the summer breeze gently blows my cares away, I look around without worry, and think, how lucky I was, to learn to fly.


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Family farm.

I don’t remember which pronoun we used. I have to choose one now to write this story, so I will say he, and respectfully hope that that’s correct.

My mother’s cousin was born a female, but lived as a man. Now, see, I’m not even certain that’s the right way to put it, because I’m sure to him, he was born a man, and lived as a man. I want to move beyond my clunky way of describing him and get on to the heart of the story.

This was long before support groups. Long before anyone thought of being politically correct. Long before people spoke of gender. Certainly no one ever heard of fluidity. These were farmers. They spoke of farming.

And he was an excellent farmer. The hardest worker in the family. My mom spoke of how he saved the family farm. I only have one image of him, and that is leaning against the barn. Overalled. Tired — I pray from working.

I was too young to judge, to be unkind. I hope we all were.

I bring it up because it occurs to me, at some point in our lives, we have all found ourselves, leaning against the family farm, tired, wanting only to be accepted for who we are, the work we have done, praying for the kindness of fresh eyes and open hearts.

Tanned and weathered by the heat of so many summer suns, I stop, under today’s and think, what a glorious time to grow.


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To build.

I like to watch decorating videos on youtube. I viewed a lovely tour of a woman’s home. The next day, in my feed, another video popped up. I recognized her home in the thumbnail. This, however, was not more about her home, but it was another woman watching the same video I watched and giving her opinion. I didn’t need to see much of it before quitting. By “critiquing”, she meant she was just going to say everything she didn’t like about this woman’s home. Why would I want to see that? But even worse, the next day, (and I’m not kidding), in my feed there was a video of a woman critiquing the woman as she critiqued the very first video.

I have always been one who believed in the builders, the makers — of anything. I like the process. The courage in the attempt. The guts to then show how and what you made. (I just had a very vivid flashback to junior and senior high math! I get it now. It IS about the work.) Anyone can get to the answer. Anyone can buy the completed product. Critique the completed product.

And perhaps I, we, are just using the wrong word here – critique. Because of course, there is always room for “a detailed analysis and assessment of something” (as the dictionary defines critique.) A qualified evaluation that will help us learn and grow. But this is not what these videos were. “I don’t like it” is not really all that helpful.

And it occurs to me, I might be doing the same thing here… ugh… so gathering in my own advice, I will continue to celebrate the makers, those who attempt! Bravo to those who try. I can see it as I type it — “bravo” and “brave” are really just one letter apart – one tiny line. So bravo to the brave who dare cross it! Today, even if it’s just the day itself, let’s make something great!


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The sun isn’t lost.

On the box it said four to five weeks. But yesterday, just two weeks in, this one tulip made its entrance. Popping up to say hello. Telling the others, “It’s not so bad at all, once you make it through the dirt. In fact, it’s lovely. Blue sky. This glorious light. Come on up!”  

Change can be so difficult. And we don’t always get to be prepared before we’re asked to grow. Struggling through lessons of muddy soil. Life will get you dirty. No doubt about that. But then the sun. That glorious sun. Always there, smiling, even when we try to take credit, saying, “Look what I did! I found the sun!”  

Now that’s not to say you can’t be proud of yourself when you get through. That’s a big deal! And you should be happy about that. And perhaps the best way to celebrate is to show the others that it can be done. Bring them along. Because you never know which role you will be in. Some days you will be the strong one, popping up early, other days you will be deep, deep in the soil. Be gentle when you lead. Gentle when you follow. We’re all just trying to get to the sun.


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Picture this.

By the end of the day, I am tired — which is a good thing. It’s a lot to keep one’s house in order. I don’t mean making sure there are no dishes in the sink (Well, of course I mean that too. I hate dirty dishes in the sink) but I mean the bigger picture. The bigger picture for me is working at my craft, painting, writing; learning (oh boy, I have so much to learn, not the least of which, French, and the toughest one, learning each day to be a better human); attending to the needs of those closest to me, which often includes just listening, caring, loving. My big picture might seem small, but it seems to fill my day. I can’t understand how people have the time to police the actions, thoughts, beliefs of others. It seems to me we all have enough to do to keep ourselves in order. How little exists in the life of a person who tries to control someone else?

Now I’m not saying we turn a blind eye to the events around the world. No. Absolutely not. (This for me falls under the being a better human category.) We stand up for what we believe in. But, in my humble, and maybe naive mind, I don’t think standing means knocking down the so-called others. But for one, aren’t we all others?

Being a human. This is something. Overwhelming at times for sure. But when my big picture gets way too big, I try to simply look around. Is there love? Yes. Is there hope? Sure! Is there joy? And how! Is the sink clear? You bet! (or that’s betcha for my Minnesota friends) I grab the nearest sketchbook and paint a pear. I call my mother. I kiss my husband. I take a walk in the sun. More than enough to fill my heart, to fill my day.


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Sprigs of green.

I received this tiny flower for May Day and I put it in the bathroom. It’s only been 48 hours, but I don’t know how I will ever live without it. I thought I loved this shelf before, but now… I will forever want something green. Something growing. Something alive. 

They say that about love. “When you know, you know…” But the problem with that is, you only know what you are taught. And until someone loves you, shows you what real love is, how can you possibly know? And I’m not just talking about romantic love — I mean all of it – the “thy neighbor”, fellow man, global, empathetic, understanding, forgiving, curious, ever kind, evergreen sort of love. Because that’s what love is. Love doesn’t make mistakes. Humans do. And we fail all the time. I fail all the time. But I have been blessed to see what real love is, maybe only glimpses, and maybe that’s all the human eye and heart can handle of this beauty, but what I’ve seen makes me want to try. Makes me want to do better. Like Maya Angelou said, “When you know better, you do better.” Oh! To be better!  

Today I give thanks for all those who have shown me, taught me about real love — all those sprigs of green that have lit up my heart. I wish it for everyone — a love forever growing, forever green.


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Full bloom.

I know we could have purchased tulips, but they brought these to us, from Amsterdam. Native tulip bulbs. Spectacular. We dug little rows in the ground with the tiny rake and shovel from our greenhouse. Of course I was smiling, not just because of the gifted tulips, but because I had been here before, in the spring of kindness.

I was five when I saw it wrapped in the garage. Easter morning. Not chocolate, or a bunny of any kind, but a tiny set of garden tools, just my size. In the brightest of colors. A green shovel. A red hoe and a yellow rake. Colors so shiny, they were spring itself. They were bright and simple. 

Not all the days to follow would be like this. Something in my heart told me to hang on. Something in my heart told me that this is what would carry me — moments of kindness. The shiny moments of people who care, and dare to show it.

We placed the bulbs in the ground. Four to five weeks it said on the box from Holland – that’s how long it would take. I laughed to myself, knowing, in my heart, they were already in full bloom — the spring of kindness.