Jodi Hills

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


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Body and Soul.

It was the only sheet music I remember seeing on my grandparent’s organ – “Body and Soul.” It didn’t seem strange then, this large instrument. When I think of it now, they were probably the only farmers in the area to have an organ in their living room. 

They bought it for my Aunt Sandy. She was the youngest of nine, this Dairy Princess, and when she asked for something, she usually got it. So there was an organ in their living room. I never heard her play it. Nor anyone else – not seriously. Most of us thought of it like a big toy. One cousin would crawl underneath the bench and play the foot pedals by hand, while another cousin or two pressed the keys with as much flare as previously seen on the Lawrence Welk Show — something that also seemed to be on continuously in my grandparent’s living room. 

My Aunt Sandy has passed. I don’t know where the organ ended up. But the song lives on. I heard it this morning, on the radio, in France. Body and Soul. 

We are scattered — those of us that began on this farm — scattered by jobs, and hopes and dreams, scattered by loves and heartbreaks and loves again. Bit by bit, we puzzle together the pieces of our own lives, string together the notes of our own songs. And it takes a long time — a long time to build a soul. 

I thought, when I was young, with fingers glued against the keys, that we would be given all the answers. And that would be that. But we, like everyone I suppose, were not given the answers, but options. And somewhere between field and keyboard, I suppose, we made our way. 

The song fills my heart this morning. Along with the coffee. The conversation above the tune. Joyfully, not complete, but beginning. Again. What a pleasure it is to begin. The sun comes through the window, and another piece of my soul fits together.

The music never ends.

building a soul framed web.jpg


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From both sides now.

I’m not sure that it was the heart of the lesson, but what I learned with the math “times tables” in first grade (this times this equals this) was that if you memorized something, it came with the security of always having it. I suppose this was the security I was searching for.

It was just my mom and I. Everyone else had left. I could hear my mother cry at night. I wrote poems and drew pictures, hoping to give the tears a soft place to land. But in the dark of night, I, we, could see none of them. So I began to sing, in my head. I found an old album cover that my sister used to play. It was Joni Mitchell’s, Court and Spark. I memorized the songs. Each lyric. Each note. I knew them all. Each took around three minutes to sing. And magically, time would pass. “This times this” — words times music equaled safety.

When days and nights became easier. Time became filled with activities and eventually, somehow, joy. I heard my mother’s laugh. And my own. Life became more full. And the rotations of songs in my head, became less frequent. And then almost not at all. But I knew they were there. They still are. And now, if I sing one, maybe while mowing the lawn, it is somehow, nothing but joy.

I painted her on one of my jean jackets. Maybe it’s too simple to say that she had my back. It may be simple, but it is true.

I saw a video of her on Youtube yesterday. 78, having survived a near death experience not that long ago. The words came out like honey. Pure and sweet. Tears flowed out of the eyes of those around her. Cheers flowed out of the audience. It was beautiful! Magical. Nothing but joy. And at the end of the song, she laughed. Giggled really. Like the little girl that still lived within her. Like all the little girls, the women, she carried. And in that moment, (with the words and music that we will always have,) she, I, we, were saved.

https://youtu.be/4aqGjaFDTxQ


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The B side.

We had only a couple of 45s. If you don’t know what a 45 is, it was a small record album that played two songs, the hit on the A side and the less popular (or completely unknown) song on the B side. Both were by Frank Sinatra. We played them on a giant piece of furniture with a turntable. I suppose it was funny to have two small records and this giant stereo console, but that’s what we had. We bought the 45s at Carlson’s music center for 99 cents each, and my mother got the stereo console in the divorce in exchange for the waffle iron. 

On dark Sunday afternoons, we laid on the floor, 4 feet apart, each with a head by a speaker. We played them over and over. I didn’t want to play the B sides. It seemed like that’s what we were living. “One day,” she said as we waited out the Sunday, “days will be full, and faster than we can imagine. And life will be great!” Now, as I try to capture the blur that passed, the blur of laughter and tears, the music of life, I know she was so right. 

Today, in France, a small number of the old men still wear hats. How elegant, I think. How very Frank. They hold a bit of time, and carry it, slowly, softly. And I breathe in the songs of Sunday, giving thanks for every B side, every mother’s promise, every hope carried in and out of tune, 45 rotations per minute.


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Heart song.

“Words are partly thoughts, but mostly they’re music, deep down. Thinking itself is, perhaps, orchestral, the mind conducting the world. Conducting it, constructing it.” ― Patricia Hampl

We have a glove compartment full of cds. The car holds our only cd player. Vacation for us begins as I slip the cd into the player. It grabs it gently. Recognizes it. And starts to play the familiar soundtrack of our wanderings.  These trips could be 30 minutes down the road, or five countries in five days. We know the words to each song. The beats. The rhythms. The little nods inside the lyrics. The poetry that fills our souls, guides us down an untraveled path. 

My mother and I did the same. We soundtracked our journeys. Each note giving us strength and courage and the joy of exploration. Frank Sinatra, singing “My kind of town — ” led us into Chicago. And so it went with nearly all of the 50 states. A song for each journey, each story. 

I suppose the music has always carried me. Each note a suitcase for the memory, and a map for open road. Those who know me, really know me, are the ones who can sing along. 

Find this someone — this someone you can sing with. Someone who doesn’t care about the missed notes, or when your timing is just a beat off. Someone who laughs when the country band whispers, “…and Leon…” or is moved to tears with the pure magic of every Paul Simon turn of phrase. Find someone who shares your heart song and says, “Play it again! Play it again!”


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Just breathe.

We knew a little about team work, from playing in school sports, or even gym class, but this was different. We weren’t just working together, “It was more than that,” he said. We had to breathe together. Breathe together? All of us? Was that even possible?

We were just a group of teenagers in a band. We had never heard of breathing exercises. Certainly never heard of yoga. We were preparing for the state high school band tournaments in Minneapolis. Maybe some of us had grand aspirations, but I don’t really think so. We got to get out of school early. Ride a bus to Minneapolis. That was about it. But for some reason he believed in us. Wanted us to believe in ourselves. Reach for something more. And he stood in front of us, with that baton, that wiggle, all that hair, smiling, and we started to believe too.

It was the first time I even brought my clarinet home. Practiced. This was new. For most of us. We were all learning our individual parts, but it wasn’t enough he said. He said we had to be “one.” And the only way we could be “one” was to breathe together. For the first time I listened to my own breath. I was aware of my actions. Aware of the girls on either side of me. The boys behind me. We had different interests. Different skill levels. But we could do this. We could breathe together. We could do this for ourselves. We could be better. And we were. Every day.

That bus ride to the competition was fantastic. We sang. Arm in arm. Shoulder to shoulder. Our instruments snuggly packed in the compartments below. We played better than we ever had. Cohesive. One unit. It sounded beautiful — to us. We didn’t make it past the first round. I don’t suppose that was the ending you imagined. You were expecting some sort of victory. OH, but you see we were victorious. We thought so! And he thought so, our conductor, Mr. Christianson.

On the bus ride home we sang and laughed, still arm in arm, shoulder to shoulder, because we had done what we thought impossible. We became one. And that was the victory after all. We were part of something. I can hear a big band song on the radio today, and feel it!. I breathe in, once again, the gift he gave us, the gift we gave ourselves. And I belong.


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How it should be.

It was at the State Theatre in Minneapolis that I first heard the Indigo Girls. Dayton’s used to put on an extreme fashion show each year for charity. Oh, just saying Dayton’s does something to my heart.) The theatre was dark and suddenly they blasted the intro for Fugitive by the Indigo girls, and the first model stepped out. It was a mixture of clothes and music, and city and night, art and diversity, and they sang, “Remember this as how it should be.” Oh, how I wanted to remember. 

My mother and I loved Dayton’s. Saturday mornings. Always before lunch. Trying on clothes at our thinnest. No need for food. We were fueled. Hands gently touching racks. Filling dressing rooms. Mirrors admired. Compliments given. Hearts full. Then with hands bagged it was off to lunch. To sip at the wine, and pull out each item, tell the story, live it with laughter and praise, and before I knew the words to the song I thought, “Remember this as how it should be.”

I was mowing the lawn yesterday. Listening to a podcast. They were interviewing the Indigo Girls. I couldn’t hear every word over the hum of the motor, but my heart… I can’t tell you what the models were wearing that beautiful evening, but I can recreate the feeling of hope and desire and pure excitement for a life recognized. I don’t recall every garment tried on or purchased with my mother, but as I sit here in my new Saturday morning, my heart is filled with laughter and praise. 

I suppose that’s the way it is for everything. And that’s how it should be — the experience. Today we plan to go visit a vineyard. I know I will forget the wine. Probably even the place. But the time…my heart is already singing.


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Creating a song.

My mom and I drove to Galveston for the sole reason of the Glen Campbell song of the same name. It wouldn’t be the last time I was lured by the romance of a song.

Yesterday, my husband and I drove to Lake Charles, LA. We can thank Lucinda Williams for that. I (we) have been singing her song “Lake Charles” since we entered the South. The glorious power of seeing things through someone else’s eyes.

Maybe that’s the best thing about all of the arts — seeing things as others see them. In the city where we live in France, Aix en Provence, the Sainte Victoire mountain is the star. Cezanne painted it again and again. I have often wondered if it would have had the same appeal if he hadn’t shown us the beauty that he saw. I’m not sure, because now I can’t unsee it. And it is beautiful.

I write of the simple things. Paint them as well. Some might even say ordinary. I tell you of my home town. My mother. My grandparents. My school. For me, none of it is ordinary. And maybe you see it. See them. And maybe it helps you see the extraordinary beauty of your own life. And with any luck, that beauty gets stuck in your head, like a favorite song.


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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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In the mood

This morning, the kitchen radio played us into breakfast with Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood.” Usually nothing can distract me from my lavender honey, but I had to hear the whole song, start to finish. I was transported back to Jefferson Senior High School. In the band room. Eagerly following the direction of Mr. Bud Christianson, (Christy, as we called him). He had the thickest hair of any human I had ever seen, that waved on his head as sure as the notes on the stand in front of him. He directed us, not with force, but with fun. Every hour in his band room was just that – fun. He’d wiggle and dance up to the podium. We’d seen it every day for three years, yet it still made us smile. He loved music. (And one would have to – really love it – to listen to the way we attempted to play it each day.) But that’s the thing – we played music – it was play. He knew it. We knew it. And it made us love the music, and him even more. We wanted to follow him. 

I can’t imagine the effort it took to contain a roomful of teenagers armed with noisemakers. But he did. When he led us through “In the Mood,” the key was to hold us back, let the song build. And it was exciting. He’d press his hands in a downward motion. Not yet. Still quiet. Wait for it. And we wanted it all the more. Wait. He’d press one hand down, one finger to his lips. And our hearts raced. Release us!  Please, let us go! And then it arrived – Christy through his hands in the air – Baaaam BAAAAAAM!!!!! -we let the notes fly!  What a thrill! Every time. The mood was always music. And we were in it!  I still am!


What a gift he gave us!  We didn’t win any awards. Our only ovations came from our parents, maybe a janitor. Make no mistake though – oh, how we won! I’m still winning. My heart races years later, in a country far away, next to a radio that will never speak Bud Christianson’s name. But I will. Probably for the rest of my life. My shoulders bounce to the beat as I’m typing. Thank you, Christy!


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Harmony.

Harmony.Jan was always first chair of the clarinet section. From the fifth grade, through senior high, I don’t remember a time when she didn’t sit proudly in the first row, right in front of the conductor. I don’t know if she felt the competition. I’m sure she practiced. A lot more than the rest of us. For some reason, I never saw band as a sport. For me, it was about the collective music. As individuals, (but for the exceptions like Jan) we really didn’t sound that good. But there is a phenomenon in music when people perform together, even if not everyone is in tune, or in sync, collectively it just sounds better. And that sound carried us. Held us. Gathered us in. I didn’t think of myself in the second row, I was part of the band. I belonged.

Yesterday, at our Easter table, we gathered. American, French, German. Through the years, we have navigated to our respective chairs. My husband at the head, me just next to him. Grown children – their children, in-laws, all around. It is not lost on me that when I jump from my chair to gather something from the kitchen, more bread, more water, a bigger spoon, I pass by my clarinet that rests in the corner of the library. The music here is sung in many languages, (it doesn’t matter that my French is not that good, their English, not much better). In my own rhythm, I have found my place in the band. It is not a competition. We gather around, we gather in. Conversation and laughter play in tune, and the music gives us a place, a place at the table. The band plays on…