Jodi Hills

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


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Journey home.

It’s funny how sure adults were of what would and wouldn’t kill you. “It wouldn’t kill you to clean your room.” “It wouldn’t kill you to do your homework.” And it turns out they were right. So far. 

There was an early and late bus that took students home from school. The early bus took the kids up to the sixth grade. Brought them home, then returned to the junior and senior high schools and made the same route. 

I rode the early bus. My brother and sister, if they rode at all, having friends with cars, came later. One day, feeling particularly alone — alone with the knowledge that I was assigned my first book report — I decided not to get off the bus. My plan was to ride back with the bus driver to the high school and wait for the older students, hoping my brother and sister would come along and help me carry this new burden of schoolwork. The bus driver stared at me. I could see he wasn’t thrilled with my plan. We sat outside the high school. Waited. And waited. Nervous sweat collected between my thighs and the green pleather seat. Neither my brother, nor my sister came. No one came. Not one student. All the other buses left. I smiled nervously as he stared at me in the rear view mirror. Would he still bring me home? What had I done? My plan not only left me alone, but I wasn’t even at home. I didn’t speak. I clutched my notebooks to my chest. I didn’t know if he could see my lips moving, as they pleaded silently, “Please please please bring me home.” He started the engine. My heart beat once again. He drove from the high school to Big Ole – the giant Viking Statue one mile from our house. He pulled the giant silver handle that opened the door. “It wouldn’t kill you to walk from here,” he said. I stared only at my feet as I raced out the door. 

“Wouldn’t kill you… wouldn’t kill you…” The words repeated in my head as I kicked the dirt down the gravel road. What did he know? And wasn’t there anything in between? Nothing between this fear and death?  These were my only options?  

Step by step I got closer to home. I walked past the geese. Up the hill. Past Vacek’s. Lee’s. The Lee kids had gotten off the bus. Lucky ducks. I heard dishes clanking through windows. Voices talking on telephones, as the long phone cords were stretched through screen doors onto the front steps. I wasn’t alone. The sounds of life on VanDyke road carried me to the green house. Through the garage. Into the living room. I opened the encyclopedia that began with the letter of my project. And began. Stronger. 

Maybe this is where I learned to trust my own feet. Began to believe they would carry me where I needed to go. They have. Rocks in shoes have been as much gifts as well lit paths. And I am strong. 

Today, listen for the sweet sounds to carry you. Trust in each step. Look around. This is our long, and beautiful, constant journey home.


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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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The weight of the magic.


Not everyone liked to be called up to the black board. I did. When Mrs. Bergstrom began asking a question, I was suddenly the tallest person in the room. Everyone sank lower in their desks, to discourage her from calling on them — as if she might think, well, I couldn’t possibly ask them to walk all the way up here to the board, they are but floating heads…” It never worked. She called on everyone.


When it was my turn, I ran, hand reaching out for the chalk. I could barely hear the question over my heart racing. I loved the feel of the chalk in my chubby little fingers. Once in a while, she would hand over her personal piece of chalk – the one with the wooden holder. The weight of it was magnificent. It felt powerful and important. As I wrote the answer, any answer, it felt like my hand was sledding across the fresh fallen snow – gliding, surely, easily, making tracks of white. This feeling far surpassed any worry of right and wrong. There was only this. This magic from head to hand to board.


I’m working on some new projects with my publishers. They are in the United States. I am in France. In these separate countries, in different hours of the same day, we communicate in real time, face to face, actions and creations are immediate. Immediate. Imagine that!
In our discussion, they wanted to know my favorite pencil. I knew immediately. It is the woodless graphite pencil I purchased from the Musée Soulages Rodez. The weight of it is, once again, magnificent! It feels possible. Magic! It feels like no worry of right and wrong. It glides with youth across the page. The one I race to. That is a worthy pencil!


Without saying all of that, when they asked me why, I immediately drew this bird. In real time. Maybe a minute, or two. “Because, this!” I drew. This! With this pencil, it is “my turn.” I guess I’ve always understood the importance of that. Even when fear hides all around me, sometimes even within, I will forever race towards the weight of the magic!


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Ten thousand and one.

Maybe it’s because the brain and the heart are composed of about seventy percent of it. Or maybe it’s because I grew up in the midst of 10,000 lakes. But I have always been comforted by the water. The color blue.

It feels certain – this color blue. Like the words of a favorite song. Words that come so easily. Without thinking. Rolling gently in. Words that comfort. Caress. Hold. Gather. So I paint it, this song, this color and I am home. 

When I was a young girl, and we lost our home, we (my mother and I) moved to an apartment. And when you lose a home, you don’t just lose the walls — you lose the familiar, the comfort, the neighborhood. You lose the sound of screen doors swinging. Mothers calling kids home for dinner. 

Everything changed. I could no longer identify the cars passing merely by the sound of their tires on the gravel. I couldn’t smell the lake from across the street. I had lost the certainty of “blue.”

And being young, I could only see so far ahead. I believed what was in front of me. I believed there were these 10,000 lakes. No more. I believed there was a home. One home. No more. We were given only so much. 

OH, to be so joyfully wrong! Well, I was right about one thing – we are “given” a finite amount – but that doesn’t mean we can’t go out and get more on our own. Find more. Search. Build. I learned if I wanted to have a home, I had to make one. First in my heart. Then in my head. I needed to feel the water flowing through them both. The cool, comforting blue carried within. This was my home. Is my home. My 10,001. (and counting.) No one can ever take that away.

The world, people, will always throw out limitations. Struggles. It, they, will try to block you, box you in. But you don’t have to be one of them. They can tell you that “you can’t…” “you don’t…” you aren’t…” But listen to the water. It’s still flowing. Softly, gently, telling you, “aaah, but I am!”


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Racing the wheat.

I’ve always gotten up early. Even as a kid, even (and maybe especially) in summertime. This extra light given, after a long Minnesota winter, this was something not to be missed. I would start wearing shorts as soon as the last patch of snow disappeared. My white winter-hidden legs were almost lavender. Exposed to the fresh, crisp air of sun’s warmth and freedom. It was as close to being a newborn as I could imagine. 

I suppose it was the possibility that I loved most of all. To be out in it. To be a part of it! Sun in my face, light breezes carrying, even lifting my knees, urging them to race — this is summer — this is life! And so I ran. I ran on gravel. I ran on tar. Slipped in morning’s wet dew. I ran in fields behind our house, racing the wheat – who would grow faster? 

It was always a surprise when the fields were cut. And my legs were tan. Where did summer go? But wasn’t it wonderful to still be surprised?!

I got up early this morning. Kissed by sun and warmth. Born again. Legs exposed — heart too – still believing that summer will never end.


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Ida painted too.

It’s no secret that I have always loved Georgia O’Keeffe. Yesterday, to my surprise, I learned that she had a sister, Ida, who also painted. Experts say that if she had had the support of an Alfred Stieglitz, she could have been equally celebrated. But she had a different story. And the world, someone decided, didn’t need another O’Keeffe.

Since I was a young girl, my mother was friends with Diane Larson. A lovely woman. She was kind. True. And when she smiled at you softly, you felt cared for, hugged. There wasn’t a lot of truth that I could see at that age, and it was comforting. She was a teacher. I would see her in the halls of Central School. She didn’t embarrass me by actually speaking, but she smiled, and I knew she was watching out for me. She was the extended care of my mother.

She hung my childish art in her beautiful home. Saved a folder of my poems and scribbles, as if they were treasures. I didn’t need a second mother. I already had my “Georgia.” But this Diane Larson, this Ida, she painted too, and I felt extra loved.

She died yesterday. For most, she will go unnoticed. But that does not mean she is not celebrated. She fits easily into the halls of my heart, still watching over, smiling. A continuous joy. An unending love. The world needs every Ida, every Diane.


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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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Peace leads to joy.

In the fifth grade at Washington Elementary, I was ahead in my studies, so Miss Green said I could go upstairs to assist the third grade teacher. Oh, yes. What an opportunity! I felt so old and smart. These poor, lowly third graders surely needed all the wisdom I could impart. I walked tall into their classroom. I stood next to their teacher. Certainly we were equals. They were about to start a section in science. Biology. Not my favorite, but I was still confident. I walked behind her to the giant glass box. Frogs. My heart rose a little in my chest. I didn’t like frogs. Perhaps it was the years of torment from an older brother who thought sticking one down your summer tank top was hilarious! (It wasn’t.) Still, I thought, they’re in a glass cage. How bad could this be? My question was soon answered by one of the third grade boys who opened the cover. Frogs began jumping everywhere. It was an infestation, biblical in nature. The teacher ran around, grabbing. Children screamed and threw. No, not me. I raced to the door, and took the stairs two at a time to get back to the comfort of my classroom. “They didn’t need me after all…” I said as I humbly and quietly returned to my desk. I wrote over and over in my journal – “not today.”

It had been just weeks earlier at our yearly safety assembly that our principal told us when faced with something that made us uncomfortable or nervous, not to engage, but to remove ourselves from the situation. Who knew how valuable this information could be?! Still is.

As grownups, it gets a little harder to see the chaos of certain people or relationships — it’s usually a little more subtle than flinging frogs — but just as chaotic. And sometimes we can feel compelled to argue our point, louder, faster, as they fly overhead. But I’m right!!!! I’m right!!! Only it just adds to the screaming. I know I’ll be taught this lesson again and again. I walk out into the calm of the sun, the quiet peace of the morning, smile, and tell my heart, “not today.”


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Heart giggles.

“Sit up straight. And settle down.” These were very confusing directions for us, the six year olds of Mrs. Bergstrom’s first grade class. We breathed in. Slouched over. Looked around. Up. Down. Got the giggles. Giggles so loud that she repeated it again – “Sit up straight and settle down!” Snorts and hoots shot from our hand covered mouths. Giggles should never be contained.

Oh, but they tried. Tried to contain us. Keep your desk orderly. Sharpen your pencils. Eyes to the front. It was like this in every class. Even in gym class there were rules to be followed. But once a week, in the lower level of Washington Elementary, we were marched in, single file, and then set free! It was Mr. Opsahl’s art room. It was filled with color. Paper. Glue. Paint. Sticky things. Beautiful things. Possibilities. Here our imaginations were not only welcomed, but encouraged. Imagination – or mind giggles – burst into full color, like the NBC peacock!

It was a garden view classroom, meaning our heads were at street level. We could see the cars, sometimes the pedestrians. In all the other classrooms, I, we, looked out the window, in hopes of joining this outside world. But not in the art room. Here, I hoped people could see in, see into our magical world. See us making hand puppets, face masks, flower pots. I guess I knew, even then, how beautiful this world was. And I wanted everyone to feel it.

Some might say, well, it’s because you were (are) an artist…but it was more than that, more than art. It was freedom. It was joy. And what a glorious way to learn. One day, Mrs. Bergstrom took a break from the rules, and said we could experience our English lesson by using the hand puppets we made in art class. The hand puppets that were created from empty toilet paper rolls and papier-mâché. Fingers full of promise, behind a sheet of plywood with a stage cut window, we put on magical, nonsensical, plays and songs that contained the day’s vocabulary list. I fell a little more in love with art that day. A little more in love with words. And a little more in love with Mrs. Bergstrom. We expected this from Mr. Opsahl, this loosening of the reins, but with Mrs. Bergstrom, donned in her pencil skirt, and neatly bunned hair, this was something! Truly something!

If you can, do that for someone today. Loosen the reins, give the unexpected compliment, the unsolicited kindness. Be the giggle in someone else’s heart.


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A place for us.

Before my mother became the voice of Independant School District #206, she worked at 3M. I was pretty young. I have no idea what she did. She brought me to the office one day after school. It was huge. I saw rows of desks. Some men in polyester suits and wide ties. Women with phones attached to their heads. One man with hair greased smooth, bent down, reached out his hand and tossled my hair. I didn’t like it. I didn’t know him. His smile was too toothy. “We invented this here,” he proudly held out the famous yellow sticky note pad. “You can write all your notes on it,” he said, still grinning. So far, I had nothing to keep track of, nothing but the hem of my mother’s skirt.

I had to go to the bathroom. We walked through the kitchen. I could smell the coffee in continuous brew. I imagined it took a lot of coffee to keep those faces in constant grin. A woman was bending near a giant machine. It had a glass cover, displaying food items. She pulled a long silver handle, and the tin can made a thud. I’m not sure I could read yet, but I saw the picture on the can. It was spaghetti. Spaghetti in a can. Now this was something! It was ready? Immediately? I couldn’t believe my eyes! What an invention!

I begged and pleaded. I had to have a can of spaghetti. I must. It’s right there! Please! Please! I wasn’t one to really beg for things. And she was at work. No need for a scene. “But you’re not going to like it,” she said. I disagreed. Oh yes, I would love it! I returned from the bathroom to find my mother with a can at a table. I beamed. I beamed as I flipped the top open. I beamed as I inserted the plastic spoon. And then I stopped beaming. It was horrible. I didn’t want her to have to come here, every day. I didn’t know what “better for her” was, but I know I wanted it.

She worked at the clinic for a short time after this. And then the dream job — Alexandria Public Schools. Some kids would always ask me, “You like having your mother at the school? Right there with you???” And I did. I really did. I was proud of her. And with all due respect to Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing, I was so happy that she found her place – her place to shine. And each time I walked past the large plate windows of the Superintendent’s office, on my way to gym, or band or choir, she would wave and smile. I waved back, and yes, I beamed! We joyfully kept “track of each other.” Always have. Always will.