Jodi Hills

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


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Dabbling through time.


In my dream this morning, I was trapped in some sort of a space continuum. I say “some sort of” like I actually know what any kind of a space continuum is… In my dream I did though. There were all of these pockets of time to move through, and in some we would get stuck, trapped, others pushed us away. I suppose, not a lot different from real time.

We had Mallards in the lake across from our house. A lake not clean enough for swimming. With ducks that didn’t seem all that “special.” Everyone wanted to see the Loons. Wanted to hear the call of the Loon. It was haunting. Celebrated. Told a story of love’s travels like a train in the distance. We had the trains. We had the quacks of the Mallards. But I wanted a Loon. Wanted to be a Loon.

It was one of our science teachers that told us they were dabbling ducks. Dabblers. I liked the name. And suddenly these Mallards became more interesting. They had a story. And now, when I walk by the lake, see them tip over like a tea kettle, I smile. They are dabbling for their life, popping up and down, through pockets of time and lake.

Life on Van Dyke Road is a pocket of time for me. I travel in and out of it. There were many hard times. But I found that I too am a dabbler – able to tip over and pick out the goodness and pop myself up again. I tell my story, not always with the glorious call of the Loon – the voice I thought I needed, but still, I am proud to quack it aloud. I am a dabbler, from Minnesota. And I will continue to pop myself up, and tell my story, our story, again and again. We can’t all be loons, but we all have a song.


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Joie de vivre!

I remember our church was having an event to raise awareness for the homeless. Young students slept outside on the sidewalk for one night. While I wanted to celebrate the effort (anything is better than nothing) it was hard for me get on board. This was not homelessness. This was camping. This was going to bed knowing the next day you would go home. To a home. To the security of running water and soft beds. To the security of tomorrow and the day after that.

My brother in law became a US citizen this week. This is big! Huge! I can’t say exactly how long it took, but more than twenty years in the making. He has lived in the US for years – but today he is home.

The thing is, we think we know. We don’t know. Until we go through it. So how do we create empathy? We can’t possibly live out every situation to really know how it feels. But we can listen. We can read. We can be open.

I suppose I was guilty of it, before moving to France. I didn’t understand what it is like to live in another country. Be a stranger. To be singled out. To be a minority. And I’m one of the lucky ones. I have every advantage at my fingertips. I wasn’t fleeing. Running. Hiding. I was moving for love. And yet, I experienced the fear, the uncertainty. I know millions of people feel this daily. Some are unwelcomed because they are immigrants. Others because of the color of their skin. Their religion. Their social status. Reason after reason.

But being empathetic is not merely feeling the pain of others. Being empathetic means you also get to feel the joy. And maybe that’s the hook. Seeing the special. Not discriminating. Not tolerating. But celebrating. Different doesn’t have to be bad. Shouldn’t have to be bad.

So today we celebrate. We welcome my brother in law to this giant experiment. I am in France. He is in the USA. Neither of us camping. Bravo, Pascal!

Joie de vivre!


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This table is strong.

Some said it was in the way, my grandparents’ kitchen table. But for me, for my mother, it was something to lean on. The stability we craved.

The legs were at an angle, protruding just a little beyond the table top. You could kick it. Bump into it. Throw groceries, suitcases, all of your worries, on top of it. It was never going to crumble.

It took a while for my mother to get her legs beneath her. But she did. Oh how she did! And not just holding her up, but at that slight angle – that confident stride. Maybe they saw it in her first – the people of Alexandria. “Oh, I saw you walking yesterday.” “I see you out walking all the time.” “Aren’t you that lady that I see walking?” And when she answered yes to them, maybe she started to hear it herself. Yes. See it in herself. Yes, I am that lady.

I suppose we all have to become the stability that we crave. Table by table. Step by step. The sun rises with one question, we rise, and say simply, joyfully — Yes!

Whatever you need, this table is strong. Jodi Hills


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In close.


I rarely saw my grandmother without an apron. There were so many children. Grandchildren. The kitchen was always in motion. I liked standing next to her. So close. When she wore the embroidered apron – the one with the flowers – I would press my head as close to her hip as I could. This hug, when held for longer than she had time for – (yet she never pushed me away) – this hug could produce an imprint on my cheek of the same flowers. An imprint that didn’t last long on my face, but still remains on my heart.

Dishes clanked. Smells arose. Voices jabbered. And then the whirlwind would stop. She needed something from the basement. She told me to run and get it. The basement. I’ll admit I was afraid. Being only apron high, it wasn’t unusual, but I wanted to be brave. My grandmother canned. There was a whole wall of canned good down there. But to get to what she needed, I would have to go descend the darkened stairs. Past the hooks of overalls that looked like men waiting. I would have to tune out the furnace. The creaks of wood. She pushed the small of my back in the direction of the stairs. Of course I would do it. I held my breath, as if going under water. Raced my bumper tennis shoes down the steps. Grabbed the glass jar filled with what I could only imagine was a science experiment and ran back up the stairs. I handed it to her beaming. She had no idea what I had risked, but she hugged me just the same.

Yesterday, we went to see Dominique’s mother. She clings to the day. Leaving, sad, I heard through the open windows of the house next door, the clanking of the dishes. Silverware. Glass. Stove. A woman singing over the din. The sounds of life. I smiled, feeling the embroidered flowers on my heart.

This love. Knowing your heart, if you’re giving it all, will break and mend and break again. Still, I, we, will risk any darkened stairs to experience it. The sun begins to light today’s path. To this day, this life, I make a promise to feel it – really feel it – and, joyfully, I pull myself in close.


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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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Angel in my hammock.

I come from a long line of fools — and I mean that in the most glorious and optimistic of ways. My grandparents fell for each other, as only fools can, and this I suppose, for me, is where it began. He was a farmer. I guess you have to be a dreamer, a believer, a bit of a fool, to make this your living. To plant something in the dirt. Believe in yourself, the work, the weather. Believe in it enough to turn the dirt into gold. I saw the magic. Year after year. I wanted to live like this. Love like this. In the most daring and foolish of ways. I still do. And it’s not hard to prove my case, as I sit typing this in another country.

I imagine it could all be explained away by angles and geometry, but yesterday, in the shade of the house, under the ever pines, the hammock was a glow. It shone in the most golden light. An angel, I thought. Resting in our hammock. And I smiled.

It’s probably foolish. I hope it is. It’s as foolish as when my mother helped me believe it was possible to carry a dream in your pocket. My foolish pocket, that was, is, always full.

Since I can remember, she told me it was necessary. I don’t know if that’s where my grandfather kept his, in the pocket of his overalls, but I know he carried one — one of these foolish dreams. I know my mother carries one still. When she orders her make-up from Macy’s. Looks at the Sundance catalog to see the next season of fashion. Walks around the building to keep her leg strength up. Reads her devotions to keep her heart strength up. Believes in the light of today. The possibility of tomorrow. Her pockets are full.

So the glowing hammock, for me, is nothing but pure magic. And I’m going to keep believing in it. I’m going to keep planting my words, to see what grows. Keep painting with the belief that you too will see the glow, the dream, the possibility of it all. Our glorious and foolish pockets full, turning each day into gold.


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The candy dish.

I’m certain it wasn’t expensive, but it was priceless, this candy dish. White milk glass, with matching cover. My mother kept it on the end table, just as you entered the front door of her apartment on Jefferson Street. I don’t know if it was ever full, but I guarantee it was never empty. My mother made sure that when Josh and Rachel (her grandchildren) entered her apartment, lifted that cover, there was a special treat, just for them. They knew it would be there. They looked forward to it. Counted on it. Just as they did with her.

This certainty was something she had always given me. Still gives to me. Even at her lowest points in life, when her own heart wasn’t full, it was never empty — not for me. She always had something for me. 

On the phone the other day, she questioned herself out loud, “Did she have a home? Did she ever have a home?”  You can never tell someone how to feel. But I can tell her, with all certainty (and I only have it because she gave it), that she gave me a home. She gave Josh and Rachel a home. She gave us something sure and sweet and constant. So yes, there was a home, there was always a home for us. Always will be. And she lived there too. 

Never empty. Because of her.


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Limitless.

I can still remember the smell — the sweetness of wax, color, and possibility — opening the box of Crayola crayons for the first time in Washington Elementary. I had a box of 24. Not the largest box, but not the smallest. And I loved it. Oh, how I loved it. 

Jackie sat next to me in a brand new designer mark dress — both her dress and hair, freshly ironed. I can see her opening that box of 64 — that box of 64 that also had the sharpener. I could hear the ooohs and aaahs of those who gravitated around her. What would she create? Oh, surely it would be beautiful! It had to be beautiful with all those colors!

Mrs. Strand directed us to sit at our desks. She told us to pull out our blank, white construction paper. Not our Big Chief tablets, those were ruled, she explained. Those we would use for writing. What I concluded from these directions then, with our paper and our crayons — there were no rules!  Yes, I thought! There was that smell of possibility once again. 

Mrs. Strand then gave us the gift that I am most grateful for – the gift of time. Time to create. Whatever you want, she said. I can still feel the paper between my fingers. The feel of how the waxy colors connected.

I never spoke in class. I was very shy — some said, painfully, but it felt good to me. I was just waiting. Preparing. And I used the 24. And combined and shaded. Multiplying my colors. Creating depth. Well beyond 24. Beyond 48. Beyond 64. It was limitless. I had time. And a quiet confidence. 

Someone had taught me. Through lesson or example, I can’t be sure. I suppose it was my grandfather, grandmother, mother — probably all three. Use what you have. This was so freeing. It kept me free from the jealous ooohs and aaahs. Kept me free from worrying about what every other “Jackie” had. This gift created a world of wonder at my own fingertips. It still carries me. 

I found a box of colored pencils yesterday. Probably Dominique’s kids left them behind. Almost unused. Pencils are not my normal medium, but there it was, a box full of possibility. So I took the time. I shaded and combined. And it was all limitless once again. No rules. No constraints. No numbers. It, I, smelled of everything possible.

The morning sun is rising. The sky is open with possibility. I’ll see you up there!


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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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As I flutter by.

I was more following it, than chasing it. Fluttering really. Doing my best to keep up. My grandfather didn’t really imagine that I could catch this butterfly, so his warning was light, but effective. “Don’t touch the wings,” he said. Me, still imagining my chubby legs were a match for these wings, questioned, “But why? They’re so pretty!’ He explained something about the powder rubbing off…they could lose their ability to fly. “You don’t want that to happen,” he said. Of course not. But just a bit of that desire remained. A bit of that doubt.

I didn’t have google at the time. Nothing to fact check. He had never lied to me. So I just kept fluttering. 

When I reached school age, I learned more. The challenge of the caterpillar to “become.”  It seemed unimaginable. Unbelievable! How did it survive — and not just survive, but turn into something so incredibly beautiful? I read it in books. Saw the images. But really?  How could this be?

I counted the sleeping pills on my mother’s nightstand. She was so sad. I didn’t know how long a human could cocoon. Nobody taught me that. 

But somehow, there would be proof in her wings. And I got to flutter beside her. And she beside me. Nothing more magical than that.

The fragile colors came to life in my sketchbook yesterday. Each with a hope and prayer that we could all be that gentle with one another. We could flutter, and flatter, and lift, and love. We could give each other the time needed to change. To grow. To become. We could give each other the chance to fly — just a smiling thought this morning, as I flutter by.