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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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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On Wobbly Knees.

Last night I finished reading the book Horse, by Geraldine Brooks. To simplify my review, I will just say, “Yes.” Was it good? Yes. Should I read it? Yes. Will I be moved? Yes. Will I learn something? Yes. Is it about horses? Yes. And more? Oh, Yes!!! It spans generations, covering the issues of slavery, racism, the Civil War, art, humanity — then and now. How far we’ve come, how extraordinarily far we have to go.

I suppose I was first drawn to read it because of the central figures of the horse paintings themselves. But then it became so much more. And that is the beauty of art. When it is done well, framed on canvas or bound in words, it conveys a story. A story so fluid that it carries you — carries you with the grace and elegance of chestnut legs in the Kentucky bluegrass.

But what’s it about??? Everyone always wants the short answer. I’m sorry, but the short answer is – read it.

It’s not lost on me that hanging above my head, as I turned from page to page, was my humble painting of a horse. It is entitled, “Unconditional.” And for me that is love. But how do we get there? The only path that I have found is empathy. And the clear path to empathy is education. When we know more — we do more. When we know better — we do better. So I read. And I read some more. And I write. And I write some more. I paint. And, well, more. And I just try to do better. Live better. Racing on my own fragile legs. Racing against time, and bigotry. Racing against everyone who is more than willing to bet against you. Racing away from the conditional.

There was a popular song when I was a teenager, by Dan Fogelberg — Run for the Roses. My mom bought the 45. I played it again and again. For I was, just as the song began, “on wobbly knees, with mama beside you, to help you along…” And I was carried by the melody. Carried by the words —

“It’s breeding and it’s training
And it’s something unknown
That drives you
And carries you home
And it’s run for the roses
As fast as you can
Your fate is delivered
Your moment’s at hand
It’s the chance of a lifetime
In a lifetime of chance
And it’s high time you joined
In the dance.”

I didn’t have the word for it then – this “empathy” – this joining in the dance. But I could see the path. And I wanted to be on it. I still do. I’m still wobbling along, but I’m still learning. Maybe we all can. It’s more than “high time.”


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Wings or weights.


Yesterday I was watching a short video on Youtube. I clicked on it because it was a beautiful, elderly woman, in her eighties, painting portraits. She was wearing a lovely scarf and skirt and smiling, with eyes and mouth. And it had the most interesting title – “All cats are black.” She had one of those voices that immediately drew you in. She began, “I’m just going to say it, I wanted to be beautiful…that’s all I wanted, there, I said it.” She went on to explain that she wanted to be beautiful because then she thought maybe her mother would love her. And, oh, how she wanted, needed to be loved. Just a mere baby, she was sent off to boarding school. On a visit home, still a baby, she was in the back seat of their car, driving home at night. She said to her mother, “I think I might look pretty in this light.” Her mother replied, “All cats are black at night, I suppose.” I will pause here to let you catch your breath. I know I needed to. What a horrible thing to say! My heart broke for her. Just a string of eight words. A string of eight words that slipped so easily off of her tongue. Slipped so easily off her tongue and (you might think I will say “broke her daughter’s heart) weighted on her daughter’s heart. I say weighted, because broke would be too simple. Broke means maybe you can fix it. Repair it. But weighted. Weighted is constant. A continuous burden. And she carried this burden for 65 years. A string of words for 65 years. Finally, through life, and living, and constantly searching for beauty, through painting portraits, she started to see it in others. See the beauty, even in herself. And she let it go. She let it go…. What a relief to save yourself. And she did. I suppose this is what first caught my eye – this was her beauty!

There are so many things I could say here. About how lucky I was to have a mother that always made me feel beautiful. Who still does. What a glorious gift. I could offer the warnings of how hurtful words can be. How we have to choose them so wisely. How easily we can hurt others. I could speak of the need to always be searching for and recognizing beauty in ourselves and others. I could speak of forgiveness, for that is really all forgiveness is, just letting go. Maybe it all comes down to weight. Each day a decision has to be made, perhaps moment after moment in each day, deciding to be the person who lifts, or the person who brings down. Wings or weights. As one who has seen the height and depth of each side, please, please let me be the wings, let us be the wings. Let’s choose to be kind, and fly!


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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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Produce

I have professed my love for libraries, over and over. The Washington School Library. The Alexandria Public Library. One small room. One small building. Each opened a world to me that will never close. I can smell the wood that housed the paper. The slight hint of sweet mildew, like an open window.

The truth is, this was not my first impression of books. My first collection of words on pages — words mixed with colorful art – these books held the smell of fresh produce. It was at Olson’s Supermarket. My mother hoisted me into the shopping cart. The silver denting the back of my thighs. Legs dangling. Her purse beside me.

Just after the cart corral was a long display of Golden Books. I can feel my arms reaching. They were the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. She placed one in my chubby hand and I was changed. Words on paper. My arms will be forever reaching.

I can hear her voice reading each page. Night after night. Year after year. And then I started to hear my own. How do you thank someone for giving you the world? I suppose the only way I know is to use the same words I was given. Again and again.

I was speaking to the young woman who is currently working on my new website. Not a small task. She has to handle each piece of art, each word. She told me yesterday, because she is so immersed in all of the work, “I feel like I know you.” My heart is still smiling. My arms are still reaching. We are in different countries. From different generations, and my paintings of the apples remind her of her mother’s kitchen. Once again, the sweet smell of produce… My world opens, and I give thanks with the words that first saved me.


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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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My way.

They said I was “painfully shy” – my grade school teachers. But I wasn’t hiding. I was listening. There was a voice inside that I needed to hear. It was whispering, but I knew it was important. And I couldn’t hear it in the chaos — the running and screaming of youth. So yes, I was quiet. But none of it was painful, not for me.

We all learn and grow in our own ways. The only “right way” is the one you choose for yourself. 

I grew into my voice. My life. My way. I hope I still am, growing. Listening. Watching. And as Frank Sinatra sang at our breakfast table this morning, “not in a shy way…”  “Oh no, no not me,” I AM doing it my way. We smiled and listened, and ate the bread I made with my own hands.

The only thing I really fear is wasting time. And maybe the only way we can waste our time is by trying to live someone else’s life. Trying to live in the chaos of other standards. 

I can feel it when I’m “off.” I’m pretty sure we all can. And it’s usually when the voices of others try to take over the voice that lives within me. But I have found the ways to make it stronger, louder, more clear — with words and paint, and homemade bread. With breakfast conversation and music and love. With the smell of cut wood and grass stained shoes. With an unchartered path, and a hand to hold. This is the song that I’m living. The song that has always lived within. My way.


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Wobble.

I got up early to do my yoga. I brought the mat in another room so I wouldn’t wake up Dominique. Same house. Same routine. Just a new perspective. In this practice, it is necessary to focus on an object to retain your balance in the poses. This morning, my focal point was different. And oh, how I wobbled. What was so different? I know this room. And yet, this slight change completely threw off my balance. I’ll admit I was a bit uncomfortable. Not enough to quit. So I wobbled my way through.

Life changes constantly. We can’t prepare ourselves for everything. That would be impossible. But I think we can teach ourselves, little by little, to feel the discomfort, and work through it. It’s ok to feel uncomfortable. How else would we learn anything? Somewhere along the line, some big voice (maybe television, internet) told us that we have to be “happy” all the time, or we’re not living right. Now, I like happy — who doesn’t? But I also like feeling accomplished. I like feeling challenged. Feeling successful. Vulnerable. Creative. Open. Loved. And with all of these, you’re going to feel a little “wobble.” But this is also, (for me anyway) where the good stuff gets in –sneaks in as I fumble about.

In the last years, almost everything has changed for me. Country. Language. Surroundings. But these were the doors for love. So I opened them. Never have I felt more unbalanced. Never have I felt more loved.

Long before I ever imagined such a change, I wrote in my first book, “I am amazed that you let me fumble along beside you…” Still true — perhaps never more. So don’t be afraid. Wake up. Dare to dream. Dare to try. Dare to love. Dare to wobble.