What My Yoga Instructor Taught Me About Writing

The mirror tells me what I already know: my standing half split looks completely different from everyone else’s. I look a little like I dropped my keys and am franticly searching for them while my left leg awkwardly juts out behind me. The woman to my left in a black Lululemon bra and impossibly tiny shorts looks like—well, like a yogi doing a standing half split: graceful, balanced, lithe. Somehow the sweat from the 105-degree room makes her look even more athletic and graceful. It’s making me look like a drowned rat. 

I coach myself, trying to get out of my head. Get back in the flow, breathe. But it’s too late for this yoga practice: I can’t resuscitate it after I dealt the crippling blow of looking around the room, searching the mirror for people to compare myself to. In the shower afterwards, I let the hour of self-doubt, comparison, and frustration wash off with the sweat. Next time will be better. 

What My Yoga Instructor Taught Me About Writing: How revolutionary, and how simple. Art for the sake of art—movement for the sake of movement. No get-skinny or get-rich or get-successful schemes clouding the page or the mat—just breathing, just enjoying. // emilyfisk.com

And it is—two days later, I’m back. There are still women in tiny Lululemon bras, I’m still not as strong and still wearing a stained Forever 21 top with $12 leggings. But I stay out of my head—I don’t look around the room. I look directly in my own eyes in the mirror, and when a pose challenges me, I do what yoga has taught me to do: I lean into it, sending oxygen straight to what hurts. When a stretch pulls tightly on my protesting hamstrings or I feel myself losing balance in eagle pose, I accept it, hyper aware of my own body—no one else’s—kind to it with my words and my thoughts. I don’t have to forgive myself when I ungracefully fall out of airplane or when I still can’t quite get into wheel pose. I don’t have to forgive myself because there’s nothing to forgive; there’s only breathing, stretching, pushing, and practicing, the holy prayer of movement. 

Every time I do this, yoga gets easier and better. I don’t think I look like the yogis who’ve been doing it for years, but then, I haven’t been doing it for years—not consistently at least. And I don’t care. When I have my mental space clean and ready for practice, there’s nothing but me and my mat and the monotone guidance of the instructor from the corner of the room. The progress I make is glacial and could be a source of frustration, but instead, I find sheer joy when I notice my heels touching the ground in downward dog or find a new, steadier balance in crow. 

Yoga wasn't always so enjoyable for me; practicing at home with jotted down goals (“do a headstand, figure out wheel pose, master crow pose”), yoga was punishing. It was what reminded me of all the things I couldn’t do yet. After practice, I felt defeated and tired, spent from trying. 

I don’t know when it shifted for me, but somewhere along the way, I started listening—actually listening—to the things the yoga instructors said during practice. 

“Set your intentions.” I intend to win at yoga, obviously.  

“If you can’t do this one, that’s fine. Find what feels right for your body where you are.” I scoffed at the invitations to modify poses—I can do them all, just watch.

“Thank your body for everything it’s done in practice today.” Thanks for nothing, body. Could we talk later in the conference room? 

What My Yoga Instructor Taught Me About Writing: How revolutionary, and how simple. Art for the sake of art—movement for the sake of movement. No get-skinny or get-rich or get-successful schemes clouding the page or the mat—just breathing, just enjoying. // emilyfisk.com

Subtly, slowly, I started believing what the instructors intoned quietly and insistently. “Do your best. This is your space to learn and grow.” So I did—I learned and grew. 

That’s how I knew I’d slipped back into old habits that day when I felt insecure in standing half split—a pose that challenges me with my tight hips and hamstrings. One measly minute of indulging my old need to compare and beat myself up effectively ended what could have been an invigorating practice, and I couldn’t save myself. But those moments are becoming rare now, and yoga has become a safe space for my body to move while my brain shuts off ingrained habits. I’ve stopped caring entirely whether yoga changes how my body looks—I want it to change what my body feels like when I move. I want to increase the hours I spend feeling how I feel in yoga—strong, refreshed like I’m drinking straight from a mountain lake, moving because it feels do damn good to do it. 

Recently, I’ve started introducing these radical concepts into my writing space, too. 

I realized the connection while listening to Elizabeth Gilbert gently berate me in the audiobook Big Magic. She told me I had to get out of my head, stop the endless comparison game, stop crippling myself with useless angst and self-indulgent criticism. She told me, in no uncertain terms, that my hemming and hawing about writing wasn’t helping anyone, least of all me, and didn’t I want to write, she asked? Isn’t this what I wanted to do, whether anyone read it or whether it got published or regardless or how my “success” stacked up against the next person’s? Wasn’t writing, she wanted to know, what I wanted to do, for writing’s sake? She wondered what I was waiting for. 

Suddenly she sounded like a yoga instructor, and I got it. Get out of your head. Breathe. Stop looking around for Lululemon gear and stronger bodies than yours—just practice. Stop counting page views or worrying about agents. Just write. Who cares if someone else is better at it than you—they’re probably putting in the time on practicing that you’re spending frivolously on comparison and self-judgment.

I began to ask myself: how do I feel after an hour of worrying about my writing goals? Spent, punished, less than, frustrated. How do I feel after an hour of writing—just writing? Invigorated, refreshed, happy, clear-minded. Huh. 

How revolutionary, and how simple. Art for the sake of art—movement for the sake of movement. No get-skinny or get-rich or get-successful schemes clouding the page or the mat—just breathing, just enjoying. 

The beauty of it is how much this challenging act of getting out of my own way works. It actually works. I’m a better yogi than I was when I had a checklist of poses to master. I’m a better writer when I’m not worrying about word counts and submissions and the ever-looming book in the background. I’ve spent hours and days and weeks lamenting my writing goals without actually writing. Oops. 

I could blame marketing or that favorite scapegoat “society” for my shortcomings. After all, we’re all told to look around the room (that’s how they sell Lululemon bras, actually) and compare. But I think it’s more than that—it’s so innately human. But so is movement. So is creativity. 

Today, I got out of bed early and out of my own head, too. I sat down with a blank page, just me and my writing. I didn’t look around the room. I breathed deeper when the stretching hurt. And hey, look—I wrote. 

What My Yoga Instructor Taught Me About Writing: How revolutionary, and how simple. Art for the sake of art—movement for the sake of movement. No get-skinny or get-rich or get-successful schemes clouding the page or the mat—just breathing, just enjoying. // emilyfisk.com

Raising Readers: Practical Ways to Encourage Your Young Kids to Read

I don’t know how to write this post without sounding like an enormous nerd, so I’ve decided to embrace the nerdiness and say it: 

I love reading

When I was a kid, I spent hours every day reading. I toted books along on every errand, usually with a backup book in case I finished the first while away from home. Books taught me things I didn’t know I wanted to learn; they were entertainment and escape, expansion of my horizons and familiar friends. I read aloud to my sisters in the evenings and scoured the library for new titles every week. 

Nerdy. I know. 

But books are an integral part of who I am, and still today I'm always in the middle of one of two (or more) at a time. I read a little slower than I used to and fall asleep more often half a page in (thanks, motherhood), but I still love reading. It's a love I've wanted to pass down to my kids, and something I recently realized I actually accomplished. I had a moment where I suddenly thought, Wait, whoa, my kids are readers and they can't even read yet. This is amazing. 

Raising Readers: Practical Ways to Encourage Your Young Kids to Read

And this is the part of the post I admit I don't know how to write this without sounding like I'm tooting my own horn. Honestly, having any kind of parenting win—especially one near to my heart like this one—feels rare and glorious, so like I'm embracing the nerdiness, I'm going to embrace this one. I helped make my kids into readers, you guys, and it feels amazing. Trust me when I say there are plenty of other things I'm horrible at (see above play-room disorganization as Exhibit A) that you can teach me how to do. 

Here's what I've done over the years that (to my utter surprise) has actually worked.

1. Make Books Accessible 

Raising Readers: Practical Ways to Encourage Your Young Kids to Read

There are books in every room of our house, and the kids' books are at kid-level. While I move the loud, annoying, or messy toys to the top shelf, I keep the books low where they're ready to be enjoyed any time. My kids take full advantage of this, which means I clean up books every single day—and I love it (mostly, or at least more than cleaning up the loud and annoying toys). 

2. Visit the Library 

Having fun isn't hard when you've got a library card. (More nerdiness. I apologize.) 

Having fun isn't hard when you've got a library card. (More nerdiness. I apologize.) 

You may already be in on this secret, but in case you're not, lean in close so I can tell you: the library is one of the easiest, least stressful places to take those animalistic, wild-eyed kids of ours. If the many engaging and themed story times aren't your style, there are almost always brightly-colored play areas with free toys, educational games, and books galore. We visit the library usually once a week, which gives us a chance to test drive good books. More on good books later—for now, just get yourself a library card. 

3. Say Yes

Raising Readers: Practical Ways to Encourage Your Young Kids to Read

Sometimes when I collapse into the couch at the end of the day, all I remember saying for the past 14 hours is a combination of "don't" and "no." That's how parenthood can feel sometimes. I made myself a promise when Charlie was tiny that I'd try to always say "yes" when she asked to read a book, and for the most part, I've kept that promise. I have to say no to another TV show, no to chocolate, no to wearing princess dress-up clothes to preschool—but I can say yes to books. Encourage reading by showing your kids it's an entertainment option you'll always say yes to. 

4. Lead by Example 

Raising Readers: Practical Ways to Encourage Your Young Kids to Read

This one is hard for me even though I love reading. It's easier, frankly, to look at my phone all day when I'm trying to escape my boredom, loneliness, or work. But reading makes me much happier, and I like my kids to see me enjoying it. Even if I'm reading at a snail's pace—or even if it's just a magazine—I'd rather their memories of these years be of me reading than of me glued to a screen. 

5. Set Aside Quiet Reading Time

Raising Readers: Practical Ways to Encourage Your Young Kids to Read

I can't guarantee anything in motherhood will be quiet, but I can say this: quiet reading time is a rare gem that's worth cultivating. In Charlie's current routine, we read together while Ada naps in the morning and before bed. Choose one or two parts of the day you'd like to read with your child, and add it to your routine. 

6. Bring Books Along

Raising Readers: Practical Ways to Encourage Your Young Kids to Read

I'll admit, I got into a bad habit while I was pregnant with Ada of giving Charlie my iPhone when I needed a break. Long car ride with screaming 20-month-old? Phone. 30-minute wait at the restaurant? Phone. I'm glad I had it as an option when I was pushed to my limit, but it was a hard habit to break—and I ended up having to delete those apps like YouTube Kids that made it too easy to give her a screen. 

Now, I try to turn to books as the go-to distraction when my kids need one. Charlie requests a "pile-a books" for every potty time now (which always cracks me up), and I bring books for both kids along on car rides.  

7. Buy Good Books

Raising Readers: Practical Ways to Encourage Your Young Kids to Read

Finally, it's worth mentioning that not all kids' books are created equal. Some will make you tear up and you won't mind reading them again and again, while others will make you want to stab your eyes with a fork. The library is a helpful place to look for genuinely enjoyable books that your kids and you will love. I periodically donate books we haven't liked and scour the thrift stores, Hastings sales, and online retailers for deals on good kid literature. I also do a Christmas countdown every year, unwrapping one book every night in December with our kids, and it's pure magic. Places like Savers and thrift stores often sell kids' books for less than $1.50 each, and you can find vintage and classic books for a steal.

Raising Readers: Practical Ways to Encourage Your Young Kids to Read

As a final note, I'll say this. The love of reading is a gift you can give your kids that will last their lifetime. It hardly matters what age they learn to read—even though that's what the test scores and the achievement goals may tell you to focus on. It matters much more when they learn to love to read. Teach them that. 

My Runner's Smile to You

My list is up to three reasons: side ache, big toenail on the right side is too long, and I didn't sleep well last night. 

They're the reasons I'm collecting as the miles tick by too slowly on my morning run—reasons I should call it a day. The double stroller feels heavier with every footfall, and my ambitions are looking less enticing. If I stop I can sit down, just there under that tree or by that bench, let my heart rate come down, drink some water. 

Reason number four: I'm thirsty. 

Then I see her, and I'm looking in a mirror and it makes me smile—not a toothy grin but a strangled half-moon of recognition. She's pushing her own stroller, also sweat-shined, eyebrows drawn together, lips flattened between forceful breaths. Her eyes catch mine and we share the runner-to-runner ritual of greeting: a slight smile. 

When I started running five years ago, I wished I could give everyone I passed on the green belt a high-five. LOOK AT US, I'd think when I saw another runner, WE'RE DOING IT. And once in a while, I'd try it, even saying something out loud like, "Good job!" People would usually give me a confused smile or laugh and say thanks. But as I began to push myself toward longer distances and faster paces, I ran out of energy to spend on anything besides putting feet in front of each other. I still smiled when other runners passed me—especially other parents with beat-up jogging strollers—but I'd stopped wasting precious breath on words.

Writing during the busy years of motherhood is hard, and I don't always have the energy. My writing might not always be a boisterous high-five of pithy statements and exuberance. I can offer a strangled smile, though. And because you and I relate—we're fellow runners in motherhood and tiredness and faith and life—I don't have to say much more for you to understand. We can encourage each other with simple words. 

That's when I started noticing it: the runner's smile. Now it's something I look forward to on every run. Not everyone does it: some runners are too focused, headphones in, eyes ahead, legs aching. Many do, though, and I love it. It's this tiny, nearly imperceptible simper wreathed with understanding and encouragement. It says the same thing I used to want to shout; LOOK AT US, WE'RE USING OUR BODIES, WE'RE DOING IT. But the runner's smile doesn't need overambitious bursts of energy to communicate its message. 

On a run in July, I realized writing is like that. I've been in a creative slump for months now—maybe over a year, if you can draw a circle around something so fuzzy and hard to define—and sometimes, there are things I want to shout. My writing is how I tell other people in the trenches of motherhood, writing, working, and evolving I see them. LOOK AT US, I want to say to the mom holding a baby and wrangling a toddler. I want to shout to the person wrestling with their faith and searching for meaning: WE'RE DOING IT. But more often than not, especially over the last 18 months, I haven't had any energy for the shouting.  

But just because I can't shout doesn't mean I can't say it another way. My writing might not always be a boisterous high-five of pithy statements and exuberance. I can offer a strangled smile, though. And because you and I relate—we're fellow runners in motherhood and tiredness and faith and life—I don't have to say much more for you to understand. We can encourage each other with simple words. 

I'm trying to remember that while I struggle with where my writing is going. I'm sorting through purpose and direction and plans that make it feel like I'm pushing a big weight on this path, and sometimes it makes me slow down or even stop. Other writers are the ones who've come alongside me. In fact, I feel like everything I read lately has been a nudge that this time of diapers and sleep loss isn't forever, and I'll write more again soon (such as Ann Swindell's piece on stewarding your passions while mothering young kids and Katie Carper's guest post on Amber Salhus's blog). They're reminding me that even if a book-length project seems gargantuan and exhausting and impossible right now, I can type out a few words here and maybe help one other person today. I may not have my vision and blog all tidy and in order, but I can write what's on my mind for my Instagram friends. 

It doesn't have to be a shout and a high-five. This blog, for now, is my runner's smile to you. Look at us, friend. We're doing it. And hey, after this, let's meet up for a beer. We earned it.

Writing during the busy years of motherhood is hard, and I don't always have the energy. My writing might not always be a boisterous high-five of pithy statements and exuberance. I can offer a strangled smile, though. And because you and I relate—we're fellow runners in motherhood and tiredness and faith and life—I don't have to say much more for you to understand. We can encourage each other with simple words. 

One Year Later, I Had a Normal Morning

This morning, I made oatmeal and stirred in just the right amount of honey. I pulled curly blonde hair back into a braid and tucked in the requested sparkly bow. I nursed Ada, I slipped on some pants, I kissed Jason. I changed a diaper, I sipped scaldingly hot coffee, I dropped Charlie off at preschool and gave Jason a ride to work. It was a normal morning. 

The date on my phone reminded me what today is: today marks a year. One year since that first morning back in our house after the addition. That morning, all I wanted was normal. 

Our first morning back in the house, a year ago today.

Our first morning back in the house, a year ago today.

Last summer was anything but normal. Jason got the call that he and his team were laid off in June, right when we broke ground on our ambitious home addition. The next six months were harder than we could have imagined they'd be. At night, I'd toss with restless anxiety and pregnancy aches while Jason lay awake next to me, too sore from 12-hour days of physical work on our house to sleep. Those six months tested us in ways we didn't anticipate. 

Strangely, those six months are still something I struggle to write about. Yes, me: the chick who started babbling about everything as a baby and hasn't shut up since. I somehow don't have the vernacular to describe that it was hard and refining, important and stretching. I don't know how to tell you how scared I was, and yet how sure that around every corner was safety and normalcy again. And that safety and normalcy were around the corner, it just turned out to be the very, very last corner we turned. 

Our home was liveable (though without countertops, an oven, electricity, siding, and many other things) only four days before Ada was born. Jason got three job offers—finally—the second week of December, the week that the mailman delivered our last severance check.  

The only way I can describe it is: manna. Give us this day our daily bread—none leftover from yesterday, none for tomorrow, just enough. Enough for today. 

This morning.

This morning.

Now, a year later, I'm free to feel grateful for the gift of normal. We're still living on a manna paradigm; we're still recovering financially from the lay-off and the expenses of adding on. The house isn't finished (but are houses ever finished?). There are still plenty of day-to-day struggles and worries. But this morning was so deliciously normal, and it feels important to mark it. 

June 2016: foundation and framing going on around our tiny 700-square foot home.

June 2016: foundation and framing going on around our tiny 700-square foot home.

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Just looking at this photo gives me anxiety. I was seven weeks from giving birth and my house looked like this!

Just looking at this photo gives me anxiety. I was seven weeks from giving birth and my house looked like this!

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This morning.

This morning.

10 Things I Wish People Would Say to My Daughters Instead of "You're So Pretty"

My daughters are beautiful. 

I'm not being vain—I just believe this. And I hear it every time I leave the house from well-meaning strangers, so I know I'm not simply biased. My oldest has honey blonde curls and my youngest's long, dark lashes fringe deep blue, smiling eyes. 

They're beautiful. And frankly, that's the least interesting thing about them. But based on the sheer number of comments they get, I know it's the attribute they hear about most often.

I'm a believer in the power of words. I think words shape us from a young age, and words said repeatedly, by people we trust, and at formative times in our lives have a profound and lasting impact. Some of us spend most of our lives undoing the damage of words we heard too often or we have told ourselves over decades. And the words my daughters hear every time—without fail—we're in public are some variation on the theme of, "Oh, sweetheart, you're so pretty!" 

The fact is, I can't blame people. I've done it myself, even after I've problematized and rethought this common cultural interaction. It's knee-jerk and acceptable, and when I'm just trying to interact with the funny toddler in the check-out aisle, it probably won't get me far to ask if they've read the latest edition of The Atlantic. I get it. It's a conversation starter; a way to interact politely. 

But it's not all that innocent, even with the best of intentions. When we talk about things to the exclusion of others, we signal that those things have value. Especially for little girls, this can be incredibly damaging. I recently saw a YouTube video—a light-hearted interview with a two-year-old on her birthday—where she was asked, "How do you stay so skinny? Tell us your secrets!" Hold up, what? A two-year-old? Skinny? Would they have asked a boy that? Nope. I can't count how many times I've heard (and stumbled into saying myself) comments like, "Look at those chunky baby thighs! Enjoy them now, honey, because later on in life it's not cute to have fat rolls!" Meanwhile, we're wondering how it's possible that kids as young as five struggle with body image issues. 

The messages these comments send our girls are hurtful, damaging, and devastating. There is the argument that positive comments aren't damaging ("What's wrong with complimenting someone?"), but this isn't the whole picture. When a little girl only hears comments about her body, clothes, and looks, this is what she really hears.

"Your worth is tied to your appearance."

That's why I'm writing this. Maybe you, like me, have had to bite your tongue instead of focusing immediately (and exclusively) on a girls' outward appearance when you meet her or when greeting a friend's daughter. I'm known for getting tongue tied, because hey, I know what I don't want to say: now what do I say? 

The messages many comments send our girls are hurtful, damaging, and devastating. There is the argument that positive comments aren't damaging ("What's wrong with complimenting someone?"), but this isn't the whole picture. When a little girl only hears comments about her body, clothes, and looks, this is what she really hears: "Your worth is tied to your appearance."

Next time you see a perky child you want to interact with, try these instead. (Bonus! They work for any kid, not just girls.) 

10 Things to Say Instead of Commenting on Appearance

  1. Are you doing fun things with your family today? 
  2. I see you're eating an orange lollipop. Do you like the color orange? 
  3. Good job being a helper while your (mom/dad/grandma/grandpa, etc) shops for groceries! What's your favorite food? 
  4. It's fun to play at the park, isn't it? Is the slide or the swing your favorite? 
  5. Is this your baby/big sister/brother? I bet you're a good sister/brother to her/him! 
  6. It's warm/cold today, isn't it? Did you wear your warm/cool clothes today? Tell me about them! 
  7. Are you having a fun day? 
  8. Do you like to read? What's your favorite book?
  9. What's your favorite movie?
  10.  I saw you running/jumping/skipping/swinging/bouncing! Do you love to run/jump/skip/swing/bounce?

We can't change the whole culture right now. But I know you and I can change what we say to the kids we interact with. And while I'm at it, I'll share what my husband says to our girls at every bedtime (with variations most nights): 

"I love your mind, I love your kindness, I love how you ask questions, I love how you played hard today. I love how you learn new things, and how you like to read books, and how you help around the house. I love everything about you!" 

That's what our kids need to hear.