February gets bad press. The excitement of Christmas and New Year is over and the weather is usually pants. But we love February at Happy Coulson as it’s the month of our family skiing holiday. For most of the year our house is full of pilgrims, workaways, students and other visitors, which we love. But our February holiday is just for us.

There was a slight hiccup this year when we phoned the owner of our usual apartment to say we were nearly there and she said there was already somebody there! She had made a mistake with the dates and put us down for the following week. So home we went, to try to rearrange all the work we were committed to, including a French student from Paris who was coming to stay for the week.

We were all disappointed, it took a lot of work to change our plans and we lost a fair bit of money. What do you do when things like this happen? I felt like crying, or getting angry. But with who? And would that help? I didn’t cry or get angry as I noticed these feelings creeping up and consciously chose a more helpful response. I can do that (most of the time) because yoga helps me practice and learn mindfulness.

Mindfulness meditation is trendy at the moment but what does it actually mean? Exactly this. Training yourself to be more aware of what is going on in your mind and learning techniques to help you master your reactions. It’s like the Cherokee tale of the Two Wolves – choosing to feed the good wolf inside you and not the bad. How we actually do this is through mindfulness, becoming aware of our feelings and emotions and choosing which to follow. This is brilliantly explained in this two-minute film.

You don’t have to do yoga to practice mindfulness. It can be as easy as becoming aware of your breath. But like anything worth doing, it takes time to get good so you will need to stick with it. The easiest way to start is with a guided programme – check out Happify or Headspace. Just 10 minutes a day of sitting quietly, being aware of your breath and what’s going on in your head. Give it a real go.

I still get angry. I am still practising. But the great thing is that you can help others learn mindfulness at the same time. When you get angry and don’t catch it in time, don’t beat yourself up, just think about how you could have responded differently. Talk about it with people around you. Admit out loud that you could have chosen a different reaction and it will get easier every time. Children learn by watching us. So let’s teach them how to be more mindful. It is a skill that really does make the whole world a happier place 🙂

The world in our handsThere aren’t many people who are not talking or at least thinking about politics at the moment.  It’s something that I usually try to avoid, despite being a BBC news journalist for several years. My total lack of interest in politics was noticed and disapproved of, especially as one of the five people I trained with was the brilliant and utterly lovely Laura Kuenssberg, now the BBC’s Political Editor…

But there are moments when everyone needs to sit up and notice what is going on in the world. For me, it started with Brexit, then Trump and now concerns around Marine Le Pen in France. We have all seen the comparisons with what happened in Nazi Germany and while I know that we can’t believe everything we read on Facebook, we cannot ignore the fact that atrocities often happen because people turn a blind eye.

Some of my friends think we should just accept that Trump is the president for the next four years. Others believe that as we are ok at the moment we should just keep quiet. No.

My mum always says: “Do as you would be done by”. Treat others as you would like to be treated. Imagine fleeing war with your family. Imagine being persecuted for your peaceful beliefs. We have a responsibility to stand up for those who are being treated unfairly. We don’t need to use violence, we don’t need to rant or rave or throw stones. But we do need to stand up and be counted.

 

The end of a year is always a time for reflection. I am perpetually guilty of trying to fit slightly too much into each day, which results in a big backlog after 365 days… The things I want to do but don’t are usually the frivolous and fun things that don’t make money or do something for the family. So this year, I made a to-do list for my Christmas holidays of all the things I don’t have/make time for in daily life. It ranged from walking the dog to making music, cooking, crafting and spending time with new friends.

I set about this list with the same determination that sees me through the working year and I pretty much did everything I wanted to. It has been a wonderful holiday. Something that didn’t make the list but I soon realised I needed was ‘Laze around in bed/pyjamas’. The first time I tried, I got really cross as I felt guilty for wasting my precious time. The kids helped me have a good laugh about that…

Guilt is a funny old thing. I used to feel guilty about taking time off work. Not any more. I still feel a bit guilty about doing nothing. But I’m working on that.

Life is for living and we only get one of them. Work is necessary and if you enjoy your job then that’s a bonus. But there is no excuse for not doing what makes you feel good. So my new year not-a-resolution is to do more of what makes me feel good, even if it doesn’t seem to ‘achieve’ anything. And to not feel guilty afterwards.

How we take and use photographs has changed dramatically during my lifetime. I remember fondly going to Boots to buy a 24 or 36 exposure film and choosing very carefully which Kodak moments to capture. Waiting a few days for your photos to be developed only added to the excitement of that very first viewing, often done right outside the shop as you just couldn’t wait till you got home. From these images, a select few would be chosen to go into a photo album, to peruse whenever the mood took you.

I started taking digital photos at around the same time that Tana was born so I have no photo albums that feature my children. If I want to look at photos of my babies I have to sit at my computer. But that’s ok. That’s just how it is for now. I am looking forward to the day I have time to sift through the thousands of photos we have taken and organise them into old-school albums to thumb through into our old age.

img_1738_webBut while technology has undoubtedly changed some things, others remain the same. Looking through the photos I took on our recent family holiday to Italy, I realise that I am still using the camera in exactly the same way.

Most of the photos I take are of the backs of my family, without them even knowing that I have the camera in my hand. Taking a photo is like freezing time – my aim is to capture a feeling experienced there and then that I want to remember forever. I don’t want to focus on the camera so a selfie stick is not for me. I take my photographs quickly and stealthily before getting back to the moment itself.

20160924_161533_cropWe’ve had a funny couple of weeks. Last Saturday cost us thousands of euros after our canoe capsized (pictured, just before), killing Chris’ new phone and sunglasses, and our truck fell into a ditch and had to be towed to the garage for costly repairs. Less expensive but equally irksome was cutting the chewing gum out of Tana’s gorgeous curly hair, and cleaning someone else’s child’s vomit out of the grooves in our bathroom wall at 3am. On my knees by the toilet with a toothbrush (an old one) in hand, I chuckled to myself at the run of bad luck. But I didn’t feel unlucky.

Then on Wednesday I receive the dreaded phone call: “Mum, come quick. Dad’s had an accident”. Luckily it was no-school-Wednesday and Tana was with Chris on his pool-cleaning rounds when he fell on a metal pole and into the pool. Tana helped him out and rescued the phone on which he called me. The phone held out until I arrived, which took a while as Tana didn’t know where they were so sent me to the wrong village. But he didn’t panic, just walked to find some road signs and directed me in before running back to check his father was still breathing. Chris was taken to hospital, blue lights a-flashing, where x-rays showed there was no damage to lungs or heart, just fractured ribs and some very impressive bruising.

This coming hot on the heels of our ‘samedi de merde’, lots of people have said how unlucky we are at the moment. But I don’t feel unlucky. Not one bit. I feel blessed. It’s been costly, irritating, time-consuming, and, for Chris – now and for a long time to come – painful. But that is all.

back-to-school-first-dayTana started big school this term – aged just 10 years old. Nerve-wracking for us all as his first years at the local primary school were tough. He was bullied by older kids for wanting to join in with their games and ignored by others who didn’t dare upset the bullies.

Which is why we decided not to send Tana to the local ‘collège’ but to a small, private, Catholic (yes, really) school in the next town. What attracted us was reports of strong discipline and pastoral care. A laissez-faire, “kids will be kids” approach does not, in my opinion, help children learn how to get along in life. They need adults, both parents and teachers, for that. Tana lost some of his self-confidence for a while but happily bounced back and learned some valuable lessons.

A month in at his new school and Tana’s teachers and classmates love him. They describe him as funny, kind, enthusiastic and charming. Tana is back. We are so lucky that this option was open to us as school can make or break a child. I’m not talking about grades – as long as our children do their best most of the time we’ll be happy – but children must feel safe. We are lucky too that private school in France costs just 40€ a month. There are no luxuries for that price so facilities are basic and pretty tatty. But Tana is not only happy to be himself, he is applauded for it. And that is priceless.

DSC_0775_webWork, work, work. Not much rest. And lots of play. That about sums up our Happy Coulson summer so far. May, June and July saw us working harder than ever, continuing to teach yoga and welcome pilgrims, and also opening and cleaning 20 plus swimming pools and hosting three French students for week-long language immersions.

But it hasn’t been just about work. In amongst all that hard graft have been several visits by dear friends and family, which we managed to thoroughly enjoy. End of term shows and presentations were followed by a string of fêtes, festivals and fiestas. And we went to most of them!

DSC_1034_webTo cap it all off, we held a party last weekend for some of the families we have met over the last four years. An afternoon of swimming, games and festival fun was followed by an evening of dancing and live music around the fire. It was a special moment for us, as we have dreamed of a party like this at Happy Coulson. Thanks to everyone who came bearing food, drink, music and good times. Here’s to many more moonlit and music-filled soirées.

Amazing photos by our Mexican workaway, Fernando (pictured above, twirling poi).

brexitSo the UK has voted to leave the European Union. I had considered the possibility so was surprised at how disappointed I felt when I heard the result on Friday. My main concern was how separatist and hostile it made my homeland seem, and already there are reports of an increase in hate crimes and verbal attacks. As a British person living in France, I can only imagine how terrifying this would be. Luckily, our French friends just think Brexit is hilarious and are guaranteed to dine out on this for a long, long time…

Despite the threat to our whole life here in France, it must be much harder living in the UK at the moment. But let us all remember that racism will not be tolerated. Let us make it clear that it will not be tolerated. Whatever the referendum result, decent people are still in the vast majority. No one knows exactly what will happen now so there is no point worrying about it. What we can and should be doing is spreading enough love and tolerance around to extinguish any smouldering embers of hatred.

Thank you to Christine, a French yoga student of mine, for reminding me of this wonderful story…wolf

One evening, an elderly Cherokee brave told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said: “My son, the battle is between two ‘wolves’ inside us all. One is evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is good. It is joy, peace love, hope serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.” The grandson though about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf wins?” The old Cherokee simply replied: “The one that you feed.”

Feed your good wolf. Abundantly and with all kinds of delicious tidbits. And while you’re at it, give some to your neighbour’s good wolf too.

Beach funThe rhythm of life at Happy Coulson is changing. Chris has started his first season as the local pool guy – he has 20 swimming pools to clean and open before the summer. Spring also brings a steady stream of pilgrims – more than steady this year as we’ve had record numbers already. Thankfully we have had a workaway – Kristen from Kansas – to look after them. We also had four French girls to stay for a language immersion during the school holidays.

Everyone is mucking in – the kids earned their first ever pocket money by doing whatever was required, from kitchen work to feeding the animals. India can pretty much prepare and serve the evening pilgrim meal by herself now and we came down one morning to find that Tana had taken payment from a couple of pilgrims and stamped their passports before waving them off.

We all love busy – Tana says he wants to live in a hut on an island so he always has something to do – but it’s important not to be a work bore. So four days at a friend’s beachfront house for their 40th birthday was just what we needed. Sea, sand, friends and food reset the balance beautifully.

Relaxed kidsWe often have French students staying with us during the holidays to learn English, this time two sisters from Paris who are here for their third visit. The girls work very hard at school and their parents are happy to know “they’ve changed the pace and content of their Parisian routine”.

You don’t have to live in Paris to have a busy life, and this can make life stressful for children as well as adults. The girls always enjoy coming to yoga with me so I planned morning and evening meditation sessions, in the hope of giving them some techniques they could take back home.

What exactly is meditation? For me, it’s a way of finding space in my head, with no need to do anything, just be. This can be very helpful for children who feel weighed down by expectations and overstimulated by life.

How do you do meditation with kids? It can sound a bit daunting, especially when it is not something you are used to doing yourself. Here are a few super-simple techniques that I use:

Seated meditation (you can do this anywhere, even if you only manage a couple of minutes):
1. Sit comfortably, with your back straight, if in a chair feet flat on the floor, eyes closed
2. Just be aware of your breath – observe how it lifts and lowers your chest
3. As you breathe out, relax your eyes. Relax your mouth. Relax your shoulders. Relax your hands
4. Stay here for as long as you want, coming out slowly with some deeper breaths, eyes to the floor

Other things to try (just use one technique, always starting with good posture and breath awareness):
– Put one hand on your belly and let your belly fill with your in-breath, just letting go with your out-breath
– Count how many seconds it takes you to breathe in and out. Try to slow your out-breath by 1-2 seconds
– Be aware of the little pauses at the top and bottom of the breath – maybe hang out there for a moment

Lying meditation (anywhere – in bed, outside):
1. Lie on your back, arms by your sides, palms up, relax your legs, shoulders and arms
2. You can do all of the above. Also, after getting comfy and focusing on your breath for a few minutes:
– If outside, become aware of any sounds. Start with those close by then let your awareness ripple out, taking in those far away before slowly bringing your awareness back. Take your time.
– Imagine yourself in a really peaceful place – lying in a meadow, on the beach, on a mountain, even on a cloud. Describe how it feels. Take your child on a journey, encouraging them to find their own place.

Give it a try. It’s worth it. And let me know how it goes.

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