A few months ago, I had the pleasure of writing a reflection for Simplify Magazine.
The opportunity cropped up after a casual email exchange with the publication’s co-founder, Joshua Becker.
Before long, he and I were waxing the relationship between clutter, convenience, and satisfaction, or perhaps the lack thereof. We agreed that clutter isn’t purely a result of poor organization. It can symbolize a person’s tendency to purchase their way out of any form of mild suffering.
I casually pitched an idea for an article: a personal reflection on the blessing of uncluttered and inconvenient living, set in Scotland circa 2012. Joshua agreed, and that was that.
Just kidding. It wasn’t that straightforward.
A full-blown seizure rattled me five days before my deadline and life got MIGHTY inconvenient. Physical depletion. Serious anxiety. Social inertia. Clouded thoughts. So many tears.
Meanwhile, I’m sharing a house with another busy family, stepping over Lego, comforting a six-month-old baby and preparing meals for ten, all whilst sweating to think straight and write neatly about choosing to make routine life inconvenient so as to train ourselves for life’s rough patches. Oh, the irony. God knew I needed to meditate on our past in that moment.
The more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most. – Thomas Merton
Shortly after Befriending Inconvenience was published, a handful of kind souls reached out to offer kind words. In fact, one woman wrote to me from her new and unfamiliar home by the North Sea, literally a few streets away from the icy apartment I wrote about in my article. Crazy, right? The world is a chia seed. So tiny.
Oddly enough, she finds herself in a situation similar to the one I faced.
She’s been braving Scotland’s elements for months, faithfully supporting her scholarly husband, patiently waiting for sunshine and the promise of hope restored.
She and I are now friends. We exchange messages like we have history. I tag along via Instagram and catch glimpses of present-day St Andrews through the eyes of a woman who is still finding her feet, in marriage, in academia, and in a new world.
Honestly, if she was the only person who benefitted from the article, I’d be satisfied. She fought through her first inconvenient Scottish winter with all its isolation. My article was there to keep her company in some small way and now the warm sun over the North Sea is hers. This is the joy of penning articles for the masses.
Shortly after submitting my article, a thought-provoking piece titled The Tyranny of Convenience came out in the New York Times. (Tim Wu! Huge fan.) His article validated my swirling thoughts, the ones that never made it into the article.
Convenience is risky and the implications of choosing the easy road time and again are serious and worth considering.
Communication, for example. Rapid-fire messaging is convenient. As a result, face-to-face conversation becomes an endangered species. Relationships suffer.
Or take food. Cooking from scratch burns time so instead we charge ahead, literally cutting corners, inhaling our food and getting back to the grind. Opportunities for life-giving interactions both in the kitchen and around the table vanish.
Then there’s shopping with a retailer whose name rhymes with Famizon. (It’s convenient, right? Too convenient.) As a result, impulsive shopping is a click away and we pass up opportunities to support local men and women working to make a living in our neighbourhoods because it means us waiting in line or getting off the couch.
We desire meaningful lives but convenience is so alluring. The trouble is that convenience begets laziness and to borrow the sentiments on a friend’s t-shirt, lazy is as lazy doesn’t. We can’t enjoy meaningful lives if we aren’t prepared to do the hard work, to shift from grit to glory.
Training for a marathon and beating the odds.
Nurturing a garden and soaking in its beauty.
Enduring childbirth and snuggling a warm baby.
Raising teenagers and sending them off with confidence.
Sweating through a challenging presentation and closing the deal.
Life itself is incredibly inconvenient. We need to get accustomed to pushing through when things don’t go our way so that we are prepared to face adversity, big or small, when the time comes. We can train ourselves to choose the inconvenient path if we practice paring down at home, opting out of familiar comforts. After all, a smooth sea never made a skilled sailor.
That is perhaps the longest possible way of introducing the article. Inconvenient? Perhaps. Worthwhile? I hope so. Regardless, here is the unabridged version of the article. I hope you enjoy it.
“Persuade thyself that imperfection and inconvenience are the natural lot for mortals and there will be no room for discontent, neither for despair.” – Tokugawa Ieyasu
I’m sitting here alone, fingers tapping away, trying to keep warm in the chilly basement of a six-bedroom house. Six months ago, my husband and I carted our two kids and newborn baby here to Toronto, barreling across North America in a minivan, our limited possessions flooding the trunk and lining the space between seats.
That was last August. If you look back further in our family’s story, you might assume that we have a thing for traveling or that we’re quite fond of inconvenient living. You’d be correct on both fronts. Sort of.
Five years living in Scotland were followed by thirteen months traipsing the west coast of Canada, exploring smoky Tennessee, and frolicking in sunny Australia—all with kids in tow: two on board and one on the way. Our lives packed neatly into two duffel bags and three carry-on suitcases: clothing, toys, books—everything. Gypsy minimalism, I like to call it.
Last spring, we returned to Vancouver from Down Under and, a few months later, welcomed a baby girl into our family. We moved once within the week she was born and then two and a half weeks later, we hit the road for Toronto. Voila!—here I sit, dizzily typing in a cold basement.
You may be scratching your head and wondering why anyone would choose to live this way. Two words: necessity and academia.
The gist is that between returning from a five-year scholastic stint in Scotland and securing a position in Toronto, we had no permanent home. Our housing plans fell through unexpectedly and we had to get creative.
We couldn’t sign a rental agreement. A last-minute job opportunity would mean packing, pivoting, and plotting a course to God knows where. We had to remain nimble. Rental agreements dislike nomads like us.
So I wrote a family press release and turned it loose on the internet. Doors literally opened for us. We had almost no money; we paid almost no rent. Friends and strangers welcomed us into their sacred spaces. Irrational hospitality was the hallmark of our year.
Necessity is the mother of invention, says an English proverb. Our family’s unique need for a temporary home gave birth to a wild invention indeed: a community living experiment that is still playing out to this day.
We’re currently sharing this six-bedroom home with another family of five—ten people, one beguiling cat named Cupcake, one functioning shower and many a curveball.
As you can imagine, this lifestyle—this nomad existence—is thoroughly inconvenient. There are headaches galore. Friends ask how we cope. With a twinkle in my eye, I say it’s the grace of God and ice cold gin.
Yes, it is complicated and messy but truthfully, life is more vivid now than ever. Where many see absurd scarcity, there is abundance. We have little to our name; we possess immeasurable joy and new eyes with which to see the world.
I wouldn’t be able to stand tall after taking this much of a beating if it were not for our time in Scotland. Those five years, specifically the first one, prepared us to let go of comfortable living, to bend without breaking.
An Inconvenient Life
Life began shifting into inconvenient territory a little over six years ago. My husband and I uprooted our family so that he could wrangle himself a PhD in history. I kissed my secure job goodbye. While Steve poured over manuscripts, I occupied myself with raising a healthy butterball named Isaac.
That first year was a brutal contrast to convenient life in Canada. Basic household comforts didn’t exist in student housing. Suddenly, our life was an exercise in involuntary asceticism.
- No dishwasher or dryer
- No car or garage.
- No bedroom for our baby boy.
- No functioning freezer.
- No television.
- No friends or family for miles.
First world problems, I know, but Lord, it was inconvenient. And when the thing I needed most was a friendly email or a Skype date, even that was out of reach. We had no internet in our apartment for eight weeks.
That apartment was…memorable. You know those chic minimalist homes in magazines? The ones that ooze style? Not this place. It was simply empty and cold. Gone was our plush comfort zone. We were trapped in a one-bedroom apartment with tiny windows and icy floors.
I wanted out. I wanted a quick fix. A massive shopping spree would have ironed out the inconvenience and smoothed our transition but we couldn’t purchase our way out of misery. Our student loans dispelled the idea, plus, we had little room to house anything.
Empty Home, Cluttered Heart
The apartment was nearly empty; my head and heart were packed with noisy and cluttered thoughts—frustration, loneliness, fatigue, confusion and envy. The contrast between my interior and exterior life was shocking. Pacing back and forth with the baby in those vacant rooms amplified the noise in my heart. There was no escape.
At first, it was awful and I felt like such a pansy. Routine tasks were my nemesis. Never-ending baby laundry? Three meals a day?! Heaven help me. So much time and energy was required simply to make the household function and I was tethered to the empty apartment.
Again, first world problems. Many people suffer under appalling conditions and have no say in the matter. They live in hunger and fear. This world is cruel and unfair. I recognize my privilege.
Mine was poverty of spirit. As a homesick vulnerable new mother, one who was used to clocking in as a successful professional in a familiar city, our inconvenient life was unbearable at times. It was one more thing to contend with.
Soon after, depression rolled in like fog over the North Sea. The sum of our major transitions took its toll. It was a strange cocktail of homesickness and hormones. It left a bad taste in my mouth and I longed for our easier life.
I wept. I prayed. Some days I pinned my loneliness on the clothesline and left my thoughts outside to dry with the laundry. Other times I rolled up my sleeves and sorted sorrow into piles as I washed and stacked our humble dishes. I wished I could just toss my troubles into a machine, push a button and walk away.
Light Creeps In
Slowly, inconvenient housework transformed into therapy. The familiar routine enforced solitude and allowed me to sift through my mental and emotional clutter and tidy up my interior life. My hands were tied to the sink for hours, providing moments to breathe, think, imagine.
Somewhere between the dark Scottish nights and the blushing spring mornings, I fell in love with our inconvenient life. The domestic liturgy forged in me a steady resilience. Slowly my head and heart transformed into an uncluttered space for peace to dwell.
Where I once saw obstacles, I found opportunities. By the time the daffodils sprung up, I was a different woman: Elissa Joy Watts, a tenacious mother, a woman with grit and dishwater hands.
Inconvenience as Teacher
Looking back, I see now that five years of overcoming inconvenient household living served us in ways we couldn’t fathom. The season yielded an abundant crop of clarity, resilience, and endurance. It’s a good thing, too, because life across the pond held all kinds of nonsense.
- A grand mal seizure.
- A housing crisis.
- A tearful goodbye.
- A lost job opportunity.
- An unplanned pregnancy.
- A scary hospital trip at the 36-week mark.
A very, very inconvenient year, basically. The events shook us to the core but practicing inconvenient living for half a decade gave my husband and I the perspective to see our situation as the opportunity that it was.
- An opportunity to live by faith.
- To be vulnerable.
- To practice empathy.
- To ask for help.
- To step into creativity.
- To trust.
Not long after arriving back in Canada, a simple line drawing hijacked my attention and reminded me of a familiar truth.
Two circles sat on a stark white page. One circle contained the words “Your Comfort Zone” and occupied nearly half the sheet. The other circle was tiny, too small to contain its description. It sat perched in the corner of the page labeled with an arrow and four little words: Where The Magic Happens.
The words struck hard and left me buzzing. The idea wasn’t a new revelation but sometimes the truth rushes in with excellent timing. Timing is everything.
As life drew us further away from our comfort zone, our familiar possessions and routine, we experienced magic: new relationships, new opportunities, new perspectives.
Comfort Is Not King
Why do so many of us opt for big homes, ones akin to the larger circle? Why do we clutter our lives with possessions designed to take the sting out of the everyday when kicking excess and befriending a little routine could keep life entertaining, strengthen our character, lessen our footprint, and save us money?
If we sanitize our environments of all possible inconvenience, we miss the opportunity to practice simple hard work on a regular basis. Inconvenient household living is the domestic equivalent of training for a marathon in the peak of summer and then enjoying a rare brisk climate run on race day. You’re more than prepared when things get tough.
Inflated comfort zones can store a lot of clutter but magic is sometimes hard to come by. And if our knee-jerk response to inconvenience is to shop around for a solution, we’re in trouble. Forever collecting commodities to buff the rough edges off our day-to-day life misses the point of life itself: to stay nimble, work hard, gain wisdom, age gracefully, make it through to the other side of life’s difficulties and offer something to the next generation.
In her masterpiece “Daring Greatly,” Brené Brown says hope is a function of struggle. She’s right. (Brené is always right.) Struggling our way through an inconvenient life is a trustworthy path to the real good life, the one marked by hope, satisfaction, abundance, and—bonus!—minimal clutter. No grit, no pearl. You may have to catapult far from familiar convenience and land in a cramped circle in order for the fun to begin. This is what I know to be true.
Embracing Inconvenience in Small Doses
You need not toss away all your possessions, move house every few weeks, or do away with practical household appliances to embrace an inconvenient life. Try folding these simple practices into your everyday routine and see how they transform your life.
Take the stairs: Assuming you’re able, opting to take the stairs is a practical yet inconvenient exercise. Yes, it takes longer and, yes, it’s more work. But you’ll experience an endorphin rush at the top and easily justify spreading extra butter on your croissant or sipping that second glass of red. It’s not a coincidence that Parisian buildings lack elevators.
Ditch the devices: Parents fall back on glowing rectangles from time to time to entertain their little ones. It’s convenient in times of need. But intentionally letting them rest and wind down is a necessary discipline. Inconvenient? Absolutely, especially during the witching hour. When the going gets tough, keep your eyes on the long-term benefits for the whole family. Use the opportunity as a chance to connect with those you love most.
Bake bread: No bread hooks. No pre-packaged mixes. No bread machines. Roll up your sleeves and party like it’s 1899. Are the kids bored? Enroll them in helping to measure the ingredients. Are you feeling stressed? Knead away, friend. Are you exhausted from being up all night with a teething baby? Me too. Let’s nap while the dough rises. There’s a reason bread’s been around for generations.
Congratulations! You made it to the end and if I’m lucky, we’re still friends. xoxo