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HOW TO REFORM A MESSY CHARACTER

There are three kinds of person: the happy-messy, the organisers, and the conscience-stricken slatterns who periodically reform, only to resume the slow slide into chaos. Unsure which you are? Then consider Quentin Crisp’s defence of not cleaning: ‘After the first four years the dirt doesn’t get any worse.’ Do you cringe? Envy his laissez-faire? Or does this sound like home?

‘Westerners have different standards, we have different standards,’ said an organiser of Delhi’s Commonwealth Games, defending the stray dogs and piles of rubbish in the athletes’ accommodation. He was right, mess and hygiene are relative values, shaped by culture and upbringing.

Many doze oblivious to mugs sprouting cataracts of mould beside their bed. Meanwhile their loved-ones fume at being forced, as they see it, to tidy after them. It feels a power game, and what makes it so upsetting is that mess is more than a question of health, safety or respect. It both  embodies and creates chaos. It not only echoes but shapes our ability to cope with life.

I know because I spent my teens in a stew. My bedroom, worse than anything Tracy Emin’s spewed, symbolised my misery and provided evidence I shouldn’t bother getting better. Today I’m better at being messy in moderation (my husband might disagree), and at life. When I see friends knee-high in debris, it seems all too eloquent of their inability to make choices, to let go of the past.

Okay, I’m smug. You may reject equations of tidiness with goodness, like committed idler Tom Hodgkinson, an author who expends vast energy on informing us he’s happy. But his partner looks tired. And ask yourself why we have metaphors like ‘messing up’ or ‘don’t mess with my mind’. Indeed, social research proves that mess, mental and moral behaviour are intertwined. Ingenious tests found that in squalid environments, people are likelier to act dishonestly.

You may never be as lucky, lucky, lucky as Kylie Minogue, for whom tidying is a choice not a necessity: “I like to clean my cupboards. Hours go by. I get my Marigolds on and have a fantastic frenzy,” she trills. But believe, like her, that cleaning cupboards is therapy, and I guarantee you’ll feel better.


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WHO BELONGS IN YOUR FAMILY?

Who are your family?  If you think the answer’s obvious, you may groan at reports that Pete Docter, director of Up, dedicated his Oscar to ‘the Pixar family’ and his wife and kids.  I groaned, then checked my fattest dictionary, and found this cheesy phrase couldn’t be more accurate.  The word hails from Latin’s ‘familia’, meaning ‘household’ and all in it (‘famulus’ was a ‘servant’).  Thus childless Samuel Pepys’s ‘family’ included his maids, but if his hands roamed as they dressed him, he was the right side of incest.  Just.

The idea that family can be custom-fit from any old bits may not be modern, but has gained urgency with rising divorce, and animates Pixar’s greatest films, especially Up.  This tale of a grouch restored to life by a boyscout, bird and dog salted my popcorn with tears because I’ve always believed that family bonds are inked in empathy first, blood second. Empathy led my parents to adopt a third daughter, and empathy held us fast when she unveiled the temper of a Tasmanian devil.  Today this once-damaged tot is an adoring mother whose sons have undammed unsuspected reserves of love in us all.

To make a family, via chromosomes, adoption, or ready-made people in your world, is always creative.  But how to tell who belongs?  Those friends whom I rebuke, not cold-shoulder, when they offend me, I consider sisters.   By contrast, my pal says he’d happily donate a kidney to a sister who didn’t invite him to her 30th birthday (in the next-door street) but he’d never ask her to dinner.  Yet if my friend-sisters required a kidney, what would I say? What if my sisters need it?

One thing is clear: family is the forcing house of identity, and at Christmas, as they goad us into acting as we did in our teens, we remember why we left. Yet if the lessons that family teach about our character can be painful, they’re worth mastering and applying elsewhere, preferably with the empathy afforded to nearest and dearest.  Intriguing research has found the happiest people don’t take home the principles they’ve learnt at work, but vice versa.  Treating your baby as a project is a pattern for woe, whereas managing a boss as you do your tantrumella toddler/husband is highly effective.  So whoever tends your hearth, root your heart at home and everything is easier.

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