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In the Whirled: Is cleanliness really next to godliness?

Published: Thursday, Jan. 2 2014 10:35 a.m. MST

This week, as we remove the brittle Christmas tree and unwrap the garland from the staircase banister, most of us will resolve to clean for the new year.

The ambitious among us will invest in plastic bins and label makers. We will tackle the forgotten corners of our homes. We will tell ourselves this is the year to cut the wardrobe by half, donate old toys, clean under the refrigerator, dust the ceiling fans and finally wipe those baseboards.

If December is the month of excess, January is the month of stripping down and simplifying.

Sure, most of us like things clean and orderly and feel tremendous pressure to keep our home/office/minivan tidy. The minimalist lifestyle has exploded in popularity, a turnaround from the excess of past decades. I hear some people actually live surrounded by just 100 items. (I assume these people don’t have children or Legos.) We’re told the Zen lifestyle, with its low-slung couches and bamboo plants, is the way to a clear conscious mind.

On top of this is the truism that cleanliness is next to godliness, that the closer I get to a tidy refrigerator, the closer I am to achieving perfection. We feel guilty when things are messy. How many times do we apologize when a neighbor drops by and sees our house in its real state, with homework on the kitchen table and unfolded laundry on the couch? This happens to me every day. Life in my house is not a bowl of shellacked cherries on a spotless granite countertop.

I am a big fan of clean. I take pleasure in donating bags of tossed items to our local thrift store. But one glance in my kitchen cupboards or basement closet, and you will discover my dirty secret: I am nowhere near godly. Not even close. My purse is a fascinating time capsule into the past three months of my life because that’s about how often I get around to cleaning it out. My office space would strike fear into the hearts of organization experts. If Dante had carved out a place in "Inferno" for the failed housewife, that’s where I would be sent.

So I took heart when I came across a recent New York Times opinion piece about mess and what it does for creativity.

A pair of researchers created a tidy space and a messy space then paraded subjects through the area and asked them to make a decision. They found, overwhelmingly, that people in the messy space made more daring decisions. They tried something new. Moreover, when asked to generate new ideas, subjects in the messy space came up with five times more creative ideas than those in the tidy space. They were 28 percent more creative than their neatnik counterparts.

Victory! All that clutter is actually a boon to the creative process. I’m filing this study in my (not-so-tidy) office, right next to all those articles telling me that eating chocolate every day is actually good for my health. There is nothing so gratifying as coming across research that validates our vices.

So as we go about creating those New Year’s resolutions, the messy among us can take heart. There is no need to buy plastic bins and label makers or to make long lists of items to donate. We can offer a small, sympathetic smile to friends who are spending days reshuffling cans of corn in their food storage closets while we revel in our superior creative clutter. We can wear our mess like a badge, pinned to one of the shirts we chose not to clean out of our closet, knowing that we are 28 percent more creative than Martha Stewart and her entire line of office products.

Perhaps cleanliness is next to godliness, but surely there is a place in heaven for the tattered lives of the creative geniuses. If so, I’m planting myself firmly in that camp. With a giant chocolate bar in hand.

Tiffany Gee Lewis lives in St. Paul, Minn., and is the mother of four boys. She blogs at thetiffanywindow.wordpress.com. Her email is tiffanyelewis@gmail.com.

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