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A diary with walls

Seventeen horses, 23 dolls, eight photos of friends, two pictures of herself, poems, a prayer, small children, a leopard and a fawn, collages made for classmates -- a mild chaos edged with bright colors, wide possibilities: the room of a 15-year-old. Grown-ups do not keep photos of themselves in their rooms. Why does a 15-year-old? No doubt they are there to be given away, but also as a reminder of who she is, a thing changing so fast it might be forgotten. A 15-year-old is herself in her room -- to which she frequently retires -- and she has photographs and a few other items to prove it.

Things are sometimes crowded in there: 46 record albums, nine birds' nests, four stuffed animals, nine college catalogs, 17 glass animals, two piggy banks, 153 books --from The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winklem to The Screw-Tape Lettersm -- and on the floor a brief history of teen-age fashion for the last three years. This crowdedness creates an effect adults sometimes associate with sloppiness but which is possibly the working out of a principle first brought to public attention in 1597 by the poet John Donne: "to make one little room an everywhere."

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Things are building up in a 15-year-old and things are building up in her room. The walls and floor are a kind of diary where she makes regular entries. I asked my daughter Beth why she had the photo of a six-year-old on her wall. "Because she's beautiful." "Well, how about that picture of the four-year-old hockey player leaving the ice with downcast head?" "Because it's sad."

Beth is rarely expansive in her replies. Usually a word or two will do, especially when the questions deal with her room, which is her place against the world. Complex and rare. The great depository of herself. I think a 15 -year-old must decide there are so many things "out there" it might be a good idea to have a lot of stuff "in here" to balance herself against the world. Nothing is lost. Nothing is thrown away. Even dirty clothes are given up only "on demand." There is a picture of her third-grade class hanging on the wall. Mementos go back for years. Who can say what we will need of ourselves tomorrow?

Is this putting too fine an edge on poor housekeeping? Is this no more than the maunderings of dotage? Perhaps. But what do our own rooms reflect of us? Are there things building up in us that overflow? Are we breaking out in different directions, spontaneous and awry, quietly breathtaking to our acquaintances? Or are we too easily contained and, having stopped surprising, become merely predictable and neat? No doubt adults are less messy, but in their neatnesses they keep on losing themselves.

No. There is a principle in chaos, a fine mulch in disarray. To paraphrase Herrick: "A sweet disorder in the dress/Kindles in clothes a wondrousness." After all, there was a time for neatness -- around 11, 12, or 13 -- when shoes were spotless, the dresser always neat, the floor and walls pristine. Now is another time. Somebody is changing. Someone is keeping track of herself. Something is not to be tampered with. Let's leave things the way they are: sleeping bags on the floor for her friends, green ribbons, photos, and poems on the wall, jeans on the bean-bag chair, and her dog Spot snoozing.

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