In one, I am a principal. Parents seek me for advice; teachers come to me for sustenance; children gaze at me with respectful glee. I attend Back-to-School Nights, PTA meetings, soccer tournaments, and budget sessions. I make decisions, I make connections, I make a hundred thousand a year.
In another, I speak. I step into the pool of light in the center of the stage and pause to gaze at the hungry faces I cannot see, their ears cocked and ready, their aching bodies tilted forward in the darkness. I gather my words up into my mouth, and when I part my lips, the microphone and I are one: we amplify words. My words thunder, reverberate, and steal quietly into the hearts and minds of every soul in the arena. My words bring hope and laughter and tears and life. After the talk, the line for a chance to shake my hand wraps around and around and around the exhibition hall.
Many are the lives I have lived inside in my head.
My freshman year of college, I am a medical missionary. After medical school, I stride into the African sunrise, where sick people crowd around, and just a touch will heal them. I save and save and save, bodies and souls, and then I write letters to my supporters back home and save them, too.
At sixteen, I am a lawyer, living in a house in Boston with a roommate and two cats. I am engaged, not married. I tell myself this in a letter marked “Read in ten years,” which I leave in my desk drawer for ten years, and then read.
In seventh grade, I am the first female President of the United States of America.
In second grade, I am a flight attendant.
My senior year of college—briefly—I am a nun.
Here is the life I live outside my head: I wash dishes. Sinks and sinks and sinks full of dishes every day, because I live with four children, one husband, and no dishwasher. Sometimes my husband does the dishes. Sometimes the children do the dishes. But sometimes none of us wash the dishes, and they heap up in the sink so high you can’t fit your glass under the faucet, and they multiply across the counters, and we have to fish our hands into the cold leftover dishwater for spoons with which to eat our bowls of cold cereal, and the sugar ants scramble on the jelly knife, and in the morning I wake up guilty and sticky and I sigh and turn the water on.
In the life I live outside my head, I have a part-time job as a part-time teacher, teaching things I can only remember part of the time. I forget the discussion questions, or why they are important. I forget to ask the writing students to read from their work. I forget to ask the public speaking students to give one another feedback. I am so busy remembering how to do this job that I forget everything.
In the life I live outside my head, I drive one child to piano and another to soccer and another to baseball and another to youth group, sometimes all on the same night. The sliding doors on my minivan no longer slide, so the children have to clamber over me in the front seat when I drop them off, and they leave cakes of dirt smeared across my sleeve as they accidentally kick me in their struggle to get out of the car. On the way to a church potluck, I spill a crockpot of beans in back of the van, and fuzzy white mold spores take root in the juice before I clean it up, and my children say, “It smells like something died in here!” and I reply, “Our hopes and dreams,” and my husband does not appreciate the joke.
But in the life I live outside my head, my husband lays his head in my lap or we sip beer from jars because all our glasses have broken, and we flip channels on TV. Our children are finally big enough to ride their bicycles unassisted, so we take family bike rides, and our path skirts the freeway for only a hundred yards before we reach the river where the water runs high and the buds quicken on the trees.
In the life I live outside my head, which is my one life, and the only life I have, I lay down with each child at the end of each day. When I come to my middle son Levi’s bed, and stretch myself down along the outside edge of his faded Bob the Builder comforter, and fling my arm across the hand-me-down Blue’s Clues pillowcase so that he can settle his cheek into the crook of my arm, he asks me each and every night, what my favorite color is, and I ask him for his.
Levi’s favorite color changes every night, from blue to brown to red to silver to green to orange to blue again. I suppose he is thinking of some food he ate today, or a Lego creation he assembled, or a Superhero comic he tried to draw. But every time Levi asks me what my favorite color is, I look at my son’s brown hair, his brown eyes dancing in his pink skin, his red lips parted over the white crowd of grown-up and baby teeth, and I always reply, “My favorite color is Levi-color.”
It is the only color I can think of. The only final beauty.
It is the only color I know.