A Tale of Two Lives

My children and I lead a double life. Five years ago, my husband walked away from corporate America to develop an eco-resort on a remote island off the coast of Honduras. Part of the time we live with him in a Swiss Family Robinson lifestyle on the beach, and the rest, we do the suburban shuffle outside of Philadelphia. My husband and I try never to go more than three weeks without drinking coffee together in person and holding hands.

In one life, my three children wake up to Hello Kitty alarm clocks and iPads, hit the snooze buttons and finally dress in khakis and pleats, plaids and collared polo shirts. I watch them walk into their Northeast school under towering hemlocks and oaks, backpacks sagging, and think they look more suited for a Young Republicans meeting. When we are in the States, they are typical American kids—they go to birthday parties and participate in organized sports. They play video games, watch the Disney channel, text their friends and hound me for double sleepovers. We eat cheesesteaks and cheer on the Flyers at the stadium. We take field trips to the Franklin Institute and the Natural History Museum. Amazon Prime delivers what we want, when we want, overnight.

In their island life, they wake with the first slant of the morning sun and run outside barefoot to look for lizards. Their bathing suits are faded and holey, nibbled by ants on our clothesline. There, we homeschool. Workbook pages, reading and homemade tortilla and bagel making are on the whiteboard agenda. We follow the life cycle of a Caribbean reef octopus right in front of our house, wear out Spanish tutors, practice cursive in the sand and read in the hammock.

We live on a part of the island accessible only by boat. They snorkel with spinner dolphins and whale sharks, go iguana tagging in the mangroves with conservationists and host hermit crab races. We go to Town for weekly yoga and take day trips to explore the uninhabited Cays. We eat fresh fish and build sculptures out of driftwood and sea biscuits. We live with less, physically; we rarely notice.

Here, my kids play with friends whose mothers were my friends in high school; the comfortable rub of pals they have bitten in toddler playgroups and blown out birthday candles beside year after year. My sister lives next door— our children flow between our houses like water and her daughters fold as seamlessly into our lives as siblings, with the requisite passion and squabbles.

We call my US hometown ‘the nesting ground’, where family is the focus and other dads swing by at six am to pick up my kids and their mountains of gear for hockey games when J is away.

There, Camilo from Argentina runs down the canal to our beach with his broad grin. He and his parents, brother, dog and two cats live on a small sailboat with wind-powered utilities. He has a bowl cut that matches my son Max’s, shows my boys the best places for green coconuts and curses in two languages. I have never seen him wear shoes—I’m not sure he owns any. In Town there is Bine, the girl Piper calls the sister of her heart. Bine speaks English, Spanish and Norwegian, evidence of her international heritage.

Piper and Bine in yoga class

My boys jump off all the rickety second-story docks in the curving C of the Utila Town harbor into the ocean alongside fearless Benja and Emilio and Maxim. They play “Touch Him”, tag in a hodgepodge of English, Spanish and the universal pre-teen trash-talk.

There is no garbage service on our remote part of the island—the crabs devour our compost, we burn paper and carry only a small grocery bag of waste and recycling to Town once a week, when we boat in to get groceries and drinking water. We call our life there ‘Little-House-on-the-Prairie-on-the-Beach’. Part of what I hope my children learn from our island life is an appreciation for the environment, the fragility of ecosystems. In the US, my middle son takes decadent thirty-minute showers, but in Utila, our water comes from rain.

One day, we participated in a beach clean up and Piper saved a plastic bottle cap, explaining matter-of-factly, “It’s the back-up cistern for my fairy house.”

Too often in the US in winter, I pull my SUV through Dunkin Donuts on the way to hockey games. Sometimes I guiltily scrape orange peels, eggshells and coffee grounds into the garbage, justifying that it is too cold to walk out to the compost pile.

US friends ask if we feel safe in Honduras, a country known for its high murder rate, where not long ago, the severed hands of an attempted robber hung outside the Banco Atlantida door as a deterrent. I point out that the tiny island of Utila is a world away from the mainland and wonder, is it really safer to raise children in my home country? Since we have come back, children were gunned down in primary school and blown up celebrating at the finish line of a marathon. Violence is everywhere—community is what you make it. In Utila, we check our shoes for scorpions. In the narrow streets of Town, I shepherd my children out of the way of tourists on scooters who’ve had too many margaritas. In the US, we wear safety belts and talk about stranger danger. We do the best we can in both worlds.

What do we lose by living this schizophrenic life? Consistency, for sure. We live more nontraditionally than anyone in either location. We are always missing someone. When we are in the States, we miss my husband and our island compadres. When we are in Utila, we miss Sunday night dinner at my mom’s, poker dates with their grandpa and pick-up lacrosse at the playground. Skype makes this missing bearable, but it is not the same. Max will miss try-outs for travel soccer when we travel back to the island. Hayden will miss his friend’s eleventh birthday party, but he hopes to be in Utila in time for the hatching of the octopus eggs.

What do I hope my children gain from this? An appreciation for different cultures and a reverence for nature. I hope they grow up knowing that the pace of our US life, guided by high speed Internet, rapid-fire media and instant gratification is not the only way. I hope they are enriched by the experiences of playing on teams and attending school. Our US life is full of convenience, opportunity and endless options. Our Utila life is closer to nature, slower-paced, more elemental. Mostly, I hope it deepens our connection as a family; a strange thing to say when we often live apart.

A few months ago, we sat at a stoplight waiting to merge onto I-95 while snow drifted onto the windshield. Max had just had his first shutout game as a hockey goalie; he hadn’t stopped smiling in forty minutes. There had been a hero’s celebration in the locker room where his siblings crowded through his teammates to be closer to him. In the car he said softly, to nobody in particular, “Now I know what it feels like to be important.” And I think, yes, this life is good.

In Utila, we lie on our backs in the boat after Friday night pizza in Town, where the kids jumped off the dock and ran wild on the beach and the grown ups sat under the palm trees and told stories of old adventures. The temperature is perfect; a breeze ruffles the water. The stars are a twinkling umbrella, mirrored by the bioluminescence in the wake of the outboard motor as my husband navigates the canals. This life is good too. As long as we can keep straddling the ocean, a foot in each world, we will.