February 2017: The Long and Winding Road

“We must be willing to let go of the life we planned
so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” 

–Joseph Campbell

“Success in marriage does not come merely through finding
the right mate, but through being the right mate.”

–Barnett Brickner

Sterling and I are living caricatures of the sayings “opposites attract,” and “can’t live with him/her; can’t live without him/her.” We are a most imperfect union, yet our bond is unbreakable. I know, because I tried, and failed, to sever it.

Our differences are legion and infamous among friends. During years of working in the same Anchorage office of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, companions who gathered with us to eat lunch in the wildlife lab would sometimes say “It’s a quiet day, can’t we get the Millers arguing about something to liven things up?” We have the capacity to disagree about almost anything.

Some of our problems stem from a few key personality traits that each of us possess. First, we are both very stubborn, can be obsessive, have at times been extremely inconsiderate of one another, and don’t always communicate well about the details of our individual lives. Once an idea is planted in my brain, I am more tenacious than a dog with a bone. For example, while living in Chile, I watched a movie about the Japanese invasion of Hawaii and I asked myself, “Where was South America during the second world war?” For the next six months, I spent all of my extra time in the Chilean Library of Congress answering that question. We had no phone in our Santiago apartment, so when I didn’t show up at dinnertime, Sterling had to just shrug and assume I was still at the library. Likewise, when I arranged to rendezvous with him in Lima, Peru, and he didn’t show up for three days because he wanted to stay in the Andean altiplano to chase after guanacos and vicunas, I had to cool my jets and return again and again to our stated meeting place (the main Lima train station).

Exploring Nevada

This lack of technical ability to communicate (i.e., NO phones) in Chile followed us to Alaska, where, on field trips for our work, each of us spent months beyond any kind of contact. Once, for nearly an entire month, the only time we saw each other was on the helicopter landing pads at a big field station called Camp Watana – he was taking off just as I was landing, and we waved to each other. Such circumstances early in our marriage set the pattern for a rather uncommunicative style of living together. To this day, we rarely feel the need to check in with each other or our children, who now subscribe to this “no need to tell” attitude. It has caused some trouble with friends who simply don’t understand their avoidance of having to be in constant contact.

Lack of communication, however, invites a lack of understanding. It took us some years to let go of frustrations caused by our own behavior. It wasn’t his fault; it wasn’t my fault. But it was OUR fault and neither one of us wanted to own it.

Then there is our shared trait of needing to be right. We could, and did, hold onto arguments for days at a time, without the ability to resolve the dispute. Mostly our arguments were of absolutely no real value, as they centered on things that had no impact on anything – things like who was the author of a particular book, or exactly how did John prepare that great wilted green salad that he always served. Being right meant nothing of consequence, but that did not stop us from waging battle. What has stopped us in our tracks are smartphones. They have ruined it all. One of us now just pulls out the Android and settles the matter. What fun is that?

Our stubbornness and, frankly, our self-centeredness, could and did focus on issues of real importance and caused us significant trouble. It is what precipitated our divorce in the mid-1970s. He wanted to live life one way, and I wanted to live it another. He returned to Chile and I moved to Alaska – about as far apart as we could get and still be in the Americas.

On our wedding day in Madison, Wisconsin, September 8, 1968

We learned a lot from our divorce. In fact, I would say that it was a necessary part of our successful marriage and relationship. We learned that life was richer together; that we really did love one another. I resisted admitting that more than he did, perhaps because I was the one who had left in the first place. In fact, Sterling came to Kodiak, Alaska, to help care for me after I was injured in a motorcycle accident. He helped me get to Fairbanks for a long business trip. We put my truck on the ferry for the mainland, then drove across the Alaska range during a spectacular nighttime showing of the northern lights. It was magic. He was helpful. He treated me very well. We were still married and I felt myself getting reconnected. I thought I didn’t want that, so as soon as I was back in Kodiak by myself, I divorced him. I  was determined (stubborn perhaps?) to wash him from my life.

He persisted. He left the University of Washington just short of completing his PhD—flying in the face of all advice from his academic advisors and friends—to take a temporary job with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Anchorage. He visited me frequently in Kodiak. I saw him in Anchorage during business trips. Then we invited our friends to gather with us for Thanksgiving dinner and surprised everyone by getting up from the table and asking them to head to the church so we could get remarried.

I am grateful to Sterling for his persistence. It is, without a doubt, one of his very best traits. With determination and single-minded focus, he did complete his PhD in spite of the warnings from others. Perhaps persistence is the good side of being stubborn.

Ours has been a fulfilling life, not without its challenges, but with a continually growing love and respect for each other. It seems our early troubles set the stage for our trying harder and our willingness to let go and move on when petty disagreements flare. The birth of our children bound us like two sheets of plywood. We could hold up a house together without fear of breaking.

In spite of our differences, Sterling and I have build a strong family. Photo by Pam Voth

Our differences remained, but our ability to accept and even rejoice in them took hold of us as we grew together as a couple and as a family. Long ago Sterling understood that living with me meant living with animals, but living with an entire herd of horses was not exactly what he expected. Yet, he managed to become a Sterling Horse Husband, not only enduring the expense and effort to create and manage a guest ranch, but really supporting me all the way, showing pride in my accomplishments.

As we have grown older and, hopefully, a little wiser and less self-conscious, we delight in our shared history. We can now laugh at our many mistakes and let our tears flow freely as we relive tender moments with our children. Somehow, though, we managed to create a warm, safe, and loving home for each other. Yes, we still complain and show frustrations. We are still known to tap a foot while waiting and lose our patience. We still hate the way each of us drives. But, both of us are confident in our pregma—our longstanding and enduring love. It nourishes and protects us, and pulls us through illnesses, disappointments, and self-doubt.  It binds us. We rely on it.  We know that it will die only when we do.

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