The Unplanned Life

Friday, August 01, 2014

Before I met Joerg, I had so many conversations about him without knowing that I was talking about someone who would one day share my life. 

Years ago, my friend Emily was texting with a guy we referred to exclusively as The German. I don’t know if I ever learned his name. I knew that he’d drawn a picture of her wakeboarding with an elephant and it was good. This flattered her and encouraged her to keep texting with him despite her usual ambivalence to the guys who pursued her. They’d been texting for so long that Emily offhandedly suggested he join her in California, where we were spending New Years Eve together, not expecting him to actually come. 

Knowing him as I know him now, this is exactly the kind of offer Joerg would jump at. Not only is last minute travel natural to him, but he is also unaccustomed to the American way of making vague plans to hang out without having any intention of following through. 

His enthusiasm caused us to panic in San Diego. I was there with my sister, Emily, and our friend Melissa, who all knew Joerg but only barely. We were worried it would be awkward. Who was this guy? What did she know about him? Where would he sleep? 

She made excuses about it being a girls trip and he decided not to come. This wasn’t the year that he’d meet a girl in a random state for New Years Eve. That would come later

Driving through Germany on the way to a wedding, I contemplate this almost-meeting and ask Joerg, “Do you think we would have loved each other then?”

Just last year, I met a new friend, Brooke, at the office where I interned and would later take a job. In elevators and at lunches, she told me about the hours she’d spent texting with a new guy. It wasn’t romantic yet; she just loved to talk with him. She’d met him in Tahoe, introduced to each other by a mutual friend, and she’d followed him on Instagram ever since. After she moved back to Orlando, they used the platform to exchange numbers. 

I can’t remember what we referred to him as. Definitely not Joerg, as that was a name that was unfamiliar to me, and I almost always refer to men my friends and I talk to by nicknames. The Firefighter. The Guy Who Disappears. Tattooed Guy. It is easier not to get attached this way. 

I can’t remember what we called him, but we had long conversations about him. Should she meet him? Listen to what we talked about last night!  Somehow I’ll figure out that she is talking to the same guy that Emily spoke to all those years ago, and I’ll wonder if the world is always this small or if it’s just Orlando. 

It is Brooke who will give Joerg my number, who will tell me over dinner that she has met my soul mate. 

We lived in the same town for years, knew a lot of the same people. I contemplate other almost-meetings often. If we met at a bar, do you think we would have loved each other then? If someone else had introduced us, do you think we would have loved each other then? 

This is the What If life that runs parallel to my life. My ghost life, containing all the paths I didn’t take. Even in that ghost life – the one I’ll never live – I can’t bring myself to imagine not meeting Joerg, not loving him. 

I couldn’t have planned for Joerg. It would have been bizarre if when talking to Emily or Brooke, I started to imagine what my life would be like with the unnamed man they spoke of. Instead, our meeting happened just as it did  -- unplanned and with few expectations. Our life together is the answer to the question, “Did we love each other then?” and that other one that begins with “would” and takes place in a ghost life will never need an answer. 

Meetings and events and twists of fate that we couldn’t possibly plan for define so much of our lives.  

While we’re worrying our days away and desperately striving for the dreams we think we were born for, we’re also having thousands of ordinary conversations, going to thousands of ordinary and only occasionally unusual places.

Our friends are meeting new friends. Our jobs are leading to new, unexpected opportunities. We are making choices that push us further into a life we didn’t know how to imagine; our ghost lives our inescapable shadows, haunting us at night with what ifs and filling the conversation on long car drives. Almost everything truly life-changing is unplanned.

Sometimes these unplanned events are sweet, like falling in love in New York, and other times, they are horrifying – a call on a Tuesday afternoon that changes you irreversibly. It is all just life. 

I am tempted to look for clues now in my conversations, in my everyday routines, for what unplanned thing is yet to come. I want to anticipate it, can’t stop myself from trying to control how my future will unfold. But then I think of Joerg, the thousands of little unnoticed moments that led to our meeting, and I realize it’s impossible to know. Deep down, despite my need for control, I like the unknowable-ness of it all. The unplanned life is working out just fine.

Buchenegger Waterfall and Minor Inconveniences

Monday, July 28, 2014

If I were to describe America in one word, it would be 'convenient.' If you desire something, chances are it can be yours in a matter of hours. There's likely a store that specializes in that exact thing, and it's open seven days a week for long hours. Hungry? Choose between sushi, thai, chinese, mexican, pizza, hamburgers...and on and on and on. You can probably get it delivered. There's even an app to help to decide which restaurant is best. Actually, there's probably an app for just about anything you need. 

When I left, I knew that it was this easy access to whatever I desired that I would miss the most. Once you get used to convenience, it's hard to go back to things moving at a slower pace. 

While I knew I'd miss convenience, I wasn't sure how that change would manifest itself in my life. Germany is beautiful and that beauty is enough to make up for pretty much every lack. I can live without english movie theaters, finding almond milk in grocery stores, and the daily use of Yelp (which I adored). Not being able to drive manual cars or even having a car most of the time is also doable. I can even accept that vegetarian food just ain't going to happen at most restaurants. What's enough to drive both Joerg and I to insanity though is the lack of good internet connections. 

It first started with us being without phones for the majority of our first weeks here (which is a story too frustrating to get into) and having to rely on finding wifi on our American phones while we were out. Well, free wifi isn't as readily available here as it is in America. That would be fine if we were just trying to check in with social media, but the main reason we need wifi is so that we can get directions. It's a new area for both of us, and we spend a lot of time lost without maps.

Which leads me to our waterfall excursion...

You'd think that spending time in nature is the one activity that you don't need wifi for. Except if you're like us and there's a very specific part of nature you want to spend time in, you're gonna need a map. The problem with trails is that they rarely have an exact address, and I usually rely on voice guided directions in my phone to get me to the closest starting point. 

I'm sure people smarter than I could use actual maps to get places, but man, even when I write down the directions, I really need that voice telling me where to turn etc. Especially when I'm navigating unfamiliar and often unmarked streets. 

So before setting off to find Buchenegger Waterfall, Joerg and I used our extremely slow home internet connection to find the spot. We couldn't actually see the map on my computer (it probably would have loaded in a year or two) but we could get the steps. So we wrote them down and off we get hopelessly lost and very frustrated.  

Being excited about a destination and then getting hopelessly lost is THE worst. Being lost and trying to get your incredibly slow phone to load directions makes it a tiny bit worse. So we gave up and decided to drive home in near silence.

I've noticed something when Joerg and I are frustrated by a situation but not actually at each other. I know that all it would take to break the tension is to say something or to reach out and touch him, but trying to make myself do it is absurdly difficult. I want to stay annoyed, and I have to physically will myself to move past it. It's like my hand gains 500 pounds and just thinking about lifting it is exhausting.

But I did make the decision to do things differently, and by the time we got home, most of the tension had dissipated. (I know slow wifi is the literal definition of a first world problem, but deal with it for a couple of weeks and get back to me.)

Buchenegger Waterfall from Shannon Butler on Vimeo.
When we arrived back home, I had just enough internet to download the app that could direct us (yay, Google Maps!) and we decided to go out again. This time we arrived, and it was worth every frustrating minute.  It made me think that I'm going through a transition period where I'm easing into a new way of slightly-less-convenient-but-still-great way of living. Maybe the issues that feel as if they weigh 500 pounds now will turn out to not weigh a thing. I just have to reach for a new way of doing things.  

Heading Home

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

I'm leaving Poland today! I cannot express how much I have been looking forward to this day. There's nothing wrong with Poland, but since moving to Germany, I've spent maybe seven days actually in Germany. This girl needs a routine and a double bed that isn't two single beds pushed together and food that isn't glorified bread. 

We're moving into our new temporary place when we get back (which may or may not be on the same grounds as a castle) and I can't wait to have a place to call my own again...even if only for a little while. I'm hoping that we'll be able to stay for at least a few uninterrupted weeks before Joerg is sent somewhere new. 

I did very little exploring while in Poland. We were in a remote part of the country and I don't know how to drive manual cars, so solo adventures were off the cards. And honestly? I just didn't feel like it. I felt like watching every episode of Orphan Black (please let's talk about this show if you watch it) and reading approximately one million books. 

We did go to Auschwitz. I tried to write about it, but I realized I can't. In light of the selfie that went viral, it's probably best that I don't. I will say this: suffering, more than any other human experience, will illuminate how much you just do not know. About life. About other people. About the depths of our resilience and our cruelty. 

I'm already anticipating the moment when we get close enough to Sonthofen for the mountains to come into view. I may not have a country, but I'm claiming those mountains as home. 


Monday, July 21, 2014


It is an odd thing to be human among many other millions of humans. On an intellectual level, I know that these other humans who look like me but not like me have rich, complex interior lives just as I do. I know that they are both cruel and kind. I know that they dream and ache and question. I know this, and yet it is hard for me to accept, so most of the time I forget to know this. Besides the few people that I know intimately, it’s as if everyone else exists as vaguely self-aware puppets, who I can move around in whichever way best fits the narrative in my head. 

I’ve been thinking about why this is. Obviously, a big part of it is that I can never experience life as anyone else. I can’t even experience life beyond my own perceptions. But I could be closer to other people; I could not view all of them as quite so other. The reason that I do is, I think, my need to protect my privacy and everyone else’s same need. 

The Secrets We Keep 

Apparently I belong to a generation of oversharers. The internet helps us broadcast our lives in a way previous generations couldn’t have imagined, and even as we publicly lament this, we also all continue to publicly share. You can’t be a blogger without being an oversharer. At least, I can’t, and it embarrasses me. Partly because I long to be a real writer and cataloguing my every thought just doesn’t count for me.  And then because protecting my privacy is integral to convincing myself that I am a special little snowflake. 

The more that I reveal, the more chances there are that someone else will confess that they have similar experiences. This is good because to be human is to also be lonely, and any chance to ease the loneliness of being a strange creature in a strange world is welcomed. But it also clashes with my (admittedly contradictory) belief that although everyone is just like me, they’re not really. They’re missing a few pieces, and I can’t be the one to just hand those pieces over! So there are things that I hide, and instead of becoming a point of pride, these things become a point of shame. First, they were secrets because I needed something that was mine, and now they’re secrets because I’m scared that I’m the only terrible person on the planet.

No One Cares but Someone Might

I was sitting on a beach in Italy recently, completely alone and completely anonymous, and I was watching the Italian families around me. There is nothing like being alone in a foreign country to convince you that other humans may have your same physical parts but there is no way they’re anything like you on the inside. First, there’s the language barrier. Then, there’s the culture. There’s also something subtle that’s harder to define. Really, it’s not even about them. It’s about me, and how I become the other in their company. 

While watching them, I wondered, “What’s the point in protecting my privacy?” 

Even if I revealed everything, all the time, there would always be more people on the planet who have no idea who I am than those that do. There’d also always be more people, who upon learning who I am, have absolutely no interest in anything I have to reveal or not reveal. But for the few people who did hear me and did care, I could show all of me, even the shameful parts, and that would be the invitation for them to do the same. 

If enough people did this, if it became commonplace to reveal instead of conceal, then maybe I could go anywhere in the world and not feel like a stranger.  

Of course, it would mean freeing my fingers from their tight hold on what it means to be an individual and instead reaching for what it means to belong. It starts to feel a little absurd that we're all so intent on protecting our privacy when every personal experience is part of a universal experience that existed long before we came to be and will exist long after we're gone. 

Is it our privacy that makes us feel most like ourselves? To have our privacy violated in any way is awful. But a lot of that is because of the feeling of exposure and also the public reaction, which is often to make the exposed person feel as if they are the only one to ever feel like that/do that thing/or, oddly, to have a body, if it's naked photos that have surfaced. That shaming reaction would be impossible if we were all more honest about what it was like to be human. 

It makes sense to me, but when people do share willingly, another public reaction is to ridicule them for their arrogance. How dare they assume that their experiences are worth sharing when there are so many of us? There are no special snowflakes here. This is my own reaction to myself. 

What an odd thing to be human among many other millions of humans who don't know how to accept each other. 

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