After the flood, this Plainfield, Vermont couple planned to leave. Then their neighbors showed up
Note: This story was produced for the ear. We recommend listening to the audio, but have provided a transcript below. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Karen Meisner and Pär Winzell live in Plainfield in a big brick home from the 1830s. On the night of July 10, they spent the night upstairs, surrounded by the Winooski River, which ripped through their downstairs, carrying off belongings and scattering uprooted trees across their property.
Reporter Erica Heilman spoke with Karen in the first days after the flood, and at that time she and Pär were fairly certain they would not stay in the house. But after weeks of work, and the help of over 50 volunteers from the community, they’ve decided to stay.
Here’s Pär Winzell.
Pär Winzell: "My response has perhaps been a little idiosyncratic. At first it felt like adrenaline and then denial. But it's kind of ongoing. I'm energized by it to be honest. The clean slate, the purpose, the turnout of local community. These are things that I mean, they're just vibrant to make you feel alive. And sometimes life can get into ruts, and these just demolished the previous ruts. So we don't really know what's exactly going to happen next, but it's the landscape of possibilities open."
That's Pär. He was worried about sounding positive about an event that has devastated our state. But this flood laid waste to his land, gutted the first floor of his home and carried off the furniture. So I figure he can say whatever he wants about the flood.
And you learn things about where you live in a crisis. Someone called Susan from Hollister Hill brought them sandwiches and brownies every day for two weeks after the flood. Bill from East Montpelier showed up and turned out to be a kind of one-man construction crew, and he's been coming for weeks, pushing river sediment around and clearing out barns.
Over 50 people came to help. And at the end of these days, there were bonfires and pizza. Pär and Karen have only lived in Vermont for two and a half years. And they have met more people in the last three weeks than they have met in all the other weeks combined.
"[W]hile you would never invite something like this, it has the advantage of pretty much smashing all your expectations of what tomorrow would look like, right? And so, I think when that goes deep enough, it's one of those times when you can become a slightly different person. And I think for me, I have become a slightly different person here."Pär Winzell, Plainfield resident
Pär: "First is just you’re so overwhelmed by everything. And anybody showing up at the door was you know, surprising, but also just, ‘Oh thank God, we don't have to do this ourselves.’ But it deepened over time, right? So many of the folks that were here, even though they were here to help us and it's grueling work, they also honestly quite often seemed to enjoy it. And this sense of — this is something out of the ordinary, and wouldn't it be amazing if we could live like this without an enormous disaster provoking it?"
Karen Meisner: "Pär grew up in Sweden, and came over here for me, and has lived in the States ever since. And I think that he's never really felt like he belonged here."
Pär: "You could argue that it takes 25 years to emigrate fully. And it's been actually 30 years now. But I've had a wonderful 30 years, and we've done about an entire lifetime here. But you sort of leave a part of yourself behind. And I think just entering Vermont two and a half years ago, was the first time when I felt like I could really exhale. So that started very early. But really, it's a deeper feeling, right? It's how you can breathe. It's being able to exhale fully because — we lived in Wisconsin for 14 years, and we had a wonderful time there. People often talk about Wisconsin and Minnesota as being very Swedish. But I must say Vermont is the most Swedish place in America I've found, in that they see each other first and foremost like people. You meet as equals is the sort of default assumption.
"I get categorized elsewhere, right? Here, everyone is a little weird, and you're just a person. The day after the flood, I walked up Coburn Road, and I ran into Pete from Cate Farm, who makes salami. And we've never met before, but we just you know, strolled, and it turns out that he was, I don't remember if he's born in Italy, or if he spent significant time in Italy, but we kind of bonded over this slight sense — what it does to the trajectory of your life to have a lot of experience in a different country. And it was a chance encounter, like so many other chance encounters I've had, especially these past three weeks, where it turns out a lot the person is in a not-particularly-self-publicized way, or a glamorous way, just fascinating people who are doing a million different things.
"People largely allow themselves to follow their judgment and quite often it goes quite well. And it feels like there are fewer people, but each one is larger somehow. I love that."Pär Winzell, Plainfield resident
"And just the relief of that tension that happens in so many places where you evaluate where you are in social hierarchies, and what category you belong to, that's just reduced here. And that reminds me of home for reasons I can't fully pin down. And common sense, which is a word that gets a phrase that gets thrown around a lot here, I feel like it's actually kind of the default assumption. People largely allow themselves to follow their judgment and quite often it goes quite well. And it feels like there are fewer people, but each one is larger somehow. I love that.
"Modern life has so many ruts that are not necessarily great ruts. But that doesn't mean that they're easy to break out of like changing course. It not only takes work, but you're not really sure how to even begin. And while you would never invite something like this, it has the advantage of pretty much smashing all your expectations of what tomorrow would look like, right? And so, I think when that goes deep enough, it's one of those times when you can become a slightly different person. And I think for me, I have become a slightly different person here.
"Folks keep showing up. And they are this broad spectrum of humanity, right? Real characters. And it is not always natural to me to… I'm fairly introverted. But time and time again, circumstances pushed me to walk out and I talked to every single person. And it always ends up being interesting, often delightful. And you strengthen the parts of yourself that work here. Your previous life — I mean I already feel like that was the ‘before times’ just a little bit. That was a slightly different me.
"We're not making enormous lists of all the enormous amount of work that still has to be done. So we are perhaps not looking too far into the future. But I do know, there are some things that at the gut-level are very clear to me. I want to be involved in the community. I want to be somebody who shows up the way people showed up for us, and keep in touch with our neighbors.
"We've met more people in the last three weeks than in the previous two years. And they are relentlessly fascinating connections. And I want to keep them alive. I loved when we worked hard all day. And we ended up with a bonfire out back. And there was a somewhat motley crew who just kind of relaxed at the end of the day and had this sense of camaraderie that transcends pretty much everything else. I want more of that. I want more of that."
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