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04/20/2022 07:00 AM

It’s Time to Repack Those Duffel Bags

Anne Woodside Gribbins and Christine Woodside on Hammonasset Beach in 2020. The sisters, who shared their pandemic preparation thoughts in a September 2020 column, have some new ideas that may help. Photo courtesy of Christine Woodside

A year and a half ago, we introduced readers to our pandemic coping metaphor: emergency duffel bags filled not with actual survival gear but with strategies we would follow to get through the rest of the pandemic.

Now we’re entering year three (year three!) of this pandemic. Over the winter, when Omicron surged with K-95 masks and testing kits being handed out, Annie found herself throwing a shoe at the television one day. Around the same time, Chris, who was vaccinated and received both the second and third shots, got a breakthrough case of COVID.

You know what? We realized we still need our duffel bags and their tools and reserves to persevere through a shifting public-health landscape.

We are two sisters, eight years apart, who grew up in central New Jersey. Chris left New Jersey years ago and has lived in shoreline Connecticut since the late 1980s. But you can’t take the New Jersey out of her. Annie and her husband, Joe, a firefighter and captain in emergency services, still live in New Jersey, but they come to Connecticut all the time to visit family in Guilford, Deep River, and Old Lyme. To us, a natural superhighway runs in our family culture between New Jersey and Connecticut.

Joe’s duffel bags of emergency gear packed for hurricanes or training missions inspired our symbolic ones. The symbolic duffel bags helped us mentally survive the first two years of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Over the past six months, we’ve sat on a roller coaster of ups, downs, good times, and worried times. We are still unsure of the future. We have watched some families around us fracture. We’ve seen optimism wane. And we now set out to repack our duffel bags with new strategies.

Let’s pack those duffel bags.

The First Duffel Bag

The first duffel bag contains:

• The emergency mindset. We’ve learned serious illness can come anytime, and that being ready for it will strengthen us. The sudden shutdown of much of our economy, along with our isolation during quarantines, were not science fiction. It all happened. And what comes next, we can’t be sure.

• Masks. We see no sign that masks will be completely out of our lives. As we write this, mask requirements are ending in some schools and community settings but continue in medical buildings, on trains, and elsewhere. Virus rates could increase again. COVID is here for a while. Or some other virus could come along. We think we must be ready to put on masks. This duffel bag also includes a dose of courtesy. We will try not to judge others whose attitudes on masks differ from ours.

• Knowledge. We accept that we need to keep reading research articles on new illnesses jumping from animals to humans, how to protect ourselves from unnecessary sickness in general, and perspective about pandemics in history. Anyone read about the Black Death, smallpox, or the 1918 flu recently? Let’s count ourselves lucky.

• Pantry items. We learned in 2020 that stores run out of food and supplies fast as soon as the normal supply chain (a term we never used to know about) hits a snag. It happened before. It can happen again. So we keep around extra food and toilet paper.

The Second Duffel Bag

The second duffel bag contains deeper stuff—stuff we thought we knew all about before but maybe hadn’t been tested until we lived through a historic worldwide health emergency.

• Deep patience. Who thought the COVID landscape could keep shifting beneath us? Well, by now we know that it can.

• Our individual senses of ethics, faith, and personal mission. We find ourselves asking more often, “What makes a meaningful life? How can we reach out?” Chris continues to learn about applying faith to daily actions from her husband, Nat, who accepted reality calmly even when he got sick, and who has never wavered from responsibilities and our home routines even when we go through hard times.

• A sense of humor and grace. On these our survival depends.

• Flexibility. Life after the pandemic has often felt like a continually moving goal post. We make plans tentatively, knowing they may change. The pandemic has made many industries more flexible, too. Airline tickets are now refundable. You can exchange Broadway theater tickets without a fuss. Hooray!

• Resiliency. Annie’s mantra with her son (also named Joe), who was a senior in high school during the rollercoaster of 2021, was: “Better days ahead.” Young Joe endured bedroom Zoom classes, hybrid school, and uncertainty. He became depressed at the start of the pandemic. Like many parents, Annie and older Joe worried constantly, with no previous experience in pandemic parenting. But their son showed them how resilient he was. Young people teach us. We want that skill in our bag.

• Listening skills. Many extended families, ours among them, are not sure how to navigate discussions or disagreements about their feelings without risking permanent damage. It makes the years of arguing and division over politics almost seem tame. We both found ourselves retreating a bit from rancorous debate, deciding that maybe listening was a better tactic than talking. It’s not possible to change people’s opinions, but it is possible to listen to them.

We have a brother who chose not to get the vaccine. He has his reasons. Chris had a long, respectful text conversation with him about it. He has some health conditions that worried him. He and Chris agreed to disagree on several matters to do with vaccinations. Annie and her husband Joe have some friends whose views about the federal government’s handling of the pandemic differ from theirs. The disagreements are unpleasant, and sometimes surprising. But we think the relationships are worth keeping.

• Love. Let us explain. We mean the ability to love people even when we don’t agree with them. The pandemic and COVID landscape divided families in many ways—over vaccines, masks, or both, fueling new levels of stress into family gatherings. Some couples did not survive 2020 and 2021. It’s almost unfathomable that any of us could be the same people we were when this started.

Maybe we won’t find common ground with some people with whom we used to always find common ground. We won’t be able to resolve this quickly. Science is a dialogue; we’re not going to find a single truth. We can’t prove negatives or unknowns at this point. It could be years before more data could clarify this craziness. But these are people we love. So we talk.

Duffel Bags Forever

Recently, Annie observed Joe repacking his gear in his bags for task force search & rescue deployments. When hurricane season ended, they had a moment to refresh and take stock before the next emergency. He was meticulously cleaning everything out, removing old items (you know when an old brown banana emerges from the bottom of your purse?), taking stock of the batteries, and washing the shirts and dry suits. Repacking, replenishing.

That’s how we see ourselves in year three of the pandemic. We’re repacking, reconsidering what goes in our metaphorical duffel bags. We can discard some things (Lysol?) and we’re adding some new ones (grace?) and reevaluating our preparedness.

It’s still of utmost importance to have the right gear, as the firefighters do. Keep the proper tools handy, follow procedures, lean on your team, and pack your duffel bags. Most importantly, keep it fresh—recharge your batteries.

Christine Woodside poses with her latest COVID test at home in Deep River last month.Photo courtesy of Christine Woodside
Joe Gribbins’s constant preparations to respond to emergencies inspired his wife Anne Woodside Gribbins and her sister Christine Woodside to create metaphoric COVID coping duffel bags. Photo courtesy of Christine Woodside
Anne Woodside Gribbins, noting that her first responder husband has a duffel bag prepared for any emergency, thought maybe the rest of us could use some tips for being prepared for the curves COVID and more throw our way.Photo courtesy of Christine Woodside
Photo courtesy of Christine Woodside