Nobody's Perfect - I think I can: reflections on pandemic life

Written by Sister Karen Zielinski, OSF. Posted in Taking Care of Your Life

I found the best coping mechanism for my stay-at-home time while I was sanitizing a plaque on my wall. It was a round pewter plaque with a train engine in the middle, surrounded by the words I think I can. That phrase is the famous quote inspired by the children’s book The Little Engine That Could, an American fairytale published in 1930. In the tale, a long train must be pulled over a high mountain after its engine breaks down. Larger engines are asked to pull the train; for various reasons they refuse. The request is sent to a small engine, who agrees to try. The engine succeeds in pulling the train over the mountain while repeating its motto: “I-think-I-can.” The story is used to teach children the value of optimism and hard work.

The little engine struggles up the steep slope, and when he reaches the top, his words change to: “I- thought-I-could!” His challenge was getting up to the mountain top despite the fact that he was a small engine. My mom used to read this book to us as kids, and we really liked it.

I think that my challenge getting up this pandemic mountain was the middle of the trip, the space between the start at the bottom to the end at the top. It was the movement in between, the middle time, that needed my determination and perseverance.

When the stay-at-home directive came out, I didn’t realize the serious implications of the virus. I rested, did some reading, cooked, cleaned, and did all the office work I could do at home. This No-Schedule day got old fast. I knew I had to look at my day and make a list of things to help me arrive at and prepare for the time when I would re-enter the world.

I made little schedules to keep me going up the mountain. Sometimes the schedules were pretty laughable: cook something for supper, clean kitchen drawer, call two people, check on non-perishable food expiration dates. My world was small, but It was a start to move from the middle part of my journey up to the top.

I added a more interior, or spiritual, item to my schedule. It included dealing with my losses. It took me a while to identify this point, but I did. Sometimes losses are not too significant, like when a favorite TV show ends, a neighbor moves out of state, or even when a hair product is discontinued.

My losses were not big, and I knew I would live through this social distancing at home, just like people all over Ohio, Michigan, and the world. We all have been challenged with staying at home; job and income loss; being deprived of special life occasions such as weddings, graduations, sports seasons, vacations, and religious services; and shortages of items such as disinfectant wipes and, of course, toilet paper!

We grieve the loss of events of everyday life we might not even think about. After a while at home, other losses become evident: driving to a grocery store, restaurant, or salon; working out at the gym; and attending medical and dental appointments—something we might have formerly considered an interruption in our lives.

I kept thinking about singer Joni Mitchell’s words: “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone?”

We knew we could get through this time of seeming boredom, bad-hair days, and massive carbohydrate consumption. But what helps us cope?

Looking inward can help. Placing what is happening in perspective might work. We can write down or remind ourselves that this time will end, that just as we did not expect this pandemic to occur, we can hope for a vaccine, an upswing in the economy, and life slowly welcoming us back in whatever way it can.

I usually deal with all aspects of my life with my faith and daily prayer and reflection, speaking with family and friends, and, recently, virtual church services. I saw my prayer shift from prayer centered on people I know and love to being fearful that any of us could be diagnosed with the coronavirus and perhaps even die. I thought about dire outcomes, breathed deeply, and remembered What a friend with MS (multiple sclerosis) used to say: “What we think will happen usually never does.”

I felt a loss of maintaining my health. Many appointments were postponed—my primary-care physician, my dentist, and two other medical specialists. I knew those checkups would help keep me healthy. Before we became quarantined, I was about to begin a physical-therapy program to strengthen my already-weakened mobility skills. I did not want my health compromised any more. But that is on hold. It seems ironic: all the medical appointments that seemed like interruptions in my daily life were activities I now missed. Not as much as getting my haircut, but they were missed.

My job is working with The Sisters of St. Francis Associates—Christian women and men who learned about our Franciscan Sisters and joined them for prayer, social gatherings, and special programs that support our ministries like Bethany House, Sophia Counseling Center, the Labre Project, etc. We had to cancel five different events. That meant a loss of help to people who needed food, support, or other resources in their lives.

So, whenever this ends, we will get through the middle part of our journey. The middle ride up the mountain is not too glamorous. It is mixed with moving past our losses yet feeling gratitude for what we do have—friends, some food (peanut butter and eggs are fine), and a place to stay.

We have to remember that our losses and gratitude can coexist. We have to remind ourselves, “I thought I could.”

Sister Karen Zielinski is the Director of Canticle Studio. Canticle Studio is a part of the Sisters of St. Francis of Sylvania, OH’s overall advancement effort and has a mission of being a creative center where artists generate works, products, and services in harmony with the mission of the Sisters St. Francis. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 419-824-3543.