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Write Your Own Story

kathrynabergeron —  September 6, 2016 — 9 Comments

Hands writing in journal with caption Write Your Own Story

Since I left the convent and returned to working in libraries, I’ve been reading a lot of fascinatingly trashy books.

Very pink book cover for Down the Rabbit HoleI am almost finished with my current read. The book is so pink, I couldn’t resist. The book? Down the Rabbit Hole by Holly Madison. Yes, Holly Madison is a former Hugh Hefner girlfriend, a star of The Girls Next Door tv show, a four-time Playboy cover girl, and a former contestant on Dancing With the Stars. While the book is interesting, it is this quote that has stayed with me:

I always thought it would be classy to not kiss and tell . . . but after a while you just get sick of having other people trying to tell your story for you.

Being a library leader, or any kind of leader, means taking control of your story and owning it. It’s about having the self-reflection of knowing (a) who you are; (b) you’re not perfect; and (c) it doesn’t matter. So, we’re going to talk a little bit about shame.

Book cover for So You've Been Publicly ShamedHave you read Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed? What about watching Monica Lewinsky’s TED Talk The Price of Shame?

What is it with contemporary society and shame? Why is it that we are often either the shamer or the shamed?

This blog post isn’t about the “shamer”. Listen to Monica Lewinsky’s talk to hear more about that. (Start at 13:50 in you’re in a time crunch.)

You see, I casually neglected to mention in my post about leaving libraries for the convent that I had previously been in a convent. I spent 2-3 months with a different order of Sisters right after I received my Masters in Information Science. It didn’t work out, and I was devastated. My whole life plan had fallen apart. I had given up everything that I owned. It was 2008, the economy was tanked, and I had no job and no car. But the worst, the very worst part, were these comments.

  • “They didn’t seem very nice, anyways.”
  • “They were totally wrong for you.”
  • “Thank goodness you left, you had made such a mistake.”

Really? Your need to be smug trumps my emotional loss of all of my hopes and dreams? Do you think that I really needed you to point out how wrong I was?

Fast forward to 2016. This time leaving the convent was much less dramatic. I had the experience and maturity of seven years in the jungle of life. This decision was very mutual; I loved the individual Sisters, but I didn’t fit in. And I couldn’t figure out who I was when I was with them. I had gotten rid of my stuff (clothing, mementoes, etc.) and my career knowing that leaving the convent was a possibility, but when I got home, I had no shame or guilt; I felt relieved to be able to move forward.

But I still feared the sting of what people would say. How would I respond to the comments of surprise when I walked in the room? How would I explain my homecoming or my absence?

But, at some point, you have to tell your own story. My story isn’t that I tried something and failed. That’s not how I feel about it, at least. My story is that I was willing to give up everything for a chance at happiness, and I only found more happiness . . . and a new job.

I know that I haven’t had any comparison of the shaming received by Holly Madison, Monica Lewinsky, or the people profiled in Jon Ronson’s book. In fact, in the last two months I’ve received amazing support from my family, friends, and colleagues.

But that doesn’t stop me, some days, from waking up and forgetting (a) who I am; (b) I’m not perfect; and (c) it doesn’t matter. Those mornings, I have to remind myself that I write my own story. I choose to remember my life choices, good and bad, as stepping stones to who I am today. And that person’s pretty awesome.

Leadership does not mean being perfect in everyone’s eyes, it means taking ownership of your choices, learning from them, and using them to make better choices. You use them to stand up and approach new tasks with knowledge and enthusiasm. Imperfections are not failures when you’re writing your own story.

I’ll leave you with a quote from the Monica Lewinsky TED Talk that you’ve been avoiding watching though I’ve linked to it twice and embedded it once:

In the past nine months, the question I’ve been asked the most is why. Why now? Why was I sticking my head above the parapet? You can read between the lines in those questions, and the answer has nothing to do with politics. The top note answer was and is because it’s time: time to stop tip-toeing around my past; time to stop living a life of opprobrium; and time to take back my narrative.

Photo of the author with her sisters from the convent

Sr. Laura, myself, Sr. Tina (back), Sr. Mary, Sr. Rachel, and Sr. Stacy (front) who attended my going away party at the library and met all of my coworkers

A few months ago I wrote a note to my library contacts that went something like this: “Before word went entirely public, I wanted to pass along a message that I am leaving my position as the Associate Director at the library. While leaving a job is not unusual, the reason that I am leaving is. God willing, in August, I will be entering a Catholic religious order (The Servants of God’s Love).”

Most people responded with, “Congratulations?” To which I replied, “Thank you. Yes, that is the right answer.” One editor of this dear blog, though, responded with, “WOW! This sounds great!… Any chance you could write one more blog post about this decision?”

So, here I am, blogging one last time for Library Lost and Found on my last day of work. You see, I contemplated many options for topics:

  • Becoming a Nun: A How-To Guide – That seemed kind of insulting to this library blog and kind of misleading because I’m hoping to become a Sister (not a nun).
  • Decision Making 101: How To Make Big Life Decisions – This idea makes me laugh. For me, mostly, this decision took a deep love of the person of Christ Jesus and the Trinity, a group of amazing women who magnify my prayers and still get over-competitive playing Euchre, and a foolhardy nature that people keep mistaking for “courage”.
  • Beware: There Are Conservatives Among You: I know. It’s a scary thought. In spite of the stereotypes, I have found that the most outspoken librarians tend to be fairly…loose with words. Sometimes they forget that there are librarians that live more conservative lives amongst you. So, maybe edit your tweets before you post them. #notintobookburning #notintoexcessiveswearing

Instead, I wanted to highlight what I really saw about my life as a librarian as I walked through this decision: At its heart, librarianship is service.

What librarians do is not a job: It is an act of love performed for our patrons. It is a moment of kind grace given to a stranger or a friend. It is a moment of hope in a world that often seems hopeless.

I became a librarian because I loved the chase. I worked in ILL in college, and I loved finding ridiculous books in languages that I couldn’t speak (let alone write). That search for hard-to-find information is what motivated me to go to information school. It was a fine motivation. But once I started working as a librarian with the public, I realized that librarianship could be so much more. I interned for a small resource center attached to the U of M Depression Center. I wanted to work on the catalog, but I spent some of my time in the resource center, sometimes with patients, but mostly with friends and family of patients. They’d come to wait during the appointment, and mostly they wanted someone to talk to. I learned how to start every sentence with, “I’m not a mental health professional…” and end every conversation with, “…let me give you a pamphlet.” I don’t think that I ever said anything helpful, but I was there. In a moment of panic and fear, they needed an ear, and I was wearing silver hoops. It was an act of service.

Photo of Kathryn Bergeron holding a microphone at a library event with the character Madeline

Kathryn (right) at a library event

Then I started as an Adult Services Librarian in a public library. While I did a lot of electronic and systems work, I loved working with the public. The older lady who read every thriller book that came out and still, without fail, ran out of books each week. The middle school girls who liked to come and sit at the desk and talk about their days while looking up ridiculous saint names (see St. Ulfrid). The widow who came and interloaned the best mormon fiction books you’ve ever read. The group who gave up their Thursday nights for three months to learn about the Civil Rights movement. No matter how many books I ordered or computers I fixed, those people are what made me excited to come into work in the morning. It was an act of friendship.

When I became Associate Director, it was hard. I didn’t have management ambitions, but I wanted to try. Unfortunately, that meant giving up most of my programming and all of my time on the reference desk. I was lost. I didn’t know what to do. I no longer had the thing that made me most excited to show up to work in the morning.

Then we hired a few new managers. Training them and helping them feel confident about their new jobs. Making small changes to our ILS to ease a little bit of the load from my Circulation staff. Bringing a new perspective to a policy debate. These became my new acts of service. I was no longer directly serving my patrons, but I was helping to make the library better for them. And I was directly serving my staff, particularly my managers. When they needed advice, they got advice. When they needed an ear, I gave them an ear. When they needed a kick in the pants, they got a figurative kick in the pants. Watching them grow and develop is probably one of the things about which I am most proud in my time as a librarian. It was an act of love.

When I look back on my 6.5 years as a certified librarian, I don’t think about the books that I ordered or the meetings that I went to; I look back on the people that I served and that I served with. Any impact that I might have had on them, they had 100x the impact on me. Their patience, their kindness, and their willingness to give me a kick in the pants when I needed it helped me to grow and mature into the (still kind of immature) person that I am today. I could not be here, taking this step in my life, about which I am bananas excited, without all that they did for me.

Librarianship for me, has been an act of service and a labor of love. But, somehow, I feel like I received far more than I ever gave, and I have unending gratitude for those who served me so well.