First Sentence Interview Series: Nancy Stearns Bercaw, Author of “Dryland: One Woman’s Swim to Sobriety”

First Sentence is a series featuring a monthly interview with a writer — poets, novelists, essayists, memoirists, as well as those who do not fit into any of these neatly defined genres. Each month gives us a glimpse of a variety of writing approaches, philosophies, habits, quirks, and publishing options.

My guest this month is Nancy Stearns Bercaw, who has written for publications around the world including the New York Times, Huffington Post, Korea Herald, Atlanta Journal Constitution, MariaShriver.com, U.S. News & World Report, and Abu Dhabi’s Tempo Magazine. She is the author of Brain in a Jar: A Daughter’s Journey through Her Father’s Memory. In 2009, Nancy was inducted into the Athletic Hall of Fame at the University of South Florida where she swam on scholarship from 1982-1986 and was a 17-time All-American, National Champion and Olympic Trials qualifier. She has coached swimming at James Madison University, New York University, Stevens Tech, and the University of Vermont. Nancy was an invited speaker at The Examined Life Conference at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine. She is on the Board of the Vermont Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association.

You say your forthcoming memoir, Dryland: One Woman’s Swim to Sobriety, took a lifetime to write. When did you realize it was time to write this book?

I should probably say, instead, that it took a lifetime to live. Over the course of my 51 years on Earth, I went from champion swimmer to world traveler to raging alcoholic. I’ve covered a lot of territory in five decades! I’d tried to write my story, including the horrific murder of a friend in Seoul, many times when I was still drinking. Getting sober a few months before I turned 50 gave me a new way to see my life. With that clarity, I was able to dig deeper and more honestly into all that has transpired and my own role in some of the chaos. Turns out that being an alcoholic was the real story, and everything else was a sidebar to the toll of addiction. I had it backwards.

There’s the myth — an over-romanticized one, in my opinion — of the struggling artist. It ties right in with addiction and writing going hand in hand. How did getting sober affect your writing life?

I once feared that I wouldn’t be able to – or want to – write if I weren’t drinking. I used to love drinking wine in bed with my computer on my legs. In fact, the thought of it used to get me through my days – the proverbial carrot on a stick. For the first six months after I quit, I was really scared that all of me was gone: the swimmer evaporated; the traveler lost; the writer dried up. But slowly as came into myself again, the writer emerged as the strongest of all my identities. And, I found that I was writing better, more clearly, and I am now writing about the things that really, really scare me in the world – like living in it without booze. I’ve come to appreciate fear for all the courage that came with it. As a drinker, I held back. Sober, I burst forth. The difference is astonishing.

You’ve lived all over the world. What role does place play in your new book?

Identity and landscape are the key themes in my life and in my writing. How does a place create a people? Who are you when you are elsewhere? As a swimmer in my youth and through college, I always imagined that I was a mermaid and would, therefore, be unable to thrive on land. My fairy tale fantasy came true in many ways. On land – from Kenya to Korea – I poured liquid into my body instead of swimming through water. I used booze as a way to connect with people in foreign ports of call, and to hide from myself. Still I managed to learn a lot about the world in those days and how other people survive their circumstances and/or prevail in their settings. But it wasn’t until I landed in the Arabian Desert that I went dry for good. I know for certain that the Muslim non-drinking culture and the arid setting both played a huge role in that transformation. Thus, the essence of my memoir DRYLAND.

Many unpublished writers get overwhelmed by the business aspects of the writing life — online platforms, publishing, etc. Do you have any advice to navigating this world?

It can be overwhelming that’s for sure. The flip side is that there are a lot more opportunities to publish than ever before. I used to spend so much time sending manuscripts to “big name” magazines and waiting months for a response – usually a rejection letter! These days, I can blog my own stories, and publish on Medium.com, without anyone’s approval or any wait time. And I can do all my own publicity! I still look for new writing opportunities with newspapers, as I am a journalist as well. When I was in the Middle East, working at a university, I read that U.S. News and World Report needed someone to write about Arab campuses. I queried the editor and got an article out of it. The lesson, I think, is find YOUR thing and then find a publication that connects with you. Match your writing identity to the media landscape. Don’t jump into the middle of nowhere.

What’s your take on balancing writing with work and motherhood?

I work full time for the University of Vermont, and have a 12-year-old son with my husband of 20 years. Yet, I was still able to find the time to write a 250-page memoir of my darkest secrets and greatest victory. How? I got up at 4 a.m. every day for six months to write. Those sacred hours before my family awoke, and before the day was underway, were the secret to my success and to my recovery in some ways too. Women still need a room of their own – or a time of their own. But you have to carve it out because no one is going to hand it to you. I fiercely protect my writing schedule, and I say no to a lot of socializing in the evenings. I go to bed at 8 or 9 p.m. to take care of myself and to be ready for my new “happy hour” in the wee hours of the morning.

Who and/or what inspires you on a daily basis?

Existence inspires me. How do people make it through the day when there’s so much with which to contend? How do they escape their suffering? How do they rise above challenges? How am I helped by what I see? How can I help someone? Why are we here, wherever we happen to be on a map or in time? I’ve witnessed so many responses to these questions – whether in Africa, Asia or the Middle East. The answers, in each place, are profound. Therefore, stories abound.

How does the current political climate inform your writing life?

I’m glad you asked this question! One byproduct of the current state of affairs is that people are talking more about the President and politics than art or books. Social media, once a great place to share stories, is now overrun with political commentary and reactions. (And rightly so!) The President is considering cutting funding for the arts but he’s already cut interest in the arts by his mere existence. Sigh. Clearly, though, there’s a lot to write about now. We need writers to deconstruct the status quo AND to give us other things to think about. We need stories – and emotional truth – to inspire, rally, comfort and even distract us. I’m still committed to writing about the global community and how we can rise up in the face of all our troubles whether political or personal. The two are, of course, conjoined in many places – including the United States of America. Compassion – reflected in art – is what makes a country truly great, in my humble opinion.

Enter a Goodreads giveaway of Dryland here!

Read previous First Sentence interviews and see who’s coming up next.

Boobs or Butts: The Art of Becoming Booti-ful

Photo: V. Potemkin

Photo: V. Potemkin

“Mama, boobs or butts?”

“What?” I ask, unsure of how to appropriately interpret the question — and appropriately hesitant to share my sexual proclivities with my 13-year-old daughter and two of her friends, who are coming to our house after school for a night of pizza, the town fair, makeovers, and movies.

“Boobs or butts. Just like, in general. Which are you?”

“Which am I, as in, which do I like better or have more of?” I ask, laughing now.

“Just answer!!!” They are all shrieking. I think seventh-graders spent a lot of their time together shrieking.

“Boobs!” I blurt out. There! I’ve said it.

**

I’m lying in bed, my mind drifting later that night. Suddenly, I have a vivid recollection of my paternal grandfather. Grandpa Max used to send cards for our birthdays; even into his 80s, he remembered. I picture the plastic crate in the attic, the one with whatever letters I kept — not many — when I finally dumped most of the journals, letters, and other debris from lives past, in the midst of moving across state lines four years ago. I close my eyes and can see his neat, slanted handwriting.

Max Schwartz was born and raised on the Lower East Side. He worked at a steam press in Brooklyn and married Lena Baruch, aka Grandma Lee or Nona. My dad, Murray, and his identical twin, Al, were born in 1942, while their dad was in the South Pacific, a pharmacist mate on a navy ship. Later, Grandpa will recall those navy days fondly. I can picture his tattoo — a faded band around one of his wrists. In my imagination, it connects him to a band of brothers. Then he returned home, had a third son, and supported his family into an upwardly mobile move to the neighborhood of Laurelton, Queens.

Nona was all bosom, cigarettes, and yaprakis; Sephardic cooking was her love language, and my memories of visiting their house as a child consist mainly of sitting at her kitchen table — we children eating while she chain-smoked and offered us seconds and thirds. I remember being totally intrigued to learn from my father that his parents spoke Turkish and Ladino at home; these were the languages of “we don’t want the kids to know what we’re talking about” — which also means they weren’t passed down all that much. A shame, in my book, though also likely part of what propelled me to begin learning Spanish from my dad, as much as he knew, at our own kitchen table beginning around age eight.

Nona

With Nona, 1974

Nona’s boobs must have been the kind of boobs that were more like one than two; boobs that fed three babies, two of them simultaneously. Boobs that, in my memory, hung to her belly. Boobs that surely weren’t called such. She was a seer, too. A psychic and a seamstress whose own mother — I learn this from my mother, her daughter-in-law — was a bona fide, old-country healer. Nona died of pancreatic cancer when I was 10 1/2. Before my dad even spoke, I knew; he had picked me up early from day camp on that hot August day, and instead of getting out of the car at the bottom of the steep gravel driveway on Harkness Road, he just sat there.

“Jenn, I have something to tell you.” (I was Jenn then, for a time).

I waited, but knew. Hers was the first death close to me, not counting a beloved cat or two. I didn’t know what to say. “When?” I asked. That seemed like a mature question. I had seen her once when she was very sick. She was in their house, a downstairs room with metal TV trays tinted gold. Maybe it was a guest room; maybe she was resting, convalescing, dying, on a pull-out couch bed. Her skin, the whites of her eyes, were yellowed. I was not frightened but sad, and — at least in memory — silent in the face of sickness.

**

“You are booti-ful.”

These three words, every year within days of January 14. Grandpa Max never forgot my birthday, long before birthday alarm email services, long before Facebook reminders, long before email or Facebook were even concepts we would have been able to grasp.

Now, I’m sure Max knew the actual spelling of the word “beautiful.” He certainly wasn’t referring to “booty” in the “boobs or butts” sense of the word! I’ve come to think of his spelling choice as a chosen way to convey his affection for us, his grandchildren. There was a gentle side of him, one I associate to this day with my father, his first son by a matter of minutes.

**

Booty full. Full booty.

Not skinny white girl booty. Not the no-booty of living on caffeine and nicotine, of lowfat food “products” that make a killing on the slow killing of fullness, of embodiedness, of ease with cellulite and heft and weight and taking up room. These things on the killing floor of American industries, and how America has spread eating disorders like a plague the world round.

Booty full. Full booty.

The kind of booty that other cultures — abroad and right here at home — find womanly, sexy, healthy. More to love, mama.

Booty full. Full booty. Booty than means belly that means fleshy that means maybe even soft, jiggly, round.

**

When I first came out of the closet, the shock of it catapulted me into the kind of rapid weight loss that had some people quietly wondering if I was terribly sick. I was thinner than I’d been since graduating high school.

At 17, I was deep in a cycle of daytime caloric restriction and nighttime bingeing and purging. I’d stopped menstruating my senior year of high school and wouldn’t start again until I was 22.

I shut down my womanhood. I shut down my sexuality. I poured myself in the life of the mind, dated here and there but was either bored by men or enticed by the thrill of being wanted but ultimately unavailable to take anything beyond a few weeks of flirting and messing around. I graduated from Barnard Summa Cum Laude, having spent my senior year immersed in the world of Soviet Jewish immigrants. Advisors suggested I pursue this or that fellowship. “What’s a fellowship?” I remember asking. I wanted to go to Israel, to become a rabbi.

I thought if I felt passionate about something, that meant I had to go “all the way” with it. So far, I had gone all the way with my studies. Now I had a beautiful degree. Still no booty. I was no longer bulimic, but had maintained a very controlled relationship to food and my weight still hovered around 100 pounds. If you’d told me I still had an eating disorder or even body dysmorphia, I would have disagreed. I probably would have even felt defensive. I would have secretly known you were right.

**

Present day. It has been almost 11 months since I smoked my last clove. Flavored cigarettes, or kreteks, are deceptive. They smell so good and they sound more “natural” than the tobacco-only variety. In fact, they are just as addictive and many, many times more harmful. After closet smoking on and off throughout my 20s and the early years of my first marriage, I gave up smoking for good (I thought) shortly before conceiving my second child.

But amidst the chaos and Pandora’s box of that first year after my inner genie burst out of its slender bottle, I turned back to my old “friend.” That’s what happens when you start smoking at a very young age; your neural pathways grow right up around it, and each time I started again over the years, quitting became more difficult. I’d sworn back in 2006 that I would never start again, but that one evening, sitting on the back steps of the house I rented for six months while my then-husband and I sorted through the rubble, I had a “fuck it” moment and lit back up.

Four and a half years later, life had in many ways returned to some semblance of “normal,” though my relationship to normal would never be the same, in all kinds of vast and intimate and unexpected and beautiful and difficult and real ways. I’d fallen in love with and married a woman who rocked my world (and still does!). A woman who appreciates my beauty in all of its forms, even the “parts” of myself I still struggle to embrace.

And this includes booty. My wife likes my booty. There, I said it. In the almost year since we both stopped smoking — a feat that feels nothing short of miraculous and was thrust on us by her facing a health crisis that jarred us to the core and demanded nothing less than everything — my slender, narrow, even a bit androgynous figure has shape-shifted into something slightly less buff, softer, and curvier.

We’re talking the difference of 5-10 pounds, depending on the day or time of the month. But at 5’1″, with a small frame and a disordered history I’ve worked hard to neither feel ashamed nor proud but simply accepting of, I notice every pound. I don’t like admitting this. But it’s also part of the slow and welcome process of growing up, something I seem to keep doing. Which is good news, given the alternative.

**

Before Mani and I had actually met in person, we were readers of each other’s words. She followed my coming-out journey — what I shared publicly of it, that is — and intuited from more than 2,000 miles away much of what I was experiencing. There was one day in the spring of 2011, not long after I’d started smoking again, in fact, when I sent an email to her and a small number of women around the country with whom I’d grown close through our blogs. I was struggling with a relationship and seeking the witness and guidance of women who would get it.

Mani replied.

“You will fall in love. You will fall in love with yourself,” she wrote. She wrote that it would be many things — hot, gentle, spacious, safe. Neither of us had the first inkling that we would, in fact, fall in love with each other. Already were, even. Because life is bigger than us in that and all ways, and I’d signed up for the whole enchilada.

Except for one thing: I would still have hesitated to eat the whole enchilada. Well, maybe depending on what else I’d eaten that day. Or whether I had gone for a run or not. Or I would’ve suggested we split the enchilada with a salad — and the sour cream on the side.

Mani, on the other hand, was having none of it. We met about nine months after that particular email exchange (the first had occurred in 2009, more than a year before I knew anything about anything). I’ve written plenty about the amazing weekend in January 2012 when we met and spent our first night together. How “the rest is history” and history is indeed a living thing, is happening right here under the roof we now share so gratefully.

She was a total foodie. She loved to eat. She was a mother to three daughters and had experienced significant weight fluctuations in both directions via pregnancy, depression, and fitness. She had no issues around food except that she relished it. And she relished me. And I started relishing the whole of this — her, myself, bodies, boobs and butts, girls, don’t make me choose.

**

Boobs or butts?

Yes. Both, I say.

I’m sitting here in spandex running clothes at my kitchen table. I started writing a couple of hours ago, thinking I’d just jot down some notes before heading outside to move my body. Instead, the stories came pouring out. Grandpa Max and being booti-ful. Grandma Lee – Nona – and the smoking that took her life just 20 years older than I am now. Teenage girls who are all about the booty and going braless like the neo-feminists they declare themselves to be, making me squeal (to myself, mind you) with pride and optimism for humankind. A wife who tells me every single day how beautiful and sexy I am, and even pointed out this morning that every time I am critical of my own belly folds, in a way I’m sending her a message that she’s not beautiful, since she, too, no longer has the body of a skinny, stressed-out smoker. (Thank god, I must add.)

I am insanely attracted to my wife.

Do the math, Jena.

This means embracing my own booty. Hook, line, and sinker — I am woman and all that jazz! And while it’s not in a million years what he meant with his sweet misspelling, thanks to a first-generation Jewish immigrant named Max Schwartz, embracing my booty means believing in my beauty.

You are booti-ful. Don’t forget it.

**

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