“The Swimmers” (Day 73)

After my glorious weekend of swim adventures, today was a good day for the inward focus of lap swimming in a pool, guarded by this rock star:

Since the pool doesn’t give me a lot to write about or photograph, I’ll take this opportunity to recommend “The Swimmers” by Julie Otsuka. This slim volume is brimming with beauty and truth. The first section, The Underground Pool, is written as a chorus of voices expounding the magic of swimming to heal and soothe, to bring together, and to transport. The narrators are both individual and collective, general and particular; bringing their unique problems into the shared sanctuary of the pool. Otsuka captures so much of what I love about swimming.

I want to quote the whole thing to you, but really you should just read the book. Here are some passages I love:

“Most days, at the pool, we are able to leave our troubles on land behind…Bad moods lift, tics disappear, memories reawaken, migraines dissolve, and slowly, slowly, the chatter in our minds begins to subside as stroke after stroke, length after length, we swim. And when we are finished with our laps we hoist ourselves up out of the pool, dripping and refreshed, our equilibrium restored, ready to face another day on land.”


“The shock of the water—there is nothing like it on land. The cool clear liquid flowing over every inch of your skin. The temporary reprieve from gravity. The miracle of your own buoyancy as you glide, unhindered, across the glossy blue surface of the pool. It’s just like flying. The pure pleasure of being in motion. The dissipation of all want. I’m free. You are suddenly aloft. Adrift. Ecstatic. Euphoric. In a rapturous and trancelike state of bliss. And if you swim for long enough you no longer know where your own body ends and the water begins and there is no boundary between you and the world. It’s nirvana.”

In the next section of the book, a crack appears in the pool, then another. The community alternatively rallies, ruptures, and splinters. Some reviewers have said this part of the story is an allegory for the pandemic and certainly this section captures the anxiety of the last two years; the uncertainty, conjecture, false narratives, and disruptions. 

The final sections move away from the pool and focus on one of the swimmers, Alice, who is suffering from dementia. The pool was a particular sanctuary for Alice:

“And even though she may not remember the combination to her locker or where she put her towel, the moment she slips into the water she knows what to do. Heer stroke is long and fluid, her kick is strong, her mind clear. “Up there,” she says, “I’m just another little old lady. But down here, at the pool, I’m myself.””

Without the pool, Alice’s condition worsens (it would have anyway), and the things she forgets slowly outnumber the ones she can remember. Through her own narrowing vision and then through her daughter’s perspective, we see Alice’s life in flashes of memory and we see her slow stumble into death. It’s an incredibly powerful and beautiful story. 

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