The Big Secret in Our Small Routines

Julie Otsuka’s The Swimmers finds the beauty in a seemingly unextraordinary life.

A blue swimming pool in a yellow tiled room with brown tiled columns
Zara Pfeifer / Connected Archives

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Last May, at the peak of India’s second COVID wave, I became obsessed with laundry. My family and I were all in quarantine together, on a week-long visit to my grandparents that was already in its fourth month, and my response to the endless news reports of people dropping dead in the thousands each day for want of respirators was to become manically vigilant about running the washing machine at half past seven every other morning. Horrible, enormous things were happening ceaselessly, and all I could do was watch. So I shrank my days and put them on repeat.

Julie Otsuka’s new novel, The Swimmers, explores a similar response to tragedy: the attempt to ward off anxiety over enormous political or existential crises with routine. The title refers to a group of regular swimmers at an underground pool in an unnamed American town, including “a second-rate fashion designer, an undocumented immigrant, a nun, a Dane, a cop, an actor who plays a cop on TV.” According to the novel’s omniscient narrator, the swimmers feel particularly vulnerable in the world “up above.” Alice, an elderly Japanese American woman with dementia, says, “Up there … I’m just another little old lady. But down here, at the pool, I’m myself.” The swimmers crave order; some cannot skip a single day of their “stroke, stroke, breathe, stroke, stroke, breathe.”

When cracks appear in the bottom of the pool, it’s forced to close. Without the comfort of their everyday routine, the swimmers fear the rest of the world and its precarity. Alice, who forgets many things up above but who has never forgotten what to do “the moment she slips into the water,” is left adrift. At this point, the story leaves the setting of the pool and, in a section that takes place over an unknown period of time, we read a list of things that Alice remembers, or doesn’t remember, from her life, addressed to her semi-estranged daughter: Her miscarriage. The smell of incense and pickled cabbage in her mother’s kitchen. Her daughter’s two pet turtles, both named Turtle. The FBI coming to the house one night and taking her father away. Cleaning Mrs. Cavanaugh’s house. She and her mother and brother being sent to an internment camp in the desert, and the “taste of dust” there. The present is slipping away from Alice—she doesn’t remember what she ate for dinner last night, and her husband has to leave Post-it notes all over the house—but she recalls the past steadily: stroke, stroke, breathe.

The reader can imagine the constant flow of memories mirroring Alice’s swimming, perhaps even replicating the anchor that the rhythm of stroking and breathing used to give her days. But having experienced the fracture of Japanese American internment, Alice has no illusions that we have any power over the calamities that befall us. This makes it all the more important for her—and perhaps for us, as we live through the tragedies of our own time—to control the small things: one stroke after another every day, putting on lipstick before leaving the house and anti-wrinkle cream every night before bed. Running the washer at half past seven. These habits can be unsettling to an outside observer (“excessive, if not pathological” is how the swimmers imagine their behavior might seem to the aboveground residents of the novel’s town), but they can be clarifying, a way to bring together the traumatic and the mundane.

Alice’s daughter, perhaps relatable to our pre-pandemic selves, is the antithesis of Alice: a successful, unhappy writer, well traveled and independent, who has taken charge of the big things that define her life. She left home as soon as she could, then rarely visited or called. When she returns as Alice deteriorates, she can’t help wondering what precipitated her mother’s memory loss: "Was it the Raid that she used to spray all over the kitchen counter the minute she saw an ant? Was it sporadic? Genetic? A series of mini strokes? Something in the drinking water? The aluminum-laden antiperspirant?”

But these are the questions of someone who believes that there were things Alice could have done to prevent her slide into dementia. Alice, for her part, simply focuses on what dementia has not taken away from her. She is not trying to resist her condition, but to live with it, and to do so with intention. She knows that routine can be a useful tool in the face of panic or anxiety or depression; as our circumstances grow more precarious, maybe our best chance for pleasure can be found in mundanity. Life often happens without much incident, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth paying attention to.

For Alice and the other swimmers, their regular regimen offers “comfort and order,” solace from the rest of the world. Chores, work, social obligations—the “aboveground” is full of triggers that make the swimmers “feel our panic beginning to rise, as though we were somehow missing out on our own lives.” They understand that their lives may not consist of giant strides. Perhaps they also know that if they forgo their everyday in order to do something more significant or spontaneous, they may be reaching too far for a sort of fulfillment that doesn’t exist.

Before the pandemic imposed constraints on how we make plans for the future, I took pleasure in choreographing big, exciting moves for my life. Like Alice’s daughter, I wanted to swallow the world for the sake of my art, believing that only a certain kind of experience would make me a writer. When I was about to leave home for a new city, my mother said I had a low tolerance for boredom and warned me that this would cause me problems. Maybe this is a tendency that writers share. It seems to me quite believable that daughters, especially those with creative or intellectual ambitions, are uniquely capable of writing off their mothers, of distancing themselves from their less-than-lofty concerns. Alice’s daughter “found her overwhelming” as she droned on through the bedroom door about “whose husband had committed suicide … who had become accidentally pregnant for the first time at the age of forty-nine … who had fibroids, gout, twins, a tumor.”

Perhaps what Alice’s daughter doesn’t understand is that these quotidian matters are often all there is. She rejected her mother’s patient understanding of what makes a good life, and her tender curiosity about other unremarkable, unambitious people like herself. In dismissing these seemingly inconsequential details, she missed out on her mother’s life, and everything that filled it. But in dark times, our own as much as Alice’s, a focus on these little things can salvage the moments of joy we may otherwise overlook.