By Ellen Swain, Esq.
As fall unfolded into winter in 2020, the light dimmed, the pandemic flared, and I signed up to learn how to tell stories—the kind when people get up on stage, stand in front of a microphone, and spin an old fashioned yarn. The best ones appear on The Moth; the beginners, like me, start at Capital Storytelling in Sacramento.
Unlike standing on The Moth stage; we were digital. It was a class on Zoom and we were in our two-inch-by-two-inch squares, bigger or smaller depending on the night’s attendance and whether the teacher sent us off into breakout rooms.
What we were was deeply human, vulnerable, and connected.
Tuesdays fast became my favorite night of the week. Lisa, our teacher, welcomed us into the room and had the kind of warmth that would make her a favorite and memorable college professor, which aptly was her profession.
Our stories didn’t always work; we left out key details, introduced too many characters for our classmates to keep straight, and lost the plot. Lisa skillfully brought us back into story structure and made constructive suggestions to make the story work. But none of that really mattered; our shared humanity did.
There was the young engineer who immigrated from India and told a story of how the middle-aged women in his town set up a quiz game for the teenage boys; he and his friends stole the trivia answers and won the competition held in a church. As he tells the story that unfolds like nerds breaking bad, I crack up and have question after question.
“Wait, you stole the answers to win a trivia contest. Why?”
“Because the winners had their pictures published in the local newspaper. It was a very big deal.”
“So why were the women putting on these competitions? Why wasn’t it in the school?”
“It was in the town; the ladies’ committee organized it.”
“Does that seem strange?”
“No, it’s the way it was.”
And then a medical student took us to an old-growth forest in Ukraine and told stories of his brother and his late father as he sat in a video gaming chair.
There were stories of death, dating, love, love lost, and betrayal.
I told stories of sharks and my beloved ocean. I had been doubly grounded by the pandemic. I’d injured my inner ear during a scuba diving trip in Socorro, Mexico, in February, 2020, and then the pandemic locked us all down, so my regular travel for dive trips was stopped for the foreseeable future. Dry dock is rough for any serious scuba diver, and it hit me hard, particularly the thought that I might have injured my ear so badly I’d never dive again. A passion for over 30 years, dropping down in the ocean with a tank of air on my back is coming home.
So I started telling stories and relived my favorite moments. I told the story of huddling on the Zodiac with seven other divers at 6 in the morning in the Galapagos with no other boats in sight. The water was choppy. We wore thick wetsuits to insulate us from the cold and heavy weights to ensure we dropped down to depth quickly and were not swept away by the fierce current. Each dive pair carried a beacon in the unlikely but dangerous event of being swept away. I’d become a professional-level diver a few years earlier and was more safety focused than most recreational divers, but still doubted whether a mid-ocean pickup was even possible if the current pulled you into its grip. My dive instructor buddy was old school; he put more faith in his diving skills than the redundant equipment and passed off the beacon to me. I held my mask to my face, listened for the count of three, and rolled backwards into the Pacific.
I descended quickly, the extra weight pulling me down faster and faster the deeper I went. And then I saw the shimmery silver of the 9-foot-long Galapagos shark and added air into my vest to slow my descent. As I dropped to his level, mesmerized by his unblinking eye, I added enough air to stop the descent completely and noticed a shark beside him and another one to my left. I saw the white of their bellies turn into the gray of the tops of their bodies. I was in a fairy circle of sharks. I wanted to reach out my hand and touch the beautiful, muscular athlete as she swam past me, only to realize that it was becoming follow the leader as they went into a straight line swimming away. One, then another, then another, disappeared into the murky water past where I could see their forms. I felt deeply alone, the way I did when my grandparents walked down the jet bridge to the plane to fly back to Texas when I was a little girl, with that feeling of loss, of longing, of a wistful, please don’t leave me here alone. I looked over my shoulder to see the other black-suited divers and picked out my buddy. I was back in the company of humans, and I preferred to be in the world of the sharks.
In class on Tuesday night, I was back in that moment, 80 or so feet below the surface, in the chilly water of the Galapagos, more in the world of the sea creatures than that of the humans. I felt the icy embrace of cold water diving. I realized that my storytelling classmates were also in the ocean with me. I saw their eyes get a little wider and their breath stop. Some were terrified by sharks, some fascinated, and no one knew whether the story would end with danger; no one expected glee. They had so many questions in the end.
“Why didn’t you touch the shark?”
I thought for a moment, and put myself back in that ocean, and remembered, “I really wanted to reach out my hand and hold it against each shark as it swam past, but it’s bad form; I know that sea creatures are sensitive to the bacteria we have on our hands and equipment and I didn’t want to risk doing anything that would impact the shark’s health.”
“What happened to your buddy?”
“Actually, for a moment there I wasn’t sure if I’d lost everybody because I was so engrossed in the sharks and time stopped. I didn’t have a sense of how long the encounter lasted. The visibility wasn’t very good and you couldn’t see past twenty feet, but fortunately for me my buddy was nearby.”
I felt the chill of the ocean on my skin through the remainder of class. Telling the story functioned like a guided meditation. I was back in the beauty with all of its awe and wonder. The pandemic disappeared and this special moment became front and center. It was like that for everyone in the class. For two hours each week, we lit up the darkness, sat around the fire, and shared precious details from our lives. In the telling, we filled up our own hearts.
Ellen Swain is a tax attorney who previously worked as a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney, public defender and law professor. Ellen is an award-winning playwright and avid scuba diver.