Ex Fabula was live and in-person at Lakefront Brewery April 12 for storytelling about all things related to water. Dr. Shannon Sloan Spice opened with a brief invocation to water – our oldest living ancestor.

Photo of Barbara Leigh

First teller Barbara Leigh shared a tale of adventure on western Wisconsin’s Kickapoo River. When her late partner Robert’s path to recovery from alcoholism led him outdoors, he fell in with a group of canoeing enthusiasts and in love with the meandering Kickapoo.

Barbara was on the river with Robert, his friend Michael and Michael’s dog one sunny day when they were warned to take shelter. A storm was on the way. The sun was still out so they pressed on. But the storm did materialize, fast and furious! The canoe filled with water. The dog went overboard. A tree fell, blocking their path. The summer storm passed quickly, but the awe and exhilaration of the experience stays with Barbara to this day.

Shawn Mitchell was 17 years old when he enlisted in the Navy. His home situation was tense, and the Navy offered a way to independence. He described boot camp life ¬– yell, march, run, pushups repeat. As the punishing weeks pass, recruits not up to the rigor drop out. Shawn held on and made it to the swimming tests and ordeals – the final separator!

He had us in the water with him, as he nervously jumped off a platform into the pool. Laps, treading water…repeat…The 26-year-old recruit paired with him was exhausted and losing ground. Shawn made it. He spent 12 years in the Navy. He cruised the Mediterranean and returned to civilian life the richer for his experiences.

Photo of Shawn Mitchell
Photo of Russ Kafka

And then there’s wastewater. Russ Kafka’s dad ran his hometown’s water treatment plant. Clean water comes into our houses and leaves carrying our waste. Nothing works if the flow is obstructed! In his college years, Russ worked summers on the crew that removed roots, sand, cloth diapers and rubber ducks from the sewer lines. Dirty but vital work!

One day, Joe – a tavern keeper – called Russ’s dad for a special favor. His dentures had fallen into the toilet, and he pleaded with Russ’s dad to do a search. Dad dispatched Russ’s crew. Much to his surprise, Russ glimpsed something pink down in the nasty pipes. He retrieved the teeth and watched in amazement (horror too) as an effusively grateful Joe popped them right back into his mouth. The literal shit-eating grin!

In most of the USA, we take running water for granted. For years, Marissa Jablonski has volunteered with Engineers Without Borders in the highlands of Guatemala, installing distribution systems. Her days ran from 5:00 AM to 10:00 PM on these trips.

At night she’d put her phone on vibrate and stow it in her bra. That way she’d be reachable but wouldn’t wake anyone else. It wasn’t a fancy smartphone, but her local crew leader Diego had gone through some trouble to obtain the SIM card. One day, she heard an ominous plop on her pre-dawn visit to the pit toilet. The phone! Fortunately, it had landed on a plastic bag rather than feces.

Marissa began an urgent search for the right implement to retrieve it with and the right person to help her. She found a long-handled dustpan and eager-to-please student. They lifted and cleaned the precious phone. Diego marveled at her efforts. It’s not that hard to get a new SIM…he said.

Photo of Marissa Jablonski
Ann Koller, a blonde white woman, speaks into a microphone on stage. She is wearing a black brimmed hat, black tshirt, and white pants.

Ann Koller got her first swimming lessons when she was a toddler. Water’s her element. She loved swimming from lesson one. When she was three, her one-year-old brother fell into the bathtub during a diaper change. Ann developed a fear of drowning, parallel to her love of swimming and sports. She’d hear a voice in her head, warning her that she’d drown, but she always got into the pool.

Ann was athletic and competitive. When she developed severe scoliosis, swimming was the only sport her chiropractor considered safe. With other sports closed to her, she became a champion swimmer, who broke one record after another. This despite the fact that fear of drowning continued to haunt her at inconvenient times. She’d get the dry heaves right before races. Now she coaches the girls swim teams at Riverside High School. Her father told her something that stuck when she shared her recurring fear – Princess, fish don’t drown. She wants her young athletes to know this. She feels that water is a reflection of who we are.

Joining Water Protectors from all over the world at Standing Rock in 2017 was a profound experience for Dr. Shannon Sloan Spice. She spent a lot of time there prepping food and making the morning coffee with others. It resonated with her when a woman she spoke to said she and others came to make a stand because the water in our bodies told us to come.

Shannon recalled the depth and rightness of that knowledge and decision-making when her mother was dying of congestive heart failure. Her mother’s hands were turning blue, and she was frustrated because the medical staff wouldn’t let her have water. Shannon sang to her about the waters in the Adirondack landscapes of her childhood, and gently guided her mother into a transition.

Dr. Shannon Sloan Spice is smiling into a microphone. Her hands are held in fists at her waist.
John Valentyn holds up his left arm to the ceiling. He is speaking into the microphone. He is wearing a blue long sleeve tucked into brown pants.

Summers “Up North” at family lake cottages ¬have been memory-making, formative experiences for countless Wisconsinites. John Valentyn shared the full richness of life for him when generations of extended family came together each year. The highlight of summer days at and on the water was the evening campfire circle.

John described a rite of passage ¬– “Gungula” (sp.?) – that separated the young ones who had to go to bed at a certain hour and initiates who could stay up late. His family circle had developed a dramatic sequence of events and trials. John’s Uncle Pete, shirtless, with a towel wrapped around his head presided with all sorts of shouts and gestures. “Gungula! Gungula!” John came through, but by telling the Ex Fabula, he’s violated his oath of secrecy.

Brian Hulsemon was the eighth in a family of 10 boys. All competitive swimmers. He followed the family path, but with the role almost pre-ordained, he feels that he swam without truly knowing why. What did all the training, and being in the water actually mean to him? He reflected on the ways he “acted out” in competitions. He eventually came to terms with his place and feels that water is the substance of change.

Brian Hulsemon, a white man with short blonde hair, has pursed lips. His left hand is holding onto the microphone in its stand.
Jill Potkay, a red haired woman wearing an Ex Fabula shirt and sitting in a wheelchair, speaks into a microphone. She holds out one hand with the palm facing the crowd.

All birth stories are water stories! Jill Potkay shared the events of January 24, 1981. Her mother – hugely pregnant – couldn’t convince her father that it was time to get going until her water broke in their bed. Even then! Dad had to take a shower. Dad had to put gas in the car. Forget it! There was no time. Our Ex Fabula volunteer and teller Jill came into the world right there on the couch. A happy ending for us all!

Water to drink, to dirty, to swim and grow in; lakes and beaches for gathering; water to return to. Nine tellers covered a lot of ground. At the end of the night, Russ Kafka was crowned audience favorite. On to All-Stars!

Photo Credit: Artemio Photo
The group of storytellers stand together on the stage. They are smiling and laughing.