Alhamdulillah I’ve been telling stories for almost thirty years. For twelve or so years I was part of the Vermont Council on the Arts Touring and Teaching Artist Registers. I spent ten years living in Turkey where I taught English to Turkish children through storytelling and drama. Now after seven years in Jordan I am so grateful to be in the midst of serious scholars, generous ones, mashaAllah, through whom I am able to penetrate the treasure-houses of Islamic traditions. As a Muslim teacher I am always having to create my own materials, and now I am really interested in sharing them. I am passionate about wanting to produce literature that reflects the obscured yet magnificent truth of the world’s Revealed Traditions, of which Islam is the quintessence. I am a member of the Islamic Writers Association.
I was born on the shores of Lake Erie in Euclid, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, on August 29, 1947. My first love was swimming. I can still remember how I felt as a third-grader one winter, when I saw a picture in my textbook of children in a swimming pool. It was deep winter and we had no indoor pool, so it had been months since I had been swimming, and a felt a wave of longing all the way through me.
When I was about three, my family moved inland to a small house on Babbit Road surrounded by cedar trees and rose bushes and a little rock garden. One of my earliest and happiest memories was when the rock-garden flooded in a rainstorm and I awoke to find my mother sitting in our back yard, under the overarching pink rose bush, just waiting for me to wake up and discover our new “pond.”
Another thing I remember was being in our bathtub on a summer’s evening, feeling absolutely wild and about to explode with excitement, for the next day was to be the special day-long picnic at the old Euclid Beach, the amusement park, for the employees and families of Addressograph Multigraph, where my father worked as an advertising artist. Ahhh, I can still remember the fun-house, the terrifying thrill of the roller coaster, the taste of the frozen custard, popcorn balls, and taffy kisses, and old “Laughing Sal,” who even to this day sits in a glass case in some collector’s warehouse.
But you know, the memory I treasure most is sitting outside my house in a little bed of lilies-of-the-valley that grew beside a cozy enclosure under our side porch. I used to spend hours there, pretending that I lived in the olden days when Jesus, who I now know as Isa, peace upon him, walked the hills of Palestine with his mother Maryam, may Allah be pleased with her, and especially I can still remember the moments when I realized it was all just pretend, and I would cry with longing to be with them, for real.
I studied German in high school. When I graduated I first went to Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, because all my life I had told myself that I wanted to be an elementary school teacher. And really, I loved that year, especially my art class, where I sculpted a hand out of clay, and my children’s literature class, where I studied with the famous Charlotte Huck, and learned from her my deep love of children’s writing. But something kept calling me onward, and I ended up graduating from The Ohio State University with a degree in the teaching of foreign languages: Russian and German. I really loved Russian especially, and studied hard, and had a 3.7 average in Russian when I graduated. I was offered a fellowship in the Russian Department, but yet again, something was pulling me onward. I had done my student-teaching, German in a high school. But do you know, I found that German was not something I wanted to teach. I saw my students in front of me in the classroom, and they were disturbed, I thought, about what was going in the world…how could I help them by teaching German to them? It felt too limiting, and I found myself thinking again about the flexibility and freedom of elementary education, where, at least in those days, the classroom teacher was responsible for a variety of curriculum areas for her own class.
The spring I was graduating, I read an article in the New Republic Magazine about the Vermont Design for Education and I was inspired! I had always loved the little Vermont maple-sugar candies my Aunt Dawn used to send at holidays from her home in New England….for a girl on the shores of Lake Erie, this was the stuff of dreams. Well, it was about to be a dream no longer. I got a job teaching 5th grade in a tiny little northern Vermont hamlet, and it was all I’d hoped for, and more…poetry workshops, science projects, after-school nature walks.
But life had other plans for me, and other work. I married at the end of that year, and had two children, and spent my big brother’s last hours with him before he died, and that opened a quest for me, a spiritual quest, because I saw in his dying that our life is not just what we see, and hear, and taste and touch and smell. I felt I could almost reach out and touch something else in that hospital room, and I was filled with a desire to find out more about it, a desire which overtook everything. It’s not like I had never known this before; I had. I have always known that. But at that time I didn’t have a viable framework to support it. I had long since felt that Christianity was asking something of me that I could not give. I had a certainty that Jesus had not come for me to worship him, but to point the way to God. So everything I heard in church, whether it was in the Catholic church of my youth or the Lutheran church I attended as a teenager, rang false and caused me pain.
That quest took me, by a long way beginning with a masters’ degree in counseling from the University of Vermont, to a first stop as my work as a storyteller. For eleven years I crisscrossed the state of Vermont and sometimes further afield, telling stories in elementary and high schools, universities, theaters, museums, factories, correctional centers, camps, and festivals, and teaching storytelling to children, teens, and classroom teachers in schools and at my Serendipity School, a summer residential storytelling camp. My work was supported in part by grants from the Vermont Council on the Arts, the Vermont Council on the Humanities, and a private foundation.
During this time also I started to remember how much I liked writing. When I was still in high school I had a crazy writing teacher who taught me to love language. She used to wear a little stuffed toy owl on her shoulder and when she passed any of her students she would greet them and tell it to greet them too. Or when she worked with us on our writing many of the suggestions came from “him”. I wrote short stories and letters, and when my children were babies I made up stories with them and sketched them out as picture books while they acted them out, again and again and yet again. I wrote a series of articles on organic gardening for our town newspaper back then, and dreamed about writing a cookbook, which I never did because I stayed too busy cooking. But after I began telling stories, I began writing in earnest, and I started amassing my collection of rejections from editors. Some of those came in personal letters from the editors saying how much they liked the writing, and that kept me going.
The longing I had felt as a child to be with Isa, peace upon him, and Maryam, may Allah be pleased with her, led me into Islam. I will never forget the awe I felt when I discovered the Qur’an chapter called “Maryam.” I had already felt the constrictions of the Christian conception of Isa, and I had decided that organized religion had nothing to offer me. I never dreamed that I would find such a clear connection to what I had felt as a child so passionately, and in Islam, no less! I had grown up as a Catholic child fearing and loathing it as infidelity. Brainwashed.
Then the storytelling opened my heart to the longing to make a deep commitment to Islam and especially to study the Qur’an. I knew that during the twenty three years that the Revelations were given, Muhammad, may Allah bless him and give him peace, and the many people who were drawn to him and stayed to help him, memorized them as they came, and this is how they were preserved. I had seen what happened when I committed stories to memory and then told them over and over again, so that they opened like roses, petal by petal, revealing a fragrance one could hardly have anticipated at the bud stage. I wanted that to happen for me with Islam, and so I decided to go to Turkey and try to learn.
Living in Turkey was a sea-change for me, I won’t write about it here or it will be volumes. It is enough to say that I feel so grateful for all that I learned there and all I continue to learn. Before I left for Turkey I told a friend I wanted to go and be among “people with vast interiors,” and that’s really what I found there.
As I gradually grew accustomed to living abroad, I began to write more and more. I wasn’t telling stories professionally anymore, but I was writing more and then translating some things from Turkish to English. I translated a collection of Nasreddin Hoja stories, illustrated by one of Turkey’s most beloved illustrators, Ahmet Yakupoglu. I wrote stories for a company producing materials for learners of English as a second language, and a series of traditional Islamic stories, a couple of which were published there.
Finally the Hand of the One brought me to what is now home, to Amman, Jordan, where I live in close proximity with my younger son, his wife, and their three children, who are all Muslims Alhamdulillah, as is my older son who lives in the US with my other two grandsons.
I am currently studying Arabic full time at a wonderful institute here called Qasid. Alhamdulillah I was given a full scholarship to complete the studies I began five years ago. I really look forward, inshaAllah, to being able to access the Arabic sources of Quran interpretation and prophetic biography. I am grateful to be among people who are seriously studying the art and science of Islam from Arabic sources, and feel a deep need to be able to communicate with them. Islam truly is a religion of knowledge. Without knowledge, there is nothing. In the world today there is much that is called “Islamic knowledge” which is nothing of the kind. One must pray steadily to be guided to the wellsprings of pure knowledge, and not be led astray, down a path that will lead to ruin. And Allah knows best.
I hope and pray that something of my story can be of benefit to you, and that something you can take from this site will benefit you.
Be in the care of Allah!