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This is the most meaningful interview I have conducted for Baha’i Blog and it’s about a new edition of Fires in Many Hearts, published by George Ronald. This is the memoir of Doris McKay, a spiritual mother to my community on Prince Edward Island, Canada and the creation of this book is deeply tied to my childhood as my parents and many of my spiritual aunts and uncles played a role in its publication.
I am deeply honoured to hear from Paul Vreeland (my father), Ann Boyles (who is like an aunt to me) and from Margaret Tash (a new friend) about a book I will never forget. Paul and Ann were involved in the earlier editions of the memoir, and Margaret helped with this latest edition. Here is what they shared with us about the process of bringing Fires in Many Hearts into the hands of readers:
Baha’i Blog: Hi Ann, Paul and Margaret! Can you tell us a little about yourselves?
I was born and raised on Prince Edward Island, Canada, where Doris and Willard McKay pioneered in 1944. Mrs. McKay was my beloved art teacher in elementary school. She was one of the most magical people in my young life, able to create entire worlds with strokes of her brush—and to encourage us, her students, to try to do the same. I loved her! Later, when I reconnected with her during my university years, she taught me something even more magical than art: the Baha’i Faith. She nurtured me and loved me through times of joy and pain, praying with me, studying with me, counselling me and encouraging me to dedicate my life to Baha’u’llah.
I am a Connecticut Yankee who long ago decided to make Prince Edward Island my home. This is where I met Doris McKay. Assisting her with Fires in Many Hearts, is among the highlights of my life. Others include periods of service in Haiti and west Africa, and witnessing the growth of my children on their own paths of service. Occasionally I carve out a few hours in which to write.
I grew up in Massachusetts and learned about the Baha’i Faith when I was 19 at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where I worked as a secretary. A few years later, I moved to Wyoming for 12 years as a home-front pioneer, and also completed college. When I returned to New England, I worked as a dietitian in small communities, before moving to western New York in 2009.
Baha’i Blog: Could you please tell us about your involvement in the book?
From the time I first began to visit Doris as a young adult, she would tell stories about her life as a young Baha’i—in 1925 in upstate New York. She spoke about Howard and Mabel, Harlan and Grace, Louise, May, Mary, Martha, Dorothy… At first, I thought they were just interesting old friends of hers, and then one day the penny dropped, and I realized that these were early luminaries of the Baha’i Faith in North America. We young Baha’is began to request her not just to tell stories about her early life in the Baha’i community but to write them down so they would be preserved for future generations. Doris, a nighthawk, would sit with her portable typewriter at her dining room table in the farmhouse in Vernon Bridge until the wee hours of the morning, creating worlds again—this time not with art, but with words. At one point, I keyed some of those typescripts into a rudimentary word processing program on an early portable computer, but mostly I served as one of her many cheerleaders as she struggled with the mighty task of representing these historical figures and episodes with love and accuracy.
To build on a catchphrase, it takes a community to produce a book. Authors commonly practice the courtesy of crediting the members of that community for the contributions each has made to their publications. In the “Acknowledgments,” of Fires in Many Hearts, Doris says that my labour carried the book through to publication. And I will add that it was no small feat. Were Doris to hear me say that, I’d imagine her response: “No small feat? You mean my acknowledgement of you?” No, I mean to note the challenges we faced. We didn’t have a publisher, we didn’t have a typeset press-ready manuscript, and we didn’t have the funds to publish the book.
My involvement with Fires in Many Hearts began around 1985 when my family and I returned to Prince Edward Island after serving as volunteers for the Baha’i community in Haiti. This was shortly after the advent of personal computers and while we had word processors, the tools of desktop publishing were rather rudimentary and outrageously expensive. The cursors we saw on our dark computer screens were blinking, keyboard-driven, green or amber pixels. Doris used a manual typewriter and my initial hope was to re-type the existing pages and to generate a digital manuscript. I made weekly visits to her in Vernon River where we traded the printouts of the lightly-edited files for her newly typed pages. We’d talk about the edits and often she would tell stories related to her writing.
As an aide mémoire, Doris drew upon a collection of letters she had written over the years to her friend Lorna Tasker. The letters stopped after her husband Williard died in 1966, and piecing together the details of the latter chapters proved to be another challenge. Doris’ health began to decline and she suffered a stroke in 1989. I remember visiting her in hospital and reading to her portions of the manuscript. She had lost the capacity for speech and wasn’t then able to respond. Fortunately she recovered. (Living well into her nineties and witnessing the passing of so many of her friends to the Abha Kingdom, Doris sometimes wondered if God had forgotten her.)
I must admit that in carrying the book through to publication, we didn’t know what we were doing; we were immersed in a mode of learning and dependent upon divine assistance. When the manuscript was complete, we needed to find a printer and the money to support the venture. Alanna (my wife) and I worked with Herb Lee, another of Doris’ youthful friends who was serving in Macau. He oversaw the printing in Hong Kong. The term crowdfunding did not exist. Nevertheless, my wife and I coordinated the collection of contributions from several of Doris’ closest friends—enough to pay for the printing a few hundred copies of the book. The understanding was that should there be a surplus, the money would go to the National Assembly of the Baha’is of Canada. (Contributors received a copy of the book, and I think we were lucky to be able to meet expenses.) Alanna and I took orders and payments, and mailed copies of the book from our home. Most of the books had been sold when Doris gave the rights to Nine Pines Publishing for a second printing.
When I moved to Rochester (New York), I didn’t know the history of the Faith here. A dear friend, Karen Marquardt, gave me a copy of Doris’ book shortly after I arrived. Doris’ honest and warm style drew me immediately into the lives of the early Baha’is who lived in, or traveled through, this area. I absolutely love this book, which always inspires me.
Two years ago, I realized it would be lost forever if not put in digital format, which wasn’t available with the first printing. How could we save this precious book for future generations? Finding a publisher presented the first hurdle. It seemed the only option would be to self-publish, even if we didn’t know what to do.
Stephen Vickers of Insight Baha’i Bookshop in the UK was sympathetic and offered to help find a way to self-publish. Before taking that step, he first sent an email to Erica Leith (at George Ronald Publishers), who graciously and generously embraced the plan. The rest is history!
There were other challenges. The original publisher was no longer in business and, while Doris held the copyright, she had passed away in 1992. The book couldn’t be reprinted without resolving these issues. Ann Boyles, Wendi Momen at George Ronald and I worked our way through the permissions aspect of the reissue process.
Once we had a publisher, an artist and dear friend, Jaci Ayorinde, offered to create the new cover, which is so beautiful for this new edition.
Most importantly, there is no doubt Doris was involved every step of the way, making sure the stories of these early heroes and heroines would never be lost. Reprinting the book seemed an impossible task. Yet, here it is! Ann wrote that someone who knew Doris said that, when the book was originally printed, Doris’ wish was that someday it be published by George Ronald. There are no coincidences!
Baha’i Blog: Why do you think this book is important?
Doris was, of course, a witness and a participant in significant historical events, but beyond a recounting of the mere facts, she painted vivid word pictures depicting scenes, people, emotions, and spiritual conditions in an engaging way. As Douglas Martin commented after reading the book, “It’s a wonderful record of a heroic period in the Faith’s history in North America….”
As Ann wrote in the original edition, Doris was encouraged to include the very real struggles the friends faced… the clashes and the challenges. Sometimes a biography portrays a person as so heroic and peerless – and maybe they were! – that we feel utterly incapable of even trying to emulate them. Doris shows their very human side, so we can be patient with ourselves and others in our struggles, since we are all want to serve the Faith the best we can.
Doris’ description of the Great Depression gives a spiritual perspective of the material world. They lost everything but didn’t look back. Instead, they looked forward to the next path of service. What a great example to follow, as society becomes ever more trapped in materialism.
It’s hard to imagine the isolation felt in the early years on PEI. Doris wrote: “When I went on errands, walking alone on the streets of Charlottetown, I would often feel the tears running down my cheeks and I would fight them back to conceal them from others.” Let’s use technology, where we can see and talk with friends, to support each other’s efforts. Imagine how Doris would have used Zoom to serve the Faith!!
In many ways, Fires in Many Hearts is a landmark. As a privately published biography it’s unique in its success, this being its third printing—surely a testament to the quality of the writing and to the love of the friends for Doris. The tell-it-like-it-was style of the writing, intimate, uncensored, and honest, describes a life of sacrifice stripped of a sentimentality that would otherwise prevent us from seeing the sacred. Fires in Many Hearts is not a chronicle of roses and accomplishments; it doesn’t shy away from the frailties that make us both human and heroic. In 1991, readers found something refreshingly natural in the narrative. It was a story in which we could see ourselves, and we sensed something liberating by its telling. Our heroes came down to us and became our friends. That, I think was groundbreaking, opening the way for others to tell their stories.
Baha’i Blog: What do you hope people will take away with them, long after they’ve finished reading?
First and foremost, these devoted souls are our spiritual ancestors! We can call on them for help, because they are waiting for us. Just ask!
Never give up or become hopeless, no matter how difficult the circumstances.
And, you’re never – ever – too old to teach the Faith. Doris taught a new, young generation in her 80s, lived until she was 98, and created a treasured memoir to inspire Baha’is everywhere.
I hope that readers will take away at least four things from this memoir: a sense of the spiritual adventure of becoming a Baha’i during the early years of the Faith in North America; a closer connection to those early Baha’is; an understanding that they, too, were human beings with their own struggles; and inspiration to follow in their footsteps. As Douglas Martin put it, “The great strength of the account lies in its honesty…. Doris’ willingness to speak so candidly about such experiences as the ‘Tilbury Tenement’ period will mean a great deal to Baha’i readers who have all known their Tilbury passages in life.”
There is a lot of love in the book. Fires is inspired by love. The last paragraph of the book reads:
“This book is also a result of that love power. It began with Howard Colby Ives. He had not veiled his eyes when we gathered to hear him speak in 1925. He gave us the gift of a message that became life indeed. Howard Colby Ives, who had been taught the lesson of Love by the Master Himself, was truly ‘a lighter of fires in many hearts’. As one of his spiritual daughters, I aspire to be a link in the love-chain, passing on that heritage.”
Here we are in 2021 commemorating the centenary of the passing of Abdu’l-Baha, the Master, remembering Him and sharing stories of His life of love. Doris aspired “to be a link in the love-chain.” She wrote the book because of her love for the reader, because of her love for us, because of her love for you. I hope you accept the gift with gratitude.
Baha’i Blog: Thank you all so very much for taking the time to share this with us.
You can purchase Doris’ memoir here on Amazon: Fires in Many Hearts
It can also be special ordered from your local bookstore or from online Baha’i distributors.
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