Donna Van Toen is a well-known Canadian astrologer now residing in Hamilton, Ontario. Donna is the founder and organizer of the SOTA (State of the Art) conference held in Niagara Falls, NY each October, and previously held in Toronto and St. Catharines. She is the author of several books and has been active as a consulting astrologer and teacher, and has been involved in various astrological organizations in a career spanning more than 40 years. I spoke to her via Skype… hence our opening lines!
Donna: Hi, I’m invisible. I hate cameras. Oh God, I hate cameras.
Kay: Okay. I can take mine off if you want.
Donna: No, that’s okay. That’s okay. I don’t mind looking at you. I just like being invisible. I’m one of those people.
Kay: Ha! That’s a good start right away. So now we know that about you. Let’s go right into it. First, what I want to know is how you got started into astrology.
Donna: I was kind of dragged kicking and screaming. I was 16. I had a friend and we did everything together. She called me up one day and she had discovered sun sign astrology, and she said, “Oh, Donna, you’ve got to look at this. It’s amazing.” She’s reading stuff out of a book and she said, “You know, this could really help our love lives,” which both of us had difficulty with. I said, “You’re nuts. You’re totally, utterly nuts. You’re telling me there are only 12 types of people in the world. You’re nuts.” She said, “But, isn’t this accurate?” I said, “You’re nuts.”
Time passed and as luck would have it, I dislocated my knee. I was laid up for the better part of a month. I was an avid reader. My poor mother had to go every other day and take out library books, and then I would send them back and I would whine about nothing to read.
So, she tried magazines, and that was even worse. One day, I was out of books. I was out of magazines. She got angry, she went out to the drug store, and she came back and literally threw an American Astrology at me. She said, “You’ll have to make do with this. I’ll not have you reading True Confessions in my house.”
I thought, well, I’m laying here in bed. I’m going to take this magazine and try to prove that my friend is crazy— except that she was a double Scorpio. So a lot of the sun sign forecasts—when you took into account that she was 16 and these were not necessarily written for 16-yearolds, you could find enough truisms and say, well, in terms of school instead of work, yes, it worked. There was enough there to make me wonder if there wasn’t something to it. So, I tried to learn more. Now this is in Watertown, New York, where there were no astrology bookstores.
One day, the same friend said, “Guess what? I’m babysitting for this woman and she has one of those books.” I said, “What books?” She said, “an ‘ephemeral’ book, the one with all the planet positions.” I said, “Oh, does she? Then, you need to ask her sweetly if she’ll teach us to set up charts.” And, she did.
Years later, I figured out that she probably didn’t know much more than we did, but she taught us to set up charts. And after that we used to save up our babysitting money, lie to our parents, and either get the bus or get a ride to Syracuse, which was 70 miles away, because there was a bookstore there. And, we’d just buy everything that looked good. We had not a clue, neither of us. Not a clue. That’s how it started, and I never looked back. The last I heard—she and I have lost touch—she was out somewhere in the wilderness, refinishing furniture, and is not into any of this. And, here I am.
Kay: And here you are! There’s something to me that’s so touching about teenage girls lying to their parents to go off to a bookstore to find this esoteric, taboo material that back then was very hard to come by.
Donna: Yes. Some years later, I discovered the AFA and discovered you could order books. I still had not a clue what I was doing, and I have this Jupiter that gives me a hard time. I thought, I’m going to get one of everything. I’m going to build a library, because I was a reader. I was actually going to DC where they were originally based. It turned out that about 6 months before I got to DC, they had moved to Arizona. But, I did find a bookstore. After a time, I even got plugged into organizations and went to workshops and learned what I was doing. For the first 2 or 3 years, I was self-taught. There were holes in my knowledge you could drive a truck through.
Eventually, all those books, most of them came into good stead because what I bought as too advanced and stuck on a shelf, 3 years later, I said, “Wow, I didn’t know I had this. Secondary progressions, oh!”
So, it all came out in the wash and probably not the best way to learn, but the one thing I’ll say about that is I was forced to challenge myself. I was forced to be objective. I was forced not to buy a particular party line, whether it was Koch houses or Placidus houses or whatever it was. So, I became quite eclectic.
And then, years later, it became clear that you really needed to get certified, and I needed to test my knowledge against some kind of standard. So, I went and got certified. That was a very good thing, but I’m still a very eclectic astrologer and I still question the trends. You’ve got to prove it to me.
Kay: Did you have any particular teachers or inspirational teachers in those early years?
Donna: Well, I think the first person to really make a huge impact on me was Isabel Hickey. Isabel Hickey was the first astrologer I met who said that you could believe in reincarnation, you could be in tune with it, you could be psychic, and you were not crazy. It didn’t mean that you wandered around with an odd hat and a big flowered dress.
That was a real breakthrough for me because, you know, she was so much her own person and she wasn’t insisting there was no such thing as psychic astrology. She was saying that it’s okay to be psychic and to also be an astrologer. So, she was absolutely wonderful. And, I would say that meeting her was a very big turning point for me.
Also, early on, I met Frances Sakoian. That was a less, shall we say, comfortable experience because I had read all her books and I was so excited to be able to see this woman in person. I got there and for the first 20 minutes she mostly talked about herself. She used the word, I, quite frequently. It was all I, I, I… She was going over various things and basics, and hands would go up, and somebody would say, “Can you recommend a book for that?”
“Well, can you recommend a book for this?”
And, I’m thinking, oh my God, this is not what I envisioned for kind of a spiritual study. And, I listened to her for a while, and finally, there was a third “Mine” and I rolled my eyes, and there was a guy sitting across from me. He looked at me. I looked at him. We both rolled our eyes. His hand went up and said, “Mrs. Sakoian, is there nothing other than your own books that you’d recommend?” She paused. She said, “Well, there’s Mark Edmond Jones, but most of you probably aren’t bright enough to understand him. You need to be a Philadelphia lawyer to understand.” And, I went, “Oh!”
Now, as luck may have it, sight unseen, I had booked a reading with her. We’re talking back in the early 70s. This was 50 bucks, and I was a student. I ate a lot of Kraft dinner to save up for that reading. So, I tried to get out of it, and the convener said no, no, no — no refunds, non-refundable — so I bit the bullet and went.
I have to tell you that she was astounding and she didn’t have the best client to work with because at this point, I’m kind of there grudgingly. She went on and on and on and on, and toward the end, she said, “Well, that’s what I see. What questions do you have?” I asked her about being a writer. She said, “Oh, yes, dear. You’re going to be a writer.” And, I was pleased because what I wanted to do was write a great American novel.
“You’re going to be a writer, but you’re going to write astrology books.” She said, “I’ll tell you, you’re going to go full circle. You’re going to look at metaphysics and magic and all kinds of things, and you’re going to come back to astrology and you’re going to write books and articles, and your name will be known.”
Well, was I ever cheesed off! I thought, yep, and for another 50 bucks, she’ll give me the lessons and show me how. So, I wasn’t happy.
I will say in retrospect that virtually everything she said to me came to pass, and I did run into her many years later at an AFA conference, and I wanted to tell her that. But, at that point, she had had, I believe, a stroke. She was in a wheelchair. She was very frail. She smiled and nodded her head, and obviously, I don’t think anything that I said to her was resonating. I’m not sure she had the ability to talk very much either. I got that impression. But, she smiled and reached out for my hand and this sort of thing, and I thought, okay, I tried. Little did I know.
Kay: That’s a really touching story. Did you study writing in school?
Donna: No, I started out to be a teacher. So, my major was in education and English. English has always been there. And, education was totally the wrong thing for me to do, but I got a lot of valuable skills from the training program that I’m still using. I never did go out and teach because by the end of the program, I knew it wasn’t for me.
Kay: Right, but in my experience, nothing is ever lost, so there probably were a lot of things you learned in that program that have helped you as an astrologer and a teacher of astrology.
Donna: Oh, excellent things. Interviewing, how to write a lesson plan, how to write a book proposal, that kind of evolved from article proposals, literacy skills, and even now, I am grateful for being forced to take biology and geology because, you know, I was sitting through those courses, cursing, and low and behold, they have some relevance. Yeah, no regrets about that at all.
Kay: And, now you do write. You have written at least one book that I know of, and of course I have attended and spoken at your SOTA Conference for years, which we will talk about as well. I’m wondering — what is it you love most about being a professional astrologer? I’m also going to ask you what you love least. So, maybe I’ll give you the two questions.
Donna: Well, we’ll get into what I love least! What I love most, there’s a lot of toss-ups. I did get into this to be a writer and I do love writing. I do love teaching. And, I love a lot of the people I’ve met. I have met the most wonderful people with the most amazing stories, and it’s just a gift. I have also gotten to travel to Australia, New Zealand, Turkey, and all across Canada. I probably would have done very little of that, other than through astrology. But if I had to deal with miserable people like myself on a daily basis, like Frances Sakoian did, I’d probably be doing something else. I generally meet great people.
Kay: What do you love least?
Donna: What do I love least? Oh, dear. I think it’s the reverse side of the coin. One of the things that I do not like is the competitiveness within the community. Let’s say that it’s a tough way to make a living, and we don’t get a whole lot of respect from the outer world, and I think that’s why there is this, sort of, nasty one-up-menship, competitive thing that you will encounter amongst otherwise lovely people. You’ll go to a conference and somebody will look at you and say, well, I had 18 in my workshop; how many did you have? Well, who cares? I go back to Isabel Hickey, who always said, “Those who are meant to be there will be there, and sometimes that’s two, and sometimes it’s forty-two.” When you’re standing up there, lecturing, you have no rhyme or reason, so it behooves you to do the best job you can, but it really isn’t about numbers or speaking slots or one-upping. There are some people that it’s just very hard to compete with because their expertise is so vast. Personally, I don’t even want to try. I want to go sit in the lectures and learn from them, and that’s the way it is.
But, I would say the competition between astrologers and to extend it further, between organizations, really angers me. I think it’s a massive waste of energy and a massive lack of self-awareness, because if you know your strengths and weaknesses, you make the weaknesses better if you’re so motivated. And, you don’t have to get all neurotic because another person in the other room has brought more people in than you did.
To be continue…