Stranger Skies cover reveal and giveaway

My daughter, Katje van Loon, is releasing a new book in October: Stranger Skies, book 1 of The Borderlands Saga. Today is the cover reveal, so I’m helping out.

StrangerSkiesebookcoverPress

A goddess’ fall from grace leaves her on an alien world, devoid of her followers, trapped in a mortal body. Should she strive to regain her godhood or accept her mortality and find love?

Silva, Queen of Wolves, Lady of the True Woods, seeks her only friend Etan, who, along with other deities of the Council of Divinity, has gone missing for reasons unknown. Her search traps her on a world where the wolves have lost faith in her; she becomes a mortal woman whose remaining powers could brand her as a witch.

Through the chaos of war and the turmoil in her own heart, Silva can’t escape a persistent feeling: that her fall was not an accident.

Enter to win an ARC ebook!

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A Day Late–excerpt from novel I’m currently writing

Personally, I prefer to spend as few of my days as possible in Waikiki—or anywhere on Oahu, for that matter—but it was Spence’s wish to revisit the Arizona memorial and old Honolulu, if any of it was still recognisable from World War II. In those far off days, he trod these streets as a scared and very young navigator with the U.S. Navy. Of course, the place is no more familiar to him now than his grizzled muzzle would be to one of his shipmates from the Lexington, had we run into any of the old geezers at the ritualised visit to the memorial to the sunken Arizona yesterday.

The presentation proved as tedious and self-serving as my last visit to a church. Its only entertainment value was the barked instructions of the young lieutenant or whatever he was, dressed head to toe in traditional white and gold, to the women visitors to cover their bare flesh—Show some respect, Ladies! I stood off to the side with MJ, who was seething with teenaged fury as much over being told what to do with her body by some male as by the glorification of the American past pouring into her ears, wondering if allowing this smarmy version of history into our lives was really a good way to celebrate Spence’s birthday. Dion and Lili weren’t impressed, either—“I’m terminally bored,” as Lili put it. It was no surprise the kids opted to hang out at the hotel this morning while Spence and I ventured into the wilds of Waikiki, telling ourselves we were open to the new while really looking for the past.

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Fireworks

Today’s Natural News newsletter reported the recovery of the Gerson Tapes, which apparently had been missing. These recorded interviews with cancer patients by Charlotte Gerson, director of an alternative-care cancer institute safely located out of the US, reminded me of a long-ago contact with cancer in a child.

It was a heart-breaking case. The kid had been sick for years and doctors had prescribed a transplant. The issue that seemed central was the child’s right, at 16, to decide on her medical care. Socially, it looked like a battle between well-meaning parents bent on natural treatments and doctors bent on the miracles of surgery. Legally, it revealed a black truth whose revelation surely contributes to the death of idealism in lawyers: our government in paying lip service to the needs and rights of children is really most concerned with saving face. Covering its ass. If something is going to go wrong, make it the fault of parents or lawyers or doctors–not the government.

As more and more of our youth develop cancers in an increasingly toxic environment, these dreadful scenarios take place on stages still cluttered with the outmoded yet terrifying scenery of the legal rights and duties of competing professions, businesses and administrations, while before our eyes children sicken and die. The junk of western civilisation plays no small part in preventing good health.

I was so upset, I wrote a story. You may conclude, on reading it, that anyone so naive as I would have done better to avoid becoming a lawyer (or perhaps that lawyers shouldn’t write stories). Going over it today, I feel the tears pricking my eyelids again. I still believe in informed consent, for children as for anyone–the hard part is getting there with clarity and truth, love and compassion. Informed consent entails the practice of rigorous selflessness by all concerned, other than the patient.

Chrysanthemums always remind me of that.

Here is Fireworks.

“Can you get me out of here for the fireworks?” The kid interrupted my lawyer-ese in her thinned voice, throwing back the blue hospital blankets in bravado. I saw the pencil legs, a tarnished brown, and the unused bird-claw feet.

Hers was the kind of bated-breath request my eight-year-old made. Not what I expected from the blistered mouth of this yellow scrawn of a girl. “The Symphony of Fire?”
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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly-wugly Worthday

Tomorrow’s another birthday, likely to be spent in a state of moderate terror triggered by a single expression caught on the face of an ultrasound technician yesterday.

Normally, I like my birthday. It was always the last or second-last day of school, which meant it came with a built-in sense of joy and release for all participants but not quite too late in the year to secure an adequate number of guests for a party. As the possibility of partying became occluded with adult issues, like sick elders, kids’ graduations, or transitions like moving and traveling, I salvaged that day as Mine, All Mine–one day a year to spend as it pleases me and no one else. On the whole, people respond favorably to that claim–after all, who doesn’t need at least one day a year to please oneself?

Thus the past couple of dozen personal anniversaries have compensated for lack of festivity by being Splendidly Useful, days at whose ends I am once again on the right side of that adage, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Along with a generous snort of a precious liqueur like Mangalore or Ginger of the Indies at the close of My Day, I take a deep breath of courage for the next year, grateful for another chance to become who I ought to be. The Dutch housekeeper in me is mollified once more. Birthdays have become worth-days.

The last day of my sixty-third year could be an ugly-wugly one. It could, for that matter, be the last one. There lies my life, waiting to be Examined by the ultrasound of my intuition, blinking back tears of dread as it senses the look on my face while I wield the new and improved version of that instrument.

Last year’s cancer tinkered with my intuition machinery, showing me many more layers of knowing than I had guessed existed in the human psyche. What a shock to realise that the organism already knows everything! You are your own Ouija Board–ask only the questions whose answers you can face.

Maybe I mis-read the expression on the face of that ultrasound technician. On the other hand, she didn’t respond to my question about whether she was looking at the pancreas (Pancreatic cancer, I gather, is almost as quick a final solution as a firing squad). And then she decided to “do” the kidneys.

Oh, scheize…. The kids start howling the minute she asks me to turn onto one side. The pain is only a faint echo of what they endured during their ugly time, the years of domestic terror when Rescue Remedy must never be out of reach. That unique pain would kick me in the back so hard, I’d have to pull over, administer the RR, and just wait and breathe until my vision was no longer red-limned and the ears no longer crackled like a forest fire.

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A serious EOY note

David Parkinson posted another or his thoughtful pieces on slowcoast.ca, and suddenly some of my thoughts over this past week, traveling to and being in Nicaragua, coalesced.

David’s article is way out in front of what the vast majority of people, certainly in cities, are thinking. Nevertheless, we must think even further ahead, starting right now.

The signs of imminent monetary collapse in the US are here. It will happen shortly, hopefully not before I get out of Nicaragua (which is highly dollarised and would be a disastrous place to be stuck unless one wants to be here permanently).

The question I kept pestering economics-type people with, four to seven years ago, the period when I saw the writing on the wall and got the hell out of the US, was, "What happens to Canadian money when the US buck implodes?" Nobody could tell me. To my knowledge no one has yet opined on what kind of suffering will be laid on Canuck shoulders when–not if–"it" happens.

But we’ve seen stuff happen since, with nasty effects on Canada, and it’s clear we won’t escape the consequences–the US is our biggest customer and will do everything in its power–as it has been doing, in my view, for at least ten years–to rip us off for badly needed natural resources without paying us properly or at all for them. The true nature of NAFTA and CAFTA will become glaringly apparent–oh, yeah, and so will the agenda of that "Prosperity and Security" agreement, which basically means we become their bitch, borrow the picturesque ‘Murrican slang.

As little regard as I have for the Conservatives and much as it galls me to see our elected turkeys selling our birthright for a mess of Chinese and Asian pottage, it is one possible stopgap to the tsunami of misery about to overcome the US economy flowing across the 49th parallel–the question being, will we ever get our natural resources back?

Let’s discuss that another day. We have urgent problems to fix before monetary collapse happens. What to do about a falling Canuckbuck will doubtless be one of them; how to get basic food supplies here another. How to keep our social systems going without money is a question that is going to occupy all of us a lot for 2011. This is one year when wishing someone Happy New Year takes on a whole new meaning.

There’s very little time. Kill your US accounts, if you have them. Get out of the US dollar, ’cause it’s going to get out of you PDQ. Get your mortgage approval RIGHT NOW before people go snaky. You’ll bless yourself 40 times over when you’re paying it off in 2011 pre-crash dollars. Invest everything you can in stuff that matters, like land, fuel, and food that will keep. Give beans for Christmas–you think I’m kidding? Fine, drop off a case of lentils at my house.

But, beyond these survivalist techniques and planning on turning more lawn into potato patch in the spring, shouldn’t we start getting serious about a local currency that won’t be subject to the vagaries of world finance? About supporting public transport initiatives that don’t require ferries and gasoline (hear that whinny? horses pawing the ground to get back into business!) ? About trading with some other community for grain? About really using our fruit to feed this community and perhaps beyond? About becoming solar- and wind-energy geniuses? About sustainable logging and new crops for paper and textiles? About taking our land back to sustain us instead of sending raw logs halfway across the earth?

PR individuals have done a lot–radio, publishing, beer, independent media, farming. If any community in BC can survive what’s coming, surely it’s PR. Pretty soon, though, we’ll all be very clear about one thing: it’s not enough.

I’m going to suck the tropical juice out of this holiday for all it’s worth. It hurts to think of how much more the suffering of people here will increase when the dollar collapses. There’s an underlying sadness and resignation among ex-pats I’ve met here: they have given up on saving or rectifying the situation–the garbage-strewn beaches, the junk food, the illiteracy, the rampant domestic violence. Would you believe Nicaraguan Christmas trees here are made of empty plastic bottles? You don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

I drink the last of the great Chilean wine that cost $7.50 a bottle here, reflect sadly that quite possibly there won’t be more chances for me to see the rest of this fascinating, beautiful planet, and count myself one of the luckiest humans on earth–I belong to Powell River, a community that has a real shot at survival.

Wolffy

The Orgasmic Lightness of Being

A natural-health newsletter alerts me to the rise of cancer among pharmacists, nurses, and doctors who handle chimotherapy chemicals. Rick the Health Ranger says, "Treating cancer with chemotherapy is like treating alcoholism with vodka. It’s like treating heart disease with cheese, or like treating diabetes with high-fructose corn syrup. Cancer cannot be cured by the very thing that causes it.

"And to those who deal in poison, watch out for the cause-and-effect laws of biology. If you deal in chemotherapy chemicals, don’t be surprised if you get cancer one day. If you deal in chemical pesticides, don’t be surprised if you get Alzheimer’s. If you’re a dentist installing mercury fillings in the mouths of clients, don’t be surprised if one day you just go stark raving mad (because mercury causes insanity, and dentists breathe in mercury vapor thrown into the air from their drills).

"If you work around chemicals, they will eventually impact your health, and never in a good way."

I read that the leading cause of death in my province in the last year was cancer. The news does not cause so much as a ripple, because we knew. Not a single conversation, no controversy, because, at some level, we already knew.

Not surprisingly, when my lovely Polish surgeon told me I was cancer-free, I arose from my chair as if filled with hot air and bounced around the room like a balloon, clapping my paws for joy. Free! Free! No need to decide on chimo or radiation. Free!

Until next time. Until I let stress wreck the body once more. Until I fall prey to the easy ways of stemming hunger and thirst, loneliness and stress. Free.

I don’t know where to look, where to put my hands. I don’t feel the floor beneath my feet. I float away with a ridiculous smile on my face. Cancer-free…free to be, you and me….

Ironic, the loss of my iron man

Thirty-two years ago, I lost the love of my life, and my love lost his life, and all his loves.

It never stops aching. Not entirely. Every June 18, unless my living dear ones have crises that obtrude, I remember. Most years, I cry, again. Some years, I write another June 18 poem. I don’t talk about the date, lest it be thought an occasion. Let the stupid world think June 18 is just a boring day–I want it to myself, to remember the best man in my life.

He was a brave man, our Spence. He didn’t go to the hospital until 20 hours before his death. If you haven’t spent last days with a cancer patient, just believe me: that’s hard.

He had lied to all of us, his family, friends, and me. Especially me–he’d broken up with me inexplicably, just after we had decided to have a child. Still clad in the long cotton hippy dress I had worn for him that evening when he came to dinner with his dreadful verbal mission hidden in his throat, I lay on the river stones outside my shack, devastated, for two days. At some point I picked myself up, fed the wolfdogs, packed up into an old Ford Econoline van, and left for anywhere.

Two years later he came to visit me in Yukon, for no apparent reason. He still could not articulate why he broke us up. Lovely visit, but mysterious. I watched him stride away in the fresh northern morning, attache case banging against his knee, full of meaningless papers about the pipeline, geologist’s boots sticking out from under his suit with the leather elbows. The thought arose: "This is the last time I’ll ever see him."

He took a "business trip" to the Phillippines. I still have the tightly woven little bag he sent me as a memento from Baguio City. He was in the oil business, a geologist–so it all made some kind of sense. I had no idea he’d gone for the "psychic surgery" then so famous on the moccasin telegraph, later so infamous as the "cancers" allegedly removed from sufferors’ bodies were proven to match chicken flesh in every possible way.

Nobody knew Spence was sick until very close to the end. In those days, there were no early tests for colon cancer, and having cancer was, well, a little embarrassing. If you had cancer, you had probably done some bad living, bad loving, or wrong thinking in your life. You hid your cancer and prayed for survival.

Much later, I put it together. He’d been given a year or so to live, although he outlived the prognosis by two years. At one point, he’d been in the hospital for something–something he lied about, obviously–and of course I’d visited him there. I’d found him cheerfully piloting his wheelie-thing around the place so that he could continue his engineering-course homework in the brightest lighting in the building (other than the operating room). He was cheerful as only a faker can be, but I was naive enough to swallow his guff. "Why on earth are you taking more courses," I did protest, "when you already have a PhD and tons of post-doctorate work behind you, not to mention dealing with whatever this medical problem is?"

He said something about needing this course in the future and about life-long learning. I believed him. I wanted to believe him. I wanted to believe that Spence would always exist in my life, whether we were a couple or not. I needed an immortal good man.

Someone in his group of friends was a doctor, however, and the cat crawled out of the bag. On finding him out, we all flew into his eyrie in Calgary, totally pissed off with his bravado. There followed six weeks during which we all practised mundane courage, exemplified by Spence, who refused to stop living a single day earlier than he had to. Though he insisted on doing for himself far beyond the capacity of 999 of a thousand mortals, there was no denying that cancer is a sticky, icky, messy, stinky business. Like most major bodily events, cancer is all about fluids and odoriferous bits of gunk. The last course Spence "taught", to us there on the 34th floor of downtown Cowtown, was Transcendance Training, up close and personal.

Although too sick to drive, he walked into the hospital that last night under his own steam. I seem to remember the nurse taking his hand as he stepped up into the bed, his final bed, and he said, in an altered voice foreign to the voice of the bear I so loved, "It won’t be long now," and she answered gently, "No, Dr. Taylor, it won’t be long."

It wasn’t. The next afternoon, with his good friend his ex-wife and me, his last love, each holding one of those great hands, he left us.

Sort of. We could feel his presence above us, relieved to be free of the battered body. It followed us back to his office, where we held the prescribed wake with the long-saved flagon of scotch, and I threw myself down a set of stairs in a paroxysm of grief which had apparently had turned me into rubber, as not a single bone broke.

This year, as my initial "You’re kidding me" response to my own diagnosis ebbed away, the thought arose, Of course. Of course I’ve got the same disease.

This is nonsense, of course. Everybody and his dog have colon cancer nowadays, because we all grew up in poisoned environments. For some people, that started way back. Spence, child of the Depression, rode the rails, sailed the high seas during WWII on the ill-fated Lexington, and kept samples of radioactive rocks in his library, shining eerily in jars of oil or water.

I asked my docs how long the cancer thingy had been fashioning itself in me. Three to six years, I was told.

Three to six years…. Spence died at fifty-nine, which seems criminally young now. I was then a few days short of 30. Three decades later, at about his age, I was growing the same kind of cancer.

Now that’s not nonsense. That’s a warning to all us Boomers. This is the age it happens, people!

If Spence could know that in just six short months, his last love was diagnosed, treated with surgery, and declared cancer-free, he’d whoop with joy for me and wish like hell those opportunities had been open to him. Because he loved life, and he loved me, and everything could have been different.

Roads keep diverging in the yellow wood, and that is what makes all the difference.

Maddening

A full month after the surgery, the lab results arrived.

They were said to be due within two weeks. Good. That way, I thought, I can plan my summer. If the cancer is gone, maybe I can attend my friend’s wedding. If the cancer lurks and various docs think I need more treatment, well…at the least, it means a lot of self-education and some big lifestyle changes.

Once the results arrive, the patient doesn’t get them, of course. Oh, no. One must attend the doctor in his office. In my case, two doctors on two separate days. That is, after all, the only way doctors get paid–by seeing and treating patients. Our system doesn’t pay for talking to the patient over the phone.

Luckily, I’m in Powell River. In Vancouver, I used to rage over having to wait four months or more for my clients to see a specialist–it played havoc with trial dates and trial preparation. Little did personal-injury clients know that most of the delay in their cases was caused not by the legal system but by the medical. But here in a town of 20,000, my wait is only another week. Just too late to get a flight to that wedding, probably.

Maddening.

Wisdom Nugget

The acquisition of wisdom is seldom much fun. The happiness part comes later, once the pain subsides.

Take me, the woman stepping around town now with a smile wrapped twice around my face, ending with a knot behind my ear. I’m idiotically happy. Why? Because I’m still alive. Because surgery saved me for another day. Because I’m Canadian, which means I partake in what Americans call, in dread and loathing, “socialised medicine”. Because, if I still lived in the US, I’d be slowly dying now, too poor to save my life even if I knew how sick I was.

In theory, of course, I knew that our medical system, although not the world’s best compared to, say, that of France, is a far more harmonious interplay of needs and expertise than Americans’ addiction to what they think is “free enterprise” for doctors, researchers, and medical entrepreneurs, and “free choice” for patients—hah! Like anybody else, I watch Michael Moore.

In reality, there’s nothing like triple-whammy surgery, six days in the hospital, and six weeks of baby-steps recovery to bring home the truth: medicine is not politics, dear American friends—it’s a resource basic to life. In a world as polluted and harried as ours, every one of us is going to need a medical miracle sooner or later. Mine was sooner.

It may come as a surprise to read here an exhortation to anyone over fifty, or fat, dragged out, and hollow-eyed as I was, to visit a doctor and ask for the new colon-cancer screening. This experience has taught me—again—that health and harmony are synonymous. Think of your life in its time as a piece of music, where allopathic (Western) medicine plays the spectacular bits on one staff, and complementary medicine and healthy living come in with the obbligatos and the chords on other staffs.

From the editor of Immanence, some would no doubt expect staunch adherence to naturopathy, clean living, and food-is-medicine principles—perhaps even some distrust of the allopathic medical model. True enough, after years of being unable to afford any medical care whatsoever while living in the US, I’d fallen out of the habit of seeing an allopathic doctor with any regularity, figuring I knew best, anyway, and so far, so good. Hadn’t I beaten fibromyalgia and assorted ailments into submission with naturopathy and naturally good living? Surely, if I tried just a little harder and maybe worked a little less, I could lose those bags under my eyes and that stubborn belly?

The results of the screening stunned me. Me, a cancer patient? My self-image crumbled in twenty seconds. This body couldn’t be mine, surely? There must be a mistake! A mix-up!

I’d been harboring dumb beliefs like “I’m not the cancer type” and “I’ve built up a powerful immune system.” Wrong! I was sick. Looking back, I recognise that cancer has been going on for years, the signs so incremental that I could explain them away. Every time someone tells me how much better I look now, I realise afresh that, like a betrayed lover, at some level I was the first to know, but at the mundane level I was the last to find out.

Please, take this screening. Don’t let beliefs about yourself stand in your way. Don’t let the politics of medicine interfere with the best care for your body. And if there’s a new-fangled, non-invasive test for cancer or the other diseases that plague our society, get in line for it. Chances are, I’ll be in that line-up with you.

Is A Life So Small?

"Is a life so small?"

Lately, I hear that cry of anguish again, every day.

The heart-shaped face of my Hawaiian poet-friend, Susan Starr, arises from memory.

Eleven years ago, kay and I were struggling to fit in a visit every week or two to Susan’s little ohana perched on a hillock a third of the way up the sunny slopes of Maui’s dormant volcano, Haleakala, the "house of the sun". The rent was cheap, by Maui standards–a mere $500 per month, if memory serves. For the privilege of privacy, Susan, who could no longer hold down one of the scarce-enough social-service jobs on the island, was willing to pay almost her entire monthly stipend. The little building was furnished in lawn chairs and meditation pads–and a desk with a built-in easel, like a drafter’s desk, where Susan tried, almost every day, to produce a piece of art. There was less food than art supplies in the tiny house, and any little goodie we could bring along was welcome, provided it fell into the category of Stuff Susan Can Still Eat. The details have drifted away, but I recall that the provision of an adequate juicer posed a huge practical and financial issue. Life wasn’t easy within those four walls.

Yet Susan was one of the lucky ones.She had some medical coverage, and she received a small monthly stipend from somewhere. By contrast, had cancer happened to me as it did to her, starvation and exposure would have been my lot, for there was absolutely no coverage for the likes of me, and no social safety net, either. Once I had sold all my chattels and property, the only option would have been death on the beach. But those were the days I was confident I would never have to face cancer. I wasn’t the type. I kept my head down and worked like a dog as if, in the end, I would have earned a nice juicy bone and a comfy dog bed.

For several years Susan struggled along, through hoped-for remissions and dread relapses. Even as the cancer settled in her bones, she worked at rebuilding her life, using food as medicine and art as therapy and, she hoped, income. But income never materialised, art therapy accomplished no miracles, and all the good food in the world could not beat back the cancer.

The day she entered the hospital, never again to emerge alive, was an outrageously busy day for her friends. Such days always are hugely inconvenient, because of the nature of our overly busy lives. My daughter, our poet-friends, and I spelled one another on what promised to be a long, 24/7 watch. Throughout her last four days, Susan kept pronouncing poetry, till her last breath. Amazing stamina! Later, poet Kelly Arbour assembled these final articulations into a mystical poem (which unfortunately I do not have to hand).

Hospital care during this phase had great benefits. Susan’s pain was alleviated, while access by her friends was enhanced. All good. But nothing could mask the stark scene we stepped through, wooden as novice actors, as we accompanied her to her final ward.

The cancer had broken her neck. She lay in the bed, as able to speak, think, feel and create as ever–yet unable to move. This was her irreversible moment, the moment of no return. All hopes and dreams were to be dropped at the threshold of that hospital room.

Although it could not have happened, I remember her seizing my hand. I must have picked up her hand, which had no will of its own any more. Yet such was the force of her feeling as she spoke, that memory refuses to reconcile with fact. I feel the fierce grip of her thin fingers as if it happened. I see her face, framed in its curly abundance of graying hair, lying at an add angle, like that of a small animal, pathetically still at the side of the road after being struck by a car. I hear Susan cry out, "Oh, Eva, is a life so small?"

She was fifty-eight years old, still pretty, still productive. A good friend. A good person. And she wanted to know if this was all there was. She asked again, as if I of all people would have an answer, some comfort. "Is a life so small?"

I fought back tears, because the only answer in me was, "Yes." For Susan, as for most of us, life is that small. Far too small for the beings we believe at heart we truly are.

Ten days later, I was honored to act as the celebrant of Susan’s homespun funeral. Among the poets and artists who attended prowled a vulture or two, grumbling over the pathetic size and quality of her estate. So small a life, almost no material goods were left behind beyond some nice drawings and a pretty scarf or two. But she’d left that cry of dismay reverberating in the air she had occupied, and I never forgot it. As I face my own version of cancer, it is a gift to remember that if our capacities and potentials prove more than our flesh can handle, it’s wisest to forgive our bodies for failing us. Forgive, and be as nice as possible to the vehicle you live in, because mind and soul operate only by permission of the flesh.

Here are a couple of poems I wrote for Susan, who died Labor Day, 2000.

Stars

(for Susan Star, 1942-2000)

The tumor shakes me

as a dog unhinges rats

My neck then breaks my mind

into a hanging

flower of flesh

I float among my moments

feeling faintly ill

but my friends say this is normal,

this newfound skill to fly

I may swoop now from the calyx

of my last sun-shot morning

to the night-beds of fruits

fallen years ago;

may play the role of nemesis

dark-winged in my own,

my tiny, star-cupped garden

yet even winged, in wilderness,

in overgrown and fevered hours,

how shall I find her, that

poor naked girl lost in my jungle,

the red temple flower,

still stranded on some Wednesday

in my so little life?