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Jesse Thistle recounts his life From The Ashes of drugs and addiction to a life of helping others

When I saw Jesse Thistle interviewed on CTV’s The Social and heard his remarkable story, I just knew I had to read his memoir, From The Ashes, My Story of  Being Métis, Homeless, and Finding My Way. It’s an honest, horrific recounting of his journey from being a homeless drug addict living on the streets of various cities for many years and serving time in prison multiple times, then rebuilding his life to become an Assistant Professor at York University in Toronto. Stories like this always inspire me and give me hope for others in his situation.

Jesse Thistle’s physical and spiritual journey began when he was born to a teenage Cree mother in Saskatchewan and a young alcoholic, drug-addicted white father. Their brief marriage was turbulent from the beginning but did result in three sons, Josh, Jerry and Jesse. By the time the youngest, Jesse was three years old, his mother had abandoned them and they were living in a fetid, filthy apartment with their useless father who couldn’t feed them and often left them alone in the apartment at the ages of three, four and five. When a neighbour called authorities, they were temporarily placed in an inhospitable foster home before their paternal grandparents traveled from Brampton, Ontario to pick them up and take them back to Ontario to live with them.

It wasn’t easy for anyone. The grandparents were older and once again faced with raising three young boys but they did their best. The boys’ father, Sonny was a lost cause. The grandfather was a working member of the union of elevator constructors and their grandmother did her best to keep the three boys fed, clothed, disciplined and safe. The boys missed their mother but adjusted to the strict rules of their grandparents’ home. They attended school in Brampton but Jesse, in particular, fell in with a crowd of misbehavers and rebels. All three boys were strong fighters and regularly got into scraps in the schoolyard or neighbourhood.

From this Jesse Thistle (his mug shots). . .

Before long, Jesse was smoking, doing drugs, stealing and skipping classes. At the age of 14, his grandfather got him a job stocking produce at a local store which helped to temporarily keep him out of trouble and allowed him to earn his own money. When his grandfather refused to let Jesse buy his own car because his grandfather worried about his impulse control, Jesse withdrew all his bank savings and blew the money on alcohol and drugs. He eventually dropped out of school and with an old childhood friend, embarked on a life of crime, drugs and homelessness.

As his addictions and crimes escalated, his health and general well-being deteriorated. Despite life-threatening health scares and injuries resulting from his reckless lifestyle, he managed to stay alive, but barely. His brothers kept in touch and often provided accommodation when he was at his most desperate. His oldest brother, Josh became an RCMP officer and sent Jesse money to attend his wedding in Vancouver where they were briefly reunited with their mother.

Reading From The Ashes reminded me of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces that I read a few years ago. What Jesse experienced during his years of addiction and life on the streets was horrific and with each new chapter that I read, I kept hoping this would be the one where he finally reached rock bottom and “saw the light”. But, instead, one horror lead to another and the years went on. During his final stint in prison, he opted to serve his time in a last-resort rehab facility in Ottawa where he slowly and with a great deal of dedication and determination started putting the pieces of his life back together. He continued his studies to complete high school and graduated while incarcerated. His sense of recall is amazing considering he spent so many years in the stupor of drugs and addiction.

To this Jesse Thistle, Assistant Professor, winner of Governor General’s Academic Medal, Pierre Elliott Trudeau Scholar and Vanier Scholar, poet, and Ph.D. candidate.

After earning his way back into normal society, he reconnected with old friends from his Brampton high school days who were not engaged in crime and addiction. He went to work for his uncle, built new friendships and started a romantic relationship with Lucie, a woman he had known in high school. With her support and encouragement, he earned a university degree and is now working on his Ph.D. Jesse Thistle is now an Assistant Professor in Métis Studies at York University in Toronto. I didn’t mean this to be a spoiler alert as his book From The Ashes is obviously a story of rebirth and reinvention. It’s absolutely fascinating and I could not put it down. Please do yourself a favour and read Jesse Thistle’s story. It’s honest, brutal, articulate, educational and inspiring. I’d rate it 9 out of 10.

 

 

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Catherine Gildiner’s new book GOOD MORNING, MONSTER was definitely worth the wait

Less than a week after the release of Catherine Gildiner’s new book Good Morning, Monster, it has already ranked sixth on The Globe and Mail and Toronto Star’s lists of best-selling Canadian non-fiction this week. I can’t wait for it to be released in the U.S. and hit The New York Times list.

My friend Terry and I attended the launch on September 4th in Toronto and were thrilled to once again meet and talk to this wonderful writer. As a huge fan of her earlier books, I couldn’t wait for this one and it was worth it. Dr. Gildiner was a practising psychologist for twenty-five years before she closed her practice to devote her time to writing. Her three-volume memoir is among the most entertaining and enjoyable books I’ve had the pleasure of reading. It amazes me that someone could live a life interesting enough to compile three volumes, and that only takes her to age 25.

Gildiner was born in upper New York State in 1948 to a pharmacist father and a mother who eschewed basic domestic tasks like making meals. From an early age, Gildiner helped her father in his business by accompanying their deliveryman when he delivered prescriptions. Her father passed away while she was still a teenager but her strong work ethic carried her through her studies at the University of Toronto’s Victoria College, on to a scholarship stint at Trinity College at Oxford in England and ultimately earning her Ph.D.

As a long-time fan of Catherine Gildiner’s writing, I could hardly wait for Good Morning, Monster to be released because it’s about a subject that I find endlessly fascinating. Having read such wonderful, redemptive stories like Educated by Tara Westover, The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, and The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah, it always amazes me how certain people who grow up in abusive, neglectful or toxic environments somehow manage to rise above their disadvantages and achieve what we view as success. Very often, siblings in the same family raised by the same parent(s) do not always rise to the challenge. What makes some people able to overcome and rise like a phoenix while others do not? Sometimes the answer lies in having a mentor, an outside advocate, a role model and for those fortunate enough to afford it when they become adults, a therapist. Others do it entirely under their own steam. It’s a fascinating phenomenen.

My friend Terry, Catherine Gildiner and me at the September 4th launch of Good Morning, Monster.

Good Morning, Monster is Gildiner’s account of five of her past patients whom she clearly regards and respects as true heroes. Each of these five people endured not just one challenge to overcome but years of abuse and neglect. Reading about Laura, Peter, Danny, Alana and Madelaine is disturbing. 

After her mother committed suicide, Laura was abandoned by her father in a rural cottage at the age of eight during a Canadian winter, with a younger brother and sister to look after. It was spring before their situation was uncovered. Peter was a gifted musician who spent most of the first five years of his life alone in a crib in the attic while his parents worked. Danny was deeply affected by being subjected to estrangement from his Indigenous parents at the age of five and spent the next twelve years enduring the horrors of a residential school while his birth identity was beaten out of him. Alana was sexually abused by her grandmother, her father, and his perverted friends for most of her childhood. Madelaine, on the other hand, came from an affluent family but suffered at the hands of a hateful mother who greeted her each day when she was a young child with the words “Good morning, monster”, hence the title of the book.

The tragic fact that vulnerable children are continually and still subjected to the kinds of abuse these people experienced is a sad commentary on our society. We all know there are certain people who should never have children, but they do. In the particular cases Gildiner describes, no child protection authorities, teachers, family or law enforcement officials intervened to protect the welfare of these people when they were only children and, sadly, we can be sure there are far too many similar cases still occurring right under our noses.

Dr. Catherine Gildiner wears many professional hats including author, psychologist, professor.

I highly recommend everyone read this book for several reasons. First of all, it will hopefully help us recognize signs of abuse or neglect and take appropriate action. Children are so vulnerable and because they love and fear their abusers, they are reluctant to speak up. This book also helps those of us who have never undergone therapy to understand the process, the work involved and the time required. These patients required on average five or six years to peel back all their layers to get at the core of their adult dysfunctionality. According to Gildiner, “Plumbing the unconscious is a bit like deep-sea scuba diving. You can’t rise to the surface too quickly. You have to come up gradually and acclimatize or else you will get the bends.” Excellent analogy. Significantly, Gildiner herself benefited and learned more about her own behaviours after working with these people.

I also learned a few things that I never before considered. Boomer gals were raised to be obedient, deferential women who didn’t rock the boat. It was only after a few years in the workforce and encouragement from the feminist movement that we realized we were being taken advantage of. We started to speak up for ourselves—to understand that our opinions had value, that we deserved to make more money, that we had merit in our own right. I was also surprised to read Gildiner’s take on anger, having spent my entire life suppressing anger in case I was perceived negatively when I displayed anger. Gildiner says: “Anger is a negotiation device that helps us to stand up for ourselves, to say, in effect, ‘Get off my turf; you’re stomping on my sense of self. Then it’s up to the other person to deal with your anger—to decide whether it’s a legitimate problem that requires a change in his or her behaviour. I like that. Of course, extreme or inappropriate anger is another matter altogether.

After you finish reading Good Morning, Monsteryou’re going to need something light and funny to offset the horror of her patients’ stories, even though they have positive endings. That’s why I suggest you then read Catherine Gildiner’s earlier three-part memoir. It’s a classic baby boomer life story with so many references boomers can relate to. Her story is cleverly written, engaging and at times hilarious. I particularly enjoyed the third book and when you read it you’ll understand why, but all three are delightful and a must-read.

I’ve recommended a lot of books here and to help you in your inspirational reading journey, I’m including links to Amazon where you can order them. Full disclosure: If you order from these links, you will receive Amazon’s best price and I may receive a teeny, tiny commission. Thank you and I know you will enjoy any or all of them. Please feel free to share this posting.

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Japanese occupation of Singapore still resonates today

Every so often we read a book that gives us a renewed appreciation for when and where we were born. That’s what struck me the most after reading How We Disappeareda novel by Jing-Jing Lee. I’ve always felt I won the lottery being born in Canada as a baby boomer after the end of the Second World War. Growing up in a free country that offers so many opportunities and privileges as well as a comfortable standard of living is truly a gift.

The main character of this book, Wang Di was not so lucky. Born to Chinese parents in Singapore, she was only seventeen years old when the Japanese defeated the British and occupied the tiny island. While its citizens were shocked and devastated that the British were unable to protect them, they braced for changes that went far beyond anything they could have anticipated. Not only did the Japanese soldiers conduct regular raids of private homes and businesses to confiscate food and personal belongings, they soon took away their young daughters who were recruited to serve as ‘comfort women’, servicing Japanese soldiers in make-shift brothels.

Wang Di’s story is a composite of thousands of similar stories experienced by women in China, Malaysia and Korea who were subjected to brutal treatment, starvation rations and moral humiliation at the hands of the Japanese for several years. The women’s lives were treated as disposable and if they were no longer able to work due to illness or if they tried to escape, they were simply shot and replaced by someone else.

During her incarceration by the Japanese, Wang Di barely survived. Servicing between 30 and 50 soldiers every day for the duration of her three-year ordeal, she witnessed humanity at its worst, interspersed with tiny, infrequent acts of kindness. She witnessed death, deprivation, and brutality, all the while knowing that she would never be able to return to the normal life she had before she was captured. Knowing her future life would be worthless, she often considered death as a viable option.

Ordinarily, I prefer to read a book with the plot unfolding in chronological order but in this case, the author’s switching back and forth between Wang Di telling her own story in the first person and the voice of 12-year-old Kevin many years later is a welcome relief. As a reader, I needed the emotional break from Wang Di’s heartbreaking story when Kevin’s voice takes over. Kevin is researching his family history more than sixty years later, after listening to his grandmother’s mysterious deathbed confession.

After his grandmother dies, Kevin discovers a series of unposted letters in her personal belongings. Written to an unknown person many decades earlier, they reveal a secret she held but never revealed and Kevin sets about trying to uncover what she had been concealing throughout her lifetime and how her secret related to his family. When Kevin starts putting the pieces of his family history together, all the disparate pieces of the story come together and not quite as I expected. It was easy to make assumptions about how the plot would develop but the author cleverly baits us and then presents something unexpected.

Tragic and heartbreaking as the story is, I could not put it down. We’re given rare insights into the daily lives of the poorer citizens of Singapore during the time of the Japanese occupation. In a colony of blended cultures and nationalities, it’s fascinating to read about how the people lived, worked, what they hoped for and what they believed in. Based on historical truths, the story is shocking and fascinating. Without giving away too much, I will tell you that it has a happy ending which is a welcome relief after reading about such a tragedy. I’d rate Jing-Jing Lee’s How We Disappeared 8.5 out of 10. 

To order HOW WE DISAPPEARED by Jing-Jing Lee from Amazon, click on image.
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If you order from these links, you will receive Amazon’s best price and I may receive a teeny, tiny commission. Thank you.

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If I’m ever in trouble with the law, I want Marie Henein on my case

Vice-Admiral Mark Norman with criminal defence lawyer Marie Henein.

Marie Henein is my kinda gal broad lawyer. She’s the powerhouse who got former CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi off on sexual assault charges. And, she’s in the news again leading Vice-Admiral Mark Norman’s defence team. He’s the Canadian military bigwig who according to a Globe and Mail article by Janice Dickson on March 6, 2019, “was suspended as the military’s second-in-command on Jan. 16, 2017, and charged last year with breach of trust for allegedly leaking government secrets in an attempt to influence cabinet’s decision on a $700-million shipbuilding contract with Quebec’s Davie shipyard.” Yikes! Sounds serious. Not only did Henein get Norman off but the Canadian government must now reimburse him for his legal fees, which all but bankrupted him. Very impressive.

So who is the lady with the brass balls, killer dragon manicure and the coolest haircut ever? She’s someone I’d absolutely want to defend me if I’m ever in trouble with the law. So far I’ve managed to keep my nose clean for 70+years but things could change. If anyone ever finds out about those jelly beans I stole from the open bin in the Beamish store in my hometown when I was about six or seven years old, well, there could be trouble. Hopefully that falls under the seven-year statute of limitations. Or that time in the seventies when I left one movie and immediately walked into another one in the adjacent theatre while only paying for one ticket. I know these crimes seem minor but they’re crimes nonetheless and I still bear the guilt. I’d like to know that Marie Henein would be there to plead my case.

There was a time when I could not understand why a brilliant lawyer and professed feminist would choose to represent unpopular defendants like Jian Ghomeshi, former Nova Scotia Premier Gerald Regan who was also charged with sexual misconduct, and former Ontario Attorney General Michael Bryant who was charged with criminal negligence causing death when a bike courier died as a result of a confrontation with Bryant. Everyone is entitled to a fair trial and legal representation. Some can just afford better representation than others and Henein is effective.

I have Marie Henein on speed dial, just in case.

I once saw her interviewed on CTV’s The Social and was very impressed with her intelligence, her logic and her sense of humour. She also has a killer wardrobe and would be a formidable role model for any aspiring criminal lawyer, male or female. Ever since that two-movies-for-the-price-of-one incident, I’ve walked a pretty straight line when it comes to breaking the law. You’ll never catch me stepping a toe off the curb before the light turns green or not rinsing out my plastic and glass recycling before putting it into the bin.

I’m committed to being a good, law-abiding citizen but should I slip up and get caught for some unknown infraction, I’m for sure going to hire Marie Henein. I’m prepared to sell the house and get my husband a paper route—whatever it takes to pay for her services. I’m too old to do hard time in a cold institution with a high-carb diet and no access to HBO.

When we were kids in school, we were told that Ontario’s official flower, the trillium, is a protected species and it’s illegal to pick them. Since then I’ve always been terrified of accidently tramping on one during a walk in the woods in case there’s a policeman lurking behind the next tree ready to cuff me and lock me up. My fear of the law runs deep. It’s trillium season now so be very, very careful. Don’t cheat on your taxes; don’t text and drive, and do not under any circumstances park in the handicapped spot while you “just nip in for a minute”. But, if you do slip up, call Marie Henein. You can always start driving for Uber or have a yard sale to cover the cost. It’ll be worth it. And maybe she’ll give you the name of her hairdresser.

 

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Wash your face and get your life together

When I saw Rachel Hollis, author of Girl, Wash Your Face interviewed on CTV’s The Social recently I was impressed by her enthusiasm and energy. But what does a 35-year-old Christian mother of four children with a type A++ personality have in common with me? I wondered the same thing when I started reading her book but soon became so engrossed I couldn’t put it down. I read the entire book in a day. And despite it being less than 300 pages (depending on the font size on your e-reader) I had dozens and dozens of pages bookmarked.

Rachel Hollis grew up in an all-white middle-class small town in California. Her father was a pastor and her life was seemingly typical of 1980s America. Except her father had a hair-trigger temper, her troubled older brother committed suicide at sixteen and she lived in constant fear of disapproval. She focused on doing well in school so she could graduate early and leave her home town. At the age of seventeen (the same age I was when I left home) she moved to Los Angeles where she expected her life to take a positive turn. But our problems have a habit of following us regardless of our geography.

Young women often have a naïve life plan for themselves—love, marriage, babies, living happily ever after. Rachel Hollis was no different. When her plan started to go off the rails, the stress caused physical reactions including Bell’s palsy and vertigo which forced her to reevaluate her entire life. Along the way she made many mistakes and learned valuable lessons which she generously shares with readers.

Each chapter of the book sets out to debunk a common myth that sets women up for disappointment and even failure, starting with the title’s tag line: Stop Believing the Lies About Who You Are So You Can Become Who You were Meant to Be. Hollis begins the first chapter with Lie #1: SOMETHING ELSE WILL MAKE ME HAPPY and each subsequent chapter follows the same theme. She articulates a lie, describes her personal experiences with this misconception and delivers the beef, summing up each chapter with point-form THINGS THAT HELPED ME. . . The book is filled with so many wonderful bon mots:

  • Comparison is the death of joy. (One of my favourites.)
  • Our words have power but our actions shape our lives.
  • Take care of yourself first.
  • When you’re looking for a community of women, look for the ones who want to build each other up instead of tear each other down.
  • Someone else’s opinion of me is none of my business.
  • Bras are the devil’s work.
Rachel Hollis and her husband Dave are the parents of three sons and one daughter.

We’re never too old to learn

One of Hollis’s lessons learned hit me smack in the face the other day at the hairdresser’s. There was a little boy around six or seven years old in the next chair who refused to get his hair cut. Despite the best efforts of his dad and the stylist, the little guy kept whining and wiggling, squirming his way out of the chair. My first reaction was to judge the child as spoiled and the father as indulgent. When baby boomers were children, if we’d have displayed similar behaviour our parent would have simply slammed us into the seat, ordered us to sit still and that would be the end of the discussion. We’d be too terrified to move.

Instead of casting my usual disparaging judgment and shooting the father the evil eye, I considered for a moment that the child might have special needs and challenges. Perhaps he had sensory issues. Maybe the man was a “Big Brother” and the child was from an abusive home and didn’t like being touched. Thanks to Rachel Hollis, I cast the father a sympathetic smile and went back to reading my book. We should never judge the actions of others without knowing their particular back story.

I not only enjoyed this book, I devoured it which proves this old boomer still has room to grow and learn. Rachel Hollis is so inspiring and a perfect illustration of what we can learn from someone we perceive as having nothing in common with us. She admits to being an impatient mother who sometimes yells at her children. She has bad habits like the rest of us (i.e. Diet Coke) and describes how she works on fixing her shortcomings. Her writing, like her personality, is fast, full of relatable personal experiences and surprisingly mature for someone only 35 years old. I can only imagine what lies ahead for this young woman. I’d rate Girl, Wash Your Face 9 out of 10.

Click here to order Girl, Wash Your Face by Rachel Hollis from Amazon.

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Are the fashion experts crazy or am I?

Boomers just wanna have fun with fashion too.

Call me a bitch but one of my favourite old lady past-times is sitting in my LaZgirl chair mocking and debunking the fashion advice I see on television and in many ‘women’s’ magazines. I love watching CITY TV’s CityLine as well as CTV’s The Marilyn Denis Show and The Social. I truly enjoy those shows but lordy lordy, am I the only one who thinks much of their fashion advice is a lot of hooey? To their credit, many of the models and makeover candidates featured have normal (a.k.a. not stick thin) bodies which makes it easier for we mortals to relate to the fashion challenges presented, but, the ‘before’ pictures are sometimes better than the ‘after’.

The Marilyn Denis show. My favourite host and everyone’s girlfriend.

Peter Papapetrou and Alexis Honce on The Marilyn Denis Show are my favourite targets. Sometimes Papapetrou nails it, but most of the time the outfits he comes up with are jokingly inappropriate. I like Greta Monahan but much of her fashion advice is just plain weird. Last week she took a top-heavy, tall, solidly built woman who wanted to minimize her ample bust area and Monahan put her in a faux-fur vest. Granted, it was in a dark colour but wouldn’t a light-weight fabric have been more flattering? And what woman alive can tolerate the heat generated by spending the day in a fur vest unless you live above the sixty-nineth parallel? Tracey Moore’s fashions could be better. I love her clothing supplier, Freda’s, but her choices often miss the mark. And, I have to seriously question the sensibility of anyone who would be a fan of jumpsuits, which she is. Have you ever tried going to the bathroom in one of those things? I’ll spare you the details.

One of my biggest beefs is the choice of shoes with wide ankle straps on women with short, heavy legs. Then, the fashion experts compound the disaster by putting the ladies in flouncy skirts or dresses. Or, what about the short-waisted women they insist on outfitting in belted dresses or tops with the sad little belt peeking out two inches below the bustline? Much as I criticize Marilyn Denis’s inflexible choice of jeggings and maternity tops on nearly every show, at least she recognizes she has issues with her waistline and tries to accommodate it. Once in a while she opts for a skirt and shows off her gorgeous legs but she should do it more often. And I rarely see anything on The Social’s ladies that I would wear, but then I’m not their age. I do admire their courage though.

CityLine’s Lynn Spence can generally be counted on for good advice.

Lynn Spence is a generously proportioned woman and she understands the difficulties normal women have in trying to dress fashionably. Most of her choices are not too bad but often she seems to favour promoting the retailer more than the interests of fashion for real women. I miss Sandra Pittana. Her taste is more off-beat but always fun to watch. Lisa Rogers has a reasonable fashion sensibility and I generally enjoy most of her choices. Jessica Mulroney’s tastes lean toward styles geared to women who look like her—wisp-thin young working mothers who could wear a tea towel with a bit of string and look great. She shouldn’t have done whatever she did to her upper lip though.

When these so-called fashion experts have access to an entire mall full of clothing or even a single retailer, how can they make such dreadful choices. I’d love to have the resources they do. I find myself screaming at the television, “Is that the best you can do?”. And the fashion magazines are even worse. Where’s the inspiration for real women in a sea of anorexic teenage genetic flukes?

And while I’m ranting here, does anyone recognize that there’s a whole generation of women out there called Baby Boomers who are completely ignored as a potential target market? The majority of makeovers are new mothers returning to the workforce, looking to regain their business chic while coping with postpartum bodies. Boomers are a huge demographic with the time and the money to spend on fashion, not to mention the time to watch daytime television and cruise the malls after a ladies’ lunch. But who am I to criticize? Are the fashionistas living in some parallel universe that I don’t get or is it just me being a fashion-illiterate bitch?

It’s only because we care, sweetie dahlings. Just want to keep the economy rolling along.

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