The Hamilton Spectator
Thistle’s ashes-to-author rise at Mental Health Morning
Writer of ‘From the Ashes’ to address ‘survivance’ from addiction, disconnection, homelessness, crime
Jesse Thistle was the kind of man that the phrase “There but for the grace of ... go I” seemed tailor made for.
Was is the operative word.
If you’d seen him on the streets 15 years ago, you might have said that. There but for the grace ... If you’d seen him homeless or in jail, or shooting up, or in rehab or getting caught stealing from a variety store in Toronto only to be sent away, without police intervention, by the kindly store owner and encouraged to keep what he took because she could see he was hungry — if you’d seen him then you might have said that.
If you see him now, you might say “I’ll have what he’s having.” But don’t be fooled. Actually, he won’t let you be. The struggle isn’t over.
If you see him now, St. Joseph’s Hamilton Health Care Foundation is hoping that it will be at their 10th annual A Mental Health Morning on Thurs., Feb. 2, 7:30 a.m. at Michelangelo Banquet Centre and at Zoom online.
Thistle, author of the bestselling “From The Ashes,” is the keynote speaker. And mental health struggles, with their all too frequent sidekick issues, such as addiction, or even homelessness, trouble with the law and incarceration, are a theme that Thistle has explored — explored the way Houdini “explored” the chains he was trapped in. They were on a life-and-death basis of familiarity.
“The focus (of his talk) will be on ‘survivance,’” says Thistle. It’s a word you won’t find in most dictionaries — yet — but one that sounds so apt and natural to the language and true to a certain kind of awareness that you wonder it’s not.
“It’s a mixture of endurance, resistance and survival,” says Thistle, who uses it in his own special way in his writing. “It is about the continuity of culture and identity.” It is a word, a concept, that arises from Indigenous historical/cultural experience, especially as it relates to the forwardness of decolonialization.
“I apply it (survivance) to my context as a disconnected Native person” who was separated at an early age from his parents in Saskatchewan, where he was born, and went to live with white grandparents in Brampton.
Thistle, who moved to Hamilton in 2019, is Métis-Cree, and his story begins, in many ways, with that fact.
“I was disconnected from my culture and history,” he says. (Thistle’s maternal great grandmother, Marianne Ledoux Morissette, was part of the famous Métis Resistance in 1885.)
That disconnection, both at a personal and wider level, and its ramifications occupy the central discourse of Thistle’s academic work. He is a PhD candidate in history at York University in Toronto and also an assistant professor there in the Department of Cultural Studies.
His scholarship, though, is of an order far different in scope and resonance from the dry, third-person remove that was once the ideal.
Thistle brings his own truth into the reflection — his agon with crack addiction, homelessness, crime and hopelessness. From his teens into the early 2000s, Thistle was living a kind of hell of “disconnection,” of unbelonging.
He had many instances of suicidal ideation. He was diagnosed with what turned out to be, not bipolar, as suspected, but addictive psychosis.
One can speculate about where the grace comes from that keeps one person out of harm’s way but not another. It sure helps not to have had systemic injustice salting the roots of your people’s history and culture long before you’ were even born.
Thistle says much of what he has been through is an “expression of complex PTSD and intergenerational trauma.”
For Thistle, the way out, it turned out, was . . simply ... kindness.
That woman in the variety store? “I was stealing noodles and pork,” says Thistle. “I was so hungry.” Perishingly so.
That was one example. Later, he turned himself into police. He got put in rehab.
While there he connected with a friend from high school. A redhead. Lucy. He always liked her but, he says, “she had no reason to even remember me,” but when she learned he was in rehab she reached out. Another act of kindness. They wrote to each other, communicated, formed a connection that grew strong and stronger. It turned into love.
Their letters to each other, mostly love letters, are the material of Thistle’s latest book, “Scars and Stars.”
In 2021, Lucy and Jesse had a baby together — Rose. He talks about her. In Thistle’s voice, even when he says her name, you can hear the wonder and a father’s love.
“The opposite of addiction,” says Thistle, “is not sobriety. It’s connection, belonging.”
Thistle’s appearance at St. Joe’s A Mental Health Morning event at Michelangelo Banquet Centre, 1555 Upper Ottawa, Hamilton. For tickets see stjoesfoundation.ca/ mhmtickets