The Healing and Transformational Lesson We Can All Learn From My Cat

Hi readers. I want to apologize for not updating this blog this year nearly as much as I have in the past. The reason is that, as I stated in my first post of 2016, I committed to a real grounds-up process of healing this year and I have definitely received what I asked for. I’ve been taking notes all along and I’m so excited to share it with you but I feel it will be more useful if I write about the entire process once I’m on the other side of it. In the meantime, since we’re approaching the holiday season, I’d like to make a relatively simple cozy feel-good parable post about my cat. We might have more to learn from him than we think.

This is my cat. His name is Virgil.

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Virgil wasn’t always my cat. It took a great deal of time before we ended up in the relationship we’re in today. My family and I don’t know much about the early years of his life as we adopted him as a young adult from a shelter, but even when he came to my parents’ home, he wasn’t mine. He belonged to my stepdad, which was a case of two people (well, one person, one cat) who were both very well-intentioned but absolutely incompatible. My stepdad, while he likes cats, very much has “dog person” energy. His relationship to pets is very man-bonding buddy-buddy — sharing snacks, watching tv together, roughhousing, and playfully busting each other’s balls — but without a great deal of physical affection. If cats can have love languages (spoiler, they totally can), Virgil was not getting his needs met for touch and words of affirmation.

When I first met Virgil, he was sitting quietly on the counter in my parents’ kitchen. My stepdad introduced him to me with a guffaw, rubbing his knuckles on Virgil’s head, and said, “Look at that! That’s a face only a father could love!”

“Aww, that’s not true,” I said, seeing the sadness in Virgil’s eyes. “You are a very handsome cat,” I told him.

When I say I saw sadness in Virgil’s eyes, that might sound melodramatic, or like I’m adjusting the details in hindsight to fit the story. But my whole family talked about it. Virgil was the mopiest cat we’d ever met. My mom nicknamed him Emmett, after Emmett Kelly, the sad hobo clown with the white makeup around his eyes (a marking Virgil also carries). He didn’t like the other cats in the house. While his attempts at aggression were pathetic enough not to warrant a problem worth sending him back to the shelter over, he would routinely walk up to the other cats in the house and smack them across the face with his clawless paw, a gesture the other cats would respond to with more confusion than defensiveness. He hated being picked up. If you tried to carry him, he would tense up and growl a very low growl and, if he got mad enough, would start hissing. Never once did we hear him purr. He wouldn’t stay where you put him. It had to be his idea alone to be somewhere, and even then, he seemed to do it reluctantly.

I picked him up anyway, and when he hissed at me I told him to stop making such a fuss over nothing. I couldn’t get him to stay on my bed for more than a few minutes, but at least he saw that nothing awful came of being carried around. Sometimes he’d run off my bed and out the bedroom door only to come back ten minutes later and hang out like it was his own idea. He’d sit at the bottom of the bed, but if I tried to grab him and cuddle him, he’d get uncomfortable again and run off. I had to just leave him where he was and adjust my own position on the bed if I wanted to be near him.

After a few visits, an astounding thing started happening: my mom told me that after I left their house and went back to New York (where I was living at the time), Virgil would sleep on my bed every night for weeks. If I wasn’t back for a visit for a while, he’d give up after a month or so and start sleeping elsewhere. My parents joked that he had a crush on me and was going to start looking through the classifieds for a part-time job so he could court me properly.

When I decided to move from New York to Los Angeles at the end of 2013, I spent six months in between living with my parents in Las Vegas, regrouping, saving some money, and Pinteresting all my home decor ideas for my future apartment. I had brought my own cat, Wesley, a fat brown tabby who acts more like a bulldog than a cat, to live with me there and to eventually move with me to LA. But Virgil really blossomed during the time we spent together. He no longer growled or hissed when picked up. I could take him into my room at night and he would trust me enough to stay on the bed where I put him. He even started purring — just a tiny vibration at first, completely inaudible, but able to be felt if you touched your fingertips to his throat. My stepdad jokingly called him a traitor, and told me that Virgil was clearly my cat. (He’d already gotten another cat, a certified non-snuggler who just wanted to hang out and eat with him.) And Wesley seemed much happier in Vegas than he’d been in NYC, since now he had other cats to socialize with and a yard he could run around in like the dog he thinks he is. Wesley’s needs were about quality time and social interaction. He was happy just hanging out in the living room while the family watched tv. Virgil, on the other hand, needed alone time, touch, and verbal reassurance.

When it came time for me to move to LA, my mom said, “You know, honey, Wesley seems really happy here in the big house. Have you considered taking Virgil to LA with you? I think he would really prefer being in a one-cat household.” I had already been thinking the same thing. Virgil moved to LA with me where he could be in a monogamous cat/owner relationship and Wesley stayed in Vegas where he could enjoy a communal cats/people living situation.

During the two and a half years we’ve been living in LA together, Virgil has become a completely different cat. He jumps up on the bed and rubs his nose in my face. He sleeps on my chest at night, or will curl up on my back if I’m lying face down. He purrs so loudly I can hear him from across the bed, and often he purrs so hard he gets the hiccups and keeps purring anyway. He’s friendly to strangers and will eagerly jump up into the laps of my friends when they visit. I’ve taught him that if he wants people food he needs to sit in a chair at the table like a person and eat from a dish. He sits calmly in the front seat on the long drives to my family’s house in Vegas. And not only does he not mind being picked up, he even goes out with me on a leash to coffee shops and restaurants and stays chill about it the whole time.

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Virgil chilling at Dinosaur Coffee with my friend Conner Habib

I’ve said this before in posts that probably felt far more overtly relevant to seduction and relationships, but the key to trust is time and consistency.

Virgil has one advantage on all of you though. Virgil is really, really dumb.

Virgil’s a cat, and like most animals, he doesn’t have much of a long-term memory. That means he’s not married to carrying all of his past wounds.

As Robert Greene says in Mastery, “Animals are locked in a perpetual present. They can learn from recent events, but they are easily distracted by what is in front of their eyes. Slowly, over a great period of time, our ancestors overcame this basic animal weakness. By looking long enough at any object and refusing to be distracted — even for a few seconds — they could momentarily detach themselves from their immediate surroundings. In this way they could notice patterns, make generalizations, and think ahead. […] Thinking on this level was the single greatest turning point in all of evolution — the emergence of the conscious, reasoning mind.”

Joke’s on you, though, humans, because while we got the gifts of planning, reflecting, and reasonably assessing our safety and danger, we also got a shit-ton of anxiety about our future and baggage from our pasts. We carry our wounds around with us even when the threat of danger has long passed. We assign causation to absolute nonsense that just happened to reside nearby the things that hurt us: a five-year-old’s logic of “I ate a peanut butter sandwich the day my mom died, therefore peanut butter sandwiches mean I’m going to lose my loved ones” turns into the adult’s logic of “I got hurt in my last relationship, therefore relationships mean I’m going to get hurt,” or worse, “I hurt someone in my last relationship, therefore I can’t be trusted in relationships to not hurt people.”

Last night on a long drive with Virgil in the passenger seat next to me, I listened to some of the songs from Jekyll & Hyde, a musical I was obsessed with in my teens. Right before she’s brutally murdered, ironically, Lucy, a lower class sex worker cabaret girl who falls in love with Dr. Jekyll but gets preyed upon by Mr. Hyde, sings a ballad titled A New Life. “A new life, what I wouldn’t give to have a new life…” I was obsessed with both this role and this song in high school. Even as a teen I was a brunette alto, and I knew that things like happy endings were for blonde sopranos while I was destined by my very hair color and vocal range to be the subject of lust, violence, grief, and heartache. And while in hindsight it was ridiculous to consign myself to a tragic and loveless life at the ripe age of seventeen, the years of parental abuse and unrequited crushes had added up and I really felt I was a hopeless case. But what I missed was that the song ends on the lines, “Just to share its pleasures and belong, that’s what I’ve been here for all along… Each day’s a brand new life.” Each day’s a brand new life.

I don’t know if you guys have noticed, but I’m really smart. Trouble is, I used my smartness to lawyer my way into convincing myself that all my issues were unsolvable, set in stone — or, later in life, that they were permissible because I had managed to transmute them into something positive, and wasn’t I still worthy of love even if I didn’t believe that I was. Welp, spoiler alert, nope — I actually had to do the work, and believe you me, that last part of me is going kicking and screaming.

I invite you to forget everything you think you know about love that isn’t serving you. Chances are it’s here for you right now, all around you, and you’re locked into beliefs that tell you it isn’t safe for you or for others if you access it.¬†You can be like Virgil and get all the love and snuggles in the world, but you’ve got to stop hissing at people and you’ve got to trust them to pick you up once in a while, and you’ve got to learn to purr even when it feels impossible. It’s not impossible. Each day’s a brand new life.

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Wesley and Virgil, peaceful at last

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