September 2017 is a time of great change and uncertainty for me. Life-long friendships have dissolved, I’ve potentially been at the heart of intense pain for more than a few, and my own state of existence is being called into a flickering, wavering contention between worth and worthlessness. And, I suppose, most evidently out of this maelstrom of misjudgment and mistakes leaves the question that lingers at the edge of my mind every single night as I struggle to sleep: where will I live in three weeks’ time?
I have to keep myself living by a mantra that has defined the past few years of my life: “Take things one day at a time.”
This mantra often leaves the future in a constant blur that I reject the existence of, and while this blur helps shelter the fragility of anxiety that lures me into the oncoming traffic of sentience, it also allows me to make poor judgments and decisions — often in the heat of the moment — so as to not shatter the illusion that I have no idea what or where I’ll be one or three years from now.
In the aftermath of poor decisions, that illusion is usually shattered regardless, as the immediate nature and repercussions of my decisions don’t allow me to disregard thought beyond today. And when life begins to crumble over the poorly structured fail-safe I devise to keep myself going, I usually turn to a cat named Virtute.
“Why don’t you ever want to play?
I’m tired of this piece of string
You sleep as much as I do now
And you don’t eat much of anything
I don’t know who you’re talking to
I made a search through every room
But all I found was dust that moved in shadows of the afternoon
And listen, about those bitter songs you sing?
They’re not helping anything
They won’t make you strong.”
At face value, The Weakerthans’ Virtute tells the story of a cat, her owner, and their surrounding issues. We’re not going to take the story at face value because we have to presume here that the song stands for much more than just a man and his pet. Rather, Virtute here represents the way this man affects the lives of everyone he is or has been close to.
There are two ways to approach the relatability of Virtute, and depending on who you are determines which way you can relate to her: from her perspective or that of her owner, who we’ll refer to as the Futon-Revolutionist.
In most times of stress, I find myself easily in the camp of the Futon-Revolutionist. It’s easy to reflect my own identity and struggles with crippling anxiety, clinical depression, and addiction. It’s easier when I also do happen to take Virtute’s words at face value. I’ve woken up at 2PM and put on track pants, Ugg boots, and my withering Judas Priest sweatshirt on a sunny spring afternoon to the pained scratches of my eager, loving, and excitable husky as she paws at my closed bedroom door. Even if I compel myself to find the energy to walk her that day, I can still see her encouraging me in the way she moves, the way she looks back at me every few seconds as I trudge along behind her, just barely keeping myself up. She wants to run, and she turns to grab the lead in her jaws and pull me along with her. She wants to play with me, and she wants me to be alive and energetic and not just for her, but for myself — I can only guess that last part, but I’d have to presume it’s the truth — because my dog is far wiser than I ever will be, and the exercise would do me good.
The final words of “Plea from a Cat Named Virtute” are some of the most poignant and powerful words I’ve ever heard, and in times of duress, they damn-near never fail to bring a pitiful and recognisable tear to my eye as I understand exactly how pathetic I can be some days.
“All you ever want to do is drink and watch TV
And frankly that thing doesn’t really interest me
I swear I’m going to bite you hard
And taste your tinny blood
If you don’t stop the self-defeating lies
You’ve been repeating since the day you brought me home
I know you’re strong.”
But right now I find myself in the ever-so-rare position of being in Virtute’s mindset, to see the sides turn and understand this story from a whole new perspective.
“It had something to do with the rain
Leaching, loamy dirt
And the way the back lane came alive
Half moon whispered, ‘Go.’
For a while I heard you missing steps in the street
And your anger pleading in an uncertain key
Singing the sound that you found for me.”
It’s here where things take a drastic turn, and right now it’s the achingly hollow message that echoes throughout this song that I need to hold dear. What I take away from this, currently, purely from Virtute’s perspective, is that you can’t help those who won’t help themselves. And while I understood this in a minor way previously, that was only due to the afterthoughts that I felt when feeling the song’s power as the Futon-Revolutionist. From his perspective, there is nothing to feel but fear and anxiety and pain at the thought of driving the ones you love away from you. But from Virtute’s perspective, there is only the sad realisation that, in order to save yourself, sometimes you have to let go. And right now, I’m here. I have severed ties I never thought I would sever. I have witnessed those I cared for abuse themselves, their lives, through a perpetual self-loathing cycle of addiction and emptiness. Through this I have felt used, or as if I were an enabler. And in the wake of their drunken, stumbling steps in the street, calling my name as I leave for a place that is dark, uninviting’ and not-at-all good for me, I have to tell myself that there was nothing that could be done. For both of us, this needs to happen.
“I remember the way I would wait for you
To arrive with kibble and a box full of beer
How I’d scratch the empties desperate to hear
You make the sound that you found for me
How after scrapping with the ferals and the tabby
I’d let you brush my matted fur
How I’d knead into your chest while you were sleeping
Shallow breathing made me purr
But I can’t remember the sound that you found for me.”
And that’s it. It just ends. There’s no closure here, and for a while, these songs felt as cathartic as they felt suffocating. In there wake they left a sharp realisation, pitfalls to avoid, positive routes to take, and they left within me the instinctual strength to salvage the good things in my life and to not break the ties that have been bound for so long.
But it’s only recently that Virtute’s story has found closure, with John K. Samson’s latest solo album Winter Wheat, where the story of a cat, a man, and their surrounding issues have found themselves after twenty years.
“17th Street Treatment Centre”, at first, doesn’t feel like a Virtute song. And that’s because, in essence, it’s not. This song depicts the aftermath of the Futon-Revolutionist and his troubles in rehab. Recovering. Barely. And what hurts the most, or at least feels most suitable, is how flippantly he regards the departure of Virtute, and it’s this almost-insignificant line that leads the listener into making the ties to our dear, departed Virtute.
“On the 21st day, the sun didn’t hate me
The food wasn’t angry, the bed didn’t sigh
The ceiling said it’s possible I might get my looks back
On the 21st day of my stay here
On the 21st day, I danced to the twelve-step
Examined, admitted I’m powerless, too
Sang the one about the spring the cat ran away.”
I say it almost hurts, because for so long, I’ve held this cat dear to me. The way Virtute has helped me learn lessons about myself, my illnesses, and to appreciate and acknowledge those around me has been invaluable. But the Futon-Revolutionist couldn’t hear Virtute, and much like I have been wont to in my life, he has reveled in a self-centred approach to pain and inevitability that disregards the way others can be affected by his actions or his inaction. In this track, he is still selfish, and rightfully so in many ways, but it hurts to hear of the way it has taken him so long to struggle to help himself, and the way in which Virtute’s disappearance was little more than just another issue to heap onto his pile, rather than a deeply affecting lesson to learn.
“Now that the treatment and anti-depressants
And seven months sober have built me a bed
In the back of your brain where the memories flicker
And I paw at the synapses, bright bits of string
You should know I am with you, know I forgive you
Know I am proud of the steps that you’ve made
Know it will never be easy or simple
Know I will dig in my claws when you stray.”
This is where the story ends. It’s hopeful, but not delusional. And it’s ambiguous, as to whether you want to regard this as the verdant spirit of Virtute speaking, or of the Futon-Revolutionist’s own justifications to comfort himself at the loss of an old friend, it doesn’t matter.
Things are uncertain for me right now. I have no clue as to what will happen next. I still cling to the idea that I need to take things one day at a time. But it all just got me thinking about what I learnt from a cat named Virtute.
“So let us rest here like we used to
In a line of late-afternoon sun
Let it rest, all you can’t change
Let it rest and be done.”