Matt W Cook

writer.former fundamentalist.christianly fellow

Month: September, 2011

The Storyteller as Translator or Calliope Mumbles

       Creative people debate about where creativity comes from. It’s either something born deep within us that we painstaking bring out. Or it’s something on the outside that we reach out and touch. For the most part, whichever view helps you be creative is probably the best.

       I’m in the second group, though I think the first group is on to something. I think the stories come from an outside Source. I believe that muses are spiritual thingies (yes, thingies) that whisper our stories in our ears. And I think that they’re always whispering.

       Have you heard them? You probably have. Whenever a brilliant idea for a story or a painting or a recipe or a dance forms in your mind, that’s the muse poking you. You’re filled with excitement and you rush to your computer or sketch pad to throw that idea into the world. But as you pick up your pen, you stop understanding. Your muse is mumbling. Or she’s speaking a higher tongue. Either way, the story is not as clear as you thought it was.

       Two choices, at this point: (a) Decide you’re not really an artist after all and the story sucks and throw your tool away and walk because it was a stupid idea to begin with. Or (b) write it down anyway. Move forward. Trust that you are not being given a crap story and commit to seeing it through.

       (b) is, of course, better.

       The muses always give good stories. Alas, they speak no English. As creative people we are meant to listen deeply to their sublime tongues and work out the story they want us to tell. It’s a hard, harsh discipline. But if we’re faithful to the story, the muses will be faithful to us. The universe wants her story told, after all. But she needs a translator.

       Stories are from the Outside. But it’s our painstaking translations and revisions that show them to be the glories that they really are.

Love Gems #1 – Mr. Miyagi

      I performed a wedding a few weeks ago. It was a glorious time and a glorious couple. I had the opportunity to share a bit about love and marriage. I defaulted to nuggets from four of the greatest men who ever lived. The first was Mr. Miyagi.

      Remember that scene from The Karate Kid? Mr. Miyagi askes Daniel if he’s ready to start learning Karate. Daniel shrugs and says, “I guess so.”
      Mr. Miyagi shakes his head and takes Daniel by the shoulder. “Daniel-san,” he says. “Must talk.”
      He crouches down and unpacks his parable. “You walk on road, hm? Walk left side – safe. Walk right side – safe. Walk middle? Sooner or later squish just like grape. Same with Karate. Karate do yes? Okay. Karate do no? Okay. Karate do ‘guess-so?’ Sooner or later squish just like grape.”
      Love’s that way, I thought. Love do yes? Safe. Love do no? Safe (though empty). Love do ‘guess-so?’ Sooner or later, squish just like grape.
      Love is the wildest battle I’ve ever fought. And any battle demands all your attention.
      People fail when they love their neighbours and their spouses ‘guess-so.’ It’s as bad as walking down the centre of the road. Gotta pick a side! Either refuse to love anyone, and live that empty, dark life of safe loneliness. Or choose to throw yourself into love and walk that vibrant path of peace. Otherwise you’ll be always waffling back and forth between selfishness and love, never sure which hand to play.
      The love path will get you beat up, just like the Karate path earn Daniel a few bruises. But it was better than the other path. Because love creates a bubble of protection around us that we are enabled to extend to the people in our circles. It makes the world a better place. It heals every hurt. It’s not easy, but it’s safe. Safer than ‘guess-so.’

Who Are the Music Makers?

We are the music makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams;
World-losers and world-forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems.
– Arthur William Edgar O’Shaughnessy – ‘Ode’
Full text here.

     Who are the music makers?

     Who are the dream dreamers?

     Do you want the job?

     It’s not an easy role. You are forced to wander alone by the cold, infinite sea. You will have to pitch a tent in the dark, sacred desert. Your dreams will give birth to Nineveh and Babel, and then you will find your prophecies tearing them down again. You will have to give up the world and be willing to have the world give up on you in return.

     Can you do it?

     Are you willing?

     There is much in store for you, should you take this heavy yoke.

     You will become a mover. A shaker.

With wonderful deathless ditties,
We build up the world’s great cities,
And out of a fabulous story
We fashion an empire’s glory:
One man with a dream, at pleasure,
Shall go forth and conquer a crown;
And three with a new song’s measure
Can trample an empire down.

     The path turns itself dark. And that makes the light of your music all the brighter.

     Is it worth it?

     The pain? The loneliness?

     Tell me this, instead.

     Is life worth the pain of living?

     Are children worth the pain of birth?

     Is gold worth the flame that makes it?

Sweat the Hard Stuff

        The hardest stuff is always the best.

        I’m tired right now. I gave a sermon on Sunday. It was inspired by a conversation four angry Baptists had that I overheard. I’m always wrecked two days after giving a sermon. Preaching is, honestly, one of the funnest things in the universe. Stressful, tense, but fun. But it drains every drop of emotional, mental and creative energy I have. Come Tuesday, I have an IQ of 60, lack the imagination to draw a circle and nearly weep when I see an ugly cat.

        So it’s hard to do the hard stuff in the week following a sermon.

        Which sucks, because the hard stuff is the best stuff.

        When you have to sweat a bit to create or consume something.

        When it’s tough, but you’re still good enough to pull it off.

        Reading a profound poem.

        Writing an emotional scene.

        Cooking a pot of palak paneer that makes your Pakistani wife go ‘Hai Allah!”

        Those are great.

        Those are hard.

        Especially after draining myself on a Sunday morning.

Flooding in Pakistan

The flooding in Sindh seems to be the worst I’ve ever seen it. Crops are dying. Houses are losing their foundations and falling. Diseases like malaria and typhoid are going to be spreading rampant very soon. The whole province is in pain. My mother-in-law’s house is flooded up to knee-level. They rarely have electricity.

I have been slowly building my mother-in-law a house to retire in. It’s on an elevated place and is, apparently, less damaged. I’ve been working on it for three years and it’s almost livable now. Just a few hundred more dollars and it’ll be ready. We’re hoping we can manage soon because the house they are in now is in a depression, so it’s getting hit harder than most places.

So, praying friends, pray for Sindh and for my family. In the West we don’t realize how dangerous these floods can be. The biggest danger is never drowning. It’s the failing crops, the wildly spreading diseases, the damage to the houses. When we were living in Pakistan 300 houses collapsed in my mother-in-law’s town. And this year, apparently, it’s worse. The people need help. So I ask, pray and, if you can, send some help. We’re trying to get them into their new house so this won’t be a problem and we’d also like to help with many of our other friends who live in the rural villages. If you can help, please let us know and we can give you details.


The Seductions of RPGs

I didn’t have a lot of friends in High School. I blame a combination of poor social skills and acne.

Once a pretty girl sat across from me in the cafeteria while I was reading a book from the Incarnations of Immortality series. She tried to strike up a conversation with me. I guess she felt bad for me. I kinda ignored her. She got offended and left. So, yeah, not the best social skills.

But there was one thing I did well in High School. One place where I shone: Paper and dice role-playing games.

Never heard of them? Look them up.

This skill evolved into the more popular computer RPGs. Knight of the Old Republic. Fable. Baulder’s Gate. World of Warcraft.

Ever wondered why so many people get so hooked on these games?

Deep down inside there is always an interest in becoming someone mighty or special and going forth to conquer and achieve and do something.

It’s because there is an itch, deep inside. A itch, gifted to use through evolution or the spirit or God or both. A itch to go forth. To get. To win. To leave the world different than we found it.

Aren’t you itchy for that?

I am.

The games are popular because we itch. And anyone who has loved these games knows how mind-bogglingly itchy they can get.

I know a better way to scratch that itch, though, now.

To make my life an RPG.

That is, to go forth. To achieve. To leave the world different than it was when I found it.

Because each problem you solve gives you XP.

Each obstacle you overcome levels you up.

Each skill you attain is an achievement unlocked.

Each new friend is a party member, striving with you for whatever quests you choose to pick up.

Real life is so much more fun than any RPG.

Even KoToR.

Death of Dreams

     Do you, um, have a minute?

    Because I think we need to talk. Have a seat.

    I’m not too sure how to begin…

    I want you to remember that I respect you. I love you. And I believe that you are your own person and you have to make your own choices and follow your own path.

    And I’m not judging you. God knows I have enough problems of my own to handle without trying to handle yours.

    But I’ve noticed something and I thought I ought to bring it up.

    What happened to you?

    Remember how you used to talk? All those wild dreams you had? You were going to save the world, weren’t you?

    You had it all planned out, too. Well, some of it at least. You had a mission. You had a goal. An epic quest, as it were. You were going to stamp out hunger or write a book or bring spiritual enlightenment to a dark place. You pinned quotes and posters that reminded you of your God-given quest all over your dorm room. You annoyed people to death with your constant rantings about that quest. We all knew you had great things coming your way. And not the normal, run of the mill great things. Not just a nice job, sexy spouse and fat credit account. Oh no. None of those were nearly enough for you. You didn’t want to own the world. You wanted to save it. To fix it. To leave it better than you found it.

    Do you remember? Can you remember what it felt like? Gathering together with your friends and getting the adrenaline pumping? Some days you felt like you could run into the streets and get to work right away.

    And you almost did!

    You even kinda started.

    And then…


    What happened?

    When did you settle?

    Did your dream change? It’s okay if it did. Like I said, it’s your life. You’re a good person, even if you let go of the dreams of your past. I really believe that.

    I just wonder…

    Do you still dream?

    Because if you do … when are you going to wake up and build it?

Books You Should Read

Here are some of the best books I’ve read in the past year. Pick them up and love them.

  • House of Suns – Alastair Reynolds
    This may be my favourite sci-fi. It’s long and kind of hard to get into, but worth the effort it demands. It takes place six million years in the future and is one of the most insightful speculative fictions I’ve seen.
    “I was born in a house with a million rooms, built on a small, airless world on the edge of an empire of light and commerce that the adults called the Golden Hour, for a reason I did not yet grasp.”
  • A Dance With Dragons – George R.R. Martin
    I was reading this series long before the HBO program made it famous. It stands apart from any fantasy series I’ve read. It’s gritty and harsh. Instead of heroes and villains, Martin writes real people. Every hero has a bit of a villain within. And nearly every villain has a spark of good.
    “The night was rank with the smell of man. … Only man stripped the skins from other beasts and wore their hides and hair.”
  • Let the Right One In – John Ajvide Lindqvist
    This is how vampire novels were meant to be. If you’ve seen the movies, please put them out of your head. The book is so much more special. It’s dark and wonderfully tender at the same time.
    “Real love is to offer your life at the feet of another, and that’s what people today are incapable of.”
  • The Name of the Wind – Patrick Rothfuss
    The start of a unique fantasy series. Only two books are out right now. A hero tells the tale of how his life went from homeless boy to the most feared mage in the world.
    “But for most practical purposes Tarbean had two pieces: Waterside and Hillside. Waterside is where people are poor. That makes them beggards, thieves, and whores. Hillside is where people are rich. That makes them solicitors, politicians and courtesans.”
  • The Way of Kings – Brandson Sanderson
    Sanderson’s first book in his epic series. It shows a lot of promise and uncovers a hugely complex universe.
    “The hallmark of insecurity is bravado.”
  • True Love – Thich Nhat Hanh
    A non-fiction in which the meditative master unpacks his views of love and how to centre your mental and physical self. A useful point of view for anyone interested in spirituality.
    “So you can walk in such a way that the Kingdom of God possible in the here and now, in such a way that peace and hoy are possible today, in such a way that the Pure Land is available under your feet.”
  • A New Kind of Christian – Brian McLaren
    I was surprised at how closely this book traced my own spiritual journeys over the past four or six years. Insightful and useful, though the storytelling is weak.
    “Carol, I’m not sure how long I’ll last. I know this must be scary for
    you. I’m sorry.

There. Now I’ve shared with you. What books should I read next?