Matt W Cook

writer.former fundamentalist.christianly fellow

Tag: life

Our Birth Story

When birthing our first and second children, Ruth coped through medical technology.  Both experiences were mostly negative, which I guess is what we were expecting anyway.  I mean, who sets out to try and enjoy labour?  Even the name we give it–labour–suggests that it’s not going to be a fun thing.

Three KidsSo for our third child, we wanted to try something different.  We got hooked up with the amazing wonderful people at Kensington Midwives.  Their care and nurturing concern for us and the nascent little human freed us to look at childbirth in a different way.  No as a medical condition to deal with, but as an act of creation to enjoy and experience.  So when the contractions started on Thursday, April 25, Ruth was excited to greet them with Zen-level mindfulness.

Ruth played with her contractions as they grew and spilled over onto Friday.  She would see each one coming and, instead of bracing against it, she would breathe and watch.  She would mentally acknowledge the contraction, thank it for preparing her body for birth, and gratefully send it on its way.  And it worked.  We spent the day doing all the same things she had been doing since before the pregnancy began—walking, jogging, taking the stairs, getting hot oil massages and having wild sex.  Pretty much normal life for us.

In the wee hours of the night, Ruth woke up.  The contractions had been steadily growing in intensity and consistency and had reached a point where Ruth was having some difficulty managing while in bed.  She woke her vigorous husband at 3:00am, who drew her a bath and vigorously went back to bed.  Ruth spent half an hour in the tub, rolling with the contractions as they went through her.  After a time she got out and started pacing the house, kneeling, squatting, going on all fours, searching for a position that would give her a bit of an edge as she dealt with the tension.  And even though she had to move around the house and use all of her mindfulness to get through them, they were bearable.  Not only that, it was enjoyable and she was glad to have the opportunity to face them alone.  She woke her husband at 4:20 and they called the midwife.  The time was close.

She almost called too late.  Our on-call midwife, Sara, was half an hour away.  Sara arranged for Houley, another wonderful midwife from Kensington Midwives, to come as well, because she was already in the area finishing up another birth.  Houley arrived just as Matt finished setting up the bed for birth.  She did all the lovely midwifery stuff that midwives do, and told Ruth that if she felt like pushing she might as well go ahead and do it.

Sara, our main midwife, arrived at 5:00am, jogging with her big backpack of midwife gear.

Isaiah Dev arrived at 5:08am.

Sara caught our son as he came out and handed him to Matt who rested the child on Ruth’s belly.  He was warm and slippery, covered with the broth he had been cooked in.  And that was it.  There he was.

Out other children were born in good, modern hospitals—the first in Canada, the second in Pakistan.  Both were very safe, highly professional places.  Sanitary, organized, business-like.  Both births were very much like watching a mechanic work on your car.  There was no magic, just mechanics.  We didn’t touch our children until they were appropriately cleaned and prepared.  And even then we had to give them back so they could endure some time under that blindingly warm light with that odd goo on their eyes.  The doctors who delivered our children disappeared immediately after it was over.  Sara stayed with us for hours.  The doctors told us what choices to make.  The midwives gave us information and asked us what choices we wanted to make.  In the hospitals Ruth was a patient with a condition to be cured.  With the midwives, she was a holy person creating another person.

Sara and Safire at Kensington Midwives completely blew our minds.  We never expected the level of care they gave us.  Because of them and all the other midwives and students and staff at Kensington Midwives, Ruth not only endured her pregnancy and labour, she enjoyed them.  Labour stopped being a painful thing to get through, it became a rare and vibrant experience to drink in.  It was not labour.  It was birth.

We learned things.

We learned that labour is not a trial to be endured—it is an experience to revel in.
We learned that your mindset will determine a large part of what your experience will be.
We learned that everything goes better with mindfulness and everything goes worse with worry.
We learned that Ruth is an awesome creator of humans and had no need to wake her husband or cry out for help when it was time to give birth. She is mighty enough to rely on her own strength.

That’s our story. We cannot thank the people at Kensington Midwives enough. Thank you for showing us how powerful a mother can be. Thank you for being a part of our person-making project.

To Temia and Frances

My niece and my grandmother both died very recently.  The youngest and oldest members of the Cook family.

When a baby dies, the pain is harsh and visceral and immediate.  There is an unnatural flavour to it.  We are not wired to easily accept death in the generation below us.

When a grandmother dies, the loss is more spread out.  The end of an era.  It’s like having the house you’ve lived in all your life torn down over your head.

Things touch me in strange ways.  The way the funeral home is now a familiar place.  The way my niece’s death struck me when I noticed the shoes her body wore in the tiny coffin.  The way my grandmother’s voice floated to me while the congregation sang old hymns I grew up with.  The shifting, uncertain way I approached the pulpit to give my words at both funerals.  The scent of flowers, beautiful and arranged with love, giving a sense of life and renewal, even though they also were cut and would not live long.  The carrying of my grandmother’s coffin up and down the same stairs we used to carry her up and down when she went to church, laughing with her as we went and joked about how heavy her wheelchair was.

Memories of my grandmother.  How she gave us all Swiss Army Knives one Christmas, and we went home bleeding and grinning.  How her little white house on Spruceside Crescent as a sort of second home—a safe and warm place full of people and food and a kind of freedom that only grandparents can give.  The message she whispered as I laid her coffin down atop that deep, deep grave: “I lived well.  I loved freely.  I laughed loudly.  I made my home an open place, devoted to the making of peace and pies.  I trusted my grandchildren enough to give them knives for Christmas and I didn’t freak out when they cut themselves on them.  Remember my whole life, not just the last years since my stroke.  It’s not the last words or acts that matter.  It’s the whole thing.

The spark of light buried deep in the shock of my niece’s death.  The vibrant life that shone in her for six months, no less full for the quickness in which they were spent.  The focused and determined play my daughter had with her during the short time I was blessed to visit with her.  The serious depth that struck my son when he heard of it, took her photo off the fridge and cried as he held it—overcome with emotion at the age of seven.  The message that she whispered to me as I stood in the funeral home and stared at her shoes: “I lived well.  I never learned to waste life on things that gave me no joy.  I never learned to give up on my dreams.  I never learned cynicism or how to be judgmental.  I spent my short and beautiful life clinging to the people who loved me and letting them cling back to me.  I left the world undefeated by it—something very few people can say.

I have a deep and uncompromising contempt for death.  It is legitimate and true, I suppose, to view death as a doorway to the next grand adventure.  But that does not overcome the deep, visceral view that lives in each of us—death is a tragic and evil thing.  Death is the first and universal enemy of mankind.  And even if I look at death as a portal to another, better world, it is still my enemy.  It is still something that I will not enter willingly.  I will still rage, rage against the dying of the light.  And I will lose.  Death will take me, though not quietly.

But my grandmother Frances and my niece Temia remind me that the best way to spit in the face of death is not to fight it when it comes near, but to live while I’m alive.  Like they did.

I miss you, Grandma.  My memories of you bleed together, making my stories a sort of collage that only I can fully understand.  You were a pillar and a foundation.  My life is missing something without you in it.

I miss you, Temia.  The light in your eyes and the authentic smile on your lips.  The way you look either curious or excited in nearly every photo I look at.  You are an inspiration and I long to have some of that light and curiosity and excitement.

You both touched me in a deep place.  I’m sad you’re gone.  Thank you both for being awesome.

Wisdom’s Bastard Children

We criticize folks from other religions and denominations and wordviews when they have our favourite beliefs wrong.

When those people live better than us and the rest of our tribe, we mourn that they look like they understand things better than us.

But, in some direly important ways, they do understand better than us.

Because wisdom is justified by all her children.

Getting Things Done

I’m a busy dude.

But only because I want to be, so that’s nice.

Talk to me sometime.  You’ll discover that I’m full of energy.  I’m motivated.  Ambitious.  I want to get stuff done.  And I want to do it well.  The things I do, I want to be the best at them.

I’m a husband and a father, and I feel threatened by folks who seem to pull those jobs off better than I do.

I’m a writer, and I get chills of joy when I read a published book that’s worse than what I’m writing and chills of agony when I read something that I know is better than what I can do.

I’m a preacher and there’s nothing better than seeing a crowd of people inspired to love more.

I’m a student and I want to write essays that make the professor smack his forehead and say, “Wow, I never looked at it in that way before!”

I’m a friend, and I love everyone I know and want them all to know it and feel empowered through their friendships with me.

I want to excel at all these things, and I don’t really think it’s unreasonable.  But, wow, sometimes I just tank out.

I’ve never been the most organized person.  I leave things to the last minute and I get emotionally crushed under the knowledge of all the things I’m trying to pull off.  It’s not that I have too many things on my plate.  It’s just that I’m not so good at organizing my plate.  Stuff keeps falling off and I keep making messes all over the table.  My writing suffers, I lose touch with friends, I miss important family things.

All this is to ask, how do you do it?  How you you keep yourself on track with all the life-roles you want to excel at?  How do you organize your time?  How do you organize your emotional and mental energy?  How do you keep the things you love from falling through the cracks?

Tell me, people of the interwebs.  What solutions help you to get the things done that you want to get done?

A Sense of Life

There is an intense sensation that I’ve found only in a few places.  A sensation of deep reality.  Of trueness.  A sort of clarity of life that reminds me that I’m alive and so is everyone around me.  Earthy.  Dirty.  Wondrous.

I first noticed it in Pakistan.  I had it every single day.  It was as if every bit of artificial life was taken away and nothing but the raw, pulsing trueness of life remained.  I think it was this sense that made me love Pakistan so much.

I have felt it in other places, too.  Sporting events.  Protests.  Certain types of bars.

I had expected it to be in Thorncliffe.  After all, Thorncliffe was supposed to be mini-Pakistan, wasn’t it?  I was surprised to find that Thorncliffe didn’t have it, though.  It was wonderful to live there for four years, but the spark wasn’t there.

But it seems to be on Bloor.

I took my bike down to the coffee shop near our new place.  I could feel it there.  The dangerous, moving life.  The sense that everyone I see is interesting and beautiful and full of so much potential love and power and happiness.

I’m going to enjoy living here.

Here Goes Nothing

First off, it was chilly.  It’s hard to do anything in the water while it’s chilly.

The whole group of us paddled to the jumping rocks anyway, even though I made it clear I wasn’t going to jump.  The lowest rocks were seventeen feet above the water and I don’t do heights so well.  But it’s always fun to watch my brothers leap off the rocks.  I usually don’t like being a spectator, but when it comes to flinging my body off a cliff I’m content to be the armchair athlete.

My son, it turns out, is not nearly as content.

His jaw hung open when he saw my brothers flying through the air.  He turned to me.

“I want to do it,” he said.

“You’re only seven,” I told him, as if he didn’t know.

“I’ll wear a life jacket.”

I was about to forbid him.  I really was, I promise.  But that most interesting of all adverbs gave me pause.

Why?

Why tell this young dare devil no?

Why tell him to act his age?

Why refuse his desire to push himself beyond his limits and seek the special place where the magic happens?

Because the magic always happens on the edge, or just over it.  It always happens in those places that we fear to go.  Out of the zone of comfort and familiarity.

“Sure, Joe.  Go for it.”

Five minutes later he was at the top of the cliff, inching to the edge and shaking all over in fear and excitement.

“I don’t know,” he said.

“You can do it,” I called.  “It’ll be fun.”

He put his toes on the edge and gazed down.

“Here goes nothing,” he called.  And he pushed himself off.

He hung in mid air for a moment.  His arms were outstretched and waving.  His feet floated in the air beneath him.  His face wore the look of joy and terror and life.

He was where the magic happens.

Here goes nothing.

Better Than a Good Night’s Rest

There’s not much better than a god night’s rest, eh?  Not much better then that satisfied feeling of haivng gotten enough sleep.  That feeling of your eyes being wide open.

I don’t feel that right now.

It’s been days since my last good night’s rest.

Because some things are better.  Some things beat a good night’s rest.  Some things are just worth more.

  • Beaches on warm summer days are better than a good night’s rest.
  • Laughs with friends are better than a good night’s rest.
  • Wrestling matches with children are better than a good night’s rest.
  • Video games with your wife are better than a good night’s rest.
  • Sneaking into a public pool on a warm summer’s night is better than a good night’s rest.
  • Making out is definitely better than a good night’s rest.
  • Good talks are better than a good night’s rest.
  • Taking your children out for coffee and chocolate milk is better than a good night’s rest.
  • Blasting through your daily writing quota is better than a good night’s rest.
  • Cooking food your family loves is better than a good night’s rest.

Because of all these things, it’s been a while since I’ve had a good night’s rest.

I’m glad.  Because I’ve been too busy touching people, creating things and living great experiences to sleep right.  And that’s just fine by me.

What is more important than sleep to you?

Refusing the Chicken

     I was tired. That’s the first problem. Tired and so very hungry. We were eating at a neat hole-in-the-wall west indian place. The food was great, for meat eaters. For vegetarians, there wasn’t much more than a veggie chow mein. An insipid, cold chow mein. Yums.

     I couldn’t stop looking over at the chicken leg my son was not eating. It was fried and tender and perfect-smelling. It wanted me to eat it. I swear, it did. I picked it up and looked at it. It looked back at me. Remember the scene in Hichhiker’s Guide where the mutant livestock was excited for Dent to eat him? That drumstick seemed to be doing the same thing to me. I was on the edge. I opened my mouth to take a bite.

     “Papa, are you eating meat?”

     My son’s voice was not accusatory. He wasn’t judging me. He was just curious. I could have eaten and he would not have thought any less of me.

     He asked me, so long ago, why I didn’t eat meat. I gave him the simplest answer I could: I refuse to partake in any violence. Any. No violence in defense of myself or my country. No violence in instruction or teaching. No violence to satisfy my taste buds. He understood it. He sympathized with it. Sometimes he flirts with vegetarianism because of it.

     But now his dad is holding the leg of a dead chicken, ready to consume it. He doesn’t even realize the real questions he’s asking: “So you’re not as big on the whole non-violence thing as you said, eh? You like non-violence until you’re hungry or tired, eh? You walk the path of peace so long as you feel like it, eh? Good to know. I’ll remember that.”

     I put the chicken down. “Naw, man,” I said. “I don’t eat meat.”

The Skynet Zombie

     We love hearing stories about creations turning on their creators. Those stories have made it into movies, novels and religions. There’s something pervertedly fascinating about watching the computer that we lovingly and diligently programmed come of age and attempt to overthrow its creators. And when the movie is done, we sit back and thank our lucky stars that our own machines haven’t turned on us.
     Or have they? (Bum bum bummmmmm!)
     The two most frightening monsters from popular mythology are, in my view, vampires and zombies. The vampire is terrifying because of its malice, subtlety, and power. Zombies are terrifying because of their swarming numbers, mindlessness, and unworldly stubbornness. And the biggest reason to fear them both is because they come from us and work to turn us into them.
     That wasn’t just a random segue. Watch, you’ll see.
     Now, when we talk about creations turning on their creators, we usually think of a Skynet scenario. The computer realizes that humans are a threat, so it decides to completely destroy or enslave them. Skynet is like the vampire version of the creator-killer. And Skynet is not real.
     But the zombie version of the creator-killer, I think, is already attacking. And we have hardly noticed.
     Phones, TV, games, music, film. Wonderful, beautiful creations. We have taken rocks from the earth and bound up magic within them. But magic, it has been said, is like a sword without a hilt. It’s better than no sword at all, of course, but it must be wielded carefully.
     All our toys and tools and gadgets have the capability of turning into mindless zombie hordes, marching toward our brains, eager to devour them. Our minds are always being pulled and torn at by the crowds we made. Texts, songs, trailers, games, social networks, blogs, Internets, news, politics, more more more! And we keep begging for more! More ways to take our minds to any place other than where our bodies are.
     Mindfulness grows difficult. Soon we’re living lives that have forgotten what a clear head feels like. We feel scatter-brained and full of stress all the time. And in order to assage the brain-pain, we open our tech and play some more. They take hold. And soon we find that we allow them access to our minds all day, every day. We always have the earbuds on. We are always punching buttons into our phones and tablets. We spend most of our time on our asses, staring at a glowing screen.
     Things have gotten out of hand.
     What, you don’t think so? You don’t think it’s a problem? I dare you to try an experiment. Turn off your music and games and TV and Internets for a couple days. Then notice how your brain works. See if your art has changed. See if life flows easier. Twenty bucks says it will.

The Song That No One Has Heard

     I’m kind of a sucker for devotional music from all sorts of religious traditions. I’ll shove John Michael Talbot, Yusuf Islam, and Krishna Das all onto a playlist together. They get along on iTunes, I wonder if they’d get along if they were all in the same room…
     One of Krishna Das’s best songs is Heart as Wide as the World.

I looked away
Your beauty too much to bear
Where could I run?
Your eyes,
I found them everywhere
All I want is to sing to you
The song that no one has heard

     I follow a lot of aspiring writers on Twitter and blogs. Sometimes it’s a tad discouraging because often they talk about ‘essential’ writing subjects like self-promotion, knowing the market and replicating past successes. Many good, talented, creative people just want to write a story that will sell.
     How low.
     I don’t know about other creative people, but I’d do this work even if I knew I’d never make a penny from it. I’ve been doing it for years and I’ve put time and money into it, but I’ve never gotten a cent back. Sure, I’d love to make some money. I’d love to be able to quit my job and spend my life writing. That’d be the cat’s meow. But that’s not ‘all I want.’

All I want…
… is to be a best-seller.
… is to be famous.
… is to get rich.
… is to be the next [insert successful name here].

     Low! Low! Low!
     I look up to the sky and to the infinite space it rests beneath. I look to the Hand that sparked it and all the glories that dwell within it. And all those petty desires fade like a fog when it is faced with the sun’s fury. One desire remains. One thought. One driving force.
     All I want is to sing to you the song that no one has heard.
     And I’m the only one who can sing that song.
     And you’re the only one who can sing yours.