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McCormac, Darwin, and cerebrospinal fluid

Since taking a job walking for a living, I have come to understand in even greater nuance the beauties of being outside. I deliver the mail, and that’s a good enough job in itself. It’s a hard job, extremely physical. Rigors increase with changes in weather. Seventeen miles of mail on a sunny day when the temperature is 65 degrees becomes a different beast when it’s raining, 99 or 9 or -9, cloudy, and snowy.

I’ve been at it for 16 months. For a long time, I thought, on a rough day, how did I get here? I’ve constructed buildings, won journalism awards, and am probably one of the most educated people I know. Around-the-world journeys. A walk across the Great Plains and canoe trip back. More careers than most.

None of that makes me too precious for the job. I just wound up in a place I didn’t expect after all that great “life experience” I was once taught was a good thing. It turns out that life experience is a liability in the job marketplace. But I’d found that it’s a great blessing to have a Ph.D. and be able to walk around with that and all my other life experiences in my head.

I didn’t start out to be a mailman. I had to keep the lights on. After a while, I came to appreciate the job I took out of necessity. I look forward to going to work in the morning. (Once I’m out of bed. Who really wants to work? I don’t.)

When I started, immediately my life changed. A vigorous social life disappeared. Conversations over afternoon coffees with writers, poets, editors, musicians, academics, tradespeople of all types, and thinkers afforded me a great deal of challenge. My friends were bright, deep, and critical. They wouldn’t let me get away with intellectual laziness or moral wishy-washiness. They kept me sharp and thinking.

But 60- to 70-hour weeks of intense physical labor don’t allow for the kind of contemplation I need. My writing has fallen off almost completely. Where once I wrote 1,000 words a day, I now maybe write 1,000 words a month (mostly in E-mails).

I mention contemplation. The mail, while it looks from the outside like a daily walk, is the most mentally challenging jobs I’ve ever had. It demands my presence every minute. Flight of mind or whimsical musing throws everything out of whack. When I was writing and teaching for a living, contemplation was part of the job. As an ironworker, I could put my body on autopilot and tie rebar with wire while dreaming of poems for hours. Turn a bolt; turn a phrase. Welding creates a kind of vacuum that, at the end of the day, instantly demands contemplation.

But now, when I come to rest in my chair after delivering all that mail, my mind is empty but not in a good way. It’s worn out. There is no spigot waiting to fill my glass. Mindless staring at the television takes my time. The phone generates stupidity, the likes of which I can’t even comprehend when I close my eyes to achieve restorative sleep.

Months of this madness made me feel I was shrinking intellectually. My friends no longer foils for my thoughts, notions, and conceptions, I fell into thinking all the time of delivering mail. While it’s an important job and I like being a public servant, it’s not the music of the spheres. A feeling of desperation took hold. I had to do something.

I’ve always read before sleeping. Books stack up next to my bed, volumes and volumes. But I needed something substantial. About a year ago, I started in on Cormac McCarthy’s novels. While criticisms of his work abound, one thing that no one can say is that he can’t write a good sentence. Even if the stories wavered for me, the writing kept me coming back. It was like someone had taken my brain in hand and was massaging it gently but firmly.

Having finished McCormac’s works, I had to go somewhere. I thought, it’s been years since I’d read Charles Darwin. I’ve taught classes in Western Civilization where I had students read On the Origin of Species. I read the book a couple of times, each time dissecting it for themes, logic, evidence, and all the other academic bits I could get.

This time, I determined I would read as much Darwin as I could, starting with On the Origin of Species. That feeling of brain massage crept into my bed with me every night when I would read until I became insensible with fatigue and my eyes closed of their own accord.

I noticed, having read a strong and capable writer like McCormac, that Darwin, while being a great thinker, was also a great writer. The clarity of his thoughts writ on paper astounded me. While many science writers allow jargon-ese to bog them down, Darwin takes incredibly complicated lines of theory and makes them accessible. Not once did I fail to understand what he was trying to say to me. , I can see why many people are afraid of the man. He removes the “special” nature of our species away and makes it a part of the great existence of all species. We become unique in the same way all other animals do. The beauty of that is that we can grasp that. That is our extraordinary gift.

The Descent of Man amplifies that extraordinariness. It’s truly amazing we made it this far. That, perhaps, we are part of systems and interconnections with nature and not a special creation makes this life, this hands-on living we do every day, that much more astonishing.

Now, deep into The Voyage of the Beagle, I begin to see how Darwin’s mind was working long before he wrote On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man. This guy was cooking up natural selection, defining its terms, seeing its mechanisms at the time he was traveling with Captain FitzRoy and his crew. Granted, he was a colonial chess piece, being as all naturalists on British exploration ships, whalers, and navy boats the spearhead of Great Britain’s efforts to exploit resources and people. But he did so much to advance of reason, science, and humanity that I can forgive him being an unwitting participant in the island nation’s push to conquer the planet in a literal sense.

Plus, being a writer in the genre of travel memoir, I have to state that The Voyage of the Beagle is probably one of the best travel books I’ve ever read.

These efforts to gain something from what I thought I already knew—I’d already read most of McCarthy’s oeuvre and On the Origin of Species—makes me feel like my brain is actually filling my skull, rather than making room for more cerebrospinal fluid. Along with the physical exercise my job gives me, I’m content with this kind of reading.

There is no substitute for friends. The time will come soon, I hope, when I will have the time to exercise my mind again with vigorous conversation. The post office is giving me plenty of material. When interjected into the banter between mates and acquaintances, the stories and experiences will generate thoughts and notions the likes of which we have yet to see. I will soon have more time to read and contemplate. My time will not have been wasted.

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