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Robert Koehler

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20,000 Days

Posted: 06/13/11 09:41 PM ET

End of the workday -- the day itself is tired, a lost cause. Just go home and have a drink. Make it a double.

I don't drink, but that's how I felt. Actually, what I use to numb my brain is computer solitaire, and I foresaw an evening given over to it. Filler time in the great gray same old, same old. Joie de vivre? What's that? I was as locked into my routine as my commuter train was locked onto its tracks. Metal on metal: the grind.

Then I read: "In life, you're reborn every moment."

The book on my lap was Awakening the Buddha Within, by Lama Surya Das -- part of my regular spiritual transfusion therapy, my ongoing quest for interesting ideas to yank out of context, to steal and reapply to the circumstances of my own life. This statement, however, seemed as outrageous as a shaft of sunlight in a shut-in's shade-drawn room. As the train pulled into my station, I couldn't have felt less capable of -- give me a break -- rebirth.

Nevertheless, the words pierced me; they had the urgency of an alarm clock. Here was Surya Das, proffering this very day to me -- what was left of it -- as a blank slate, to be lived or not. It was my choice alone. A cynical impatience gave me a surge of adrenaline. OK, wise guy, you're on. I'll walk home by a different route. Let's see what good that does.

I stepped outside, reluctantly conceding, well, it is a nice day, one of Chicago's bursts of premature spring. I turned east, toward the lake, bemused at my irrationality; I live in the opposite direction.

But one step in the wrong direction was all it took.

I looked around at grubby Morse Avenue. Nothing about it was different, except that I was awake to it. The day's grip was broken. I was released from my routine and my blinders were off: Everything my eyes took in had an illicit allure. This is not what I was supposed to be seeing today.

Oh, here's that ugly little strip mall and the Yang-Tze River Restaurant, next door to the laundromat. Son of a gun, the place is still open; I haven't been there in 18 years. I peered through the gap in the curtains -- what an odd thrill. This is where I told Barbara I loved her so much I'd get rid of my cats to be with her -- a desperate communiqué. She had a terrible cat allergy; I was on the brink of losing her after a single date.

I moved on, my heart aglow with the unexpected memory of making a lifelong commitment to my future wife. It really is a nice day, y'know? I decided to stop at Panini-Panini, a storefront coffeehouse, and buy a sweet roll for my daughter, the teen-ager. This'll surprise her. Then I turned west on Pratt, a street of lovely graystones. A man emerged from one of them, trailed by a shaggy creature the size of a pony.

"I've never seen such a big dog," I gushed, breaking the code of neighborhood anonymity. "He's an Irish wolfhound," the man said. "Go ahead, pet him. He's gentle. His name's Clancy." I stood eyeball to eyeball with this Dr. Seuss cartoon and patted its head. Who was I, Sam I Am?

By the time I got home, I felt I had absorbed spring itself; it was in my step. I bounced up to my daughter's room and handed her the almond roll. "Gee, Dad, thanks!" she bubbled, delight overmastering her sullen veneer.

Later that night I indulged an odd curiosity and calculated I've been alive for almost 20,000 days. Pondering the awe that number inspired, I realized each one has been splashed with the same vivid colors, filled with the same possibility, the same magic, I drank in as a newborn. Let me not let another one go to waste!

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Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, contributor to One World, Many Peaces and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.

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