Since our middle school starts at 7:25 and the sixth graders I teach don't eat lunch until noon, I let them eat a snack during their third hour class. One mid-morning, while standing in line along the wall outside my classroom door waiting for class to start, I saw a boy holding an unpeeled lemon. I was a bit confused as to why he had a lemon so I asked him.
Giving me a quizzical look, he sarcastically said, “Um, it's my snack.”
“The lemon? The lemon is your snack?” I asked. “What are you going to do with it?”
“I'm going to eat it,” he said.
“You're going to eat it? The lemon? How?” I asked.
“I'm going to peel it and eat it.” Duh.
He rolled it in his hand and started to peel it with his fingers, like you'd peel an orange. He held the peelings in the cupped palm of his left hand and then tossed them into a nearby garbage can. When he came back, he separated a wedge from the whole lemon and bit into the wedge and ate it.
“I've never seen someone eat a lemon like that before,” I said to him.
“Okay,” he said, still incredulous that I was asking him about his lemon. “Well, how are you supposed to eat it?”
“I slice it in thin strips and put it in water or squeeze it on food.”
Then a girl standing next to the boy said, “You have to try eating it whole then, Mr. Eich. It's amazing.”
Another girl chimed in. “It's so sour in your mouth. It's delicious.”
I noticed that several kids standing in line were listening to this conversation. “Do you all eat lemons like this?” I asked.
Several of them said yes.
“Okay,” I said, “I'll try it.”
I realized that these kids have grown up sucking on sour candy and that a lemon wedge popped into their mouth, its sour juice squirting on their tongue, tastes familiar, and yet, better than the candy they love because it's the real thing from which they derive their enjoyment of sour candies. I also realized that this is a generational difference. I know no adult who peels and eats a lemon like he or she would an orange. I'm sure they're out there, but I haven't met or heard of any of them.
Several days later, I bought a lemon with the intent of eating it like I would an orange: peeling it with my fingers rather than slicing it with a sharp knife into thin strips, separating the wedges, and then placing half in my mouth, and biting into it, and if possible, eating the entire lemon like this. I like lemons but I do find them sour. When I set out to peel the lemon, however, I couldn't break through the thick yellow skin with my finger or thumb. I squeezed the lemon in my hand hoping to soften its skin. No luck. I set it aside and waited for several days.
I've been teaching my students poetry, descriptive writing, and the personal narrative for the past three months and what I repeatedly tell them is to pay attention to the five senses and to incorporate these details into their writing. Writing requires concentration, I tell them. What I am essentially teaching them is mindfulness. Writing requires mindfulness. Eating requires mindfulness. Or rather, it can. We don't always have to write or eat with such mindfulness, but sometimes, and I would suggest often, eating or writing or walking or making food with mindfulness helps us to appreciate what we are experiencing more. That's why I want to mindfully eat the lemon: to experience the taste and to be more aware that I am experiencing it.
My opportunity to eat the lemon arrives on the morning of Christmas Eve. I'm alone with no distractions. I have nothing I need to do except mindfully eat the lemon. I set it in a large silver stainless steel bowl. I grab a folded black cloth napkin. I make a cup of green tea. I take all three items to my writing room/guest bedroom and sit on my bed. Winter sunlight pours through the large rectangular window. The sky is blue. A thick layer of snow covers the roof tops of the neighboring houses. I hear a jet passing overhead, first a sonic roar booming close and then fading into the distance until the sky is silent again.
I hold the lemon in the palm of my hand. Like goosebumps, miniscule dots cover its bright yellow skin. I smell it. It smells of lemon skin rather than lemon. I squeeze it. The lemon is solid. I massage the lemon to loosen it up. I attempt puncturing its skin with my thumb but am unable. Wanting to eat it and not wait until another time, I bite into the lemon. My bottom teeth easily pierce the skin. I taste the peel on my tongue.
I begin to peel it. I take my time. I end up with five peelings, one of them almost half the lemon. Because the skin is still hard there is a thick skin surrounding the lemon. It's as if there were two skins, the outer skin and the inner skin, both of them attached to each other. I start to pull off the thin skin in tiny strips. Sometimes I can see the membrane on the skin. It's a creamy white color, unlike the fruit itself which is more of a translucent amber.
When the lemon is peeled, I pause for a moment and look at the whole lemon sitting there in the palm of my hand like a large egg in a nest. The sticker attached to the skin stated the lemon was from California. We often take it for granted that we can get citrus fruit at the beginning of winter. We're used to going into a store and seeing all the fruits and vegetables—all the food we want from any location around the world—at all times of the year. And yet, we should appreciate this fact. It is nothing short of miraculous. Modern technology allows us here in our first world abundance to eat fresh food from around the world.
In Zen, many people teach the concept of interconnectedness. The lemon is a good example. Someone planted the seeds that grew into lemon trees. The sun and rain and soil nourished the plant which allowed it to grow. Someone probably sprayed pesticides on the trees which made them resistant to bugs and gave them a longer shelf life. Someone picked the lemons; someone inspected them; someone crated them; someone loaded them on semis; someone drove that semi from California to Minnesota; someone unpacked the lemons and placed them in the bin at the store; someone rang up my purchase and took my money and placed the lemon in the grocery bag. The interconnectedness is infinite. Consider, for example, the people who built the lemon and semi factories, the lumber, steel, and concrete for these factories, the people who refined the oil for the gasoline that transported everything, the people who built the roads and the roads themselves traveled for all of these natural resources. The lemon became mine because of the interconnectedness of many people and many natural elements and events.
Finished with my moment of reflection, I start part three: taking apart the wedges. As I do, the juice from the lemon gathers on my fingers and releases its aromatic sourness. There's a slurping, sucking sound each time I take a wedge apart.
When I'm done taking apart the wedges, it's time for the finale: eating the lemon. I bite into a wedge. It's sourness squirts into mouth. It's a startling and exhilarating sensation. The tartness makes me smile. I put the second half of the wedge in my mouth. A similar sensation. I put the next wedge, whole, into my mouth. Biting into it releases a gush, a geyser of citrus and lemony sourness.
I slowly continue eating the wedges, and as I do, I realize their sourness isn't as sharp and as particular as when I first started. I've gotten used to the sourness. I've appreciated the sourness.
It's a good reminder that life is often like this: it takes us a while to get used to that which is sour but even the sourness can have a good taste. When we slow down we can become mindful. When we become mindful we can appreciate life more—even the sour parts.
My students were right: eating a lemon is an amazing experience.