When my mind isn’t busy, whether with to-do lists, the contents of my phone, or major worries (and sometimes even with these), I can find joy in almost anything. But this joy is not warrantless, and its ease does indicate lack of depth. Most often and easily, the joy has the same provocation: I think about what had to happen in order that I should pick an item up at the grocery store.

This week, I picked up a lemon.

A few times a month, I’m possessed of a mood to cut up a lemon and set it on a plate while I go about cooking dinner. While the lemon’s taste is sour, its olfactory properties are the opposite, and a freshly cut lemon will pour itself into the air with surprising, but welcome, potency. Everything you wouldn’t want from an onion.

So, when I was shopping for food, I saw that lemons were fifty cents each. I knew I’d like the fruit’s aromatic bouquet for my evening, so I picked it up, and away I went.

Citrus fruits don’t grow in New England (not well anyway), and especially not in February. The lemon I held had come to me by way of some warmer climate hundreds, perhaps thousands, of miles away. It was picked, cleaned, packaged, and then transported across those miles, then unloaded, unpacked, and displayed in the grocery. So many intermediaries had interceded across days, miles, and man-hours to yield the display of lemons in wintry Cambridge.

And even after all of that, the owners of the store were allowing me to separate them from one of their lemons for two quarters—an amount so low I wouldn’t even miss it if it left my checking account.

In a previous century, this wouldn’t have been possible. The very idea that I could afford a lemon as an aesthetic impulse in the middle of a New England winter would be absurd, no matter my income bracket.

But human society has progressed so much in such a short amount of time that, now, a lemon is within reach of nearly everyone. And not just the lemon, but perhaps the vast majority of most of the grocery store, especially the fruit and vegetable section. What a deliriously joyful thing to witness!

I suspect some might call my lemon “one of life’s small pleasures.” I would never. That would be a disservice to the achievement the lemon is and represents, and which provides me my joy: such improvement and efficiency of civilization that I can pluck it from across the country (and other things from across the world) in the dead of winter, without prior planning, for fifty cents—that is no small pleasure. In any other age it would have been so unthinkable that it would have been called miraculous.

Well, I took the lemon home with me and cut it crossways, opening it like a small flower on a plate. It performed—perfumed—wonderfully, and then lent its juice to my after-dinner tea.

As I wrote this I listened to Johan Strauss II’s “Wo die Zitronen blühen,” a waltz that in English is called “Where the lemons blossom.” 

This post is part of my project to write one essay every day of February 2018. The essay topics will vary, but they’ll all be something I’m interested in. All essays can be found here.