I am not exaggerating when I say that lemon slices are helping me get through 2020. One slice after the other. No, this isn’t some diet craze or oddball wellness tip; I definitely don’t believe that lemon juice will ward off the coronavirus or build my immune system or keep my complexion from spinning out of control. It’s just my treat. My happy surprise when I open the fridge. A little something special to add to my water or tea. Fresh and meticulously sliced. By me, for me.
Ever since March, I hunt for lemons like they’re as essential as milk for my kids’ Cheerios. Before the pandemic, I never gave lemons much thought; I’d often bring a few home and accidentally let them rot in our produce drawer. But one day in lockdown, bored and anxious, I tossed a lemon slice in my tap water and it felt like a jailbreak. With that, my new routine was born: Every morning, I now slice a lemon as thin as possible and I slip the slivers into a baggie that sits in a small tub, placed in the front left of my fridge’s top shelf.
The slices have become tiny doses of pleasure throughout the day. Is it the happy scent? The sunny color? The pebbly zest, which I grate (pre-slicing) and freeze and giddily plan to toss into pasta and olive oil loaf cake (although I’m no Ina, and truthfully not even a Nailed It! contestant)? I squeeze one slice in a glass of water, the next in my tea. I somehow manage to go through a lemon a day. The lemons are just for me.
And, honestly, I get cranky if someone touches my lemons. My husband once tried to “improve” my system by removing the tub to free up fridge real estate. No! I found my precious slivers all scrunched up and practically shivering all the way in the back. I’ll admit that I did not handle this well and I’ll leave it at that.
You might say I’m clinging to the order my lemons provide. It’s funny how we long to control something when everything feels uncertain and chaotic around us. The prep steps I do each morning almost hypnotize me. Rinse lemon. Zest lemon. Get out cutting board, paring knife. Slice. Bag. Seal. Return slices to their rightful spot among the other (lesser, if we can be honest) refrigerated groceries.
There are lots of reasons why these lemons bring me comfort and joy. For one, the slices are a nice little treat. Something special to look forward to. I used to drink regular water and now I get to drink regular water with lemons! They also help me slow down and savor what I’m having. Then, there’s the hypnotic routine of that morning slicing ritual and the bonus routine of treating myself throughout the day. Turns out, these routines are everything.
There’s real science to back up the power of routines: Rituals alleviate anxiety and even help us cope with loss. In one study from Harvard Business School, researchers told people they would have to sing solos of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin” in front of a stranger. As you’d expect, everyone’s heart rate spiked. Half were instructed to perform a ritual before singing (it involved making a drawing of their feelings, sprinkling salt on it, then crinkling it up), while the others just sang. The folks with the ritual had lower heart rates and actually sang better than the ones without the routine.
Another study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, found that rituals helped people deal with losses by increasing their sense of control; the habits helped with both the loss of a loved one and something more mundane, like the loss of an expected way of life.
It’s also no wonder we’re finding comfort in ordinary indulgences. For some reason, the one part of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn that has stuck with me years since reading it as a kid is how, even though the family is beyond poor, living in a tenement in the early 1900s, they each get three cups of coffee with milk a day to enjoy … or waste (as Francie does), because their mother believes everyone deserves one treat to do what they want with. Even if it means throwing it down the sink.
I’d never throw my lemons down the proverbial sink now. (If I carry one thing into post-pandemic life, I hope it’s my new determination to waste less.) I love my lemons too much. I soak in my morning ritual. The tart-sweet fruit on my fingers, in my nose, almost stinging my throat. Lemon slice after lemon slice throughout the day. My quirky, beautiful thing. My way through.