When Life Hands You Lemons

What to do with the problem of a lemon or an orange? You have to peel it.When life hands you lemons, the usual response is to make lemonade or to squirt lemon juice in someone’s eye. I say to forget the typical responses. Try something new.

When life hands you lemons, such as the lemon of an unexpected car repair or the loss of a friendship, make a lemon meringue. Make lemon-poppyseed muffins. Make a lemon tart. Learn how to make jelly-filled donuts and make lemon-filled ones. Allow the sour to become something sweet.

If that idea doesn’t settle well, perhaps the best plan is found in Ada Limon’s book of poetry lucky wreck. She uses oranges in the first poem of the book, “Lunch with Relative Stranger Mister You,” but oranges and lemons are fruits of a kind. They both have peels and rinds. They both tend to favor the sour side of the spectrum.

What does Limon say to do with an orange? She says to peel it. She actually ends the poem with that line: “What to do with the problem of the orange? / Let me tell you something Mister, / you’ve got to peel it.” Why does she say to peel the thing? How does that solve anything?

Initially, peeling an orange or a lemon seems to do or solve very little. Your hands are covered with either orange or lemon juice. If you have any open wounds or minor cuts, the juice stings, so much so that it might bring tears to your eyes. The smell of the orange or the lemon drifts into your nose. Acrid. Not sweet. Sour. Sour and pungent. Peeling the fruit, though, reveals things. Maybe the fruit isn’t ripe. Perhaps it’s been bruised. Maybe it is mush at the center. Perhaps it has been consumed by worms or some sort of beetle or wasp. Maybe it is ripe. Maybe it has a sort of sweetness to it.

Peeling the fruit, then, is a way of getting beyond “fine” and “good.” It’s a removal of the mask so that the root of the pain can be identified. It’s a peeling back of the flesh and an acknowledgement of the hurt. It’s a recognition that the peel sometimes is what holds you and me together when everything else is falling apart. As Limon says in the final poem of the book:

we must accept the cage we are given

that some day we will be released,

into the unimaginable

and until then, praise the walls

and all the parts of us they manage to hold so dearly.

The next time life hands you a lemon, remember to peel it. Acknowledge the hurt and whatever lies beyond it. Then acknowledge how the rind often is what holds things together, both the sour and the sweet.

Photo: Nina Matthews Photography (CC BY 2.0)


  1. Ok. I do like this. I don’t know the poetry of Limon but it does sound enticing. Good analogy. I suppose we all protect ourselves in our shells (if that’s where you were going). I happen to have asked a similar question today in reference to getting out in the real world and making some connections face to face. Peeling back the skin is a great way to look at it; get away from the computer and interact.Sorry if I hijacked the ideas here but that’s kinda what it meant to me.Thanks for making me think. Great post. have a fabulous day and weekend Erin! 

    • rdopping I think peeling can mean a lot of things depending on where you are and what you’re doing. That’s the nice thing about reading any sort of literature. It can take on new meanings as you grow or are experiencing different things.I don’t know that Limon is that well-known. I had the opportunity to review her collection in exchange for a copy of the book. It was a good exchange. 🙂