Tuesday, January 04, 2011

If Happiness Had a Smell

As I sat at my desk, relieved to have a brief respite from a steady stream of meetings, I reached for the navel orange left lonely in the bottom of my tote bag. I dug into its peel, tearing off bits of skin as the pith got stuck under my fingernails, and I was at once flooded with a memory that didn't belong to me.

JP was a first-year student at a prestigious New England university 1,500 miles from his mid-western home. He'd never been further than a half day's drive from where he'd been born and raised and, while he was glad to have the educational opportunity he'd been offered, he was desperately homesick - occasionally physically so.

The scholarship he'd received was barely enough to cover tuition and, even though his family wasn't exactly poor, his was a large family and his parents weren't able to offer much financial assistance for his basic necessities. So he worked and studied and worked some more - taking on a second part time job to supplement the first. Sleep deprived and hungry, he scraped out his existence ever hopeful that someday his hard work and education would take him some place...some place good, some place less hard.

He couldn't afford luxuries. He couldn't really afford to eat unless he was on campus and able to access the university's cafeteria never mind a beer at the pub popular with his fellow classmates.

So he created his own luxury. Each day, he'd enter the cafeteria at lunch, load up his tray with as much as he thought he could eat and then he'd head to the huge bowl of fruit at the end of the dessert line. There, he would carefully select the best orange he could find and pocket it, saving it for later.

At the end of the night, when he'd dragged himself back to his boarding house room after an 18-hour day of work and classes and studying and more work, he'd sit at his desk exhausted, pull the orange from his pocket, and slowly begin to peel the orange, revealing his one true luxury.

Those oranges, as he described them to me 25 years later, were his memories of warmth and love and home. Each one was peeled and eaten with delight and gratitude - savored slowly until every last bit had been consumed. They were his respite from his tribulations and challenges.

To this day, he eats an orange every evening in much the same way.

So, as I sat at my desk, tearing off bits of orange peel with pith stuck underneath my fingernails, I remembered that. And, as I bit into the first wedge of juicy citrus, a spray of sunshine filling my mouth, my next meeting walked in my office and exclaimed, "It smells like happiness in here!"

It does. Doesn't it?

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