Judi Dench is one of my favorite actors. I love her depth, her sense of humor and her keen intelligence. When I saw this video, I was so inspired by her recitation of “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes”  – Shakespeare’s astonishing sonnet –  I decided to memorize it myself.

Screen grab of actress Judi Dench reciting a sonnet

I carefully wrote the sonnet out by hand (because the physical act of writing helps me to remember) and taped it to the mirror in my bathroom. For the next ten days or so, every time I went into the bathroom I would read it out loud. Line-by-line, I would commit it to memory. I got the first few lines pretty quickly, and the final couplet is so famous I already knew it by heart, but I kept  stumbling over the middle bits. Doggedly, I continued to recite passages I hadn’t yet mastered, refusing to allow myself even a tiny peek at what I now thought of as my “cheat sheet.”

Then, haply I thought on Paula Hughes.

Four smiling people sitting on a wall. 3 Western women; one bearded Indian man - all above 50, shall we say?

(Paula is the one on the far right in the striped trousers)

I remembered something she often used to tell us back when she first came to India in 1995 to help us set up Latika: “Don’t let children practice mistakes,” she insisted. “If a child doesn’t understand something, give him the help he needs then and there. By leaving him to struggle, you make it harder for him to get it right!”

Picture of handwritten Shakespearean sonnet - "When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes"" pasted to a bathroom mirror

What great advice! And how often we forbid ourselves its gentle wisdom. We are so strict with our efforts, so self-critical, so mired in misconceptions about the best way to learn a new language, acquire a new skill or memorize a poem. It’s a legacy from countless generations of us who were brought up to believe that mastery means misery and unless it’s painful it doesn’t count.

I decided to stop practicing my mistakes. And when I took Paula’s advice and consulted the poem taped on my mirror every time I went blank, within a few days the words not only rolled off my tongue effortlessly but with genuine pleasure in the sound and the flow of that beautiful sonnet. I have a new poem in my soul and in my heart and now it belongs to me. Effortlessly.

“For thy sweet love remembered, such wealth brings

That then I scorn to change my state with kings.”



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