Food For Thought Podcast
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Learning By Heart: The Art of Memorizing


The act of memorizing something — anything: a poem, a literary passage, a speech, a prayer, a philosophical principle — is one of the most meaningful things we can do. In this episode, I explain why and how to do so.

As always, you can find lots of resources for living compassionately and healthfully at joyfulvegan.com, you can find my books wherever books are sold, and you can join me in my online cooking classes or in an upcoming vegan trip.

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The Joy of Vegan Baking 

The Vegan Table

Color Me Vegan

Vegan’s Daily Companion

The 30-Day Vegan Challenge

The Joyful Vegan

About This Episode: Learning by Heart


Listen to This Episode: Learning by Heart


READ THE TRANSCRIPT FOR LEARNING BY HEART

Welcome to Food for Thought Podcast, THE place to explore, celebrate, and manifest a life motivated and defined by unconditional compassion and optimal wellness. Today’s episode is Learning by Heart: The Act of Memorization

Before we begin, my name is Colleen Patrick-Goudreau. You can find me at joyfulvegan.com and on social media, and you can find my books wherever books are sold, and you can join me in my online cooking classes. This podcast is possible because of the support of listeners like you, and you can join other supporters by going to patreon.com/colleenpatrickgoudreau to become a supporter today at your chosen level. Thank you so much in advance for supporting, for subscribing, and for listening. 

A lot of you who listened to my episode 50 Ways to Create a Meaningful Life wanted to hear more about some of the 50 items on the list — and I’ve gotten a lot of requests to hear more about one in particular, and that is the suggestion to MEMORIZE something — anything: a poem, a literary passage, a speech, a prayer, a philosophical treatise…whatever is meaningful to you. 

It’s one of the most meaningful things I do, and let me explain why.

On this podcast, you hear me talk a lot about words, language, literature, and writing — all of which I love, and I know many of you do, too. But remember: you’re listening to a podcast. I’m SPEAKING, and you’re LISTENING to me speak, and in fact, that is one of our oldest forms of communication, of storytelling, of transmission of information, of poetry. I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the history of English and the etymology of many words in English, but writing is an incredibly new technology (and it is just that — a technology, an invention) relative to the acquisition of speech. Speech is natural; writing is taught and requires tools. The goos and gaas of babies is the natural homo sapien impulse to move that breath, the larynx, the tongue, and the lips — all of which enable us to speak, one of the distinguishing features of humans. While we need to be taught how to read and how to write, under normal circumstances, no baby needs to be taught how to speak. Birds gotta fly; fish gotta swim, humans gotta talk. 

Speech is social; we learn to speak looking at each other’s mouths and faces; we learn speech patterns, and we learn how to listen. Today, we have so many distractions pulling our attention away, which has negatively impacted our ability to really listen, understand, and remember. We multitask, we speak without thinking, we hear without comprehending, and we let words wash over us without letting them penetrate our memory — and our hearts. And I’m not talking about facts here; I’m talking about stories, poems, narratives — either true or fictitious — in prose or verse, designed to interest, amuse, or instruct. 

Historically, we humans relied on narratives being passed down orally for thousands of years. Oral tradition is a form of human communication whereby we receive, transmit, and preserve wisdom, knowledge, art, ideas and cultural material from one generation to another. This has been done for thousands of years through song, ballads, chants, or folktales. So, when I’m talking about memorizing something, this is what I’m talking about, and you already do it. You can recite and recall nursery rhymes, jokes, and of course the lyrics of songs, and you can easily memorize them because of what they all have in common: mnemonic devices that help us remember — rhythms, rhymes, repetition, alliteration, etc. But aside from songs we kinda naturally memorize because we want to sing along…we don’t really take the time to memorize and recite poems, speeches, or literary passages anymore.

There was a time when recitation held an official slot in the school curriculum (roughly 1875 to 1950) in the U.S. and UK. This was often done to foster a lifelong love of literature; to boost self-confidence through a mastery of elocution; to strengthen the brain through exercise — not to mention (especially in the UK) to help purge the idioms and accents of “lower-class speech.” While many of us naturally remember nursery rhymes and songs from our childhood that are imprinted on us, most of us have grown up in a time when memorization and recitation of texts in school weren’t required of us, unless you were in the choir or theatre. 

I still remember much of Act 2, scene 2 (the balcony scene) from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet that I learned in high school, and in graduate school, my Chaucer professor required each student to memorize and recite to her the prologue of the Canterbury Tales. It was nerve-racking, because we had to learn it in Middle English, but it was a challenge I really loved, and I still remember (most) of it. I need a little prompting to really run with it. But I’m really grateful for the challenge, and once something is in your bones, it’s just hard to shake. You already know this from songs you have memorized. But since then — since grad school, I’ve taken it upon myself to memorize passages and poems I love. And David does the same. Last year or so, I set out to memorize the Tao Te Ching, and I’m about halfway through, and I’ve memorized — and continue to memorize favorite poems and philosophical passages. 

And to be clear, memorizing has been a significant part of my work. If you’ve ever seen me speak, you know I tend not to use notes (or it’s rare when I do); rather, I memorize the talk I’m giving, which adds a level of self-imposed stress that many people would avoid, but I just prefer it. 

*Memorizing helps me grapple with the text I’ve written and improve it

*Memorizing forces me to make sure my points are as clear and succinct as possible

*Memorizing enables me to create a story, find a rhythm, and take my audience on a journey

And I think it just makes a better, more enjoyable, more memorable (ha) experience for the audience. 

And — in addition — as most experts will tell you are the benefits of memorizing texts (whether it’s your own or someone else’s):

*Memorizing helps us focus. I mean you really can’t think of ANYTHING ELSE when you’re working memorizing something.

*It helps stave off memory decline and keeps your brain fit. In ages before paper, great orators mastered complex mnemonics to memorize great speeches verbatim. Now we just write them down, the paper substituting for our built-in memories. 

*Memorizing helps the brain remember. That sounds obvious, but it’s worth saying that by virtue of memorizing something, your brain becomes more receptive at remembering. Memorizing exercises your brain, giving it strength to retain more information. 

*Memorizing teaches you techniques like alliteration, cadence, tone, timber, inflection, emphasis, rhythm, and rhyme — all the beauty of speech. 

*A working memory is better for creativity and literacy — like, it’s kind of awesome when you can recall a quote from a poet or philosopher to help make your point.

And that’s been one of the most meaningful aspects of memorizing for me — aside from the sense of accomplishment you feel — I’ve found that memorizing texts just enables me to understand the words so much more. They become my own, I internalize them, I embody them because I have to make meaning of them in order to imprint them in my memory. When you memorize a poem (or a passage of a speech or text you love), you take the poem inside you, into your brain chemistry if not your blood, and you know it at a deeper level than if you simply read it off a page or a screen. I mean, after all, we call it “learning by heart.” If that doesn’t make the connection, I don’t know what else I can say. 

It’s also fun to choose the works you want to recall again and again. It goes without saying that you would most likely choose works you appreciate or gain pleasure or wisdom from, so discovering or searching for those works is part of the joy — as is being able to recall them on a whim! 

And that the other side of the coin here; it’s not just the act of memorizing that I find valuable and meaningful, it’s the act of recalling something I’ve memorized — for pleasure or to illustrate a point or to strengthen an argument or simply to accessorize / beautify / adorn an idea. I could say I love being with animals, or I could say, “I think I could turn and live with the animals; they are so placid and self-contain’d,” quoting Walt Whitman. 

And more than that — I use recalled passages to console myself and others. Recalling these texts adds resonance and history poignancy and beauty to whatever I’m trying to convey. I could say, “Do what you need to and the rest isn’t yours,” and that’s true (and kinda lovely), but I also love being able to recall a quote from someone 2,000 years ago and say, “as the Tao says, ‘Do your work and step back — the only path to serenity.” Recalling the wisdom of an ancient work validates my thoughts and also elevates them.

And frankly, it’s just a healthy, energizing, exciting way to spend my brain power: turning off and tuning out external noise — even if it’s music or an interesting interview or podcast or conversation — it’s just nice to spend my brain power on…well, my own brain power and not listening to something outside of me. Don’t get me wrong; there’s a time and a place for everything. I listen to music and podcasts and what have you, but sometimes it’s nice to turn all that off and just go inside. To be disconnected from technology and my phone or my laptop. It’s sooo refreshing to be standing in line or going for a walk or blow-drying my hair or doing the dishes or showering or falling asleep and not only quieting my mind (because of course that’s lovely and necessary, too) but actually using that time to recall lines from poetry or words from philosophers that move me. No phone, no technology, no computer. Just me and my brain. It’s really funny, because I’m not typically someone who has trouble sleeping, but when my head hits the pillow at night, one of the things I love is reciting some of the things I have memorized (or am working on memorizing), and I fall asleep in no time. 

So, how does one go about this? Well, I can share what works for me and see if it resonates with you. I’m sure you can find many strategies online, but I’ll just share with you works for me, which turns out is pretty well validated by people who are expert in this field. 

HOW TO MEMORIZE

  1. Take it in chunks. Depending on the work you’re memorizing, it’s likely to be naturally broken up into phrases, sentences, stanzas, or paragraphs. Start there. Master a phrase or a sentence, then add a second, then do both together. Then add a third, and continue memorizing 1-3, then add a fourth and so on. Just keep building and building. Let’s say you’re memorizing a poem like Rudyard Kipling’s If — a very common inspirational poem to memorize and one that I have memorized! You’ll be able to see why. I’ve long loved this poem, and then David memorized it. We’d go on walks or be sitting and reading, and I’d ask him to recite it because I love it so much, then I realized…okay, I want to memorize this poem! So I did. If you look at it on paper, it’s 4 stanzas of 8 lines each, and those 8 lines are further broken down into 2-line units — making it easier to master.
  1. Look for mnemonic techniques to help you memorize. In If—, the most obvious mnemonic is repetition. Most of the lines start with either if, or, or and. There’s also alliteration and rhyme. Remember, alliteration is when there is repetition of the first letter of a word; Old English poetry, for instance, didn’t rely on rhyme but rather on alliteration — which was a technique the orator would have used as a mnemonic device. So, you have something like “That was their way, their heathenish hope; deep in their hearts they remembered hell.” or “Behaviour that’s admired is the path to power among people everywhere.” Both quotes from Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf. And If— has that in spades. So, see how many devices you can pick up here: 

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;

    If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

    And treat those two impostors just the same;

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken

    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

    And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

You’ve got rhyme, stress, breaks, emphasis, repetition, alliteration. So, use techniques such as these to help you memorize. 

  1. Speaking of characteristics of a poem that will make it easier to memorize: it might be easier if you start with a poem with a definitive rhyme and meter rather than one that is free verse. Obviously, you can do free verse (or if it’s a passage from a speech or a larger work, it will most likely be free verse), but just a suggestion if you want to start with something easier. 
  1. Start with a passage on the shorter side so it’s more manageable and you feel a sense of accomplishment right off the bat. I think the first poem David memorized was T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, which is RIDICULOUS. It’s a difficult poem that is 130 lines! I wouldn’t suggest starting there. 
  1. Reading out loud is crucial for hearing the rhythm, the melody of the lines, the stanzas, the letters, the words, and it’s what will help y0u memorize a poem or a passage or a speech. As I keep alluding to, poetry was originally oral — not written — it was meant to be experienced and heard out loud. So, practice out loud. If it helps practice with someone else, though I prefer to do it on my own until I really know them.
  1. Next, for me, I have a very visual memory, so I do well seeing the words on the page to help me visualize them and remember them when I’m memorizing and when I’m recalling a poem. Some people also use WRITING out the words of what they’re memorizing as an exercise to help them.
  1. Watch videos or listen to recordings of what you’re memorizing. We used to have audio tapes of poems recorded by the poets themselves, which is a really interesting experience — to hear how the poets themselves would read their own poems, but whoever you listen to reading the poem, it IS just another helpful trick. You can also record YOURSELF reading it and / or reciting it — both as a trick for memorizing it and as practice when reciting it. 
  1. Just keep playing it in your head again and again and again. Work with the text, make it yours, feel it, let it get into your bones. Look up words and allusions you don’t know. Set aside 10 minutes each day to memorize whatever poem or passage you’re working on at any given time. It might help to keep a copy with you at all times — perhaps in the notes app of your phone — so you can have it on hand anytime you need it. It’s a much more productive way to spend idle time (waiting in line somewhere, sitting in traffic, waiting for someone…) than scrolling through social media. 

There are just so many benefits to and gifts from memorizing text — for adults and children alike. There’s a documentary by Ken Burns called The Address. The film tells the story of a tiny school in Putney Vermont, the Greenwood School, where each year the students are encouraged to practice, memorize, and recite the Gettysburg Address. I’d been wanting to memorize the Gettysburg Address, and that film inspired me to do so. It’s a lovely little documentary, and perhaps it will inspire you to memorize a passage you love. 

It’s a gift to yourself, and it can even be a gift for a loved one. Memorizing and reciting a poem (or WRITING and memorizing a poem) to a loved one is an incredibly loving and also potentially romantic gift to give. 

For the animals, this is CPG. Thanks for listening. 

FAQ

Each cooking class is fully interactive. While I am demonstrating, you can chime in with comments, questions, and ooohs and ahhhs the entire time. Not only does this increase connection among the students, both my assistant and I see your questions and make sure we answer all of them.
You can participate in the class using Zoom on your computer, tablet or mobile device.
Upon completing your registration, you receive your confirmation email, which includes the link to our Zoom class, along with information and recipes. Each class is officially a go once a minimum number of slots are filled — at which time the recipes appear on the document. My goal is to have the recipes available to you at least 5 days before the class to give you enough time to order / shop for ingredients, should you choose to cook along.
While I love to see the faces of my students, the use of video during the live class is optional. NOTE: Even if you opt to show your video, for the class recordings, which go out to the general public as on-demand classes, NO ONE'S video is shown except for mine.
We do our best to prepare you in advance so you are ready for when the class begins. If you have issues during the class, my assistant is there to help you. Sometimes it's an issue on the user side, and when there's an issue on my side, we do our best to mitigate it right away. One of the benefits of live classes is that they're in real time, which means it's a live feed. Sometimes technical issues are out of our control, but so far, we've never had any real issues that took away from the purpose of the class.
Absolutely! Unless something goes horribly wrong (and it rarely does), each class is recorded, and students receive the class recording within 2 days of the live class.
While I do send a reminder email out a couple days before our class, I encourage you to add the class to your calendar as soon as you register.
Some students love being able to cook along; some students love to just watch. It is entirely up to you how you want to enjoy the class.
You can decide in advance which dishes you want to cook along with. You might choose to cook along for just one of the dishes or all of them. Whatever you decide, I suggest you have your mise en place all ready. That is to say, have all the ingredients measured and prepped as much as possible. (Mise en place is a French culinary phrase meaning "everything in its place.”)
Ultimately, what we take away is based on what we give, so I encourage you to be present and engaged in the class. But, for my part, if you know me, you know I'm pretty passionate about many things, and I can’t help bringing my love of food, history, language, animals, film, literature, and food lore to each class. My aim is that you walk away with a richer understanding of food, cooking, and eating than before you arrived. More than that, you will get helpful step-by-step instructions about each dish I'm demonstrating and a clear up-close view of all the ingredients and procedures. The best part is that I, too, make mistakes, and you see me make them live in real time. That's how we learn the most.
I'm thrilled to say that many students are regulars and repeats, and you will no doubt get to know some fabulous people when you attend these classes. I encourage engagement and follow-up, including posting photos, questions, and comments on our private Facebook page. Many friends and family members join from different cities, then share a virtual meal with each other once the class is over. (That makes my heart sing.) So, yes, despite being online the classes foster connection.
I have found that 60 minutes is the ideal amount of time to spend in a virtual class. Sometimes we stick around a little longer to finish something up or to enjoy a bonus cocktail by our resident mixologist (my adorable husband), but we like to honor your time and keep the classes to 60 minutes. (Some special / holiday classes are scheduled for 90 minutes, but they’re the exception.) If we go over and you need to drop off, you can always view the video later.
Absolutely! Once you are registered and the class is a go, you are officially enrolled. That means the recipes, resources, video recording, and even the chat transcript are yours to enjoy. You will receive a follow-up email whether you are in the live class or not.
Because the value of the classes includes exclusive recipes and resources as well as the live class / video recording, once a class is officially a go and you get access to the recipes, you cannot be refunded. However, if the class does not meet the minimum sign-up threshold and I cancel the class, you have the option of getting a full refund or switching to a different class. (This is one of the reasons I don't share the recipes until I know we've reached the minimum threshold.)
After the live class is over and enjoyed by students in real time, each class gets converted into an on-demand class so that others may enjoy the recipes, resources, and video recording. Most live classes become on-demand classes within 2 days.
No animal products are ever used in my recipes, so yes, all the classes are vegan / plant-based, which means nothing that comes out of or off of an animal. I've written three cookbooks (The Joy of Vegan Baking, The Vegan Table, and Color Me Vegan), and two lifestyle books (Vegan’s Daily Companion and The 30-Day Vegan Challenge), which also include recipes. I'm also always testing and developing new recipes (as well as modifying and perfecting old ones) to make sure students get the best, clearest, easiest-to-follow recipes — qualities that have become trademark in my work.
While living compassionately and consciously is not about being perfect, and while some students may not have access to the same bulk stores and package-free ingredients as me, I make an effort in my classes to use (and promote) as little packaging and plastic as possible, which is why so many of my recipes and menus are for how to cook and bake homemade and from-scratch!
My classes span a huge range, and your suggestions are always welcome: *Different types of cuisines (Italian, Thai, Asian, Mexican, etc.) *Particular ways of cooking and eating (Quick & Easy, Oil-free, By Color/Phytochemicals, ) *Cooking with specific appliances (Air-Fryer, Pressure Cooker, Slow Cooker / Crockpot, etc.) *Homemade from scratch (Seitan, Tempeh, Tofu, Miso, Nut Cheeses, Nut Butters, etc.) *Various holidays and seasons (Mother’s Day, Easter, Passover, Christmas, Thanksgiving, Summer, Fall, etc.) *Focused on meals (Packed Lunches, Breakfast, Brunch, Fancy Dinner, Quick Dinner, etc.) *Cooking with specific foods/ ingredients (Aquafaba, Beans, Spices & Herbs, Greens, Lentils, Grains, etc. *Baking from scratch (Pizza Dough, Breads, Pretzels, Bagels, and Biscuits, Cakes, Pies, Cobblers, etc.) *And everything in between.
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