September 26, 2022 Comments Off on 6000-745=5255

By March of this year I had memorized 6,000 lines of the Canterbury Tales and was well into the Wife of Bath’s Tale. I’d begun this project in January, 2018, and figured it would take seven or eight years to memorize the entire 17,000+ lines. I was on track, sort of.

By March it had become an official obsession, or rather, it had been an obsession for a long time and was now bordering on madness. I’d get up at five, memorize for two hours, then spend another five or six hours reviewing everything memorized to date.

Let’s just say it made it hard to have a conversation. Or an anything.

But madness is madness and it runs its own course to its own beat. In this case I chanced on an opportunity to apply to graduate school at the University of North Dakota, where they have a medieval studies program run by an eminent scholar, and where they have one slot for a fully scholarshiped student who would also receive a teaching salary en route to a masters degree, followed by a doctorate if appropriate.

I applied.

I was accepted.

I decided not to go.

I stopped memorizing Chaucer.

For six long months now I’ve not spoken or even thought a word of Middle English. It was totally liberating, as freedom from all obsessions ultimately is. I could hold a conversation. Think about other things. Pet the cat. The important things.

But at the same time it was like having lost a good friend whose relationship had become complicated but who I deeply missed. And this morning I popped open the phone to the tale I know best and first memorized almost thirty years ago, The Miller’s Tale. It was choppy at first and then droppy, as in dropped dead. I glanced at the text and restarted. In minutes it all came flowing back, well, not all, but most. It was pretty depressing when I thought that in order to get back to where I had been I’d need to re-learn 5,255 lines, and none of them were as well learned as The Miller’s Tale, not even close. If I could get them all back in a year it would be incredible. Two years is more like it.

But why? The good thing about not going to grad school is that I’d realized, somehow, that an entire life spent doing nothing but focusing on a famous but obscure poet from the 13th Century was, how should I put this? Flat fucking nuts. Especially starting out at the wrinkled and saggy age of 58.

After an hour of practice I put the phone down, having made very nice progress on the 745 lines, halfway through, in fact. Chaucer is good for me, but not too good. He is just enough good. Not good enough for eight hours a day and not good enough for 17,000 lines, but he’s good enough for the 745 lines of The Miller’s Tale. Then I had breakfast and rode up the 155 to Alta Sierra, 8.5 miles in about 1:45.

As I rode along there was a particularly nasty section, not too steep but steep enough and far enough into the ride that the end seemed a long way off and the beginning seemed so, too. I glanced up at Black Mountain and began reciting The Miller’s Tale silently. When I finished there was only a mile to go. I was almost there.

If there’s a moral, it’s this. Take your Chaucer with you. Not all of him, maybe, but don’t leave him completely behind.


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