Literary Meditation/The Riverside and the Jolt of Memory

11/27/2013 18:24

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Riverside and the Jolt of Memory
Moments of Solitude Along River Banks Can Prompt Glimpses into the Past.

By Cherno Baba Jallow


I keep having flashbacks of a trip I made to the Detroit riverside five years ago.

It was the annual Detroit Jazz Festival by the river. I remember the weather being chilly, but not chilly enough to dampen some venturing outside. So I went down to the festival to luxuriate myself in some cool jazz melodies. But I also needed to get away, to rebuild some positive comportment. All day long, I had felt disengaged and grumpy and unmotivated – it was the kind of feeling that something just wasn’t right. Perhaps, some major irritant – whatever it was – had discommoded me. Or perhaps, I had fallen captive to the occasional doldrums of life – now and again, the human spirit undergoes sporadic tumults, spiraling into a state of vapidity, a monument to man’s powerlessness to micromanage the realities of quotidian life.    

But finding myself in a throng of jazz devotees and feeling the tenderness of a musical jamboree by the river banks and with an overhead cast clear enough as to influence spurts of free-spiritedness, I felt invigorated, returned to my old, jolly self – the therapeutic power of music is no idle talk. Suddenly I became ebullient, an ebullience epitomized by a child’s recovery of a long-lost puppy.

During an interlude in musical activity, I decided to stroll down riverside. The scenery in front of me was a hodge-podge: boats sailing at glacial speed, couples, adjoined on scooters, racing haphazardly in the waters, aquatic birds, perhaps some sea eagles on aerial reconnaissance for their quarries, flying low – low enough as to rest their tail-ends on the waters, and the hazy sights of the skylines, the people and cars of the Canadian city of Windsor over there – on the other side of the river.

I have been to riversides many, many times in my life. Growing up in Basse, I frequented the river banks: for fishing, for “Attaya” sessions, for the expectant arrival and departure of the Lady Chilel Jawara, but mainly for the thrill of it, just sitting there, lazing about on one of those sprawling, chunky roots of river-side trees, pebbling the river’s miniature waves and amusing myself with the resultant ripple formations. I didn’t know there was much more to the utility of river landscapes other than just slouching between time-honored trees and raining stones against river currents. But other than a mixture of fear and excitement at being near large streams of water, what more does a child know about the aesthetic value of rivers or the possibilities of philosophical indulgence in riverside escapades?

Many, many moons later, and wandering along the Detroit River on that pleasant summer evening, I felt a surge of maudlin nostalgia. Or in the words of the late American novelist William Styron, “I felt caught up in a reverie of years long past.” If you allow it, solitude along river banks has the capacity to carry you into an otherworldly destination. It is near impossible to visit a riverside and not come away marveling at the beauty and complexity of nature, and in the process, your mind parachuting you into the distant past, reducing the faraway-ness of certain events in your life to panoramic immediacy, exhibitions dangling before your own eyes.
As I sat under the stubby tree near the river banks, watching boats sail by, listening to birds chirping around me, and feeling the gentle winds emanating from the eddies, I walked down memory lane – my mind emigrated to the past. Two recollections came bolting out of my memory vault: I remembered the first and only time my late mother taught me how to cut an orange. She had seen me struggle trying to peel the fruit. Sensing my difficulty, but more than that, worrying over my inept handling of the sharp knife, mum took over herself, demonstrating to me a how-to-peel-an-orange technique with some great flair of the hands.

But practise as much as I did, I could never be up to it. Perhaps, sensing a mismatch between my mechanical aptitude and the skill on demand, mum fashioned an easier way for me: splitting the orange into four half-moon pieces and then with the help of the thumb, peel off the rind from the outer cover. To this day, I continue employing this talent – handed down from a parent to a child – much to the amusement of friends.

I also remembered as a child, perhaps at seven or eight years old, joining my late grandmother on that early summer morning, just before dawn, in the family yard picking up the mangoes on the ground left there by the strong winds the previous night. Using torch lights, we roamed the homestead, picking up the mangoes for the family, and being mindful to put aside, not to mix the good and the bad, those half-mauled by birds and bats. And then I watched the sun gradually rise above the tree-tops and granny retreating to her abode.

These two recollections flickered in my mind as if they were just happening; they lent themselves to a certain quiddity. But why I discovered them – or why they seeped into my imagination – for the first time, and in a distant, foreign land, I have no absolute way of affirming. But it certainly looked like the information about these events had always been tucked somewhere in my brain’s hippocampus; it had never left. Perhaps, the folder for these two events in my long-term memory had been buried under far too deep, and therefore, the delay in its surfacing, its retrieval.

It may as well be that my recollections are the personification of what psychologists call “episodic memory” – the memory associated with personal experiences, particular events, and sentimentalities; the kind of memory able to hold sway over your attention, forcing you to stare into the infinite distance for long spells of time. Such memories have longevity because the individual feels an innate emotional attachment to them. Your first day of school, your wedding night, the birth of your first child, the death of a parent are some examples of episodic memory. You do not only recall these events, but also pintpoint the location and time that they occured. They may remain dormant, but it doesn't mean that they have left your memory-bin. Their touchy-feely strength allows them a permanent mark-up in the human mind – well, at least, until infirmity comes along.

My remembrances revolve around childhood and kinship, two themes certain to stir the sentimental beast in anyone. But, perhaps, sometimes we need a certain amount of solitude and longing, and proximity to the harmony of nature, for some memories to come gushing out, streaming live, into self-consciousness. 


With the sun long collapsed beyond the river bend, darkness was fast making its way, heading my vicinity. It was time to get going, and before the concert-goers crowded out the highways. Still lost in the large sweep of my ruminative world, I got into my car and then began the trip home, heading west. Under the vibrant street lights, I drove into the heartland of the city, cruised past the hulking General Motors world headquarters building, and then disappeared into the tunnel linking up with the I-10 Lodge Freeway. It took a speeding motorist to fully rouse me, this poor, wistful soul, from his wonderland.

Back to earth.

Cherno Baba Jallow, a contributing editor for My Basse, lives in Southfield, Michigan, USA. He can be reached at:



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