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Why I choose to be involved
"...I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up."
--Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Like Thoreau, I love the simple life. But while he  left a bustling city to move to the woods, I have taken the opposite route. I have given up life in a tiny town on the edge of the Canadian boreal forest for work that takes me to luxury-loving Monaco, the most densely populated nation in the world. Thoreau spent two years, two months and two days at Walden. I'm giving myself at least three years for this experiment.
--Celia Sankar


Why I choose to be involved
 

As the car pulled into the driveway of the well-manicured grounds of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in West Branch, Iowa, I could feel my spirit sink.

My hostess, Irene, an Iowan in her sixties who had kindly offered to take me sightseeing that hot Saturday in the summer of 1996, spoke excitedly about what we would see on this stop. At age 26, I couldn't muster the same glee about visiting a monument to a long gone American president about whom I knew nothing. So I put on my most convincing smile while I sighed inside. At least the place might be air-conditioned, I consoled myself. 

I had come to Iowa thanks to an exchange program between the journalism department at my university in London and that of the University of Iowa. I didn't think it then, but looking back on myself now, I can see I had all the hubris of a university student, that unfortunate creature who in the process of “becoming” is filled with unmerited pride in what he or she imagines a degree would make him or her. For me that malady was doubly magnified, because not only was I working on my Master's, but I had begun the first draft of the novel I was sure would launch me as the Dickens of our era.

My free time on the prairies had been consumed in plodding forward on this tome that I hoped would bring me both fame and immense fortune. Outside of that, my recreation consisted of leisurely walks along the Iowa River to find a spot where I could lay in the grass and listen to the birds or look at the students sculling by. So when Irene, an Iowa City resident who helped the university welcome foreign students, offered to take me sightseeing, I gladly went along.

Having grown up on a tiny, mountainous Caribbean island, I delighted in the car ride itself, seeing utter flatness for miles and miles and miles...and miles and miles. And our first stops were pleasant enough: lunch at a restaurant overlooking a waterwheel, then off to a cheese factory where we got free curds, and also to the Kalona and Amana colonies where the folk rode in horse-drawn buggies and women wore aprons and bonnets. Even with these simple pleasures, I was quite doubtful, about Irene's  judgment in promoting the Hoover Library and Museum as the high point of the day.

The appointed time came, and as we walked towards the house where Hoover was born, I listened more to the crunch of the gravel under our feet than I did Irene's boasts about Iowa's great leader. My thoughts wandered as I tried to figure out whether this fellow had anything to do with vacuum cleaners. 

Inside the house, the pendulum inside me began to swing. Walking around the place, I began to take interest in it. This tiny two-room board structure that housed young Hoover, his two siblings and his parents flooded me with memories of the three-room board house in which I had grown up with my own three siblings and parents. It was remarkable to see that a president of the great United States had lived in the same conditions my family had, and to hear that it was Hoover himself who sought to preserve this reminder of the humble circumstances into which he was born.

Whatever goodwill had been won in the house was quickly lost, though, as we entered the Museum. Here we faced the glass-cased collection of bric-a-brac I had dreaded, and which I associated with much yawning. Irene and the lady on duty at the Museum did their best to try to bring alive the displays with their personal commentary on Hoover's story: that long before entering politics, he became one of America's first millionaires as a mining engineer, and that he saved millions of Belgians from starvation by organizing famine relief efforts during World War I. But my mind was stuck on one thought: “Get me out of here. I need to be working on my bestseller.”

Perhaps sensing I was less than awestruck by mining paraphernalia from the late 1800s, Irene and the Museum lady fell into conversation, and having nothing else to do, I toddled off, giving displays here and there a cursory glance. This, I thought, was a little more polite than standing under the exit sign with my arms folded.

Nothing held my attention, until I came to a monitor which showed a documentary on Hoover's war-time relief efforts. Here I could see moving pictures of hungry Belgian children. Many of them had been orphaned by fighting by adults which they could not comprehend. Their tear-streaked dirty cheeks, their ragged clothes, their dishelved hair, and the confusion and terror in their eyes said it all. 

Earlier, Irene had told me Hoover had given up his lucrative mining career to dedicate himself to this humanitarian work: “He said he had earned enough money for himself and his family.” When she had said that, I had thought, “How ridiculous!” If you have the chance to earn wealth, why stop when you can become the richest person that ever lived? That title, I thought, was greatness to which any right-thinking person should aspire.

But as I watched the documentary, I began to understand.

In my memory now, I can see the moment when a wizened, wrinkled lady began telling her story on the monitor. She had been one of those war-time orphans. She had been without food, without clothes, without shelter. She had been scared. She did not know what to do. And then the relief organized by Hoover came. Life began to take shape again. At least she and the other kids could get regular meals, and that
that simple opportunity to sit and have their daily bread in the midst of the chaos and rubble of their worlddrew them out of despair. She remembered distinctly how those white bread rolls, which they called “Hoover rolls”, gave her and the other scared orphans hope, the old lady said in a cracking voice.

I can't recall if tears were in her eyes; but I know they were in mine.

The pendulum had swung fully. And in that moment, in that instant, I felt I understood what this life was all about, what the true purpose of wealth was, and what was our duty to each other as members of the human family. I felt how wrong-headed I had been in my own pursuit of fame and fortune, and I  thought I understood why God had caused me to be there at that moment, a moment that etched itself into my conscience.

Embarrassed by my involuntary display of emotion, I moved to a corner to collect myself before Irene came to collect me to leave. Dry-eyed as I got into the car, I thanked Irene for taking me to the Hoover Museum, with sincerity I hadn't imagined I would have ever experienced.

Now, just over a decade later, and after several experiences which have refined that initial understanding in the Hoover Museum, I feel compelled to step forward and do my part for the orphans who today are
without food, without clothes, without shelter, and who must certainly be scared as they see the adults fall away around them for reasons they can't comprehend.

Monaco Revue
is an experiment in creating a media business model which has philanthropy as its raison d'etre. [See the Monaco Revue Orphan Fund] We aim to build a viable enterprise that not only sustains itself and grows, but which will dedicate half of profits to help orphans of AIDS receive an education
and a sense of hope.

 



ADD YOUR COMMENTS

Comments to date: 1. Page 1 of 1.

Fiona,  Trinidad West Indies

Posted at 8:50pm on Wednesday, September 19th, 2007

Hi Celia,
Your story is very fascinating and deep. I never would have thought that you have passed through such difficulties in life. It is understood that when people have faced up to terrible times in childhood they usually become antisocial and care nothing for others. You are truly one in a mi... read more »

 




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Celia Sankar

SIMPLY MONACO
by Celia Sankar



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