On a Thanksgiving Table, a Simple Bowl of Rice

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This week we celebrate a holiday, a peculiarly American one, though somewhat related to the harvest festivals of other cultures.

In a little while I will sit down to a feast, in the comfort of my home, in the company of my family. We will be renewing a tradition that began when New England was "New" England. It started, of course, as a celebration among people who had been tested in harsh conditions, and who, when they knew they would survive, threw themselves a party and invited the neighbors.

We absorb a lot of grade-school mythology in learning about that first Thanksgiving. The Indians provided this and the Pilgrims cooked that, and they all sat down together to celebrate the bounty of Nature.

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It's likely the event was a truce, an effort to keep the two sides from drifting into distrust and antagonism. In the long run, it didn't work, but the impulse to make peace is still as strong, and as noble, as it was in the dawn of America's colonial past.

"Blessed are the peacemakers," we recite, from a much older codex of virtues. The peacemakers must be patient, because their task is to neutralize the centrifugal forces that drive men and nations apart, and to instill in their place the gravitational forces that draw people and communities together. It is daunting work, and we honor its practitioners for their courage, for their persistence, and for the small, incremental successes they achieve from time to time.

Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat won the Nobel Peace Prize for arranging a significant pause in the ageless war between Arab and Jew. Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin, and Yasser Arafat won the same prize years later for a lesser pause. Yet the peace remains elusive, and the giving of thanks for its blessings remains suspended.

On this Thanksgiving, my family and I will have the turkey and all the traditional side dishes that make up the holiday menu. My children don't follow the news as closely as I do, and I might spoil their mood by asking if anyone ever deserved a peace prize for, in Abraham Lincoln's words, binding up the nation's wounds.

If there had been a peace prize during the American Civil War, would Lincoln have won it? In my town almost every man who could went south to the war, well over 200 of them. Well under 200 came back. In parts of this land the wounds of the Civil War are still unbound, unhealed. And so are those of more contemporary struggles among us: the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the ongoing battle between privacy and conformity in the conduct of private lives.

And yet for all the strife in America, we are not a planetary hot spot. We are not wounded enough to galvanize the world to come to our aid. We are not beset by foreign peacekeepers with weapons, and bureaucrats with food sacks, and international election-watchers.

Such people are busy elsewhere, busy in places where the very idea of a Thanksgiving feast is beyond the mind's grasp.

So as we sit down in my house to potatoes and peas and gravy and stuffing and all the rest, there will be something else on the table.

We're going to cook a simple bowl of rice and serve it at a place among us where no one will sit. It's a tradition.

It's a reminder to our family that while we feast in a prosperous and politically stable America, there are other places. Places my kids have barely heard of and cannot locate, where there will be no feast. Not today, not soon, maybe just not. No feast. No peace. Not in Cambodia, not in Bosnia, not in Congo, or Rwanda. In most of those places the absence of peace equates to the absence of food. How much of a treasure would that bowl of rice on my table be, if it were in one of those places?

In my home we will feast, and we will give thanks for what we have. But we will keep an eye on that bowl of rice, and we will know the distance between that and a second piece of pumpkin pie.

* Steve Delaney, former host of Monitor Radio 'Early Edition,' lives in Milton, Vt.

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