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Mortise and tenon, blood and sweat


Thanksgiving Day is coming soon. The blood of the turkey has no doubt already been shed. The cans of cranberry sauce are sitting in the pantry waiting for their wobbly contents to be shaken free. Fried onions, mushroom soup, and green beans wait to be combined into a casserole. 

This is the nearest thing the increasingly secular culture of the United States has that corresponds to the ancient practice of blood sacrifice. Please bear with me as I expand on this. 

Right now as I type this, I have a scab that is a 16th of an inch wide and one-and-a-quarter inches long on the index finger of my left hand. With any luck, it will make a nice scar to remind me how I got it. 

I’d been cutting a tenon because I wanted to learn how to cut a mortise and tenon. I’d done the mortise first, because that’s how you do it, and I was cutting my tenon to fit it. I’d had my tenon in the vise as I’d cut it, but I’d taken it out to have a look at it. I noticed that it needed to be trimmed a little along the edge. Rather than put it back in the vise, a lazy voice in my brain told me I could just hold it with my hand as I trimmed it. 

It was a lazy and not too smart voice. 

My Japanese pull-saw slipped, and its cutting edge slid along the top of my knuckle. There was a lot of blood, but I managed to staunch it with some paper towels. I went into the house with a bloody paper towel wrapped around my finger. My wife looked at my finger and then looked at me with that expression she has when she questions her life-choices. 

No stitches were required, but I will, as I said, have a nice scar, a memorial to my stupidity.  

You might well wonder what a mortise and tenon is. It is a joint for holding two pieces of wood together. These are words from Old French. A mortise is a hole that you cut into one piece of wood and a tenon is a peg that you carve from the other piece that goes into that hole. 

Given that description and the fact that the words come from Old French, anyone who has ever been a 14-year-old boy might be forgiven for having certain hypotheses about what the words mean in the original French, but no, get that right out of your head.  Tenon actually came into French from the Latin tenere, which means to hold. The origins of mortise are more mysterious, but some believe it came into Old French from an Arabic word that means to hold as well. 

Those meanings work well with the application because this is a joint that does hold. 

The fact that I cut myself and drew quite a bit of blood while learning how to make this joint works well with the idea that one must suffer to learn one’s art. Though I will be the first to say that calling what I do “art” is to stretch that small word beyond all recognition. I probably should have used the word craft instead, but there is some stretching going on there too. 

In any case, it ties into that ancient idea of the blood sacrifice. If we get something, we must give something. The better the thing we are asking for, the higher the price we pay. Something really good requires blood because blood is the stuff of life itself, and life is the most precious thing. 

To give blood in exchange for knowledge and skill is appropriate. Knowledge and skill are some of the most precious assets we can possess. They are more portable than diamonds; they cannot be stolen; and you keep them even if you give them. 

As we come into Thanksgiving, we are participating in another sort of sacrifice. I was reminded of this by one of my pastor’s sermons the other day on tithing. (It’s that time of year, folks.) While some tithes were to be given to the priests of the temple, others were given as feasts to be shared with one’s fellows. God directed his people to take some of their “increase” and share it with their neighbors and family. 

This sounds a great deal like Thanksgiving to me. We offer the food as an offering in thanks to God and this is done in exchange for greater fellowship with our friends and family. 

This fellowship joins us more tightly with each other. We sacrifice food, time, a bit of conversation, and a bit of ourselves in exchange for bonds that will connect one to the other like mortise and tenon. 

As you sit around the table on Thanksgiving, join hands and pray — if you do — and deepen that bond. Join your loved ones and hold on to them as tightly as you can. 


Bobby Winters, a native of Harden City, Oklahoma, blogs at redneckmath.blogspot.com and okieinexile.blogspot.com. He invites you to “like'' the National Association of Lawn Mowers on Facebook. Search for him by name on YouTube. 


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