Dame Adela just wanted to talk to animals and hoot like an owl. Now they’ve got her doing embroidery because she is the only one who can mimic Dame Alicia’s threading technique. The new Bishop is coming, and preparations have to be made, but along comes this woman beggar with a baby in her stomach. After yelling out profoundly true rumors about Sir Ralph being a “priest who is no priest,” she is cast out.
But the beggar’s tirade about how money has been spent on gold thread for embroidery hits Adela where it hurts. She wants to rectify the situation. And so in the dead of night, she leaves with the embroidery to track down the beggar. She finds her, and together they reunite with a long lost character from The Corner That Held Them…Jackie.
Everyone had lamented Ursula’s son Jackie. They described him as an appalling boy. He was rude, destructive, and incompetent. Years ago he rode away as a young boy, and now here he is in Waxelby as an older man. The beggar and the nun arrive with the embroidery, though it is unfinished, and Jackie, chased as he is by the law, orders the three of them to get on a boat, headed where they do not know.
A benign beginning which led to an absurd end.
This is often the trajectory of chapters in The Corner That Held Them, and while this chapter is short, it still contains some of the themes we have seen before. But here we also have something new to talk about, which is how often skill can lead to more responsibility.
This is often the case for teachers, where doing well in a competition or club or school event means you end up doing that thing every year. If you happen to be good at announcing awards for the talent show one year, chances are that, even if you are not a fan of public speaking, you’ll end up being the announcer for every year onward.
Dame Adela has no real interest in embroidery, and by the end is actually feeling guilty that the money that could have gone to the poor ended up in an item meant to impress the clergy for a single occasion. She had a hand in something that was not originally her intention.
Expediency has often been the reason behind many of our decisions, despite their outcomes. One real world example that is easy to point to would be the use of radium for clock faces. In the early twentieth century, the glowing chemical was a marvel that had a demand to be placed on all devices for dark conditions. “Radium girls” were the painters who worked to paint the chemical on clock numbers to give them a glow in the dark. Management also recommended dabbing the brushes onto their tongues to give their brushes a fine tip.
When the jaws of the radium girls began to rot off, suddenly the power of the chemical did not seem so magical. Rather, it seemed toxic.
Another close example in toxicity would be how DDT was excellent as a pesticide, but it was also excellent in softening bird egg shells.
The list goes on into policy decisions and abstract concepts as well: standardized testing is an attempt to take a snapshot of students when they are constantly changing. Collateralized Debt Oblications (CDO’s) seemed to be a great way to distribute risk…that is assuming that the ratings on loans and assets were accurate. Bringing Spotify and music streaming to listeners in a new billing structure would have zero effect on the sound of music in the first ten seconds…
Had some other nun worked on the embroidery, poorer in skill as they were, would they have been pushed to make a drastic decision the way that Adela was when she left in the dead of night? We cannot be sure. But what we do know is that sometimes easy decisions lead to bad outcomes.
When I taught in Special Education, it was easy to give the opportunity for our 4th and 5th graders the chance to take the standardized test in our state online. The computers offered plenty of accommodations like highlighters, scanning, markings, and voice-to-text, that seemed like an easy catch-all solution to the many different problems the students had.
What we did not consider was the essay writing in 4th grade. In that grade level, students must write a long essay. And on the computer, that meant they had to type it.
Many of those students had hardly seen a keyboard, let alone had used one, and rare was it for one of them to have used it extensively. Particularly in the SPED category.
So for two weeks before the test, they were pulled out of class in order to get some kind of typing experience before the test so they could finish the essay portion in a reasonable time frame.
But it was a massive embarrassment, an oversight that we should have noticed but ignored.
It leads me to conclude that most of the ways we learn are retrospectively and in hindsight.
This is a terrible realization. With wildfires raging in the states of California, Oregon, and Washington, it is once again a reminder of climate change. Our work spent releasing carbon dioxide has been exacerbated by these wildfires, where smoke from trees have many times the hydrocarbons as coal, oil, and especially natural gas. This is the last thing that needs to be burning, long story short. But along with the natural toll there is of course the human toll, which has killed people and maligned their health. Will the Pacific Northwest be a place that can be inhabitable in the science fiction of the future that even Kim Stanley Robinson could not predict?
Climate change is one of those disasters that cannot take expediency as its primary tool. Neither could the coronavirus pandemic and we saw how that turned out. Prospective and forward-thinking methodologies must short cut disasters before they strike. And we’re running out of time.