Knees up for the tea ladies

Back around 1994 when I was living in New Jersey and working as a teacher, A Glorious Accident came on TV. It was a roundtable discussion about the meaning of life, the Universe, and everything, featuring a number of the great thinkers of the time: scientists of one kind or another. And what a lineup—Stephen Jay Gould, Freeman Dyson, Oliver Sacks! Also Daniel Dennett, George Page, and Stephen Toulmin. Rupert Sheldrake was in there too, annoying the others with his mobile pigeon unit and morphic resonance theory while being terribly entertaining and interesting. And they were talking about the actual meaning of life. It was nothing short of riveting.

Yet, strangely, what has stayed with me over the years, apart from the imagery of a truckload of pigeons careering around the Home Counties in Sheldrake’s experiments, are the tea ladies.

The conference was held in the Netherlands. It was in a dark room containing a big table around which the Great Thinkers sat, and everything was very austere and Important. And every so often these uniformed tea ladies would come in and serve coffee or clear up—that is how I remember it, anyway, and if I’m remembering it wrong I’ll be very embarrassed. I clearly remember watching this with my then-partner and I can remember being all ‘WTF! Look at them being waited on! Can’t the geniuses get their own tea?’

Because, of course, the only women in the room were the servants. Not even one. Token. Woman. So much, so obvious. We all know this is bullshit, and the absence of any women at that table right now would not pass unremarked. I hope.

And yet. The tea ladies. In many situations, I find I like to take care of people. It means a lot to me to be able to do for someone, to feed them or make them feel better, to give them some kind of shelter. I dislike being waited on in most circumstances (maybe as the youngest of five children I’m still trying to prove ‘I can do it myself!) but I am usually glad to do small, helpful things for others.

I can also kick you in the head.

See? I mean, look at me. Look how I just had to put that in. Just in case you were to mistake me for a stereotypical woman with a high voice and soft hands who likes to go shoe-shopping. I struggle to accept certain parts of myself because I’ve been trained to see them as weak. You don’t have to know me very long to realise that I feel really vulnerable when it comes to being vulnerable. I’m afraid to be weak.

But I shouldn’t be. And neither should anyone. The bottom line is that we all need to be cared for at some point in our lives. At the beginning, at the end, and sometimes in the middle, too. Why is it that our culture so deeply devalues those who look after others? Money and other kinds of support for caregivers of all kinds is withdrawn even as we have more and more technology to save and extend life—or to end the lives of those we disagree with. The human touch still cannot be replaced by drugs or technology. And if you’ve ever been seriously ill or loved someone who is seriously ill, you know very well what those small yet immeasurable acts of compassion mean. There are no car chases in those stories. But sooner or later those stories come for us all.

There’s a reason why Pearl’s occupation is flight attendant. There’s a reason why Alison is a vet. There’s a reason why Occupy Me is dedicated to the caregivers, the tea-ladies at the symposia, the stitchers of wounds, and holders of hands. It’s because they are the ones who get us through the night.

So I raise a glass to the tea ladies. I’d like to see them get to party. I’d like to see them celebrated.