Revka – Female Formed

Consciousness-Raising

“Water and a bubble on it are one and the same. The bubble has its birth in the water, floats on it, and is ultimately resolved into it. Likewise, your consciousness is born in your brain, goes through various states in your lifetime and ultimately resolves into the brain.”
― Abhijit Naskar, Autobiography of God: Biopsy of A Cognitive Reality

The same boyfriend whose car I’d misused on the adventure near Spokane went out of my life for a few years. Then, when I was twenty-one, we reconnected and I, living in Seattle at the time, decided to move to the Bay area in California to start a life, or at least have a life, with JJ (*name changed).

JJ was a charismatic, fun-loving guy. His father had died young, but I’d met and adored his mother and older sister. In turn, my mother was more charmed by JJ than anyone I’d brought home as a boyfriend. That was a potent sanction for me, and though my parents weren’t thrilled I would be living with JJ, I think they could see we were not ready for marriage. It never even entered the conversation.

This was 1970, and ‘hippies’ were just beginning their evolution in San Francisco, the incubator for so many changes in the culture of the country. I didn’t know anyone who looked or behaved like the legions of young people I saw in colorful garb, long, untamed hair and vacant, blissful smiles on their faces. I remember walking through Golden Gate Park and feeling like I had somehow been transported into another space, another time (something the people inhabiting the park were doing with drugs). In Europe, I’d been exposed to various cultures, but they were based on centuries of traditions, different customs and languages. Even my friend Matt whom I traveled with in Europe and looked like those kids in the park didn’t match the profile as he was, to my mind, academically and socially credentialled. As an extremely uptight and constantly worried person, I found myself thinking, as I watched the spaced-out masses, “But, how will you get a job?” and “What do your parents think – are they worried about you?”

JJ, however, was completely comfortable with people who, if coming face-to-face with such creatures, would have caused the color to leave the faces of my mother and stepfather. I understood immediately that this was to be part of our life together – interacting with this whole new breed of American. I worried that I wouldn’t find common ground with his friends, or, more importantly, that they would reject me because I was so straight and rigid in my outlook and experience.
Not long after we’d settled into the top floor of a little duplex in Hayward, California, JJ began talking about David and Revka (*name changed).

JJ had met David on a city bus; David a driver, JJ a passenger. Because JJ was a very outgoing guy, he often had exchanges with strangers, and somehow the hippie driving the bus and the much straighter looking fellow riding it became friends. JJ had visited the commune where David lived with several others of his ilk, and one night, JJ told me he was taking me to meet them all.

I was extremely apprehensive. At that time, though I’d smoked marijuana with Carolina, it really wasn’t something I was inclined to do on a regular basis, and wasn’t that what hippies did all the time? More importantly, I was, despite the fact that I’d left Seattle and the zone of my parents, still a puppet to their expectations. The first priority in the home of my mother and stepfather was appearance. The first order of their comments, whenever I crossed the threshold of their doorstep, was always an analysis of my clothing and hair. Their observations of others inevitably included a similar breakdown of their appearance. I felt, by crossing such a symbolic and literal societal threshold – an actual commune with real hippies, as if my parents could somehow intuit, thousands of miles away, the crime I would be committing by socializing with the visually unacceptable.

The commune was, in classic San Francisco style, situated on a steep hill. The apartment had three or four bedrooms and one bathroom. I never knew how many people actually lived in each room. The ambiance was pretty much what I’d imagined; messy, signs on the fridge saying whose food was whose, and all sorts of Indian bedspreads covering the furniture. The most notable lifestyle statement was in the bathroom. When I went to use it, I discovered the inhabitants didn’t believe in toilet paper, at least as a regular practice. Every person had their own rag, presumably for urination cleanup. I don’t know quite how that accomplished everything that needed to be done in that room, but I’ll never forget learning about the practice and thinking, “Boy, these are real hippies!”

Revka was the first person I met that day. As we walked in, she was sitting on a couch, reading a book, and looked up with a beatific, welcoming smile. A native New Yorker, she had the accent, plus an exotic, ethnic appearance. Her parents were, as I recall, from Egypt and Israel, and she didn’t look like anyone I’d ever met in monochromatic Washington state. I remember studying her face, so distinct and striking, and envying just how interesting she looked. If you’d lined us up next to one another, I was bland, she was arresting looking. I had straight, long brown hair; her hair was equally long but so curly every single tendril seemed to have had a mind of its own. Compared to Revka, I was a flat paper doll, while she was three dimensional. She was heavy breasted and slightly plump for our age group, and was passionate about Greenpeace, liberal causes and the political climate of the country. I’d heard of Greenpeace but didn’t have any curiosity about its mission and knew absolutely nothing about politics.

And that was it; Revka was the first woman I met my age who had a well-developed social consciousness. The girlfriends I’d had until then cared about and prioritized the same thing I did; how to find and nurture the perfect relationship. That was followed by a slight interest in making money, but that was just practicality, not ambition. I knew I had to pay bills, but that was something I would do in support of whatever long-term relationship I would finalize in the near future.

Revka didn’t talk about the fact that she was or wasn’t in a relationship. She was interested in having one but cared more about ideas and what her career path would be. She was ambitious in her professional aspirations. She also owned her unusual appearance and didn’t obsess about the few extra pounds or try to tame her hair to look like everyone else. With an awareness of global issues, a searing intellectual curiosity, and a commitment to taking care of the earth and all its creatures, Revka was not just unique in my experience; she was to be another revelation. Not like learning how to adjust expectations and honor circumstances like when Diana became pregnant, but to be in the presence of a peer who prioritized global issues above personal life, principles above superficiality.

Despite my initial reservations, I was immediately drawn to her and David, and they were gracious in their acceptance of JJ’s uptight, rigid girlfriend. We spent a fair amount of time in one another’s houses; JJ and I joining in the potlucks at the commune and David and Revka crossing the bridge to our little duplex in Hayward for soup and bread, our primary sustenance in those days. Each time I would see her, Revka would talk about a new book she was reading or share her thoughts about a recent international incident. She was always current on what was happening in the burgeoning environmental movement. The contrast to my life was subtle but instructive. When we’d meet, she added layers of meaning to the conversation, never judging my lack of contribution nor proselytizing, just setting an example. Though we were the same age, it felt a bit like I was a gawky teenager and she the nice teacher who didn’t mind hanging out with her student.

Revka went on to volunteer for Greenpeace, return to New York to get advanced degrees in gifted education and had a long career as a professor at a prestigious university on the East coast. We stayed in touch for a couple of decades. I connected her with Carolina at one point, and they became good friends, their single and independent lives more aligned. I haven’t seen Revka in more than thirty years, but her impact on how I would aspire to something beyond myself is evident. Though I didn’t follow her example when it came to prioritizing issues relationships, I did now have an understanding of the importance of viewing the planet and its challenges on a broader, more humanitarian scale. That was a big leap for me.

Not immediately, but still in my early twenties, I made my first contribution to a cause, mailing checks to Greenpeace, feeling a little thrill of sanctimony at my offering. That’s an important step in becoming a grownup; the awareness of ones’ place in the larger picture. I also began looking at global issues as something that wasn’t just for hippies. This was my earth too, and I could have a voice in its future. My voice was more like a whisper, but it was a beginning. Now, of course, my understanding of those same concerns is at a peak, and my commitment to the concerns Revka had fifty years ago is substantial. I wish I’d been able to have increased my awareness sooner. Yet, knowing Revka, actually understanding that a young woman could live with such passion and commitment to a cause beyond herself, impacted my emotional and intellectual development. I didn’t change dramatically, but change began, and might not have without her steadfast example.

Next: Erika, Life-Changing Advice

New to the series? Start with ‘Ellie‘, the first chapter in “Female Formed.”

Art by Lisa Jensen.

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