Nena’s Love Universe

September 2020 

I haven’t been able to write for days. Not since I found out about Nena. She took her own life one week ago and I have been shocked into a crumbling state, floored by the incredible pull of gravity, still unable to believe the truth. Today is my first attempt at pen to paper, truth to the page—a terrifying thought—as if by writing it down, she will finally really be gone. 

I met Nena more than ten years ago. We spent a summer working together at a small bed and breakfast in Lake George. We made beds and cleaned toilets together, passing most afternoons in fits of laughter as we examined the possessions of strangers and imagined what kinds of lives they led, how much money they had, if they had sex, and what kind of secrets they might have been harboring. One weekend, we took off from work and drove to New York City in my grandmother’s car. My ex-boyfriend had a rich stepdad with a huge apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I brought Nena there and watched her pretty face marvel at the skyscrapers, the people, and the sexy vibe of the pulsating city she had heard so much about. I was thrilled to show it to her. We went to a classy bar in the Lower East Side. She wore a tight black dress and a new pair of heels she had bought that day. She kept exclaiming her disbelief, feeling like Carrie Bradshaw in a sea of single New York City men. I watched her throw her head back in laughter as she flirted with a man who approached her by the bar. She was young and happy. Our friendship blossomed from there and later withstood the distance when she returned to Slovenia to finish her university degree. 

I now live on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey, 1,500 miles away from Nena’s hometown in Slovenia. I have seen her sporadically throughout the years. I was supposed to visit her in May 2020. I had been planning a two-week visit to Slovenia with my husband and we were going to see her again for the first time since she came to our wedding in Turkey one year ago. We postponed our plans when Covid-19 began to rear its ugly head beyond the confines of the Chinese borders. I explained to Nena that we would reschedule when this was all over. Of course, she understood.

I hadn’t really been in touch with Nena much after that. We did have a few brief conversations when we both started teaching yoga online, a slightly uncomfortable but practical approach to offering classes in the middle of a global pandemic. She messaged to ask for my help. She was nervous about teaching on camera. I helped her with setting up a Facebook group and downloading Zoom. She began to offer online classes through a local Ljubljana gym where she used to work before the pandemic. We took each other’s classes and sent brief messages of encouragement and care. She seemed inspired and hopeful.

Today I will lead an online women’s meditation circle, as I have been doing almost every weekend since the beginning of the weekend lockdowns here in Turkey. Every Saturday, I have witnessed the bravery of women as they shed layers of judgment, shame, conditioning, and resistance as we explore topics like belonging, forgiveness, gratitude, and unconditional love. As a way to honor Nena, today I will introduce themes of support, showing up, and holding one another even when we don’t think we need it. I will never forget what my teacher in Brooklyn once told me while I was training to become a yoga instructor. We were learning about yoga philosophy and mindfulness techniques, and she emphasized how these practices may seem strange or empty while we are in the midst of happy, peaceful, and neutral moments of our lives, but that it is important to purposely practice during these easier times so that in hard times we have them as tools that support us and bring us back to ourselves.

At the same time, I have my doubts. Nena had access to many tools, she danced, she did yoga and meditation, she loved reading and writing, and often wrote or shared poetry and inspirational words. She was not so unlike me in these ways. She walked the Camino de Santiago a few years back. She did it without money and instead brought only her trust in humanity, exchanging quotes and poems on small slips of paper for a mid-day meal, for ten euros, or for a place to rest her sleeping bag for the night. Sometimes she asked for donations. I sent her fifty dollars through PayPal when she was somewhere near the halfway point to Santiago. She called this experiment her test of the Love Universe. She was so afraid but also so brave, and she had built a life with tools that kept her strong, adventurous, and trusting of her fellow humans. 

Similar to Nena’s experiment of walking for forty days across Spain without money or a plan, true participation in a women’s circle requires actively reaching out to others—in the spirit of radical vulnerability—by sharing not only joy and beauty, but also pain, suffering, regrets, doubts, and uncertainties. Sometimes it is all too heavy for us to carry on our own, and that is where support from others comes in. I am learning that these others do not necessarily have to be friends, family, or even acquaintances. Maybe they are just strangers—humans who also experience pain, suffering, regrets, doubts, and uncertainties. 

I am just learning this now. Nena knew it all along. 

She was thirty-five years old. She rarely talked about her family. Her mother who she had been estranged from for years, recently passed and she had never known her father. She was a motherless child, single, and living on her own in a small apartment in Ljubljana. I visited her about five years ago and we shared her small bed, fitted with light pink sheets and a flower-printed duvet, talking late into the night about our dreams of travel, romance, and connection. I was a part of her found family, a collection of women she had gathered over the years to support and inspire her. 

Women have fewer opportunities and maybe fewer practical reasons to come together these days. In a country like Turkey where I have lived for the past four years, brotherhood is a powerful resource. Why is sisterhood not measured with the same importance? Some women resist this wholeheartedly. It scares them deeply. For what will we see in the eyes of another woman sitting across from us, in all her pain, beauty, and glory—but ourselves? We are a mirror for one another, but we can also be a safety net for when we look in that mirror and feel all those scary things.

Did Nena have a safety net? Would it have made a difference if she did? 

My certainty is momentary, my doubt is a constant and steady stream. What could I have done differently? I wish I had just flown to Slovenia while I had the chance, before the lockdown. What if I had called her more? Will I be able to lead this circle today and talk about Nena and promote the very support I failed to give to her when she needed it most?

Despite my doubts, I feel sure about showing up today. I plan well for these monthly circles. They feel like an anchor in an otherwise wavering and unsure world. Every day of my life right now feels unsteady and scary but the beauty of these circles is that I just need internet access and a place to sit. I can always show up. I don’t need to drive or walk or even get dressed. I don’t need to brush my hair or use deodorant. I clutch my cup of coffee and watch as the faces of women from around the world appear on the screen—two women who are my regular students here in Turkey, a friend in Australia, my grandmother and mother in Florida, a high school friend from New York. Every week is a beautiful mix of women I once-upon-a-time crossed paths with somewhere in the world. Showing up today is something I feel sure about and maybe that means everything in this upside down and unprecedentedly uncertain world. 

I envision a beautiful safety net of women who are all there to catch one another. But maybe this all has a much more selfish origin. Maybe I just need a safety net for myself—to know that I could create one and that this sisterhood, this coming together, is still something that could happen in this world. I want to experience it for myself.

Nena walked five hundred miles across Spain with no money. She stayed safe and did not starve. She called it her test of the Love Universe. Maybe this is mine. 

When we need it and when we think we don’t, can showing up be our priority? More important than the dirty dishes, the unfinished work, the so-called urgent tasks we need to attend to—can showing up for ourselves and for others be our priority? Can we make more space for silence, reflection, growth, rest, forgiveness, and processing with loved ones (both with blood relatives and found sisters)? Can we take off our labels and lives for a while and finally rest in the safety net of fragile and intertwined arms, all reaching for the same exact thing?