(This story is part of a continuing series based on my adventures walking 500 miles across Northern Spain on the ancient pilgrimage route El Camino de Santiago. The first part begins here.)

I’d specifically chosen Valentine’s Day as the day to shave my head because I wanted the act to be one of love. I wasn’t just doing it to learn something about myself; I was giving my hair as a gift to someone whom I would never meet: I was donating it to Locks of Love, an organization that provides children suffering from long-term medical hair loss with what they call “hair prosthetics.” It brought me comfort knowing that it would at least be appreciated and cared for.

In the weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day, I couldn’t stop thinking about my hair. I’d never thought about it so much in my life, certainly not with longing and goodbye. I’d mostly taken it for granted. But knowing it would soon be gone—ALL gone—I kept getting teary eyed. I also had the strange sensation that I was completing a cycle. The first time I cut my long hair into a bob was out of anger. I was young, about seven, and I unconsciously decided that it was my hair that made me a girl and made me look like a girl. So I cut it all off in the aftermath of sexual abuse.

Then, oddly enough, I grew it long again during those sexually curious years of high school and college. I used it, however, to take attention away from my face. I didn’t know how to have beauty, or have a beautiful face—I couldn’t hear that. But I could have beautiful hair; that was okay with me; that was somehow less personal.

It struck me—the idea that having no hair would allow something else to emerge. I thought:

God, I wonder if I’m ready to show my face now. At 40. Has it taken me this long to show my face?

My friend John Edward, psychic medium extraordinaire, was in town the week before the big event. He’d always been a trusted advisor but he was adamantly opposed to this. He kept saying, “I’m not on board with the head shaving.” I tried to lighten the mood by telling him the advantages of spending a month with only a backpack—I wouldn’t have to carry shampoo and conditioner. He was having none of it. But he was in favor of the journey itself; he knew how transformational the experience was going to be for me. Over coffee one afternoon he said, “What’s coming up for me is that song by Queen, ‘I want to break free.'”

Breaking free. Emerging. Growing. I flashed on an image of a daisy growing up through a crack. No, it wasn’t just growing through the crack, but it was first creating the crack to allow for its growth.

On the evening of February 14th, 2005, I took a bottle of wine and a pair of clippers to my best friend Lauren’s house. I quickly consumed two glasses of wine as she expertly applied makeup to my face. I knew that if I wasn’t going to have hair, I’d need to soften my appearance with makeup. I was certain that that evening would set in motion two of the most unattractive, awkward years of my life. Given that hair grows on average a half inch per month, that’s how long I thought it would take for me to begin to feel human again, or at the very least womanly and datable.

I pulled my hair into two braids and raised the clippers. And the most unexpected thing happened. Not only did I love the process of shedding in such a bold and dramatic way, but I also started to see myself. And I liked what I saw! Once the hair was gone, I stared at my refection in the mirror and thought:

Oh my God! This isn’t so bad. No, this is okay. In fact, I actually think it might be my best look ever.

Lauren echoed my thoughts. “Wow. You’re so beautiful. And you have a perfectly shaped head.”

I just started touching it. And marveling. I was born with a full head of hair, so even in infancy I had never really felt my naked head. And doing it in adulthood was something between fascination and bliss.

Being out in public was very different, however. There may have been some fascination with my appearance, but gauging by the stares, I fell somewhere between a freak show and a cancer patient. I walked through the Los Angeles airport towing my bag, and a small child turned to watch me and walked into a pole. One man just stood and stared with such sadness in his eyes I felt his sympathy. He clearly thought I was dying. And I did recognize that I was experiencing a death—the death of my old self.

On the plane, it hit me like a bolt. Maybe I HAD reconciled something. If my first transcontinental flight had taken me to Spain, then this was a counterpart experience. I wrote in my journal:

Now it begins, the bigger place. I want to rise and possess my greatest self. And I’m afraid of my greatest self. I want to have a broader playing field, a larger audience and a louder voice. And I’m afraid of all those things at the same time. But this being stared at, and being stared at at a time when my face is open and unhidden—this feels like preparation. I feel more vulnerable than I ever have. And oddly, more powerful.

Not having hair was the act of allowing myself to not just be vulnerable but to appear vulnerable. In fact, even I had never seen my face like that before—as soft and open. For years I kept saying that people don’t really SEE me. But maybe I didn’t allow it. Until just that moment.