(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.)

First stop, New York.

I stayed with my friend Brenda in her incredible apartment just off Lincoln Center overlooking the park. I had arrived the same week that the Gates of New York had gone up. I watched from the window, at least twenty floors above the trees, as the supports were laid out on the paths lining the park. And then suddenly, Central Park was alive in orange drapery. It was stunning, especially offset by the snow.

On my first night in New York, I stayed up late, still on West Coast time. I decided to take a bath. While I love baths, I didn’t take very many of them late at night because I always had too much hair I didn’t want to dry before going to bed. But on that night, I had no hair; what I had was a few days of stubble.

Brenda had set out all the bath salts and candles for me. The room filled with steam as I lit the candles and lined the tub with them. I got in the hot, aromatic water and began to shave my legs. Brenda had shaving cream in a bucket and the combination of it along with a new, high-end razor left my skin silky and radiant. So I decided to shave my head with it. I closed my eyes and began slowly, tentative. I noticed that my hair grew in circles from the crown radiating outward. I’d never known that. Following the pattern of hair growth and shaving each follicle was like reading Braille. It was also a bit like a dance. I’d trace along the stubble with my fingers and follow behind with the razor. Around and around my head. Eyes closed. Trancelike. Almost drunk with wonder.

When I finished, I lay back in the water. The sensation was indescribable. I could feel the heat entering and leaving my body through my head, and oddly, I could also see it in my mind’s eye. I played with my senses, lifting my head from the water as it met much cooler air with a rush. Then I’d place my open palm on my scalp as the heat flowed from my hand and back into my head. Heat, ebbing and flowing. After a long time, I simply lay back in the water with my hands wrapped around my head. Images passed through me. I traveled down a birth canal. Through time. And came out, reborn. In my journal, I wrote:

You’ve never felt anything at all until you’ve felt my bald head! It’s astonishing. I’ve just spent an hour in the bathtub shaving it, and it’s like glass. It feels completely unreal. Laying there in the water just holding my head—no one’s ever held my head like I did tonight! No one’s ever cradled my head like I just did. I touch my head. I am touching my head. I can’t stop touching my head and marveling. The skin is softer and more tender than I’ve ever felt. I’ve never felt skin like this. So soft. So absolutely virgin. It is me. Emerging.

I walked through the orange Gates of Central Park the following day with my friend Maureen. I’d met Maureen a few months before and we’d exchanged emails but we’d only been in a room together that once. We were, however, sharing an instantaneous connection. She was going through a difficult patch in her life, and it seemed to be deepening her, softening her. As we stood in awe at the vibrancy of the colors—the orange set against the decay of winter and the blanket of snow, I asked her why she thought she’d encountered me. She paused for a long moment of consideration and finally said, “I want to break loose.”

I spent long hours darting from Starbucks to bookstores—journaling and discovering. I was evaluating love and thinking about its various layers. Eros is romantic love. Philos is love among friends. And Agape is high love. I kept thinking about love, real love, without the interference or confusion of sexuality, which had only been possible for me with women. My best friend Lauren had begun to teach me the highest form of love. And it had changed me profoundly. I wondered if a man could ever do that, if a man could ever explore the separation, the intimacy without the physical desire.

As Joni Mitchell sang from the speakers, I journaled:

I’m the person now who drinks coffee and gets lipstick on the cup. As I’m doing at Starbucks. And here is my beautiful head. And here is my beautiful face. Finally being seen.

I cradled my head last night. Like it was a baby. Why do we get to be openly affectionate with children, touch them, cradle them, nourish them with our touch and not do that so easily with adults?

I think about sex. What does it mean? What is it for? And what is my relationship to it? I think it’s possible to transcend sex. Maybe it is even the way to evolve, to become enlightened. I don’t know if it’s possible to transcend without going through it though. And I don’t think I’ve gone through it fully.

Do men know how to love completely and openly?

It’s cold in New York, colder than I want it to be and yet perfect, gearing up for Spain where it’s colder than LA but far, far warmer than NY. I wonder about Spain and about the tears I will shed there.

I slipped into a bookstore for warmth and picked up Shakespeare. I opened randomly to Measure For Measure and read this sentence: Here is the head. I’ll carry it myself. Curious, I flipped through more pages and stopped again on another play, picking out another sentence: Shave your head.

Brenda and I had gone to a wine shop to stock up. I moved through the aisles looking at bins. I was drawn to the Seventh Moon label and name. I kept looking at it and picking it up, putting it back. Then finally I took the bottle. When we got back to her apartment, I put all the bottles in her wine cabinet in no particular order. That night, she pulled one out at random: Seventh Moon, of course. I opened the bottle and pulled out two glasses. We sat down in our pajamas to catch up on the events of the day. I hadn’t noticed it before but on the back of the wine bottle was this:

Native American legend has it that in a night’s passage through the billowy valleys of Northern California, the Mimok Indians would see the moon rise seven times from behind the Mayacama mountain peaks. The seventh moon represents all the joy at the end of a well-traveled journey.

Brenda raised her glass. I burst into tears.

I was leaving for Spain (via England) the following day. I’d found a card in one of the many bookstores. It had a picture of a drop of water meeting the surface of a pond and making a beautiful splash. I wrote to Maureen:

What I like about this card is the idea that as you fall down, you make a splash that reaches up. I like that descending eventually becomes a springboard for ascension. I also like that water is the element of emotions. Formless, often, unless it is contained. Cleansing. It is going to rain in Spain, both inside me and out.

I have been in this great state of completion; the end of one cycle, the beginning of another. And since I don’t really know what comes next, what my life will become after this journey—and I don’t want to wonder, I’d rather just let it come—I can tell you that so many of my thoughts and wishes have been for your happiness.

Of course, since we’re all just drops of water in the same bucket, these are wishes for myself, too. I see so much of myself in you. There is something we are sharing that centers on this idea of emerging, I think. Ushering in something bigger. And at the same time allowing for the possibility of death. Death and rebirth. Crucifixion as a setup for resurrection.

I wrote to my friend Lauren this morning who is with her mother who is dying. It is agony for her, letting go of this rock in her life. I told her that I was appreciating her mother for loving her so well, that she could then love me well, and I could love you. There are moments when dear Lauren feels like she hasn’t accomplished anything. And I gently remind her that she gave birth to me. And so when I say that so much of me is praying for your happiness, this is what I mean—this feeling of alive from having been loved well by someone who isn’t looking for the return.

I keep thinking about the possibilities of love in its highest form. Agape. I want to be someone who knows how to love well, love big, express it freely, doesn’t fear it—giving it or accepting it. I want to be someone who expresses love in all its giddiness and exuberance with people who can receive it, allow it, be warmed by it.

On the morning of my departure, I went with Brenda to my favorite church, St. John the Divine. It’s the place I always go when I visit New York, and I always do the same thing. I go first to the Poet’s Corner and read the sayings carved in stone. These were the ones I wrote down to take with me on my journey:

Take up the song; forget the epitath. –Edna St. Vincent Millay

Permit me voyage, love, into your hands. –Hart Crane

Give me truths for I am weary of surfaces. –Emerson

I learn by going where I have to go. –Theodore Roethke

Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to. –Henry James

Next, I always go to my special little chair, the one I cry in, and I cried. I spent time with St. Francis. I walked around the giant crystal and said a prayer at each side of it. My friend Rob and his daughter Marcella came, and they lit a candle for my safe journey. The four of us stood in a circle holding hands, and I cried.

Rob gave me one of his treasured trinkets to carry with me for good luck: a tiny toy harmonica with Happy carved into the side. Brenda gave me a packet of envelopes marked one through five, for my five weeks of walking. She’d written something for me to read at the end of each week. I cried.

When we got back to the apartment, I called a cab and stood at the window staring at the orange Gates flapping along the walkways of the park until it came. I sat in the back of the car on the way to JFK crying.

I got to the airport and was treated to the Red Carpet Club courtesy of the business class ticket I’d gotten with frequent flyer mileage. I sat down with my glass of wine and cut off my fingernails. Practical, not pretty. Then I called my mom. She’d finally seen the pictures of my bald head. She didn’t like it.

I boarded the plane and stared up at the full moon outside. That seemed appropriate. I hoped no one would sit next to me. I hoped I could sleep. I hoped I would walk well, all the way across Spain. And I kept crying. Grieving. Releasing. Shedding. Opening. Renewing.

Mostly, I hoped I would return. Bigger. More compassionate. More centered. More tender. More happy. More.