When I enter the cosmetology school, the young woman who greets me wears a baseball cap covering her closely cropped hair.
“It looks like we are well matched,” I comment.
“Do you want a Mohawk?” her face brightens with surprise.
“No, not a Mohawk, but I need my hair cut close to my head, except for the very front. I need to be able to wear a head scarf around town without having to answer questions. I am preparing to see the Dalai Lama in a few weeks.”
Newly covered by a fresh apron and with my neck snugly encircled by tissue-paper and the apron’s neckband, my student barber begins fishing through her drawer of possibilities. She is lamenting that she rarely, if ever, gets to go on any adventures. Then, her head pops up.
“How about an eighth of an inch?” she queries with the clippers already in her hand.
“Let’s do it.”
“I’ll give you the full barbershop treatment—with a hot towel.”
The metal blades on the clippers grow searingly hot, cutting through my hair. The top of my now naked ear meets with them once, which is enough. After she finishes, I comment on my long side curls.
“Yes, but to make it an authentic cut for Yeshiva School, I would have to clip your bangs off as well. I’m from New York. I grew up next to the largest Jewish community in the country. I plan to go back after I’m finished here and give haircuts kind of like yours.”
Moving to the sink to rinse away the clippings that evaded her assertive brushing, I experience an incredible lightness at leaving all of that hair behind. I feel closer to being ready to travel. The freedom and joy I feel at the loss of my hair makes me wonder, “Where does a person’s strength lie?” For me at least, dakini power is not found in a pile of hair.
My mind trips home to the book on my nightstand, Michaela Haas’ Dakini Power. It is waiting to be finished, another component in the preparations for my trip. With my hair rinsed, I watch as the student barber swings the steaming towel rhythmically through the air.
Water particles form billowing clouds. Next, my face is swathed in the moist folds of the towel. I rest with my thoughts: questions of strength, of things sacred and acts of devotion. Too soon my warm skin meets with the cold air of the school’s salon, and I am back in my own chair at the student’s station.
“You are going to meet the Dalai Lama?” the cosmetology school’s instructor asks quietly and respectfully. Reverence and awe are embedded in the tone of his voice and the question itself. Taking a seat in the empty barber’s chair adjacent to my own, I realize I have become part of the salon’s game of telephone.
My going to see the Dalai Lama has turned into meeting the Dalai Lama. I explain to the instructor that my haircut is an act of devotional preparation for going to hear the Dalai Lama speak. I am engaging in a ritual act of respect for my ensuing pilgrimage.