Khasi Hills and Love


Annie Margaret Barr was a British Unitarian who dedicated her life to the people of the Khasi Hills in Meghalaya (which means ‘abode of the clouds’ in Sanskrit), India, located in the Northeast corner, above Bangladesh and below Bhutan. She lived in the Khasi Hills for 40 years and opened schools for children as well as brought medical resources to the area. She also started an orphanage which closed upon her death in 1973.

The Anne Margaret Barr Children’s Village in the Khasi Hills, named in her honor, opened in February 2009. All of the existing orphanages in the Khasi Hills until that time were religiously affiliated. The Unitarian Khasi community felt uncomfortable sending their orphaned children to orphanages that would likely convert them to faiths other than Unitarianism and so isolate them from their birth communities.

The Unitarian Union of Northeast India contacted some Unitarian people from India and the States, who got together and raised funds and this unique and loving Unitarian orphanage, The Annie Margaret Barr Children’s Village, was built in 2009 that houses 10 boys and 14 girls ages 6-18 as well as 2 ‘mothers’ who care for their needs and the needs of the house and property who are extraordinary and a cook.

But it is more than an orphanage. It is a place where young people sing, pray, dance, do yoga, care for one another’s needs, grow organic vegetables, harvest honey, wash clothes by the river, put ribbons in each other’s hair on the way to school. It is a place of spiritual, physical and emotional health and well being. It is a place where bodies, minds, hearts and souls are grown. It is a place where the children are also the healers, not because they are asked to be, not because they are not cared for as children, but because like all living beings that are tended with love, care and great focus and intention, they have become part of what heals there.

The children’s lives are organized around the principles of discipline, love, spiritual growth, self-care, care of others and community, academics and environmental care. They all do yoga together, a kind of yoga that is about moving and breathing and knowing the self, walk through the village of Kharang to the Annie Margaret Barr Unitarian School together, study and do homework, lead Unitarian children’s church every Sunday, wash their clothes at the river, sing, care deeply for one another, garden, sweep, haul water, help cook, pray before every meal from their hearts, and welcome the stranger.

I learned living with these children without heat or hot water, without flushing toilets or showers, without transportation or stores to buy anything from while washing myself and the dishes at the river and rubbing my clothes on a flat stone to clean them- I learned, and not right away and not easily, to ask how I can bless rather than what blessings I am missing, how I can love rather what love I am without, how I can offer myself in new ways rather than seeking and finding lack in and around me.

I did not smell wonderful while learning this or sleep well while learning this or keep my belly in one piece at all times while learning this. But smelling and sleeping and being in one piece are not what I needed after all. India’s love is a fierce love. She blesses by turning everything inside out and putting it back rearranged. I have ears in my toes now.

Tea, Peace and Shiva










Darjeeling, India built on the side of mountain at 7,000 feet is a city in the state of West Bengal and was originally a part of Sikkim, another state in northeast India, bordered by Bhutan, Tibet and Nepal and includes part of the Himalayas- whose peaks float above the clouds each morning, snow capped, suspended, , as we sip our Darjeeling tea. Darjeeling was originally inhabited by the Lepchas. The Lepchas are a people who practice a shamanistic religion and were largely converted to Buddhism by the Tibetans but now include many Christians, converted by the Jesuits who came to Darjeeling in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Lepchas were invaded by the Gorkhas, who were from Nepal and annexed Darjeeling as part of Nepal, in the 1780s.

By 1829, after the Anglo-Gorkha War, Nepal ceded one-third of it territories to the British, who used it as a sanatorium for health. Many beautiful public gardens were built here for that purpose that still remain. The British East India Company used Darjeeling for growing tea. By 1841, tea trade with China was complicated by many factors for the British, not the least of which was the opium wars (British sold opium manufactured in India primarily for medical purposes to the Chinese privately, as it was illegal to do so, in exchange for mostly tea). Darjeeling became a less complicated center for tea production and Gorkha and Lepcha people, who became British subjects, were employed in the tea plantations. To this day, the Gorkhas feel that they deserve their own state separate from Darjeeling and India called Gorkhaland. This is a huge political and moral issue in this area fought and debated with great fervor, and occasionally violence. Many people spoke to us about it.

Jesuits undertook the construction of schools for the British residents. Most of the secondary educational institutions they built are still here today and Darjeeling is known as a center of educational excellence. This is a town where school children in many styles of uniforms and knee socks and knickers and lace up shoes hold hands and fill shops and streets and play and laugh and recite from notebooks while huffing and puffing up hills.

After the independence of India from the British in 1947, Darjeeling was merged with the state of West Bengal. It is now a place of Gorkhas, Lepchas, Nepalis, West Bengalis, and many more. When China annexed Tibet in 1950, thousands of Tibetan refugees also settled here.

The town has swelled well beyond the 10,000 people it was designed to house. It has now a population of over 132,000 which is straining the water, land and environmental to the point of noticeable crisis.

The Lepchas and Tibetans and Gorkhas and many other native Nepali and West Bengalis (who are Buddhists, Hindus and Christians and Muslims) live peaceably side by side in these hills. People tell us this is unusual for India and is due to the ethos of the hill people who still leave their doors open, trust one another and welcome each other to one another’s festivals, weddings, funerals and homes. Gods rest side by side here. Churches and mosques and temples and sangas are nestled one next to the other. “We still believe in each other” one priest told me.

Local people told us that Christianity is a religion much respected here for its inclusivity, focus on education, social justice and “time spent on god rather than caste, the worshipping of deities or other rituals.” Not only did people I spoke to in high places in the Catholic church tell me this but also college students who were Buddhist and Hindu.

Gary and I have found a spiritual peace and beauty and awakening (that breaks us open as often as offers us peace) that we have not know before. We also experience an easy, generous joy among the people. It lives in the prayer flags, winds, bells, acceptance and grace that flows through the people, in the Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, in the hills, clouds, mountains. We walk and walk up and down and up and down these steep, twisting hills and talk and pray and meditate with the people. Our hearts are flung open.

This all lives right beside a great loud noise and confusion and traffic clogged, horn-blowing, smoke blackened, trash burning, urine smelling, crowd pressing, self seeing that seals the throat to air. We go from one truth to the other to the other, trying to bring the wide open heart to the closed throat, trying to remember it is all the same god.

Oh dear Shiva, you god who cannot be contained by space or time, who needs no form, who knows compassion as creation and destruction; Lord who transforms the world through dance, you dance and the world spins and spins. How much more I thought I knew before I exchanged  sideways glances with you dear Shiva.






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Cheeks, feet.

Loveliness, fear, loneliness.

Air, Diesel Fuel, Urine.



Swollen shoulders and necks transporting bags and boxes of cabbage and firewood and cloth and plastic and rice and tea and electronic parts.

And pickaxes clipping into swollen tar: clip,clip, clip.

Clutched by hands of women in saris wearing flip flops- whose ages I roughly share.

My hands, not calloused, my arms, not brave, holding up a menu behind the window,

swinging and resting and swinging and resting.

Swollen our difference.

Swollen horns and passengers on bicycles and

Cows lying in highway meridians

And shops staring with unblinking

Eyes into unblinking swells of humanity.

Swollen chat, chat, chattering and babies and doorways and love.

Swollen beads and teeth and oh the prayers: hand prayers to keep boys holding fast to roof racks on packed cars that barrel down the highway, and swollen breast prayers for more milk to soothe babies in rickshaws jammed with goats and smoking men and children sucking sticky candy.  

Shoes praying to be cobbled tightly between two bare feet until one more nail is well met.

Oh the prayers to go on.

Swollen mosquitoes.

Swollen beauty and faith as

the taxi driver, driving like a madman, spitting out the window,

Slows to go clockwise around the Buddhist Stupa.


Swollen this pregnant womb.

Swollen this Holy Land.

Women and Mountains

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Interviews with women and mountains. The Sherpa women spoke to me through words, food, children, tea, fire. They told me that they were not subservient to men; that they danced all night at Buddhist festivals and worked and cooked in their time. They hang prayer flags and pray for good harvests and have a good life, many said. When I could let go of the loudness in my head that insists on enough conveniences in the way and timing I am used to receiving them, it felt a good life to me too: quiet and green and kind and thoughtful and ritualized and community centered. While I waited for enough to happen or not, we talked and cooked and drank tea and ate and learned from one another. We have forgotten how to wait with openness in my country. Waiting times are not learning from each other times where I come from.

The women I spoke to attributed the standing of Sherpa women in villages to Buddhism, Sherpa culture and modernization, not necessarily in that order. They laugh telling me this.

Some said they wished that their children might have more than they had, be less constrained. Many wished that their children might have the opportunity to make whatever decisions their own hearts might make; the ability to find their own expressions.

There are fewer and fewer 20-30 year olds present in the villages as many cannot make the kinds of livings they want to. They go to the cities, to other lands, to the Middle East and often send money home. They miss their homeland when they are gone.

Most of the women I spoke to were shop or inn keepers or part of farming communities. One woman belongs to a program called Bridges Between and is becoming more fluent in English, and learning computer and other skills. I met many young village people too who do not want to leave, who are thinking of new ways to dig in, to make their homeland sustainable.

The people in the villages I met who know joy, work hard at choosing this as a discipline, as part of their religious practice, as part of who they are in the world. These are people who know earthquakes and have lived through a Maoist Revolution and see trekkers from all over the world come through their lands. They have smartphones. They know who they are and what they have and do not have and they choose peace and welcome and generosity because the alternative is anger and resentment and bitterness. I do not mean to glamorize lack, which can shorten lifespans and minimize types of ease that matter. I mean to uplift people who have the courage to know and name what they do and do not have and decide to love.

I think the Himalayas and Mt. Everest, Chomolungma, contribute to these states of grace. The Sherpa people believe that the mountains and rivers and lakes are gods or deities that are actively involved in their lives. Chomolungma means the Mother of the World and when I saw her, Mt. Everest, the Mother, she needed no introduction. She is nurturer, restorer, maintainer of harmony, guide. Other mountains and lakes offer fertility, maintain balance, protect. They can also bestow a long and prosperous life. The land around them is sacred. Sherpa people make promises not to kill or do harm, to honor the land.

Living for several weeks among these graces, and in my small way opening my heart to them, my fears danced out of the dark like those masked performers in ancient plays that come on to the stage with large gestures and exaggerated words and steps. I was able to name each one without mistake. I would like to say I put them all down in these weeks but they still accompany me. Vajrayana Buddhism would say the point is not to put them down but to learn to walk with them in balance, in truth, with grace, respect and awareness. Oh my dear Chomolungma, you are a demanding teacher and I sat at your feet too brief a time.

For now, I leave you mountains, Sherpa people and spirits with gratitude for the brief time you took me in and allowed me to see myself in your presence. Thank you. I will honor you by trying to keep your love and lessons close.

Call me Friday Unitarian



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Sherpa people all have the same last name, Sherpa. Many of their first names are days of the week, names of Buddhist gods, or auspicious sayings, like, long life. Those Sherpa people I have spoken to tell me that this keeps them focused on the tribe, the group, the whole rather than on the self as a first thought or priority. Imagine if your first name was Friday, or Tuesday or Monday and last name was Unitarian, for instance, and every Unitarian you met had a last name of Unitarian, worldwide?

Sitting/walking/eating/sleeping/writing/hoping beneath these impossibly timeless, immovable, present and so far away they seem in another person’s vision Himalayas and Mt. Everest, Chomolongma, Mother of the Earth, mountains: sentence structures have become reorganized: subjects become objects; nouns become adjectives; independent clauses become dependent. I have become: Friday Unitarian.

Yesterday, talking a jeep (the only vehicles besides trucks and tractors on these roads) from Taksindu to Phaplu, a 2 hour ride they said, which took 4, on roads that are dirt and rock and stump and ravine and sometimes small river, all running beside drop offs into gorgeous but foreboding terrain as far as jeeps are concerned…our driver realized he did not have enough petrol so when another jeep driver going the opposite way stopped to chat (everyone stops and asks about the roads as they go and laughs and wishes the other well), he asked if he could syphon some gas and was granted his wish. So our jeep of 10 people, 4 in the way back, 4 in the middle seat: Gary and me and 2 Sherpa women in traditional dress, and a monk and the driver in front, stopped in the middle of the road and syphoned gas and it took the other jeep over an hour to restart.

No one swore or got mad. Everyone had a hand at it, except the monk and us women. We shared what we had to eat and drink. Much talking, laughter and story in all kinds of spoken and sign languages ensued. The radio blared. The mountains, oh bless us all, those mountains, Kusum Kanguru: The Three Snow White Gods, as the Sherpa people call those that stood witness to it all: snow covered, miles away and right, right beside us, in us, through us, breathed these words that day:  What gives meaning to life is the dance between people, sky, mountain, cloud, beast, earth. The panorama is the mirror. Sherpa people came from Tibet in the 12th and 15th centuries from the Kham region of eastern Tibet. They were traders of butter, yaks, wool, salt and were pushed out of their homes by other tribes. Sherpas are not a warring people. They are a kind, gentle, generous, welcoming, non-caste following, Buddhist people. Whenever we have traveled, and we have only traveled to Sherpa villages, which are always at the higher elevations, and we have been treated with care, warmth and hospitality.

Everywhere we have been, I have asked to interview someone: the Lamas, the tea house keepers and as life would have it, the women, the women. People are hesitant at first: Why does she want to interview me? What does she want to know? What if I cannot answer her questions? Once we get cooking, we chug along pretty well. These interviews take place in dark little rooms: tiny kitchens with fires on the cholos (handmade cement stoves) and in tea houses and sometimes outside on benches if the sun is shining up in these mountains.

Today I will tell you about the interview with one of the Lamas. Another day I will tell you about the women, and I will include Mt. Everest or Chomolongma, Mother of the Earth, as she is called in Tibetan and known to the Sherpa people, as one of the women I have interviewed, or perhaps I should say, who has interviewed me, and she has found me full of fears that should long ago been vanquished.

I interviewed Lama Samten Sherpa in Taksindu at the Taksindu Monastery. Samtem is his Buddhist name, it means peace of mind. He is about 35 years old and had been training to be a Lama for 20 years. So many monks begin as young children and come from homes of little means where the living conditions are difficult. Their parents send them to these monasteries, and they are well cared for and live in loving communities. We often see them giggling during prayers or while walking these mountain roads together.

I asked Lama Samten Sherpa, while Tsering translated, what the most difficult part of preparing to be a Buddhist was. He said, “There are 7 promises we have to keep to become monks and each of those commitments has 200-300 sub-commitments beneath them. It is difficult to let go of so many desires.”

I  reflected on this for some time. If a Lama and a monk of 20 years still struggles with letting go of desires (some as simple as keeping hair shaved and not being able to eat lunch past noon), it gives me patience with my own struggles and ego’s desires. Oh that ravenous ego! I have been feeding it boiled eggs and potatoes and the Buddhist Sherpa principles of: doing no harm, selflessness (which according to my young Buddhist Sherpa guide Tsering means removing the suffering of the self so that one can be of service to others), thinking good of others, leading a moral life, and helping those with less when possible. Just in writing this, a peace fills me that needs no more. Needing no more, this seems close to peace.

We went to the morning prayers at the Monastery. I silently asked to be purified so that I may be of use in the world. May we all be blessed. Yours in faith, hope and love, Friday Unitarian.