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When Christmas Came to the Dogtrot

When Christmas Came to the Dogtrot

            We first went to Africa a few weeks before my sixth birthday.  We were assigned to be missionaries in the Belgian Congo and our first mission station was at the end of a dirt road not far north of the equator.  
            The year I was thirteen, while my brother, Jim, and I were away at boarding school, our parents relocated our mission station across the river to a more densely populated area and moved our family to a new, temporary “home.”  It was a government rest house consisting of two dogtrot buildings and a separate cookhouse.  In each dogtrot there were two rooms on either side of an open breezeway—the place where the dog could trot through—but all under one roof.  The two dogtrots rested on either side of a deep ditch for rainwater run off.  A low bridge spanned the ditch.
            Our parents’ bedroom was in one room of the main house.  We ate our meals at the table in the open breezeway in the middle. Our living room was on the other side.  Jim’s and my bedrooms were in the other dogtrot.
In the tropics of Africa, December is one of the hottest months of the year.  It’s also the season for Congo’s torrential rains, so it was not only hot, but also very humid.  Sometimes at meals, we were driven inside because mist from heavy rains blew in the open ends of the breezeway, sifting over the food and dampening our shoulders.
            That year, on Christmas Eve morning, my first thought was: Evergreens don’t grow in the tropics.  Where will we get a Christmas tree?  (This was long before fake trees were invented.)
At breakfast I asked my Dad, “What are we going to do for a Christmas tree?”
            Dad’s hearty laugh rang out.  “Don’t you worry,” he said.  “We’ll find one.”
            Would Dad be able to find a real Christmas tree to make it a real Christmas?  I had my doubts.
            Our parents’ work occupied them all Christmas Eve morning.  Jim, and I moped around. We talked about the small gifts we had managed to buy for our parents out of our school snack money.  Had Mom and Dad been able to find presents for us out of our storage barrels, or perhaps from the Congolese shops nearby?  What would Christmas be like with few presents and no Christmas tree?
            We searched the acacia tree grove surrounding our new home for chameleons and grasshoppers.  I asked Jim where he thought Dad would find a Christmas tree, but his answer wasn’t very satisfactory.
After lunch I took my key and went to my room in search a book.  Maybe I could catch a nap in the relative coolness under the grass-thatched roof.  But I couldn’t forget my troubling question—What kind of a Christmas would it be in this heat with no tree, no snow and few presents?
            By the time we sat down to supper under the hissing kerosene pressure lamp, no Christmas tree had materialized.  The glass ornaments still lay forlornly in their sad, dusty little boxes.
            “Daddy, what about a Christmas tree?” I asked.
            Dad smiled. 
            “Will we even have presents?” I persisted.
            “Don’t you worry,” Dad said, patting my shoulder.  “We’ll have a tree and presents.  Now you kids go to your rooms and go to sleep.”
Jim took our lantern and, walking side by side, with the red mud of Africa caking onto the soles of our shoes, I watched  the lantern light make huge shadows jump and dance besides us as we crossed the yard and the bridge.
“Good night!” Our parents called, standing in silhouette because of the lantern light behind them. 
“Don’t forget to lock your doors!” Mama reminded.  She never forgot that, even though at thirteen and sixteen we were practically grown-ups.
“Merry Christmas!” we called back to them from our side of the ditch. 
I lit the kerosene lamp in my bedroom and dropped the mosquito net, tucking the hem under my mattress.  Jim checked under my bed and in the corners for spiders, geckoes or mice that might have wanted a dry place to sleep.  Then he waited outside my door until he heard the bolt of my lock slide into place. 
“Goodnight,” we called to each other through the rough panels.  “Merry Christmas!”
At breakfast on Christmas morning, there was still no tree.  But when Dad left the table, he wandered off into the acacia forest whistling “Jingle Bells.”
About 20 minutes later Dad reappeared with a dozen willowy wands of acacia tree limbs.
“It’s our Christmas tree!” Dad said with a big smile.  
An acacia is not an evergreen.  An acacia is a deciduous tree with rather broad leaves and I knew it would wilt pretty quickly. I was not impressed.
But Jim, making the best of things, helped Dad tie the stems together and bury the blunt ends in a bucket of damp sand.
“What a dumb Christmas this is!” I groused as Jim and I hung the glass ornaments on our “tree.”  The bundle of limbs shifted in the sand as we carefully placed the ornaments where they wouldn’t fall off.  I flung tinsel on the branches, but most of it just slid to the floor. 
We each brought out our few meager presents from their hiding places and placed them close to the sand bucket.  Even when Mama and Daddy brought gifts from their bedroom, it seemed like a pitiful show to me.  It just didn’t feel like Christmas!
Before noon, the dog’s tail had knocked off an ornament. We’d brought these glass ones from the States, so losing even one felt like a calamity.
As the day heated up, the branches began to wilt and another Christmas ornament shattered to red and green shards on the cement floor.  We usually opened our gifts on Christmas night, but Mama said, “Let’s open our gifts now before another ornament breaks.”
“No snow, no evergreens and few presents!”  I sat back and crossed my arms over my chest.  “This is not Christmas!” I huffed, but only loudly enough for my brother to hear.
Dad wiped perspiration from his forehead and opened his Bible to read the Christmas story.  He read it all: about Gabriel appearing to Mary, about Mary’s visit to Elizabeth’s home, about the angels, the star and the shepherds.  “And she brought forth her firstborn son,” he read, “and wrapped him in swaddling clothes—” Dad’s voice halted when another ornament crashed to the floor “—and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.… Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2, KJV).
Suddenly, my heart stirred and I took a deep breath.  A Savior had been born! The truths of the miraculous arrival of God’s precious Son, Jesus, spun in my mind like fine strands of gold.  There, in the scorching heat of a tropical Christmas day, without much of the holiday trappings I so craved, God’s love story and the meaning of Christmas became real to my heart.

I had yearned for a ‘real’ Christmas, and here it was.  I finally realized that Christmas is more than snow, more than decorations and more than gifts.  Christmas is God’s love shown to each of us and by each of us to one another.  That’s when Christmas came to the dogtrot.


“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, . . . And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of peace.”  Isaiah 9:6

   For our daughter’s last vacation from boarding school in Africa, my husband, Duane, and I took her on a trip through Zambia and Zimbabwe to Johannesburg, South Africa.  It was our first trip to a large city in two years.  We had hoped to be home for Christmas Day.  However, car trouble delayed our return until the afternoon of Christmas Eve.
   Driving into the dense African night, we felt tense about reaching the Zimbabwe border post before it closed at 8:30.  We pulled up at the border with only minutes to spare. 
   Our intent had been to spend the night in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, but after an hour of traveling we realized we wouldn’t make it until one a.m.  Duane was already nodding off at the wheel.  Suddenly the car swerved toward the verge.
   “What are you doing?” I asked, too loudly.
   Duane steered our Speed-the-Light vehicle to the roadside and stopped.  “We’re spending the night in the car,” he said with a sigh, turning the lights off, tipping back his seat and settling in for sleep.
There was not a light anywhere, not even firelight from someone’s home.  An African cricket chirps very loudly, and there were many of them.  An owl hooted on his night’s rounds.  Frogs croaked in a nearby watering hole.  A truck roared by, rocking our car in its wind-rush.
   Of all the dumb things we’ve ever done – and we’ve done some – this is the dumbest.  I made sure all the doors were locked, cracked the window for some air, tipped back my seat, swatted at a mosquito, and settled down to hopefully sleep a little.  What a miserable way to spend Christmas Eve.  And it will be a hard drive all Christmas Day to reach home.  Grumpy?  You bet!  However, we did sleep.
   At dawn, I woke to the sound of bells.  There can’t be Christian church bells way out here in the bush.  Am I dreaming?  I rubbed my eyes and sat up.
   Thorn trees stood in silhouette against and orange and apricot sunrise.  Birds began their morning songs, and a bee buzzed by on his first honey trip.  I opened the car door.  Deep breaths of brisk morning air were like draughts of fresh, cool water.  My family stirred, murmuring sleepy good- mornings.
   Again, the bells.  Christmas bells?  No, cowbells, with a herdsman peering through the brush wondering, no doubt, what these foolish white folks were doing.
   “Merry Christmas!” we greeted one another with tones of special joy.
   The herdsman, the bells, the thorns, the birdsong, and the sunrise all reminded me that a Savior was born!  We drove away singing Christmas carols into the most memorable, dewy Christmas morning of our lives.

Gazillions of Ideas: Observing

“Above all,” Roald Dahl advised writers, “watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you, because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places.”

I grew up in Africa. When I was six, my daddy taught my brother and me to observe. Motion in a tree that was otherwise still could be a troop of monkeys. At dusk we trained our eyes to spot guinea fowl roosting in a tree—dinner for the next day. A wiggly motion in the grass near the path could be a poisonous snake. In the elephant grass higher than our heads alongside the path where we walked, blowing noises could signal the approach of a deadly Cape buffalo or a lion on the prowl. In Africa, being observant could be a matter of life or death.

Alexander McCall Smith writes fascinating books set Botswana, Africa, called The
No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. The heroine of these novels is Mma Ramotswe, Botswana’s first lady detective.

Here’s a quote about observing from his novel, The Good Husband of Zebra Drive:  ‘“Mma Ramotswe…often saw thing which other people missed…That’s why I have found my calling she said to herself; …I am lucky enough to be able to notice things…(Her cousin had trained her) to keep her eyes open, to notice all the little things that were happening when one did something as simple as go for a walk in the bush. Here, along the path, would be the tracks of the animals that had passed that way; there were the tiny prints of a duiker, the skittish miniature buck with its delicate miniature hooves; there were the signs of the labours of the dung beetle, pushing its trophy, so much bigger than itself, leaving those marks in the sand. And there, look, somebody had come this way while he was eating and had thrown the maize cob down on the ground, not all that long ago because the ants had not yet come to take possession of it….The habit (of observing) had been engrained in Mma Ramotswe’s mind. At the age of ten, she had known by heart the number plate of virtually every car in Mochudi (her home town) and had been able to say who had driven in the direction of Gabarone (the capitol city) on any morning. “You have eyes like mine,” said the cousin. “And that is a good thing.”’

The American College Dictionary defines the word observe as:
1)    to see, perceive, or notice.
2)    to regard with attention so as to see or learn something.
3)    to watch, view or note…for some special purpose.
4)    To witness, implying paying strict attention

So, let’s be aware. Pay attention.We see a multitude of images a day.

Orson Scott Card said:  “Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don’t see any.” The trick, then, is to spot them—to be aware.

Observe, using all your five senses: seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling. Use your sixth sense, which is really a combination of some of the first five. A “seventh sense” could be called our spiritual sense—what God speaks into our souls and lays on our hearts to put into written form.

Recently on a gorgeous, sunny day in a beautiful, but lonely garden, I found myself thinking, “This would be the perfect setting for a tragedy.” The contrast of the setting and the dreadful event would have heightened the tension, I think.

A coppery-blonde friend of mine has eyes the color of south-sea waves above a white-sand floor.  I now have a character named Rose who has those same aqua of eyes and burnished hair.

Lisa Wingate, an author of Christian novels, admonishes writers:  While you’re walking the writer-road, be aware, be in the moment, don’t close your eyes even for an instant. Wherever you go in life, there are nuggets of story along the trail. Sometimes you’ll see them coming; sometimes you’ll stumble over them. Pause long enough to pick them up and examine them. Your writer’s mind can take it from there.

Where have you been?  What have you heard or smelled or tasted?  What have you seen?  What has the Lord brought to your attention to commit to print?

Conclusion:  Incidentally, God doesn’t just “see” you; He observes you.
“The Lord…observes the sons of men; his eyes examine them” (Psalm 11:4 NIV). Nothing escapes His notice. A poet once said, “His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me.” In your joys and in your sorrows, He sees you and takes notice of your struggles and your accomplishments. Take joy in our Lord as He guides your writing life and give you ideas for articles, poems, devotionals, stories and novels. Just don’t miss them when He shows them to you.

***Write for FIVE minutes about something that you observed recently. A place you’ve been to; a conversation you overheard, a happenstance that caught your attention.

My Review for The Story Keeper by Lisa Wingate

Review for The Story Keeper by Lisa Wingate
The poetry and drama in The Story Keeper kept me turning the pages late into the night. At 75, I don’t DO late nights often anymore. However, the beauty of Ms. Wingate’s writing kept my love of story revved up long after my usual bedtime.
In The Story Keeper, you have two novels, and two love stories—one in a historical account and one in the present. Well, actually three love stories, if you count the love between five sisters who have been separated for many years through distance and culture. Four of them remained ‘home’ in Appalachia, bound by backwoods culture and the power of a supposedly Christian sect. The fifith sister escapes to New York City and a modern lifestyle in publishing that she loves, but which she finds curiously unsatisfying to her love of family and love of God.
At first, the title seemed mediocre. However, by the end of the novel, I could see how it fit.
I learned more about Appalachia in this novel than in all my college history and sociology classes. It’s an intriguing setting that I will want to visit again and again in Lisa Wingate’s novels.
Had I bought the paperback version, this novel would be placed on my classics shelf. A total winner!