Before I could write full-time, I worked at a greeting card company. Christmas started in May when catalogs and holiday material went to design. From design to proof, proof to print, print to customer. Christmas in July was real. Sweating out the summer with tasteful snow-filled farmhouse scenes, Santa cartoon reindeer, linen paper navy blue, gold embossed cards wishing you a season of celebration, I loved the endless options.
The novelty of snowflakes in summer was fun. I liked it. It was a welcome change. Helping my clients create a holiday plan perfect for their business, from car dealerships to retail boutiques, was interesting. I created campaigns to match sensibilities and preferences. From Hanukkah to Holla It’s Christmas, Yo, I bravely rose to the challenge.
Knee-deep in snow-covered scenes of the North Pole, I didn’t realize there are two waves to holiday purchases. One is a buyer purchasing 50,000 custom designs in July. The other is literally everyone else. Just when I thought the holiday demand would disappear with the heat, it ramped up again. Smaller orders, but more of them. Constant. All day. Every day. When I wasn’t at work, orders rolled in online. I loved my job, and I loved my clients, but the constant celebration was a bit much. We talk a lot about the commercialization of Christmas but, until you’re arm-deep in gold tinsel, it’s not as obvious.
There was Christmas in July. And August. And September. By October, my holiday cheer thinned out. People who work in retail long-term expect those schedules. The company I worked for was swimming in debt and wasn’t going to make it long-term. This was less about adjusting my long-term goals to include a holiday season that lasted half the year, and more about trying to get to Halloween so I could eat SweeTarts at my desk and hope the company stayed in business until the end of the year.
Phones, faxes, emails, quality control, proofing, and packaging came with the job. For half a year, I’d been in holiday mode for something I wasn’t even sure I wanted to celebrate.
My family never celebrated holidays together, so a week before Christmas, I got in my Honda and drove from Asheville, NC to southern Mississippi, where I crossed into Louisiana and drove through southern Texas. My dog and I stopped at roadside motels and drive-thru coffee places. I jotted poems and stories on paper bags with stray fries hanging out in the bottom.
I was exhausted.
I remember sitting in a diner in Shreveport, eating French fries and realizing I didn’t know what day it was.
I kept going.
I plowed on across Texas, where I had to stand for hours waiting for my dog to come back because I’d let her out to go to the bathroom in the desert and she chased wild bunnies out into dark tumbleweeds.
Convinced that somewhere in the world, meaning and miracles intersected, I kept driving. I’d always been charmed by the desert. That massive, waterless expanse of shrub and sand lights up my imagination every time.
The further I drove, the more I started to form an idea for a story. Like, a real holiday story.
A story about a little boy who finds something in the forest. It was right there. Pieces of a story, floating around inside the car. A boy and his brother. A forest. A find. And it had something to do with holidays. I kept driving. I swept through El Paso. I passed the border and drove out to Deming, to White Sands, to where Billy the Kid was jailed. I ate way too many avocados. I drove to old Indian sites and hiked up cliffs and down into caverns. I blazed my way through barrels of fresh salsa, red and green. I started to get the feeling that I was closer to Christmas than I’d ever been.
I bought a telescope and took it out into the desert. It wasn’t sophisticated, but it was portable. From a dirt road in the middle of New Mexico, I could see the moons of Jupiter. Seeing those moons locked in the pull of a planet so far away created a shift in me. A shift that pushed me closer to a magic I’d never been able to define. Not hocus-pocus magic. Real magic. The kind that exists when flowers turn to face the sun. Beyond science and stars and moons, out into the subatomic world of sheer possibility. I could feel it; like it was just around the corner, watching me.
I put my dog in the car and headed out towards Tucson. It was beautiful but not my destination. I headed north, towards Flagstaff.
The first time I saw the Grand Canyon was at 3 a.m., under the light of a full moon. It had just snowed. The streets were clear, but a white blanket covered the ground. Enormous elk stood under the moonlight, so huge their bellies came up to the top of my car. Coyotes roamed the wide-open spaces. The world was aglow and alive in that strange canyon. Cold and clear and perfect. I drove to a hotel and prayed they had a vacancy.
I rolled my suitcase up to my room and, while my dog sat in a chair staring out at that new world, I sat awake in bed and wrote down the beginning of this story, shaped by my winter in the desert. A story inspired by moons of Jupiter, life in other star systems, strange findings in the forest. Blue moonlight illuminated an unknown future right there, at the edge of a canyon. A snow-swept landscape of stunning beauty that proved the sparkle of golden wrapping paper, or the smells of fresh-baked popovers extend outward to reach new places of possibility. To a place where the first glimmers of this story began.
This story combines some of my favorite things: holidays, ketchup, and aliens. Join me in grabbing a copy and a telescope and hitting the trail for a new holiday adventure.
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About the Author
Lis Anna-Langston was raised along the winding current of the Mississippi River on a steady diet of dog-eared books. She attended a Creative and Performing Arts School from middle school until graduation and went on to study Literature at Webster University. She is a Parents’ Choice Gold and a Moonbeam Book Award winner. Twice nominated for the Pushcart award and Finalist in the Brighthorse Book Prize, her work has been published in The Literary Review, The Merrimack Review, Emrys Journal, The MacGuffin, Sand Hill Review and dozens of other literary journals. She draws badly, sings loudly, loves ketchup, starry skies & stories with happy endings, aliens.
You can learn more about her at www.lisannalangston.com