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Every year on my birthday, my mom tells my birth story. In the middle of labor, she left her body and floated up to the ceiling then looked down and saw herself, in real time, lying in a hospital bed. Only she wasn’t herself looking down at herself. The person she was up above, near the ceiling, was me.

“And I knew,” Mom says, “you had all the wisdom in the world you would ever need.”

I chuckle and say, “If only that were true.” I’ve never given birth, nor have I ever left my own body, so the story sounds like a folk tale or a nursery rhyme. In a way, it’s comforting to know my mom first met me as a being outside herself, apart from her needs, separate from her identity. Of her, but not part of her; as if her body fractured to make me.

I also find it strange that my mom seemed to know who I was before I did. As if, throughout my life, I’ve slowly pulled my identity from someone else’s mind in order to define myself on my terms. Perhaps this is always the case with mothers and daughters. Or maybe fierce independence is innate to who I am, a being destined to separate before she was born.

Whatever the case, ever since I can remember, I have defined myself by separation.




When I think of my mom, the first thing I think of is mountains, and ours sat at the end of a long stretch of highway called “the 395.” Back when the sky was still inky black, and my sister, Ingrid, and I shared a bunkbed, our mom would lift our limp bodies in a cocoon of quilts and place us on pillows in our Volvo station wagon. There, Ingrid and I nested and continued to sleep as Mom drove through the San Fernando Valley—passed houses, streetlights, and neon signs—into the silence of night. 

Just as the sun emerged behind the White Mountains, bright as the syrupy sheen of peach flambé, Ingrid and I awoke, engulfed in golden light and surrounded by pine trees. We buzzed up the last stretch of empty pavement, then celebrated our arrival at Mammoth Mountain.

Sometimes my eyes opened early. The sky glowed like a blue flame in the dark, bathing the two-lane highway in an eerie light. The desert looked desolate: gray sand, blotchy plants, a sheet of denim shadows blurring as we passed. I’d rest my head against the car door and stare up at the sky as it transformed into a periwinkle morning.

I remember the distinct feeling of contentment, wrapped in blankets, watching the blur, knowing I had nothing to do but sleep. It made those brief moments of consciousness feel like bonus time. As if, just by opening my eyes, I was opening a parallel universe in which I had no other place to be but exactly where I was, and nobody knew I was there. I had something that was uniquely mine. Back then, I found comfort in that separation.




My first concept of “home” was two-dimensional: four stick figures and a square with a triangle on top. I didn’t think about what home meant because it was a given like my parents and our house. 

Now, I know, it’s impossible to capture the most important bits on paper. Like the walnut tree next to the driveway, which I climbed with my best friend. Or the hollowed-out space between bushes I turned into forests and caves in my mind. The house held strange comforts I couldn’t find anywhere else, like the rubbery red surface of the path that cut through our lawn, which I picked at like a scab; and the mint plant that grew next to the side door, from which I’d pluck a leaf before entering the house. I knew all the warmest places, too—under the bed, under the stove, behind the VCR—because it’s where I would find our cats, hiding.

My parents divorced when I was eight.

Their lives divided. 

Our time split. 

Two worlds emerged.

Ingrid and I sat on a green, plaid loveseat when our parents told us the news. I felt optimistic as I considered my life in twos: two homes, two birthdays, two sets of two cats. I hadn’t yet learned it’s a paradox to exist in two states at once. 




My mom was always beautiful. She has glacier-blue eyes, a nose as smooth as a skipping stone, and an elegant mouth, as if dashed above her chin with the fine tip of a calligraphy brush. Like most middle schoolers, I only saw faults in myself and thus found it difficult to see past the mountainous intrusion in the middle of my face and the oily mounds that popped up all over my skin. I shared her blue eyes, but not much else, though I suppose that is another trait I must have inherited from her: my mom never saw her beauty. 

I admired her thick, wavy hair, pulled back with purple combs, and I coveted her large purse, which looked like a tapestry. She always wore the same pair of gold earrings, shaped like X’s and curved like commas, as if punctuating the sides of her face with marks that held her gaze within the duality of separation and affection. It was my mom who taught me X was shorthand for “kiss” and O meant “hug.” 

In the midst of heartache, she shared her affection liberally. Hugs and kisses before bed. Note cards signed with X’s and O’s. I still have most of those cards today, which makes me think our relationship, in its most basic physical form, is a long strand of letters, like binary code or DNA. A continuous line of XOXO.




One sunny SoCal winter, when I was twelve, my mom, my sister, and I left Los Angeles for the mountains and got caught in a windstorm. 

Blasts of warm air whipped desert sand onto the metal walls of our car like a spray of bullets, each gust shooting hundreds of granules onto the windshield and marking the glass with little craters. We rocked with the wind as it reached out and shook our car like giant, invisible hands. It had already toppled three semi-trucks, which lay helpless on the side of the highway, like wounded elephants dying in the savanna. 

When we finally reached the gas station in Pearsonville—one of the only buildings in Pearsonville—we learned the electricity was out and the toilets weren’t flushing.

Who would ever live in a place like this?! I thought, as I peed in the wind behind the building. There was no protection against the environment. The sense of exposure heightened the feeling of being trapped in this great expanse. I was always between things: the mountains and the city, my mom and my dad, the unknown and the essence of what I once called home. We were confined to this purgatory, this emptiness, this gas station parking lot surrounded by fatal sand.

My mom seemed fine. As I worried about our car and cursed wind, Mom bought sandwiches. She was used to chaos and wanted to make sure Ingrid and I felt comfortable and safe. 

In the stillness that followed, we merged back onto the highway, the land strangely peaceful. It wore brittle skin with cracks and creases, like the face of an old woman. Calm. Broken. Accepting. The desert has a way of muddling what’s harsh with what’s liberating; it’s easy to confuse the two. 




When I was five, my mom cheated on my dad. I didn’t know this back then, and by the time I found out, I had seen my mom so wounded and self-destructive that I figured it wastied to the same sense of unraveling. The roots of her struggle stretched back to a father who controlled her movements and criticized her choices, and a mother who held her close but never said a word.  

My mom learned from her mother to live in someone else’s shadow and stay silent. Which is selfish, but also survival. Our mothers give us life, then teach us how to live. Perhaps my mother separated because it’s what her mother should have done. 




I was in middle school the night I stopped believing cracks could be repaired. My pajama pants were the color of Pepto Bismol, my sandals were purple, and my mother was wailing.

Privately, my mom had told me about her DUI and the night she spent in jail. She watched me pour her wine down the sink and said thank you. She agreed when I suggested she wear a bracelet with the word “consequences” spelled out in plastic beads. I was going to make it for her, but I hadn’t gotten around to it yet. When my dad found out about my mom’s drinking and went to confront her, I went with him. After all, she was my mom; her problems were my problem, too.

Moonlight shined on me and my mom as we stood on the red, rubbery path that led to the mint plant by the side door: me in my pajamas, mom in a blue apron. She stood several feet in front of me, backlit by the yellow light of the kitchen window. My dad stood behind me. I watched my mom’s beauty harden into the stiff and vacant expression she wore when she drank. Her eyes went lifeless as if made of glass; her lips pursed, then disappeared. When I told her people were concerned, she turned and stomped away. I didn’t know whether she felt she was walking away from me, or herself. The difference can feel negligible.




My sister and I turned into teenagers too big to be cocooned and too grouchy to wake early. We began leaving for the mountains after the first rays of sun crested the morning smog. Ingrid and I dragged ourselves to the car with bags of distractions: books, sunglasses, CDs. Five hours was a long journey, and the desert was painfully dull.

Each trip up the I-5 was the same. A woolly layer of beige hovered above the San Fernando Valley as we entered a sparkling stream of brake lights and stuttered toward the hills. But by the time we reached the watery staircase that zig-zagged down to the San Fernando Valley from faraway lands, traffic dispersed, we turned east, then followed the flow of water back toward parched earth. My mom was always happy when we reached the desert. 

In direct sunlight, the land looked like a leather hide that’d been tanned, stretched and festooned with dry, spindly plants. As a teenager, I thought driving through the Mojave Desert was like passing through hell. It’s an ecosystem home to record-breaking highs above 130 degrees and places like Death Valley, Desolation Canyon, Furnace Creek, Funeral Mountain, Dante’s Ridge, and Devil’s Hole. 

We stuck to the 395, which stretched through the Owens Valley, a finger of khaki-colored earth populated by small towns with similarly hot temps, but less foreboding place names: Lone Pine, Big Pine, Bishop, Independence. 

Whenever we took a pit stop in Lone Pine, my mom pointed to the tallest peak in the Lower 48. I dragged my feet to the lookout area, grumble about the heat, then roll my eyes at the speck of rock on the horizon no larger than my pinky nail. I didn’t believe it was the tallest mountain in the lower 48. My mom would smile up at the peak from the desert floor. She understood that the separation between two places could collapse with enough time, patience, and legwork. Eventually, she would hike to the top of the peak. 




As my mom spent time in mountains and deserts, mostly alone, I ventured farther away. I moved to northern California for college, then relocated to the other side of the country for work. I continued to do what I knew how to do best: separate. But on the cusp of turning 30, that changed.

Gleeful, giddy, bubbling over with a sense of joy I didn’t know how to contain, I celebrated my best friend’s wedding back in L.A., dancing for hours with bottomless glasses of wine and champagne. My mom was there. My dad was there. We were all there in the same space celebrating the union of two people we loved, and I lost control.

Later that night, as I waded through dark shadows and stumbled down my best friend’s driveway — much of the white wine and champagne flushed down the toilet — my mom propped me up on her shoulder. She was sixty years old and seventeen years sober when she lowered me into her car, put a plastic bag on my lap, and took me home. 

I slept as we made our way north on the highway, through the silence of night, past the rows of streetlights and neon signs that transformed the desert landscape into an endless sprawl of squares with triangles on top. When we got home, my mom must have put me to bed.

The next day, clear morning light streamed through the blinds and glinted off a glass of water before splitting my head. I felt embarrassed for being sloppy and incoherent, and for acting this way in front of a woman who had worked so hard to be otherwise. I wasn’t used to being vulnerable or feeling helpless. As chaotic and messy as life was, I was different from her. (I swore, I was.) I didn’t break apart my relationships. (I didn’t have any.) I didn’t drink to excess. (Most of the time.) I could pull myself together. Always. Certainly in front of other people. At least I thought I could.

There was a plate of crackers next to the water, and beside them a note: 

Good morning, Sweetie — 

Drink some water and get something in your stomach. 

XO Mom

I ate a cracker, sipped some water, then decided it was time to come home.




When I moved back to L.A. in my 30s, I started traveling the 395 alone. I went to Mammoth, but also stopped in Lone Pine, Independence, Big Pine and Bishop; all the desert towns I dismissed as a kid. Behind each small outcrop of buildings, I discovered channels into mountains that weren’t visible from the road. I began driving into the clefts of granite spires. Then I’d park, fold down my back seats, and roll out a sleeping bag.

While the sky was inky black, I woke and begin trekking along the rock, zig-zagging over the earth, inching closer to blue, until I summited peaks that had seemed impossible to reach from the pavement below. 

I peered down from 14,000 feet at the wide finger of khaki-colored earth, its cracks extending like veins or vibrations sprouting outward, each jagged line mimicking the line that came before it. The repetition of mirror images in nature can be found in tree branches, root systems, desert cracks, and the edges of clouds. Many fractals follow the Fibonacci Sequence: O, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, etc., a number chain that appears chaotic but follows a pattern of widening, fracturing, spiraling growth.

At night, after long treks through the mountains, I laid in my sleeping bag and looked up at the night sky through the hatchback window above my head, fully content.




My mom’s face has become more relaxed and beautiful over time as it creases in places that used to be smooth. I know better than to dismiss these lines as something barren, desolate, or dry. Her face has been shaped by a journey of suffering, triumph, and all the frequencies in between. It’s something I have to look forward to.

The other day, I asked my mom to repeat the story of my birth. She told me again that she left her body, that her consciousness floated up to the ceiling, and that she was me. 

“And somehow I knew that you had all the wisdom in the world that you would ever need,” she said. 

This time, I asked her what she meant. 

“Well,” she continued, “I just knew that my job was to let you go, a little bit, every day.”

As she lay in a hospital bed, feeling the pain of separation, my mother knew that moving forward meant letting go, the way a tree trunk lets its branches sprout and a crack in the desert floor stretches further away from its source. 




Claire Walla is a writer from Los Angeles who currently lives in Fairbanks, Alaska. Her work has appeared in Baltimore Review, as well as several magazines and newspapers.

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