A six-panel comic showing a woman doing various tasks around Amherst

“Are we there yet?”

“Not yet,” says Andy, as he steers us onto Route 9.

Our 8-year-old, Alex, gazes out the window. “But we’re close?”

“Very close.”

We’ve taken Alex to Amherst four times before—once at homecoming, once at reunion, once for a classmate’s wedding and once for our own 20th wedding anniversary. But some of his impressions might be artificial memories, made for him through years of hearing his parents talk about our college days.

I first made this drive 30 years ago as a rule-following, risk-averse book nerd from a science and tech high school. I arrived with no idea what I wanted to do. I had never stopped to consider that there were real people who made a living writing all of those books I loved to read.

Now it’s August 2021, and we’re arriving in town through serendipity. My friend Rachel, who grew up here, called me one day to say a UMass professor friend needed a house sitter in Amherst in August. Did I want the job?

Of course I did.

“There’s one catch,” Rachel said.

Here we go. Every day of our long pandemic year, there’s been some kind of catch. Every day has felt like a challenge, a perpetual game of whack-a-mole, when all I wanted was to simplify.

“What’s the catch?” I sighed.

“You’ll have to babysit chickens.”

“Babysit chickens?” I repeated.

I saw Alex’s eyes light up. This was a perk, not a catch.

Alex would be out of school. Andy wasn’t teaching in August. And I had an unwieldy manuscript to revise. Maybe a few weeks in Amherst would break my fog.

So we packed up our car in Maplewood, N.J., and drove north. And now, Andy is turning left onto Pleasant Street, then right onto Strong Street, where a farmhouse and six easygoing chickens await us. Alex climbs up to the coop and introduces himself. We explore the house and barn, walk into town and pick up Antonio’s for dinner. The tomato and basil slice is as good as I remembered.

It’s our first night here, and already I sleep better than I have in months.

I’ve been doing battle with a novel I’m writing—about perseverance—that I seem unable to finish. I’ve tried on so many storylines, said goodbye to so many darlings already, but still this stubborn manuscript refuses to gel into a satisfying, cohesive final shape.

Not long ago, my agent gently asked how my edits were going, and I lied, “Fine.” He paused, then said, “You’re not alone. Everyone is feeling a little lost, a little stuck. Keep going! Resilience! Onward! You remember how this works, right? You write stories, then I try to sell them.”

My agent’s a funny guy. I think about what he said. There’s so much emphasis these days on resilience. We know we need to pivot, to reexamine our priorities, to do the things that really matter, for our families and ourselves. But in our busy, complex lives, it can feel impossible to find the space to do those things.

Years ago, before I really tried to write, before I ever believed I could be a novelist at all, I was sitting in a corporate auditorium, at a management meeting, my mind wandering from the PowerPoint, when I heard the CEO on stage say, “If you’re not finding meaning in your work, then you’re in the wrong line of work.”

Soon after, I signed up for a one-night-a-week intro to fiction writing workshop.

Now, here in the farmhouse, I have a similar awakening: in order to finish my book, I’ll need to remember why I started writing. It makes sense that Amherst would be the place to remember this.

A woman with black hair and a black shirt leaning against a brick wall
“Amherst is the place to remember why I started writing.”

No matter which road you take, that first sighting of the College is breathtaking. On each return visit, I literally take in a breath when the Octagon comes into view. It is reassuring to return to the places that remain—Atkins Farm, The Black Sheep Deli, Panda East. During our three-week stay, we make the obligatory stop at Hastings to poke around the purple and white sweats, mugs and foam hands. Andy and I are happy to see Amherst Cinema open—yet disappointed to have missed its Jaws revival.

As the three of us drive around town after being cooped up together for so long and with the future still so uncertain and unsettled, I obsessively point out every single thing from my past. Look, Alex! There’s Emily Dickinson’s house. There’s the quad. There’s the best sledding hill ever.

We drive past Valentine, where Andy worked his campus job; Frost Library, where I worked mine; and the Admission Office, where I learned to walk backward. We tell Alex about seeing Bob Dylan in concert at the gym. (“Who’s Bob Dylan?” he asks. Oh no! Who’s Bob Dylan?) And over there, I say, pointing at Chapin, that’s where I first got the idea that I wanted to be a writer.

“How?” Alex looks over.

“I was taking a class called ‘Composition,’ with Helen von Schmidt. It was one of my favorites.”

“Why?” he asks.

“The homework didn’t feel like work at all.”

I used to scurry back to my dorm with each new assignment, nerdily think about it at dinner and start writing the minute I got back from Valentine. Sometimes I’d stay up late, knocking out a draft in the wee hours. I’d look at the time and be amazed how close it was to morning. On the rare, happy occasions when writers experience this type of all-nighter, we feel extraordinarily shocked and grateful. Especially now.

I point out other buildings to Alex. “That’s where I started reading about some of the things I write about today,” I say as we pass Johnson Chapel, remembering a course I took with Michele Barale, “Reading Gender, Reading Race.” Alex recognizes Morris Pratt dorm from a framed snapshot of Andy and me in cap and gown. I point to a fourth-floor window. “That was my room senior year. I knew exactly how long it took to print out a paper, staple it, run down the stairs and sprint across the quad to Johnson Chapel to turn it in by 4 o’clock.”

“How long?” Alex wants to know.

“Seven minutes. Five for Converse.”

Andy laughs.

A Pixies song came on the radio. The windows were down, the sun hot.”

The family whose house we’re looking after has given us their CSA farm share. So one morning I drive 6 miles to Brookfield Farm—a charming place I never even knew existed—where I pick out blueberries, kale, tomatoes and corn, then make my way to the counter.

The farmworker looks up. “Do you have a question?”

“No, I’m just ready to check out.”

“Oh, no need. It’s the honor system.”

I smile as I get back to the car. Simplify, I remember.

I usually find it stressful to drive. But even I like driving around a quiet Amherst. When I do manage to get lost, I never feel like I’m that lost.

Back on Strong Street, I unload my bounty onto the kitchen counter. I put on a pair of coop galoshes and go around to the barn to collect the eggs. Today there are seven. “Excuse me, pardon me, ladies,” I say, as I lift the latch and peer in, surprising Charlotte the chicken mid-lay. Charlotte is patient and shy, and I like her.

I bring the eggs inside and clean them. They’re lovely to stare at, all glistening like that, ranging in color from brown to pink to yellow to a surprising sea green. I make a tomato omelet and toast for lunch. It’s the most satisfying meal I’ve had in a while.

Then I open my laptop. I write all afternoon.

Today the pages come easy, at last.

On the drive up, Andy told Alex about the Pixies, that the band got their start at UMass, that we used to listen to them all the time. One afternoon, as we’re running errands around town, a Pixies song comes on the radio. Andy turns it way up. We both sing. I glance in the back seat, half expecting Alex to roll his eyes. He doesn’t.

He’s having a grand time, and so are we.

The windows are down.

The sun is hot.

Black Francis gently asks, Where is my mind?

And I feel 21 again.

Wan is an author and lawyer who writes about diversity and inclusion. Her 2013 novel The Partner Track is now in development as a Netflix original TV series.

Photograph by Anna Campanelli

Illustration by Marc Rosenthal