In the COVID-19 spring, she lost her job as the national director of public relations and partnerships for an organization she really loved. In June, her youngest graduated from high school, making Michelle Fishburne an official empty-nester. At the end of July, the lease on her house ended. Although she had plenty of experience and a wide professional network, her 86 customized letters seeking employment yielded no job offers.
Instead of being afraid, Michelle, 57, from Chapel Hill (US), leaned into the moment and created a version of herself that had been lying dormant for years: inspired in her quest by the book Humans of New York, a book of photographic portraits and interviews collected by Brian Stanton in New York City, she moved into her motorhome in September 2020 and travelled 12,000 miles all over the United States, interviewing people from different background about their lives during the pandemic.
“Sometimes life turns you upside down, dumps you on the floor, and asks: so what are you going to do about it?” Michelle reflects. Her amazing resulting project, called Who We Are Now, is partly available online and will be published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2022.
On the road
Michelle has taken four separate trips starting out and ending up in Chapel Hill, SC. She has been as far west as San Diego, CA, as far north as Lawrenceville, NJ, and as far south as Sarasota, FL. From eliciting the stories of others, she found her purpose and excavated her own essence.
One man she met started a mobile axe-throwing company during the pandemic. He noticed that a lot of the customers who wanted to throw axes were women, and he wondered if they had more frustration and rage to express. Another one Michelle interviewed lived in New York City, surrounded by the sound of ambulance sirens. He contracted Covid-19, but was unwilling to go to the hospital and preferred to tough it out and remain home with his children. A third man grew up homeless but found the best version of himself when he started to help others. His American dream? To be able to do what one loves. It is about being able to pursue what matters to you.
Collecting stories about the pandemic, Michelle was relieved to discover that the U.S. was still the country she knew. Despite the political division, most of her interviewees wanted to know how others were doing. “We all slowed down enough, in a quiet way, not in a do-gooder way, to think about each other,” she says. Her advice to us is to “hold on to what we learned during the pandemic, that when we think about each other and we see each other, it adds a dimension to our lives that is really enriching.”
To take care of herself, Michelle makes a point of finding joy in noticing lots of little things during her day: “It could even be something as simple as noticing a glass in the cabinet that ended up being at a weird angle and tilting against another glass, creating an odd little, pleasing visual”, she explains. Also, since she spent much of her time living in her motorhome, she appreciates nature even more. “When I let out my dog, I really enjoy trying to find the moon. I think one of the great parts about being human is how our visual surroundings really can be a source of grounding and joy. And it’s a great distraction when things just seem a little too much.”
To become her best version, Michelle wants to continue doing what she loves: hearing and sharing stories of hope. “When I was really on my knees, my youngest daughter Kristen wrote down on a little piece of paper –All you need is hope, love and courage to do anything-. I think hope is really important for getting through tough times, as well as not being afraid of what happens next.”
Did you enjoy this article? Head to the podcast, “Becoming Your Best Version,” host by Maria Leonard Olsen, to listen to the full interview.