“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” That aphorism is commonly attributed to Buddha, but it may as well have been Oprah Winfrey, since smack in the middle of my family quarantine experience, I snagged an out-of-the-blue invite to join the great lady on a Zoom call as part of the live audience for her new limited series called Oprah's Your Life in Focus: A Vision Forward. Here's what it was like.
First, A Little Oprah Back Story
Earlier this year, Winfrey helmed a national "2020 Vision Tour" in which she showed up in nine cities where attendees could take part in empowerment workshops, attend dance sessions and bask in the glory that is Oprah as she sat down with starry guests like Lady Gaga and Michelle Obama. At the end of the day, attendees got to actually meet the lady and take a snap with her.
That tour ended on March 9. Shortly thereafter when the pandemic ramped up, our magazine cover queen pulled together a team and, in partnership with WW (aka the company formerly known as Weight Watchers—Oprah is a large shareholder in the company), she developed four programs. Each program has its own focus and special guests—and interactive studio audiences.
Welp! Getting to Oprah Enlightenment Isn’t Easy
In order to even get into the call, I first logged in to a Zoom meeting via a private link I'd been sent by the show's producers. This was the green room, where I found myself with a half-dozen other women in their Zoom squares, all of us being advised by a moderator that we needed to have a pen ready to write down a code, which we would need to enter another Zoom call that we accessed via a link in our current Zoom's chat thread. Whew. Miraculously, I managed to get settled in the final room—the actual Zoom audience, where a warm-up staffer chatted with the four screens of ladies (I estimated a couple of hundred of people total) who were also in the audience. Women were holding up handwritten cards that said things like "South Africa Loves You Oprah." Sheesh, all I had done, I mused, was put on some lipstick. I really am not worthy.
The Great Lady Appeared
Then suddenly, she filled our screens. Sitting at a desk, with her kitchen faintly visible in the background, and her wide smile and corkscrew curls bouncing as she looked us all over, was Oprah. She was just as close to me as if she had been my direct supervisor at my job, on a video call.
Oprah began by acknowledging we were all uncomfortable right now, sequestered in our homes, uncertain of our futures. She told us how we were all needing to learn to get along with each other—today our emphasis would be on relationships. For example in her own life, one of her young students was at her house and urged Oprah to hurry up and write her speech for the recent national program for graduates. "Ouch, ouch," Oprah gently chided. "Can we just have softer tones?" Also, Winfrey said she was annoyed with the way Stedman piled his papers on the floor, rather than neatly on a desk. So instead of continuing to feel cranky, she asked him to simply take his papers to the guest house—which she did say, she was lucky to have—and now the papers were out of her home.
OK, Reality Check
Even in the moment, it was difficult to miss the chasm between a nation’s-worth of current troubles—a cratering economy, political discord, a life-threatening health crisis—and this billionaire woman’s problems. And yet. And yet. We know all about Oprah’s humble beginnings, and I know her heart is in the right place, and besides, it’s hard not to feel like this Zoom series is something she is doing for us, giving us all a self-soothing tool beyond stress-eating carbs or bingeing Netflix.
We moved on to Oprah talking about the previous week, when her guest Kate Hudson said that being locked up with her man confirmed for her that she chose the right person. Today’s guest, noted sex and relationship counselor Esther Perel, commented that along with asking if we are with the right partner, we should be asking ourselves "Am I being the right partner?" i.e., is our behavior kind, thoughtful and attentive, even though we are all under stress?
Are You As Wellness-Woke As the Next Woman?
Next we were asked to fill out our “Connect” worksheet. [Full disclosure: I love a worksheet in a wellness workshop! It makes you feel like you are actually doing something other than just having all the feelings.] We answered five questions, on a scale of one (not me at all) to four (that's me!) and wrote down our cumulative scores in the chat window so that the Zoom moderator could create an overall tally of our overall vibe—our wellness quotient—as an audience. To “I feel the relationships in my life are growing stronger during this time” I answered 2 (sometimes me). As a matter of fact, I answered 2 for almost all of them—I mean, who is going to answer question four, “When I am faced with someone's fear and anxiety, I choose compassion over criticism or impatience,” with a cheery, self-serving "that's me!" ?
Apparently a lot of women, because as the numbers flew by on the group chat, my anemic total of 11 was dwarfed by 17s and 19s. Why were all these spiritual adepts even here if they were so evolved? I wondered. Praise be—I settled down when I saw someone wrote down her cumulative score as a 2. Yay, I was not alone.
Oprah Versus the Teen Boy
Just then, my teen son burst into the room in his boxers and barked about wanting food or money or maybe he just let loose his usual when-will-he-learn-manners command for attention. "Mom, you need to get me—" He looked my computer screen and froze. He stage-whispered "Oprah...." His eyes grew wide and suddenly, there it was—the elusive respect I seldom see from him. He froze, then moonwalked out of the room, gently shutting the door behind him.
Let’s Hear From Our Zoom Audience
In a segment with fellow Zoom audience members Todd and Diana, the rest of us Zoom audience members heard how the couple’s once-giddy shared time together had devolved into watching celebrity bowling from 1972. “We’re in a rut,” Diana said, with Todd nodding solemnly. Oprah asked Perel to weigh in. First off, the sexpert counseled, a couple should not be too hard on themselves right now, because “lassitude is setting in everywhere.” She suggested they turn their kitchen table into a site of real togetherness one evening a week, at a date night time of 8:30, because although they can’t go outside to seek entertainment, “the imagination is limitless.” More audience members came forward for quick check-ins: Selena, a woman from Melbourne Australia (it was the middle of the night for her) who is working from home with her husband. Soshana, a single mom of a two-year-old in Brooklyn. Sarah, a self-described extrovert who is miserable in isolation and says when this is over she is “breaking up with Netflix and having a year of yes afterwards.” Oprah chuckled, murmured how she liked the phrase “breaking up with Netflix.” Then she introduced comic actor Kym Whitley, who said she joined WW not because she was “worried about looking cute like when I was younger, it's because I was exhausted.” Whitley calls her WW app her “little genie” because she rubs it and recipes, exercises and other WW members pop out, ready to chat with her.
Buddhism, Dancing, And That’s Our Show
Finally, there was the last guest of the day, actor Tracee Ellis Ross, who said lately she’d been channelling the teachings of Buddhist writer Pema Chodron and acknowledging “fear and grief come in waves” and that there is a peaceful way of acceptance she can learn, without trying to push away the discomfort. “We hold space for the not-great feelings,” Ross said smiling. And “we are as weak as our most vulnerable neighbor.”
“It is a privilege to just be uncomfortable,” Oprah mused, reflecting on the many ill and homeless in the world.
Before all us Zoom audience members ended with a dance party (where everyone including Kween Winfrey got up and stretched and shimmied with an exercise leader), Oprah reminded us of what she had been told by Joel Osteen. The minister told her that whatever followed the words "I am" would come looking for her, so that it made sense to say “I am...” then fill in the blank with whatever she—and by extension, all us audience members—wanted to be. My final riddle of the day—figuring out what I wanted to be. Want to experience Oprah’s show? Watch the whole Zoom-recorded show here.