I come home from happy hour one Friday evening and see there’s a message on my land line. I type in my password and before the message plays I hear the familiar AT&T voice recite the phone number. It’s a Chicago area code.
Then I hear, “Hi, Nancy? Oprah Winfrey calling.”
I know that voice. It’s somehow soothing and jarring. Here’s part of what I hear in the message:
“Thank you profoundly. I’m so thrilled that somebody gets what I’m trying to do and that you responded. It was a bright light in my day to see that.”
Um, how many glasses of wine did I have exactly?
The voice mail, as it turns out, is a long, meaningful expression of gratitude. The most recognizable woman in the world is calling to thank me for writing a piece on her LifeClass show on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN). She is particularly impressed, she says, that I understood the complicated history behind her professional relationship with Iyanla Vanzant and expressed it in the column.
I play the message a few times and sit on my couch and smile. Who picks up the phone to express gratitude anymore? Winfrey walks her talk. What do you know?
That was the fall of 2011. For five years and up until early 2013 I was one of that rare breed – a liberal with a spiritual bent writing for Fox. My twice-weekly column about ‘how to live life’ was called Game Plan and as a journalist and life coach it allowed me to merge my two passions. Since Winfrey’s work is a terrific resource and the emerging LifeClass show was the blessed antithesis of what we’ve come to know as reality television, I not only found it valuable in my own life I had begun recommending it to clients.
The Friday morning in October the column about LifeClass was published I was at the gym. I am always off grid when I work out, but as I emerged from the club I checked my phone and saw I had an email from my producer at Fox Business. Harpo was trying to track me down. I squinted. Say what?
I walked the few blocks home and signed in to my business email account. Indeed there were emails from Sheri Salata’s administrative assistant as well as a telephone message. Salata is president of OWN and Harpo and was beginning to get some air time at that point, so I recognized the name and had a face to put to it.
When I dialed the number, the woman who answered was ebullient, apologized for “stalking” me, and asked me to hold for Sheri. Much of my conversation with the delightful Salata is now a blur, but this is what I clearly remember.
“Nancy, I read your article twice and cried both times,” Salata said. “I’m showing it to Oprah.”
And, “As a thank you, we’d like to fly you and a friend to be in the audience for a live showing of LifeClass.”
I was gracious. Hopefully graceful, too.
After I hung up (and OK, called a few people, including my sister who I made get off the treadmill at her gym), my inner journalist voice started kicking in. Uh, Nancy, you’ve been a journalist since 1986. It is not ethically cool to take a trip as a “thank you.” You are then compromised. There will be no more writing about Oprah Winfrey if you do this.
While I mulled that, my inner independent contractor decided to get in on the duel. Sweetheart, you have a nice gig at FoxBusiness.com, but there’s no guarantee it’s going to last from one moment to the next. Don’t you owe it to yourself to expand your opportunities? Did you not notice your message is almost completely aligned with what Winfrey espouses? Authenticity. Alignment with purpose. Her mission is to teach. Your mission is to teach. Go see a master in action.
All fine and good, but let’s be even more real here. Journalist and independent contractor aside, I started spinning fantasies. Here’s the thing about being Winfrey — people expect you to wave some kind of magic wand over their lives. With all of my groundedness, I confess some of that seeped in.
What was really intriguing, though, were the reactions around me. This one puts in an order for a car for when I get rich. That one wants me to bring her book and hand it to Winfrey. This one wonders if I’ll get a show (about what, pray tell?). That one wants me to wear something she designed. This one suddenly wants to mention me in her book, because then, as the logic goes, Oprah will read it. Another one has me already invited to Winfrey’s house at holidays.
Mother of God.
Suddenly I had a semblance of an idea what people around Oprah must go through on a daily basis. By way of your association with Winfrey, you’re not just a person, but a potential ticket for people to something they want. It would be heady if it wasn’t so unsettling.
As a life coach, I had dealt with my share of clients who wanted to write a book “to be on Oprah.” In each case I carefully made sure not to squash ambition but to get to the root of intent. “You write a book because you have something to say,” I’d explain. Not to be on TV. In one case I had to pointedly explain that if she was hell-bent on doing it just to get on Winfrey’s stage, she had the wrong coach.
Still, even as one who is writing a book with the ‘right’ intent, I had a big fat OWN presence on my vision board. I was careful not to be hypocritical, but really, what is it we expect from Oprah? I have a few acquaintances who have been on her show and I think it’s safe to say they thought they’d get more from it. I also recall seeing a woman on The Oprah Winfrey Show tell Oprah that she was on her vision board.
Ultimately, one might say, so what?
I have an answer to that. I found out I can manifest things. Good to know, yes? The experience prompted my sister to ask, “What else is on that vision board of yours?” That’s a good question. What is? And why is Winfrey on there? Is she a ‘goal’ of mine? What does that even mean?
No surprise that I went to Chicago, right? I brought my friend, Kathi, a kindred spirit who I knew would find it fun and valuable. We were treated in classy, just-as-you’d-imagine fashion from start to finish for a weekend. A brunch reservation at RL? No problem, Harpo staff has it covered. Call ahead to get your Chicago-style pizza started? The driver taking you there is on it. It’s a crazy cool way to roll.
After the live LifeClass show with Winfrey and Vanzant, Kathi and I hear Salata, whose producing team is sitting right behind us, say, “Take Nancy and Kathi backstage to meet Oprah.” We turn the corner and before I can even take a deep breath I am facing Oprah Winfrey. I come out with a startled, “Oprah!” And she doesn’t miss a beat — “Nancy!”
Her energy is warm. She is clearly exhausted from what has been an intense show. There is a moment where I tell her I recommend the show to my clients. There is an introduction to Kathi. There is one of her famous high fives where she holds on and lingers for an instant. Actually, there are two of those in the short span we meet. It’s lovely. She’s lovely.
Upon returning from the whirlwind Chicago trip, everyone wants to know how I am going to “use” this experience. I take this very seriously. I am probably guilty of not being an opportunist in most situations — yes, I consider that a badge of honor — but my ambition and peer pressure combine for a big ‘should’ and I develop a pitch for a column idea for O, The Oprah Magazine. The compelling Martha Beck is already a life coach presence in the magazine every month so I don’t go that route, but I am about to turn 50 and my idea is a forum that will appeal to readers in their 50s.
It is a projection on the fabulous adventure awaiting me in my 50s — gloss, travel, live and let live, baby — all chronicled in my first-person, come-along-on-my-ride style.
Despite the connection my pitch falls into a big black hole.
But I don’t dwell on it. Because really, what kind of life coach would I be if I didn’t see this as something bigger in my life?
What happened next is I turned 50. There was what I imagined and then there was the reality. I was there and it was nothing like I’d proposed in my pitch. In the first three months — knee injury, sudden death of a friend, more death, blood pressure issues. Real life. Grief-stricken with my leg up on a pillow, my capacity for empathy doubled, tripled, quadrupled. Once I experienced using a cane after knee surgery, I wanted to assist every person I saw with a cane in my neighborhood when I was healed. While it would have never occurred to me to engage another in a conversation about their loved one who has died, suddenly I was seeking out those who understood grief.
This is who I am. It’s my way of being in the world. I make sense of things, mostly via the written word. I chronicled the heck out of my experiences as they were happening via my Game Plan column and was thrilled when the writing touched readers who took the time to share how my words had landed on them.
What does any of this have to do with Oprah Winfrey? It doesn’t, at least directly. It is, I believe, what I have in common with Winfrey. Seeking understanding and spiritual depth in every day. There is an inner directive to teach, to bring whatever wisdom I have to as many people as possible so their lives are touched in some way. It’s really that simple.
Recently on Twitter I noticed that CNN’s Don Lemon was unabashedly excited when Winfrey responded to one of his Tweets about the TV show “Scandal.” She has that effect on us. I attribute it, at least in part, to her story of going from where she did to where she is now. It’s impressive, magical even.
That call one day after a random Friday happy hour changed me, but not in the way I would have anticipated. In retrospect the vision on my board was a little bit about an attachment to someone waving a magic wand on my life. Unquestionably, meeting Oprah reflected something back to me about myself. It was not about her anointing me as … whatever. It was about recognizing and using my ability to create my own magic.
And for that, it is my turn to be grateful to her.