9 January

Thinking About Oprah? My Life’s Lessons

by Jon Katz
Oprah On My Mind

It was almost 20 years ago that I wrote a book called “Running To The Mountain,” and Oprah Winfrey invited me her talk show, my publisher flew me to Chicago, and a big black limo picked me up and drove me to the South Side neighborhood where her studio was. I was checked by the security people and ushered into the green room, where a make-up artist fussed over me and there was good and bountiful food.

I was surprised to be invited, my publisher then hated the book and would only print a handful of copies, but some people – Oprah included, or her producers – saw something in it they liked and invited me on her show.

It was a big deal to be on Oprah, but not nearly as big a deal as it would soon become. I did not become rich or famous, or an instant global best-seller. There were five women in the Green Room with me,  and soon enough we were all holding hands and crying and hugging, for reasonsI can no longer recall.

All of the women were dealing with personal problems and goals, from weight to depression to seeking good jobs to getting rid of bad men, they were recurring guests on the show, they came on from time to time to report on their progress, and all of them were making great progress – one had just walked all the way to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, and was eager to show Oprah how much weight she lost, and how much confidence and worth she had found in the process.

I was different from them, but I was swept up in their hard work and affirmation, their lives were all changing for the better.

My segment was brief but I was impressed by Oprah’s intelligence and intuition. When you go on as many books tours as I have, it becomes a rare thing to talk to a celebrity who has read  book and understands it.

Waiting to go on, I noticed that Oprah had a very clear message of empowerment, not only for the women in the Green Room, but for me. She seemed to look for the good in people and seek to draw it out, the eternal trait of a good leaders. It’s always the tyrants who make us feel small and powerless.

I remember telling my publicist that it seemed to me that every segment she did was aimed at doing good, at improving the lives of people, especially women, and persuading them they could change the reality of their lives. She also, I remember, had a present for every member of the audience hidden under their seats.

We talked about my time alone up on the mountain (we talked after the show as well) and she asked if I ever got sick up there, and was that lonely? I said I did get sick up there, even in the brute cold, and it was lonely. I was mostly alone on that mountain, as I was to be alone for the next six or seven difficult years.

In just a few minutes, she had broached an intimate and personal reality that I had never mentioned and no one else had noticed. I wondered if she didn’t actually care. But how could I know?

Therapists had much to say about my getting sick on the mountain, and there is no need to go into that here.

A week or so later, I got a book in the mail back home. ‘Running To The Mountain” focused on my year but also Thomas Merton’s writings.

One of the passages, which someone, possibly Oprah, or most probably one of her producers,  underlined, it was about how he would pray and meditate when he was sick, and most often, heal himself.  Sometimes we need doctors, he wrote, sometimes we just need ourselves.

I still have that book on my shelf, it is quite dog-eared and the binding is disintegrating.

Oprah and I were – are –  by no means friends, and I was never invited back on her show. I went on to write books and still do, but I never came anywhere near her kind of success.

I have not spoken with her or seen her since, I would be shocked if she remembers my name, and why should she?

And I never once imagined writing about her on this blog, on my Farm Journal, until yesterday.

Yet I remember her vividly, something about her made an impression on me that remains to this day. I  recall her message of confidence and self improvement, she had turned around the lives of those women in the Green Room, and I can’t speak for what was going on inside of her, but her sincerity seemed quite evident.

I used to roll my eyes about Oprah, and found her a bit  woo-woo, talking about diets an bowel movements and spirituality. If you are a cynic, it is easy to make light of her.

But if we are alive, life pulls us along and in recent years, I have been drawn to many of the same feelings and ideas that Oprah has always preached – the importance of doing good, remembering the vulnerable, stepping out of yourself to life your life. For me to laugh at her is to laugh at myself, as different as we are, and as successful as she has become.

I was thinking about her a lot yesterday, and about the curious tracks people take, I could not have imagined then that she would ever be mentioned in the context of running for President. I spent hours reading the traumatized pundits try to figure her out.

This morning, after I woke up, Gus came over to me and spit up by the fireplace, right near my foot, something he does in the morning once in awhile thanks to his megeasophagus.

In minutes, I started to feel sick.  I felt nauseous and exhausted and broke into a cold sweat.

I sat down in a living room chair and I closed my eyes and thought of Oprah and Merton and meditated, and in my own way, prayed. I didn’t want to feel poorly today, I had a lot of work to do and we are just crawling out of this difficult cold wave.

I closed my eyes and thought of being well, pictured it,  imagined myself feeling better, moving around, eating and writing. In a few minutes my sickness just evaporated. Maria made some toast and came in to write. I don’t know what happened. Was it Oprah? Merton?Me? None of the above.

But she was in my mind, and I thought she morning, she is all about our better angels.

I know there are things we humans just can’t understand and I want to accept them. I was not horrified when people started talking about Oprah running for President.

Oprah has devoted her whole life and much of her money to empowering people, something Maria and I are committed to on a vastly smaller and less effective scale.

I am not interested in hating Donald Trump or the people who support him, I am not a reliable political hater, I’d rather stand in their shoes and try to understand where they are coming from. I think Oprah’s heart is in a good place.

I believe she connects with ordinary people in a remarkable way.

I believe Oprah is a uniter, not a divider. The women she was helping were not from any elites or powerful families, they were very ordinary, real working class people and she persuaded them that they were special and powerful. She touches hearts, not just rage and grievance.

I see that is still her message, that was a hell of the speech, and if I understand her correctly, she may well choose to be the first African-American women to become President, and the first leader of our time to try to pull the country together rather than divide it.

How could she not, when she has been telling young women of all colors for decades to do the same thing? The pundits and professional bureaucrats are horrified at the thought of outsiders  coming into Washington, they haven’t jumped through all of the hoops, kissed enough butts, coddled enough lobbyists. Politicians who want to be President are supposed to jump through hoops.

People like Mr. Trump and Oprah are outside of the precious circle, for better or worse. That’s why so many people love them.

Winfrey has jumped through many hoops, including poverty and abuse, and has become one of the wealthiest and most powerful women on the planet. For me, she has tapped into the right message at the right time, she is desperately needed to heal the country and use government to do good and improve the lives of people, not to persecute the vulnerable and divide us.

She makes me feel good. She gives me hope. She would support the refugees and immigrants, not drive them away. That is what I need to see. She would not cut health care for poor children.

I’d be happy to put an “Oprah” sign up on my front lawn, or a bumper sticker on my car. I hope the bureaucrats and old farts on both sides of the divide step out of the way, their time is up. We seek a New Way.

Watching her talk the next morning online, I saw myself in this mirror. It is time for me and others like me to step aside, and help open the gates for the young and the new Americans. They are not our enemy, they are us. It is not for me to tell them what to do, but to cheer on the sidelines and pass along what little I have come to know.


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