Although there were people everywhere, it was quiet inside Verizon Center on Saturday afternoon. The massive arena had been turned into a classroom. From my seat — perched nearly eye-level with the sports banners hanging from the rafters — I could see our instructor, Oprah Winfrey, roaming the aisles on the floor as we conference attendees dutifully filled out a pie chart that asked us to complete a “life circle” in our program book.
Along with thousands of other women and what seemed to be a few hundred men, I had signed up to attend Oprah’s “The Life You Want Weekend.” As she directed us on how to fill out our pie charts by carving out the most important ingredients for the lives we wanted, Winfrey showed us hers. Spirituality and faith filled about a quarter of her pie, and she rated herself positively in that area. Occupation was a smaller slice of her circle and, after 25 years of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and founding her cable network, the former queen of daytime TV rated that slice only “so-so.” Even Winfrey, it seems, feels she has work to do on her life.
She had told us all as the conference opened Friday night that “you co-create your life with the energy of your intention.” So we focused our energy on setting our intentions, quietly filling out our work sheets and trying to find out the ingredients of the secret sauce to her success.
My journey to the weekend with Winfrey began one Sunday six months ago, when I bought tickets to her life-improvement tour. If my memory serves me, I was too tired to go to church that morning. Exhausted from too much work and too much mothering, I was surely having one of those days where I command myself to keep my rear end on the couch.
It’s an infrequent habit of which I’m not especially proud. I grew up in Houston happily going to church most every Sunday, so to assuage my conscience, I probably played the role of a “bedside Baptist” and caught a bit of televangelist Joel Osteen’s sermon before switching the channel to Oprah’s cable network.
I can’t remember who was on OWN that “Super Soul Sunday,” as she calls the spiritually focused programming. I watch OWN semi-regularly and often have found something to admire or be inspired by in the featured work.
So when the commercial for Oprah’s live event flashed, promising to take her message on tour — with a stop in Washington as part of an eight-city tour that also includes Detroit and Atlanta — I shot my friend Carla a text message. Carla said she was in, and an hour or so later, she said a mutual friend of ours wanted to come, too. The cheap seats were more than $200, but we were up for the investment.
Why did I want to spend a weekend with Oprah?
It was the same question Winfrey asked us as the lights dimmed and she came to the stage Friday night to open the program.
“Why are you here? Why are you here, my God? Stedman said ‘Don’t the people know you don't have a hit record?’ ” she said teasingly, referring to her partner, Stedman Graham.
The intergenerational crowd of mostly women went wild, and a woman seated directly behind me excitedly shouted back at Winfrey: “I’m trying to find out who the hell I am!”
I was there for the same reason I had flipped the channel to OWN that Sunday in April. Listening to Winfrey confidently talk about what she “knows for sure” from her self-actualized perch as a beloved media magnate is often the push I need to slow down and be self-reflective. The fact that Winfrey’s command of self is embodied in an African American woman who is just a few months older than my mother must also have some subconscious appeal. Why wouldn’t I want to spend the weekend with her?
I’ve been to my share of retreats — church retreats, women’s retreats, marital retreats, silent retreats — and I’ve liked most of them. I’m also the kind of person who makes a vision board every few years. I have a small library of self-help books. This is my thing.
I’d decided not to approach the weekend — which included the Friday night session and day-long Saturday workshop (including four work sheets!) — as a reporter. When I’m a working journalist, I’ve trained myself to put on my mask of skepticism. At Oprah’s weekend, I chose instead to be one of the gals.
The journalist in me would have laughed at a few of the aphorisms — “The only courage you need in your life is the courage to live your dreams” was a recurring one. And she would have looked side-eyed at the commercial sponsorships. Winfrey had a couple of shout-outs to Toyota and encouraged attendees to go to the “O Shop” to buy books and other merchandise, for example. But I allowed myself to ignore that and to instead feel the way I do when I’m alone working out a vision board.
“The Life You Want Weekend” is anchored by Winfrey and features men and women she calls “life trailblazers.” I’d heard of a couple of her handpicked gurus before I took my seat in the nosebleeds. I’d started reading Iyanla Vanzant in college, when most of the black women I knew had a copy of “Acts of Faith,” a book of Vanzant’s daily meditations. And I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love” along with the women’s group at my old church, and we got together over coffee to talk about how we could live more liberated lives. Vanzant and Gilbert joined Oprah onstage Saturday, along with a pastor and a poet, who led a group meditation.
Winfrey strutted about in a red dress during the opening program. She pumped her fist. She smiled.
“Damn, I love Oprah!” someone screamed, seeming to speak for everyone in the arena. The place wasn’t sold-out, but it was full and felt crowded.
Winfrey talked about space and light and energy and asked us: “What are you going to do, D.C., with the energy that is you?” And as she said it, the bracelets we had all been given as part of our conference package lit up with her words. You weren’t there, so it probably sounds corny to you, but we loved it.
Winfrey told us up front she wasn’t going to get into a discussion of religion — “That’s your business,” she said. But she also said she was brought up believing that “God was my father and Jesus was my brother, and things tend to work out when you believe that.”
As I sat next to Carla, with my journal in hand, I was glad that I had turned down the $599-level media seats. The women who had packed the rafters alongside me were as into the experience as I was.
So when Winfrey said, “You have no power in other people’s territory. Mind your own energy field,” my friend said, “That’s good.”
I nodded in agreement and took notes. Goodness knows I could mind my own more often — and stop worrying about other folks’.
The woman to my left, who had driven from Baltimore with two friends and stayed in a hotel for the weekend, was busy taking notes, too. When we settled into our seats Saturday morning, she said to me, “only Oprah could say that about her grandmother. I know every black woman in here could relate to that.” I knew exactly what she was talking about. As Winfrey spoke Friday to a crowd that was diverse but seemed to skew slightly African American, she had recounted her now-familiar life story of growing up in Mississippi and watching her grandmother work as a domestic.
Winfrey’s grandmother had often told her, “Get some good white folks, like the Leonards,” referring to the white family whom the grandmother worked for and who often gave her hand-me-down clothing and leftover food. Winfrey told the story to make the point that she had always believed her life would be bigger than that.
“Sometimes, on nights like this, I wish my grandmother was here to see I got some ‘good white folks.’ Working for me. Coming to see me,” Winfrey said to mad applause.
Winfrey’s story was the connective tissue of the weekend, and her handpicked gurus reinforced the themes that have made her such a compelling figure, such as recognizing the power of a spiritual life and personal practice, celebrating growth, and seeking to make one’s unique contribution to the world.
Toward the end of the program, Amy Purdy, a U.S. Paralympic team snowboarder who lost her legs below the knees at the age of 19, came to the main stage with Winfrey to give out an award to a community leader. Purdy, 34, said she’s taken notes during Winfrey’s remarks every week.
“When you’re in a stadium full of women who are there to grow and who are so receptive, it’s amazing the energy you feel,” Purdy told me in an interview just before the conference.
That’s the thing about the experience of a retreat. It’s only partially about what the speakers say. It’s also about the hard-to-define feeling that sweeps over a pop concert when the crowd is in sync with the performers and everyone is yelling the same lyrics at the same time. It’s about transcendence. Winfrey created that, and she somehow found a way to share the same bits of wisdom that she has been doling out for decades in a way that felt new. She shared her testimony — which everyone in the room must have been at least somewhat familiar with — but by revealing just a bit more of herself, she made her life story feel like a revelation.
Afterward, my two friends and I headed to Oyamel for margaritas and a post-Oprah debrief. We made decisions about what we would do with the information we had gathered, as Vanzant had encouraged us to. One friend said she wanted to be more vulnerable; another to stop giving unsolicited advice and information. I wanted to turn down my critical inner voices, or as Winfrey had put it, to “choose a more positive language.” Rather than going around repeating “I'm tired,” when she was tired, Winfrey said she had chosen to say: “I’m waiting on my second wind. My second wind is coming.” Soon enough, she told us, she got a second wind.
Hello! I could use more of that.
As I walked back to my car, my friends and I spotted a group of women who were wearing their “Oprah light-up” bracelets. We held our wrists in the air, waving our bracelets at one another whooping in delight, still on a high from the event.
Sunday, after church, I flipped through my program from the weekend. I noticed we had not finished the last work sheet together, which called for “capturing a new vision.”
Then I remembered that as she closed the program, Winfrey had told us, this final sheet would be our homework.
Apparently, she could only take us so far. The rest is up to us.