When I was a teenager, The Oprah Show was on TV every day at 6pm. For my mum and I, it was our special time. Homework done and dance classes finished, we would always, always watch together – on the couch with a cup of tea or at the kitchen table while dinner bubbled away on the stove. It was more than just a TV show – it was our daily meditation, the full stop at the end of our day, one of the many things we shared in quiet companionship.
In the mid-90s, the show featured a self help book called If Life is a Game, These are the Rules (by Cherie Carter-Scott). Oh how I devoured every word of that episode. In fact, I scribbled as much of it as I could catch all over blue and pink Post It notes, not wanting to forget a single word. Even at the time I knew what a geek I was being. I said to my mum, “Do you think I’m silly, taking notes like this?” She replied simply and unsentimentally (as is her way), “No. I’m proud of you.” I still have those Post It notes today, stuck in a scrapbook – reminders of my 16 year old self’s search for enlightenment, a vital step on a journey towards maturity.
Dr Phil was introduced to the world around this time too. Who didn’t love the straight talking Texan who said things like, “If he’ll do it with ya, he’ll do it to ya.” and “Would you rather be right or be happy?”? These two memes have stayed with me since the first time I heard them, and I’ve needed to dust them off on more than one occasion over the last couple of decades. Thank you Oprah, for giving us Dr Phil.
Later, when I went off to university, the ritual remained. My flatmates (still some of my very best friends to this day) knew that 6pm was “Cathy’s Oprah time”. They teased me mercilessly about my devotion to the chat show, but mostly they sat down and joined me to watch.
For me, Oprah’s show was more than an institution. It was a force, it was a place of reflection and learning, it was an occasional escape to frivolity (oh who could forget a shy Brad Pitt being interviewed for the first time in 1998?), and it was a comfort in an ever-changing world that some things remained. Like people should: they changed a bit, improved, grew, and (hopefully) evolved, but fundamentally, they remained. Her final episode (following the star-studded fanfare of the penultimate shows) was an embodiment of the very thing we loved about her – a no-frills, very human account of the lessons she had learned through the lifespan of the show – the lessons I learned alongside her.
There was Iyanla Vanzart, who taught my teenage self that “Love doesn’t hurt.” These words were utterly invaluable as I grew into a woman. Of course, I didn’t always put them into practice, but the seeds of that lesson were sown and I’m so grateful now. In an episode about teenage heartbreak, she said to a mother (and I paraphrase from distant memory!), “Your daughter is utterly devastated because this, in her experience, is the worst thing that has every happened to her and she doesn’t have the frame of reference to put it into context, to know that she will come through it and she will be fine.” How very true! For every stage of motherhood. I try to remember these words when my three-year-old has a meltdown because I pressed the button for the lift when she wanted to do it (Worst. Thing. Ever.), and I know I’ll need to draw on them for many years to come as I parent my daughters through their wilderness years and beyond.
I’ll never forget the kind and wise voice of the late, great Dr Maya Angelou who said, “When people show you who they are, believe them the first time.” I definitely have that on a Post It note somewhere. If I had learned that lesson when I first heard it I would have saved myself a lot of heart ache – from disappointments in friendships to hours waiting by a phone that never rang. Still, the lesson got there in the end and now in my thirties I have no time for the takers, the unkind or the unreliable. Instead of sitting around hoping they will change or wondering what I could have done differently, I simply accept them for what they showed me they were in the first place, and remove myself from them. My life is so much happier as a result.
As a mother of young children, not a day goes by that I don’t think of a woman named Monica, who Oprah met after a life-threatening infection forced her to have both her arms and both her legs amputated – right after the birth of her second child. Her words haunt me: “I did have moments of ‘If God just left me one arm or one leg, life would be a little bit easier,’ but that’s not the way it went. You make do with what you have. I could still love my girls. The bottom line was I am still here.” I have days I think are difficult days, but I do not know difficult days. My life is full of grace and privilege and, although I tend to forget this around 5pm on most days, I hope I carry that knowledge with me more often than not. (You can read more about Monica’s story here.)
As I grew up, day after day, year after year, Oprah’s lessons seeped into my developing consciousness. Lessons about self worth, self respect and respect for others, about following your passion, paying attention, about giving being far more satisfying than receiving, and about being grateful for what you have (I have a drawer full of gratitude journals that I swear changed the way I look at my day-to-day life). And my favourite lesson of all: “Listen to your life when it whispers to you, so it doesn’t have to hit you upside the head with a brick.”
I feel so grateful to have grown up in an age of Oprah. I’ve often wished I could buy a box set of her episodes to keep and refer back to, like a road map for life. Of course I know her work continues through her TV network, and her Life Lessons series, but for me nothing could recapture the simplicity and comfort of her TV show – a daily injection of inspiration, common sense and escapism. I miss it. Perhaps it’s also a moment in time I miss – a time when things were simpler; when my mum and I could sit down together in front of the TV while the world outside waited. When life lessons could be scrawled on a Post It note and stored away, saved for later.