Two things kept me from completely losing my mind during my first maternity leave: crossword puzzles and Oprah.
Sometimes it took me an entire week to complete one puzzle -- a Monday one at that. But if I could fill those squares, I figured, my brain wouldn’t be oatmeal by the time I was ready to re-enter the world of humans who showered and returned emails in a timely fashion.
Oprah? Well, I couldn’t explain at the time what she was providing me, but I knew I needed it to survive. Connection, I know now, when I felt disconnected from everyone and everything I knew. Empathy when I felt lost, lonely and inept. Stories when I needed to tap my own empathy reserves. Humanity when I wasn’t interacting much with actual humans, outside the tiny one who baffled me even as she captured my whole heart.
I have loved Oprah since college -- another chapter when I felt lost, lonely and inept. I loved her during my first job at a newspaper in Indiana, when I worked nights and her show aired, blessedly, midday. I loved her when I had meningitis and suddenly found myself watching day-time TV again -- first in a hospital, then recovering at home.
She taught and touched me during every formative, terrifying period of my life.
Millions, I know, have similar affection for her.
“I’d pretty much jump in front of a train for her,” my friend Cindy wrote Sunday night when I posted on Facebook about Oprah’s Golden Globes speech. “I’d take a bullet for her,” another friend, Peggy, wrote.
“She is unbelievable over and over,” my friend Judy wrote. “I was inspired by her to write a book about my experience with childhood sexual abuse and dedicated it to her and she’ll never know.”
We were talking about her speech -- the greatest I’ve seen at an awards show. Among the greatest I’ve seen, period.
“What I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have,” she said, accepting the Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement.
“And I’m especially proud and inspired by all the women who have felt strong enough and empowered enough to speak up and share their personal stories. Each of us in this room are celebrated because of the stories that we tell. And this year we became the story. But it’s not just a story affecting the entertainment industry. It’s one that transcends any culture, geography, race, religion, politics or workplace.
“So I want tonight to express gratitude to all the women who have endured years of abuse and assault, because they -- like my mother -- had children to feed and bills to pay and dreams to pursue. They’re the women whose names we’ll never know. They are domestic workers and farmworkers; they are working in factories and they work in restaurants, and they’re in academia and engineering and medicine and science; they’re part of the world of tech and politics and business; they’re our athletes in the Olympics and they’re our soldiers in the military.”
She told the story of Recy Taylor, an African-American woman brutally raped and left blindfolded by six white men as she walked home from church in 1944. Taylor died at the end of December at 97.
“And I just hope that Recy Taylor died knowing that her truth -- like the truth of so many other women who were tormented in those years, and even now tormented -- goes marching on,” Oprah said.
“Oprah for president,” I half-joked on Facebook. I wasn’t alone. Countless “Oprah in 2020” tweets and posts took off before the applause had even ended. Backstage, a reporter asked Stedman Graham, Oprah’s partner, whether she’d run. “It’s up to the people,” he said. “She would absolutely do it.”
We -- I -- want her to lift us up and save our souls and restore a sense of dignity and heart that seems altogether missing from our nation’s capital, our collective body’s nerve center.
But, in all honesty, I hope she doesn’t run. I think she deserves better than what Washington’s serving these days, and I think her gifts would be squandered and squashed in politics.
Instead, I hope her speech does what her words have been doing for decades: inspire us to action. On her talk show, in her magazine, on her network, in her art, Oprah has always provided a blueprint. Be better, she nudges us, and here’s how.
Oh, and I’m doing it with you.
And we’d listen. She got the masses to read Cormac McCarthy, for Pete’s sake.
Her Golden Globes speech is being compared to a stump speech, but I prefer to see it as a call to arms.
“I want all the girls watching here and now to know that a new day is on the horizon!” Oprah announced.
It’s on us to coax it into being. It’s on us to seek out, mentor, make space for, hire, celebrate those girls she mentioned.
It’s on us to remember that Oprah is shaped, but not defined, by an incredibly difficult childhood. It’s on us to remember that greatness and art and stories and brilliance live inside girls and boys, young women and young men everywhere. It’s on to find them. And listen. And act.
It’s on us to revive this nation’s heart.
Maybe we’re in another formative, terrifying period. Maybe Oprah can help us through it. But the hard work shouldn’t lay at her feet. It should lay at ours.
By Heidi Stevens
Heidi Stevens is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. -- Ed.
(Tribune Content Agency)