It’s not a new story, but at least for this book, I think it’s worth telling one last time: The year was 1998, I had been promoting the movie Beloved in a live television interview with the late, great Chicago Sun-Times film critic, Gene Siskel, and everything was going perfectly smoothly, until the time came to wrap things up. “Tell me,” he asked, “what do you know for sure?”
Now, this was not my first rodeo. I’ve asked and been asked an awful lot of questions over the years, and it isn’t often that I find myself at a complete loss for words—but I have to say, the man managed to stop me in my tracks.
“Uhhhhh, about the movie?” I stammered, knowing full well that he was after something bigger, deeper, more complex, but trying to stall until I could come up with a semi-coherent response.
“No,” he said. “You know what I mean—about you, your life, anything, everything . . . ”
“Uhhhh, I know for sure . . . uhhh . . . I know for sure, I need time to think about that some more, Gene.”
Well, sixteen years and a great deal of thought later, it has become the central question of my life: At the end of the day, what exactly do I know for sure?
I’ve explored that question in every issue of O magazine—in fact, “What I Know for Sure” is the name of my monthly column—and believe me, there are still plenty of times when an answer doesn’t come easy. What do I know for sure? I know that if one more editor calls or e-mails or even sends a smoke signal asking where this month’s installment is, I’m going to change my name and move to Timbuktu!
But just when I’m ready to raise the white flag and yell, “That’s it! I’m tapped out! I know nothing!” I’ll find myself walking the dogs or brewing a pot of chai or soaking in the tub, when, out of nowhere, a little moment of crystal clarity will bring me back to something that in my head and my heart and my gut, I absolutely do know beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Still, I have to admit that I was a bit apprehensive when it came to rereading fourteen years’ worth of columns. Would it be like looking back at old photos of me in haircuts and outfits that really ought to be left in the seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time file? I mean, what do you do if what you knew for sure back in the day turns into what were you thinking, here in the present?
I took a red pen, a glass of Sauvignon Blanc, a deep breath, sat down, and started to read. And as I read, what I was doing and where I was in my life when I wrote these pieces came flooding back. I instantly remembered wracking my brain and searching my soul, sitting up late and waking up early, all to figure out what I’ve come to understand about the things that matter in life, things like joy, resilience, awe, connection, gratitude, and possibility. I’m happy to report that what I discovered in those fourteen years of columns is that when you know something, really know something, it tends to stand the test of time.
Don’t get me wrong: You live, and if you’re open to the world, you learn. So while my core thinking remains pretty solid, I did wind up using that red pen to nip and tuck, explore and expand a few old truths and some hard-earned insights. Welcome to my own private book of revelations! As you read about all the lessons I’ve struggled with, cried over, run from, circled back to, made peace with, laughed about, and at long last come to know for sure, my hope is that you’ll begin to ask yourself the very same question Gene Siskel asked me all those years ago. I know that what you’ll find along the way will be fantastic, because what you’ll find will be yourself.
“Sit. Feast on your life.”
The first time Tina Turner appeared on my show, I wanted to run away with her, be a backup girl, and dance all night at her concerts. Well, that dream came true one night in L.A. when The Oprah Winfrey Show went on tour with Tina. After a full day’s rehearsal for just one song, I got my chance.
It was the most nerve-racking, knee-shaking, exhilarating experience ever. For 5 minutes and 27 seconds I got a chance to feel what it’s like to rock onstage. I have never been more out of my element, out of my body. I remember counting the steps in my head, trying to keep the rhythm, waiting for the big kick, and being so self-conscious.
Then, in an instant, it dawned on me: Okay, girl, this is going to be over soon. And if I didn’t loosen up, I would miss the fun. So I threw my head back, forgot about step, step, turn, kick, and just danced. WHEEEEW!
Several months later I received a package from my friend and mentor Maya Angelou—she’d said she was sending me a gift she’d want any daughter of hers to have. When I ripped it open, I found a CD of a song by Lee Ann Womack that I can still hardly listen to without boohooing. The song, which is a testament to Maya’s life, has this line as its refrain: When you get the choice to sit it out or dance, I hope you dance.
What I know for sure is that every day brings a chance for you to draw in a breath, kick off your shoes, and step out and dance—to live free of regret and filled with as much joy, fun, and laughter as you can stand. You can either waltz boldly onto the stage of life and live the way you know your spirit is nudging you to, or you can sit quietly by the wall, receding into the shadows of fear and self-doubt.
You have the choice this very moment—the only moment you have for certain. I hope you aren’t so wrapped up in non-essential stuff that you forget to really enjoy yourself—because this moment is about to be over. I hope you’ll look back and remember today as the day you decided to make every one count, to relish each hour as if there would never be another. And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance, I hope you dance.
I take my pleasures seriously. I work hard and play well; I believe in the yin and yang of life. It doesn’t take a lot to make me happy because I find satisfaction in so much of what I do. Some satisfactions are higher-rated than others, of course. And because I try to practice what I preach—living in the moment—I am consciously attuned most of the time to how much pleasure I am receiving.
How many times have I laughed so hard on the phone with my best friend, Gayle King, that my head started to hurt? Mid-howl I sometimes think, Isn’t this a gift—after so many years of nightly phone calls, to have someone who tells me the truth and to laugh this loudly about it? I call that five-star pleasure.
Being aware of, and creating, four- and five-star experiences makes you blessed. For me, just waking up “clothed in my right mind,” being able to put my feet on the floor, walk to the bathroom, and do what needs to be done there is five stars. I’ve heard many stories of people who aren’t healthy enough to do that.
A strong cup of coffee with the perfect hazelnut creamer: four stars. Going for a walk through the woods with the dogs unleashed: five stars. Working out: one star, still. Sitting under my oaks, reading the Sunday papers: four stars. A great book: five. Hanging out at Quincy Jones’s kitchen table, talking about everything and nuthin’: five stars. Being able to do good things for other people: five plus. The enjoyment comes from knowing the receiver understands the spirit of the gift. I make an effort to do something good for somebody every day, whether I know that person or not.
What I know for sure is that pleasure is energy reciprocated: What you put out comes back. Your base level of pleasure is determined by how you view your whole life.
More important than 20/20 eyesight is your internal vision, your own sweet spirit whispering through your life with guidance and grace—now that’s pleasure.
Life is full of delightful treasures, if we take a moment to appreciate them. I call them ahhh moments, and I’ve learned how to create them for myself. Case in point: my 4 p.m. cup of masala chai tea (spicy, hot, with foamed almond milk on top—it’s refreshing and gives me a little lift for the rest of the afternoon). Moments like this are powerful, I know for sure. They can be your recharge, your breathing space, your chance to reconnect with you.
I have always adored the word delicious. The way it rolls off my tongue delights me. And even more delectable than a delicious meal is a delicious experience, rich and layered like a fine coconut cake. I had one a few birthdays ago—both the cake and the experience. It was one of those moments I call a God wink—when out of the blue everything lines up just perfectly.
I was hanging out with a group of girlfriends in Maui; I’d just come back from India and wanted to have a spa retreat at my house to celebrate turning 58.
As girlfriends do even at this age, we sat around the table and talked till midnight. On the night before my birthday, five of the eight of us were still at the table at 12:30 a.m., worn out from a five-hour conversation that had run the gamut from men to microdermabrasion. Lots of laughing, some tears. The kind of talking women do when we feel safe.
In two days I was scheduled to interview the famed spiritual teacher Ram Dass, and by coincidence I started to hum a line from a song invoking his name.
Suddenly my friend Maria said, “What’s that you’re humming?”
“Oh, just a line from a song I like.”
She said, “I know that song. I listen to it every night.”
“No way,” I said. “It’s an obscure song on an album by a woman named Snatum Kaur.”
“Yes!” Maria said. “Yes! Yes! Snatum Kaur! I listen to her every night before I go to bed. How do you know her music?”
“Peggy”—another friend who was with us—“gave me a CD two years ago, and I’ve been listening ever since. I play her every day before meditating.”
Now we were both screaming and laughing. “No way!” “I actually thought of having her come to sing for my birthday,” I said when I caught my breath. “Then I went, Nah, too much trouble. Had I known you liked her, too, I would have made the effort.”
Later that night, lying in bed, I thought, Isn’t that something. I would have gone to the trouble for a friend but not for myself. For sure I need to practice what I preach and value myself more. I went to sleep wishing I’d invited Snatum Kaur to sing.
The next day, my birthday, we had a “land blessing” with a Hawaiian chieftain. That evening we gathered on the porch for sunset cocktails. My friend Elizabeth stood up—to read a poem, I thought, or make a speech. Instead she said, “You wanted it, and now you have manifested it.” She rang a small chime, and suddenly music started to play.
The music was muffled, as if the speakers weren’t working. I thought, What’s going on? And then there appeared, walking onto my front porch . . . Snatum Kaur, in her white turban. And her musicians! “How did this happen?” I cried. And cried, and cried. Maria, sitting next to me with tears in her eyes, held my hand and just nodded. “You wouldn’t do it for yourself, so we did it for you.”
After I’d gone to bed the night before, my friends had called to find out where Snatum Kaur was, to see if they could get her to Maui in the next 12 hours. As life and God would have it, she and her musicians were in a town 30 minutes away, preparing for a concert. And were “honored” to come and sing.
It was one of the most amazing surprises of my life. Layered with meanings I’m still deciphering. What I know for sure: It’s a moment I’ll savor forever—the fact that it happened, the way it happened, that it happened on my birthday. All . . . so . . . delicious!
When was the last time you laughed with a friend till your sides hurt or dropped the kids off with a sitter and went away for an entire weekend? More to the point, if your life ended tomorrow, what would you regret not doing? If this were the last day of your life, would you spend it the way you’re spending today?
I once passed a billboard that caught my attention. It read, “He who dies with the most toys is still dead.” Anyone who has ever come close to death can tell you that at the end of your life, you probably won’t be reminiscing about how many all-nighters you pulled at the office or how much your mutual fund is worth. The thoughts that linger are the “if only” questions, like Who could I have become if I had finally done the things I always wanted to do?
The gift of deciding to face your mortality without turning away or flinching is the gift of recognizing that because you will die, you must live now. Whether you flounder or flourish is always in your hands—you are the single biggest influence in your life.
Your journey begins with a choice to get up, step out, and live fully.
Is there anything I love more than a good meal? Not much. One of my best took place on a trip to Rome, at a delightful little restaurant filled exclusively with Italians except for our table: my friends Reggie, Andre, and Gayle, Gayle’s daughter Kirby, and me, eating as the Romans do. There was a moment when the waiters, prompted by our Italian host, Angelo, brought out so many delicious antipasti that I actually felt my heart surge, like an engine switching gears. We had zucchini stuffed with prosciutto, and fresh, ripe tomatoes layered with melting mozzarella so warm you could see tiny cheese bubbles, along with a bottle of ’85 Sassicaia, a Tuscan red wine that had been breathing for half an hour, to sip and savor like liquid velvet. Oh my, these were moments to treasure!
Did I mention I topped all this off with a bowl of pasta e fagioli (made to perfection) and a little tiramisu? Yep, that was some good eating. I paid for it with a 90-minute jog around the Colosseum the next day—but it was worth every delectable bite.
I have a lot of strong beliefs. The value of eating well is one of them. I know for sure that a meal that brings you real joy will do you more good in the long and short term than a lot of filler food that leaves you standing in your kitchen, roaming from cabinet to fridge. I call it the grazing feeling: You want something, but can’t figure out what it is. All the carrots, celery, and skinless chicken in the world can’t give you the satisfaction of one incredible piece of chocolate if that’s what you really crave.
So I’ve learned to eat one piece of chocolate— maximum, two—and dare myself to stop and relish it, knowing full well, like Scarlett O’Hara, that “tomorrow is another day,” and there’s always more where that came from. I don’t have to consume the whole thing just because it’s there. What a concept!
It’s been more than two decades since I first met Bob Greene at a gym in Telluride, Colorado. I weighed 237 pounds at the time, my highest ever. I was at the end of my rope and the end of hope—so ashamed of my body and my eating habits, I could barely look Bob in the eye. I desperately wanted a solution that worked.
Bob put me through my workout paces and encouraged a lifestyle built around eating whole foods (long before I’d ever heard of the store that shares that name and mission). I resisted. But even as different diets came and went, his advice remained consistent and wise: Eat foods that make you thrive.
A few years ago, I finally got the big aha and started growing my own vegetables. And what began with a few rows of lettuce, some tomatoes, and basil (my favorite herb) in my backyard in Santa Barbara eventually became a genuine farm in Maui. My gardening interest grew into a passion.
I get ridiculously happy at the sight of the purple radicchio we’ve grown, the elephant kale that reaches my knees, the radishes so big I call them baboon butts— because for me it all represents a full-circle moment.
In rural Mississippi, where I was born, a garden meant survival. In Nashville, where I later lived, my father always cleared a “patch” by the side of our house, where he would grow collard greens, tomatoes, crowder peas, and butter beans.
Today that’s my favorite meal; add some cornbread and I’m clicking my heels. But when I was a girl, I saw no value in eating freshly grown foods. “Why can’t we have store-bought food like other people?” I’d complain. I wanted my vegetables to come from the “valley of the jolly—ho, ho, ho—Green Giant”! Having to eat from the garden made me feel poor.
I now know for sure how blessed I was to have access to fresh food—something not every family today can take for granted.
Thank you, Lord, for growth.
I’ve worked hard to sow the seeds for a life in which I get to keep expanding my dreams. One of those dreams is for everyone to be able to eat fresh food that goes from farm to table—because better food is the foundation for a better life. Yes, Bob, I’m putting it in print: You were right all along!
Excerpted from What I Know for Sure by Oprah Winfrey. Copyright © 2014 by 2014 by Hearst Communications, Inc.
First published 2014 in the US as What I Know For Sure by Flatiron Books. First published in the UK 2014 by Macmillan, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world http://www.panmacmillan.com.
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