I feel the pulsating energy vibrating every cell of my body - and it is apparently contagious.
There has to be more than a thousand women on the outdoor deck of the Nieuw Statendam - all ages, sizes, and races - moving enthusiastically to music that is energizing the ship. They are dressed in t-shirts that have pictures of Oprah Winfrey, or spell "Girls Getaway Cruise, " or that proclaim they are from Kentucky or Texas, some of which are adorned with rhinestones; others with anchors and ships. Drinks are flowing, and waiters are serving shrimp inside of shot-glasses. It's the Sail-away Party, and these ladies are clearly ready to sail away from husbands, significant others, kids, jobs, and life's stresses for a 3-day getaway with Oprah.
About half an hour into the party, there is a collective scream so loud, it is reminiscent of films I've seen when the Beatles made appearances, and teenage girls would faint from excitement. But it isn't the Beatles. Or a rock band. Or even a good-looking male. It is Oprah's sidekick, Gayle King. She waves, and poses for photos, presumably for Entertainment Tonight and Oprah Magazine, both of which are aboard Holland America's newest ship because Oprah is its godmother.
No one has seen Oprah yet - but if this is the greeting for Gayle, there may be a tidal wave off the coast of Miami when Oprah shows up.
Gayle and the editor of O Magazine lead a game show in which some lucky passengers are invited to play. Questions are asked about how well they know Oprah, and a recorded video of Oprah voicing her responses appears on the ship's giant outdoor screen at the end of each question. Gayle's team wins. No surprise.
The O store aboard the ship is more crowded than Macy's Cellar on Black Friday. Not because there are any bargains or coupons, but because women are grabbing Oprah merchandise with unstoppable passion - and we have already been given four complimentary branded items: a t-shirt, a spacious canvas tote bag, a notebook and pen, all of a quality several cuts above the usual souvenir merchandise.
There's a two-hour sit down dinner with fellow passengers, followed by the lively cruise show, and then B.B. King's Jazz Club where seemingly everyone has gathered to dance, drink, and rock the ship some more. One thing that stands out is how friendly all the women are. We chat easily with each other, as if we've known each other for decades. It's life's shared experiences as women that creates this collective bond, paving the connections so commonality is easy to find. It reminds me of my all-girl Catholic High School days where you could forget your pocketbook somewhere, retrace your steps a few days later, and still find everything intact. We are looking out for each other, and no one would dare take anything that doesn't belong to them. This is the power of female bonding. There are - so I am told - about 300 men among the 2600 or so passengers, but they have seemingly gone to bed early, leaving the women in uninhibited party mode.
There is one beach day on this short getaway - at Holland America's private island in the Bahamas where the water is a mesmerizing and translucent crystal blue. The sun is strong and healing. It couldn't come at a better time because back in New York, it is 2 degrees today.
Aboard the ship, I attend Oprah's Book Club interview with Tara Westover, who wrote "Educated." The interview is supposed to be conducted by an Oprah staff member - but surprise - Oprah herself is giving the interview because she says it is one of the best books she has ever read. The audience is so excited - she gets a standing ovation.
Later, it is time for the creme de la creme - "A Conversation With Oprah." To say Oprah is a vibrant speaker is an understatement. It doesn't describe the uplifting experience of listening to Oprah. I will try to offer some insight, but it won't be possible to capture the energy, the passion, the timing, the articulation, the pitch of the words - all of the things that make public speaking so enticing - because Oprah is gifted beyond words. She is a master. I've spent a lifetime in education and journalism so I've attended thousands of lectures, and given just as many - but Oprah is, without question, the best of the best. The greatest of the great. She continuously alternated between making hundreds of people laugh and cry at the same time. She was inspirational, humble, empathetic, kind, part preacher, educator, and life guru. We sat spellbound, hanging on every word for nearly two hours. Time disappeared. That is a feat few lecturers can imagine, much less achieve.
She identified with the mutual life experiences to which all women can relate. The glitz of the red carpet and the awards are all meaningless, she says. It is the underlining joy that she finds throughout the day that keeps her going. She believes we are aligned to get what we believe we can get. Her philosophy is, "I am the captain of my fate, and the master of my soul." What goes out, comes back to you. For every action, there is a reaction so she is conscious of the thoughts she is putting out because it is creating an energy that comes back to her.
But don't think for a minute that her lecture wasn't grounded - it was.
Oprah says she no longer does anything she doesn't want to do. That's powerful. And seemingly impossible to many of us. But when she made that decision about 20 years ago, more doors opened for her, she says. The lesson, of course, is that women rarely put themselves first - they spend years caring for children, spouses, parents, and others. While doing so is often necessary, carving time to build a life aside from all of that is essential. Eventually kids grow up and move out, parents die, and many spouses leave. Then what? She's heard it from thousands of women over the years. They are lost because they identify only as "mothers" or "wives". Create your own identify. Pursue your passion.
Oprah spoke of her humble beginnings, growing up poor. At age 22, she was earning $22,000 a year and thought she had "made it." If she could continue to earn an annual salary equivalent to her age, she would be a wealthy woman. Imagine - earning $50,000 at age 50! ( I remember a time when I thought $50,000 was a fortune, too, as it was rare to find a woman who earned that much money).
Her backyard is plastered on the wraparound screen behind her. It is filled with trees because when she was younger she went to the house of a rich person and noticed six trees that could be seen from the kitchen window. She thought this was so extravagant - and said when she became successful, she wanted to have six trees she could see from her kitchen window. Years later, when shopping for her own home, she forgot about this. But she was standing inside the kitchen of a home she was considering buying, and had a eureka moment when she noticed six trees from the window. She went outdoors, and there were so many trees in the backyard, she couldn't count them. So she hired a tree counter, a job she didn't know existed, but does. There were 3600 trees - and she has since had more trees planted. Her vision of success was small - six trees. But a higher power was able to see that she could aspire to a lot more than that.
She spoke of her friendship with Gayle. The two have known each other since they were 21 and 22 years old, two women aspiring for success. Gayle has always uplifted and encouraged her, she says. Oprah did not have much of a relationship with her own mother, but made peace with her before she died. A sister who was given away at birth was discovered through DNA testing while her mother was ailing. Although her mom had always denied having this child, it was this woman who stepped up to care for their mother at the end of her life. The sister was introduced - she was in the audience, as were other family members who were also introduced. Oprah says it is the work of a higher power that brought this sister into her life shortly after a sister she grew up with had died. She tells all of these painful stories and more to prove that no one's life is perfect. Beyond the wealth, the television shows, and the awards, she is a woman who has dealt with the same problems that so many of us have to deal with.
Women in the audience are brought on stage to say how Oprah has touched their lives. They are ordinary people from all over the globe who have chosen to come on this cruise to meet her for the first time because Oprah has somehow impacted them. I honestly had no idea there were so many Oprah groupies in the world - but apparently there are many.
A more amusing highlight of this talk involved how Oprah got a part in the movie, "The Color Purple," something she wanted desperately. She had auditioned, and was confident it would be hers. But when she didn't hear anything for weeks, she called, and was reprehended for doing so: "You don't call us, we'll call you." It hurt, she says. It stung. Then she learned the part would go to Alfre Woodard, and she was devastated, blaming her weight as the issue. So she checked into a "fat farm" - but first, that last big meal which she describes humorously, followed by the memory of running in a polyester track suit at the farm, and listening to the lonely sound of her thighs rubbing against each other. That's when Steven Spielberg calls. He says, "I heard you are at a Fat Farm, and if you lose one pound, you may not get the part." He wanted her for a different role in the movie. No, Mr. Spielberg, this is just a health retreat. It's a cleanse. She goes on, acting out the conversation, most likely with some embellishment - she is, after all, an award-winning actress, too - and it's hilarious. She promptly checks out, heads to a Dairy Queen, and orders three scoops. The rest is Academy Award history. But Oprah being Oprah, this isn't just a humorous story, there's a lesson here, a deeper meaning to it all. She believes the reason it turned out so well is because she had come to terms with Alfre getting the part, and truly wished her well. That opened the door for positive energy to be returned to her in abundance.
Oprah wisely sets up a situation to which we can all relate - and this becomes my takeaway from the lecture because it is advice we can use, whenever we feel trapped in any set of circumstances. A friend of Oprah's is miserable working a job she will leave in a few months, but wants to know how she can survive the day-to-day when she can't stand being there. Oprah struggles to find something meaningful she can tell her, and comes up with this: Be kind to someone there every day. Make a difference in their lives. Oprah says it is what she tries to do everyday - and it has made all the difference in the world.
Oprah is hard act to follow, but comedian Anjelah Johnson managed to provide a funny performance at the theater that evening, while expressing gratitude for her own good fortune. It was that kind of soul-searching, life-affirming cruise.
For more information or to book a trip, contact "Commodore" Camille today.
This article was accurate when it was written, but everything in life changes. Enjoy the journey!
Copyright: Camille Pepe Sperrazza