Busted Halo
feature: politics & culture
March 30th, 2010

Busted by Oprah

A Lenten Lament



I’ve never been to an AA meeting, but feel like the mantra is appropriate here in admitting to the world, “My name is Carolyn and I am a recovering Oprah-holic.” Though I was able to put the brakes on my problem before it became an addiction, I was headed in that direction two years ago during Lent, when I sought solace in self-help and self-pity. I was one of thousands of people who joined Oprah’s Book Club featuring A New Earth: Awakening to your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle. I joined for a couple of reasons. One, I was experiencing a particularly brutal winter of Seasonal Affective Disorder while editing a book of Iraq War narratives and living in my hometown in the aftermath of my mom’s death. Though my parents’ home of 32 years had been sold, and my family now lived in various parts of the country, I stayed behind. I was stuck in a place of denial and despair, knowing I couldn’t continue living in the past, but unable to fathom the future. Winter in upstate New York had become my personal purgatory; one is constantly waiting: for light, for warmth, for spring, and, in my case, to be someplace else.

I craved the socialization and stimulation that a book club might provide, albeit online, as much as I did the “revolutionary,” spiritual insights I would no doubt receive during the ten short weeks to enlightenment that Oprah and Tolle (Opie and Tolle forever more) dutifully promised.

When signing up, you’re required to enter a username and password. I typed in “My Assisi.” Assisi is the name of my Jack Russell/Beagle, a rescued dog with heartworm and panic disorder. My application to adopt Sisi was initially rejected. I was not a homeowner with a yard fit for a dog, just a graduate student who wanted this dog and only this dog the moment our eyes met (she reminded me of Eddie from Frasier). If there is such a thing as a soul mate, this four-legged beast was indeed mine. I decorated my apartment with pictures of St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals, and said a nine-day novena. When I got the phone call saying the dog was mine, I named her Assisi in thanks and homage, knowing it had to be divine intervention and not my proof of income pay stub that had worked. Yet when I checked my email a few days later, I read that I would not be able to take Oprah’s online class unless I changed my username, which was deemed by the powers that be as “inappropriate.”

Huh? All I can surmise is that when linked together as “myassisi” the “my ass” aspect of it could have been crude. Blame it on syntax, if you will, or on an intern at Oprah.com who has never looked at a map of Italy. Either way, my mutt and me were busted by Oprah before the journey toward online enlightenment had even begun.

Refusing to take no for an answer, (and because I had already bought the book) I changed the user name to “My Radner” (as in favorite comedienne, Gilda) and was ultimately allowed back in the cyber-circle of trust.

You just need to purchase one more thing

I can’t get past the irony in pushing enlightenment and Post-its at the same time. “You will find God, but only AFTER you highlight the important parts with a 3M Post-it highlighting pen!”

Get awakened to your life’s possibilities!” the screen sang, and FOR FREE! But before you commit to this ten-week boot-camp-towards-bliss, you needed to purchase one more thing: the new 3M Post-it highlighting pen, a multitasking genius gadget for only $6.95 which holds within it miniature Post-it stickers. The pen and the Post-its were ESSENTIAL to your “success” in the book club; product placement on behalf of the Post-it manufacturer was rampant — commercials interrupted the book club discussion every ten minutes. “I just can’t enjoy my book without it!” deemed a Vanna White-type actress sitting next to a fireplace, highlighting the hell out of her book, from which Post-its emerged on the top of every page.

In retrospect, I can’t get past the irony in pushing enlightenment and Post-its at the same time. “You will find God, but only AFTER you highlight the important parts with a 3M Post-it highlighting pen!” Of course, the multi-tasking pen also holds within it miniature Post-its stickers, which one will inevitably need to purchase refills for.

Interesting that when I recently looked up the 3M Post-it highlighting pen on Amazon, it featured for “Customers who bought this item also bought”: 1) A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose (Oprah’s Book Club, Selection 61) and 2) The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment.

It is two years later, and the insidious circle of a commercialized book club, Post-it products, and the “Log on for enlightenment” credo makes me realize just how bad that winter depression really was — a time when I could barely get out of bed, let alone realize the lunacy of the fact that my life’s purpose was now dependant on purchasing a pen that is pregnant with Post-its. Ironically, now the pen and the promise of spiritual awakening are available on Amazon in a one-click transaction. I wonder if there is free shipping and salvation too, if your soul qualifies.

Assisi A. Martone

Assisi A. Martone in exile

“CUSTOMERS WHO ALSO BOUGHT IT,” indeed: fools like me who also bought the idea of logging on for enlightenment. I’m not buying it now — the premise or the products. While the text puts forth worthwhile ideas for living simply and shunning one’s ego, the presentation is in complete opposition to the message, rendering it ridiculous. Interesting too is the irony of the fact that the name Assisi was banned from the book club, when St. Francis is an historical example of someone who actually shunned materialism and status, not to mention a gentle soul who represents the beauty of nature and of animals.

I’m waiting for the day when the Bible becomes an Oprah’s Book Club pick. Can’t you see it now? It will be the ultimate universal sell, igniting “webinar” ranting from Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims and everyone in between, jacking Amazon sales towards an all-time high, as everyone begins highlighting his or her way to heaven.

When spring finally sprang, I began to feel like I too was brought back from the dead; at least the dead of winter and the naïve belief that an online book club could somehow explain seasonal depression and grief. Did I really think I’d find answers to existential questions in ten weeks from an online book club, while filling out tedious exercises with a magic pen directed by Oprah and Eckhart “highlight-the-whole-damn-book” Tolle? I realized that enlightenment can’t be bought, peace can’t be purchased; nor can perfection.

The meaning of Easter is at once miraculous. The Son of God rises from the dead, life triumphs over death, there is peace on earth and hope is restored. Hard to believe? Yes, but that’s the message I’m buying this time. And it happens to be cheaper than a Post-it pen.

The Author : Carolyn J. Martone
Carolyn Martone is a graduate of Fordham University and the State University of New York at New Paltz. In 2012 she received a three-month artist-in-residence fellowship to the Wurlitzer Foundation of New Mexico, where she finished the screenplay, "Upstate," which is in development for television. She lives in Los Angeles.
See more articles by (16).
Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Case

    As neither a fan of Oprah, or on-line seminars, I found myself cheering you on in your humorous, sardonic, and witty critique of the contradictions and capitalism surrounding a genuine need for spiritual satisfaction. Quite poignant observation about the related Amazon trends, as well. I love reading your stuff, C!

  • Sadie

    I am only surprised you did not also get a “free” subscription to Oprah’s magazine along with your purchases. While some may find solace in Tolle’s books (I’m unfamiliar with them personally), I think that your experience highlights (pardon the pun) what is often forgotten in our fast-paced, quick-fix, seven-easy-steps-to-salvation society: there is no easy, 10-week path to a spiritually fulfilled life. Thank you for this reflective and funny piece!

  • Marilyn M.

    Dear Carolyn,
    I like your description; I like your humor; I like your faith; I like your truth. Your story is enlightening. Please do keep writing, so we readers can share what you offer us so skillfully.

  • Mary

    I love this line: “You will find God, but only AFTER you highlight the important parts with a 3M Post-it highlighting pen!”

  • Colleen Accardi

    The article was great. I have also suffered from depression, mostly situational. Just moved to Florida on March 31st. Lived in Tn. for 17 years. I was a participant of the Eckart Tolle webseminar. I enjoyed it at that time. Today my faith in God grows deeper each day, Moving to Florida during Holy Week, has made me think of Easter as a new life for myself, actually God’s plan for me. I have a small maltese (Marco) who I love, and am happy here is adusting well. He suffers from Addison’s Disease, a stress related condition. Thank you for the great humor. Happy Easter!

  • Dave Cooper

    Humor is part of the h u m a n experience even while we are searching for answers that are not in the punch lines. In all of creation only we smile…I think for a reason. Being able to find and hear the laughter that resides in the truth is part of the gift that frees us from worry and depression. Caroline, you have a remarkably gifted sense of humor and a way to relay your discoveries to others through the written word that is elevating and painfully missing from our tomes of theology.
    I agree with most of the comments above but perhaps some missed the best part.

    I must recommend; Please read this again and just enjoy laughing your _ _ _ isi off. It is an enlightening experience in itself.

  • Anne M

    Great essay. I did not want it to end. You are such an engaging writer, easily bringing a tear or smile to the reader with your gift with words. As we are emerging from the long grey Winter, again, with Easter around the corner, and the promise of Spring on it’s heels, one can’t help but feel Hope, renew Faith, and embrace the beauty of God’s creation. Thank you for another great read.

  • Sue

    I empathize with what you went through as I too have a history of depression. That said, I totally avoided the Oprah book club/Eckhart Tolle 10 week course assiduously.

    I am a Christian (Episcopalian) and like Tolle’s work. I find that what he says strips the specifics of a particular religion from the spiritual practice of putting aside ego and staying present to the moment–something Christian monastics, Buddhist monks and other religious of varying traditions have focused on for centuries.

    I happen to believe that best in religion incorporates spirituality, and that Eckhart Tolle’s ideas, when one is able to practice them, are actually key to being present in prayer, and in practices such as Lectio Divina. But I can certainly see that the commercialism and hype of the web course would be a total turn off, particularly the intrusive advertising.

    And I’d also like to comment that, in the midst of deep depression, one is really not capable of doing what Tolle proposes. In a mild depression, maybe. But in a severe depression with incessant ruminations on despair and death, which I have experienced, sometimes NOT being present is a good way to survive the episode. It’s pretty bad to be depressed as is. It’s even worse to feel like a failure because you’re attempting a spiritual process your brain is too beleaguered by depressive thoughts and biochemistry, to accomplish in the first place.

    Personally, I find Tolle’s writing much more compatible with a traditional, liturgical Christianity than some of the prosperity/self-help Christian writers out there that head the megachurches. Since you write so movingly about your dog Assisi, I think you’d enjoy Eckhart Tolle’s book “Guardians of Being” which is illustrated by the person who does the comic “Mutts”–it’s got spiritual quotes about how dogs are often much wiser than we humans are.

  • Angela

    I really liked how you describe your search. I agree with the writer above taht your writing and humor is wonderful. Painful and funny. I’ve read all your other pieces and this one just makes the story enfold more…Thanks for writing.

  • Sheila J

    So sad to see your vulnerability taken advantage of. Depression is a frightning experience and depression in a wintery upstate New York defies description!
    It eventually broke your cycle and praise God for that. The humor, in retrospect, is priceless.
    Nice read..keep up your writing.

  • Tanya

    I agree with Brian, although I also see the point you are making. I have to say that the teachings of Eckhart Tolle and Oprah’s spritual podcasts played a large role in my return to the Catholic Church after 20 years (of course, I was able to skip the commercials and that helped a lot!)
    Congratulations! Assisi is so cute!

  • Brian

    PS – awesome picture of the dog! Must have been an intern in a really bad mood.

  • Brian

    It is understandably dissapointing to see something which we hold sacred to be commercialized. But how else will these things reach the public? Even Oprah has to offer her investors some kind of exchange for the air time she receives. At least it was Post Its and not Exxon-Mobile (although I should make sure that they are not owned by the same corporate entity before I make that statement – ha!.) Tolle’s teaching is a western interpretation of eastern principals which have been around for thousands of years. The earnest seeker will find these accessible to him or her on many levels for little or no money. In the meantime, it is interesting that so many are drawn to Tolle, because his teaching promises very little in the way of material boons. In fact, his strong emphasis on acceptance and surrender is diametrically opposed to the pervading ethos of our materialist culture which thrives on the relentless pursuit of worldly hopes and dreams. Perhaps his efforts to reach out to vast numbers of people are misguided, since it is a very rare soul that really wants to die to the eternal. But if we consider, at least as a possibility, that even limited, overproduced exposure to self inquiry is beneficial to certain people who would otherwise be unaware of its existence, then we also have to realize that it requires capital,advertising, merchandizing, and lots of yuck. But after all, waking up to our life’s purpose is simply realizing that understanding our True Nature is the only thing that will make us truly happy. It is a lifetime adventure and if we really love it, then ten weeks of anything will do nothing to resolve or deter it. Blessings to all.

powered by the Paulists