Stephanie Soper | Portrait of an Artist

Stephanie Soper grew up in Rhode Island, and currently lives in Washington D.C. where she does intuitively-guided emotional healing.  Previously she was an education consultant, which included leading a project for the State Department's Office of Overseas Schools that designed standards for the American overseas schools.  Her three childhood dreams were to be telepathic, an artist and to be a doctor.  Though not a doctor, she does help people heal.  With the addition of her newly-revived habit of painting, she is living out all three of her dreams.

I've been ruminating on the idea of daring to dream in the weeks since I first encountered Whitney's website.  It made intuitive sense to say dare to dream instead of just dream, but I kept wondering why dreaming requires daring. Seems like a thing we all do naturally, right?

I also thought about Janna Taylor, who has guest blogged here.  I've watched Janna's own dreams (and her accompanying fears) unfold over the last two years. There's been daring in what she's doing. It's been thrilling to watch, but I haven't been sure I had the nerve to do the same.  Janna introduced me to this site because she knew I was trying to start painting after a long time of avoiding it (about fifteen years) and was trying to make a go of my home business.  I thought the home business was the big issue for me, but it's turned out to be my painting that has really taken some daring.

Besides Janna, I've been fortunate to have in my life two other friends, Jan and Michaela, who have steadily ‘noodged' me back to painting, which is my dream. They, in turn, have been trying out, but dancing around, their own dreams of becoming published writers.  They are both so gifted that it seems ridiculous to even imagine that they might not succeed if they brought their dreams to life. But I also know how horrifyingly natural it can be to sabotage one's own dreams.
A few weeks ago, while Michaela and I were on the phone telling each other yet again that we REALLY SHOULD paint/write, we simultaneously had this ‘feeling' that we should promise each other to write (her) and paint (me) for three hours each week and report on our work each Thursday afternoon.  Miraculously, making a commitment to one another has worked; we have now checked in with each other four weeks in a row.  She has a story nearly finished, and I've completed one new painting, finished three that have been half-done for forever, and started a new one today.  It's been about more than painting and writing, though — it's been about figuring out our fears and stepping through them.
I finally finished two works that put out in public view my grief over not having had children (I'm 49, not yet married, childless, and Mormon — not an easy combination).  More to the point though, these paintings made ME acknowledge my own grief.  I think that part was harder.
The first painting is a forest along the banks of a river.  I knew it was missing something, but didn't know what.  About a year ago, I figured out that it was little ghost babies, the five babies I'd always wanted, and that the river was a River of Tears of Grief.  I couldn't make myself paint those babies until last week.  The other is called The Offspring; it has similar themes.  Finishing these paintings has been surprisingly liberating.


River of GriefBoth of them were done in the medium I'm comfiest with — temperas.  Tempera paint (basically the poster paint we used in kindergarten) has saturated, brilliant, opaque color.  It's cheap and it dries fast so you get quick satisfaction.


The Offspring


But the real reason I use temperas is to avoid oils.  Using oils always seemed like a real commitment to painting; it means saying I am an artist, not just that I do a little painting.  And wow, have I avoided that.
About a decade ago, I bought a gorgeous collection of little oil paint tubes, a palette, brushes, turpenoid, the works.  They went untouched until today, when I finally used them.  I had to wrench the caps with pliers to get them unstuck (kind of metaphor, I guess).  I half hoped they were too dried out to use, but alas, they were still fresh and I had no excuse to avoid.
The result?
I did a so-so job with the painting, and I'm almost unbelievably ok with that and am willing to keep trying.  For a perfectionist's eldest daughter who's used to success at everything I'm willing to try because I so carefully avoid doing what I think might end in failure, this is a titanic shift in perspective.   The dare part of dare to dream came alive.  I was well into work on a canvas when I decided it was too big.  OK, I made a wrong choice — not a big deal.  (But thinking not a big deal WAS a big deal).




I began again on a smaller canvas and made a fresher-looking drawing.  It looks like it's just a sailboat far from the shore; in fact it's a metaphor for my capacity and willingness to sail in deep emotional waters, to become my whole self.
Because oils take so long to dry, all I have to show right now is the rough undercoats that look, frankly, dreadful.  And yet it feels OK that it's a work in progress.
OK that it's not perfect.
OK to put this on the web where it will be seen in its way-less-than-perfect state.
OK that I'm doing something that I really want to do, even though I'm not very good at, and that after all the work that lies ahead, I may still not like it.
OK to have to learn instead of starting out as an expert.
This — for me — takes daring.


In the post Listening to and Learning from… I mentioned the importance of our bearing witness to another's grief.  I am honored, and hope you are, that Stephanie would choose us — our community — as a safe place where she could talk of her grief.  You may say — it's not us — but that's not true. Were your comments not so insightful, supportive, and generous, she would not have shared her work with us.  I believe that.

The systergy that Stephanie experienced was crucial to her moving forward.  Is there something we want to do, that making a commitment to another trusted friend will become our pivot point?

In one of our e-mail exchanges, Stephanie remarked, “now that I'm painting, I feel like I can breathe again.”  Her answer as to why she feels this way is broadly applicable:  “I often catch myself holding my breath
[before I sit down to paint], but when I do finally settle down, I feel my whole body and mind relax, and I flow, and breathe.  On a deeper level, I think there is a connection to prana, the breath of life, that by the act of non-painting, I deny life itself.  When I paint, I become whole again.  This wholeness is not just the painting, but the sense of joy and peace I feel.  I shift from part-me to whole-me.”
Is there any piece of your self that it is time to bring back to life? 

Dreams While We Are Sleeping

According to scientific research, our dreams communicate to our conscious mind what our subconscious mind is worried about (or not), thus helping us work through the day's emotional quandaries.

For example:

1) Several years ago, I met a woman that I wanted to be friends with, but in my waking life I wasn't sure I could trust her. That is, until I dreamt about two different people (one man, one woman) in my distant past whom I couldn't trust. When I juxtaposed how I felt when I interacted with this woman vs. the other two individuals, my subconscious was telling me I could absolutely trust her.

2) On another occasion, I was stymied by how to approach a problem at work. Thanks to a dream in which my younger brother and sister, each of whom have very different problem-solving styles, were sitting around a table with me, I recognized that I could add their styles to my own to cobble together a workable approach.

3) Then there's my dream titled The Banquet Awaits. Because of this dream's relevance to ‘dare to dream', I commissioned yet another painting by Mallika Sundaramurthy.

Used by permission. Copyright Mallika Sundaramurthy and Whitney Johnson, 2008.

In this dream, I was speaking to a man with whom in my waking life I had been discussing the possibility of joining the investment bank Goldman, Sachs. Though I was mesmerized by him, I found his girlfriend, who was also there, to be an annoyance.

Despite my disdain, she invited me to her home for dinner which I grudgingly accepted, not knowing I was in for something very special.

Her home was a welcoming, single story house with sleek lines, high ceilings, a fountain pool for a front yard, while the inside had a loft feel and inviting furniture. Once the guests had arrived, she proceeded to serve a sumptuous meal, a banquet really. Each course was beautiful to behold, and exquisite to the taste.

There was enough for all, an unending feast.

As I shared my dream of The Banquet Awaits with a friend, I recognized this dream was symbolic of systergy. I had discounted the woman who had invited me to her home, believing her boyfriend held the key to achieving what I wanted. When in actuality, IF I would connect with other women, what I wanted would unfold not only for me, but for all the women who had accepted the invitation to the banquet.

Do you remember your dreams?

What is your most memorable dream?

What can you learn from this dream?

In re-reading The Banquet Awaits, I've actually thought of another interpretation besides the one I've outlined — do any of your dreams have multiple interpretations?

Related Posts:
The Sweetness of Systergy
Of Pineapples and Friendship
Why I Like Wicked
Redefining Ladies who Lunch

The Sweetness of Systergy

There are so many wonderful women in my life that I suppose I sometimes take them for granted.

Which is why I think I had the dream I had this week.

Here's the redux:

A group of women I'm friendly with, all of whom have children my daughter's age, had organized a playdate, one to which all of the mothers and daughters in our circle were invited, except my daughter and me.

I was devastated at having being excluded, and needed to tell someone.

But when I sought out those who were mother/big sister figures in whom I hoped to confide my grief, each was genuinely concerned for about five minutes, and then had to run off, being ‘late for a very important date'.

And so the devastation continued.

Having to dash off to to an investor meeting in midtown Manhattan helped me shake off my early morning sadness.

I'm grateful, however, for the lingering reminder…


…that we sometimes need to taste the bitter in order to prize the sweet.

The sweetness of systergy.


I do, I do, I do prize systergy — but perhaps it is too abstract.

Which is why I was inspired by Gretchen Rubin's post 12 tips for acting like a true friend over at The Happiness Project.  This post provides great helps for getting into our systergistic groove, including:  1) Be supportive when your friend has good news; 2)  Be friendly to your friend's friends; 3)  Show up.

My favorite tip is… Well, actually take a look at her blog.

Any recent experience that brought into relief the importance of systergy?

Which of Gretchen's tips do you think is my favorite?

Which is yours?

Any difference between what you give as a friend and what it's important for you to receive?

Related posts:
The Dark Side of Systergy
Of Pineapples and Friendship
Celebrating Systergy
Three Cheers for Oxytocin

Of Pineapples and Friendship

With the holiday season upon us, I wanted you to know how profoundly grateful I am to each of you. For reading, commenting, and most especially for your daring and dreaming.

As a token of my appreciation, I'd like to share with you Irene Chan's delightful illustration of a pineapple, the centuries-old symbol of warmth and hospitality. During the colonial era, pineapples were considered a gift of royal privilege because they were so rare, and therefore expensive. Though no longer difficult to come by, the symbolism endures. Perhaps because pineapples require effort to enjoy. Between the harvesting, peeling (the prickliness!) and coring, pineapples are no apple or banana.

Photo courtesy of

Can't the same be said of 21st-century friendship? Though there are people aplenty in our lives, harvesting relationships filled with warmth and hospitality requires effort, including the occasional prickle.

What I love, though, is that in both instances, if we'll do the work, we are richly rewarded with fruit, and friendship, both of which are almost indescribably delicious.

dare. dream. delicious.

Pew Research Center’s “Fewer Mothers Prefer Full-Time Work”

Hello, hello!

We’ve been on vacation for the better part of two weeks — plenty of time to think, little time to write. Next time I plan to go on hiatus, I will let you know.

The first order of business is to flag a report (with a nod to Entrepreneur Daily and USA Today) published by the Pew Research Center Social and Demographic Trends Project titled Fewer Mothers Prefer Full-Time Work.

I wasn't all that surprised to learn that 6 in 10 full-time working moms would prefer to work part-time; however, I was intrigued to learn that the divide between working and at-home moms has widened.

In the 1997 study, about 4 in 10 of all mothers (38% of at-home moms; 39% of working moms) believed that an increase in working mothers was a negative societal trend. However, by 2007, 44% (15% increase) of the at-home mothers saw this as a negative; only 34% (an 8% decrease) of the working mothers concurred.


Why is this the key finding?

Because the digging in our heels around our work/life decisions suggests that our society's oft-repeated mantra of “live and let live” notwithstanding, mothers are becoming more, not less, judgmental of one another, and that sibling rivalry continues on the rise.

Which makes me quite sad.

Happily, there are mothers who shun the rivalry, embracing systergy in its stead.

While vacationing in Jackson Hole last week, I spoke with three such mothers, Stacey, Heather and Jane. Stacey I have known for many years; I've just become acquainted with Jane and Heather.

Photograph courtesy of Melanie Mauer, a woman who is the picture of systergy

All of us have children under twelve. Each of us has a college degree, two have advanced degrees. Two of us work full-time; two are at-home.

Given our respective choices, and the trend identified by the Pew study, I suppose our interchange could have deteriorated into intransigent finger-pointing.

But it didn't.

On the contrary.

We asked one another how we’d made our decisions; we spoke of the trade-offs, sharing our struggles, validating and encouraging one another.

Does this kind of conversation, one in which we experience systergy, help us to rethink our competence, and bolster the belief that we can be the hero of our story?

I can’t speak for others.

But the answer for me is — Yes, and again, yes.


Can you think of a time when you have been critical of others’ choices related to how they were balancing motherhood and career? Any thoughts as to why you were critical?

My husband and I waited several years (10 to be exact) before having children. There were some who criticized us, but truth be told, I was critical of women who chose to have children immediately. In retrospect, my criticisms were a manifestation of my own insecurity: if I could believe others were wrong, then I could be definitively right.

Can you think of a conversation in which you encouraged and validated others? How did you feel? How do you move from sibling rivalry to systergy?

Experiencing the Bounty of the Farmer’s Market

My friend Lana Grover has likened systergy to the experience we have at a farmer's market.

As shown in these beautiful images, courtesy of Tableau Vivante, fresh fruits and vegetables and homemade goods are bought and sold. There is bounty, there is exchange, there is a personal touch that is nurturing; there is community.


But isn't there bounty, exchange, a personal touch at a flea market, an antique market, at Nordstrom?

Just looking at these images tells me it's not the same.

And after several days of thought, I think I know why.

With the release of the film An Inconvenient Truth, going green/being green have become household words, part of our mainstream culture.

And I will confess there are times when this movement seems all too conveniently impersonal — save the planet, save the forests, save the animals — even as I have become much more conscientious about recycling.

But when I read Bill McKibben's words (thanks to Mary Pipher), “The emergent science of ecology is easily summed up: Everything is connected. But interconnection is anathema to a consumer notion of the world, where each of us is useful precisely to the degree that we consider ourselves the center of everything.”

I had an a-ha moment.

For many people, environmental concerns moving mainstream aren't about the environment per se, they are about people feeling disconnected. We don't know that we feel this way, but I believe we do. And because we don't know what to do to make it better — we look for something tangible, concrete to help us re-connect — like save a tree.

Which is why a farmer's market nourishes us in ways that other markets can't.

Because when we buy fresh fruits and vegetables, something deep inside of us knows that they are given to us by a Creator. We also know that these delicious peaches, cherries, apricots and plums aren't just for us, but will sustain, and most likely be eaten with, our loved ones.

In other words, a farmer's market reminds us that we are not the center of everything, but we are a part, that we are connected.

What comforting food.

What are your thoughts?

Do you agree with my premise about the linkage between the environment and our relationships?

Do you agree that a farmer's market is a metaphor for systergy? Why? Why not?

When was the last time you experienced systergy?

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