Peggy Taylor is someone I have been inspired by for over two decades. I first met Peggy when my eldest daughter, Heather, attended the Power of Hope camp. Since then, we have interconnected professionally and informally over the years. I was super jazzed that she was available to be interviewed this past week on Bainbridge Island, where she comes weekly to be with her grandson, Mateo. Peggy lives on Whidbey Island, with her husband, Dr. Rick Ingrasci, a master of ceremonies of the world’s best “better parties” and their two Havanese dogs, Chico and Loki.
Peggy Taylor is remarkable, flat out! She is one of the most down to earth people I know, while also being smack dab at the forefront of some of the most progressive, enlightened, and effective programs, projects, (and books) available to teens and adults today. Her belief that we are all creative, that it is our birthright to express ourselves artistically – no matter how “good” we think we are – is at the heart of everything she does. Her resume is astounding: Co-founder, publisher, and editor of New Age Journal; co-founder of Hollyhock Institute; co-author of Chop Wood, Carry Water: A Guide to Finding Spiritual Fulfillment in Everyday Life (which has sold over 250,000 copies); co-founder with Charlie Murphy of Power of Hope, brilliant summer camps for teens, and PYE: Partners for Youth Empowerment; and in 2010, co-founder with Jamie-Rose Edwards, a former Power of Hope Camper, of YWE: Young Women Empowered, a creative leadership program for teen girls in the greater Seattle area. On top of all this she is the founder and co-director of her community choir, the Open Circle Singers, where everyone is encouraged to sing their hearts out whether they can stay “in tune” or not! She’s also a devoted mother and grandmother, plays a mean game of Scrabble, and is just an all around warm, caring, and great human being! The following is our interview…
Linda Wolf: Peggy, I love your new handbook, written with Charlie Murphy, Catch the Fire: An Art-Full Guide to Unleashing the Creative Power of Youth, Adults and Communities. I know for myself, that we often do the work that heals us. I’d love to know what your own teen years were like?
Peggy Taylor: My teen years were very, very difficult. My mother died when I was fifteen and my father was an alcoholic, and remarried an alcoholic and then our house burned down. It was just one thing after the other. I lived in a kind of reign of terror. My father never actually hurt me, but the fear was always there. Consequently, I became very shy. I don’t think I was shy because I was naturally shy.
Linda: Were you very close with your mother?
Peggy: No, I wasn’t. I loved my mother, but I felt like I couldn’t really connect with her. She had a breast infection when I was born, and so I was separated from her for my first week of life. I think that got in the way of our bonding. Luckily, I had amazing grandmothers, and several other women who kind of adopted me along the way, and that made a huge difference in my life. But that all stopped when I got into my teenage years, except for my grandmothers.
L: What was your relationship like with other teen girls?
P: Very shy and insecure. I had friends, but I always felt like I was on the outskirts. I traveled between groups. One year I got elected to student council and couldn’t have been more surprised. But the thing that saved me was a camp I attended, Brown Ledge Camp, when I was about 12 or 13. I went for a couple of years. My mother was a real fan of Parent’s Magazine and there was an ad in it for a summer camp in Burlington, Vermont that was advertised as having ‘no extras.’ We didn’t have a lot of money, so no extras sounded great to her.
I don’t think she noticed the byline on the ad, which said, “Brown Ledge Camp: The Different Camp for Different Girls.” Brown Ledge was run by a former Broadway actress named Barbara Winslow. Most of the girls at the camp were from very liberal, intellectual families from New York City, which couldn’t have been farther from the lifestyle of my parents. It was like another world. There were only three rules: you had to be in your bunk during rest hour and at night, you had to be at meals, and you weren’t allowed to leave the premises. Other than that, you could just do anything you wanted, anytime you wanted. They had a merit system where you could earn badges. It was all choice-based learning.
In school, I was the kind of student who could get a B+ just by showing up; I don’t remember doing a speck of homework my whole career. I’d bring my books home and wouldn’t touch them. I thought I lacked self-discipline, I was so down on myself. Then, I got to Brown Ledge, and I couldn’t learn enough. I just completely woke up. I realized there was nothing wrong with me, there was something wrong with my school system. I remember coming home to Gloversville from camp and my mother saying, “Oh, you’re so uppity, if you don’t change you’re never going back to that camp again.” What was happening to me was that I was feeling good about myself! And this is the response I got. But I had a completely new perspective! The value base of Brown Ledge Camp really shifted me.
L: Did you experiment with drugs and alcohol as a teen? It was the roaring 60s, after all!
P. No, I was very shy about all that. I bought a pack of Salem Cigarettes one day and smoked them while looking in the mirror, but never did it again! I was pretty straight and narrow. I didn’t drink, or smoke really. I never did drugs. I played the piano a lot! I used to love American Bandstand, the TV show, and would come home from school everyday and call my girlfriend and we’d watch American Bandstand. I was a senior in high school when the Beatles came out.
L. Did you write, draw, dance?
P. No, I played piano. Classical. I never did dance.
L: So, after high school, you went to college?
P: Yes, I went to Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, where my mother had gone. I’d already gone to Syracuse University summer school and had a couple of fabulous professors and loved it. But I got to Skidmore and I found the view of the professors very limited. I was really looking for something more holistic and integrative, but I didn’t have the words for it. I dropped out after two years. I would have been the perfect student at a place like Antioch. I might have stayed in school if I’d gone there, but not Skidmore. After Skidmore, I never had much appreciation for higher learning institutions. I have a bit more now. Actually, when I worked at New Age Journal and someone came for an interview with me, my staff would jokingly say they’d stop them before they got to my office and have them erase any mention of having gone to college. Eventually, I did go back to college, Lesley College, but that was later.
My father had told me I’d never be able to hold down a job, and I believed him. My father thought I was a dilettante. He didn’t understand my interests. I was the odd one in the family. After dropping out of Skidmore, I fled to Boston, where I was introduced to a whole community of people involved with wanting to change the world from the bottom up. In Boston, I was introduced to Macrobiotics, and that community became like family.
I started the first Macrobiotic restaurant in Boston, which was very successful, then lived for a year in Japan, which is where the Macrobiotic movement started. Then, I moved to London and ran a Macrobiotic restaurant there. By that time, I’d met Eric (Utne), my future husband, and he came over to help me run the restaurant.
After Eric and I got married we moved to Minneapolis and I had my son, Leif, in 1972. I was 25. Minneapolis was very hard for me. I didn’t like living there at all. In Minneapolis, I was too much of a hippie for the straight people, and too straight for the hippies. Plus, I’m a mission driven person…
L: What do you mean mission driven?
P: I just wanted to change the world. I’d always had that drive, but I didn’t have words for it when I was younger. In the Macrobiotic community I found people all charged up about changing the world. I realize now, in retrospect, that there were plenty of issues going on in the Macrobiotic community – spousal abuse and all kinds of things that I just didn’t see. But, to me, it was a wonderful community of people who were trying to make a better world. It was there I learned that I could actually have a strong community of friends, which I didn’t know before. Finally, Eric and I moved from Minneapolis back to Boston where Eric started working for East West Journal. Soon after we started New Age Journal with a bunch of other staffers of East West, but 3 months into it, we realized it wasn’t going to support us all. Finally, it was just Eric, another woman and myself running it.
L: Soon after you and Eric divorced, and later you met your current husband, Dr. Rick Ingrasci, and together you were part of co-founding Hollyhock Institute on Cortes Island, in British Columbia, right? How did that happen?
P: While I was working at New Age Journal, Rex Weyler, who I’d met at the Rocky Mountain Healing Art’s Festival, came out to Boston from Vancouver to help me with the Journal. At that time he worked with The Greenpeace Chronicles. He had found the abandoned Cold Mountain Institute up on Cortes, which was a former learning center known for Gestalt therapy practices. We joined him and a large group of friends to buy it at a discounted rate.
Around that time, I’d gotten completely burned out running the magazine.I had always felt that unless I was doing something that mattered, I didn’t deserve to be walking the Earth so I always worked very hard. We were just starting Hollyhock, and I was up there for a month with Rick and Leif. I remember there was another woman up there who was also burned out, and the two of us hung out in the lodge and played Mozart duets for hours and hours every day. Playing these duets, I started feeling, “Wow, just playing this music, just creating beauty is reason enough to stay alive.” So, I found my way out of the magazine and started learning Dalcroze Eurhythmics, a kinesthetic approach to learning and teaching music at Longy School of Music. I then entered a joint masters program between Longy and Lesley College and got a degree in creative arts and learning. At Lesley College, I came to the realization that the arts was my way to heal. I found the arts extremely liberating. I thought, “Who needs therapy, just do art, in the right context.”
After I got my degree, I’d wanted to do creativity training for small nonprofits. But I didn’t feel strong enough to do it alone. Coming from my family I had developed quite a damaged sense of self-confidence. So I began looking for a work partner. We were living on Whidbey Island then; I was in my late 40s, and no partner was showing up. I began to wonder if maybe I was done living a passion drive life. “Maybe, I should just go to work at the local drugstore and learn to live a quiet life.” And then, an old friend, Joanna Macy, called one night. She was on Whidbey leading the Deep Ecology Summer School, and she wanted me to come over to meet someone named Charlie Murphy. So, I went over and listened to Charlie as he was giving a presentation on the work he was doing using poetry, music, and recording with kids in New Haven, Connecticut. As I sat and listened I thought, “OMG, here he is — this guy is my partner,” but, I had no idea how to tell him. It was so out of the box. I hadn’t done any youth work; he’d had done lots of it. So, I just left and didn’t even introduce myself to him.
Back home, I told my husband Rick and he said, “Call him up and tell him.” I’m like, “What am I going to tell him.” It didn’t make sense! So, I just sat on it and waited. This was the summer of 1995. I knew he was going to be my partner, but I had no idea how it would happen. I was still working as the editor of New Age Journal at that time, and we were about to collaborate with Hollyhock on a big conference in Seattle, The Body and Soul Conference. We decided we wanted conference weavers for the beginnings of all the talks in the hotel conference rooms, so, I invited Charlie to be a conference weaver and to have his band (Rumors of the Big Wave) play. Also, I asked him if he would be on a panel with me, on creativity and social change. And he said, “Oh sure.” Poor guy, he was so unsuspecting. He had no idea I was absolutely sure we were going to be partners!!! and I’m kind of like weaving the web, but I still had no idea how it would happen! At the end of the conference, Charlie told us he was running a gathering for kids that summer called Power of Hope. And I thought, “BINGO!” I figured he was going to need help, so I volunteered to help out, and by the turn of that year, we were partners, working together.
L: That must have been quite a conference. Plus Charlie’s band was so great! So you never told him all that time that you knew he was going to be your partner? You just held it in and just kept showing up to help him? That’s a lot of faith and patience, or full out shyness!
P: Yeah! He was working at the Y at the time, so I started going and working with him. I’d never worked with kids. I’d worked with adults, and I was still completely stage shy at that point. I remember in the early days when we had just gotten Power of Hope (POH) started, around 1997, I’d tell Charlie, “I really want to lead such and such,” but when the time came, I’d say, “No, I can’t do it.” And he’d get so mad at me, he’d say, “But you said you wanted to do it.” I’d tell him, “You have no idea what it’s like inside me.” I was just so shy. But, the work was changing me. It was really through leading Power of Hope adult trainings , and forcing myself to go to Hip Hop workshops and Free Styling sessions at POH Camp, that my shyness eventually went away. And it hasn’t come back!
When we started Power of Hope, I felt like I was facing a major soul challenge. I felt compelled to step out of the shell that had grown up around me because of my upbringing and acculturation. Sometimes I say I started this whole organization for my own personal growth. But, this is why I think the work is so relevant for a lot of the youth and for a lot of adults in our trainings. I can’t tell you how many people come up to me in disbelief when I say in trainings that I used to be terribly shy and that I’ve been able to step out of it. They want to know how to do that as well. And what I began to notice with Power of Hope was that many of the kids would arrive very shy and significantly decrease their shyness within the week and that shyness wouldn’t come back. They would actually shed it. The next year when they’d come back to camp, it was still gone!
To me, I see this transformation from shyness as a needed element of social change. If people are afraid, especially women are afraid of being seen and heard, how can we become fully engaged citizens? Sometimes I call Power of Hope “the anti-shy camp.” Kids come and get positive feedback for taking risks and they step right out of their shells.
L: I’d like to deconstruct that word shy. In my sense of it, shy is kind of a protective layer over low self-esteem, or feeling ashamed, or not good enough or just not enough.
P. Some people can be very outgoing and still have low self-esteem. I think of shyness as more of a kind of skittishness. More fight or flight based. It’s very fear driven, and yes, of course, low-self esteem is all tied into it.
L: The fear of what?
P: Stepping up and being seen — being judged that something’s wrong with you and you’ll be exposed for who you are.
L: And ostracized.
P: Yeah and ridiculed, so why even try. I’ve come to believe that this yearning to become more fully present exists in all of us. I feel like we’re all part of a cultural trance and most of us have a powerful yearning to step fully onto the stage, so to speak, not in the sense of an actor playing a part, but the stage of our own life. When you do that and you receive a welcome response, I think it gets into your cells very quickly. It really is transformational.
When young people are initiated in a supportive community by taking a creative risk, making themselves heard and receiving acceptance, they’re never the same again. We see this happen in our work all over the world. The need to be seen and recognized and heard goes beyond culture. It’s a basic human need. I don’t think people recognize the powerful transformation that comes with the simple act of expressing oneself creatively and being acknowledged . That’s why I get so fired up about it. It’s not rocket science. It’s very basic and very simple but somehow has not been clearly recognized in education and youth work.
L: I know. We see it all the time in Teen Talking Circles, this powerful transformation in young people and adults when they feel seen and loved for who they are no matter what they’re going through.
P: From the beginning of our POH camps, we’ve had talking circles every night. We have something called “family groups” and use a talking object. That’s always been a part of what we do. Verbal expression. In your work, Linda, all the safety you create in circle for sharing feelings and self-expression is just another way to get there. My fire is really about what happens when you add the creative/expressive element into even a talking circle. As soon as you begin to express through the arts, the right brain gets active. Whether you begin with metaphor, creative writing, drawing, or a theater game, something deeper happens. One of our coded ideas is, “The arts are the doorway to the inner life, the life of the soul.” As soon as you bring creative expression in, a door opens and everybody moves into a deeper place.
A lot of adult groups start their programs or meetings with a moment of silence. I say, “Why not mix it up and start with a quick theater game!” Silence is lovely and silence is nice sometimes, but when you play a theater game, you activate the imagination and people come alive. Or you can ask people in the circle to come up with a metaphor that represents their life right now and share that along with their name. When people take a creative risk, big or small, the right brain gets activated, aliveness starts pumping through the group and the conversation quickly moves from the head to heart and head.
L: So true, which is why we have in our TTC handbook so many POH exercises as ice breakers. They really shift the connection between people, lower the fear level and bring up the energy level quickly.
So, what’s next for you, Peggy, now that you’ve come out with the book? It’s such an achievement and such a gift to all of us working with teens and adults.
P: As far as work, I really want to turn Catch the Fire into an enhanced E-book so there are short videos to demonstrate all of the activities. We’re also developing a four-part in-depth facilitation training—similar to our Heart of Facilitation training—that we can offer in other parts of the world. Nadia Chaney and I are going to be doing a four-part training in London this year. But quite frankly, I try to work half time now so I can spend two days a week with my grandson Mateo and follow my own creative interests. I’m fascinated with personal storytelling, and have been taking workshops with a woman named Ann Randolph, who does a one woman show. She’s amazing. She leads a workshop called Writing your Life for the Page and the Stage (www.annrandolph.com). The art of personal story telling is emerging as a performance art, the same way poetry did through poetry slams. Getting my stories on stage is the next step for me.
I no longer have the same desire to work full-out, building organizations to make change anymore. I lost my empire building juice at about 60. You can understand, right!
L: Yes, absolutely. I also feel something even more self-expressive is emerging in me.
P: What do you think it is for you?
L: I’m not sure. I’m taking a sabbatical this year. I was a child actress, so maybe I’ll go back to doing some kind performance work. I’m also interested in theater improv and the idea of story telling is such a magnet. I’ll have to look into the workshop Ann is offering. Photography is always still a great passion. I’d like to do some photography workshops/retreats, incorporating circle, and of course I’ll still keep leading our Teen Talking Circle Facilitator trainings. We have one coming up in June. I love leading the Women’s Circle Retreats in Mexico and this year, my daughter, Heather will be co-leading the circle with me, along with Kellie Elliott, who will be leading 5Rhythms. I’m enjoying taking the time off to just play piano and ping-pong, read, cook, and hang out with the family and friends without so much stress! Letting my left brain have a rest! That said, who knows! I’m playing it much more by ear these days… One thing I’ve really committed to is not engaging myself in what I don’t really want to be doing anymore.
Thank you so much for talking with me, Peggy. I’m so grateful for our friendship and this has been fabulous, getting to know you better.
For more information about the upcoming Teen Talking Circle Facilitator’s Training this summer, click on our logo below. At this training, we’ll gift each participant with a copy of Catch the Fire, Peggy Taylor and Charlie Murphy’s latest book .
PS Peggy and Charlie have an upcoming workshop on Whidbey Island. Here’s the link. GO!!!