(This article was previously published in Peace Corps Panama Friends Newsletter.)
I joined Peace Corps nearly eighteen years ago to find a sense of community and purpose. Life is cyclical that way, and last year, my motivations for launching a podcast were the same.
Let me back up. I suppose I was a non-traditional Peace Corps applicant. Raised in upstate, New York by a stay-at-home mother and a tractor-trailer driving father, the scope of my world was limited to the cornfields and cow pastures surrounding our 1890s farm house. To say I knew little about foreign affairs or the world was an understatement. In 2001, Peace Corps offered me an opportunity to serve in Panama, but first I had to consult a map to see where it was.
To summarize my time in the Peace Corps, I could tell you about the small fishing village in Veraguas where I lived, or the work I did with the children. I could tell you about the group of women that met in my house to organize a poultry cooperative, or the national conferences we helped organize. All of those projects are on my resume and some would think those were the only stories worth sharing.
But I want to share the underlying Peace Corps story. In Panama, I felt alive in ways I hadn’t felt before. Panama made me a better person, more compassionate, understanding, patient, and aware of socio-economic systems. Every day, I was challenged to learn, improve and grow. Peace Corps took a sheltered country girl who had never been on a plane before and made her a citizen of the world, a change agent. Also significant is the timing of my arrival, which coincided with 9/11. A confusing way to start the first day of training, I wouldn’t comprehend the impact of the attacks until years later, when it was time to write a book about it. More on that in a minute.
After my service I started working in community health at a metro public health department. Similar to my work in the Peace Corps, I would use my Spanish daily to facilitate workshops and teach classes. When people asked me where I learned Spanish, I opened the Peace Corps panama album on my phone and shared little anecdotes.
It wasn’t until 2015 when thoughts and memories of Panama surfaced in ways they hadn’t before. I knew I had to do the thing I had been putting off for years, and not just passively, but fully embrace it. That ‘thing’ was write a book about my time in Panama. I tried on my own: transcribing journals, organizing emails, reading documents and researching Panama. But every time I sat down to write, I was all over the place with no clear direction.
January 2016, I enrolled in an MFA in Nonfiction program at Goucher College. While my original goal was to focus on writing a book, I quickly realized my strength as an interviewer. I enjoyed it. I could get past the surface level banter quickly and find the tension, dissect it to understand what was at stake, identify the wisdom that was gained from that experience and anticipate questions a reader may have.
By graduation, I had utilized my new skill as an interviewer to thread two coming-of-age narratives–mine, and that of a Marine combat veteran of the Iraq war who began his Marine Corps journey the same time I started my Peace Corps journey–in the wake of 9/11. That’s the manuscript. The book will be different. It would take another article to tell you how I decided to add a second protagonist to my manuscript, and the unique relationship that developed during the two year interviewing process. But what I will share here is an unanticipated outcome of that experience, that led to the podcast.
I interviewed the Marine veteran for almost two years, over the phone and in-person, through trips I made to his home in Knoxville, Tennessee. We got to know each other through personal stories. The conversations led me to reexamine a time in my life I chose to ignore: the aftermath of 9/11, the invasion, war, the sacrifice families made and America’s role in the world.
I tried writing to capture the stories, our interactions, but nothing was as powerful as hearing the two of us talk: the conversation, figuring each other out, learning about each other’s thoughts and belief systems. I realized that through my conversations with the Marine, we were able to connect, develop respect, empathy, understanding, and trust each other because we were engaging each other’s intuition.
In May 2018, I launched a podcast called The Carleena Show where Ordinary People Share Their Hero’s Journey. Guests come on the show who have overcome adversity and are doing something positive, inspiring now. I explore topics such as mental health, addiction recovery, and overcoming physical limitations. I also interview people who chose career paths that put them in contact with people experiencing their best or their worst.
The listener will get to know the guest on a human level, learn about their fears, insecurities, the mentors who stepped up and helped them overcome adversity. Just like I experienced with the Marine veteran. I hope my podcast helps bridge a gap and gives people an opportunity to see each other on a personal level. The hero’s journey is universal, no matter your nationality or political affiliation.
Just like Peace Corps, I do the podcast because it gives me a sense of purpose, community and a creative outlet. It allows me to exercise my mind and find meaning in my ordinary world.
Find The Carleena Show on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, YouTube, and anywhere you listen to podcasts.