Letters from Strangers

HUMANITIES, Fall 2020, Volume 41, Number 4

“Dear Stranger, friend, neighbor,” begins a letter from Morgan to her anonymous pen pal. “These are strange times we live in, but I think this act of building community from afar is exactly the thing we need right now.” Included with her handwritten letter is a picture of a fish carving, an excerpt of a poem, and a couple of pieces of colorful paper, because “it helps to have pocket-sized beautiful things.”

“And, you dear stranger, how are you coping?” wonders another. “Are you a reader, a gardener, a woodworker, a musician, an artist, a chef, a craftsperson?”

These exchanges are from letters written as part of the “Dear Stranger” project sponsored by Oregon Humanities. Ben Waterhouse, the communications manager, started the program in 2014 as a way of getting people to exchange ideas. “I imagined it as a writing exercise—an opportunity for reflection—more than as a correspondence project, but from the start I was hearing great stories about the connections people were making through these letters.”

The premise is simple: Participants write a letter, get a letter, make a new connection. It’s open to all (parental permission is needed for those under eighteen). A writing prompt is offered, based on a theme, but participants can write about anything. The letters can be as short or long as the writer wants, but they must fit in a regular envelope. Letters are mailed to Oregon Humanities, where staff members read each letter and match it to another writer, usually in a different zip code. After the first anonymous exchange, the pen pals are free to share contact information and continue the conversation on their own.

The letters range widely from a few lines to a few pages, handwritten, typed, sometimes a combination. Some are written on notebook paper, others whimsical stationery. Many include small items: recipes, a stick of gum, inspirational quotes torn from newspapers and magazines, watercolors, postcards, song playlists, framed sections of sheet music, and pictures of gardens, to name a few.

After scaling the program back over the last few years, Waterhouse felt this election year was a good time to revive it “so people could share their hopes and values.” The plan was to launch it the second week of March. Then COVID-19 hit and Oregon’s shelter-in-place order took effect. The program was still launched, but a second prompt was added to address the pandemic.

“Reading the letters this year has been really powerful,” says Waterhouse. “Our youngest writer so far was seven years old, and the oldest ninety-seven. We’ve heard from teachers and students, grocery store and restaurant workers, parents and children. I’m surprised by how open this year’s letters have been. People are sharing really difficult aspects of their own experience, and also showing real curiosity about the experiences of others.”

Some speak of isolation. “We’re locked down now,” says an eighty-two-year-old resident of a senior care facility. “The residents are supposed to stay in their rooms. No one from outside can come in. Meals are delivered, as the dining room is, of course, closed. I wish those people who talk about the virus on TV—and how to stay mentally healthy—would address the problem of how to deal with total isolation. What they’re doing looks easy!”

Some take the opportunity to address issues such as climate change, voting rights, laws affecting Native populations, race relations, immigration, and employment uncertainty. Yet others speak about bad home haircuts, bird-watching, baking, toilet paper hoarding, spreading joy through chalk art; one writer even gave her pen pal a detailed lesson in how to speak Esperanto.

“Everyone’s experience of the pandemic is different, but there are themes that show up over and over again: fear, loneliness, and frustration,” says Waterhouse, “but also hope and gratitude and obligation to family and community. While I still think the reflective exercise of writing the letter is valuable, that opportunity for connection is even more so at this moment.”

Often, fear and hope turned up in the same letter. “I lost my job when Covid hit,” says Leslie, “and my industry took a bad economic blow. Since I’m already approaching retirement age this might force an early retirement for me which makes me unbearably sad. Now I feel pushed onto my back foot and defensive.” But then her letter takes a turn. “Walk outside tonight and look up. See that star, the flickering one to the southeast? I see it too. We may be strangers but we are standing under the same big sky, pondering many of the same things and hoping for the best.”

A letter signed “Slow but Sure” with a hand-drawn turtle, says, “I have been feeling distressed,” followed by an excerpt of Emily Dickinson’s poem “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers.” Included with the handwritten letter was a feather.

In the past, a few letters would come in from outside of Oregon. After NPR aired a story on “Dear Stranger” on Weekend Edition, letters poured in from across the country as well.

Waterhouse also began hearing from people wanting to start similar programs in their own states and communities. Oregon Humanities created a simple how-to guide and hosted a webinar to help them get started. Programs have now launched in Sacramento, Tacoma, and North Carolina, and also with state councils in Idaho and Nebraska. More are planned for Wyoming, along with libraries in Washington and California.

Letters are still coming in and so is the positive feedback. “Thank you for coming up with such a great way for strangers to get together in this time of social distancing!!” Julie Raine says, “I am from Montana and just received my letter from someone in Vermont! I really enjoyed writing my letter and sharing thoughts on how our community was moving through the COVID-19 situation. And was very fun to read the letter from Vermont and hearing how life is there.” Coincidentally, Peter Casenhiser says, “What a wonderful concept! I received my first response today from a person in Montana. I live in Vermont and am looking forward to responding today.”

“In many of the letters, closing remarks are where the most affirming and poetic writing is found. “I feel I wrote this for me Dear Stranger, and I wish for you and your loved ones a blessing of strength if you need it, patience on demand :) and health most of all. Karin . . . whereabouts unknown. Cloud hidden.” After sharing Mary Oliver’s poem “Egrets,” Kelly writes, “I hope you are finding ways to show up for your people and yourself. And that you find your egrets in the moment they are most needed. All the love this stranger’s heart can give.” And from Steven: “I hope your days are filled with wonder and mystery and that you are able to share those special gifts you, and only you, possess. And thanks for taking time to read my letter, dear stranger. A potential friend.”