‘Dear Stranger’: Connecting People 1 Letter At A Time
BY MARTHA ANN OVERLAND
“My dear stranger,” begins the anonymous letter. “I am grateful for the opportunity to make a connection with you.”
“Dear Stranger:” begins another. “It is weird to address a letter to Dear Stranger during these strange times we are sharing. It was already an unsettling time with the 2020 Presidential election and its angst upon us and now we are attacked and battling the Covid-19 virus.”
Welcome to Dear Stranger, an annual letter writing project, sponsored by Oregon Humanities to bring people together through old-fashioned letter writing.
With Oregon state residents under stay-at-home orders since March 23, there’s been a surge of interest in the program. People are looking for ways to reach out and share their thoughts about an experience that has upended their lives, says Ben Waterhouse, communication manager at Oregon Humanities. It’s made many think differently about themselves and their place in their communities.
Dear Stranger actually started out in 2014 as a writing exercise, as part of the non-profit organization’s mission to bring people together to listen and learn from one another. “Now the value really feels like it’s in the connection,” Waterhouse says.
Once a year, Waterhouse chooses a theme and participants are invited to write a letter to a stranger. They mail their letter to Oregon Humanities, which exchanges the letters anonymously. Each person receives a letter from the person who reads theirs. It’s up to the letter writers to contact Oregon Humanities if they want to write back. And many do.
(All of the letter writers in this story gave NPR permission to reveal their names and share their letters.)
This year’s theme was politics but by mid-March it was obvious that the coronavirus was overwhelming people’s lives and thoughts, and it was added as an option.
Dear Stranger has received twice the number of submissions it normally does at this point in the three-month long project.
Why people write
“I decided to write a Dear Stranger letter just because we’re locked up in the house,” Rich Lufrano, 49, says. “We are bored and I guess like maybe many other Americans right now I was looking for some kind of feeling, a connection, or a way to feel closer to people.”
Lufrano’s 8-year old daughter, Erez, also wrote a letter. The second grader clarified that her name can be a boy’s or a girl’s but “just to be clear, I am a girl!” She shares that her favorite color is cobalt blue and her favorite book is Phoebe and Her Unicorn. Father and daughter both wrote about using the time at home to bake together, and included copies of their favorite bread recipe.
David Wolf, who lives in Portland, Ore., with his wife, two children, a dog and cat, marvels at what he calls the “almost alarming privacy.” Even though they took the dog out for a walk, he writes in his letter, “today we saw no one but each other.”
“This is different”
Many of the letter writers speak of a sense of a shift taking place as the magnitude of the virus hits home.
Rebecca McCroskey of Eugene, Ore., writes that she has “lived through the assassinations, Viet Nam, Watergate, 9/11. This is different. Sure, it was expected (eventually) by most of the scientific world, but that doesn’t diminish its power. Its power to change everything we know.”
“Our children are watching us. From the smallest toddlers to the young adults who are so impatient to rule the world … And we will be judged by our actions and reactions in this time.”
“Some of us will not fare so well: the takers, the opportunists, the blamers and shamers. Others will rise to a stature previously unknown to them: the doers, the makers, the fearless.”
As many of the letter writers do, Rebecca Goehring of Florence, Ore., worries about her friends and neighbors who are in self-quarantine, as well as strangers who may be alone. Her town prides itself on looking after one another but she is hearing horror stories of people pushing in lines and fighting over rolls of toilet paper.
“We can all do better”
“My understanding of the values in my community and my country have changed, somewhat,” Goehring writes. “I see a community and country that is putting self first in many instances.”
“I grew up with President Kennedy and his infamous words ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.’ We can all do better.”
An educator by profession, David Wolf muses that his attempts at getting his children to study, to do some reading or math, has been a complete failure. He writes that he’s had more success in the kitchen. He butterflied and roasted a chicken at high temperature, which he reports came out crispy and moist.
But in his letter, Wolf returns to the horrors facing the nation, where hospitals are overwhelmed with sick patients, where health care workers on the front lines are putting their own lives at risk.
“It’s only right now as I write to you that this question of how I can be more helpful beyond being a laissez-faire parent and a decent family cook, that this question — and this need — for greater engagement and connections hits me in my chest,” Wolf writes. “It would be wonderful to sit with you face-to-face and begin a true conversation.”
Every letter must come to an end. And some of the most life-affirming lines are saved for last.
“I wish you and your family health and safety and the strong support of each other. I hope you feel alive and alert to this moment, as I am trying, sometimes struggling, to be. I extend my arm to you as a fellow Oregonian, and wish you hopeful and resilient days at this challenging time. In solidarity, David” (Wolf)
“Hold tight. Keep your heart soft and your resilience strong. With love, Rebecca” (McCroskey)
“Ples rite back! By!” (Erez Lufrano, age 8)