Like a lot of us, Ben Waterhouse expected to focus on the election this year.
Back in December, Waterhouse, the communications manager at Oregon Humanities, started talking to his boss about reviving Dear Stranger, a letter exchange he's headed on and off since 2014. He figured an election year—especially one that, as recently as two months ago, felt impossibly high-stakes—was an ideal time to bring it back.
"I was gonna launch it the second week of March," Waterhouse says. "And then a lot of things changed."
Dear Stranger is what Waterhouse calls a "semi-random" swap: participants (who can remain as anonymous as they wish) send a letter to Waterhouse and he sends back a letter from a different participant—he tries to avoid intra-zip code matches, but that's the only criteria.
The project began as a way to engage the readers of Oregon Humanities's thrice-annual magazine—in Waterhouse's eyes, it was a writing exercise first and foremost. Now, he's directly calling for people to share their experiences of the novel coronavirus and Oregon's statewide stay-at-home order.
"In a time when casual connections have kind of vanished—you're not bumping into people on the street or at the bar or the supermarket, having those small interactions with strangers that are a huge part of everyone's lives—maybe this can go some distance towards replacing that," he says.
Skittish writers, fear not. Of the 500-plus Dear Stranger letters Waterhouse has fielded, he says he's rejected only two. One simply said "I love cats" ("I agree with it! It just felt like it'd be disappointing to whoever received it."); the other was darker.
As of last Wednesday, Waterhouse has received 14 new letters, with an anticipated 30 more on the way. We've compiled some highlights above.
Oregon Humanities is accepting Dear Stranger submissions through May 31 (possibly longer, if the stay-at-home order persists). Want to participate? Address your letters as follows:
Attn: Dear Stranger
921 SW Washington Street, Suite 150
Portland, OR 97205