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Dear Stranger

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Dear Stranger, a letter-exchange project that connects Oregonians from different parts of the state through the mail, strives to create a little understanding across the vastness of this place. For this year’s edition of Dear Stranger, we’re asking people from all over the state to consider some of the questions at the heart of Bridging Oregon, our ongoing cross-community conversation series.

Here’s how it works: 

  1. Write a letter. Address it “Dear Stranger.” Write about the place where you live or a community where you feel at home. What makes it unique or unusual? Is there anything about your place or your community that you feel is misunderstood by people outside of it? What might help people understand it better? Fill a page or two, or more if you feel inspired. If you’d like, feel free to include a photo or a drawing or a recipe—anything that will fit in an envelope.
  2. Print and sign the Dear Stranger release form. We cannot exchange letters without a signed release.
  3. Mail your letter and signed release form to Dear Stranger c/o Oregon Humanities, 921 SW Washington St., #150, Portland, Oregon 97205


Dear Stranger:                                                              September 19, 2018

Sitting in my study with my feet up on my desk on a Saturday morning, comfortable, but with reservations.  I retired from my job one year ago. Since retiring I have enjoyed doing things that when working I felt uncomfortable squeezing into a Saturday morning or a evening after dinner when I just want to sit down and put up my feet, read the paper and talk to my wife.

I moved to Portland in 1978 from the midwest and so most of my adult life I lived and worked in Portland.  Portland is home to me. I like the climate, although as I grow older November and the Winter months are my least favorite.

What I like to do.  I enjoy photography, travel, writing (thus the this letter to you stranger) and reading. I enjoy cooking and sitting down to a good meal either at home or in a good restaurant.  I have always been a political person, I remember following Eisenhauer’s second presidential election in 1956 when I was nine years old.

How do I engage ?  Although my neighborhood is in the city of Portland limits, residences must maintain the local streets and so I volunteered to be the Road Fund manager and contact.  It has given me more contact with my neighbors and a way of exercising some of my former job skills: managing a spreadsheet, and written communications to neighbors. I am also a volunteer on the Portland Streetcar advisory committee.  My interest in transportation issues goes back to grade school, and I continue to study these issues, like reading about Portland’s streetcar history.

Since retirement I have taken classes at the community college and had some of my writing published in a college magazine.  I signed up for another writing class this year in the Fall term. I will also be taking a mediation class with the thought of volunteering as a part-time mediator. Mediating is a skill I lost an opportunity to practice when I quit my paid job.

All of this to say I feel I transitioned easily into retirement from the nine to five jobs I worked for decades. But despite feeling good about these adjustments and the engagement initiated I feel at times underlying uneasiness that percolates within me.  I am most often aware of this unsettling feeling when I am tired, or I have experienced some minor setback or when I have unassigned time and I am searching for what I could or should be doing.

So while I am quite comfortable and happy in my marriage, my neighborhood, my educational opportunities and financial security, I still have an uneasy feeling at times.  To any observer, I am very fortunate. And yes I often begin each day feeling thankful for what each day brings me, feet up on my desk, in my study, in my middle class life.

Yet, at times I feel overwhelmed by all that needs to be done both near home and nationally and I have trouble feeling satisfied with the things that I can do to address these needs. Whatever I can do or think to do doesn’t seem to be enough, the needs all so great.  

On a recent trip through Canada while interacting with Canadians I began to sense, in contrast to the patient, courteous Canadians, that our whole culture in the U.S  has been immersed in daily repetitive lessons in powerlessness. We are informed each day of neglect, corruption and wrongdoing that we have little or no ability to address.  These feelings of powerlessness are pervasive and unfortunately manifested in both relatively benign ways, depression, mental illness, and in horrific violent ways, domestic abuse and mass killings.  The twenty-four hour news cycle duly reports these horrific details while journalists feverishly search for the motive. This news seems to energize and accelerate these daily ongoing powerlessness lessons.  

Often my response is to pull away, detach, shut myself off from these reports.  But this too is unsatisfying and problematic because this deprives me of culture, community, what I consider a basic human necessity, interaction with others outside my immediate family, my human family.

This is not to say there are not many good players, actions, and organizations who are doing good work and trying to rally the best of human instincts collectively and in each of us.  I know that without these efforts we would all be swamp dwellers, mired in depression and cynicism.

So dear stranger, this is where I sit today, thinking about where to put my energy.  What power do I have? How to employ the power that I have, and what is meaningful work for me?  And how best to counter the daily lessons on powerlessness in the media pool I inhabit? This is how I try to address that underlying uneasiness that is part of my everyday experience.   

My mornings begin with a warm cup of coffee and some time with my diary.  Sometimes I have a To Do list: a project I would like to complete, a book to read, an errand, a trip to the grocery store.  Of late I think of the last words of the minister during my church service on Sunday. “This is the day we have been given, go now and be in this day.”

Michael Cannarella

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