Dear Stranger


Messages come in many forms: handwritten or typed, long or short, casual or elegant. What happens when a message is written without a specific person in mind? Who is meant to read it? We muse on the delight and nostalgia of coming across an unexpected note.

Memo pads. Post-it notes. Emails. Letters. Written messages permeate our daily interactions, between me and you, you and him, him and her, her and me. They may be as brief as a grocery list or a request to remember to take out the trash, punctuated with bullet points and exclamation marks on the fly. On the other hand, a note may be lengthy and thoughtful, scattered with words you’ve read or wrote, but have never heard in an actual conversation. Messages are scribbled or typed with a distinctive style and a particular word choice that gives away the author’s identity, intentionally or not, the same way the intimate inflections in a person’s voice can alert you to his or her presence in a room before you’ve even entered.

Most of the time, a written message has a designated recipient. The implied meaning of the pronoun “you” is generally trivial to grasp, either from the initial salutation (Hey honey) or the person’s property on which the message lands (your boss’ desk). Sometimes, a pronoun isn’t even necessary, and this kind of statement has its own name in English grammar: the imperative sentence. Upload these files, reads the sticky note that appeared on your desk, slapped over a flash drive, and you know that someone is telling you to do it—and probably soon.

Of course, many messages are not private in nature. A message may be universal, intended for any person who comes across it. For example, the announcement that the commuter train is delayed due to rail maintenance on track 5, scrolling patiently across the bulbs on a sign board above the platform, does not discriminate between you and the person checking their watch two feet away.

However, there are also the messages whose recipients are more difficult to discern. Often, we come across them purely due to luck or accident, inscribed on unlikely surfaces (the next street corner) or tucked away in crannies (underneath a school desk). Uncovering the identity of the author or the recipient is beside the point; more important is the message’s ability to resonate, or provoke new questions, or simply share thoughts and musings. Below, we consider a few ways these messages might reach us.

1. THE DAILY JOURNAL

Journal and a jewelry stand

One could argue that the pages upon pages of private, internal musings found between the folds of a modern-day journal were never intended by the author to be read by another human being. Only rarely do they emerge: when a nosy sibling rummages through your drawers, say, or when a literary scholar posthumously publishes the passages composed by a well-regarded writer. But who are we writing to when we record our thoughts in a blank notebook or the crumpled surface of a used napkin? Are we writing to an empty void when we secret away our most profound revelations, incubating them until the right time to share with the world?

2. THE PAPER AIRPLANE

View of a building from across the street

Paper airplanes are often associated with childhood whimsy, as if the short notes inside were composed of waxy crayons and crookedly crossed t’s. However, setting a piece of paper to float on the breeze is a vulnerable operation. Each painstaking crease, the whims of the wind, and the angle of your wrist when you send this little airplane soaring towards the sky, will determine whether your message will fly across the honking, rumbling, beeping cacophony of Main Street or take a nose dive at the curb. The simplest form elicits success when it flies a straight and true meter, gently landing on a neighbor’s lawn. In my imagination, these contraptions whiz past in loops and curlicues, between power lines and laundry lines, until they are lost in the hubbub of the city.

3. THE MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE

A bench in front of two large windows

A sealed cylinder of glass or plastic has perplexing properties of survival. It may be spiraled into the air by sea foam, tossed willy-nilly by creatures of the deep, or lugged with the tides according to the gravitational pull of the moon, but with the blessings of fortune and earnest wishes from the individual who set the bottle bobbing in the current, a message in the bottle can end up anywhere. The recipient can be any one of the billions of people on this planet. So what does one write when writing to anyone in the world? When you have no idea if someone will read it in two days, or in two centuries?

4. THE SCRIBBLES IN THE MARGINS

A houseplant in the corner

Like a well-traveled person, a well-read book has many stories to tell. The binding is worn and soft, cradled by countless hands and exposed to years of light. Pages are adorned with squiggling underlines, errant streaks of highlighter, and never-quite-flat corners that have been turned and worried and folded by dozens of fingers. I remember textbooks in high school with handwriting in the otherwise expectantly blank margins. More often than not, they were crude, one-line jokes or notations of the more studious, academic variety. Were these simply doodles to pass the time? Or were they a kind of eternal message on repeat, with a trajectory that followed the timing of an academic school year? They felt like open secrets, shared amongst a handful of students that passed through the classrooms year after year.

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