Stand Together Tucson – Lisa O’Neill

Lisa hosting The Dictionary Project Presents Reading Series at Casa Libre. Photo credit to Samuel Ace, supplied by Lisa O'Neill

Lisa hosting The Dictionary Project Presents Reading Series at Casa Libre. Photo credit to Samuel Ace, supplied by Lisa O’Neill

Dear Tucson,

The last few weeks, I’ve been consumed by grief. You’ve seen me weeping openly in coffee shops. You’ve noticed me waiting, all too frequently, in the drive-thru line at In-N-Out and Del Taco. You might have spotted me walking down 4th avenue with a blank stare. You forgave me when I mumbled something unrecognizable, and when I had trouble answering even the simplest question. When I saw you and burst into tears, you gave me a hug and noticed I held on longer than usual. You held me when I didn’t want to let go.

Tucson, I love you. I love you and I am heartbroken. I love you and I don’t know where we are headed. I love you and sometimes I’m paralyzed with fear. I love you and I want so much more for all of us. I love you and I don’t know how we are going to make it through this. I love you because you understand.

Photo supplied by Lisa O'Neill

Photo supplied by Lisa O’Neill

Tonight, I met you at the YWCA. We gathered, hundreds of us, teeming out of the main room into an overflow room, into hallways. We sat in chairs and spilled out onto the floor. We were there because our country elected someone who threatens to harm us, to fight against everything we stand for: empathy, justice, compassion, arts, the environment, rights and protections for all. He has gathered around him a panel of people who not only don’t believe in the rights of everyone but actively work to dismantle systems and laws that protect us from danger, that allow every person an opportunity to live and thrive.

Tucson sky

Photo supplied by Lisa O’Neill


In that room this evening, the launch of We Stand Together, your citizens told stories of discrimination they have experienced in our community and beyond and what it felt like to be unsafe, to have their humanity and the humanity of those they love dismissed. They also offered suggestions on how to be emissaries of love and justice, how to reach out to our neighbors to let them know we are here and they are not alone. The Executive Directors of two major nonprofit organizations pledged to throw their bodies in the way of anyone faced with the threat of being taken away from here, from us. One elder told the story of how she and her family survived the Holocaust; her parents surrendered her as a three-month-old baby to a woman who ushered her safely in and out of forty different households during her first four years of life while her parents, grandparents, and aunt were in hiding with another man. If you save one life, you save the world, she said. As her words coursed through my body, I wept again, this time because of the kindness and bravery of so many human beings. I wept with you.

Tucson, I don’t want to be in the dark times we’re in. I hate that this is where we are. But if I have to be in these times, I am so grateful to have you. You don’t flinch in the face of suffering. You are endlessly generous and infinitely forgiving. You offer not only out of bounty but out of dearth. You make room at your table for one more seat. You stay true to your words. You don’t give up.You put your body, your soul, your heart on the line again and again—even though you don’t have to, even though you don’t know the outcome. You always choose to extend your hand.

Lisa O'Neill by Kathleen Dreier

Lisa O’Neill by Kathleen Dreier

Sometimes, I think about our lives and how we arrive at the places we do. When I examine the timelines of famous people who inspire me, their trajectories seem so obvious and inevitable. Of course that’s the way things played out. Of course that’s who and what they loved. Of course that’s where they landed. But the truth is that each of us has a roadmap for our lives that we thread line by line, yard by yard. We only understand things, if we are lucky, in retrospect, a lifetime later.

Tucson, I came to you for two years. That was nine years ago.

You’ve heard this before. I came for three months, a year, two max. And then how long did they stay? Five years, ten, twenty, a lifetime. I thought, I’ll go to grad school, I’ll write a book. I’ll move on. But something about you—everything about you—burrowed a space inside me and when I came to that self-appointed departure date, I didn’t want to go.

Tucson, my love, my dear heart, you taught me what it means to stay in a place and come to know it. You healed me: the parts I knew needed tenderness and the parts I didn’t even realize were wounded. You: my safe place to land, my safe place from which to leap. You showed me how to make a home in a place other than the city where I was born. You told me over and over—in your iridescent sunsets, your creosote-saturated air, your mountains, your hummingbirds—that I was worthy of such beauty, that I need only pay attention, that this moment—and this one—is enough. I lit candles, held my breath, and sent my biggest dreams into the ether. You sent them back to me in the form of writing and music and art and enduring friendships and adventures and light I never knew was possible and a landscape I still have a hard time believing is real. My sweet desert, you don’t have the rivers and lakes that I came from, but as a Cancer, Cancer rising, I have plenty of water. And in summer, your skies open up, you crackle and roar, and your whole panorama bursts into flames of color.

As I sat in that room tonight—bolstered by the breath and voices of my neighbors, your other beloveds—I remembered again why I love you.

You don’t require me to be easy or perfect or normal. You don’t require me to wear certain clothes, listen to certain music, be devoted to certain things. You don’t need me to be anything other than who I am. What you do require is that, every day, I rise to the challenge of being my brightest self, the most authentic me I can muster. You don’t tell me how to do that. You merely ask that I tune in and show up. And I love you for that. I love you for who you are and I love you for what you bring out in me.

Tucson, you taught me how to be a part of an ever-extending family. You offer me grace, compassion, and love every single day. And I am never happier than when I make you proud. Thank you for helping me grow, thank you for being here when I fall, thank you for reminding me of what’s possible together.

My love always,


Lisa wrote this after attending the launch of We Stand Together, a citywide initiative being sponsored by the Southern Arizona Hate Crimes Task Force to encourage and equip Tucsonans to stand up against bigotry and prejudice.

Attendees received basic training on how to safely respond when they see harassment, verbal assault or a hate crime happening. Speakers shared personal stories of how they have been impacted by bigotry, prejudice-driven harassment and hate crime here in Tucson.

The We Stand Together network will provide places of safety and shelter throughout Tucson for those who are victims of harassment or assault. More than 50 individuals and businesses have already joined the network and an additional 250 are expected to join within the first few weeks of the campaign. More information about We Stand Together here. 

Lisa M. O’Neill is a writer and writing teacher in Tucson. You can find her at

Thank you Lisa for one fabulous letter.

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