Letter to America, by Lisa M. O'Neill

Letter to America

By Lisa M. O'Neill

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Dear America,

Four years ago, I developed tinnitus. The name for the condition comes from the Latin, tinnire: “to ring, tinkle.” I was at a café when I first heard the sound—a high-pitched whine, like an appliance not fully plugged into its socket. When the sound followed me home, I knew it was coming from me. The last few years have been a reckoning. Initially: visits to doctors and audiologists and acupuncturists; reading and reading on the Internet. Then, ignoring, denying, and covering up. I have tried in many ways to run away from the sound my body makes. I have tried to act as though no longer having the option of silence hasn’t completely altered my life—but this sound, this constant humming, is always with me. I must acknowledge its presence.


America, we are here together in cacophony. Our country and our world quake with pain and need. I hear the pulse of it under every story I read in the news, every social media post timbered with rage or sadness. I hear it in the weathered voice of my father, an eternal optimist—someone who taught me to believe in hope and love as the enduring forces of humanity. I hear it in the crowds of people holding signs and begging to be listened to. I hear it in the crying of immigrant children held in detention centers. I hear it in the comments section where nameless, faceless people yell at one another into and out of voids. I hear it in my own voice. We are living inside the swell. Sometimes the volume is intolerable.


A few years ago, French researchers discovered that when in distress from drought, trees produce a distinctive ultrasonic noise. Under stress, trees form cavitations—tiny bubbles inside their trunks that block water flow. Once rare, cavitations are happening more and more frequently. They eventually kill trees. Researchers hope that by listening, they can intervene and supply trees with the water they need in time to save them. In humans, a cavitation is a hole in the jawbone—a result of post-surgical infection—that cannot be seen by sight alone. They often go undetected for years in otherwise healthy people.


America, I see our pain—alive, awake, quickening. I see us: citizens separating immigrating mothers from their babies and putting them both in cages. I see us: two million imprisoned, over 40 million living in poverty. I see us: trying to make it through the day when so many lives are threatened; when black citizens are killed by police officers without repercussion; when brown brothers, sisters, daughters, sons, mothers, and fathers are found dead in the desert or deported to dangerous homelands, are separated from their families and placed under conditions that threaten their lives; when last year was the most deadly for trans citizens in this country in a decade; when women are coming out to say yes, me too, and of course, and why didn’t you believe me when I told you before?; when we send children off to school unsure of whether this is the day they won’t come home alive.


I’ve been thinking these days about the word tenderness mostly because I’ve been feeling so tender and struggling with how to hold space for my tenderness in the midst of this onslaught. Because I feel, like never before, the line between what was and what is and what could have been. Because I feel intense fear about what is happening and what could come to pass. Tender: soft or delicate, easily moved to sympathy or compassion. Tender: a person who tends.


In The New Jim Crow, which explores the legacy of mass incarceration and its disproportionate impact on communities of color, Michelle Alexander writes that we “choose to be a nation that shames and blames its most vulnerable, affixes badges of dishonor upon them at young ages, and then relegates them to a permanent second-class status for life. That is the path we have chosen, and it leads to a familiar place.” I’ve seen this at the state prison where I teach writing with incarcerated youth, most of them students of color. We gather in the visitation room, pushing the tables into a large square. These kids are smart. Like most teenagers, they are easily distracted but when they talk about writing or share their own, they brim with excitement. Yet in each breath they carry the weight of their felonies and time still to be served. Even after being released, life for many will continue to be a hard sentence. Some weeks, we do a weather report, where we go around and talk about how they are feeling—the best and worst things of the week. The best things are getting privileges restored or hearing from loved ones. The worst are when family members haven’t been approved to visit or when they worry about their people on the outside.


Some of us want to build walls to protect us—forgetting that we are the deepest threat to one another. That we must always look first to ourselves to heal. Activist Zaira Livier once quoted Angela Davis to me: “Radical simply means ‘grasping things at the root.’” Livier is one of the founders of the recently-formed Free the Children Coalition, demanding an end to border separation of migrating families, many of them fleeing violence in their home countries and seeking the asylum granted them under both international treaty and domestic law. Two weeks ago, Livier received a call from her distraught mother—her 31-year-old brother, deported during the Obama administration, had been assassinated in their Mexican hometown. When they sought permission to bring him home for burial, Livier was told that because he didn’t have a passport, her brother would have to be shipped with the label: cargo.


I also teach writing workshops in juvenile detention. In these classes, we discuss the purpose of poetry. Students talk about the power of language to self-express, to communicate. When I ask the kids to read aloud, there is often hesitation until a student says, “I got you, Miss,” and begins. They say it to each other too when they step in to read in another’s stead. I got you.


Many of us know the parable of the grandfather who speaks of the two wolves inside each of us who are always at battle. The good wolf embodies kindness, bravery, and love. The bad wolf embodies greed, hatred, and fear. The grandson asks which wolf will win, and the grandfather says, “The one you feed.”


Doctors suggest white noise machines to mask the sound of tinnitus. Although I’ve tried this, I find the extra noise aggressive. Adding sound on top of sound causes me additional distress. Instead, I’ve tried to accept what I hear. To tend the sound with gentleness.


Storyteller Michael Meade writes of a healing ritual in Zambia. If one member becomes ill, the whole tribe must gather. They know that an ancestor’s tooth has lodged within the person and the only way to rid them of their sickness is for the entire tribe to gather in a circle to sing, drum, and dance while every person reveals their buried hurts, fears, anger, and disappointment—their most difficult truths. Only then can the tooth be shaken loose. Only then can everyone be healed.

In solidarity,



13th. IMDB. 2016.

Ahmed, Saeed. “There has been, on average, 1 school shooting every week this year”. CNN. May 25, 2018.

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press. January 2012.

Blust, Kendal. “Deaths per 10,000 border crossers are up 5 times from a decade ago”. Arizona Daily Star. May 21, 2016.

“Criminal Justice Facts”. The Sentencing Project. June 2018.

Free the Children Coalition.

Gonzales, Richard, “Federal Investigation Finds ‘Significant Issues’ At Immigrant Detention Centers”. NPR. December 14, 2017.

Hannah-Jones, Nikole, “Taking Freedom: Yes, Black America Fears the Police. Here’s Why”. Pacific Standard. April 10, 2018.

Mauer, Marc and McCalmont, Virginia, “A Lifetime of Punishment: The Impact of the Felony Drug Ban on Welfare Benefits”. The Sentencing Project. November 13 (updated September 2015).

Mogensen, Jackie Flynn, “2017 Was the Deadliest Year For Trans People In At Least a Decade”. Mother Jones. November 20, 2017.

Nadasen, Premilla, “Extreme poverty returns to America”. The Washington Post. December 21, 2017.

Newer, Rachel, “Trees Make Noises, and Some of Those Sounds are Cries for Help”. Smithsonian. April 16, 2013

Stillman, Sarah. “When Deportation is a Death Sentence”. The New Yorker. January 15, 2018.

Wang, Amy B, “‘Mothers could not stop crying’: Lawmaker blasts Trump policy after visiting detained immigrants”. The Washington Post. June 10, 2018.

Zacharek, Stephanie; Dockterman, Eliana; and Edwards, Haley Sweetland, Time Person of the Year 2017: The Silence Breakers”. Time. December 18, 2017.


Lisa M. O'NeillLisa M. O’Neill is an essayist and journalist whose work operates at the intersection of popular culture, politics, place, and social justice issues. Her writing has appeared in Bitch, Edible Baja Arizona, Everyday Feminism, DIAGRAM, GOOD, Good Housekeeping, Talk Poverty, and The Washington Post, among others.

Header photo by babawawa, courtesy Pixabay. Photo of Lisa M. O’Neill by Jade Beall.



Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.