Altar of Unknown

By Lisa Marie Rollins

I have two rituals before I unpack the first box to set up in a new house. I start at my front door, light a stick of sage, walk around from front to back door, to front again. I walk each room, speak aloud to my new home, speak words to what kind of life I want to live in my new space. I walk every corner, closet, doorway, bathroom until my space is filled with the sweet smell of cleansing sage. After the sage, I choose where I will build my house altar. My altar hosts photo images of my ancestors, glass jars or bottles filled with water from beaches and rivers I have visited, and colored stones from walks in the mountains. There is a gourd I found, scrubbed, oiled and wrapped about its neck a white and copper rosary a friends mother gave me back in 1994. There is a ceramic and steel crucifix I bought in Mexico when I was 26 and a photo representation of Ile Orisha Oya surrounded by copper and rust colored fabric. 

The ancestors on my altar change. This year as I re-center my home, clean and dress my altar, I add photos of more of the dead. As I add these photos, I think about who could appear on it soon, and about those whom I have never met.

I have never been an adopted person who obsesses about my family of origin as a child or adolescent. While in many ways, I was isolated from my family and the community that I grew up in, I dreamt more about running away to far away ancient lands, and other countries. I lost myself in the myriad of books I constantly read, or conjured up my own fantastic stories of science fiction or earth or moon magic to project me away from the circumstances I was in. I didn’t spend hours upon hours wondering who my birth mother and father were or what they were doing.

I’m not sure when I started making connections to the absences of what I held as ideas of mother, father, brother, sister, grandmother or grandfather in my family of origin, to absences that live in my heart, shadow my spirit. The experience of something ‘nagging’ or missing is common for me and for so many of us who have been disconnected from our families of origin that it seems natural to everyday life. I live with empty spaces where bodies should be in photos. I travel with ghosts of the unknown. I walk with blanks on the story of my conception and birth. I reconcile what only lives in my imagination, the stories I collect from someone who has memory, and the stories I construct from timelines I make, from other’s memories, stories to tell myself.

Like many adoptees, there came a day when I sent away for copies of my adoption paperwork. I remember the day the first round of documents from the Washington state department of social services came in the mail. It was the common, brown manila envelope, thick with paper, heavy with implications. I found it tucked inside my mailbox, I took it inside, placed it in the middle of the kitchen table and went to turn on the teapot.

While the water started to steam, I opened the envelope, and examined the sheets, about 40 pages of information I had never read before. Alongside discoveries I found pages and paragraphs that reveled more secrets, hiding specific words, names and full sentences blocked out with a big black marker. Things I am never allowed to know. Information and memory that is lost forever.

How do I construct my altar when my ancestors are hidden from me? What blanks will remain when my birth father, who is alive now, but could become an ancestor very soon, passes on? What stories will they tell me once he is gone, about how I have his hands, or his chin and what photo will they give me, if any, to place alongside the other photos of ghosts that I know?

My altar has become a reminder of reconciliation of spirit, and an acceptance of the unknown. Each time I cleanse it with sage, or dust it off, or clean it fully, redressing it with fresh flowers, new colors or add new or old images of found / lost ancestors, it represents more than who has come before me. Its construction reconciles the absences, faces them as living fears, and acknowledges them as unknowns. It is a living structural way to heal, way to grow and be whole and fill the empty spaces. 

On my altar lives photos of my ancestors. Photos of those who are gone in my family like my grandfather Macan on my mother side, my cousin Mandy who died in a car accident, and of my birth grandfather Arino, whom I never knew, but whose wrinkled forehead I see in the mirror. A blank card holds space for ancestors whom I will never know from my families of origin. There are images I have claimed of my chosen family, a group that includes mentors, scholars and people who made impacts on my life and whose voices I still hear in my head when I write, make decisions, or meditate and pray.

This new year, I cleanse my altar again, dusting each trinket, resetting them into place, I am full of fear my birth father’s family will continue to keep my body a secret from him. I fear I will remain a ghost in their photos and he will die before I know him. I fear there will be another addition to my ancestors, another addition to history of unknowns I must reconcile. I pray and burn sage, ask for courage to face fear and to dive into these blanks, into the absences that live in photos with and without me in them, these unknowns that ground me as much as they unsettle me.

The prayer I give today is a prayer for you, too. Here’s to all of your and my absences being filled with light, and to the acceptance of the unknown inside the shadows, my friends.

Copyright © Lisa Marie Rollins. All rights reserved.

Lisa Marie Rollins is a Black/Filipina writer, playwright and performer and a leading voice in transracial/ international adoption education and advocacy. She is one of Colorlines magazine’s “Innovators to Watch” for her work around reproductive justice / global adoption and race. She is a VONA alumni in Poetry and recipient of the James Irvine and Zellerbach Foundations Individual Artist funding for her acclaimed solo play, “Ungrateful Daughter: One Black Girls story of being adopted into a white family… that aren’t celebrities”. Her most recent publications can be found in the anthology “Other Tongues: Mixed-Race Women Speak Out” and her new short chapbook, “Splice”.

You can see more of her work and contact her at

  • If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. —Barry Lopez, in Crow and Weasel