Altared states

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If my life were a novel, the foreshadowing would have been obvious. I stopped into Old Soul Co. for a soy latte and I ended up sharing a table with David Barton, who recently left The Sacramento Bee after 25 years as an entertainment writer. He enthusiastically described his new Midtown writing project, Blogging the Grid, and we swapped opinions about the blossoming neighborhood we both call home.

When talk turned to this column, I explained that Nothing Ever Happens is a challenge to my readers (and myself) to seize the variety of experiences Sacramento offers. “It’s an answer to the people who say nothing ever happens in Sacramento,” I said.

Barton laughed and looked around the bustling coffeehouse. “Oh, nobody says that anymore,” he replied.

A few days later, I learned SN&R is moving its editorial content in a new direction and Nothing Ever Happens is not on the route. Today’s column will be my last.

I’ll admit I’m feeling melancholy about saying goodbye. That’s probably what drew me to the 14th annual Altares del Mundo exhibition, where local artists assemble aesthetic tributes to things they’ve loved and lost. This month, 44 altars occupy the Phantom Galleries’ multiroom space on Del Paso Boulevard.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, I was the gallery’s only guest. Free to wander at my own pace, I discovered that grief and reverence come in many shapes. A Jim Morrison memorial fit inside a school locker. A tabletop tribute to a lost father included eyeglasses, war medals and a shaving brush. A mandala of chains and peanut shells formed a lament on the plight of circus elephants. A skeleton cowered under a table in an assemblage for Vietnam veterans. A framed farewell to a beloved mother mixed handwritten recipe cards with family portraits.

As I walked among the altars, I marveled at the ways love can be made visible. In doing so, these artists transformed their sadness into beauty.

I entered a side room and immediately felt stunned by the largest altar in the show, dedicated to the late local painter and book-artist Carol Gilbert-Wagner. Stones and plants formed a path to a trickling bamboo fountain. Butterflies dangled from the ceiling and candles emitted a gentle glow. A life-sized skeleton stood at an easel, books under its feet and a paintbrush in its hand, painting a portrait of Carol. I felt I was crashing death’s private studio, where seemingly random losses of life are revealed to be carefully articulated works of art.

When I finally emerged, sunlight made me squint. I stopped at the community altar, where visitors can leave notes of remembrance. I scrawled ballpoint hearts for those I miss and then headed home to write the last Nothing Ever Happens.

Taking my cue from Altares del Mundo, I’ve decided to leave you with an altar. Because I’m a writer, my creation has only two ingredients: my words and your imagination. So picture my altar displayed on a table before you, a papier-máché grid with miniature buildings and streets of silver glitter. The Capitol sits in the center, made entirely of marshmallows. My rivers are green-sequined ribbons tied in a knot at the Delta.

Lean closer and you’ll see the details: a miniature seaplane buzzing the skyscrapers, a pink-costumed bicycle parade, a tiny Dinger dancing on Raley Field, Nutcracker princesses turning pirouettes, mopeds speeding in a pack down 21st Street, pillow fighters in Cesar Chavez Plaza, male strippers and Hooters girls, mechanical-bull riders, soccer players, shady fortune tellers and gubernatorial hopefuls.

And there, perched atop the tallest tree in Capitol Park, a woman with messy hair and well-worn sneakers holds a notebook on her knees and writes it all down. She tosses pages into the wind until the air is filled with white flakes like a Midtown snow globe.

When she runs out of paper, she closes the empty notebook and looks out over her city. She wonders what’s next—for her and for Sacramento. If there’s one thing she’s learned about this place, it’s that something is always happening.