As a child, HOWARD AXELROD dreamed of a festival that everyone in the world attended. Now he realize that it’s been happening all along.
Through third and fourth grade, I had a recurring fantasy, though I thought of it as a project. Night after night, surrounded by my retinue of stuffed animals, I’d lie awake elaborating and refining. No dreams of tree houses for me, no plans of revenge on my older brother. Just my nightly planning for the World Festival.
Everybody in the world would be there. Everybody. Vast portions of the Earth would be left uninhabited: Boston, New York City, China. No one on any of the playgrounds. No one in any of the stores. No cars on the highways. No nightly news. No school. No piano lessons. Just every house in every town waiting for the people to come back, for life to be filled back in. But filled back in with something new, something that made everything make sense.
The more impossible the festival seemed, the more important it felt. Trying to imagine it would keep me awake—not just the hum of everyone coming together, but also all the questions. Where would the festival be held? The Nebraska/Kansas area seemed like a good bet: it was centrally located on the map at school, and not much other than a little husked-corn icon seemed to be there. Maybe Missouri and South Dakota could be used as parking lots. What kind of entertainment would there be? It would have to be music, that way there’d be no problem with people not speaking the language. But whatever the entertainment was, we’d have to set up giant screens so everyone, especially the kids, could see. What about bathrooms? Imagine the lines at the port-a-potties. And food? We’d need more than a few ice cream trucks. And what about sick people? We’d have to build hospitals. And babies being born? More hospitals. And how could we make sure that everyone, everyone, everyone got there? The men waving the glowing sticks who helped land the planes would have to be the last ones onto the shuttle buses. And would people bring pets? We couldn’t have dogs and cats abandoned all around the world, howling in empty houses and fields.
So there were a few logistical details to work out. But night after night, safe in my bed, with the lights of soon-to-be-uninhabited Boston winking in the distance, I’d plan the buses and bridges and health stations, the giant booths for lost kids to find their parents, maybe even enormous domes of Jiffy Pop popped on heated ponds. This wasn’t just going to be the biggest party ever, some kind of birthday party for the world. It was supposed to give everyone something.
It was supposed to give a shared feeling, one that made all the logistical problems unimportant, a feeling that would rise up, almost like a scent or a faint hum that everyone could hear. It would give an understanding of what it meant to live on Earth. Because with everything else taken out of the picture, with no school, no schedules, and no piano lessons, and with everybody in the same place more or less doing the same thing, what other feeling could there possibly be?
This past Fourth of July, having not thought about it for years, I was reminded of the World Festival. On a grassy hill just outside Boston, a crowd had gathered to watch the fireworks. Dogs nosed in the cool grass; toddlers wobbled after soccer balls. We were too far away to hear the Boston Pops Orchestra, which was performing the usual Fourth of July brassy fare, but no one seemed to mind. Dusk turned the sky deep blue; couples on their blankets turned into silhouettes. Children ran chasing whatever children chase, paused to nuzzle close to their parents, then resumed chasing. Eventually, with the sky gone almost as dark as the trees, the fireworks began. Great blossoms of light. Starburst after starburst, scintillating showers falling toward the earth, it was otherworldly but not otherworldly. It was friendly, too, because we knew the show was man-made and designed for our enjoyment.
But then something strange happened. The big finale ended, and within sixty seconds, there was a kind of stampede. Grass kicked up, blankets trampled, voices louder than they’d been the entire night. Every couple or family its own little army again, retreating. Parents wanted to get kids to bed. No one wanted to be caught in traffic. We were not a group anymore. With the spectacle over, it was as though everyone had instantly forgotten that the evening had been beautiful before the fireworks—that, indeed, perhaps what had made the fireworks so beautiful was the feeling that had grown on the hillside while we were all waiting.
Trying to recover some of that feeling, I found myself on the drive home comforted by a strange thought. There were a lot of people on the sidewalks, returning to their cars from one viewing place or another, and it struck me that all of us had seen the same thing. We’d all been watching the sky at the same time. It was our common point of reference. Which is what made me think of the World Festival. Not everyone in the world had been there, but hundreds of thousands of Bostonians had been. We’d all enjoyed the same performance, and it had happened on a screen everyone could see, because that screen was the sky.
How often did something like that happen?
It took a moment, but then it dawned on me: pretty often. Millions of people have watched the same TV show, the same YouTube video, the same movie on Netflix. Having a common point of reference was nothing new. It was just that our original common point of reference, the sky, had been moved inside, to smaller screens.
It was kind of ingenious, if you thought about it. The World Festival was a logistical nightmare. But if you couldn’t bring everyone to the show, why not bring the show to everyone? You still knew you were watching what everyone else was watching. You could still talk about it with everyone afterward; you just had to post your comments online. You never had to wonder where you’d parked your car. And you never had to wait in line at the port-a-potty. You could have all the feeling of belonging without any of the discomfort of gathering. All of the community, none of the hassle. All of the connection, none of the vulnerability.
The World Festival was happening. You just had to tune in.
The word absurd comes from the Latin surdus, which means deaf. This suggests that if you can’t hear the wind moving in the treetops or the fall of your own footsteps on the ground, your life can’t help but become disengaged from meaning. Imagine walking deep into a forest with no sounds, no branches snapping underfoot, no cries of far-off birds, only the phantom rhythm of your own breath.
The link between the senses and our orientation in the world isn’t just etymology or metaphor. Modern studies suggest that alienated people feel detached from their senses; they also suggest that feeling detached from our senses can make us feel alienated.
The most obvious sense we need for contact with the world is touch. Studies show that a baby needs to be held, to feel its body against something, preferably its mother, to locate itself in space and feel secure. Gentle touch from anyone or anything, even from a swaddling blanket, helps babies stay healthy. Take away that touch, and a baby shows distress—the inability to gain weight, a quickening of heart rate, a depressed immune system, fitful crying. You could argue this is simply an evolutionary adaptation: the baby wails, the mother tends to him, the baby has a better chance of survival. But in experiments with monkeys, when a mother’s touch was removed and then returned, even though the baby monkey eventually grew calm, its body remained more susceptible to disease, which clearly isn’t an evolutionary advantage. My bet is this response isn’t just the trauma of lost love or lost nourishment, but the trauma of lost orientation on the most primal level: a sense of spatial abandonment from which the body never quite recovers. As much as the trauma might be said to be psychological, that psychological aspect starts in the baby’s body, which has already begun to need a physical, sensory trust with the world.
On July fifth, I talked to my father on the phone. He’d watched the fireworks on his iPad. “Quite spectacular,” he said. “Gets more elaborate every year, doesn’t it?” There was nothing unusual about his comments. He probably would have said the very same thing had he been there in person.
But something was missing. And I felt that gap all the more keenly because there seemed no prospect of explaining to him what I’d experienced, as he assumed we’d more or less experienced the same thing. So I tried to imagine the Fourth of July on a screen, rather than in the sky. There was no touch—no feel of the grass on my bare feet, no evening breeze on the back of my neck. No faint smell of musty blankets and trodden grass, no waft of fried chicken from the family picnicking next to me. And while there was sound with the screen, it was only the booming of the fireworks and the professional wonder of the commentators, not the dimensional murmur of the hundreds of people around me, a murmur that revealed the contours of the hill in the summer dark and gave a kind of human shape to the wonder—a wonder that included everyone there, even if the little girl’s commentary on the blanket in front of me, “that’s my favorite, that’s my favorite,” wasn’t the same as mine.
And yes, the screen had vision—it probably even afforded a closer look at the fireworks: vivid shots of the hot light catching the trailing white smoke, beautifully composed frames with the Boston skyline in the background, an American flag waving in the breeze. But on the screen, there was no way for me to turn and see the shifting colors reflected in the slightly greasy, utterly dazzled, upturned faces of the fried-chicken family, or to see the little girl nuzzling close to her father during the finale, or to look out over the entire crowd and toward the Boston skyline and feel at once my similarity and my difference from everyone, to appreciate, for better or for worse, that I was part of the group.
I understand why my father stayed home, why he watched on his iPad. He has a bum ankle, and crowds are tricky for him. Uneven hillsides present a real danger, especially with overstimulated kids racing around in the dark. And I understand, more generally, why people spend so many hours a day looking at their smartphones. Each one is a ticket to the World Festival, promising to keep us informed, included, a part of everything that’s going on.
Yet I also understand why I stopped fantasizing about the World Festival years ago. Part of it was that other fantasies, usually involving a girl and some privacy, became more pressing. But part of it was that it occurred to me that the space it would take to hold the World Festival was the space of the world itself. And the festival was already occurring—with hospitals, bathrooms, ice cream trucks, lost children, people dying, people being born. Granted, there was no opening speech, no clear reminder that a festival was in progress, no articulated spirit of why we were all here. But maybe that was for the best. Maybe answering that question for yourself—or not answering it, but simply wondering about it every now and then, feeling it in what you heard and saw and smelled and tasted and touched—was the most important part of being here.
Howard Axelrod has written for The New York Times Magazine, Harvard Magazine, and The Boston Globe. He recently completed a memoir, The Point of Vanishing, about the two years he lived in solitude in northern Vermont.
Ilustration(s) by Tomi Um.