Shambhala Sun | July 2014
The Biggest Party Ever
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
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
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
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.