Lately I’ve been captivated by a song called “Finishing the Hat.” It’s from Stephen Sondheim’s 1984 musical Sunday in the Park with George, a fictional telling of the backstory of the creation of Georges Seurat’s famous pointillist painting Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.
In the song, the words “finishing the hat” refer to George’s obsessional thoughts about his work. He creates art at the expense of everything else. Life and love go on without him while he focuses on “finishing the hat.” And George doesn’t understand why people don’t appreciate his need to create:
“How you watch the rest of the world
From a window
When you finish the hat.”
George believes he must keep the world at arms length so he can fully observe it. His art comes from that distance, from the observation of the world around him, not his participation in it.
Yet, there is a sense of longing in the song as well, as George realizes he’s missing something. That realization is my favorite part. The lyrics read:
“What you feel when voices that come
Through a window
Until they distance and die
Until there’s nothing but sky
And how you’re always turning back too late
From the grass or the stick
Or the dog or the light.”
It’s a short song, but it is rich with meaning. “Finishing the Hat” has been a bit of an ear worm for me, I think because I can relate to the various meanings in the words. The focus on career, on busy-ness at the expense of everything, of keeping the world at bay, of being a less-than-full participant in life.
I’ve been that guy. I’ve lived life at a distance, holding people, experiences and emotions at bay to advance my career. Then disease entered my life and, quite literally, all of that changed.
In keeeping with the tone of the song, cancer forced me to let go of my hat.
My heart changed because of cancer. Our marriage is stronger because Sarah and I fought side by side. My friendships are more meaningful. I’m more grateful, and more positive. I have little tolerance for getting wrapped up in the small stuff (really, so much of it is small stuff).
I want to live a life that has an impact, thus the book and the speaking gigs and this web site.
If you’re reading this, heed my words: Don’t wait for the horrible disease to live fully, love boldly and find meaning in your life. Unfortunately, for most of us, it’s the brush with death that ultimately brings about change.
If George had been diagnosed with cancer, he might have stopped trying to finish the hat. After all, he ultimately made a hat “where there never was a hat.”
Kinda sounds like that “chasing after the wind” King Solomon writes about, doesn’t it?