I love Christopher’s Nolan’s movie “Inception.” I need to see it again — at least once but probably more than once.
It’s a movie with many themes and multiple layers of reality. Some layers are dreams. Others are not dreams and are instead, reality. One reviewer described “Inception” as “a paradox maze imbedded in a multi-level dream… dreams within dreams.” Throughout the film, you are tasked with deciding which is which.
I couldn’t. I never could.
Leonardo DiCaprio is Cobb, the principal character in the film. Cobb spins a top — like those you may have played with as a child — which helps him know if he is in a dream or in reality. The action of the top helps ground him. If the top spins and never falls, he is in a dream. If it falls he knows he is in reality.
Like Cobb, I think all of us carry tops of some kind in our lives. Instead of using the top to help us distinguish between dreams and reality, we use them for another reason — to give ourselves, our lives, context, which in turn nurtures meaning; or we use the tops just to remind us of our need for context.
Tops take on many forms. One person’s top may not be the same as another’s.
My phone at the office rang late this afternoon. I answered and an excited voice on the other end suggested that the paper might be interested in a human interest story and that he would share it with me if I desired. “Of course” I replied. “We are always interested in good local story leads.”
He then — and I could see him beaming through the phone — told me that his 6-year-old shot a hole in one while golfing with him and his daughter this week and that he thought that the paper should know about it.
His son’s hole in one caught me off guard initially. I mean, it is a rather unique happening. Most people go their entire lives without shooting a hole in one. But I wasn’t exactly sure that it was “news” — at least whether or not it was really something “newsworthy.” But that’s not the point. The point is that a stranger reached out to share something personal and precious with me. And my default was to judge instead of be thankful.
The top begins to wobble.
Hatcher Hurd opens my door and informs me that we have an appointment at noon downtown — downtown Atlanta. He knows I hate to venture into the city so I think this must be something important. We maneuver through the traffic and almost an hour later arrive at an office building. We go up the elevator and enter an office through a heavy oak door where a dignified older man with white hair and a warm smile meets us. He greets Hatcher like he has known him since childhood and we are led into his own office where we sit in leather chairs facing him as he sits behind his desk. Then we talk for hours.
He tells stories. He shows us renderings and articles carefully clipped out of newspapers that he has kept in files. They are yellow with age. He talks about meeting with the Spruell family almost 50 years ago and at the kitchen table agreeing to buy their farm, which later becomes Perimeter Mall. He talks about building the first office buildings in Midtown, about building The Country Club of the South — the first gated northside community— and about donating the land for the Dunwoody YMCA and much of the land for the YMCA in Alpharetta. He constantly pulls out clippings. He sometimes pauses and is silent. We say very little. Instead, we listen, and we listen.
“Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow”
He keeps talking about water. “Find out about the water” he says. He is cryptic, and both Hatcher and I are puzzled. Time keeps passing and we keep listening.
Then abruptly he stands and it is clear that our “interview” has just come to an end. He walks us to the door where we shake hands. He thanks us for traveling to meet with him.
“What just happened?” I ask Hatcher as we leave. He is as puzzled as I am. There is no story yet; but there is one so grand it would belong in a book.
About two weeks pass. Then I read in the paper that developer and community leader Jim Cowart has died.
The spin of the top slows and the colors on the top begin to emerge with more clarity like light spreading across clouds from an early sun.
I am surprised when she walks into my office and asks if she can talk to me. I know her because she has delivered our newspapers for a number of years, but our relationship up to that point has been limited. While I nearly worship those who deliver our papers, I have rarely taken the time to really get to know them outside of our work setting.
Her husband has just died and I tell her how sorry I am.
There is silence, and then slowly, and with visible effort she finally begins to speak.
“Thank you,” she says. “I just wanted to come in and tell you how grateful I am to you. You see, delivering the paper has been a real help to us financially but it wasn’t until after my husband died that I have been able to really appreciate the gift that you gave me,” she says.
I listen but don’t understand.
“You see, I had no idea that he was dying. We didn’t find out until right before the end. Now I understand how precious that newspaper route was. You see, because of it I was able to spend so many hours together with him — good hours where we were able to talk and laugh and just be with each other. Were it not for the route, I would have missed that precious time with him. “
In silence we sit. Tears stream down my face. We hug. I thank her. She thanks me again. She walks out.
Time slows to a crawl then casts a shadow and freezes in-between light and darkness — between life and death — between my dreams and reality. Later, I am able to focus and walk out.
Into life’s mysterious breach we all travel, sometimes in pitch darkness and other times in brilliant light. Our tops, like the one in “Inception,” in all their forms, incantations, and manifestations are always there to help connect us to the light we need to see through the darkness and understand, to help link us to what counts, what connects us to each other and to what is necessary to give us context and in so doing, sustain us.
The top has slowed enough to see each revolution now, as it fights a losing battle against gravity. It makes increasingly larger and larger circles on the rich oak tabletop — like the descent of a wounded raptor — as it decelerates. I hear it now.
The noise it makes grows louder and louder until it becomes as a vortex and displaces even the air left in the room.
The film cuts to black and ends with the top still spinning.