Not Only Does Jesus Love You

jesus-wineMy friend and co-worker Judy has never really gotten over me writing a blog about another co-worker. I know this because about once every five days, she brings up that blog and asks, “why don’t you write a blog about ME?”

And this blog is about her, sort of. It’s about her in the way that it’s also about me and, I hope, anyway, it’s about you too.

Judy and her fiancé Travis have been attending church with me this summer. When our church announced a few weeks ago that we would have a night called Beer and Hymns, Judy and I both got really excited. We love drinking. And they promised it wouldn’t just be beer, but wine also.

And I’m not going to lie, for the last few weeks, I’ve really looked forward to this event, which is tonight. (7:00 pm! First Congregational Church, 6th and Commonwealth) Did I mention I enjoy drinking? I know I joke about my alcohol consumption but I don’t really drink the way I used to when I was younger. And yet, with a nice glass of wine, or a bit of my favorite Maker’s Mark, sometimes I can go on a journey that’s warm and sentimental and kind of funny and deeply emotional. Some say we become someone else when we drink and others say we reveal our truest selves. And I think both are true and both can be true.

One of my happiest moments was a few years ago, drunk at the Amy Grant concert at the Greek with my friend Richard. We had grown up in the church and with Amy’s music, and in our adulthood, for our own reasons, moved away from the church. Now that I have returned to church, the memories of that night are sweeter. I did not realize I was inching back to a spiritual journey at the time, but I was. And I have both Amy Grant and a bourbon distillery in Kentucky to thank for it.

Judy and I have been talking up Beer and Hymns to our co-workers and other friends. Every chance we get, we ask someone else, “Do you want to go?” And you know, as it turns out, the idea of drinking in church is a little provocative.

A few days ago, Judy and I asked one particular friend if she wanted to go to Beer and Hymns. I don’t want to embarrass her, but she really is my favorite person to work with. (Sorry, Judy.) She is always the one to help me when I’m in a bind. In an environment where someone is always in a fight (or feud) with someone else, this person is liked and respected by everyone, no small feat. We met working together at the same restaurant downtown and as I tell her often, she is the only good thing to come out of that place.

When I asked this friend if she wanted to go to Beer and Hymns, she said with a sad little laugh, “No, Jesus doesn’t like me.” And I don’t want to spin this out too much because she was making a joke. But, somewhere I do believe it came from an honest place.

And I understand it because it’s the kind of thing I’ve thought, probably even said.  Jesus doesn’t like me. How does one derive at that conclusion when it’s the total opposite of what the Bible says?

A few nights ago, I had the recurring dream that I was back at my Bible college. Years ago, I wrote about this phenomenon, that I would dream I was at Ozark and I was afraid they would find out I was gay and that they would kick me out. And I’d wake up anxious and sad and conflicted. For years, every several months, I would have a variation of the same dream.

This time, when I found myself back at Ozark, in my nocturnal journey, it was different. I was happy to be there and then I was surprised to find myself so happy. I thought, they all know I’m gay and I’m here and we don’t exactly believe the same things and we all want to understand God better and really, it’s all okay.  Wonderful, even. No doubt, my dream was influenced by the reception I received several weeks ago at an Ozark reunion in Anaheim, where I reconnected with old, dear friends and we laughed about the good times, and I remembered, there had been many good times.

2016 has been a truly bumpy year for me. To be honest, I think I only do bumpy years. But, being in church again has brought me so much joy.

I don’t know if church makes me a happier or more peaceful person but I know that church is a source of happiness and peace for me.

Let’s be honest, the church is the reason many people go around wondering whether or not Jesus likes them.  If you’ve been along for any of these blogs the last few years, you know that I have held resentments toward the church, hostilities for the way my friends or family or myself have been treated.  And now I find myself back in church.  I’m the one asking my friends to join me for fellowship and comfort and unity and peace, again.

And how I treat every person I come into contact with, is a reflection of my faith, my journey.  And that sucks because I am really not always a nice person.   But I’m trying.

But this blog is for anyone and everyone who ever wondered if Jesus liked them or loved them, even for everyone who ever wondered if Jesus existed.  It’s for anyone with questions about why we are here or what happens to us when we die.  It’s for anyone who truly does not understand why cancer exists.  It’s for anyone who has been hurt, not only by the church, just hurt.  Is that everyone?  I hope so, simply because it’s better if we remember we are in this together.

And while I know that I do not know all there is to know about Jesus, there are things that I believe.  And you know maybe someday I’ll be proven wrong, and if that’s the case, that doesn’t seem so bad either.  But I believe that not only does Jesus love you, he likes you too.  And if you want to join Judy and me tonight at our church and drink a little sauvignon blanc or IPA and sing about God, we’d love to see you there.  Like so much in life, it’s an open invitation.

Secrets of the Closet

The author, age 23.

The author, age 23.

The gay press has been floating around a story about a pastor in Michigan, Matthew Makela, who recently resigned from his position at St. John’s Lutheran Church because it was exposed (mild pun intended) that he had an active Grindr profile. He is a 39 year old husband and a father of 5 children. It has also come to light that one of the young men in his congregation was told by the pastor he “might as well kill himself since he was gay”. The young man told a local news channel that he had considered taking his own life over the reception he received from his pastor.

Obviously, it’s a sad story and I have compassion for the young man who came forward with his experience. I can imagine being a high schooler, afraid that no one would accept me if I shared the secret of my sexuality because I was one. Not that I ever told anyone at that age, I was too afraid. It wasn’t until I was in my early 20s, 22 to be exact, before I told anyone that I thought I was gay.

In one interview, the young man, Tyler Kish, said that he has found compassion for Makela because he realized that “everything he told me, he was, kind of, telling himself too.” And I don’t doubt that that is true. If I can relate to Tyler Kish, it must be acknowledged that I can relate to Matthew Makela as well.

That I was quoting Demi Moore at all, it should have been apparent to anyone who knew me that I was gay. I was a youth minister in a small town in Missouri, just out of Bible college. My only friends were the kids in my youth group, every other 22 year old in town was long gone, ready to build their lives in larger towns and cities like Springfield and Kansas City. St. Elmo’s Fire was one of my favorite movies and to anyone who would listen I would affect Demi Moore’s husky lament, “I never thought I’d feel so old at 22.” It was the refrain for that year in my life and I am sure that weariness is one of the things that got me on a Greyhound to New York not long after turning 23.

If you’ve read my blog before, you know I went to Bible college to try to not be gay. You also might know that I had lived in New York a few months before I really began my journey out of the closet.

Allegedly, Matthew Makela has been living somewhat of a double life. He was a pastor with a wife and children, but also maintained a rather provocative Grindr profile. There are pictures and screenshots of conversations that are now public knowledge. I’m sure more about Makela’s secret life will be revealed in time.

I’ll say this up front because if you are reading this, it’s a valid question, but I never had sex with a guy when I was a youth minister. I never so much as kissed a guy. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t have my secrets.

I don’t remember now how I acquired a list of gay bars in Kansas City, I think I must have found one of those gay travel books in a bookstore and written the places down on a piece of paper. I remember the first night I drove to Kansas City to do a bar crawl. I went to about 5 or 6 places, all in the downtown area. This was the early 1990s and I was confused that most of the places had no signage to tell me I was in the right place. I don’t remember every detail of that night, but most of the places I visited were dark and run down and the customers were old. I’d enter, do a tour of the joint, and leave immediately. There was one place where I stayed about an hour. It was large and there was a dance floor and the crowd was pretty cute. I didn’t order a beer or anything, I was a Christian after all, so I just kind of stood there looking around. A tall, handsome, slightly effeminate man smiled at me, I smiled back. We started a conversation, I told him it was my first time in a gay bar, that I was a youth minister. I probably told him that I wasn’t even sure I was gay. He told me he was an antique dealer and lived in Iowa. The dance mix of Amy Grant’s Baby, Baby came on and I asked him if he wanted to dance, we did. While we danced, I wondered if this guy and I might share a kiss or more. I also wondered if Amy Grant knew her song was playing in a gay bar. And if so, what would she think? I don’t remember the details but the antique dealer let me know he wasn’t interested in me. As he went off to pursue someone else, I hung out for a while, then feeling slightly rebuffed, decided to leave and go home. I remember rolling down the windows on that late night 90 minute drive to my little town, the wind tunneling through my car. I was elated and scared and titillated and ashamed and hopeful and fearful as I steered my way home. I think I had a couple more of those KC gay bar crawl nights before I eventually left the midwest, but that first night is the one that sticks in my memory.

You might remember those 900 numbers were big in the early 90s. Somehow I had found a couple 900 numbers that were geared for men looking to meet other men, by telephone. I only did it a couple of times because each time, though it was advertised as something like $2 a minute, the charge on my phone bill was $150. Twice, after dialing 900 numbers, and furtively talking to a flirty stranger for a couple of minutes, I received my bill and was shocked and scared to find $150 charges. I only made $250 a week and I didn’t know how I would pay off a $300 phone bill, but I did pay it in increments. I was afraid that someone, somehow, might find out the secret of my phone bill, but if they did, they never said anything.

That I received the International Male and Undergear catalogs should have been a pretty obvious clue what was going on, too. One of the church members was the town postmaster. It was a small town. Did he notice my catalogs? During my time there, I always wondered if he might share my secret to the church board or worse, his children that were in my youth group. Looking back, I’m sure small town postmasters know quite a bit about people’s secrets.

At one point, I decided to put a personal ad in the Springfield newspaper. It was very simple: “22, masculine, brown hair, brown eyes, GL, bicurious looking for similar.” (Well, I DID have brown hair and brown eyes.) I remember driving to pick up my responses at the paper’s office. I received a large manila envelope filled with about 25 letters from various men in the area. That night, I sat down on my living room floor and sorted the letters from definite no’s to maybe’s to yes’s. I ranked them all and called the first few ones that appealed to me most. One guy was a bagger at a Dillon’s grocery store and for some reason that sounded hot. We talked on the phone a few times and he was in the closet too so we had something in common. I don’t know why, but I pictured him looking like Ralph Macchio. In the end, we never met. One guy was ranked 5th or 6th on my list but we ended up talking on the phone on a Friday night. He convinced me to drive to a town an hour away so we could meet in a Wal-mart parking lot. (That sounds safe.) Before we met, he told me he’d been living in Texas and had started the process of coming out and he encouraged me to do so myself. We told each other what kind of cars we were driving and when we met, he was not what I hoped. Too chubby, too pimply. I didn’t even get out of my car. I think he was disappointed that I didn’t want to get to know him so he coldly told me, “You’re gay. You can act like you aren’t, but you are.”

I also corresponded with a guy, a couple of years older than me who had grown up in Stockton and now lived in Springfield. He had been a ballet dancer, had trained in Russia. He might have been getting his master’s degree, I can’t remember for sure. We went on a date to a Mexican restaurant and then to see a touring production of A Chorus Line. It was not a perfect date, but that was the night I decided that somehow, some way, I was going to go to New York. And a few months later, that’s exactly what I did.

When I was a youth minister, I wondered how the long term burden of holding in my secret might affect the rest of my life. I mean, I really thought I was in it for the long haul, a lifetime of ministry, but I wondered if I might marry a woman, have kids and still have this secret life. I imagined a scenario not unlike Matthew Makela’s where one day, my secret would be exposed, and I would embarrass myself and all who loved me. And I don’t know Makela, but I can’t imagine his beginnings were all that different from mine. One day you’re a confused kid turning to Christ to make sense of your biggest burden and you blink and 20 years later, you’re on Grindr, looking for a man to man massage.

I look back on things I said as a youth minister from the pulpit and in classes and counselling situations and I wonder about how judgemental I was. In my gauzy recollection, I THINK I was a pretty compassionate pastor, but I’m sure I had my moments.

I know this, I’m grateful for that tubby guy in the Wal-mart parking lot who told me I need to wise up and accept the fact that I was gay. I didn’t take his advice immediately but he was one of the many who pushed me out of the closet into the life I lead now.

Like Tyler Kish, I have compassion for Matthew Makela. I remember how damaging the closet was for me at 22 and I can only imagine what it must feel like at 39.

The fact is, no matter who you are, no matter what your burden, there is something of Makela in all of us. We’re just trying to figure it all out. Like my friend Vanessa said about Don Draper recently, we make decisions sometimes that take us in the wrong direction from happiness.  I don’t think Matthew Makela will ever see this, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have something to say to him.  First of all, you’re gay, you can act like you aren’t but you are.  But also, more importantly, you will get through this.  There are hundreds, thousands of men and women who have had similar experiences, similar journeys, we have survived, and so will you.  Peace be with you.

King of Griffith Park

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This is something I’ve been pondering for the last week, ever since Eric and I went to an open house last Sunday.  We are not in the market to buy, but Eric found out that a Los Feliz Modernist house, built by his favorite designer, Jock Peters, was coming on the market after 60 years.   So, we went to see the house.  The house was built in 1933 by Peters for Academy award winning cinematographer Alfred Giks.  Peters, who is also famous for his interior design of iconic Bullocks Wilshire Department store, passed away at 45, in 1934.  Eric’s obsession with all things Bullocks Wilshire related is what ultimately drew us to the open house.

Now, I think it’s been established, but I am a curious person and I found myself wondering about the lives of the person or people who lived in the house.  The real estate agent reminded us that the property had been owned by the same family for 60 years, that the owner had passed away recently at the age of 98.  At one point, the agent told us the man’s name, Sol Shankman.  “You might have heard of him, he was kind of famous for walking in Griffith Park everyday for 35 years.”  The agent pointed out unique features of the house, including an incredible mural in the master bedroom that had been commissioned decades ago.  But as much as Eric was interested in the bones of the house, I found myself wondering about the people who had lived there.

The second we got in the car, I Googled Sol Shankman.  You can try it yourself, if you Google “Sol Shankman King of Griffith Park”, THIS is the article that will come up first. I found the picture of the nonagenarian Shankman, in 2008, being honored by friends and family at a park ceremony.  And then I read about how he really only started walking Griffith Park in the late ’70s, about the time his wife Elizabeth passed away.  According to the article, he’d never been much of an athlete, but then, he started walking.  He was around 60.  Maybe he walked to ease the pain of losing his wife of four decades, maybe he walked because he wanted to try something new, reinvent himself.  Who knows, the point is he started walking and didn’t stop.

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He’d been a chemist, a son, a husband, a father, a business owner, a humanitarian and finally, he became a walker.  And the real estate agent was right, it ended up being his claim to fame.  His obituary ran in the Los Angeles Times, Tom La Bonge was at his memorial, his obituary called him a civic institution.

And I thought about Sol and his house and his life all week.  I’m a walker too, it’s really only been in the last few years that I’ve taken it up as sport, but I love putting in my earbuds, turning on my playlist, and hitting the road.  I love walking my neighborhood or the beach or downtown or New York or San Francisco or Kansas City or the little town where I grew up.  I like traversing main streets, bridges, parks, residential neighborhoods.  I love looking at a house thinking, I wish I lived here and appreciate looking at another one thinking, I’m glad I don’t live there!  What a gift these legs and feet of ours are.  It’s like God said, “Here, take these, see the world.”

This morning, I thought about Sol because for the first time, I went for my own walk in Griffith Park.  I mean, I’ve been there, you know, to the Observatory and to see Amy Grant at the Greek, but I had not walked it.  So I parked and I followed some people in workout wear and started a trail.  I really didn’t know where it would take me, but I wasn’t surprised when I realized I was headed to the Observatory.  And up and up I climbed until I made it to the top.  I took pictures, but the pictures didn’t do the view justice.  It was just so beautiful and, well, I know it’s a hokey word, but it was inspiring too.  It’s nice to try something new, whether you’re 22 or 46 or 60 or 93.   And I know that the title doesn’t belong to me, for, really, there can only be one, but in that moment, on this day, I felt like the King of Griffith Park.

How Did You Get Here, Part 2

margo martindale-thumbOne of the things that I love to do with this blog, is go through the list of search words or terms that has brought people here. Goodness knows, I spend a lot of time googling people or things, yesterday’s blog post being yet another example of such behavior. I am a curious type, some might even go so far to say I’m nosy. Others might call me Gladys Kravitz to my face. I once had a boyfriend whose nickname for me was Nosetta Barnhart.

But these search results confirm that I am not alone. I am not the only person who wondered if Rich Mullins was gay or watched Airplane on cable and had to know more about Stephen Stucker. There are others who share my devotion to Mary Tyler Moore and Eve Plumb and Faye Dunaway’s iconic post-Oscar photo by the pool. I am not the only person searching the internet looking for Herb Ritts’ pictures of Richard Gere in a Speedo.

Also, this may be bad, you tell me, but I like that folks have found my blog by searching the names of friends of mine. It’s like Michael and Michele and Linda and Kellum and Rupaul are all famous or something.

And finally, your searches will illicit my own searches. As soon as I post this, I am totally going to search the internet and find out what church Deborah Foreman does belong to. I want to know, IS Chris Kattan a jerk? Maybe I’ll find that topless Maureen Teefy photo as well as “themes for dorms for Christian guys.” DID Amy Grant and Joel Osteen ever meet?

The one thing I know for sure, is that we are all unique. Some of us are obsessed with 1970s sitcoms, others of us are obsessed with men in Speedos. The cool thing is, with only a few exceptions, this list could be a printout of the way my brain works. These people’s interests are my interests too. I always think, as imperfect as this blog is, I would love to be doing a search for Suzanne Pleshette and stumble across Easily Crestfallen. So, however you found me, I am glad you are here. Don’t take this the wrong way, but you are a bit of an oddball. You and I might be the only two people in the world who are obsessed with that song from the end of Longtime Companion, but that’s okay. We are in good company!

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Come Into My World

Butterflies-yorkshire_rose-15990936-1280-960It’s been kind of a long few days.  I received several sweet comments on my Facebook page after my last post.  Yesterday, I was feeling a little pleased with myself when I read something a relative wrote about a conversation we had that had hurt her feelings.  Of course, I apologized immediately, but I spent the rest of the day thinking about it.

I don’t need to go into the specifics here.  It’s a conversation that took place 20 years ago.  I don’t actually remember the conversation, but I do not doubt that it took place.  I was wondering if I would have felt better or worse had I remembered.  It’s a wonder I haven’t received more messages from people in the last 72 hours, reminding me of hurtful things I’ve said, I’ve been around long enough to inflict a few scars of my own.

Since yesterday, I’ve thought about how much hurt we all deal out, most unintentional, hopefully, but some completely willfully.  I do not hold a grudge against the former co-worker that I wrote about on Saturday.  If I saw her tomorrow, I would be happy to see her.  Some friends conjectured why she would say what she said to me, but really, who knows.  I’ve always been a little bit of a brat.  To love me is to love me in spite of my occasional bouts of obnoxiousness.  I can think of reasons why a person just ultimately may not be a fan of Ray Barnhart.  And to play devil’s advocate, I can think of a few reasons why someone would like me, too.

I am sensitive, sometimes overly.  Hence, the name of my blog.  I’m the kind of guy who would smart for twenty years about a comment he received from a person playing an under 5 in the soap opera of his life.   But I am also the kind of guy who feels very bad for hurting the feelings of a loved one, especially someone he’s looked up to since he was a boy.  

Her words to me were, guess what, let it go.  I need to let a lot of things go. I don’t want to be the kind of person who is remembered for his unkind words.  

I’m ending this blog with a video of Amy Grant singing one of her newer songs called, “Come into My World.”  It reminds me of the risk involved when we invite someone to know the real us: the insecurities, the arrogances, the cruelties and kindnesses, too. All the messy rooms and scattered pearls.

The Least I Could Do

monkey-islandA few days ago on Facebook, a friend of mine from home posted this article about the preservation and safety improvements made on some of the slides at Riverside Park in my hometown of Independence, Kansas.  The article made me happy, because I remember those slides, I loved those slides and I’m glad those slides will be there for years to come to bring joy to the next generations.  Reading the article, it hit me, probably for the first time, just how much of my youth I spent at that park and zoo.

I have seen a lot of parks in my day, some of them pretty spectacular, like Central Park and Golden Gate Park, and Griffith Park, and Hyde Park, and Gosford Park(just kidding), but the thing is, I don’t think I could love a park more than I love Riverside Park. Of all of the parks mentioned, I don’t think any of them formed me, the way Riverside Park formed me. It’s where I took swim lessons every summer and now, my daily swim is one of the most important parts of my day. It’s where I’d climb on a retired airplane and dream of flying off to see the world. It’s where I’d get nervous in the outfield at t-ball practices because I knew that if anyone hit the ball to me, I’d never be able to catch it. It’s where I’d run to clear my mind while listening to Amy Grant or Michael W. Smith on my Sony Walkman. I could go on, but in a way, memories are boring unless they are yours. And if you are from Independence and you are reading this, I’m sure you have your own memories.

After reading the above article, I decided I wanted to send a little money to FORPAZ, which stands for Friends of Riverside Park and Zoo. In fact, I became a member. Anyway, if you are reading this, and especially if you are from Independence and you have your own special Riverside Park memories, I encourage you to take a few minutes to write a check (any amount would be welcome, I’m sure) to support a worthy cause. Make checks payable to FORPAZ, INC., PO Box 9, Independence, KS 67301. I know how lucky I was to grow up playing in a park like that and I’d like to do what I can to insure the same for others.

Dream Come True

agrant-thumb-500x375-64086Last night, I went to see Amy Grant at the Grammy Museum here in Los Angeles.  About a month ago, a friend told me about these events that the Grammy Museum hosts where different musicians do a Q & A and then a short music set in a small theatre (200 seats) at the museum downtown.  If you live near LA, I would recommend getting on their mailing or email list because if you want to see your favorite artist, there is no venue more intimate.  

Last night, my friend Richard and I went to “A Conversation with Amy Grant,” a dream come true.  We were on the 7th row, but there are no bad seats at the Clive Davis Theatre.  It started with a guy asking her questions about her career, her songwriting process, her influences, her old music, her new music.  They opened it up briefly for questions from the audience and then she sang about 8 songs, including Jesus Loves Me, My Father’s Eyes, Love of Another Kind, Our Time is Now, and Better than a Hallelujah.

I had planned to ask a question, I was going to stand and say, “I have a comment and a question.  First of all, I would like to say that as a gay man who has spent the last 30 years listening to your music, I want to thank you that your message has always been about God’s love and God’s grace.  That being said, if you were a Golden Girl, who would you be?”  I’d tried it out on my friend Richard and he approved it.  Before the show, we met for drinks and food and rehearsed our questions to Amy, each of us taking turns responding as Amy. (“Oh, thank you, Richard, I would love for you to be the set decorator for my next Christmas special.” and “Ray, I’d be honored to do a guest blog for Easily Crestfallen, do I have to talk about William Inge, though?”)  Alas, the rehearsal was the performance because we didn’t get to ask our questions.  It was touching to hear the handful of people who stood with questions that were really just testimonials masquerading as questions.  We knew it before we got there, but Richard and I were not the only people in the room whose lives were deeply affected and enriched by Amy Grant’s music.

After the event was over, my little brain apparently did not get enough Amy Grant because she was in my dream last night.  It’s kind of embarrassing to talk about dreams with celebrities, but hey, if one can’t embarrass one’s self on his own blog, what other platform does one have?  It seems as though, I had been assigned the task of taking care of Amy after the show, although in my dream, it was now the afternoon.  We were walking around the area near La Brea Tar Pits, E! Network and no surprise, Marie Callender’s.  I asked her what she wanted to do and she told me she wanted to see a playground, so we set out to find a playground.  As we walked and talked, our conversation was intimate and personal.  At one point, I tried to get her to assess the skill level of a young woman she’d invited on stage to share a duet a la Kristin Chenoweth at the Hollywood Bowl.  Amy wouldn’t say anything bad, but she did give me a look to say, don’t go there.  In our travels, we wandered over to Park La Brea.  Somehow the topic of life dreams came up and she asked me, “Ray, if you could do anything, what would it be?”  Instantly, an answer came to mind and my face lit up.  “What is it, she asked?” “I can’t tell you,” I said.”  “You want to have a child, don’t you.” I laughed because having a child was definitely not what popped into my mind.  “No, I don’t want to have kids.” And then I quietly wondered, does Amy Grant know me better than I know myself? Not long after that, we were headed back to wherever Amy’s next destination was.  As we crossed the cross walk on 6th and Curson, she set down on the street a pair of sunglasses she’d found while we were walking around. I thought to myself that probably wasn’t the best place to leave them, but I didn’t say anything. As we were saying our goodbyes, I realized we had not found a playground. Amy said, “That’s okay.” We hugged and then the next thing I knew, I woke up in my bed. For a while, I couldn’t get back to sleep. I lay there wondering, what does it all mean?  What does any of it mean?  It’s just a dream and like most dreams, it might take a little time to be understood.