The beloved, wood-handled hairbrush that I use daily will get dropped into a black plastic garbage bag after my death, unless I die before Ray.

Then, he might keep it, but maybe not. Everything in our medicine cabinet will eventually get tossed. There will be three piles of our belongings: junk to throw away, things to give away or sell, and treasures to keep. I think of this as I imagine my nieces and nephew now going through my sister Kathy’s belongings, from the piano to the cookie sheet.  

As I took down the Christmas decorations this year, I imagined our family members going through them when they one day come to clean out our house. The red velvet horse and elephant, our first ornaments, have a story that makes them treasures for us, but not to surviving family and friends. I can tell you the tale behind every item in our home and garden, but that doesn’t mean you’ll treasure them as Ray and I do. Why would our family members keep a silver-framed picture of us as an ornament for their tree? Toss the picture, and keep the frame.

I clearly recall cleaning out my parent’s home in Sarasota in order to sell it. My sisters were initially focused on Mom’s jewelry and scarves. My brother and I looked at Dad’s cufflinks, hoping there would be something there that we’d wear, or might like to have as a reminder of him. I went home with the handmade music box in which my father used to collect his valuables. Its tune instantly carries me back to the time of joy when as a child I’d hear the box open.

I don’t recall seeing any of my parents’ Christmas decorations during our cleaning out of their possessions. Maybe they went to Goodwill. I do remember sitting on the kitchen floor going through the pots and pans, and kitchen utensils. I couldn’t believe what a hodgepodge they were. But my folks felt quite comfortable with the hodgepodge because it worked for them, and Mom could probably tell you how that spatula melted and why she kept it. My junk was their treasure.

Ray and I always laughed about how my sister, Kathy, would have a garage sale if we died before her, and that everything in our house would have a one-dollar price tag, even the fine China and silver. She’d delight in how quickly things sold as opposed to getting a proper price. I doubt my nieces and nephew will have a garage sale with their mother’s things, but if they do, some people would dismiss her treasures as junk.

I like nice things, and I can get more personally attached to them than is good for me. But I’m pleased with how far I’ve come in not fussing if something breaks. I remember clearly the time Ray and I helped Aunt Joan dig through the charred rubble of what the day before had been the deeply loved family cottage. Some unknown person callously started the fire midwinter, breaking my grandmother’s heart, as well as those of all of us who spent childhood summers there. In our sifting through the remains of the fire, we managed to find a few pieces of cheap porcelain that survived but we found nothing of intrinsic value. Nevertheless, what was found was treasured by my grandmother and my aunt until they died.

That experience of seeing personal treasures lost to a house fire helped etch into my soul the lesson that everything we own will be gone tomorrow, if not by arson, then by death. That is, in fact, what happened when debt from an unpaid loan forced us to downsize, and sell or give away well over half of our fine art, antiques, and treasured artifacts. Prior to doing so, I took pictures of every item so that I’d have a visual to go with all of my fond memories of going to antique shops and auctions with Ray, each of us excitedly admiring the item, and deciding to buy it.

It is the story behind the item that often determines its value. I wanted my father’s music box because it had meaning as something my dad enjoyed. But when I die, if no one knows the story, the box will have little value beyond the song it plays.

A former neighbor ran into Ray recently, and said his wife, who reads my Facebook posts, senses sadness in my writing of late. She is right. I haven’t felt centered and jubilant in a while. When I shared that observation with another friend, she said, “No one is centered. Everyone is trying to find themselves in the midst of this pandemic and the emotional, political strife in the country.” She’s right, too, although my sister’s death, the unpaid loan, and reflecting on the end of friendships also add to my feelings of loss. It all underscores for me the transitory nature of life. Everything changes. That’s not a sad thought, despite few of us loving change. It’s simply an observation of something that’s been apparent to me for many years. 

What is there to do about the circumstances of our sadness? Coincidentally, I had two conversations with friends over coffee at Stork’s in the past week. Specifically, we were brainstorming about how people who embrace Love and avoid judgment can respond to the emotional, political, civil strife we feel in our lives. With COVID, we know how to protect ourselves, and we can see the end of the shutdown in sight. The grief we feel from everyday losses, such as the death of a loved one, or the end of a friendship, we know will pass with time. But what about living long term among people who have come to hate us because of our beliefs about the role of government, and about everyone’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? We can vote, donate money, and write or call our representatives in Washington, D.C., but that doesn’t heal the rift between neighbors.

One friend yesterday told me that he and his husband were preparing to immigrate to Portugal if American democracy dies as they believe it is now doing. Their treasures in this life will be found elsewhere. The things they once valued, such as their home and neighbors, will be divided into three piles: “Keep,” “Give Away,” and “Junk.”

How can we not feel sad when we become aware of how our lives have been upended? What do we do when we feel fear about the future, when we worry whether we’ll be safe, whether we’ll become sick, whether we’ll have enough to live on, whether our friendships will last forever, and about what’s to happen to our hairbrush and Christmas ornaments?

Acceptance with gratitude of what is real at this very moment is the guidance given to us by the esteemed, recently transitioned, great Buddhist teacher, Thích Nhất Hạnh. If we’re truly present in the moment, we’ll brush our hair joyfully without thinking about what’s going to happen to the brush. Instead of living with resentment of how long COVID is going to be in our lives, our treasure lies in accepting the reality of it, taking precautions, and saying, “I’m just here.” The beloved Vietnamese spiritual guide told us that we all are one body, inseparable from each other, so that when we feel hate for others because of their beliefs or how they vote, we are actually hurting ourselves and trashing our treasure.

My sadness is real but it is not debilitating. I can be silly and laugh, while still missing family and friends. I can function fully and live with gratitude, regardless of my losses. When fear creeps into my consciousness, I can thank it for its concern, but refuse to let it take me out of the present to a time that hasn’t happened. At this very moment, my life is in the pile of treasures to keep.

Brian McNaught has been a leading educator on LGBTQ issues globally since 1974. He has made his many books and DVDs available for free at The New York Times named him “The Godfather of gay diversity training.” Brian has a weekly YouTube/FaceBook podcast called, “Are You Happy Without the Movie?” and McNaught's latest book, “On Being Gay and Gray: Our Stories, Gifts, and the Meaning of Our Lives” is available now on Amazon for $14.99.


Two Guys and a Dog | On Being Gay and Gray