Fires again. The Santa Ana winds have swept through California and four different wildfires have burned across the city.

Californians, of course, are used to seasonal fires and the evacuations and general disruption that accompany them. When I was in high school, my family evacuated our home during one too-close-for-comfort fire. With pets and a few belongings in tow we headed across town to camp at our friend’s house with other refugees. Several memories materialize when I think about that particular week: three families cooking dinner together in one kitchen; escaping the ashy air at matinee movies; and the night we dragged lawn chairs and blankets to a field and watched the fire burn red against the foothills. I remember solidarity settling over our group as we faced the damage, impotent yet comforted by the presence of community.

A similar sense of solidarity has blanketed the city this time around. Radio DJs encourage listeners to donate meals to evacuees. Families and shelters are opening doors and offering services. In the face of a natural disaster, the city feels like a small town. I find myself wishing this were our normal posture toward our neighbors. But generally it feels risky, or at least inconvenient, to fling open our doors in response to every nearby need.

What fear keeps us from open-handed generosity? Is it the fear of an increasingly risky world, or something more pedestrian?

Scott Bader-Saye asks a pertinent question, “In a culture of fear, we find such risks all the more difficult since our natural inclinations lead us to close in on ourselves when we face danger. How can we maintain the posture of the open hand toward a world that scares us?” I’m wondering the same thing. What fear keeps us from open-handed generosity? Is it the fear of an increasingly risky world, or something more pedestrian? More than any danger, I think we fear losing our grip on routine and compromising our limited time.

My days are crammed into a precarious Jenga-like schedule of work, errands, exercise, social time, and maybe a few minutes to breathe. Like many women, I value my routines and time deeply. Any encroachment into pre-scheduled activities makes me panicky. Hesitations over questions like, “Should I call my friend to check how she’s doing?” or  “Should we ask our neighbors over for dinner?” unmask a deeper fear: that if I give my time away, there won’t be enough left over for me.

Mark Buchanan writes, “Generous people generate things. More abounds with them, and yet they have a greater thirst and deeper capacity to take it all in.” Simply put, those who give more gain more, even with their time. We have nothing to lose by giving away more of ourselves to people. We have much to learn and gain. Generosity arrives when we shift our mindset from viewing sacrifice as disruption to seeing it as an essential part of our role in community.

Certain events wake us up to the needs around us, and that’s not a bad thing. But the invitation to welcome both friend and stranger exists daily. It’s an invitation to forego routine in favor of letting people (pets and belongings in tow) walk through our doors. This might disrupt our timetables, but that’s more than a fair trade for the color and richness they bring. Summer’s as good a time as any to plan for interruption and welcome disruption. It can be as easy as inviting neighbors to share drinks on your porch.

This summer, come wildfires or not, I hope we can brush aside our preference for comfort and fling our doors wide open instead.

How can you develop more of an “open-door” policy in your life? What holds you back from doing so?

Image via Caitlin Colcolough

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  1. You’re so right when you said, “if I give my time away, there won’t be enough left over for me.” I feel like that so often, especially since I am always doing things for other people. So when something interferes with time I’ve reserved for myself I, too, panic! Whenever I get that feeling, though, I remind myself, “you get out what you put in” — so I try to put in as much of myself into the things I care for (friends, family, community service, travel…).

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on having an “open-door policy!”

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