Defying conventions

I read this book for my daughter on the life of Amelia Earhart, the pioneer aviator who chose to defy conventions (women can't fly airplanes!) to pursue her dream, doubters be damned. Amelia liked to say, "Never interrupt anyone doing what you said couldn't be done." My daughter, who is 6, became very interested in these words – "What does Amelia mean, Mommy?" I told her that Amelia had a dream, believed in her dream, and worked very hard to bust out of her box and make her dream reality. We all have our boxes, invisible walls that limit who we are, how far we can go, how much we can dare. When was the last time you broke out of yours? I didn't know much about wildland firefighting until 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots lost their lives in Yarnell, Arizona, on June 30, 2013, and I set out to cover the story for The New York Times. In journalism, you're forced to step out of your comfort zone all the time to enter unfamiliar worlds, understand them, digest them and distill them to your audience, often under the pressure of a looming deadline. Writing a book is a lot like that, but also very different, and for many reasons. One of them is that it forces you, the writer, to confront your weaknesses and figure out a way to overcome them on your own. It's a terrifying experience and an amazing experience, all at once. In my case, writing The Fire Line also forced me to step out of one box after another so that I could learn as the Hotshots learned and, in doing that, I could faithfully describe the job they did and who they were. One of the ways I found to do that was to take the required courses that any wildland firefighter must take, but at the same fire academy where many of the Hotshots studied or taught and which one of them, Eric Marsh, helped found. It wasn't easy.
One of the things I had to learn was how to deploy a fire shelter. Fire shelters are a wildland firefighter's last-resort protection against heat, but not direct flames. You never want to be in a position where you have to use yours, but if you are, you'd better know how to use it. I didn't do so well on my first attempt. I never imagined it would be so hard to pull something out of a plastic case with work gloves on. But, I did it. I didn't look great doing it, but I did it. I didn't let the boxes I inhabit stop me. I didn't let my insecurities embarrass me out of getting it done. Next time you're afraid to try something new, remember this video of me. Or, much better still, remember Amelia Earhart and the Granite Mountain Hotshots – ordinary people who did extraordinary things.

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