I have not surfed in two weeks. This time of year, with the swells typically building, I need to surf every day if I’m going to cope with bigger, fiercer waves. The first fall-winter I really surfed through was that of 2002. I’d started surfing the Jetty regularly during the summer, which was a big step up from Moonstone. I was surfing with Blake, who doesn’t consider waves “big” until they hit 20 feet or more. I pushed myself hard until the bar of “normal” had been raised considerably. I spent a lot of time wiping out and getting caught inside, but I learned to take a beating or two and the waves I did make were ones I’ll remember forever.

The first time I caught a head-and-a-half-sized wave was late summer. Blake and I paddled out at dawn into some junky-looking Jetty surf. As often happens, the waves looked lousy from shore, but once we were outside the whitewater mess, the waves proved more organized. I was scared, though — this was big surf to me. Almost immediately Blake hollered me into a wave — “Go, Jen!” I had to. I paddled into it. I made the drop. I had to go left, which is backside and harder for me, but I did it. I slid down a bigger face than I’d ever been on before, hardly graceful, but not falling off, thrilled and absolutely in the moment. Gray skies, salty spray and Blake hooting for me as I flew along. I never expected I’d catch a wave that size (which is really only a medium-sized wave by Humboldt standards), but amazingly, I’d proved I could.

I remember being out at the Jetty in freight-train surf, waves sucking up hollow and pitching forward with such force that getting caught up in the lip would send me flying, propel me through the air like I’d been thrown. But I also remember making right after right, getting the angle of the board figured out, popping to my feet so instinctively that I would just find myself suddenly standing, dropping with my board down the face so fast the adrenaline soared in response hooking me like any addict into wanting to do it again and again. Except it was beautiful, because in pushing myself to be stronger and better, I’d found these fleeting moments of grace, perfectly poised between physical and mental existence. I thought this was the beginning.

But the next year was the shark attack, followed a month later by breaking my leash in double-overhead surf at the Jetty. I didn’t know what to do. My board was gone. Should I swim to shore or to the jetty and climb out on the rocks? Hardly anyone bothered to ask if I was OK. No, I wanted to say to the few who did, I’m getting creamed in the impact zone, I’m losing energy quickly, I’m out of breath, and I’m terrified I won’t be able to make it to safety. But my instilled training to not inconvenience others forced me to respond, “Yeah, sure, I’m fine,” instead. Luckily Blake was there and helped me. I think I would have been OK anyway, but the swim would’ve been much harder.

Those two experiences kept me from pushing myself when I should have. I backed off, took a breather, sat out most of the bigger surf. The next year, I hurt my back.Having excuses to not challenge myself, to not demand more from myself is easy, really, but when I think about what I want, it’s to not fail at trying. I may never be a great surfer (writer, mother), but I can’t stop taking the steps that would lead me there.