May 29, 2019 – Nikki Valenzuela
I’m turning 30, and I’m not in a panic; should I be concerned?
Given that I’m single and living with my parents, I roughly have 30 days to get hitched and move out. But instead, I find myself giggling past these purported deadlines. Only a month to go before my birthday, I catch myself in an introspective flow—and oddly enough, everything feels right.
I’m turning 30, but it really feels like 18. I feel young. To be honest, I still fondly remember that girl: The one who asked for a camera in lieu of a debut. Over a night of extravagance and fun, she favored a tool for her fledgling studio; and that girl still stands behind the wisdom of delayed gratification.
Til this day, I’m rarely ever impulsive with my decisions, but I guess that’s the irony: My entire life is built on risk. After all, I am an artist.
Hello, I’m Nikki.
I enjoy long walks on the beach, staring into the full moon,
and living my life like water; Formless and yielding.
Only today, am I admittedly ready to meet the love of my life
and have a family—and that’s because I know myself.
But whether or not this happens, I promise to date every day like it’s my last
and kiss each breath with thankfulness.
From where I stand, there aglow visions way sweeter than fiction;
Tomorrow is the day I look forward to.
It took a while before I could ever introduce myself as one: “painter,” I would always say. “Artist” is such a big word, but so is “woman,” don’t you think? So much so that all throughout my 20s, I referred to myself as a girl; but this coming June, decades of experience is finally making sense of the big words.
As a child, I placed adults on pedestals. As a 20-something, I uncovered how fully grown humans don’t always match up to their titles. What does it mean to be a man? A woman? An adult? At 22, I took on the role of high-school art teacher. It was my first and last “real job,” as societal standards would have it.
I was a curious kid required to tone down my bubbly side (and personal style) so that teenagers could make sense of the authority in the classroom. On most days, I didn’t feel like myself. I didn’t feel like a teacher, but a method actress paroling the halls in my dowdy, gray costume.
I led classes to auditoriums and told kids to keep quiet; and in doing so, I lost myself. I hid the surfer girl who comfortably wore cropped tops to the mall—instead, that girl found herself tugging down on her denim shorts in public spaces. What an awkward feeling to be seen dressing like the teenagers you taught, said the world at large.
There were so many unspoken rules, and as an artist, I questioned the constricting part they played in my studio: If I pursue this path, what would it make of me 10 years down the road? The future appeared bleak (and unnatural) as I predicted the censorship of my creative work. To fit the bill of a conservative educator, art would inevitably take a backseat—and I couldn’t let that happen.
The walls closed in as acting spilt beyond school premises: I was altering who I was to project an image for a job, and that ultimately felt unsustainable. Placing a mask on command was teaching me that in order to be respected, I had to act pretentious. During moments of anxiety, I found myself bursting into tears in the art room. By switching lights off, locking doors, and making the room appear empty, I had a safe space all to myself—even if that meant 30 minutes of hiding (in order to be me).
On those short breaks, I preferred invisibility over alienation. The thought of a faux-self really frightened me. As much as I had unexpectedly fallen in love with teaching, I wasn’t willing to delete myself.
Leaks of my personality eventually rippled through the subject matter I presented in class: A project on site-specific art for the topic of Typography, wherein I introduced my students to Banksy.
The anonymous artist said: “Imagine a city where graffiti wasn’t illegal. A city where everybody could draw wherever they liked, where every street was awash with a million colors and little phrases. Where standing at a bus stop was never boring. A city like that felt like a party where everyone was invited, not just the estate agents and barons of big business. Imagine a city like that and stop leaning against the wall—it’s wet.”
Somehow, I was schooled by what appeared to be a two-year work stint: It taught me that integrity was something I deeply valued; and in order to be happy, I needed to be myself.
I bade my teaching job goodbye in search of a place that would embrace every bit and part of who I was. There was only one problem: None of the jobs I looked into welcomed my odd chemical makeup.
I once applied for a design position at a retail shoe company and I won’t forget that one focal question on the form: “What will you be doing in ten years?” I confidently (but naively) responded “running a business.”
I ended the day recounting my answers to my mom. Entirely unsuspicious, I didn’t realize I just encountered my first “real world” interrogation. “You were supposed to lie,” mom quipped, giving an advice with the best of intentions.
Welcome to The Matrix, Nikki, I told myself.
I realized just how crazy adults were: Ever since we stepped into school and church, we were always taught that lying was not only detestable, but evil; but it was a different story in the real world.
Lying was condoned to climb ladders. Once so simple-minded, it broke me. That sobering day, I was also convinced I would end up an entrepreneur. If that was the only road that led to living my truth, I promised I would never look back; knowing that someday, I would rewrite some rules. Integrity was something I deeply valued; I wasn’t going to lie about my dreams and principles to please indifferent corporations.
And so, this starry-eyed girl who couldn’t afford business school traded her books for a different sort of classroom: The streets. She understood that some of the most uncomfortable trains could lead her to the right station. Instead of complaining, she played the cards life dealt her with. She was strategic, even if that occasionally meant having others belittle her through a (cold) phone call or two.
I tried my hand at network marketing—to rack up cash for my buffer fund, to learn sales on the job, and to grow extremely callous against the severity of rejection. “A no means next,” such a crude business showed me.
The whole experience was humbling: Most of us had the best of intentions; a lot of us were motivated to do well for our loved ones. Everyone desperately wanted out of the rat race; this, I guess, presented itself as our most viable option. People did what they could—I don’t judge the hustlers.
Not long after, fate would have me a painter. Even if I completely disappeared from the art scene for a couple of years, a gallery offered to represent me. Still tremendously grateful for that sudden twist of advantage, the doors I believed would take years to unlock had magically swung open. That taught me that on any given day, a moment held the power to catapult us; and it could sling you forward, too. Tomorrow, literally anything could happen. I call it grace.
In a year’s time, serendipity could have me living in a tiny home overlooking the sea. Like a Pinterest board materialized, I woke up to mornings serving me the surf for breakfast. While on land, I painted, and wrote, and tended to my little dwelling. But it was by the sea where I shattered the dream I once romanticized: The charm of an eternal summer started to cycle stagnant. The bright, synthetic lights of tropical resorts and beach parties drowned out the glimmer of my north star; without a sense of navigation, emptiness stormed the shores of my once paradise.
Imagination is your greatest superpower:
While you move within your shoebox,
a castle dares expand inside of you.
Sometimes, nothingness is synonymous
with the vastness of the ocean.
Sometimes, we have to empty ourselves
and afford our paths the space to shift flexibly.
Life could change. We could change
—and that’s perfectly alright.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF ANGELA ULEP AND NIKKI VALENZUELA
Surging in me was a thirst to create things; my studio yearned to grow. Even if life by the sea was fun, there was no way to sustain my art concurrently. Although an idyllic chapter in my life, I discovered how pleasure could never live up to a bigger sense of purpose. I somehow missed the bold and potent pulse of the city, and the colorful options it held access to.
As a little girl, I had always dreamt of living by the coast. I grew up with a family that frequented the ocean. Alongside art, water was undoubtedly my day one. Still the respite I know and crave, it’s comforting to know that the most beautiful beaches are but a drive or flight away.
In an alternate, utopian universe, I could have it all: The ecstasy of waves, the gold rush of sunsets melting into liquid, and the sweet smell of coconuts circling my art studio. In a perfect world, I wouldn’t have to choose between paint and gourmet coffee with avocado toasts. In that fantasy, I could live life in a bikini, raise a family, mount art shows, don designer shoes, eat steak, travel the world, and have a pet baby harp seal (that never grows up).
But instead, I occupy a body fenced in by the gates of time and space. When mortal, your clock is in short supply—the ticking of the seconds, finite. The next best option is to love this life in phases. Not so long ago, I once lived life by the sea; on its best days, the waves were limitless and glassy.
In every part of my 20s, I spent a huge chunk of my time alone: Painting, ruminating, composing. I found myself praying and dreaming—growing wings. I dated myself. While exploring what it was that I wanted, I intentionally embraced being single to figure out who I was.
Before welcoming anyone significant, I sought out self-awareness. Choosing to make solitude my ally was the best decision I’ve ever made. Being at peace with aloneness frees you to walk away from the slightest hints of toxicity and disrespect; it allows you to discern insincerity and snuff out the frauds. Thanks to this pivotal phase, I now understand what love should feel like: Safe.
A lot of people think that happiness in relationships is about finding the right person: If I could find the right person with the right personality, with the right looks, with the right gifts, I’d be happy. I’d be content. I’d be complete. Instead of falling in love with a person’s soul, we fall in love with a fantasy—a fool’s paradise.
We try so hard to pull out of others (and more often than not, from romantic interest) the light that only God can warm us with; disappointment follows when the words and actions of our fantasies fall short. Sometimes it’s unfortunate when people don’t look beyond the narratives foisted upon them.
I finally feel like a woman. The wisdom I gathered through the years has raised me to become the woman that I am. Hitting a number doesn’t magically change you, but all I know is that I’m turning 30 in a month or so—and I charge my womanhood to experience.
NIKKI VALENZUELA ENJOYS WEARING MANY HATS. HER ENTIRE PRACTICE AS AN ARTIST IS A METAPHOR ON FLUIDITY—A PHILOSOPHY MIRRORING THE WAY SHE COURSES HER WAY THROUGH LIFE. SHE STRONGLY BELIEVES THAT ENTREPRENEURSHIP FREES ARTISTS TO GAIN FULL CREATIVE CONTROL OVER THE WORK THAT THEY DO; WHICH IN TURN, ALLOWS HER TO PURSUE WHATEVER HER IMAGINATIVE HEART CALLS HER TO.
HER MANY INTERESTS INCLUDE FASHION, SPACE DESIGN, ANIMALS, THE COSMOS, AND THE WAY MUSIC BEAUTIFULLY MAKES HER SOUL SKIP A BEAT. ON WEEKENDS, SHE DRINKS POETRY AND DAYDREAMS ABOUT DISRUPTING THE EDUCATIONAL SYSTEM; WHEN BY THE SEA, SHE RELISHES THE SURF.
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