“As we go on
We remember
All the times we
Had together.
And as our lives change
Come whatever
We will still be…
friends forever.”

My best friend, Sarah, gave me a CD of graduation songs on the eve of my college graduation back in 2002, a “mixed tape” of meaningful songs to celebrate the monumental milestone of me exiting the safe bubble of college and entering the not-so-safe Real World. The song “Graduation” by Vitamin C was popular at the time and I remember listening to it over and over again, wondering aloud about the answers to the questions that the song asks:

“So if we get the big jobs
And we make the big money
When we look back now
Will our jokes still be funny?
Will we still remember everything we learned in school?
Still be trying to break every single rule?”

Eight years later, I know the answers to those questions. My little sister, Alli, about to embark on her own college graduation, does not. So this column is my way of playing the older and wiser card for her, and for all of you soon-to-be high school and college graduates, and shedding a little light on that great big journey to the Rest of Your Lives.

I should point out that I call her my little sister, but she’s not really my little sister. At least not by blood. But I feel like I’ve earned the right to claim Alli and her little sister Abby as my surrogate little sisters because I’ve known them their entire lives. You know the Bible scripture that says “Even in your mother’s womb, I knew you”? Well, that scripture holds true for me with Alli. I have quite LITERALLY known her since she was in her mother’s womb. Neighbors in an idyllic neighborhood that could have been taken from the set of The Wonder Years, one day Alli’s very pregnant mom, Lydia, the same age then that I am now, did the adorable pregnant lady waddle over to introduce herself to my sister and I as we were playing outside. My sister was about 13; I was about ten. Lydia was looking for a babysitter and my sister excitedly took the job, which I inherited from her two or three years later, when she got older and started driving and became “too cool” for babysitting. “The Girls,” as we called them; one brunette and straight-haired, one blonde and curly-haired, became such an important part of our lives, from Day One. We adored those little girls as though they were our own. I spent summers as their nanny, running across the street from my door to theirs, just as excited to see them as they were to see me. And though I doubt if Alli and Abby ever realized this – I grew up alongside them during those years as their babysitter. I went from a little girl of age 12 to a grown woman of age 22. I stopped babysitting for them right around the time that I graduated from college – the same exact point in my life where Alli is now. And seeing them again, years later, as grown, beautiful, intelligent women, I feel proud of the fact that I played a small part in their journey from childhood to womanhood. But snap my fingers and the clock turns back 20 years, and I see an image of Alli as a child so clearly, it’s as if it was yesterday.

She could be very stubborn when she wanted to be. Most days, she ate her ABC’s-123’s and peaches with gusto, but some days, out of the blue, she would put her little foot down and flatly refuse. “I don’t wand-dit.” (“I don’t want it”) she would say, with a look of determination in her eyes. And no amount of begging or cajoling or threat of punishment would make her change her mind. She didn’t wand-dit, and nobody was gonna make her eat it.

She was incredibly blunt. When the girls’ pet bird, Thunderbird, died unexpectedly, and I inquired about where the bird was, “He got dead,” Alli said, without batting an eye. (This story still sets my parents and sister howling with laughter when we recall her deadpan response. He got dead, and that was that. Alli had no time for hysterics or theatrics.)

She loved to have me curl and braid and style her hair, like a princess. She would stand completely still for HOURS, while I went to town with a curling iron and bows, gleeful at having a real, live baby doll to practice my hairdresser skills on.

Today, not much has changed.

Alli stubbornly stands by her friends, no matter what. After she interned with my company this summer and we got the chance to get to know each other as grown-up versions of ourselves, we became fast friends. I actually consider her one of my best friends now. Which can get a little weird if you start thinking about it, since not too many people can say they once changed their best friend’s diapers. But I digress. A couple of months ago, when another friend hurt me very deeply and showed her true colors as less-than-loyal, Alli stood by me and encouraged me, letting me know that it didn’t matter if everyone abandoned me, she never would. “Mandy is walking, talking, breathing inspiration,” she recently wrote about me in a nomination for the Nashville Business Journal’s 2011 Women of Influence Award.“It spills out of her every pore; it just comes naturally to her.  She is a mentor to me personally and I look to her for advice in my daily life all the time.”

She’s still pretty blunt. When my Mr. Big has pulled a Mr. Big and vanished, or moved across country, or started dating a complete trainwreck, thereby breaking my heart, I know I can always go to her for the E! True Hollywood Story about the situation. She breaks it down for me, with love, but without any sugarcoating…and I love that about her.

And finally, she still very much likes to look like a princess. This summer, whether it was traipsing through a random animal safari we stumbled across in West Tennessee, sneaking into Kid Rock’s CMT Music Awards after-party, or getting knocked off her feet by my crazy roommate at a pool party as he was attempting to do a Risky Business slide across the floor that went horribly awry, Alli managed to look effortlessly fabulous. (I like to think it all stems from her early years as my living, breathing dress-up doll.)

So…to answer the questions posed by the song lyrics of “Graduation” for Alli, and for all of my beautiful, intelligent, accomplished ladies graduating from one phase of their lives to another; whether it be in school, work, love, or simply life:

You probably won’t get the big jobs and make the big money – at least not right away. You might have to start off at menial jobs that force you to dress as a wizard and stand on the side of the road holding a sign that says “Magical Move-In Specials” (or at least, that’s how some of us started out.) You will probably get stepped on in the career world, somewhere along the way. Someone you thought was your friend will prove to be less than loyal. You will get hurt, get fired, be underpaid, and overworked. The good news is – you’ll meet people along the way and have experiences that will make you come to life in ways you never thought possible. Every time you get knocked down, you’ll grow stronger. And every time you refuse to get knocked down, you’ll be introduced to a new side of yourself that you never knew existed. And either way it goes – you’ll have friends there to either pick you up off the floor, or stand and clap and watch you soar.

When you look back, not only will your jokes still be funny, they’ll be funnier. Things that once broke your heart will make you smile. Things that once upon a time, you thought would kill you, will heal you. Moments that seemed at the t
ime like they were the most painful you would ever go through will stand as landmarks now, for the moment your entire life changed. You will be able to look upon those moments that you thought you’d never laugh again, and be silently thankful for whoever or whatever it was that walked away, because without losing them, you would have never found yourself. You will, years from now, sit at a restaurant with your best friend and giggle for hours on end at the bad jobs, the even worse relationships, and the unanswered prayers that remained unanswered so you could answer the call of your true destiny. And you won’t regret a single thing…because every last bit of it made you who you are today.

You most likely won’t remember everything you learned in school – at least not book-wise. You WILL, however, remember the moments that mattered the most: Your first kiss. Your first love. Your first big heartbreak. The friends that were lost, either to death or circumstance or distance. The moments of sheer joy and beauty with your friends that would never quite be repeated once the veil of innocence was removed from your eyes. The boys you pined for in high school or college – now 40 pounds added and lots of hair subtracted. You’ll wonder what you ever saw in them, and you’ll silently thank God they didn’t see the same thing in you. You’ll especially remember the moment you walked across the stage and accepted your diploma – because it will be not just the moment that your education ended, but also your childhood.

Will you still be trying to break every single rule?

I hope so.

You’ll learn, as you get older, that rules are made to be broken. Be bold enough to live life on your terms, and never, ever apologize for it. Go against the grain, refuse to conform, take the road less traveled instead of the well-beaten path. Laugh in the face of adversity, and leap before you look. Dance as though EVERYBODY is watching. March to the beat of your own drummer. And stubbornly refuse to fit in.

Ten years from now, make sure you can say that you CHOSE your life, you didn’t SETTLE for it.

And remember this: “In the end, you always go back to the people that were there in the beginning.” ~Dawson’s Creek

Even the word “Commencement” itself means “The Beginning.”

Value the friends that have been there all along, because when the others disappear and leave you heartbroken, those people that have been there all along will be the ones that are there to pick up the pieces.

To my beautiful and honorary little sister, Alli:

It has been a pleasure watching life come full circle through you. From being your babysitter to being your friend, my life has been better because I knew you and your sister and your family. I hope one day when we are older and joking about how I used to change your diapers, you will also be able to say that somewhere along the way, I also changed your life, if even in the smallest way. Because you changed mine.

“Graduation is not the end; it’s the beginning.”  ~Orrin Hatch

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Something wonderful is on the horizon
Life doesn’t always look the way we want it to look. In Mandy’s upcoming book, Turn Toward the Sun: Releasing What If and Embracing What Is, you’ll find encouragement to live in the moment, sit with your experiences, and trust God with the unknown.
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Something wonderful is on the horizon
Turn Toward the Sun CoverLife doesn’t always look the way we want it to look. In Mandy’s upcoming book, Turn Toward the Sun: Releasing What If and Embracing What Is, you’ll find encouragement to live in the moment, sit with your experiences, and trust God with the unknown.
Preorder from Baker Book House for 40% off and free shipping!*
*US shipping only