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My 20th high school reunion – ack! – is taking place tomorrow. It’s the first reunion my class has ever had, but I won’t be there. The timing didn’t work out well, and I will instead be celebrating a friend’s wedding on this side of the country.

20 years: where did that time go? My life is different from what I expected it would be at this point. Maybe everyone’s is.

Last week, I attended three graduation ceremonies: one for a group of eighth-graders, and two at different high schools. In full honesty, I’ll admit that I expected to be at least a bit bored, but it turned out that the opposite was true: I was completely enthralled.

Sitting in the audience for these ceremonies, I of course reflected on those milestones from my own adolescence. As an 8th-grader spoke passionately about the fact that now the only thing left of youth was memories, I reminisced: I remember that feeling, so Wonder Years-esque, that everything was changing, permanently, and – this was the unspoken part – getting worse. High school loomed large, rich with legendary importance; I was certain that my decisions there would affect the rest of my life.

Well, ok, but also: not really.

At one high school graduation, family and friends were invited to speak about the teenagers sitting before them. The graduates were silent, no speeches allowed, and gratitude for their simple existence poured onto the stage. Their parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and siblings told defining childhood stories of their betassled ones. One younger sister, at the end of a surprisingly eloquent speech, shouted out at her brother, “I just wish you could stay here forever!” before collapsing into her mother’s lap in a puddle of tears.

At the other high school ceremony, I was moved by the spirit of understanding these young adults had grasped, about what it had taken each of them to earn a diploma. They talked about mishaps, expectations, lessons, and inside jokes with a nostalgic eye, yet it was obvious that most had moved on already, imagining the jobs, adventures, and education that awaited them in the coming years. They tossed their hats in the air at precisely the same synchronized moment, shouting and dancing celebratory hoots.

(Several, surreptitiously, then grabbed an abandoned mortarboard as they descended the risers a moment later, too cool to admit actually wanting the souvenir.)

At each ceremony, fans mobbed the students as soon as they left the stage. I sat back, considering the ritual and what it can mean. Graduations are important, of course. Yet the older I get, the more I understand that there are so few rules in life that participating in one particular rite of passage does not guarantee any measure of success, or lack thereof.

Though I am sad about missing my reunion tomorrow, I’ll admit a feeling of relief, too. As I decided whether or not to attend, I realized that ancient anxieties cropped up again, about what my expectations for myself had been when I was the one standing on the stage. Even as I have come to deeply appreciate the unforeseen over the years, the invaluable and unpredictable paths of my life, it is still easy to tap into a sense of falling short, somehow.

I wonder if others feel this way. I think about my best friends from high school who are – and this is fact, not opinion – three of the most amazing women walking this planet. I could list for hours their accomplishments, and why I stand in awe and in appreciation of each one of them. One has traveled all over the world working for an organization on behalf of women’s rights, has three – three! – children, is an amazing daughter to her mom, sister to her siblings, wife to her husband, and friend to all of us. Another one recently changed careers, courageously launching into a new direction after several taxing years as a social worker, where she engaged her clients with the radiating joy that is perhaps her most defining quality; she has two boys and is raising them in the midst of the city, determined to teach them about life, culture, and people. And the third: she’s embraced a full passion for mental health advocacy, raising awareness for those who cannot always raise it for themselves, while also nurturing her artistic talents, her marriage, and her son, helping that young boy gain confidence in being himself, whoever he may turn out to be.

All three of these women are people who inspire me on a daily basis. They’ve fought their own demons, found their own truths, and followed their own hearts. But I know them well enough to also know that they’re likely each feeling some anxiety about the reunion tomorrow. Perhaps that’s just part of being human, but I think about the day when we stood on the stage waiting for diplomas, and all the years of friendship since then, and I just wish I could hand them my impression of who they are, even just for a moment.

And this is what I wish I could also give to the new graduates: the knowledge that life will be different than it looks from that stage, and it can be hard and wonderful all at once, and the accomplishments that mean the most will likely be different from most of us expect. We hit the milestones, and then quickly pass them by. The day after each ceremony last week, the students’ lives were surely the same, and yet they were also hurtling away from what they had been only moments before. Now there’s a new crop of students already looking ahead to a year from now, when they will be standing on stage, waiting to be handed a piece of paper that tells them they’ve completed something.

I have no pictures from any of these ceremonies, but I imagine they’re not needed. You’ve been to graduations. You’ve perhaps had your own. If you are like me, perhaps you look back and remember the heat of an unairconditioned gym on a sticky May day; the nerves of delivering a graduation speech on a different May evening years earlier; the camaraderie found among a small group on yet a different May afternoon years later. Or perhaps you remember something else, colored by relief, regret, reflection.

Whatever it is that you think of, I hope you too can rest in the understanding that life continues to offer chances, every day, to grow, change, and discover. A graduation is certainly a milestone; so is a 20th-year reunion. But perhaps the rites of passage that mean the most are not as public, and are not the same for everyone. Perhaps, instead, they are the moments unfolding quietly, surrounding us all the time, giving us the opportunity to look around and embrace the world, sometimes in ways we never expected.

As one teenager said to me earlier this year, “You know what I realized the other day? Life: it has everything in it.”

Indeed, it does. More than we can each imagine, at just about any point along the way. I know I would do well to remember that the days that mean the most to me in my life are not necessarily the ones that I was told would be most important, just as the accomplishments of which I am most proud are not the ones I was told to expect. And so perhaps the congratulations come in equal measure to the 2015 graduates, and to my fellow 1995 graduates, for – simply – living, the best that we know how, and embracing life as fully as we can at any given moment.

Some days, after all, it seems like just getting up in the morning should earn us a mortarboard, an award and a souvenir all in one, to toss high with celebration. Let it fall where it may, and let us continue bravely on.

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