Tomorrow is my mother’s birthday—the 92nd time this date has arrived with her name on it. It’s a big day for her, of course, but also for my sister and me.

Exactly one week ago today, on Matriculation Day here on campus, I was standing in front of Collins Library before our incoming students (who had just completed Orienta­tion, many of them back from their Pas­sages baptism in the great Northwest wilder­ness). I was thinking about my mother and about being born. Because that’s what matriculation is all about. Well, that’s what it’s like, at least. So my mother’s upcoming birthday was on my mind as I spoke. So was her mother, my indomitable grandmother, who also lived strong into her 90s.

Once the students were all gathered on Karlen Quad on that pristine Sunday morning, the chapel chimes rang, and I began to talk with them about the meaning of their matriculation at Puget Sound. “Matriculation” is a word you don’t hear much anywhere except in the academy. In English, it originates from the same roots as the more familiar words “matrimony” and “maternity”—from the Latin word for mother, “mater.” That’s why we sing the “Alma Mater” at the end of the ceremony, a song of praise to our “dear mother,” the Uni­versity of Puget Sound. It’s our birthday, so to speak, when we are officially born into this community of scholars—the big day.

A week earlier, on another big day, “Convocation Day,” when these same students “convened” on this campus for the first time with their families from many different places, I welcomed them to their new home—the University of Puget Sound.

It can be tricky, this whole idea of home. “Home is a name, a word, a strong one; stronger than magician ever spoke, or spirit ever answered to.” Those are the sentiments expressed about home by my favorite novelist, Charles Dickens, a man who endured such a complicated relationship with his own home and family, haunted as he was by the shame of traumatic encounters with his father at the dreaded London debtor’s prison the family called home for some time. Hurt, too, by the humiliation he suffered when as a child, his mother exiled him for years of hard labor in a blacking factory to help pay their debts. No wonder Dickens wrote so powerfully and eloquently about orphans desperately seeking the safety and security of a real home and family—Oliver Twist, the Artful Dodger, Pip in Great Expectations, Little Dorrit, or David Copperfield, whose story is often regarded as a fictional representation of Dickens’s own.

That endless quest for the place we call home is the subject of so much great literature, from the ancient sacred texts of almost any faith to Homer and Virgil's classical myths to the modern novels of James Joyce or Toni Morrison. The meditation on “home” that comprises my welcome remarks to new students and their families on Convocation Day is a series of snapshots chronicling a few of the compelling invocations of a home expressed throughout human history and literature. Together, they demonstrate so clearly how our eternal quest for home is always simultaneously about where we came from and where we are going. In our end is our beginning.

I went home to the Jersey Shore this past June to visit my mother. Between the time Mary and I planned the trip back East and the time we arrived, my mother had been hospitalized, and she ended up spending most of the summer confined to a bed. Like many people her age, my mother has been in and out of the hospital quite a bit in recent years. But she’s made of pretty gritty stuff, my mother. Pretty brave and resilient. She recovered beautifully (again) and is ready to celebrate The Big Nine-Two tomorrow.

I never made it to our old house on that visit, the house in which I grew up, just a few blocks from the constant rumble of the waves and the rhythm of the tides of the grand Atlantic Ocean. I missed sitting on the porch and listening to those sounds, inhaling the salt air, as I know my mother missed them all summer. But in seeing her and being in her presence, even in the strange and eerie silence of a hospital isolation ward, I did make it home.

“Let the pathways of your fingertips be your maps,” said novelist and poet Ursula Le Guin: “May your soul be at home where there are no houses”:

Walk carefully, well-loved one,
Walk mindfully, well-loved one,
Walk fearlessly, well-loved one.
Return with us, return to us,
Be always coming home.

That’s a pretty good message, particularly for Matriculation Day, as students begin their college education, commence an exciting new phase of their lives’ explorations, launch a journey that will take them to all kinds of unimagined places that will utterly transform them. Our job here is to provide the place for that to happen, a home that will be their port of call and their departure point. Huck Finn, that quintessential American orphan, claimed there’s “no home like a raft, after all … You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.”

By the waters of Commencement Bay in the great Puget Sound, this university is our students’ raft on the sea of life. Upon it, they will navigate the journeys that will take them to places strange and familiar. All Hail to Alma Mater. And a delighted birthday, Mom. I’m thinking about you and home, and I can hear the waves crashing.