Somehow, for me, it was like coming home.

In March, during a 32-hour layover in Seattle between trips to the Midwest and California, I came home—to the Key Arena. To hear Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band play for about four of those 32 hours. I’ve made this rock ’n’ roll homecoming before, and I don’t know how many times, across more than four decades. From a theater in Boston to a stadium in Chicago. From the streets of Philadelphia to the backroads of Kentucky. I lost track of exactly where and when, and how many somewhere along the way. It was probably that sultry summer night in the late 1980s when The Boss and band showed up unannounced and played a rousing set at the local Jersey Shore bar where he’d gotten his start way back when. Right there at the Stone Pony on the boardwalk on a night I just happened to have taken the 1,000-mile trek from Chicago to visit one of my favorite old haunts in my hometown. I always dreamed he might show up sometime when I was there, but I never dared hope he would. Greetings from Asbury Park, indeed. Heaven, it was.

That’s a part of it. Bruce is a Jersey Shore guy, like me. The E-Street’s laconic bass player, Garry Tallent, was a classmate of mine at Neptune High. So was The Boss’s original drummer, “Mad Dog” Vini Lopez (not laconic). But Tal-lent sat right in front of Thomas. So close, then. Before Bruce became The Boss, he even played the occasional junior prom in our school gym. But his melodies, his lyrics, his spirit, his soul, his energy, they all come from the sands of my beach, the waves of my ocean, the dark, empty streets of my downtown: eloquent expressions of the dreams and longings of my imagination. I know them.

Springsteen is the poet laureate of my youth and my adulthood. We grew up together. Those legendary marathon “concerts” that are his signature have always been way more than brilliant performances (and endurance tests) of rock ’n’ roll. They are that. But they are also a sacred ritual, a spiritual experience, a religious revival, an undying expression of infinite desire and unremitting commitment. If you’ve been there, you know. For me, they are also always a homecoming.

On this Seattle night, the band played “Hungry Heart” toward the beginning of what was at once draining and the exhilarating masterpiece that included (just for starters) a nonstop performance of the entirety of “The River,” the double LP he debuted with a 1980 tour by that name—shows I attended several times in Chicago’s Roseland Arena back when I first moved there and was trying to make that hard land my hometown.

“Everybody wants a place to rest/Everybody wants to have a home/Ain’t no difference what nobody says/Everybody’s got a hungry heart.”

Springsteen’s songs are always ultimately about that hunger of the heart. The desire that surrounds the search for a real home: It draws us, and it drives us away. It promises and disappoints. It ties us to the ones we love and breaks us apart from them. It’s a place to rest and a scene of the struggle. It’s the promised land in which we always believe and can never quite reach. You have to leave your front porch and travel down the thunder road to get there. And it’s a risky ride.

I called Chicago home from 1982 to 1990. Sweet home Chicago. It’s where my career as an academic began. It all came back to me last week when we visited the Windy City to host an alumni club gathering there, now at the end of that career. It was an uncharacteristically balmy (for March) 60 degrees. Otherwise, all so familiar. Soaring skyscrapers loomed over burly brownstones. Big wide-shouldered streets stretching out in a perfect grid from the infinitely flat plains in the west to the almost unreally brilliant aqua of that endless and beautiful great lake to the east. A forest of Cubs hats, White Sox hoodies, Blackhawks jerseys, and Bulls tees dotted the streets. The savory scent of deep-dish pizza floated freely everywhere. And a guy on Michigan Avenue played a perfectly cool jazz improv on the trumpet with his case open at his feet. Coins tinkling and popping some random percussion.

The next morning the temp plunged. And it even snowed on the day we left. That’s it, all right: sweet home Chicago.

And then there is the Art Institute. With the possible exceptions of Wrigley Field and Regenstein Library, I spent more time at the Art Institute than any single place in those years. It was a haven of refuge and a zone for relaxation. A culture fix, a maze to get lost, is a visual archive to do some research. It was work and play at once. A beautiful box is full of beautiful things. So I took our one free morning on this trip to return to it—another kind of homecoming.

Waiting for me there this time was a van, Gogh. Right at home. In his bedroom. The curatorial staff had mounted an intriguing exhibition based around the painting the artist considered his best work—his rendering of the simple bedroom in Arles where he lived during the most prolific and tumultuous period of his life. Three paintings, actually, since he rendered the same scene three times, all within one year. This exhibition is the first time all three have been together in one place, each now calling home either Paris, Amsterdam, or Chicago.

You’ve seen the painting, or one of them: that simple, almost primitive rustic room with a bare wooden plank floor, a single bed adorned with some sketchy paintings on the wall around it, two wicker-seated wooden chairs to the side, a little table with a pitcher and bottles and a vase on it, a yellow window, a blue door, a red coverlet and two sad sallow pillows on the bed, and some clothes hanging haphazardly on hooks behind the arched headboard—a mirror.

The case the exhibition makes is that this simple interior—in its three versions—is van Gogh’s defining work. It embodies all his aspirations as an artist, as an intellect, as a human being. That bedroom in the little yellow house he rented in Arles was the very heart of the home he always sought, the place to rest he forever longed for. The show opens with galleries containing scenes of houses painted by van Gogh’s predecessors and mentors (like Millais), side by side with the artist’s own versions of similar domestic scenes. His many early drawings and paintings of birds’ nests are there, as well as the images he painted of simple, cozy country houses and domestic objects that resemble those simple but ingeniously built havens for birds.

One gallery even contains an architecturally perfect (and technologically enhanced) re-creation of the Arles bedroom itself. Another displays the originals of the landscape and portrait paintings (one a haunting self-portrait) that van Gogh produced while he lived there and can be seen hanging on the walls in each of those three-bedroom paintings. These paintings' selection and character-within-the-painting change from one version of the bedroom to another, like pictures in a revolving exhibition.

This was the place where van Gogh imagined he would do his best work (he did), where other artists would gather (some, like Gauguin, did), where he would finally feel at home (he did, for a while). It would be perfect (it wasn’t).

We know the rest of the story. The artist soon ended up in a different home, an asylum, one ear, and a million dreams down after an argument with Gaugin and an emotional breakdown from which he would never quite recover. Van Gogh never painted another bedroom or dreamed of going to the perfect home again. He succeeded in creating some spectacular, even visionary haunted landscapes that cemented his place as a pivotal figure between impressionism and expressionism. Those images also manifested the hallucinatory exile in which van Gogh found himself when the dreams of home in the “Bedroom in Arles” faded away. He still suffered from a hungry heart. He still wanted that place to rest.

On the very night Mary and I returned to Sea-Tac from this homecoming, we headed up to Seattle for that Springsteen concert. More memories flooded back and invaded my own lingering dreams of van Gogh’s bedroom as we drove to Seattle Center, mixed with the warm memories of meeting familiar friends and former students and their families in two memorable alumni events in Chicago and Minneapolis during that trip. As I have been making these final visits with you all, this spring has been quite a trip, for sure. L.A. and San Francisco, New York and D.C., Tacoma and Seattle and Boise and Portland, and Honolulu finally. One thing is clear as I meet and talk with you in your hometowns: Wherever you are now when you think of home, so many of you still think of Puget Sound. Me, too.

At every August Convocation (as first-year students and families gather to start their Puget Sound careers) and at every May Commencement (when they gather again, as seniors, to complete them), I speak of that quest for home. I cite Homer and Tennyson, T.S. Eliot and Charles Dickens, Frost and Twain, Martin Luther King and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Eleanor Roosevelt and Toni Morrison. But I imagine I always also have Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart” and “Promised Land” humming in my head, too. The point of all those references to home in all those voices: to try to learn something at these threshold moments of our lives about leaving one home for another, about the universality of the idea of home is not so much a destination as an aspiration, a dream, a quest, a goal. It’s a promise that’s always out there.

So it seems right that in the academy, we should call the end of all our labors a “commencement,” a beginning. And it, too, is a sacred ritual—like a Springsteen concert. In our end is our beginning, the starting point for all that comes next. The continuation and renewal of the quest for home, and the eternal refreshment of the hunger in the heart that moves us forward, presses us onward, lifts our eyes to the heights, calls us home, and offers a place to seek a newer world.

Now, as I approach my final Commencement, my last new start at Puget Sound, I am reminded of the advice I have dispensed through 13 years at convocations and commencements, comings and goings, beginnings and ends. Like a senior about to graduate, I have a heart that is hungry still: “Always roaming with a hungry heart,” as Tennyson said of Ulysses.

I think of the longing in those paintings of van Gogh’s bedroom and the dreams he dreamt of the home it might become and, finally, might have been. I think of every Springsteen concert I’ve ever attended and all his heartfelt affirmations of the promised land to which we are all drawn. Of Chicago, and how I hated to leave it in 1990. Of the paradise within Hartford, happier far, named Mary, who awaited me there. Of the City of Destiny that would draw us and raise our eyes to the heights in 2003 and offer us a new beginning. I think of all of you, everyone, and of your families. I see you before me, gathered in a vast stadium, starting again, with me, as the sun, off to the west, is shining in my eyes and bathing you all in a golden glow. Forever young.

“We shall not cease from exploration,” Eliot said, “and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”That’s the ultimate homecoming, I guess. It requires us to leave the place we thought was home and the family and friends who make it the familiar place of rest we desire above all. And to set out to find the next one. That’s the moment when we really know “the place” for the first time. “Be always coming home,” as Ursula LeGuin put it.

The road is dark, thunder road. And it forms a thin, thin line that stretches out beyond the horizon. But those two lanes—well, they can take us anywhere. Thanks for riding that road with me for a while and for letting me ride along with you. It’s been like coming home. Really.