Wendt’s short story, “The Cross of Soot,” is able to use a limited space to tackle one of the greatest (and less graspable) forms of travel we have come across up until this point in the semester: the journey of life, from youth to old age. Each character and his actions are indicative of different times in life. The young boy represents childhood when everything is an adventure and exploring forbidden or unknown places is a regular occurrence. For example, the young boy “snaked himself under the barbed-wire fence” into the prison compound and approaches the old men “holding his hand over his mouth, stopping himself from laughing” (8). Samasoni and “the youth” signify adolescence or young adulthood, the period when a person may be rebellious in an attempt to define or prove himself to others and find his place in the order of things. Wendt presents adulthood, particularly old age, in the form of the old man and the stranger, Tagi. The old man watches Samasoni’s young, muscular form and “the pain surged up within [him] again, a protest against old age […] and [he] admitted to himself that he was old, soon to die” (12). In the same way, the first impression of Tagi is that he “stood as if he was rooted to the earth but desiring to grow wings and fly away from it” (15). This recognition of immortality seems to be accompanied by a sense of hopelessness or purposelessness and a yearning to simply move beyond material existence.
I was most touched by Wendt’s portrayal of old age and the mindset that develops as death becomes more imminent. My grandfather, one of my best friends and one of the wisest people I’ve known, lived to be 92-years-old. The elderly men in “The Cross of Soot” reminded me so much of my grandpa during the last few years of his life. His life journey involved the early loss of his mother, the poverty of the Great Depression, a tour of duty in World War II, a 65-year marriage, the birth of four children, and decades working as a well-respected Presbyterian minister. Even after 92 years of experiences, my grandpa consistently talked to me about an emptiness that he felt at the end of his life. After my grandmother, his wife, passed away, and he no longer worked full-time in the Church, he found himself without a duty or a goal to life, especially because he recognized that death was a very near reality. What project could he start knowing that his time was so limited? I was worried about his state of mind until we were speaking one day and he revealed that he had had an epiphany moment. In his characteristic humble, self-deprecating manner, he told me (in words similar to these):
“Tori, I have been searching for my purpose, or any purpose for that matter. But I was stuck looking at the bigger picture. I have decided to simply wake up each day and try to have a positive impact on just one person’s life. A phone call. An e-mail. A friendly hello. I am decaying, closer to death than I am to life, and I am okay with that. I welcome it. But at least now, I feel like I have a reason to get out of bed in the morning.”
In that moment, my grandpa taught me a lesson about life that only someone with experience could really understand. Colin Powell relayed a very similar message in his Hanway lecture speech. In his concluding remarks addressed to the students, he gave his one piece of advice for a successful future. He told the crowd that that most important thing a person can do for himself is find a passion and pursue it, regardless of the wealth or fame it brings. If you love what you do, you will be consistently satisfied.
My grandfather’s comment and the conversation that ensued will be a significant marker in my journey of life, similar to the boy’s encounter with the stranger in Wendt’s text. The story presents a spiritual revelation that surprises the boy when he considers that he may have just encountered Jesus. In the same way, our life experiences leave us with marks and scars, changes to our physical appearance and to our beliefs, attitudes and principles. These impacts are often unexpected, unnoticed or simply not what we asked for at the outset. The boy asks for a star tattoo, but is left with a cross because circumstances didn’t allow the stranger to complete his request. I just wanted to say hello to my grandpa, but was left with a thought that will stay with me all of my life. Not only must I find a passion to guide my “travels” through life, I must also be open to reevaluating that passion as I grow older and circumstances change. Larger goals are important, but simpler aims can bring just as much joy. As Father Pedro Arrupe says (in the quote that hangs above my bed), “Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.”
The boy reflected as he “paused on the other side” of the fence. That simple afternoon had made him feel as though “he had crosses from one world to another, from one age to the next” (20). Our own encounters with people and places and the newness that comes with every situation allows for enlightenment, a transition from one chapter to another in the story of our lives.