Carry the fire, keep the light. 12/25/16

I wrote this for a relative that needed to hear it. Maybe you’ll identify with it or find a reason to research you own family history and formulate principals behind your virtue and purpose. I certainly think everyone should, especially those who say, “everything happens for a reason”.

For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by history. When I was just a boy hopping fences in my hometown, I’d find the occasional bottle cap or can, a tool or piece of equipment. I’d lose myself thinking of what the person who had abandoned that artifact was like? I became even more captivated after I had found my first Native American arrowhead. Where were they from? What was life like for them, all those years ago? What did their laugh sound like? What were their hardships? On and on my imagination would run, just like my brothers and I through those unmolested fields. Life has changed, like those peaceful fields, and just as they have given way to development and a network of paved roads, my own personal history has established its own complexities.

Most surnames are descriptions of from where a person hales or who’s son/daughter they are, while others are trade names. I’ve always loved trade names because when you meet these people, it’s almost as if their “door” is propped open, and there is a fascinating story on the other side. Common names are Smith (a blacksmith), Baker (a baker), Shepherd (a shepherd of sheep), Miller (a grain miller), Bowyer (a maker bows & arrows), Wheeler (a maker of wheels), Sawyer (an arborist) and the list goes on. My last name is an Italian trade name, LoFaro, meaning “lighthouse keeper”. Though it may be pretty, and maybe even a romantic thought crossed your mind, I did not feel its true weight for many years. Even now I am only beginning to scratch the surface.

A couple of years ago I took a DNA test made available from the National Geographic: Genographic Project. Up until that point, my aunt Eloise had told me that my grandmother was from the “toe” and my grandfather was from the “heel” of Italy’s infamous boot shape.  I decided to test my Y chromosome (men have an XY, women are XX), as we know very little about my father’s side of the family. I swabbed my cheek with a q-tip, placed it in a small plastic vile, and dropped it in the mail. It took weeks for the results, and I remember feeling both anxious and nervous to read the outcome. At first, what it told me was pretty vague, but fascinating nonetheless. It provided me a map of my family’s trip out of Africa over the past 60,000 years. There are several genetic mutations that scientists can mark with people who are indigenous to regions all over the world. The report contained many surprises including the fact that although we are Italian, I share the same mitochondrial DNA as 90% of Spaniards, 90% of Irishmen, and 70% of Brits. I was even more surprised when I input my results into Family Tree DNA and found out that 8 people from the study had my same DNA: a Spaniard, two Italians, one Maltese, and four Egyptians. This blew my mind. I couldn’t believe it. When I input my surname into the database and found that it was in fact Maltese, and it all started making sense.

Malta is a tiny island in the southern Mediterranean Sea just below Sicily. Islands were critical to ancient mariners as a place to rest, repair ships and sails, and replenish supplies. Nautical navigation is much, much older than the average person could ever fathom, as our ancestors have been sailing seas for literally hundreds of thousands of years. One of the most impressive is the theory of the Polynesian crossing of the Pacific to South America around a thousand years ago.  It’s how our species populated every corner of the globe, and it’s been happening for a very long time. However as technology advanced, ships became larger and began carrying more and more people and valuables. This of course resulted in great loss of life and possessions when a ship would crash into rocks and shallow reefs while trying to navigate into harbors. The first lighthouses would have been volcanoes, where mariners could navigate by either the sight of the molten lava or the column of smoke and ash from the eruption. When a volcano wasn’t readily available, man-made fires would have to make do, and so began the evolution of the lighthouse.

The world’s first lighthouse was the Pharos of Alexandria in Egypt, and is categorized as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Built over 2,300 years ago, Pharos (Greek) derives from the Latin pharus (lighthouse), which translates to faro in Italian. It illuminated the Alexandria harbor for almost 1,700 years before finally being brought down in an earthquake, and served as a model for trade and the globalization of the planet. It was a beacon of light to warn of hazards, to direct and lead, and to illuminate the path to safety. Since then, all of the world’s coastlines and islands contained a lighthouse, manned by a keeper.

The keeper often worked in solitude stoking fires and later refilling lamp oil, cleaning smoke buildup on the lantern’s windows, trimming wicks and cleaning the cogs and clockwork of the lenses’ turntable. It required someone of great stamina and skill, someone with a sense of duty and whom exuded great patience. They had to learn the job with little or no formal training. They were extremely detail oriented and took great pride in their work knowing that they were doing their country a great service. When typical duties were completed, keepers performed general maintenance of the grounds and facilities, maintained gardens as well as hunted and fished for sustenance. Although there was little time for idle hands, keepers often picked up hobbies such as boat building, woodcarving, weaving, painting and music. Others devoted themselves to the study of shore birds, rocks, seashells and local artifacts they’d find. Keepers were also commonly the first responders to a shipwreck, saving whom they could in small crafts. They were extremely industrious people, and due to their seclusion and the monotony of the job, lighthouse keepers had to have a very strong mind.

Another realization I couldn’t help but note was that the fact that the first firefighters were established on the island of Malta under the Knights of Saint John in the year 1,023. They were a chivalric order of knights responsible for the care of the sick, poor, and injured. Since they were sovereign knights, they acted independently and without external influence so that others may live. I learned this fact after I had already become a firefighter, and this is something in which I take great pride. Throughout my life, I have always believed I’d do anything to prevent a person’s suffering. I can literally feel someone’s pain. To think I descend from a long line of keepers and firemen, without having this knowledge beforehand, is quite a quandary.

So how many coincidences can there be? I come from a family of artists, musicians, hunters and fishermen. We often seek solitude, whether it be in the wilderness, up late at night writing music, or herping in riparian habitats. We are very strong willed, attentive, and hard working and certainly exhibit the traits of the keepers listed above. How much of what makes you, you, is inherited instead of learned? There have been many times in my life when my character, strength, compassion and patience have been tested. Inside each individual is a moral compass pointing to his or her magnetic North. Where I return to center is knowing what I know, and doing what I do. Know when to clean your lenses and how to polish your gears. When you need fuel, refuel. Maintain your facility and take pride in how you carry and present yourself at all times. Adopt a hobby that gives you fulfillment, whatever it may be. Trim your wicks so that your flame may burn bright, and light up the darkness. There are people passing through your life that are depending on it.

Carry the fire, keep the light.