Louis writes a variety of non-fiction essays, letters and travelogues in addition to his books. Included below are some samples that illustrate the range and style of Louis’s creative writing.
This essay appeared in the June 2020 issue of Catholic Spirit, the monthly newspaper of the Diocese of Austin where Louis writes a column on a quarterly basis.
This Old Tie (that binds)
I noticed something wrong as I knotted my tie. The soothing maroon fabric adorned with tiny blue and gray hexagons was marred by a tiny patch of white. Is that a smudge? A spot? In the rush for work, there was no time to change. I shifted the tie a bit off-center and tucked the offending area discreetly behind my collar. Satisfied that it looked passable, I didn’t think about it again until I got home that evening.
After removing the tie, closer inspection revealed the problem was not a spot. Rather, the fine silk threads had frayed in the “torque zone” where years of tying and untying had taken a toll on the delicate fabric. It was clear—the tie was worn out.
This verdict was not easy to accept. A haberdasher once told me, “A silk foulard is a perishable commodity,” meaning it will not wear forever. But this cravat was not just another necktie in my closet. It had a story to tell.
After I had earned a PhD and landed a job as a clinical psychologist, I wanted to dress the part. I bought a full wardrobe of professional clothes early in my career. In the process, I had a few discussions about men’s fashion with my Dad, who appreciated quality garments. However, he had too many other financial obligations with raising a large family to be the dapper dresser he might have liked.
On one occasion, I turned the tables on Dad and took him on a shopping trip to an upscale clothing store. With disposable income to spend and three decades of gratitude to express, I wanted to treat him.
Dad picked out a couple of fine cotton dress shirts he could wear to his state office job. Then we went to the tie display. He lingered a bit to sift through the options, perhaps savoring the moment as much as the choices. “He’s paying for me this time,” he said to the clerk with a pride-in-my-son smile. After deliberating, he chose two silk ties that coordinated well with either a white or blue shirt. The frayed tie now draped in my hands was one of them.
After Dad died in 2007, I asked my mother for the two neckties so I could have them as keepsakes. For the last several years, I have worn both these ties many times. Sometimes because they matched my shirt or slacks. Sometimes because I wanted to be reminded of Dad. Sometimes both reasons. So I was reluctant to part with this precious talisman.
I showed the problem to my wife, Marla, who is an accomplished costume designer and expert tailor. Knowing my sentimental attachment to the necktie, she offered a remedy. She could rip out the entire lengthwise seam, trim the lining, and re-crease the tie’s silk to create fresh edges and conceal the frays on the backside. No guarantees how this flaying and reshaping would turn out. Might look great. Might become a hopeless mess that would ruin what was left of the beloved tie.
As I considered this prospect, I thought of the human body. Age and wear will wrinkle skin, erode joints, and fray the tissues of organs and vessels. Could a person be taken apart top to bottom, parts tightened, and then sewn back together to be better than before? No, probably not. Therefore, it seemed disrespectful to tear asunder a work of art—this necktie—under the pretense of refashioning it into an improved version of itself.
Instead, I decided to keep the tie as is and reserve it for those occasions when I most need a boost. In those honorary moments, I would resort to the off-center placement to hide the fraying. I would still have the tie and, more important, the tie that binds my father and me in a continuing alliance, even all these years after his death.
Yet something still puzzled me. Why did this particular tie wear out? In my closet are dozens of other silk ties I’ve owned for years and worn countless times. None of them frayed like this one. Then the embedded truth hit me—wear is proportional to wear. If I did not wear this tie enough times to wear it out, Dad did.
That realization took me back to love. Dad certainly wore that tie more often than I knew. It must have meant far more to him than I ever guessed. He probably thought of me when he wore it, just as I thought of him when I put it on. This old tie that binds is powerful enough to hold that love, regardless of its frayed and vulnerable state.
Consider the message this worn-out tie offers for Father’s Day. The gift of human life is a miracle so sublime that it contains a spark of divine love. That love brings out the very best in us when nurtured by attentive parents, doting grandparents, special relatives, dedicated teachers, friendly neighbors, and true friends. A love that binds no matter how frayed our hearts or timeworn our hands. And when you pass it on, it never goes away.
With the approaching Thanksgiving and Christmas season, this scriptural reflection on gratitude was featured in the November 2019 issue of Catholic Spirit, the newspaper of the Diocese of Austin.
A Prayer of Thanksgiving
A simple moment of grace occurred in my psychology practice a few weeks ago.
As I turned off lights at the end of the workday, I found a note scribbled on a pad of paper: “Thank you, Dr. Gamino.” The note was signed by one of my patients, who must have hastily written it when I turned to the computer to schedule her next appointment. Although I had assisted several people that day, only this patient made a point of writing a brief thank-you note. In those few words, she expressed gratitude for my grief counseling after the sudden death of her treasured sister.
In the second week of November, we hear the familiar story of the 10 lepers clamoring for Jesus to take pity on their plight (Luke 17:11-19). The Master’s cure was so effortless it was almost imperceptible. The lepers were already on their way before noticing its restorative effect. Only one of the 10, the Samaritan, paused to consider the miracle that had just occurred. He alone returned, “glorifying God in a loud voice…” (verse 15) and throwing himself at the feet of Jesus. The other nine went happily on to the next chapter of their lives, clean of their contagious disease and fully able to re-enter society.
Certain lessons in this story seem obvious. We all receive blessings, small and large, for which we ought to be grateful. When someone does us a big favor, our thanks should be in proportion to our gain. If a person is burdened with an incurable physical disease like emphysema, terminal cancer, kidney shutdown, chronic pain, or heart failure, a miraculous reprieve should engender incomparable gratitude.
Yet reading this story only at a literal level can overlook deeper meanings embedded in the text. In Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality, author Richard Rohr challenges us to go beyond “transactional” forms of gratitude that are simply reactive or part of a quid pro quo, such as leaving a tip for the wait staff at a restaurant or bringing a small gift for the hosts of a dinner party. When our thinking—and our thanking—is governed by a mercantile mentality of “you scratched my back so I’ll scratch yours,” we can miss the whole point of what God is about. After all, “Do not the pagans do the same?” (Matthew 5:47)
Aren’t we called to be both like Jesus who did the curing and like the leper who returned to give thanks?
When we are the giver, Rohr urges us to operate from “a worldview of abundance instead of a worldview of scarcity.” Give as if our resources will never run out. Only then have we truly emulated the Master, whose grace flows so freely and abundantly to us.
So, as we celebrate the fall harvest with Thanksgiving and approach the Christmas season, perhaps we can re-think our giving strategy. Instead of only doing for others who can do something for us in return, how do we do something for those persons who cannot reciprocate? What random and anonymous acts of kindness can we bestow upon our society? Would we make just as many year-end charitable contributions if there were not an IRS deduction for doing so?
When we are the receiver, we need to remember that we are always receiving. Always. If we truly believe that Jesus Christ is King of the universe, then we believe that He transcends time, space, and matter, all of which are His creations. So every millisecond, every footstep, every molecule of our lives are total gifts. Realizing just how richly blessed we are, dropping to our knees in humble thanks is the best response.
It’s likely the grateful leper experienced not only complete physical healing but also a conversion of heart that led him to that dramatic thanksgiving at the feet of Jesus. Being a social outcast no doubt intensified his gratitude.
My interaction with the grateful patient pales in comparison to the story of the leper. Jesus effected a monumental change in the leper’s life. The similarity is the recipient’s posture. My patient’s short note expressed heartfelt gratitude, blessing the giver with an unexpected thoughtfulness. Can’t we all do the same?
This allegory was written in memory of my father-in-law who died in 2015. The story is based on actual events that happened at our home, although the interpretation of what those events mean is clearly subjective and personal.
Our Guardian Owl: An Allegory
A curious thing happened at our house last Spring. We discovered a small owl had taken to roosting in an oak tree above our driveway. I made sure each child saw it and I gave strict instructions not to threaten it in any way by throwing something in its direction or scaring it. To me, owls represent wisdom and its presence seemed like a harbinger of good fortune.
Even though the owl was only about 8 inches tall, it kept the narrow, beady eyes of its species trained on all our comings and goings. In the morning when I went out to get the newspaper, it was there. Coming home from work or school, it was there. Through lawn mowing and football tossing, dry weather or rain, it was there.
We grew accustomed to the owl’s presence. A visual check and slight nod of the head became my daily signal acknowledging it. Like an omniscient parent figure or a mysterious demigod, the owl watched our lives and our movements, always on guard. It lent an added sense of security to our everyday existence.
One day, inexplicably, the owl moved to an adjacent tree. Still high above it all, still watching, but something had changed. We continued to think, to hope, our guardian would still be there, but now we had to look to make sure. Adding to the mystery, two larger owls began appearing with it, on a nearby branch in yet a third tree.
Something beyond our comprehension was unfolding. From our vantage point 20 feet below the action, we could not fathom what it all meant. We loved our little guardian owl, but we preferred its original perch over the driveway, watching us. But it never went back to the first live oak.
Then, the mini-drama came to a sudden and quiet end. While cutting the grass below the owl’s new roosting tree, I came upon the little owl lying on the ground. Its lifeless body appeared intact from the outside, no sign of trauma visible. But it was gone. With resigned sadness, all we could do was give it a dignified burial in the backyard, placing some ornamental leaves over its regal body as a shroud.
It took some time for the somber mood to dissipate, for the meaning of everything to emerge out of the puzzling question of what happened. This noble creature came into our lives, assumed a role of temporal significance, then passed on after what seemed like much too short an interval. Of course, we wanted more time with our guardian owl. But that time we were not granted.
I came to understand that it might have been two spirit guides, from the ancestors preceding us, who appeared to escort the little owl to the next dimension. At first, the little owl had resisted, then it succumbed to the inevitable. We never saw the two larger birds again after our guardian owl made its crossing to the other side.
The little owl’s journey is now finished. Its time in the garden of earth is over. Its former roost in our tree above the driveway feels conspicuously empty. But it is not gone from our hearts. Just as it guarded us, we now guard and protect one another. We hope to carry its wisdom, and its indomitable spirit flies within us.
Sometimes Louis writes a seasonal reflection as a Christmas letter to family and friends. The following essay is one example of those letters.
No one ever thinks to ask the skinny guy to play Santa. Until now. This year they asked me.
The same physique that constitutes a “runner’s body” (two pounds of weight for every inch of height) has never qualified me to be anything other than an elf at this time of year. I usually watch in dismay as the Santa assignments go to more rotund types.
To me, a jolly Kris Kringle is one of the greatest roles to be played on the stage of life and one I’ve always coveted. I believe the character is made not by the shape of the actor but by the spirit of Christmas he projects.
When my chance came, I did not hesitate. I immediately cancelled my afternoon appointments and went to measure for my suit. I wore a makeshift, body-bulging undergarment: cotton batting stuffed between two oversize t-shirts and sewn in place with familiar anatomic landmarks to assure authenticity. With that “fat suit” beneath my Santa costume—complete with wig, beard, glasses, and black cowboy boots—no one should detect my string bean self.
Stepping into this costume, I shed all other identities and shortcomings to assume my place in a long red line of Santa impersonators. No one has to tell me how to play the part. I already know. Some of this “how-to” knowledge is imprinted from exposure to a lifetime of images in books, film, and personal encounters. Yet, the knowing goes deeper, to an archetypal representation of a beneficent monarch whose grandeur is derived from generous giving.
Once you stop to think about it, that’s why the myth of Santa Claus is so compelling. There is incomparable joy in giving freely. It’s a pure, radiant joy known by every parent who’s been a proxy for Santa and experienced the delight of their jubilant children. Giving to others such presents of love connects us to the divine presence within us. As we give to others, we bring God to them and, in turn, God comes to us. Isn’t that Christmas?
That’s why I contend that Santa Claus is the greatest role a person can play this side of paradise. That’s why this business of emanating genuine Christmas spirit is among the solemnest of human responsibilities. And that’s why for a few short hours this December, I’ll be the luckiest skinny guy on earth.
The following essay is a whimsical piece intended to be a humorous commentary on the mishaps of daily life and the symbolism they contain.
I sure could have used a Hollywood stunt man during a recent business trip to southern California.
I gave a talk on the Wednesday night I arrived and then conducted an all-day workshop Thursday on end-of-life counseling. Afterward, I was restless and wanted to exercise but had only about a 90-minute break before I was scheduled to meet my cousin for dinner. Time enough for a run, I thought, except that my hotel was land-locked next to the airport. The desk clerk directed me to a nearby park.
The “park” turned out to be a memorial park if you know what I mean—a cemetery. I was okay with that because southern California cemeteries compete with each other by featuring grassy expanses, fountains, flower gardens, and sculptures. It was a serene place to run.
As I entered the cemetery gates shortly before 5 p.m., I hardly noticed the maintenance truck parked nearby. I was focused on getting in my minutes and returning to the hotel with enough time to cool down, shower, and meet my cousin. I took off running toward the far end of the property.
Passing by many scenic areas, I wondered about the price of plots in such a cemetery. It seemed like a good spot for a final resting place. I got back to the main gate after a 30-minute run and found a surprise. It was 5:15 p.m., past quitting time. The maintenance team had closed the gates and chained them shut. I was locked in with no visible way out.
My first three thoughts registered rapid-fire. “Blasted!” “No, it’s not my time!” “Scale the fence.” There I was, a man in his 60s, trying to figure out how to climb a seven-foot, wrought iron fence and get back to my hotel.
I laid my cell phone at the foot of the fence where I could easily reach it from the other side. I hoisted myself up and slowly pulled my weight to the top. I finally found some footing on the narrow crossbeam about six inches below the crown. Struggling for balance, I paused to steady myself and gather my wits.
Don’t snag a shoestring, I told myself, or make a wrong move that could cause a fall. Decorative finials blocked an easy way down and I didn’t want to jump over them and then seven feet to the ground. I wondered why the maintenance workers didn’t warn me that they were getting ready to lock the gates.
I was panicky, but also grateful. Grateful for having scaled enough fences in childhood that my reflexes were still intact. Grateful that I was agile enough to climb fences at my age. Grateful that an adjoining property’s cyclone fence abutted the cemetery fence, providing a relatively safe way to climb down the other side.
Perched atop that tall fence, I felt ridiculous and conspicuous at the same time. I hoped the police did not cruise by forcing me to explain my apparent trespassing. I gingerly crossed over the finials and eased to the ground. After a minute, I stopped shaking and retrieved my phone.
On the way back to my hotel, I laughed about the irony of my entrapment and escape. A grief counselor locked in a cemetery? A psychology professor reduced to scaling fences like a schoolboy? A death professional proving, once and for all, that you can get out of a graveyard trap alive? Just call me Mr. Stunt Man.