How a strange voice on the phone taught me a life lesson

Day 132 of #LiveWell2017

Day 132 Marvin the photographer

I was making phone calls to survey folks from a naturalist program I’m involved with – working my way down a list of people I didn’t know, ticking off names as I interviewed someone or left a message. I was in the zone, getting the job done. I punched in a new number and waited for the next answering machine to click on. A real, live human answered instead. “Hello.”

“Hi, I’m trying to reach Marvin.”

“You’ve found him.”

I explained my reason for calling and asked if he would be willing to answer a few questions about his volunteer naturalist work. “Sure.” I asked my first question: “What are your naturalist interests?” His first answer started with “that’s a broad question”, but he launched into a S-L-O-W explanation of his former work in nuclear medicine and oncology, his interest in botany, and his habit of taking pictures. His words crawled out sounding like hiking boots grinding step by step over rocks, slow and gravelly.

I thought maybe he was on medication or slightly drunk here at 10 o’clock in the morning. Then, I thought maybe he was just really old, ancient even. His words were so slow, so measured, as if he had to think of each one before he said it out loud. I started looking around the room, fidgeting with my pen, waiting impatiently for him to finish his rambling answer so I could get on to the next question.

Then he said, “I’m a curmudgeon.” I laughed.

“An old one, not a young one,” he added. “Do you know what a curmudgeon is?”

“Yes,” I laughed, “I’m married to one.” (Don’t worry, my husband says so himself)

“A young one?”, he asked. “No, an old one,” I replied. This time, he laughed. Then Marvin said, “I take pictures of anything that moves and anything that stands still, and I send them – daily – to shut-ins , you know, people who can’t get out anymore.”

I stopped fidgeting and looking around. I stopped thinking about the next question. I became fully present in that moment, in the conversation. I started paying attention to every word Marvin uttered – ever so slowly. I reminded myself that during my morning meditation I had just set my intention for the day – to be more present and attentive to anyone I interacted with today. This person deserved my full attention, my mindfulness, my presence.

He talked for 10 or 15 minutes, explaining how his friends had gotten ill and couldn’t get outside anymore, so he would take photos of flowers, birds, trees, anything in nature, and send his friends pictures every day (along with a few words describing them). His intent was to cheer them up, to help them remember special places or good times, to keep their minds off of their illnesses and cloudy futures. He was, in his words, their “other medicine.”

“My camera is worth more than my car…don’t tell my wife,” he whispered. I laughed out loud. Marvin had a story, but it wasn’t about volunteering or being a naturalist. His story was about kindness, giving, compassion, and love. And I had almost missed it.

Marvin told me he was shy (a joke) and independent (meaning a rebel with a cause). He asked me where I was from originally – he heard my soft Southern accent. He was paying attention. He was present. He asked for my email address, too, and I gave it to him.

Before I could wrap up the conversation and say goodbye, Marvin told me one more thing, “If you ever get bored, call me. I’ll tell you a story.” I smiled into the phone and promised I would. We said goodbye.

My heart was full of joy and wonder. This old curmudgeon had made me laugh out loud, smile, reign in my assumptions about him, and be fully engaged in our conversation. He’d given me a precious and priceless gift – the gift of his authentic self – and in doing so, he made me give him my full attention, my presence, my mindfulness.

As soon as I clicked off the phone, my computer pinged. Marvin had sent me an email.  Attached to it was a picture (a sandhill crane with two young). I have a feeling I’ll be calling him again.

Thank you, Marvin.



  1. Marvin sounds like quite a special person and I love how he brings nature to those who need it, in a way that works for them!

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