April 24

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Mattie Stepanek: Finding Inspiration in the Unlikeliest Places

A while ago, I accidentally discovered and found inspiration in the words of a beautiful soul, Mattie Stepanek (if you don't know Mattie yet, be prepared to be amazed!). 

Now, getting there was quite the adventure for me. 

You see, about two years ago, I did the unthinkable.

Something I never thought I would do.

Ever.

To the surprise of my family, my friends and myself, I found myself moving to a suburb. In the US.

To put this in perspective, let me elaborate: I’m European. I love my continent’s culture (or I should say cultures). My favorite city is Berlin.

You could say that quiet American suburbs with well-manicured lawns and white picket fences are not really my cup of tea and definitely nothing that inspires me (no offense!). 

Berlin, on the other hand? Now, that’s a different story.

I’m in a passionate, if unreciprocated love-hate relationship with Germany’s capital.

Berlin is… different. Artsy, impolite (even by German standards) and rebellious. It's so easy to find inspiration on Berlin's streets. 

The city is also pretty dysfunctional (especially by German standards). Berlin’s former mayor Mr. Wowereit once famously remarked that Berlin was “poor, but sexy.” As if the city’s dismal financial situation was a badge of honor…

In addition to this, Berlin has more history (and more vegan-friendly restaurants) in a square foot than most other cities in a square mile.

In short, Berlin is absolutely perfect in its abundant imperfections. 

I love the adventure and exploration of strolling through Berlin.

There's magic in walking that can help you find inspiration. It’s more than moving the body. Walking can nourish your soul, stimulate your mind and soothe emotions.

It’s also a different experience, depending on the environment.

In a city, I enjoy getting lost and finding something unexpectedly wonderful, like a cute café.

A beach spoils me with waves and a fresh wind on my face, connecting me to the ocean and the world.

And a forest finds its way into my heart by surrounding me in its lavish green arms.

Now, walking in Berlin? It’s an adventure.

When going for a walk there, I might suddenly find myself standing on a spot where the Berlin Wall used to be.

Or, if I’m not careful, I might end up tripping over curious little golden stones that are inserted in the sidewalk. These are called Stolpersteine — which translates into stumbling stones — and they are dedicated to the memory of victims of the Nazi regime.

(As a side note: I do wonder how many people have literally stumbled over these mini-memorials and ended up hurting themselves in the process.)

I might also pass the Reichstag, the German parliamentary building. In 1995, an artist wrapped the entire (!) building in silvery fabric for one of his projects.

On my walks, I can see how openly Berlin is bearing its wounds and history. It’s a rare city that is showing its authentic self to the entire world — the good, the bad and the ugly…warts, arts and all.

As I said earlier, quiet American suburbs with well-manicured lawns and white picket fences are not really my cup of tea.

Or so I thought.

After moving to the US, I eventually summoned up the courage to walk in a suburb. When I did, my feet took me to a park that was dedicated to someone.

After finding out more about this person, I realized the park was dedicated to a very special someone.

To be specific, this is someone who, by the tender age of 13, had already published five (!) New York Times Best Sellers. Someone who Oprah Winfrey said was among the very few people she had an instant connection with. And someone whom former U.S. President Jimmy Carter called “the most extraordinary person whom I have ever known.”

I’m talking about Mattie Stepanek.

After finding the Mattie J.T. Stepanek Park on my walk, I searched for more information on Mattie. Here’s what I found:

Mattie was a poet and an advocate for peace. He suffered from a rare neuromuscular disease (Dysautonomic Mitochondrial Myopathy). Shortly before his 14th birthday, Mattie Stepanek passed away in 2004.

The park I discovered on my walk was dedicated to him in 2008. It contains a statue of him in a wheelchair, next to his lovely service dog Micah.

On the park benches, I found a few of Mattie’s beautiful quotes.

Here are some of Mattie Stepanek's quote that touched me most deeply and helped me find inspiration:

One of the greatest gifts of all is to be a gift to other people.”

“Peace is just, and peace is worthy, and a plan for peace is more practical and achievable than we, the people, may realize.”

“Cherish the important things in life, like a baby falling asleep holding your finger.”

“If you have enough breath to complain about anything, you have more than enough reason to give thanks for something.”

And here is my favorite quote:

“Remember to play after every storm!”

This advice is both simple and profound. It’s as filled with child-like innocence as it is wise.

That these words come from someone with an extremely challenging life, full of physical pain gives them additional weight: It reminds me that playing can help me to weather the storms of life.

That playing is a necessity, not a luxury.

I was surprised to find on my suburban walk, a park dedicated to someone who had such a big impact, and much more importantly, such a beautiful heart and so much courage.

The takeaway for me is that I can walk into beauty and adventure anytime. And I can find a spot that helps me feel at home anywhere.

Including in a quiet American suburb with well-manicured lawns and white picket fences.

Sometimes finding inspiration in an unlikely place literally only requires taking a few steps. 

A version of this was originally published at Elephant Journal here.

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