Pushcart 2014 : Sabine Heinlein, “Portrait of the Writer as a Rabbit” (non-fiction) from Iowa Review, Spring 2012

The "Archimedes Palimpsest"

The “Archimedes Palimpsest”

Unlike rabbits, the stereotypical German is stationary, predictable, and consistent. She plans ahead, stays close to home, and doesn’t risk awkward jumps. But rabbits and I — we are übermütig.
Composed of the German preposition über (beyond or above) and mütig, which derives from the noun Mut, or courage, übermütig is commonly translated as carefree, coltish, and slaphappy. But none of these translations captures the adjective’s condescending quality. A German who is overly courageous isn’t a hero. A German who fails to consider where her jumps will land her is conceited and presumptuous.
Rabbits and I live in the moment; we have a hair trigger and aim high. A truly happy rabbit doesn’t take into consideration the powerful strength of her springy hind legs…. the stereotypical German in me wants to call out, “Be careful! Don’t forget how strong your hind legs are! Don’t be übermütig!” But instead I stand back, applaud, and feel inspired.

Sabine Heinlein was born in the wrong species. And the wrong culture. She made a jump of her own, from her native Germany to New York, where her rabbit-ness was less of a social deviation. But any leap from one culture to another takes adjustment, and this essay is the story of her adjustment.

The essay jumps – rabbit-like? – from the differences between her German and American cultures, to details of rabbit care (I didn’t know they must constantly eat or their innards get tangled up, nor that they can break their own backs simply from kicking their immensely strong hind legs too hard), to the tiny adjustments any newcomer faces (just where do you buy needle and thread without resorting to WalMart? Takes me forever to figure these things out when I move). It’s fairly short, and a quite enjoyable read; a substantial excerpt is available online (thank you, Iowa Review).

As I read, I kept thinking of “the immigrant as palimpsest,” a phrase I encountered a couple of years ago when Zin discovered the palimpsest bench by Seth and Michelle Keller – a wood table with different texts by Michelle relating to her grandfather’s immigration to the US as well as her work with current immigrants and refugees, carved by Seth horizontally and vertically on a tree he felled, milled, and dried – at a library art exhibit. The palimpsest: “A manuscript or piece of writing material on which the original writing has been effaced to make room for later writing but of which traces remain.” Is that not an immigrant?

It is not a coincidence that Americans lack an appropriate word for übermütig – and that Germans lacked the translation for the English word reinvention . But how can one reinvent oneself without being übermütig?…. I was forced to adapt and unearth what I had in me. Neither one was easy.

Is that not all of us?

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