With much enthusiasm and ease, Annie Dillard’s “Handed My Own Life” tells us a story that many children may relate to. The excitement and wonder that ensnared her mind when Dillard laid her eyes on the much anticipated microscope she received for Christmas, as well as its “ingenious devices,” (Chaffee 50) is practically unbearable. In this essay Dillard not only tells us, but shows us the impact of her first scientific observation.
After reading The Field Book of Ponds and Streams several times when she was younger, Dillard became spellbound by the scientific world and its many microscopic organisms. From the amoeba to the “euglena with its one red eye,” (Chaffee 50) Dillard couldn’t help but think that these were the only things that people would want to see under their own private microscope that they, too, might have stashed away in their basement.
When Dillard discovers all of the tiny samples, including the one “jungle in a drop,” that came along with her precious microscope, she becomes ecstatic and can not wait to begin investigating every bit and piece of each slide. Unfortunately, she is overcome with disappointment from the very start. When her “jungle in a drop” experiment proved ineffective, she was upset, but continued on to the next subject. And from that failure, she became even more displeased, and so on leading her to eventually lose faith in her study.
Dillard, annoyed, states, “The kit’s diatomaceous earth was a bust” (Chaffee 49). After waiting so many years for a microscope to investigate the countless things she had in mind, Dillard slowly built up high expectations in what she would see. When her high hopes were brought to a halt, Dillard’s beliefs about science and its amazement were suddenly brought to question. For example, when she talks about the sample from the “Cliffs of Dover” she is expecting to see something much more animated and detailed than, well, just a closer picture of a rock.
Since she had these high expectations crushed so fast, she couldn’t help but think that somewhere out there waiting for her were all those little organisms she read so much about. Convinced that science was more than just a larger picture, Dillard finds herself wandering about in a park where she comes across a small puddle that just had to be full of little critters, and in her last desperate attempt to prove to herself that there really are interesting things out there, she takes a sample. From this she finds what she has been looking for all along: her amoeba.
After all this doubt and frustration, Dillard earned her prize. She was extraordinarily pleased and felt that everybody must know; everybody must see this amazing little creature rolling awkwardly about within its small drop of water on her slide. Much to her surprise, when she ran upstairs to share this seemingly imperative news with her family, nobody seemed to care. Her parents simply smiled and brushed her aside, continuing on with their after-dinner coffee. This is when Dillard’s belief about her private infatuation with science is strengthened, and she states: “You do what you do out of your own private passion for the thing itself,” (Chaffee 50) and returned to her private wonder down the stairs.
Without her parents playing a major role in her life, Dillard is left to investigate the world up close and personal on her own. Perhaps the sole reason she grew so fond of science is because it had a set of basic rules and guidelines which set a path she never had in her life at home. With science forming a foundation for her to stand on, it most likely brought her comfort in knowing she had something to fall back on.
Since her parents rarely gave her any real source of motivation, Dillard is forced to look within herself to keep moving on. Thinking that “The sky is the limit” and “Anything was possible” (Chaffee 50) was enough to keep her focused on searching for her dreams. If it weren’t for these high hopes and faith, Dillard may have totally given up her search, and thus never have found her precious amoeba.
Perhaps Dillard continued searching for her creepy, crawly critters because of a quote from later in her life: “No, we have been as usual asking the wrong question. It does not matter a hoot what the mockingbird on the chimney is singing. The real and proper question is: Why is it beautiful?” (www.famouscreativewomen.com) Dillard comes to realize her admiration of science was not because she wanted to find reason or an explanation of why things do what they do; her amazement with science is its secret beauty within.