"[An annunciation moment is] when something sparks an interest, or casts a spell, and arouses a desire that somehow prefigures much of what comes after in a life, both the delights and the challenges. Most days pass in an unmemorable flow, but, every once in a while, a new passion is silently conceived. Something delights you and you are forever after entranced by that fascinating thing. E. O. Wilson found nature at age seven and has spent the ensuing seven decades studying it, becoming one of the most prominent scientists in the world.

"When you hear adults talk about their annunciation moments, they often tell stories of something lost and something found. Wilson was losing his parental home, and found in nature a home where he would always be welcome. I know a man whose father drank too much, and the family was always desperately short of money. This man fell in love with shopkeeping and business and eventually made himself into a multibillionaire. The writer Andrew Solomon heard about the Holocaust when he was a boy and thought about how awful it was that the European Jews had nowhere to go when trouble came. 'I decided that I would always have someplace to go,' he declared in one book talk, and so was born a life of travel and travel writing. As my friend April Lawson puts it, we were all missing something as children, and as adults we're willing to put up with a lot in order to get it.

"The other interesting thing about annunciation moments is how aesthetic they are. Often, they happen when a child finds something that just seems sublime. They are going about their life in its normal course, and then suddenly beauty strikes. Some sight or experience renders them dumb with wonder — a stingray gliding beneath one's feet.

'To feel wonder in the face of beauty is to be grandly astonished. A person entranced by wonder is pulled out of the normal voice-in-your-head self-absorption and finds herself awed by something greater than herself. There's a feeling of radical openness, curiosity, and reverence. There's an instant freshness of perception, a desire to approach and affiliate. . . .

"In fact, the tricky part of an annunciation moment is not having it, but realizing you are having it. The world is full of beautiful things and moments of wonder. But sometimes they pass by without us realizing their importance. Often, we're not aware of our annunciation moments except in retrospect. You look back and realize, 'Okay, that's when this all started. . . . That was the freakishly unlikely circumstance that set things off on this wonderful course.'

"The best thing about an annunciation moment is that it gives you an early hint of where your purpose lies. The next best thing is it rules out a bunch of other things. 'Lucky is the man who does not secretly believe that every possibility is open to him,' Walker Percy observes."