“The Nose Knows” by Tracy Johnson

The First Parish of Watertown, Unitarian Universalist

February 22, 2015

Opening Words – SLT #685 by T. S. Eliot

What we call a beginning is often the end

And to make an end is to make a beginning.

The end is where we start from.


We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time. 


Responsive Reading – SLT#659 “For You” by Walt Whitman


Sermon – “The Nose Knows” by Tracy Johnson


Some of you may know that this past October Chuck and I adopted a rescue pup through the Animal Rescue League.  (What?! I haven’t shown you the pictures?!  See me after the service!) We had been a few years in between dogs and it was time!  Her name is Emma, a nod to grandmothers and great aunts and a propensity for naming pets with older fashioned names.  Emma is a beagle-fiest mix they told us – fiest being shorthand for a mix of any number of hunting breeds – so much of a mix that you really can’t any longer tell what the heritage is short of DNA testing!  We have seen signs of terrier and hound and springer, but the predominant characteristic that we have noticed is the nose.  She pretty much leads with it!

I have spent a lot of time since October at the looped end of a leash, something that was less the case with previous dogs.  We tour the neighborhood; walk the transmission right of way; wander the beach, or take off on the Cape Cod Rail Trail for a couple of miles.  So many wonderful scents!!  All this walking would be good exercise except that we have to stop so frequently to explore.  At first I was impatient with this, “Come on, Emma, this is supposed to be a walk!” wanting to up my heart rate and get my cardio in.  But over time I have acquiesced a bit.  And I have begun to watch her more closely.

Emma’s fascination has caught my attention.  There she stands, feet firmly planted, neck outstretched, her nose carefully sniffing each blade of dried grass from its base to the uppermost tip and back down again.  Every new lichen covered branchlet, fallen to the ground, awaits her rapt curiosity.  Eventually she is satisfied with the information she has gathered, tucking it away for future reference, and we move on.  If, per chance, we venture out after a rain, the phenomenon is only more intensified, holding her spellbound every few feet.

“Stay close.”  “Don’t wander off.”  “Never mind why.” “Don’t touch that.”  Admonitions from childhood pass before my mind’s eye.  How often do we squelch the curiosity that is innate to our humanity out of fear or an urge to protect?  I know it was Channing (because I’ve been studying!) who suggested that we not simply fill our children with information like empty pitchers waiting for water, but that we encourage them to explore, stirring up their minds.  What if we managed to hold our concern in check; kept ourselves from painting a broad brush of foreboding on the canvas of inquisitiveness?  Would we then arrive at adulthood with a more curious sensibility? And what would a culture more open to wanting to know and understand mean for us now?

I like to credit my father for teaching me to question.  I don’t think he was intending to do this, as it only made parenting more complicated when I got older!  He would tell me the most outrageous tales, spun of kernels of truth and current events, so that they seemed possible, likely even, to my trusting naiveté.  As time went on and I grew more adept at discerning fact from fiction I realized how often he had been pulling my leg, unbeknownst to me.  And I began to question a little more and a little more, until the why of things became very important to me.  This remains the case today as I journey with those of us who consider themselves more seekers than those who have found.  And I am grateful for this balancing between reproval and encouragement as my own curiosity has developed over time.

But, “Curiosity killed the cat!” they say.  The origins of this warning have been lost over time; references to it going back centuries.  The idiom seems to imply that curiosity and inquisitiveness are negative traits; that the more sedate among us who are less inclined to probe carry the more desirable qualities; stifling the gregarious and inquiring.  The thing we rarely hear is the common response which suggests that satisfaction brought the cat back to life; that even if our curiosity might lead to a slightly dangerous proposition, the satisfaction of finding an answer and relieving the curiosity may well be worth the risk.  Not that I am advocating for a cavalier approach to danger, but in terms of our seeking especially, the danger may lay more in burying our heads in the sand.  When we are willing to risk a little of self with the aim of increased understanding we go a good distance toward the building up of relationship; the deep kind that engenders beloved community.

So, why, I have to ask, because that is my nature, does the story about our human beginnings in the garden want us to believe the old saying about curiosity?  There they were, Eve and Adam, wandering and wondering in that beautiful Eden, kind of like Emma, captivated with delight by all that surrounded them; seduced by the impulse to know.  And the father God who fashioned them; filled them with this questioning mind and heart; raises his finger, wagging it slightly, and shakes his head side to side, saying, “Nope!  Not that tree; not that fruit!”  “Knowledge, and to be specific, knowledge about good and evil, is off limits.”  There it is again, “Never mind why.  Because I said so!”  Perhaps by the time this story was written down the storytellers had seen enough instances of curiosity gone awry, but taken by itself, as Bible stories often are, it really puts a damper on something so essential to our make-up.  Maybe it is a lesson in the paradox that inhabits our lives and our world; the bright and beautiful rose colored glasses juxtaposed against the choice of risk and knowing that may reap harder realities.

A couple of months ago, before the snow came and blanketed the earth as we know it, I stood with Emma at the edge of the woods.  There was a rustling in the distance and she had taken that stiffened stance as she stared toward it.  I stopped and trained my sights as well.  We watched as a squirrel stood at the base of a tree gathering up a huge overflowing mouthful of leathery oak leaves.  It turned and scrambled up the nearby tree trunk, leaping over to an adjacent tree and then up and up some more.  We followed its path to a crook in the tree where a few branches came together.  There in that perfect triangle was a nest and our friend was bulking it up.  Down it came, across and down to the ground, another mouthful, and back again.  The squirrel repeated this several times.  I stood there, mesmerized by this activity.  And I began to wonder, “How do squirrels know to do this?” “Are they hardwired to tote good strong leaves and build nests in this way?”  “And to do it at just the right time in the seasons?”  I was intrigued and felt oddly blessed by this opportunity to witness a piece of our complicated and yet orderly world unfolding before me.  I’m sure there is science that explains it all, but there is mystery in it too.

The point is that I had stood still long enough to let that innate curiosity bubble up to the surface.  And for a few moments I was transported somewhere beyond the back yard; present to it while journeying inward where my mind and spirit became engaged; the former wanting answers and the latter so pleased to just be able to witness it all.  And both seemed equally compelling.  Was this what Channing was talking about?  A simple experience that stirs one up; starts the creative juices flowing; triggers connections in the head and the heart?

Writer, Annie Dillard, says that we live in all we seek; that the hidden is often right in plain sight “on the face of the obvious,” she writes – “the people, events and things of the day” and that we – “sophisticated children” she call us – have become oblivious to the holiness that is “spread over time and stuff like color.”

We are swimming in a sea of wonder and knowing and we largely ignore it if Annie is right.  We have laid our curiosity aside in favor of more important things.  But that very thing – our curiosity – holds the key to the gate that opens onto a path leading from wonder to knowing to wisdom.   We read together that it is all there for us if only we don our seekers glasses and look.  The things we long for; search for, are available to us; right in our midst.  In fact, Whitman says that these things – architecture, music, what we see and think and feel – these things are interactive.  They come alive with our participation in sensing them; mulling them over, be it in an instant or more intentionally; and reacting to them.  Our response is brought to bear on what they become.  We are part and parcel with our ongoing universe; the call and response of evolution.

These days I am profoundly aware of the fear that has supplanted our desire to know.  Born of that fear is hatred and violence aimed at those who believe differently.  When difference is threatening instead of an impetus for learning the result is an all too common lashing out at the other, whoever that may be.  Gandhi is quoted as saying that a profound knowledge about other religions is the thing that destroys the barriers between them.  When we cultivate a curiosity about those others, we open the door for knowledge that results in understanding, offering us wisdom and insight into more peaceful choices.

But why am I telling all of you this?  Am I not preaching to the choir?  A room full of free thinking, justice minded, open to otherness folks?  We are Unitarian Universalists after all!  Seekers!  Dreamers!

Well, we are all that to be sure, but we are also human and subjected to the messages of our histories and cultures.  It is easy to talk the talk.  The walk is more complicated.  This is the paradox revealed in the garden.  Knowing good and evil both requires something of us; asks us to choose and to act; compels us to be more than vessels on a shelf, but instead be useful in the creative process that is our life and times.  Knowledge holds us accountable to each other and our world.

According to Celtic wisdom, our subtler senses of inner vision, resonance, instinct, discrimination and empathy cooperate with our more tactile senses in opening the doors of perception.  Our eyes and ears may tell us one thing about a person or an event, or may give us conflicting messages, but when we employ our instincts and discrimination together with what we see and hear, a wholly other characterization may appear.   With our curiosity warned against and buried deep beneath the surface, we have a tendency to jump on first impressions; afraid to probe for deeper meaning, we miss out on the truth that lies at the heart of people and situations.   Our ability to perceive reality as it is requires a constant honing of these subtler senses.  We need time for awe and wonder to churn about inside our hearts and minds seeking resonance and creating a pathway to wisdom.  Our decisions become more informed as we are better enabled to read the character of the universe.

Curiosity is a way back in when we find ourselves caught up in the prevailing wind of adversity that surrounds us, casting cloud and shadow on the light of truths yet unveiled.  Shared curiosity creates an atmosphere buzzing with energy; sparks of desire dancing about; and the satisfaction that brought new life to the cat.

Walking with Emma has rekindled my curiosity.  Wonder has caused me to question again the why of things.  I am engaged with my surroundings in a reciprocal spiral of sensual awareness and mindful inquiry.  No longer on a ‘need to know basis’ with my world, I join those two “first gardeners” in a quest for understanding that broadens my scope and helps me to envision what might be.  May each of us awaken our curiosity as we go about our days; returning again to the beginning and seeing it as if for the first time.  May our journey in this community of seekers be enlivened by the dance of shared insight.  And may the wisdom we encounter serve to build the world we hope for.


Closing Words – from the Qur’an 2:164

Behold!  In the creation

Of the heavens and the earth;

In the alternation of the Night and the Day . . .

In the beasts of all kinds

That He scatters

Through the earth . . .

(Here) indeed are Signs

For a people who are wise.