“The body is a garden,” proclaims Angela Doll Carlson in the opening lines of her book, Garden in the East: The Spiritual Life of the Body.
It is a declaration that should make any reader pause, particularly anyone who has ever struggled with body image, chronic illness, or immobility. It’s the line that immediately pulled me into the rest of Carlson’s poetic exploration of the relationship she has with her body and its apt metaphor as a garden.
“I am like this tree,” she writes, “with roots deep and branches reaching out, and I am this place, this wide world garden. And this body that carries me into the field … This body is a garden” (10).
When Ancient Faith Publishing provided a few reviewers with a free audiobook code to review some of their listings, I jumped at the chance to review Carlson’s Garden in the East. As a woman, a hobbyist gardener, and a writer, I hungered to read something that could likewise carry me “into the field” of these themes – in particular how Orthodox Christians view the body in light of the fractured identity our modern world induces. What woman or man hasn’t struggled with body image or feeling “less than” when it comes to what we want our bodies to do or look like? How do we navigate those feelings, especially as Orthodox Christians? And how do we avoid forgetting the immense physical and spiritual blessings the One has made possible for us through the body?
This was my first audiobook experience, and Carlson’s words – delivered in her own soothing alto – exemplified her poetic background, as she knew how to pace and linger over phrasing in a way that made me appreciate each word and image. I listened to this audiobook in the morning as I got ready for work, oddly enough staring at myself in the bathroom mirror most days, “putting myself together” as the thoughtless phrase goes.
Was I not “put together” before? Not just put together, but “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps. 139:14, NIV)?
Of course. But as I listened to Garden in the East, I caught myself consciously falling “into the habit of complaint” about my body, as Carlson puts it in her first chapter, and missing the beautiful ways my body has served me and the world (18). Carlson and I had a lot in common, it turns out, and because of this, listening to Garden in the East became a much anticipated morning ritual, as it helped ground me, challenge me, and ask me to reframe my own views of my body as an Orthodox woman.
Carlson divided her book into thirteen chapters, each one exploring different topics: persistence and perception; balance; shortcomings; beauty; aging; testimonials; connection and comparison; setbacks; exercise; avoidance; eating; asking for help; and beginnings and endings. In each chapter Carlson looks doggedly and honestly into her own life. She shares examples and stories of times her body both served and failed her and the lessons she’s learned as she challenges the ways she views and appreciates it. Carlson uses gardening as a metaphor for tending the body to illustrate her points and often highlights her desire to care for her body as much as she desires to garden well. Neither, she admits, is easy.
Of all the chapters in this audiobook, I enjoyed Chapter Three – Falling Well: On Shortcomings the most. In this chapter, Carlson tells the story of how she “fell badly” on the last, difficult run of a nearly perfect day of skiing. Carlson was “exhausted and tense” and “fell ski over ski, tumbling down the slope” until she “came to a stop in a heap of snow on the edge of the ski run” (39-40). She injured her knee badly in that fall and was transported down the mountain by a youthful ski patrol. It was, she admitted, the most fun she’d had all day, because finally she “wasn’t worried about falling” (40).
How true is that for so many of us, who likewise rarely think of how to fall well and instead focus on not falling – or failing – in the first place? We fear falling so tremendously that we don’t even try to take risks and miss the glorious beauty around us in an effort to avoid pain. Yet Carlson reminds the reader that this fear of falling might be worse than the actual fall itself (41). I found this chapter inspiring, for I often find myself avoiding risks – especially as a writer – from fear of rejection or an inability to produce what I’m after. But Carlson speaks so truthfully to this universal struggle that peppers every aspect of our days: “If I learn nothing else from reading the Desert Fathers,” she writes, “it is this basic instruction – to embrace the struggle” (44-45).
Along with tending the body, Carlson’s longing to be a successful gardener is also a struggle, and she likewise explores this throughout the book. The pages are laced with story after story of how much she appreciates living, beautiful, growing things, yet cannot quite produce “an overflowing and gorgeous bounty of flowers, fruits, and edible plants of all sorts” (21) as she wishes. “I’d like to have that view,” she admits. “I’m just not sure I have the patience or persistence for it” (21). Carlson’s longing is palpable, and as someone who gardens, as well, I understand her desire and disappointment when fruit fails to ripen or the new plantings shrivel up and die of neglect. She writes candidly about how hard she is on herself throughout the book, especially in Chapter Five – Seasons: On Aging:
“I am conflicted then. I want to have walked into this new season prepared and ready for whatever comes next, and yet now as I watch the snow fall I can only see the leaves I did not rake, the bulbs I did not plant. I feel I am lacking. I feel I am failing. It is a terrible way to start a season” (81).
How often we can relate to these feelings of inadequacy, especially when we rely so much on the illusion of perfection and our own understanding (Prov. 3:5) instead of on the One who made us and planted this garden in the first place. However, Carlson reminds the reader a few pages later in the characteristic hope repeated throughout her book that grace exists to remind us of what is true:
“I am paying attention and noticing things as small and seemingly insignificant as the green of the moss in the midst of winter. It’s all about seeing the light” (84).
Garden in the East: The Spiritual Life of the Body is a lovely, slow contemplation on Carlson’s view of the body as a garden. Through 160 pages or roughly four hours of listening, this book will remind the reader of how precious our physical, aging, self-healing body is and how important it is to tend it as one would consistently and purposefully tend a beloved garden. Although male and female listeners alike will appreciate this book, for Carlson’s struggles are common, I found that Carlson’s discussion of her body was geared more naturally to a female reader.
As I write this, I have just completed a 10-mile hike through the glorious Sierra Blanca Mountains of New Mexico. With each step – some easy, most tough – I felt my feet firmly on the ground and thanked God for the core that gave me strength, the muscles that held me upright, and the lungs that could fill with sweet air. Carlson’s book was on my mind, and following her prompt, I remembered to give thanks for what my body could do, for this experience I couldn’t possibly create, and for the wild garden around me that no one could plant but God.
“This body is a garden, and I’m grateful for it – regardless of the season, the harvest, the condition, I am grateful.” (169).
I am grateful, too.