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Publisher's Summary

How we care for and nurture our bodies has implications for all areas of our development - physical, emotional, and even spiritual. The body is a living and organic revelation of the unseen spirit inside a kind of garden. 

Garden in the East is a poetic exploration of how the care of the body can lead us to wholeness and wellness in every area of our lives.

©2017 Angela Doll Carlson (P)2018 Ancient Faith Publishing

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What listeners say about Garden in the East: The Spiritual Life of the Body

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Body and Soul

Angela Doll Carlson’s book, Garden in the East, isn’t a fitness guide or a recipe book on how to stay healthy. It doesn’t provide answers on how to make our bodies behave or look the way we want them to. And it never promises to be. In fact, it is this sort of way of thinking about our body that it challenges. It discusses through beautiful and often poetic language how we must get away from thinking of our bodies as mechanical as if we only need to tune them up a bit, and all will be well. Instead, we are challenged to orient how we view our bodies by comparing it to the natural rhythms of a garden. The change of seasons, the result of neglect, the sometimes unruliness of being creatures of body and soul. I am grateful for the opportunity to listen to this audiobook.
That being said, there were some sections I related to more than others. I am not in the same season as the author was when she wrote it. I definitely benefitted from some widening of perspective, but it is important to note that this book is very much written based on ponderings from the author’s own life. It is clear that her experiences influence how she learns, and those stories are woven throughout the book with her thoughts and practical inspiration. This gives it a deep, personal touch. There is nothing that she writes about that she has not struggled with herself, and she does her best to lead us to the truths that gave her peace.
I listened to the audiobook, and Angela Doll Carlson narrates the book herself. I found her voice created a calm, inviting atmosphere to dive deeper into a difficult topic. Technically, the sound quality is good except, when listening to it from my phone speaker in my car, I would occasionally hear a very faint high-pitched sound in the background.
Overall, I would recommend this book to others, especially those who struggle with body image issues. It provides a starting point for a healthier relationship with our physical nature and encourages acceptance of it as a partner to our spiritual nature. There is still much work to be done, but this book is a beautiful signpost along the way.

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A truth ribboned with vulnerability and love

Seeing our errors in order to root out unhealthy thoughts and habits takes courage. Angela takes the first step in sharing her personal journey for the benefit of all.

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Recommended reading

Angela Doll Carlson invites her readers to reflect with her on the metaphor of the body as a garden that “is organic and alive, intricately woven together by the hands of the One who made me, and it needs my care.” I appreciate Carlson’s poetic use of words, her reflective, self-effacing honesty. I resonated with many of her personal vignettes in ‘me too!’ moments. Judiciously chosen gems from the likes of Thomas Merton, Luci Shaw (one of my favorite poets), and St. Isaac the Syrian add depth to her reflections. On the occasions when I was listening at home, rather than on my daily commute, pause and replay were my friends as I captured thoughts and phrases to which I want to return for my own reflection.

While I am a frequent podcast listener, audiobooks are not my common fare as I prefer a book in hand. However, I have discovered that I enjoy audiobooks that are not overly dense yet offer a new twist or perspective and somehow invite me to become more deeply human. I enjoy audiobooks when I laugh out loud, gasp with surprise, well up with tears, when in my mind’s eye I am there – fully engaged. Garden in the East is an audiobook I enjoyed ‘reading.’ That the book is read by the Carlson herself felt wholly appropriate and I found her voice easy to listen to.

Garden in the East is not a theological treatise on the spiritual life of the body, nor is it a self-help book. It reads like an extended personal meditation, which I personally found both interesting and helpful. While I enjoyed the audiobook, I do plan to purchase a hard copy so that I can soak in the words more deeply and go back to gems that I didn’t take time to pause, replay, and write in my journal the first time around.

In full disclosure, Ancient Faith Publishing provided me with a free copy of this audiobook in exchange for an honest review.

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The Body Grateful: A Review of Garden in the East

“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.