Book Review: Garden in the East by Angela Doll Carlson
by Elliott Blackwell
Angela Doll Carlson. Garden in the East: The Spiritual Life of the Body. Ancient Faith, 2016. 176 pp. $17.95.
We live in a culture that thrives on selling manipulated and photoshopped perfection. Supermodels and actresses appear on magazine covers with all flaws and imperfections removed: made to appear thinner, have clearer and smoother skin. They have a baby and then appear in public only a matter of weeks after, looking trim and fit, bragging about how quickly they lost the pregnancy weight. Magazines and media promote getting your best swimsuit body for summer at a fevered pitch. With social media one can be inundated with body shaming; although we, ourselves, are often the harshest critics of our own bodies and tell ourselves things we would never dream of saying to somebody else.
What does all of this focus on a perfect body do to the psyche and the soul of those who see such images on a daily basis? Of people who feel that they can never meet such impossible and false standards, so they, therefore, begin to hate their own bodies?
In Garden in the East, author Angela Doll Carlson writes of her own struggle with seeing herself as Imago Dei (being created in the image of God). As she writes, “Seeing something as beautiful not because the culture deems it so but because we are able to see a reflection of the Creator in it should begin to shift our perceptions of ourselves. In order to see our bodies and, by extension, the whole of us as beautiful, truly beautiful, we must set aside our old perceptions of beauty in favor of a lasting and true standard.” Carlson explores the body through the metaphors and imagery of gardening, something which she, herself, is admittedly not good at.
Carlson begins to examine the body not through the lens of our culture or secular notions of beauty but through the pronouncement that God pronounced such creation as “tov” or “pleasing to the eye.” It’s not just “good” or “pleasing” when one is young and vibrant, but continues to be so even as the body ages and goes through each transition that comes with every season of life. Like gardening, to begin and continue to see oneself as created as “good,” requires much cultivation. This is not self-indulgence but the spiritual practice of creating a life that flourishes like a beautiful, well-tended garden. It is seeing oneself and others through the idea that we are, all of us, icons created in the image of God. As she writes, “If I can begin to truly see the people around me as icons of the One who made us, reflections of the Creator, it might short-circuit this unhealthy habit of comparison. It might transform the envy to wonder, awe, appreciation.”
Garden in the East is not some Christian self-help or dieting book but a lovely, poetic mediation on what it means to rethink and re-see ourselves in a way that reflects how we were created and declared as “Tov.” Carlson writes of her own spiritual journey of “gardening” and of returning to hope – “hope for health, hope for peace” and hope for a healthy perspective to be grateful for her body in whatever season she’s in. It’s a perspective we all need to learn.