What Matters: Jane Dorn on Carving Squirrels Out of Soap and the Healing Power of Gladys Knight

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Debbie Millman has started a new project at PRINT titled “What Matters.” This is an ongoing effort to understand the interior life of artists, designers, and creative thinkers. This facet of the project is a request of each invited respondent to answer 10 identical questions, and submit a decidedly nonprofessional photograph.

Born, raised, and bent double as a hairpin in Small-Town Baptist USA, Jane is a designer, photographer, retired professor, and curious human resource who wants to give more than she takes.

What is the thing you like doing most in the world?

Wondering.

Wandering is a close second.

What is the first memory you have of being creative?

It began with soap.

My father’s job included a lot of travel, and as a kid, I constantly hounded him to bring “little hotel soaps” home for me. Each time he returned, I would stalk his suitcase until it was opened for me to plunder. Too young to know what logos were, the fact that I could remove a wrapper or open a small box to smell and trace over the shapes and letters on the bars put me in a near-fugue state. That the shapes and letters most often matched those on the box or wrapper was pure magic.

Slightly older, but before being interested in trying to draw or paint, I spent a lot of time sitting by a creek in Dothan, AL carving squatting squirrels out of Ivory soap. My art supplies were simple: a small rusty pocket knife, toothpicks, and large “twin cake” Ivory soap bars. I can still picture the soap wrapper and Googled it just now to see if my memory is correct.

Bingo.

I’ve no idea if they still make them or if most of you even remember them, but those twin cake bars of Ivory were really big (9 1⁄2 ounces) and scored down the middle, so they could get broken in half to make two normal-sized bars. I don’t recall ever breaking one in half to bathe or carve or why my subject of choice was always a squirrel, but that big soap was the perfect size for the job. The real kicker? My squirrels floated. Albeit on their sides but they floated, and there were few things quite as sweet as watching side-bobbing white squirrels disappear downstream in the slow current.

What is your biggest regret?

I’ve been avoiding this one, but I have to say I most regret hiding behind my choice of always being busy instead of spending more time with family members while they were still here.

That choice was not evident to me during the years I used it as a device to stay afloat through the riptides of family dysfunction and codependency, but it has landed squarely between my eyes over the past few years. Learning to cope with regret is the gift of now being able to keep my head above water without a life jacket. I’ve surfaced far down the shore from where I entered the ocean and am thankful for the understanding that escaping a riptide is a prime metaphor for learning to cope with regret.

How have you gotten over heartbreak?

I honestly don’t intend this as a cop-out, but Gladys Knight has the eternal corner on this market for me.

What makes you cry?

Any film or book (fiction or nonfiction) in which a dog is the main character will set me off every time. It doesn’t matter if the dog is an old blues hound that drinks muddy water and sleeps in a hollow log, lives the life of Riley, survives, or dies. Reading Old Yeller in the fifth grade and building a diorama “book report” on the bottom of an overturned shoe box messed me up for life.

How long does the pride and joy of accomplishing something last for you?

I typically feel more joy than pride, but neither lasts very long. Joy makes for great memories.

Do you believe in an afterlife, and if so, what does that look like to you?

Oh, wow. I had an answer for this for most of my life but am struggling with it now.

What do you hate most about yourself?

I hate that I have allowed myself to become so sedentary. As someone who stayed in shape until I was in my early 40s and was a “hammerhead” on a road bike, sadly, my tagline these days is Built for Comfort, Not for Speed. I will never be as fit as I was for most of my life, and that’s a-okay. My focus now should be to develop a healthier lifestyle if I want to traipse deep into what Anne Lamott refers to as "the third third of life."

Hey, perhaps sitting here admitting this publicly, combined with the kind encouragement and support I’ve received here, constitutes as the kick in the ass I need to do something about it. Thanks, Debbie!

What do you love most about yourself?

Yikes. I love that I am loved, curious, and strive to be fair and kindhearted.

What is your absolute favorite meal?

My favorite meal has not so much to do with the menu or location as the company. I mean, sardines and yellow mustard on Saltines could constitute a favorite meal if I’m trying to choke them down with those who make me smile or—better yet—scrape my teeth on the ceiling with a laugh.

Candid photo: Pandemic Lunch Lady in a Seaplane