The Dinner Party Project is one of those really cool initiatives that makes me proud to live in Orlando. The concept is simple and wonderful. You enter your name in a lottery, and if it gets picked, you're invited to an intimate gourmet dinner with eight complete strangers. I first found out about it when I heard the founder Dana Roquemore speak at a Creative Mornings Orlando event. Her story - how she quit her day job and wandered the globe for a few years, returned to Orlando and floundered a bit trying to find her calling, started throwing small dinner parties in her own apartment just for her own personal friends, then watched the whole effort snowball and now is at the point where she earns a living doing something that comes from and quenches her soul – blew me away. I signed up for the lottery that day.
Two months later, I found myself walking up to a town home in Baldwin Park with butterflies in my stomach, a bottle of wine in my hand, and not a single clue about what the night had in store for me. But I couldn't wait to find out.
HELLO, MY NAME IS...
The door was slightly ajar so I let myself in. Other dinner parties had taken place in warehouses, restaurants, bakeries and co-working spaces. Here I was, in someone else's living room. The intimacy was immediate. Framed photos of cute kids adorned the bookshelf. A vintage vanity served as an accent table, a trio of flickering candles on the seat and inspirational quotes handwritten on the mirror. A chef flurried in the kitchen, creating smoke and sizzle from things I couldn't see. And four smiling strangers turned to greet me.
We introduced ourselves over Autumn Rickey cocktails served in tall tumblers. Nada was a journalism student at the University of Central Florida. Hannah, a sustainability specialist at Orlando Health. Rory and Meghan were a young married couple. He worked for Red Lobster, she for Florida Hospital. Our host for the night was Brittany, co-founder of Orlando's new chef-made meal delivery service, Farm-Haus. She had just finished putting out a platter of shrimp grit canapes when the front door opened and Mitch, an IT manager at Disney, joined us. Last to arrive was Tammy Jo, a theme park performer turned vintage dress designer. It was a fun and friendly group of people, and it wouldn't be long before I learned much more interesting things about them than what they did for a living.
GOOD STORIES ABOUT BAD DECISIONS
Besides greeting and serving the guests, one of the TDPP's host's critical responsibilities is to quickly push the conversation past the idle "What do you do?" chit-chat. Brittany did a great job. We were barely into our butternut squash soup before we began sharing our most embarrassing moments. Most involved middle school. Many involved indecent exposure and/or looking foolish in front of the opposite sex. One involved a wayward nipple (okay, that was mine). But the stories that really stood out to me were the ones that came in response to this question:
"Name a decision that changed the course of your life."
This time, the stories ranged wildly. Meghan and Rory shared how hard it had been to tell her her parents they'd decided to move in together before marriage. Hannah left behind her close-knit family in Virginia to accept a job in Orlando, a city she'd never even visited. Tammy Jo explored and ultimately converted to Catholicism, in part so she could marry the love of her life in a Catholic church (and keep his dear nanny from keeling over). Mitch, after toiling away in an understaffed department for years, confronted his supervisor and insisted on making a change. Brittany, an Orlando native, made a spur-of-the-moment decision to apply to the University of Texas, and actually packed her things and drove there before even knowing if she'd gotten accepted. And instead of becoming a doctor like her father and siblings, Nada decided to become a journalist in the hopes of one day elevating the quality of journalism in her home country of Egypt.
As diverse as these stories were, they had one striking thing in common. Everyone had made a decision that went against the grain of their life and the people who loved them. Decisions that defied common sense and came with a much longer list of cons than pros. Decisions that caused rifts in families and friendships, some of which have never been repaired. Still, everyone said the same thing about their choice:
"I just knew that it was right."
THE DUMBEST MOVE I EVER MADE
My story was about what drove me to move to Orlando in the first place. I graduated from college in 1999 and spent the next six years living, working and partying in New York City. I'd studied English literature in college because I wanted to be a writer. But when I started applying for jobs, I found that marketing departments paid more than editorial, so I took my extra $5k and off to work I went. My job was just that. A job. It kept me busy during the week, but I invested the bulk of my energies into the weekends, which I spent drifting from the club to the after hours club to the afterparty in someone's living room that lasted well into Sunday afternoon. Eventually I landed a new job that wasn't any more personally fulfilling but certainly paid better. It was all fine. Just fine. Until the day I realized that my job, which involved staring at spreadsheets all day without writing a single word, was slowly killing me, just like Radiohead warned. And that all the partying, which had once felt so exciting and new, started to feel tiresome and desperate and borderline unhealthy. And that the life I woke up to every day was miles away from the life I actually wanted. And I had no idea how to bridge that gap.
Mired in what I now realize was a pretty good case of depression, I told my good friend, Mike, who happened to live in Orlando, that I thought I needed therapy. He responded with what remains the single most important piece of advice I've ever received.
"You don't need therapy, Di. You need to change your life."
The next day, I told my friends and family in New York that I'd found my dream job in Orlando and that it was too good to pass up. It was a big fat lie. But I knew that no one, not even those closest to me–especially those closest to me–would understand that I was upheaving my life, leaving a good job and good friends, to go somewhere with absolutely no guarantee of what would happen next. They would have taken it personally. They would have told me I was crazy. And maybe I was. Because on paper, it was a pretty dumb move. But, like all the other dinner party guests, I just knew it was right.
GUIDED BY VOICES
These stories, while remarkable, are not unique. We all have that little voice in our heads. A little mental GPS that's trying to steer us in the right direction. Or at least a better direction. Sometimes it's barely a whisper, perhaps registering as a mere memory of the things we liked to do as a kid. Sometimes we hear it but don't recognize what it is, which is pretty easy to do, as this brilliant article points out. And sometimes we just ignore it because we're too busy consulting the people around us and listing out the pros and cons of our decisions. But when you do pay attention, when you have the guts to listen to you and you alone, some pretty cool stuff happens.
OH YEAH, THE DINNER
But, back to the present day. This was a dinner party after all, so you're probably wondering - how the hell was the food? It was delicious. Stellar actually. Chef Julian, who is now cooking at Farm Haus, knocked every course out of the park. I remember relishing every bit, but the truth is, I don't remember all the details. So if I tried to actually review the meal, it would sound something like, "ummm...there was some type of fancy salad, and some yummy chicken, with brussel sprouts, also yummy, and some some sort of orange mash..." You see, excellent as it was, the cuisine took a back seat to the conversation and connection I felt with people who had been perfect strangers just three courses ago. And maybe that's the point.
So it's back into the lottery I go. But first, a quote from one of my favorite philosophers.