I felt low on waking and exhausted from yesterday, which I guess was not surprising (work, online shiur and long call with E late at night). I had a dental check-up, which did at least get me up and out the house. I had some tremor, not very bad and the dentist didn’t say anything, but I felt self-conscious. I think it’s mostly psychological now, I get so worried about shaking that I sort of overthink it and shake. It happens whenever I need to hold still: doctors check-ups, dentists, opticians. I’m OK when my Mum cuts my hair, perhaps because I’m relaxed. I don’t know what I would be like going back to a professional barber; I haven’t done that since lockdown. I shake sometimes when taking photos too and especially when my photo is taken. I’m not sure what I can do about it at this stage. I distracted myself thinking up a whole silly joke about Boris Johnson in the wake of the “Partygate” report: during lockdown, the Prime Minister was ambushed by a cake, surprised by a leaving party, confused by a works-drinks event, and misled by a small bar mitzvah. Boris Johnson denied having an aliyah at the later, but later ITV published photos of him doing petichah. The Prime Minister denied having deceived the public, claiming that, “Everyone knows that a weekday petichah isn’t a proper aliyah.” (Sorry, no time to explain all of this if you don’t get it!)
When I got back, I spent a while procrastinating about phoning the Jewish mental health charity to see if they can help with my disrupted sleep, which may or may not be mental health-related. I eventually found the courage to phone, only to discover their referrals process is automated, so I just had to speak to a non-scary answerphone. I also emailed a contact at a charity that deals with autism support to see if they can help. I don’t know if I will qualify for help from either. I feel I fall a bit between two (or more) stools on this; it may be autistic exhaustion; it may be social anxiety and avoidance; it may be medication side-effects; or it may be something else entirely. It is hard to know who to ask for help. I got an email back from the second charity and I think the person was a bit confused as to why I was writing to her. Maybe I didn’t stress that it might be autistic exhaustion enough.
I spent some time working on my novel, finishing the first draft of the first chapter. I probably shouldn’t show my work to anyone at this stage, but I was worried that my plans for this novel just won’t work (in terms of what I said the other day about wanting to be honest and not prudish, but also not pornographic), so I sent it to E, who fortunately liked it and felt it worked.
I did a little bit of Torah study. I would have liked to have done more, but I procrastinated too much and ran out of time. In the evening, my parents and I went to my sister and brother-in-law’s for dinner. I tried to do some more Torah study in the car, but started to feel travel sick. I used to be able to read in cars without a problem, but don’t seem to be able to do it any more. I can still read on trains, but buses can go either way, I’m not sure why.
I wanted to write about my anxiety about getting married — not the decision to get married, but my fear that something will go wrong and prevent us getting married at all. However, it’s very late and I have work tomorrow, so that will have to wait for another time.
This morning at work I reflected that I make far fewer mistakes now than when I started. Then I made a whole shedload of mistakes today which made me wonder if I was too hasty. I spent much of the time doing database-printing again (and there’s a lot still to do) and I struggled with transitions whenever J interrupted me with a more important task that had just come up to do immediately (autism).
While printing I listened to some Jewish podcasts (I feel uncomfortable about listening to pop/rock music in a shul (synagogue), even on headphones). I tried the Orthodox Conundrum podcast. I don’t know why I hadn’t tried it before, as it is hosted by Rabbi Scott Kahn, who is the rabbi on the Intimate Judaism sex podcast, which I get a lot out of, and Orthodox Conundrum deals with equally controversial topics, just not regarding sex.
The first one I listened to was on art and music in the Orthodox world. It was OK. It reassured me a little that it’s OK to be creative and frum (religious Jewish) and that you shouldn’t stifle your creativity, even if that means doing less Torah study, but it also stated that it’s hard to make a living from your art. Much of this applies to writing, but I think it’s easier to be a hobby artist or musician than novelist. If you are quite good at painting, you might have something to put on the wall (my sister has a painting of hers on her wall and my parents have three of hers). If you are quite good at singing or playing an instrument, you can probably find opportunities to play for people. If you are an unpublished novelist, it’s hard to get people to read your work, given the extensive investment of time in reading and the difficulty of just leaving it “around” casually to be noticed. In other words, unless you can get published, or are very good at marketing on Amazon, your audience is probably going to be in single figures.
The podcast made me feel a bit better about the bittul Torah (neglecting time that could be used for Torah study) aspect, although I wasn’t convinced writing would improve my Torah study as was suggested. I wonder if there is an element of “moral luck,” a concept I was coincidentally thinking about this morning before listening to this podcast (if you believe in coincidences). I think it was coined by the philosopher Bernard Williams (Rabbi Lord Sacks’ PhD supervisor although that’s not relevant) to suggest some gambles are only justified retroactively, if they pay off. One example he gave is Gaugain abandoning his family to paint in Tahiti and becoming a great artist; if he had failed to become a great artist, would his abandonment of his family be less morally justifiable? Similarly, if I neglect Torah study to write unpublished novels, is my writing less justifiable?
What intrigues/worries me more is the question of what I want to create. The podcast guests were musicians and an artists and I guess this is less important to them, unless they go down the My Name is Asher Lev route and paint nudes or crucifixions. And the lyrics in frum songs are often quotes from religious texts or inspirational lines; frum song-writers are generally not, to my knowledge, writing love songs as I think some of the paytanim (Medieval liturgical poets, often rabbis) did.
I once had an exchange in the comments section of the Jew in the City website with the site’s founder, Allison Josephs, about writers in the Orthodox community. I felt that she was saying that frum writers should write at least in part to celebrate the positive aspects of the frum community. Needless to say, I feel uncomfortable with this outlook, which smacks of propaganda to me, and I think people would see through it.
As regular readers know, I am drawn to less pretty topics in my writing: mental illness, addiction, abuse. If there is one theme that unites my novel writing and my blog writing, it’s probably the feeling of not fitting in, of being on the edge of a community and not safely inside it, wanting to fit in, but not knowing how. I write about what I know about, so thus far the community has been the frum community, although if I ever write my satirical science fiction novel, I hope to broaden the scope. I’m interested in the not fitting in, the trying, but failing to fit in, the apparently fitting in, where people can’t meet the community’s standards for some reason or where they seem to meet those standards, but very different things are happening behind closed doors. I’m interested in this not least because that’s where I usually am and, rightly or wrongly, I sometimes find myself wondering about what other people’s lives are really like, whether they are also struggling. Statistically, out of X many people in a shul, some are going to be in failing marriages, struggling with mental illness or addiction, close to the breadline, struggling with questions of faith and so on. Doubtless some are dealing with abuse of one kind or another, or have done so (I’ve met, in person and online, abuse survivors and abuse perpetrators, in the frum community and outside it). This interests me a lot more than the “nice, frum, high achieving, well to-do community where everyone helps out” narrative, even though that is also based in reality.
Coincidentally (again), this actually fitted in with the second Orthodox Conundrum podcast I listened too, which I found much more interesting, about the drinking and especially binge-drinking problem that apparently exists among Modern Orthodox teenagers in the US (I should say that they thought that this might exist in other Jewish communities too, but they only had data for the Modern Orthodox ones).
I went to a Zoom shiur (religious class) in the evening on Mishlei (The Book of Proverbs). Afterwards E and I skyped. It was only supposed to be a quick call, as she had a headache and I was tired and it was late, but we ended up speaking for an hour. There aren’t many people I can speak to like that, without running out of things to say or the ability to “people.”
I struggled to sleep last night. I may have dozed a little, but I was still awake at 3.00am, two hours after I went to bed. The sleeplessness may have been worry about E and my Zoom appointment with an immigration lawyer (see below).
I had a blood test in the morning. It was OK and I only had a slight tremor. I was early enough to walk both to and from the hospital (about thirty-five minutes each way), although I was flagging by the end of the walk home. While I was in the hospital, the psychiatrist’s secretary phoned to return my call from Friday. I didn’t pick it up there, but I listened to my voice mail afterwards and she said they can’t give me an appointment without a formal referral from my GP, which I sort-of expected. GPs don’t always know the correct referral procedures, although really they should, certainly for something as basic as this; that kind of joined up service ought to be one of the benefits of running the health sector as a massive state-run monopoly.
I did feel tired after the walk, and even after lunch, which was a little worrying, as it did not bother me in the past (although it’s a while since I’ve walked both ways on the same trip). I hope I was just tired from disrupted sleep. I did spend about an hour on my novel, getting near to the end of the first draft of the first chapter.
Afterwards E and I spoke to an immigration lawyer. I’ve never spoken to a lawyer before. OK, that’s not true, I’ve spoken to lots of lawyers, but only as friends (I’m Jewish, of course I know lots of lawyers). This was the first time I had formally consulted a lawyer. I think I vaguely expected something out of Dickens, which obviously was not the case. It was on Zoom for one thing. We basically have two options in terms of getting E a visa; which one we go with depends on other factors that we need to investigate and discuss. But it definitely felt like we moved things forward.
After the lawyer left the call, E and I talked a bit about what type of wedding we would like and who (which rabbi) we would want to officiate. We had discussed this before, but it’s slowly becoming more concrete, although there’s a very long way to go still, and immigration law may slow things down when we want them to speed up. But we definitely both want to do this, and to do it as soon as possible, as scary as that seems at times. At the moment we are taking it in turns: first E is anxious and I try to calm her down, then I get anxious and she calms me down. It’s as good a division of labour as any, I guess.
I spoke to my parents after speaking to the lawyer and E, to explain what the situation was. I felt quite exhausted by the end of it and my anxiety was up and down. I worry that some unforeseen thing will stop us getting married. There isn’t a lot to do about that other than try to accept the thought and keep going. By definition, you can not plan for an unforeseen thing. The anxiety probably won’t go until we’re under the chuppah (wedding canopy), or even in the yichud room (the room where the bride and groom go to be alone for a few minutes after the marriage ceremony, technically the last stage of the Jewish wedding process). But it does feel like we’re a bit closer to that today.
I feel like there is more to say, but I’m pretty much exhausted and unable to think straight so I’m going to watch TV and crash, as I have work tomorrow.
Today was fairly busy. I spent over an hour writing, although some of that time was taken up with procrastinating, as I was nervous to write the sexual passages I needed to write. I did manage it in the end, but I feel like I’m going to be cringing inwardly the whole time I write this book! It did get a bit better over time. I somehow managed nearly 600 words, which was good. Then I was suddenly hit by inspiration and spent another twenty or thirty minutes polishing and re-writing what I had written, ending up with well over 700 words today, which is very good.
It is hard to write about sex and pornography while simultaneously doing the following: (1) not being coy and prudish; (2) not being vulgar or pornographic myself; (3) staying broadly within the boundaries of Modern Orthodox Jewish discourse on sex; and (4) not being triggering for any recovering/recovered pornography addicts or their families. This reflects the somewhat diverse audience I’m aiming for.
I went for a run, again not very good in terms of pace or stamina, and I got a headache, but at least I went. I did some Torah study too. So I achieved quite a bit.
J asked me to work on Tuesday rather than Monday this week, so tomorrow I have a blood test in the morning and then E and I have a Zoom call with an immigration lawyer in the afternoon. We’re both a bit nervous about it and what it will mean for our wedding timetable…
I haven’t blogged publicly much recently. I’ve had some issues that I didn’t feel comfortable sharing openly. Hopefully these are resolving now and I can go back to more regular public posts.
Work was hard today. I realised I made a mistake that could have cost us £80, throwing out the office shredder that might have been working because I thought it was broken when it may have been that it just wasn’t plugged in. On testing it again, I think it really was broken, but I felt stupid and feel like I made myself look stupid in front of J again. This may be low self-esteem. Then I had to make some difficult phone calls dealing with someone who owes us a substantial sum of money, but who has cancer. I want to be sympathetic, but, as J said, being ill does not mean being poor, especially in the UK where the NHS does at least mean people don’t usually impoverish themselves seeking treatment. Moreover, this person’s son was supposed to be dealing the matter, but has let it drag on for a year. He said he would pay in two months’ time once J authorised me to waive 50% of the money owed. Again, I want to be sympathetic, but if we just write off large debts it’s not fair on those who do pay. Then I spent most of the day printing off a database again. I did at least listen to music some of the time.
On the train to work I was reading The Thinking Jewish Teenager’s Guide to Life by Rabbi Akiva Tatz. Yes, I know, I’m nearly forty, but I feel I haven’t got the “sorting your life’s mission out” aspect of my life down right yet. I have mixed feelings about the book. I’ve heard Rabbi Tatz speak a couple of times. He’s an engaging speaker, and writer, but I don’t always share his outlook on Judaism and life, not least because he’s a Haredi kabbalist (mystic) and I’m not either of those things.
Rabbi Tatz said to draw a circle and write inside it all your character traits, interests and so on and to write outside it all the traits and interests you admire. The stuff in the circle is you. Your mission will involve all those things and only those things. The idea is that you can concentrate on those aspects of your life. Your supposed to be able to do this by the time you are twenty or so, an idea I’ve also heard from another Haredi rabbi.
I have mixed feelings about this. I don’t know what my mission is at thirty-eight! Granted, I’m probably unusual as I have a disability that impacts social functioning (autism) that I didn’t know about until last year; until then I was pushing myself to do things that I just can’t do and feeling guilty or embarrassed about some things that are normal (for me). To be honest, I’m still struggling with this. It has certainly affected what I think my mission in life is and what I can reasonably expect myself to do.
Nevertheless, I’m aware I’ve moved from one career idea to another over the years with no consistency or success. I wanted to be an academic (actually, it was more that I thought I would stay in academia by default because I had no idea what else to do and wasn’t good at anything other than studying), then an academic librarian, then a writer. I have achieved none of these things and currently work in a non-career-advancing low status job. I don’t think your career and your mission are necessarily the same thing (although they are for some people), but Rabbi Tatz implies a strong correlation. I hope my mission is writing, but who knows if it is? And what if my mission is to bear suffering with dignity? It could be. It’s not an optimistic thought. At least Rabbi Lord Sacks said that the rabbinate (let alone the Chief Rabbinate) was his fourth choice career after failing to become an academic (philosopher), economist or barrister. I find those odds more reassuring.
On a related note, I’ve been thinking about identity a bit lately, partly the result of reading an article that complained that millennials use medical diagnoses, particularly mental health or neurological conditions, and particularly self-diagnosed from the internet, as their identity. I’m not at all sure that this is true, but it did make me wonder if autism is part of my identity, and what I would consider my identity to be.
I feel like my autism affects my identity, while not being my identity. I don’t feel being a Doctor Who fan is my identity either, although it apparently is for some people. I do feel being Jewish is part of my identity, a key part as it shapes so much of what I do and think, how I see the world and engage with it, but it isn’t the whole of my identity.
In the end I concluded that my identity, inasmuch as I can identify it, is a sort of zone where “What I am” meets “What I do” and “What I think and feel” even though none of those things by themselves would consist of my identity. It’s a dynamic process rather than an objective “thing.” But I’m still thinking about this and am open to suggestions.
You may have detected an undertone of self-criticism in much of this post. I have been struggling a bit with negative self-thought today, sometimes apparently justified, like with the shredder, sometimes perhaps not. I’m not sure how justified it is. I guess it’s good that I’m noticing it and being mindful of it.
I tried to unwind this evening watching No Time To Die, the latest (and much COVID-delayed) James Bond film. It turned out to be not such a great choice, massively overlong (why are all films so long these days?), confusing in places and not terribly engaging. I didn’t really understand what the villain wanted, and neither villain nor henchman were interesting. With Bond, you can have a good villain with a unmemorable henchman (e.g. The Man with the Golden Gun) or a nondescript villain with a scary henchman (The Living Daylights), but two uninteresting baddies in combination just doesn’t work.
Long-running franchises tend to reach a point where they self-consciously become “darker,” perhaps because the children who grew up watching it reach a point where they’re making it and want to make it scary and dark like they remembered — except it wasn’t that scary and dark, it just seemed that way because they were so young. You can see it with Bond, Doctor Who, Star Trek, Batman… A sign that this happening is when the hero and the villain have a conversation in which the villain says that the hero is just like him (the villain). This is usually nonsense, but the hero generally takes it very seriously.
I prefer the lighter and more tongue-in-cheek James Bond that we got in the seventies, ditto for Doctor Who. Fans at the time complained about scripts and actors who were allegedly sending the series up in stories like Moonraker (Bond) or The Horns of Nimon (Doctor Who), but they were hugely popular with the general public who enjoyed the knowing winks at the stories’ cliches providing there was still some kind of coherent plot, allowing them to laugh with (not at) the stories. Daniel Craig jumping off bridges is all very well, but who wouldn’t rather see Roger Moore ski off the edge of a mountain only to be saved by his Union Jack parachute?
 Yes, I do genuinely believe that Moonraker is an exemplary James Bond film. The Horns of Nimon isn’t classic Doctor Who, but it’s still pretty sound and entertaining.
I somehow got up early, ate breakfast and did some things online, but felt depressed and went back to bed. I don’t think I fell asleep again, but I’m not sure; certainly I was in bed for over an hour. I hope these depressed feelings pass soon and don’t turn into another episode of clinical depression.
I did some work on my application for the Emerging Writers’ Programme I’m applying for. I’m not sure how well it’s going to be honest. I am playing the “autism” card as well as the “Orthodox insider” card, hinting that I might write an UnOrthodox-style anti-religious story when that is not my intention, while also talking about wanting to show the Orthodox in a realistic light, which can mean positive or negative, however the judges want to read it. I do mention God, though, and repentance, which might be a bad idea, but at least it’s a Unique Selling Point. It’s not like there are many contemporary literary authors writing about pornography addiction, or anything really, through the prism of repentance and encountering God.
It reminds me of an article in Tablet Magazine a while back about university bursaries and scholarships intended to go to disadvantaged teenagers going to middle-class teenagers who are taught by their (private) schools and their (middle-class) parents (probably working in academic, law or HR) how to write applications with the correct narrative, a narrative of, “I struggled against prejudice because I’m a member of minority X, but I triumphed over it because I’m strong, resilient and successful, therefore you should accept me both for reasons of diversity and because of my skills and capabilities in fighting oppression.” Less-privileged teenagers are not taught how to write this way and fail to get the money and places intended for them.
I went for a run, but ended up feeling light-headed, dizzy and slightly nauseous at times, even after my warm-up, let alone the run. I was slow and sluggish while running, with low stamina. I only managed to run for thirty minutes rather than my usual forty and got a headache when I got home. I wondered about this, and about other health issues on my mind lately.
I’ve mentioned that my cholesterol is slightly high. I looked on the NHS patient site and it looks like my cholesterol has been increasing for several years now (with one slight dip), which worries me as I certainly haven’t been steadily increasing the amount of cholesterol-heavy foods I eat. In fact, I rarely eat meat and especially not red meat and I’ve cut back my consumption of cheese (and eggs, although apparently that’s considered less of an issue now) so I’m not sure why my cholesterol continues to rise, unless it is a(nother) medication side-effect.
Then I have frequent issues with low energy and feeling “ill” in vague and undefined ways, particularly when tired after work or days out with E, plus I have problems sleeping too long and struggling to get up. I assumed these were medication side-effects and/or autistic exhaustion, but now I’m not sure. Also troubling is that several times recently I felt like I have nearly lost my balance and just stabilised myself in time, twice in the shower and a couple of times on the stairs.
Unfortunately, some of these issues cut across each other. When I got an exercise headache after running, I knew (or at least suspected) that eating crisps (for salt) would help, but crisps are hardly good for weight loss or cholesterol, so I put off eating them. It got to dinner time and I felt headachey, nauseous and my hand was shaking as I tried to drink my soup, so I ate a packet of crisps. Before I had even finished the packet, the headache was less intense, the nausea went and I stopped shaking. Sometimes I have these “salt-withdrawal” issues without having exercised first. I know salt issues can be related to taking lithium, which I do.
I think I should see my GP, even if it means waiting ages on the phone to get through to the receptionist and then playing the autism card again to get an in-person appointment and one with my preferred GP (currently appointments are supposed to be on the phone in the first instance and with the first GP available, not my preferred one). I will have to say that, being on the spectrum, I struggle with phone calls and new people, which is completely true, even if it feels a little disingenuous to say it.
Looking at my unpublished novel to find an excerpt to submit for the Emerging Writers’ Programme application, I’m struck by how many references there are to toilets in it. I didn’t mean to be vulgar, but since childhood I’ve been struck by how artificial it is that toilets, and toilet functions, aren’t mentioned in “realistic” fiction. My toilets appear for solid narrative reasons, not to gross people out (although one of them smells bad), but do seem somewhat unusual. I guess I’m aware of it because the toilet has long been an escape room for me when suffering from autistic overload in social spaces, which is how it appears in the novel.
I should probably mention that they announced the new Doctor in Doctor Who, Ncuti Gatwa. I can’t judge whether he’ll be any good, as I haven’t seen him in anything. As I mostly watch old TV, I generally don’t know new Doctors in advance, unless, like Peter Capaldi, they already appeared in the show as another character. But he’s the first new Doctor to be younger than I will be when his first episode airs (you know you’re getting older when the Doctors get younger). I still feel the Doctor should be older. I know I liked Matt Smith a lot, and I don’t dislike Peter Davison, but I still feel the Doctor should be played by someone over forty. I definitely feel David Tennant was too young (and too good-looking…) although that’s the least of my problems with the Tennant Doctor. Not for the first time, I feel returning showrunner Russell T Davies has a very different understanding of the show to me.