Fred Karno’s Army

We are Fred Karno’s Army, the ragtime infantry./We can not fight, we can not shoot;/No bleedin’ use are we./And when we get to Berlin, the Kaiser he will say:/Hoch! Hoch! Mein Gott! What a bloody awful lot/Are the British infantryBritish World War I trench song

***

Today felt pretty bad. In retrospect, it probably wasn’t. I only got about four hours of sleep, which was partly my fault and partly not, but it probably didn’t set me up for a good day. I experienced some anxiety on waking. There’s an idea I came across a few years ago about the acronym HALT: don’t do anything you might regret if you’re Hungry, Anxious, Lonely or Tired. When my religious OCD was bad around that time, I found that the times when my OCD anxiety felt worst were also the times when I was HALTed. So, I guess that lies underneath everything that happened today.

On the way to work, I decided it was probably a mistake to catalogue my every work mistake here, as it makes me focus on the negatives too much. I resolved not to do it today. But then at work I thought I’d made a couple of big mistakes. In the event, they probably weren’t such a big mistakes, and I possibly over-compensated. Still, I feel frustrated that I keep making mistakes, including repeating some mistakes multiple times, which indicates I’m not learning properly. My Dad is worried about this although my Mum thinks I’m just overwhelmed. I guess the problem is I find the work environment inherently overwhelming at the moment. I try to make lists of what to do when doing different tasks, but then I don’t consult them as I think it looks unprofessional. In any case, when I’m dealing with many cells in multiple spreadsheets at once, it can be easy to miss something.

I was pretty exhausted when I got home. I haven’t done much other than write this, watch TV, daven (pray) and eat dinner (with my parents, so I guess I get points for peopling while exhausted). I wanted to do more Torah study, but my brain is just switched off. After I’ve posted this I’ll probably give up for the evening and watch TV until bedtime. I don’t feel able to do anything else.

***

At lunch I started reading a memoir about autism in the workplace that I thought might give me some ideas for ways I can function better in my own workplace. I rapidly switched from reading to scanning, as it’s not very well-written. This surprised me a bit. It is self-published, but I read the author’s blog and she can write well-enough there. Maybe she struggled to move from focused blog posts to carrying narrative over a long period. Or maybe she wrote the memoir before she started blogging in earnest. The book is also lacking in explicit advice or suggestions about coping in the workplace, which is what I really wanted, although so far it’s mostly been dealing with the author’s university experience.

The other thing that annoyed me is that repeatedly the author thinks she’s going to be thrown off her college or university course due to some requirement for group work or group presentation that she doesn’t think she can cope with because of her autism and anxiety. Then the situation resolves because she gets adjustments from staff that allow her to stay on the course and she is relieved, but she never seems particularly grateful. She could have been grateful and just not recorded it in the memoir, but it rankled with me. Yes, disabled people are entitled to reasonable adjustments by law, but I feel that if someone goes out of their way to help you, you should be grateful, even if they were obliged to do it by law or institutional policy.

I skim-read it on the way home and I’m about a third of the way through now. I probably will stick with it, at least skimming it, just in case it’s helpful. It’s not terribly long or heavy-going, I just hoped it could help me more.

***

The other thing that annoyed me today was mask compliance. On the Tube, where mask wearing is compulsory, a majority wore masks, but a substantial minority, perhaps a third of passengers, did not. For comparison, in the shopping centre I went into on the way home, mask compliance was almost as good even though it was entirely voluntary there. When I got on the train this morning, one man was berating the woman opposite him for not wearing a mask (“This is my choice,” she insisted, although technically it wasn’t), but there were so many maskless people in the carriage, it seemed pointless to protest.

I wish that COVID would just go away or at least drop to an ‘acceptable’ level, like flu, but it won’t, and I take it too seriously to disregard precautions. Already the government is talking about possible future restrictions in case of a (likely) winter surge. Based on my experience today, I think if there’s another lockdown, people just won’t obey, American-style.

It can’t go on forever, can it? The Black Death, the Great Plague, Spanish Flu, all ended eventually, right? Right?

***

I’m thinking about purpose again, and writing, and whether my purpose is writing… I’m feeling vaguely more positive about my novel (my first one, the one I’m currently trying to find an agent for). I think it could benefit from a few changes and additions, but not another full redraft. It probably won’t take long, but only once I get down to it, which will probably not be until after all the Yom Tovim (Jewish festivals).

I came across this video clip today. I think I’ve seen it before. Certainly I’d heard Rabbi Sacks z”tl say similar things previously and had been thinking about them recently. It makes me hopeful that I can find a place in the world with my writing, but I still worry that it’s illusory and that I have nothing to offer the world and I won’t ever find my place in it (combined with worries about what type of Jewish community E and I could end up in, which is a whole other type of place to worry about finding).

Success but Hollow Inside

I’ve only got a short time to write, but I wanted to write something and try to process my feelings about Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year).

The background to Rosh Hashanah was a mini-heatwave that hit us unexpectedly. I was expecting it to be pleasant, but it was uncomfortably hot, which had an impact on my mood throughout. The other background is that I had asked to sit in the covered area outdoors, by the window of the shul (synagogue), intended for people who were unwilling or unable to sit indoors because of COVID anxiety or reduced immunity. The acoustics at the window were bad and I spent a lot of my time at shul round the corner by the door, where I could hear and see what was going on rather better.

I don’t really remember much special about the first night in shul. I think I did feel pretty positive, despite the poor acoustics. At home we ate the simanim, special symbolic foods eaten to symbolise a good new year. We have only been doing this for a couple of years and it still has novelty value. Even though it was late, I did some Torah study after dinner, as I hadn’t done much during the day and felt that I wanted to connect to God. I struggled to sleep that night, whether from the heat or the mixed feelings I had being at shul, feeling I was missing out by being outside, but also feeling that I would have a lot of COVID anxiety inside.

I woke up early the next morning, but struggled to get up, I think because of social anxiety rather than burnout, although maybe a bit of both. I find it hard to accept social anxiety as a legitimate excuse for missing shul, even though it happens a lot. I got to shul in time for the sermon and the blowing of the shofar, the ram’s horn trumpet. Even though I was very late, I still stayed for another three hours until the end of the service; Rosh Hashanah services are very long. I slipped into the shul standing just inside the doorway to hear the shofar, otherwise staying outside except when I was asked to open the Ark for Alenu. I felt I couldn’t really turn it down as I had come in for the shofar, and I think it was an hour to be asked for that particular prayer (where we bow on the floor, something we only do here and on Yom Kippur).

I napped after lunch, then went to shul for Minchah (Afternoon Prayers) and then on to the brook for Tashlich, then came home. I was getting a headache, which I managed to stop turning into a massive migraine with early intervention, but I felt drained and justified in my decision not to go back for Ma’ariv (Evening Prayers).

I didn’t sleep well again and I struggled to get up in the morning. I had the “flat battery” feeling where I just don’t have the energy to sit up, let alone get dressed and go to shul. I eventually managed to get up around lunchtime. I was upset to have missed shul, but not surprised to be so burnt out. I was too burnt out to catch up on prayers and I didn’t want to delay my parents’ lunch.

After lunch I was still tired, so I napped again before saying the Mussaf prayers. I read the Jewish Review of Books for a bit, then went to shul for Minchah. I somehow found the confidence to tell the rabbi I had missed the morning prayers and the shofar blowing and he arranged for someone to blow it for me before Minchah started. I was pleased, and surprised that I found the confidence to do it, but I felt so socially anxious about drawing attention to myself asking for this that I struggled to focus on the shofar, and later on the prayers for Minchah. I decided I did not have the energy left for the shiur (religious class) and Ma’ariv, so I went home.

J left the same time as I did and said he didn’t see me in the morning and asked if I was OK. I said I’d been unwell, but was OK now; I didn’t want to go into a big thing about autistic burnout in the street. He said if I’m unwell tomorrow not to force myself to come into work, which was nice.

On the whole Rosh Hashanah must be a success, as I got to shul quite a bit and heard the shofar both days. However, I feel kind of hollow and down now and I don’t know why. Some of it is lack of passive relaxation time or alone time. I’ve spent most of my waking hours the last two days with other people, at shul or at home. Beyond this, I suppose I just wonder if I’ll ever get back to being the person who can go to every single service and shiur during the festival.

I suppose I also always focus on the next goal rather than the one just completed. There’s a story about a Hasidic rabbi (I think the Maggid of Mezeritch; I don’t have time to check) who was asked by a Hasid why, whenever he tried to move closer to God, God seemed as far away as ever. The Maggid said that it’s like a father with a toddler. The father calls the child to him, who takes a few faltering steps towards him, but as he gets near, the father moves a few steps away and calls him again, and so on. This is frustrating for the child, but is how he learns to walk. Similarly, God moves further and further away to call us towards Him, but I don’t know how to deal with the lack of self-esteem that results from feeling I have not reached God and am as far away as ever.

I actually spent a lot of time over Rosh Hashanah thinking about what it would mean to accept that God loves me. I’m not sure I came to any great conclusions. I find it easier to see God as punitive than loving, at least towards me, and I’m not sure why or how to change that. I don’t see God as punitive in an abstract, theological sense, or towards other people, but I find it hard to believe He could love me unconditionally.

The other thing I thought about a bit over Yom Tov was abuse (child abuse, get withholding etc.) in the Jewish community. It’s been in the news again lately. I wonder how God can forgive us while it goes on. There isn’t really anything I can do about it, except write about it, which makes me want to get my novel published. On which note, a book I’d ordered, a guide to publishers, editors and literary agents, arrived today, which may help me to plan my next step.

OK, I’m off to get ready for tomorrow, and to see if I can have something to eat and fit in Midweek Twin Peaks before bed.

Last Day of the Year

I couldn’t sleep last night, possibly the result of eating ice cream late at night (it can give me a sugar rush, I think). It was a bad decision, but I felt that, after several difficult days, with several more to come, I needed a treat. About 3.00am, I decided to get up and do some work in the hope it would bore me to sleep. At the very least, I would wake up to less work in the morning. I did just under an hour of work at night and another hour today. All the bits I’ve done since Friday work out at roughly a full day for me, and I’ve also conveniently finished all the work I had to do at home, which I guess is a good way to finish the Jewish year.

I filled in the form for the Department of Work and Pensions about my benefits. I didn’t have the payslips they wanted as I’m freelance and invoice J every month. I hadn’t kept all the invoices either, which I should have done, because the taxman may want them. I found the last two. I wish I wasn’t so vague and clumsy about practical and financial things. I don’t know what I’d do without my Dad here, really. There are courses in personal finance and the like for people on the spectrum. I’ve always resisted going on them, because I felt I’m too high-functional, but maybe I’m not really.

In a few hours it will be the start of a new Jewish year, 5782. I like that Jewish year numbers are so big, even though the count was only started (retroactively) in the Middle Ages and I don’t believe that Adam and Chava (Eve) were created literally 5782 years ago tomorrow. Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) is about crowning God as our King. This entails accepting that He knows what He’s doing with everything He does. To this end, I’m going to try not to worry about stuff over the next two days and accept everything He has planned for me for the next year, regardless of whether it’s what I want or expect. This includes trying not to worry about getting to shul, hearing the shofar, about talking to people or about walking in hours after the service has started and the like.

Shana tova – happy new year! May we all be signed and sealed for life, and a good life at that!

Muddling Through

I overslept dramatically again, as I basically do every day when I don’t go out to work. Sigh. Anyway, I managed to put in two hours of very dull work from home work (data entry and sorting my predecessor’s emails – I think he never deleted an email, even spam, and had something like 2,500 emails from a five or so year period when I started). It was boring, but hopefully will take some pressure off tomorrow.

I’m still pretty stressed. As well as the two hours of work, I did a couple of small chores and I went to a virtual shiur (religious class), but I still need to do an hour and a half or two hours work tomorrow and I have a load of paperwork about benefits and bank accounts that have suddenly been thrown at me at this busy time of year. It’s like everyone decided, “Hey, Luftmentsch is stressed! Let’s throw him some pointless busywork too!” Then I had to change some plans at the last minute and I’m not sure how I avoided a meltdown. I went for a walk and tried to be mindful which helped a bit and then I had a Skype call with E and felt a lot better after that.

Even so, I feel pretty overstretched, which is not the best way to go into the busiest month of the year, especially when I want to get to shul (synagogue) so much, but am aware that shul attendance is the first thing to become impossible (because of burnout and social anxiety) when I’m stressed. I guess remembering what I discussed with the rabbi last week about being strategic in my shul attendance is important here, and my general attempts not to beat myself up about everything. To remember that God loves me and knows my struggles.

On the plus side, I feel this year that for the first time, as well as goals for the coming year, I can set long-term goals for the next five years, which is exciting and scary. The long-term goals are more life stages to try to move to, while the short-term goals are more to improve aspects of my character.

***

The virtual shiur was interesting. It was about teshuvah (repentance/returning to God/returning to ourselves) being as much an inner psychological process for mental health as an external one. Rabbi Dweck was wary of the approach to teshuvah that says, “Take on another mitzvah (commandment)” instead of looking inside at our inner drives. This is a realisation I’ve come to myself over the years, at least for my (not always mentally healthy) self, but it was good to have external validation. I felt the shiur could have been a bit deeper, maybe with more practical suggestions. Rabbi Dweck did suggest journaling and just being aware of oneself during day to day life, which is part of why I write here, to process and understand myself.

The shiur reinforced the feeling I’ve had for a while that the novel I want to write about a frum pornography addict isn’t actually primarily a story about sex or addiction, but one about teshuvah, although I can see that many people will not be able to look past the surface to that. There is a quote I came across from Rav Kook recently about teshuvah being a subject for poets and artists, which is similar to what I want my novel to be.

***

I did a COVID test for the first time. My shul (synagogue) wants everyone to do one before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the upcoming Jewish festivals. The first time I tried, I spilt some of the liquid, so I had to redo it. Then I’m not sure I got my tonsils properly with the swab. I just stuck the swab in until I wanted to gag, then repeated on the other side. I don’t like the way COVID is triggering OCD-type thoughts in me, less contamination thoughts than scrupulosity: “Am I doing it right?”-type thoughts. I still have guilt about hugging my ex-girlfriend (just hugging!) although it won’t stop me hugging E when she comes to visit. One site I found said that if you’re infected, swapping the uvula and perhaps even the cheeks will show up enough virus for a positive result, so hopefully I’m OK. I feel like this could turn into the COVID equivalent of kashering my sink for Pesach if I’m not careful, something I repeat and obsess about endlessly.

Behind-the-Sofa Scary

(There’s a cliche in the UK about children watching Doctor Who from behind the sofa because it’s so scary, at least for a family programme. For Doctor Who fans, that’s kind of the litmus test of genuine terror.)

I didn’t blog yesterday as not much happened. Today I had weird dreams, overslept and went into a panic about Shabbat (the Sabbath) and the Yom Tovim (Jewish festivals) in the next few weeks. I did some work today. I’m working from home on Monday, but I worried about oversleeping and not working enough, so I thought I would do some work today and tomorrow, but it’s been a bit of a rush. I’m about to do a little bit more, although I won’t do much Torah study today. I might have to leave writing next week’s devar Torah (Torah thought) until Thursday evening. I usually like to have it almost finished by then, so I can just proof-read it and send it, as I’m usually tired from work, but I can’t see how I’m going to get the time. I do at least know what I’m going to say (unlike the week after).

I am going to the rabbi’s house tonight for dinner. I’m a bit nervous about this, although I surprised E by saying that I’m usually OK talking to rabbis without additional social anxiety from their position, just ordinary social anxiety of talking to anyone. I’m not sure why that is, probably because I’ve been talking to rabbis from a young age and I know they’re just people, usually with a corny sense of humour. Usually quite laidback too. I know some people who leave the frum (religious Jewish) community complain of strict upbringings (or abusive upbringings, which is something else entirely), but most frum people I know are laidback, often surprisingly so. I find it’s hard to get frum people to commit to things because they often have a “Whatever, we’ll work it out eventually” attitude. This always seems at odds with how I think religious people should behave, which is precise and even a little anxious. Maybe this is something to do with trusting in God that everything will work out. Or maybe it’s just my Yekkish background. Yekkes (German Jews) are stereotypically precise, punctilious, and the only Jews who are remotely punctual. I’m actually only one-eighth Yekkish, but I feel a strong affinity for the stereotype.

***

E found me an article on autistic burnout! It doesn’t say much I didn’t already know, but it’s useful to show family and it’s reassuring to be told that it’s “a thing.” It’s unclear on the thing I’m unclear on, which is the extent to which autistic burnout is a short-term thing triggered by a few hours of that can be alleviated by a few hours of rest and sleep or a long-term thing somewhat like depression that sets in after weeks or months of stress and can last indefinitely. My feeling is that it can be both, but I don’t think everyone agrees.

***

After I saw my rabbi and told him about my autism, I sent him the article I wrote about being autistic in the frum community. He really liked it and asked if I would like him to circulate it in the community. I’m not sure what I feel about that. I can see pros and cons. I don’t have time to list them in detail (maybe next week), but I can see big pros in starting a conversation about autism and neurodiversity in the local community and maybe finding some more understanding and support at shul (synagogue). On the other hand, telling literally everyone in shul seems scary and awkward, and I could end up defined as “that autistic guy,” at least for a few years until I become defined as “that frum author who writes a lot about sex.”

Talk with the Rabbi

Today was one of those days that got away from me. I had therapy in the morning, which was good. Then I went to speak to my shul (synagogue) rabbi about my Asperger’s in the afternoon. The meeting went well. He was very understanding and supportive. We spoke a bit about being strategic in my shul attendance to handle burnout, maybe trying to go less often but more focused or to more inspiring services. I need to think about what that would mean in practical terms. We spoke a bit about social anxiety too, and wanting to challenge that, but in a safe way, and about COVID making that harder by adding a new layer of anxiety to social situations. He said I looked more animated than he had ever seen me before (we hadn’t really had a one-on-one conversation before).

When I got back from that I spent a while speaking to my parents about the meeting and some other things and then, unfortunately, wasting time. I wanted to do things, but couldn’t get down to anything. In the end I did some Torah study and spent half an hour on my short story, writing about 500 words, which was good. But other than that I haven’t done much, and I need to be up early for work tomorrow. I’ll watch the rest of the pilot episode of Twin Peaks before bed, which I started at dinner, but I don’t feel particularly sleepy. I probably should have taken time to relax after speaking to the rabbi instead of just procrastinating.

The Moments of Labouring are the Moments of Finding

I spent a lot of the day feeling down and vaguely depressed (not really in the clinical sense). Out walking, I gave way to depressive thoughts about politics and the state of the world, COVID and Afghanistan. On the one hand, who would have thought two years ago that the most divisive political question of the age would be, not Trump or Brexit, but vaccinations? And who would have thought the ending of the perpetual war in Afghanistan would be the source of so much misery? The latter bringing back comparisons with Vietnam.

I had a whole tirade in my head about Vietnam, Robert McNamara and technocratic government (the RAND Corporation etc.) and mission creep arguing against technocracy and big government versus COVID and vaccines arguing for it. I won’t go into the whole thing, as I suspect it’s not that coherent now I can set it out in black and white.

Suffice to say that I feel we’re in a double bind, morally bound to try to intervene in the world to improve it, but intellectually unable to do so in a safe and successful way (Hayek’s “Fatal Conceit,” the mistake belief that limited human intelligence and knowledge can change the world for the better). I am cursed to have the ethics of a moderate liberal and the intellect of a Burkean conservative: I think we should make the world better, but I don’t believe we have the ability to do so, except in incremental ways.

Anyway, I can’t work out if I’m vaguely depressed because the world is depressing, or I feel the world is depressing because I’m vaguely depressed. If the latter, why am I depressed (again, not in the clinical sense)? Am I just stressed after a difficult fortnight at work and looming religious festivals?

***

Other than that, I emailed the Maudsley Hospital to try to find out about my referral for autism-adapted CBT. (If anything is an argument in favour of Hayek and against technocracy, it’s NHS bureaucracy.) I wrote my devar Torah (Torah thought) for the week, unusually before reading the sedra (Torah portion), as the idea for what to write hit me suddenly on Friday night. I’d like to write one for next week this week too, as next Tuesday and Wednesday, when I usually write, will be Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year). However, I’m now working over the next two days (which is a whole story in itself, but I’m too tired now), so I’m not sure how I’ll fit it in.

I tried to go to an online discussion on Sefaria’s YouTube channel, where Dr Erica Brown was talking about her book for this time of the Jewish year, Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe, which I recently purchased. The discussion was marred by connection problems (at the speakers’ end) and after a quarter of an hour, it suddenly stopped, apparently abandoned by Sefaria, which was disappointing. They have apparently now recorded the interview and posted it as an ordinary YouTube video, so I’ll have to try to watch that at some point.

In the evening I Skyped E and had a discussion with my parents about some family stuff that is not for here. I feel vaguely anxious again, not quite as bad as I used to feel on Sunday evenings when I was at school, when I was dreading the week ahead, but was not sufficiently in touch with my emotions to realise that I felt like that, but still apprehensive of the week ahead.

***

I had been looking for a particular quote recently and suddenly came across it last week and wanted to blog it, but hadn’t had the chance. The quote is from the nineteenth century Hasidic rebbe Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (the Kotzker Rebbe), but he is elucidating a passage in the Talmud. The Talmud (Megillah 6b) says, “Rabbi Yitzḥak said in the style of a previous passage: If a person says to you: I have labored and not found success, do not believe him. Similarly, if he says to you: I have not labored but nevertheless I have found success, do not believe him. If, however, he says to you: I have labored and I have found success, believe him.” (Translation from sefaria.org; bold indicates words literally in the original, ordinary font indicates words added in translation to elucidate). This passage raises a question, assuming we are talking about success in religious life (faith and Torah knowledge), as some people do genuinely search for God and Torah and not find them, and the Talmud seems to blame them for not trying hard enough.

The Kotzker says, “If you have laboured, even if you have not found, do not believe that you have not found. For the moments of labouring, they are the moments of finding. The search for knowledge, it itself is knowledge.” (The Sayings of Menahem Mendel of Kotsk edited Simcha Raz p.119) This opens the door to the concept of those who are ‘unconsciously religious,’ who live meaningful lives outside of organised religion or belief, yet touching on the transcendent and the kind. Moreover, it sees the religious life as an ongoing search or quest throughout life, not a matter that is easily settled one way or another, forever.

I find this attitude helpful because it moves the focus on the religious life from the end itself to the process towards that end, from actually being close to God constantly to the desire and attempt to be close to God. It moves it from the rare and ephemeral moments of connection to the attempt to achieve those moments in the midst of mundane events and activities. Likewise it can be read as being about religious study, about trying to understand rather than attaining understanding. In short, it means that Jewish achievement is about the effort to be Jewish rather than assuming that only perfect faith or superficial religious observance are the only signs of religious achievement.

It is a proto-existentialist attitude. Attitudes like this in his teachings mark the Kotzker as perhaps the first modern, Orthodox (not “Modern Orthodox”!) Jewish thinker, not in the sense of more Westernised nineteenth century figures like Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and Rabbi David Zvi Hoffmann who combined Torah knowledge with secular university studies and awareness of wider trends in Western theology and Bible criticism, but rather “modern” in the sense of wrestling with existential doubt and a sense of human insignificance and the search for individuality and authenticity. (The key text here is A Passion for Truth, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s comparative study of the Kotzker and his contemporary Soren Kierkegaard, the first Christian existentialist.)

The Curses of COVID

I set an early alarm because I had a vague magical thinking fear that J would call me to do the Very Scary Task again early today. In the event he did not, thankfully, and I fell asleep again after turning my alarm off. It’s interesting how much magical thinking I’ve had around the VST this week. I don’t usually think of myself as a superstitious or magical thinking person, but I can’t deny the evidence of my own thoughts.

It’s been a fairly tough couple of weeks covering for J and working from home and I’m aware that it’s going to continue to be tough for a while, albeit for varying reasons. Next week I hope to ‘come out’ as autistic to my shul (synagogue) rabbi. I’ve prepared notes of what to say, but I really have no idea how it will go or even what I really expect or hope from the meeting. Then, for unrelated reasons, I’ve been invited to his house for Shabbat (Sabbath) dinner next Friday. I accepted, but only afterwards did I wonder how safe it would be, COVIDly. I mean, the government COVID regulations permit it, but I wonder if I’m being reckless. It’s hard to tell. But the real thing worrying me about it is the usual social anxiety stuff.

E was surprised that I don’t get extra-socially anxious with rabbis than I do with other frum (religious) people. To be honest, I think I’m nervous enough with ‘ordinary’ frum people that there isn’t anywhere else for the anxiety to go, plus I feel I’ve had exposure therapy with rabbis over the years. I have eleven Orthodox rabbis’ phone numbers on my phone (a minyan and a spare), so I do have experience with talking to them. They don’t intimidate me the way they do to some people.

If I get through that, then we’re into the autumn Yom Tovim (Jewish festivals), but I’m trying not to worry about that now, albeit that I’m starting religious preparations for Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year).

This week in shul we read the Torah portion of Ki Tavo (I admit I’m not that likely to get there for this in person). This contains the curses that will befall the Jews if they break their covenant with God. The Talmud says we always read this a couple of weeks before Rosh Hashanah so we can say, “Let the old year with its curses end, and the let the new year with its blessings begin.” I think we’re all looking forward to new blessings after eighteen months of COVID curses, although COVID doesn’t look to be vanishing any time soon.

E and I have both taken COVID very seriously, mostly followed regulations and are both double vaxxed; still, we’re both sick of it and want to get back to normal life, life without masks, travel restrictions and noisy social media arguments about masks and vaccines. We wondered last night how long it can carry on for like this and whether governments are secretly aiming for zero COVID deaths, which seems as unachievable and flawed a target as zero flu deaths. I don’t think the UK or US governments are aiming for this, although the New Zealand government seems to be doing so; I think it’s only possible in a small, sparsely-populated and out of the way country. However, I’ve heard people (experts and callers) on the radio who seem to really want zero COVID deaths. One expert even seemed to want zero COVID infections, on the grounds that infection, even in the young and vaccinated, can lead to long COVID and long COVID is debilitating, therefore the government should aim at eradicating it, presumably like smallpox and bubonic plague. This seems as crazy as vaccine refusal, albeit in the opposite direction.

Sometimes it’s hard to imagine ever getting back to normal. It just goes on and on. I still feel nervous at shul, one of only three or four people still wearing masks now they are no longer mandatory. At the moment E is worried about being able to come and visit me, in terms of fear that the USA might be put on the UK’s red list and Americans banned from entry, and at the moment I couldn’t visit her, because direct travel from the UK is banned, and also because I’ve had the AZ vaccine, which the USA still hasn’t recognised (all of which strikes me as a bit rich, considering how poor vaccine uptake has been in the US; please get your own house in order before criticising others). We just want to spend some time together this calendar year! Is it too much to ask? Sigh. At least we have Skype.

***

My shul is still bringing Shabbat in early, at 6.25pm today, so I didn’t have much time to do things, considering I slept late and struggled to get going. I did my usual pre-Shabbat chores and spent some time on my cheshbon nafesh, my self-reflection on the previous Jewish year. I didn’t get time to work on the short story I planned yesterday or to do much in the way of Torah study. The latter doesn’t bother me much, as I can catch up while I wait for my father to daven (pray) tonight, as his shul isn’t starting until 7.35pm.

***

I just wrote this comment on Ashley’s blog: “My self-esteem has been pretty low since adolescence, maybe earlier. Getting my autism diagnosis earlier this year has really helped, though, inasmuch as I can now see myself as an autistic person who is trying hard with some success rather than a neurotypical person who is frequently failing for no obvious reason.” I don’t think there’s really anything to add to that.

***

I read a Philip K. Dick short story last night that was extraordinarily misogynistic and generally misanthropic (Cadbury, the Beaver who Lacked). It rather made me regret my decision to read rather than just watching TV. Dick had issues with women, to put it mildly (he was married five times). His last completed novel, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, has a female narrator who is a likeable and interesting character, but most of his other female characters are not, to put it mildly. Still, I wasn’t quite prepared for just how negative the short story would be.

Mid-Week Twin Peaks

I woke up late, drained, but not particularly anxious, which was good. No one contacted me about the ending of the Very Scary Task today, so I guess it went OK, otherwise someone would have phoned in anger or dismay or J would have texted to say something. So that’s good. I did have a bit of a headache after lunch, which may have been a delayed stress response. J contacted me after lunch to say I may well have to do the Very Scary Task again tomorrow, which is stressful, but hopefully won’t be made more stressful by bureaucratic mistakes outside of my control as the previous one was.

***

I had therapy for the first time in a month or so as my therapist has been away. It was good, although I don’t really want to say much about it here, except we spoke a bit about acting with integrity, which is one of my core values. We spoke about thinking (with regard to work and elsewhere) that “I acted with integrity and did the best I can; I can’t blame myself for external factors or how other people reacted.” That was helpful and I will try to keep it in mind in the future, including tomorrow.

***

I mentioned on here a few days ago that I wanted to do a Twin Peaks re-watch, but didn’t want to disrupt watching Doctor Who with E, and also that I was aware that there are periods with Twin Peaks when it gets into a rut of silliness or being bizarre to the point of incoherence and that those episodes are hard to watch in one go. So I’ve come to the conclusion that I will watch one episode a week, on Wednesdays, as I’m usually at volunteering and/or therapy on Wednesdays and am exhausted by the evening and just vegetate in front of TV, so I can watch both Twin Peaks and Doctor Who. I wanted to come up with a snappy title, probably with alliteration (I’m not sure why, as I’m doing this alone), but the best I could come up with was “Mid-Week Twin Peaks” which is a rhyme, but not a very good one. If you count the feature film prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, there are forty-nine episodes of Twin Peaks, so this should take me about a year.

Today I watched Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. As a prequel, it adds more to the original story than the Babylon 5 prequel In the Beginning did, inasmuch as the latter doesn’t do much more than show what the original series said had happened, whereas Fire Walk with Me is interesting even if you know how Laura Palmer died from the original Twin Peaks. I’m not sure why it has such a bad reputation, although the likes of Kim Newman and Mark Kermode have pushed for positive reassessment.

It’s a sometimes disturbing film about a disturbing subject (abuse), and the surreal elements don’t really detract from that. I like that there is redemption at the end, with the dead Laura appearing in the red room (Twin Peaks‘ Heaven/Hell/Purgatory) and crying tears of joy as she becomes an angel. The film lacks humour compared with the original series and probably doesn’t have as much of a sense of place (actually the opening section which isn’t in the town of Twin Peaks probably has more of a sense of place), but I found the balance of surreal moments amidst mostly realistic drama good. There probably is some truth in the criticism that Laura Palmer isn’t enough of a character to fully hold the film together. In the original series, the late Laura was as much a symbol as a character and we don’t learn much more about her here than we already knew, that she had been abused since she was twelve and has turned to alcohol, drugs and casual sex to cope. Nevertheless, I found it intense and compelling.

(I don’t intend on doing an episode-by-episode review, I just wanted to write a few thoughts as I didn’t have much else to say today.)

The Existential Threat

The Very Scary Task today had different people angry with me, or in my direction. Trying to help Person 1, I inadvertently annoyed Person 2. Sometimes I find it difficult to know what to do. I’m glad this is only a small part of my job, as it’s not really very suitable for someone on the autism spectrum with social anxiety and low self-esteem. By 10.00am, I was pretty much ready to crawl back into bed and cry, but couldn’t. I didn’t have anyone to vent to either, as Dad was davening (praying), Mum was on her way to work, E was asleep (stupid time difference) and I didn’t want to tell J that in trying to appease Person 1, I had annoyed Person 2, and still failed to get an answer that would mollify 1. Then the call to Person 1 that I was dreading went fine, to my surprise.

I did eventually get it all sorted just after lunch, but even that was not the end of my anxiety which manifested as more of an OCD-type anxiety, doubting whether I had organised the VST properly and making me want to phone everyone back and re-confirm what is supposed to happen tomorrow. I didn’t do that, as it would annoy everyone and I giving in to anxiety just fuels the self-doubting, but I felt anxious much of the day. I went for a walk hoping that would help, but I just catastrophised more.

I told J before he went away that I can’t work tomorrow as I have another commitment (therapy, although I did not say that). It’s just as well I do, as I could not do this job for three days running. I would be an anxious mess. I do worry a bit about what kind of job I can do, as so many seem impossible for autistic reasons: too much interpersonal interaction, workplace too noisy, needs too much multitasking or switching tasks. I miss social cues and then anxiety kicks in and I annoy people by looking for reassurance or not knowing when to leave them alone. There aren’t really reasonable adjustments I can ask for regarding not accidentally annoying other people in the workplace.

I’m not the kind of person who is good with numbers or computers, to pick the most stereotypical autistic jobs. At least this job is mostly OK. Even doing the Very Scary Task in the office isn’t so bad, as J is around to advise or take over if I get stuck. But doing it without him, from home, is too draining, and I couldn’t handle a third week of it. Also, I would like the chance to start some kind of career where I can earn realistic amounts of money to live on, but that doesn’t seem likely working part-time with limited capabilities.

I know that I need to be less dependent on other people for my self-esteem needs, but no one has ever told me how to do that. It’s not like I have an “Need of Esteem of Others for Self-Esteem” dial that I can set to “Low.” I’m not good taking the at initiative either. Neither of these things are good in the workplace, or in general.

****

I did the one hour of work I set aside from yesterday, as I thought the VST would take an hour or so today. Then I did an hour of work in advance for Thursday, so I won’t have to force myself through a six hour day when I may already be exhausted from this week (the advantage of working from home).

Other than work and a walk, I cooked dinner, drafted my devar Torah and did a little extra Torah study, but really I spent the day wrestling with anxiety and just trying to function. I guess it’s good that I managed all that with such high anxiety levels. The title of this post refers to the Sparks song The Existential Threat which came to mind today. I’d pick a verse, but almost all of them seem relevant (it’s a good song about anxiety). It’s good that I don’t often lose days to mental illness like this any more, but it is frightening when it suddenly reappears. It reminds me how thin the ice I’m skating on sometimes feels.

On the plus side, when I went for a walk, I was catastrophising, but it struck me that there are four people who will stick by me no matter what (E, my parents and my sister), plus my rabbi mentor who gives me more time than I really deserve. I feel this makes me luckier than a lot of people.

***

This will probably sound weird, but I feel more afraid of other people than God. By this I mean that I trust God to understand why I do the things I do, and how powerless I feel over my life sometimes, and that whatever He puts me through is in that context, but I worry that other people will not understand and will do I-don’t-know-what in response. I would much rather face God on Judgement Day than a jury of my peers. This is why I worry so much about doing things wrong at work, the fear that I would never be able to convince anyone that I acted in good faith and to the best of my abilities.

Einstein’s Theory of Working From Home Relativity

I was somewhere on the borderland between sleep and wakefulness a little before 10am today when my phone rang (realistically, I was probably mostly in sleep). As I guessed before answering, it was J asking me to do the Very Scary Task (VST) again. I did not (could not) know when I would be asked to do it, but I guessed it probably would happen once more (at least) before J gets back from holiday and goes back to covering the out of hours calls (although this technically was not out of hours; J had given me flexibility to start and finish work later this week, but 10am on a Monday is usually work time for me).

I spent much of the day dealing with the VST. It possibly got a little easier, but I was still given to anxiety, self-criticism and feelings of being overwhelmed, particularly when someone was checking the details of an email address with me over the phone and I got flustered (as I had two different email addresses on different sheets) and he ended up shouting at me. Without going into too many details, the people we’re working for with the VST are going through a major negative life event, so it isn’t surprising if they shout sometimes. I’ve seen J take a lot worse over the phone in the office. Even so, it was upsetting.

About the same time I checked my personal email and got my first novel rejection email from a literary agent. I know that pitching a novel is like looking for a job or a spouse: almost no one gets it right on the first go and some people spend years looking in vain. Nevertheless, I experienced a feeling of shock and numbness like loss.

In the aftermath of both these things (the shouting and the rejection), I felt numb and unable do things. I crashed. I didn’t stop working, but for a while I was not able to do much. I wasn’t sure whether to phone anyone about the VST, or who to phone. I wanted to go into autistic shutdown mode, but I couldn’t, as I had hours of work left to do, but I didn’t know what to do or if I had done anything wrong. I kept going. I’m not sure how. I guess I just had to. I kept making phone calls, albeit somewhat slowly, and everything sort of slotted into place. I do still need to get up early tomorrow to work on the VST.

I’m not going to volunteering on Wednesday, so hopefully I can sleep a bit later, unless I have to do this all over again. I told J I couldn’t help on Wednesday (because I have therapy), but I’m a bit nervous that somehow I’ll have to anyway.

I wonder if I am too eager to please people in this role (or generally). I fear I try to hard to be nice to everyone, which sometimes makes me duck difficult conversations or confrontations. I feel that people can manipulate me into doing things for them easily — in today’s case, getting me to confirm a provisional time for something when it’s not 100% confirmed, even though J advised to leave it to later. I didn’t even consciously intend to do it, I just ended up in a situation where I said I would phone for options and then phone back, even though I should have phoned for options and left it until tomorrow. Sigh. At least I did stress it was a provisional time so if someone makes arrangements based on it, it’s not my fault. Not entirely my fault anyway.

Einstein says time flows differently on work from home. I got up before 10am, I seemed to spend all day working, yet work seemed to extend indefinitely… but by 6pm I still had an hour to do, which I’m leaving for tomorrow as I’ll need it for finishing the Very Scary Task. I am probably over-generous to the company when it comes to counting time spent working, leaving out time spent thinking about what to say on phone calls (which I think of as procrastination) or having short breaks.

***

I didn’t have much time or energy for other things. I went for a walk after work which helped destress a little, although I still feel pretty stressed. I didn’t have time or energy to write, not even to type up some ideas I had for the plan of my next novel. I only managed fifteen minutes of Torah study too, and didn’t touch the cheshbon nafesh (inner self-analysis) I wanted to do as part of my Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) preparation. I wanted to finish the short story I was reading at lunch before I go to bed, but I feel too tired to read. I feel pretty much completely done in and just want to crawl into bed, although I know from experience that if I don’t do something relaxing for a little while, I will just lie in bed feeling anxious.

***

Given that I’ve had a stressful week with work, I was glad to be able to buy this book. I read the author’s blog and I’ve wanted to read the book for a while, but it’s only published through Amazon, and Amazon are evil and I don’t use them. But I found a second-hand copy on World of Books. Hopefully it will give me some ideas about coping with autism in the workplace, as I feel like I’m struggling with that right now. Although now I feel bad that the author won’t get any money because I bought it second-hand, whereas if I bought new through Amazon, she would (admittedly she would not get very much as Evil Amazon would take most of it).

***

Looking at lists of Victorian names at work, I came across Trespoles Myers. Myers I understand, but Trespoles looks like random letters thrown together. You get a lot of duplicated names too, like Moses Moses, Nathan Nathan or Abraham Abrahams. The Victorians had a different sense of humour to us. I can imagine some of these people reading Catch-22 and thinking, “Major Major? What’s funny about that?”

Stuckness, and Television

I feel vaguely anxious and stressed. I’m not really sure why or maybe there’s over-causation. I’m worried about another week when J is away, when I’ll be struggling to get up early and do the only, boring, task I can do from home, and when I might have to do the Very Scary Task again. I’m worried about speaking to my rabbi soon about my autism/Asperger’s, and extra worried as I don’t actually know when would be a good time to speak to him. I’m just focused on getting through this coming week. I’m worried about the upcoming Yom Tovim (Jewish festivals), with all they entail in terms of disruption to my routine, working longer or harder to catch up afterwards and time in shul (with a mask, but around people who won’t be masked) as well as the introspection these festivals entail. I haven’t yet done a cheshbon nafesh, an assessment of how my spiritual progress over the last year. I was supposed to do it today, but ran out of time. And at the back of my mind are vague worries about E’s trip to the UK and other obstacles to our getting together, although those worries are pretty swamped by more imminent ones, which I guess is good, in a weird way. Also at the back of my mind is an awareness that I haven’t done any creative writing lately, except for jotting down book ideas haphazardly as they occur to me. I don’t think I’m going to have much time or energy for that soon either.

I have a feeling of stuckness with a lot of things: COVID, getting to move my relationship with E on, my novel(s), work… Just contemplating my cheshbon nafesh I can see things have moved on since this time last year (I’m working a bit, I’ve finished my novel and I’m in a serious relationship with someone who is more suited to me than my previous relationship), but it’s hard to remember that sometimes.

***

Things done today: Torah study for just under an hour; went to collect my new suit; was going to go for a run, switched to starting my cheshbon nafesh when it started raining, then went for a run when the rain stopped. It wasn’t a great run. I had poor stamina and had to walk a lot, and for the first few minutes I felt so unbearably awful that I thought I was going to have to give up, but I managed forty minutes and just under 5K and I did run a bit better after a while. My mood was better afterwards, even if I spent a lot of the run worrying about the state of the world and about my family.

***

I have other anxieties. When I’m worried about something that I can’t do much about, I sometimes fixate on other things, often books I want to read or DVDs I want to watch or re-watch. Lately I’ve been wanting to re-watch Twin Peaks, even though I only watched it less than a year ago and know that a lot of it is not that good, but it’s structured in a way that makes it hard to focus on just the good bits. The soap opera-style plotlines make it hard to skip whole episodes without it losing coherence. I’m also aware that I’m watching Doctor Who with E and that I’ve also recently bought The Twilight Zone: The Complete Series (I’m partway through season two) and The Simpsons season three. I feel I should finish these first, without really having a good reason why. After all, they won’t go off, and I have no qualms about reading or re-reading novels with more recent (or less recent) purchases waiting. Perhaps more pertinently I feel I shouldn’t watch so much TV (not that I watch much more than an hour or an hour and a quarter a day) and that I should read more (even though I often watch TV when too tired to read or when in a bad state mental health-wise).

The “reading not watching” question is interesting. I enjoy reading, and, as an aspiring writer, I read to learn how to write as well as for enjoyment. My favourite writers, as I’ve mentioned, are Franz Kafka (who I hardly ever re-read, as a counsellor once told me not to read him when depressed and I find it hard not to do what authority figures say – I don’t consciously do this, but I do unconsciously), Jorge Luis Borges and Philip K. Dick (who probably shouldn’t be read by the mentally ill for a whole other reason). These writers have entered my mind in way that few others have, but I’ve been affected in a similar way by television series such as Doctor Who, The Prisoner, Twin Peaks and Sapphire and Steel. The writing is important in all of these, sometimes compensating for low budget, sometimes providing or supporting a sense of menace or surrealism that would be incoherent or silly with visual cues alone.

I’ve never really understood the criticism that TV encourages passivity. While many viewers are passive, I don’t think serious fans of a TV programme watch passively, however they respond to it: analysis (what tends to be dubbed ‘meta’ these days), fanfic (writing their own fiction with the characters and setting), cosplay (dressing up as characters) and so on. Fans respond in different, personal, ways, but they are not passive. Maybe it’s because I encountered Doctor Who largely through novelisations at first, and then original novels, so it’s always been on the boundary between TV and prose for me. At any rate, I watch attentively, looking at structure and characterisation, and as much as I would like to write like Jorge Luis Borges or Franz Kafka, I would like to write like Robert Holmes, P. J. Hammond or Steven Moffat (not with all Moffat’s “battle of the sexes” stuff though).

More Damage Limitation

Shabbat (the Sabbath) was OK, with some struggling. Shul (synagogue) was difficult on Friday night. It smelt of paint (it’s being renovated). I got there a minute late, and struggled to find a seat because it was so crowded — not that many people, but the renovations mean we have very little space, especially with it still set up somewhat socially distanced. Then the gabbai asked me to move so that a father and son could sit together, because there weren’t two seats available next to each other. I moved and I could sort of see why he asked me (I think I was just the nearest person where moving one person would leave two seats next to each other), but it did feed my fear that single people are seen as less important than families. I shot off as soon as the service finished, even faster than I usually do.

Dinner with my parents and cousin 4 (henceforth C4) was fine. There were a couple of problems, but nothing that turned into an argument as I feared. I had almost all my Israeli family down as very noisy, and most of them are, but a couple are very quiet. I had never really seen C4 without the rest of the family before, so I didn’t really realise how quiet she is. I do struggle to connect with my cousins as well as I would like, partly because of the cultural differences I mentioned the other day, partly because of the age difference (C4 is still a teenager, and basically a different generation to me), partly I guess because of my difficulty connecting with anyone (autism).

I did some more Torah study after dinner and went to bed rather late. I woke up intermittently during the morning, but didn’t get up. I guess that was a mixture of burnout and social anxiety about going to shul again. I don’t know what to do about that. I don’t know how to work on the social anxiety about shul or my general struggles about getting up early. I can get up early for work, but when working from home last week I got up very late and had to work later than I intended, or split the work over two days. I wish I understood this dynamic better.

I forgot to take my morning medication and took it after lunch, which is unlike me.

I slept again after lunch. I think I fell asleep around 4.15pm; I was woken at 5.15pm by my pre-shiur (religious class) alarm, but I fell asleep again and/or just lay on the bed for another two hours, just too drained to do anything other than lie there and try to recover from a week of overload. It meant I didn’t really have much time today for Torah study or recreational reading (I did a bit of both last night, but not today).

I decided to skip Talmud shiur and shul so I could spend more time with C4. I wasn’t in much of a state to go anyway. Seudah (the third Shabbat meal) with my parents and C4 was fine and then suddenly Shabbat was over and C4 was going. I spent some time tidying up as Mum and Dad went to take C4 back to where she’s staying and then did some Torah study. I tried to get through what Talmud they would have done in shiur today, but it’s hard to judge (the rabbi tends to bring in a lot of comments from Tosafot, which I don’t have in translation) and I ran out of energy and brainpower. And I guess that was it. I hope I’m more alert tomorrow.

Now it’s gone midnight and I’m tired, but I don’t think I’ll sleep yet. I need to do something to unwind, probably watching TV as I don’t feel up to reading. Someone nearby is playing loud music again.

Very Scary

I feel stressed. I guess some of it is the usual mid-summer “I haven’t had therapy for weeks because my therapist is on holiday” feeling. Some of it is worry about the upcoming Yom Tovim (festivals) and the soul-searching that accompanies them. Some of it is worrying about whether E will be able to visit the UK this year. Then there was working from home yesterday, which was more intense than I expected/hoped. I woke up this morning very drained and somewhat low and went back to bed after breakfast… at which point J phoned. He wanted me to do the Very Scary Task I sometimes have to do. I was taken by surprise and asked if it could wait an hour, and he said not really and that he would do it. I felt very bad about this, as he is on holiday and I had said I would cover, so I hurriedly changed out of pyjamas and phoned him back to say I could take over. I think I did OK, but it’s quite a bit of phoning. Hopefully it will get easier with practise. There still will be more to do, as the task will have to carry on for some time as other people do things and I have to coordinate.

I know I’m late to the Working From Home party, but I am really not enjoying it. It exacerbates my usual problems with getting up and while I don’t have the problems some people have with motivation during the day (or not to the same extent), I find the blurring of boundaries between work and home uncomfortable, particularly with the Very Scary Task, which involves dealing with difficult topics that I don’t want to bring into my bedroom. Possibly I should make the calls from another room tomorrow, if I can find one that is quiet. With this task in particular I also dislike the uncertainty: not knowing when exactly I will have to phone or who I will have to speak to or even how many times this task will come up in the next week and a half.

I am going to skip volunteering tomorrow, even though I may not be able to go for a while afterwards as I have therapy next week and the Yom Tovim start afterwards. It will let me take over the Very Scary Task from J (I had told him I couldn’t do Wednesdays), which might get me back in his good books after panicking and running away today. It will also give me some time to catch up on other tasks that I think I will not get done today.

Possibly feeling emboldened by my success with the Very Scary Task, I tried to phone the autism hospital again to find out where my application for autism-adapted CBT has got to. I got the psychiatrist’s secretary’s answerphone again. I left a message, as she doesn’t seem to be contactable otherwise.

I had dinner with my parents, sister, brother-in-law and cousin (cousin 4) who is over for Israel on a busman’s holiday, essentially childminding. I wasn’t really in the mood initially, being exhausted from the day, but I did feel more comfortable after a while. I do find it hard to relate to my cousins sometimes. There’s the age difference. I’m the eldest of all the cousins, nine years older than my eldest cousin and over twenty years older than the youngest. Then there’s the culture shock. Jewish life in Israel is very different to Jewish life anywhere in the diaspora. Jewish life in Israel exists naturally, without effort, whereas in the diaspora Jewish identity has to be created consciously or it lapses into assimilation. But life in Israel is also different to life in any other Western country; no other Western country exists in a state of permanent existential war. But there are personality differences too. My Israeli family tend to be relaxed and impulsive by temperament, while my immediate family and I are not.

I did have a good time with my family (and another ‘piece’ of my next novel ‘puzzle’ clicked into place), but I am feeling very drained now. I have not gone for a walk today or done any Torah study yet (although I did spend half an hour working on my devar Torah). I would like to do a little Torah study and relax for a bit before bed, but I’m conscious that I’m likely to be phoned at 9am with the next stage of the Very Scary Task — or even if not at 9.00am, if left to my own devices I will sleep until 11.00am or 12.00pm, and the Very Scary Task will almost certainly be looking for me before that.

Meanwhile the days are getting noticeably shorter, a sure sign that autumn is on the way, with all that entails both in terms of festivals and the return of gloomy weather and lack of sunlight (not that this summer has been particularly sunny). There is a feeling of the summer, such as it was, in terms of weather and COVID, is drawing to a close.

“I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams”

Shabbat (the Sabbath) was a mixed bag, and, again, I find I need to break my rule, or at least aspiration, about not going online after Shabbat in the summer as I need to blog to get some of my thoughts out of my head.

On Friday night we davened (prayer) outside again. This seemed at odds with the shul‘s (synagogue’s) policy of no longer keeping COVID protocols in place, now that it is legal not to do so (unlike my parents’ shul, which still has a lot of safeguards in place, and is even apparently adding more). This was pleasant for me, as I would wear a mask inside, but felt no need to do so outside. The reason may have been that we do not own the building where we daven, which is usually a school. The hall where we daven is currently being significantly remodelled, which is going to make services difficult, particularly the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur festival services next month. I am not sure what the shul will do. We raised funds to buy our own premises earlier this year, but I think we do not have planning permission to build yet, and even when we do, the building project is estimated to take eighteen months.

I did not sleep particularly well last night and had some strange dreams, partly focused on some silly thing I did when I was ten. I don’t know why I carry around guilt from two decades ago, when I wasn’t even an adult. It did leave me in a negative state of mind, and I stayed in bed because I felt anxious and self-critical. When I did finally get up, I was carrying other guilt, which I don’t want to go into here, for various reasons, but which was equally irrational.

I slept for three hours after lunch, which was not sensible, as I will probably struggle to sleep tonight. Even then, I only woke up because I set an alarm before Shabbat. I’m not sure how long I would have slept if I had awakened naturally.

I nearly didn’t get back to shul, as I had a lot of social anxiety. I more or less forced myself out of the house and down to shul. The hall, now I saw it properly, looked very different as a result of the ongoing building works. About a third of the hall has already been partitioned off, and even in the area still accessible to us, some tables were missing. This was somewhat upsetting to my autistic mind.

After Minchah (Afternoon Prayers), the seudah shlishit (third Sabbath meal) was held in a classroom. I didn’t want to go and eat, but I did want to attend the Talmud shiur (religious class) that would be held partway through the seudah. I stayed in the hall and read for a bit, but then thought that they were about to start the shiur, so went and found the classroom. I felt awkward sitting there and not eating, but I did get to hear the shiur. I’m not sure how well I followed it, but I would have followed it even less had I not prepared in advance yesterday.

One thing I noticed was a couple of people addressing me by name and trying to make small talk with me. It always surprises me when people know me or want to talk to me. I suppose I’ve had so many bad social interactions, so many communities of one kind or another (shul, school, scouts, university, workplace) where I’ve felt I haven’t been accepted or didn’t fit in (or was even bullied) and just stood around “being autistic” and not really being able to talk to people that I’m still amazed when people know my name and want to talk to me. I don’t know how to progress this to make friends though.

I don’t know how rational my COVID fears are. I travel on public transport (with a mask) to get to work or volunteering, and shul is probably no less safe than that. Is it safe enough not to wear a mask, or to eat? I don’t know. According to the government, it’s fine, but I don’t feel safe. Is this sensible caution or the beginnings of health anxiety/OCD?

I feel a bit down now, and vaguely headachey. I probably need something to eat, and to shower (it’s got hot again) relax a bit before bed.

Noise

I’m writing after Shabbat (the Sabbath) again, to offload from a rather stressful (and ongoing) day. The ongoing bit is the people in the house behind us and to the left, who are having a party with loud music again. It’s currently 11.30pm and they haven’t turned it down. My Dad thinks they are students. I’m slightly sceptical, as we aren’t anywhere near a university or college let alone in a student area (it’s mostly families around here), but it would explain why they have loud parties regularly. I’m pretty angry with them, but have no real way of venting. I’ve got all the windows shut, which I don’t like to do even in the middle of winter, let alone August, but I can still hear the music through the double glazing.

***

I had a Skype call with my rabbi mentor on Friday. We spoke a bit about my current feeling of being overwhelmed and how to break my worries into smaller chunks, and also that, although I’m not doing much that’s particularly scary (except submitting my novel manuscript), a lot of things are going to happen in the next couple of months, and the cumulative effect is difficult, particularly with the autumn Yom Tov (festival) cycle starting in a month from tomorrow.

We also spoke a bit about how much Torah study I do. Although I haven’t been monitoring closely lately, I think I’m still averaging about fifty minutes a day, including some weekly Talmud study. My rabbi mentor said something to me about Talmud study that I don’t think I should repeat, but it did make me feel that maybe I am doing enough.

I woke up at 6.30am this morning and struggled with my conscience about getting up. It was far too early for shul (synagogue), but I wondered if I should try to stay awake so I could go. I fell asleep again, woke up when I thought I heard someone at the door, delivering my Twilight Zone box set, I guessed, although when I got downstairs, there was no one there. At some point I should have got up and stayed up, but I fell asleep again. It looks like social anxiety is taking over and stopping me getting to shul in the mornings again. I thought I’d made progress there, but the cost of liberty is eternal vigilance, and social anxiety exposure.

I don’t usually relate dreams unless I feel they are either very amusing or insightful. I think this is a bit of both: one of the occasions when I drifted back to sleep this morning, I dreamt I was back at school and rehearsing the lead in Hamlet. I’ve never really wanted to act, but I’ve long had an interest in Shakespeare’s great Dane, seeing parallels with myself (clever, moody, doesn’t have many real friends, messed up love life (OK that’s not relevant to me any more, but it was for a long time) and complicated relationships with his parents), although nowadays I don’t see him as a particularly positive figure. I’ve read Hamlet twice, once with notes, and I’ve seen two productions on TV/DVD, although never in the theatre. Anyway, I think dreaming of Hamlet was my unconscious’ way of chiding me for procrastinating about getting up for shul and falling asleep instead. I’m not sure why the dream seemed to focus on Hamlet’s death and my being stabbed, with a hidden pouch of fake blood to soak through my doublet, which would probably be excessively gory for a school production. Sherlock Holmes (another literary figure I identify with) was involved too, trying to solve the Elsinore murders. To be honest, Holmes would probably have made a better job of it than Hamlet did.

I did make it to shul for Minchah (Afternoon Prayers), although it was a struggle, given how wet and miserable it was outdoors and that I didn’t really want to be around people. I stayed for Talmud shiur too and followed some of it, although we covered more material than I had prepared, which is almost unprecedented.

My parents invited their friends who live down the road for seudah shlishit (the third Sabbath meal). They are friendly, but very loud and talkative. I mean, they talk a lot, and loudly. Even the son, who is also on the spectrum, was talkative and loud. They were already here when I got home from shul. They were looking at my birthday cards, which are still up downstairs; I was glad I had removed the card from E with a very personal message.

I ate seudah with them, but slipped away after dessert while everyone sat around talking. Conversation was about school experiences (the son on the spectrum had a very different experience to me), COVID and the Olympics, none of which interested me. I went upstairs and read a bit, although not for very long as Shabbat was nearly over, and there was a lot of noise from outside (see above).

My Dad wanted me to lead bentsching (grace after meals) which I did, and then to make havdalah (prayer at the end of Shabbat), which I also did, but found myself getting annoyed. I think I was just drained from so much peopling and so much noise. I know my Dad doesn’t read Hebrew well, so likes me to lead any prayers when his friends are around, but I guess I feel a bit taken for granted. I mean, I’m already struggling just to handle his friends being there when I don’t want to be around people, without feeling obliged to ‘perform.’

Now I feel somewhat down and headachey. I’d like to watch The Twilight Zone, but the noise from outside is not conducive to the right atmosphere, so I’ll probably watch The Simpsons, which doesn’t need atmosphere. I don’t feel tired as I slept so much (morning and napped again after lunch).

The Great Partnership

I have been trying not to go online after Shabbat (the Sabbath) goes out late in the summer (“goes out” is a metaphor for finishing, as Shabbat is anthropomorphised as a person, the Shabbat Queen or Shabbat Bride). However, I didn’t have a great Shabbat and feel the need to offload.

Shul (synagogue) last night was difficult. The previous rabbi, who took a position abroad some years ago, was visiting and the shul was packed with people who wanted to see him. I felt very uncomfortable, both for COVID reasons (even fewer people seemed to be wearing masks this week, as it’s no longer mandatory) and autism/social anxiety reasons. I just felt overwhelmed by the number of people, their proximity to me, and the noise from clapping and banging on tables when previous rabbi led a very noisy and enthusiastic Kabbalat Shabbat service. I felt uncomfortable and I left quickly once the service finished, hoping that previous rabbi didn’t recognise me with my mask on and no glasses, as I didn’t feel able to speak to him.

I spoke to my parents about some important stuff over dinner. The talk went well. I’ll elaborate on some of this below.

This morning I actually woke up early. I got up and said the Shema, perhaps the most important Jewish prayer, which is to be said early in the morning and again at night; I usually say the morning one far too late. But after I said it, I went back to bed. I’m not sure what my thought process was, but I’m pretty sure social anxiety and avoidance was part of it — I didn’t want to go to shul after what happened yesterday. I did think about getting up and just staying at home, but somehow drifted off to sleep again. This meant that I missed when a friend of mine who is visiting her parents in the area knocked on the door. I haven’t seen her since my sister’s wedding nearly four years ago (she is a close friend of my sister and a more casual friend of mine, but I rarely see her now she lives in Manchester).

I had lunch by myself, as my parents were at a friends’ house. I don’t mind that. I read a bit of the latest Doctor Who Magazine (which, despite its flaws, I’m probably going to keep subscribing to). I slept after lunch, which wasn’t particularly sensible, as I don’t feel tired now.

Shul for Minchah (Afternoon Prayers) was still a bit distressing, but not as bad as last night. I mostly followed the Talmud shiur (religious class) afterwards. I fell into a slight depression afterwards. I’m not sure why I feel down and slightly agitated. I probably need to do something relaxing, like watch TV before bed, as Shabbat was so stressful. The book I just started reading, We Need to Talk about Kevin, about a school shooter, is not exactly light reading either.

***

Of the things I spoke to my parents about last night, one is about changing my medication slightly. When I last saw my psychiatrist, she gave me a road map to reduce my olanzapine dose. This would hopefully help me be a bit more awake and lose some weight, without the rapid fall back into depression that happens when I try to come off it completely. However, the last few days I’ve felt somewhat stressed and overwhelmed, culminating in this not very good Shabbat, so I feel nervous of fiddling around with my meds, which often goes badly for me. I’m not sure what I’ll do now; maybe wait a week or so and see how I feel.

I also spoke to my parents about telling my community rabbi about my autism/Asperger’s in the run up to the autumn festival cycle (September this year), which is always extremely difficult. They agreed with me that it would be good to talk to him and suggested that I encourage him to read the article I had published online about being high functioning autistic in the Orthodox community, although I feel I need to make some kind of clear request of him rather than just dump all my negative thoughts on him and walk off. I’ve got some time to decide, as he’s going away on holiday this week.

***

A thought I’ve been wrestling with literally all Shabbat (it came to me in shul on Friday night):

Rabbi Lord Sacks z”tl, in his book on science and religion, The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning, writes the following:

The story I am about to tell concerns the human mind’s ability to do two quite different things. One is to break things down into their constituent parts and see how they mesh and interact. The other is to join things together so that they tell a story, and to join people together so that they form relationships. The best example of the first is science; of the second, religion.

Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean.

My first thought about this is, that while it’s probably true in general, halakhic study is a lot more like the first approach than the second. As Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wrote in his classic work Halakhic Man, the scholar of Talmud and Halakhah (Jewish Law), which he dubs “Halakhic Man,” has as much in common with the secular scientist or philosopher (Cognitive Man) than with the mystical religious (Homo Religiosus). Halakhic study is very much about breaking things — laws, concepts, actions — into their parts and analysing them. It’s not really about telling stories or forming relationships, let alone spirituality or homiletics.

The Talmud does not just contain halakhah. A substantial minority of it is aggadah, non-legal material, much of it narrative. However, Orthodox society has come to focus on halakhah as the main topic of study for Jewish men. I believe in some yeshivot (rabbinical seminaries), students are advised to skip the aggadic passages.

I’m not really sure where I’m going with this, though, beyond noting that my divrei Torah (Torah thoughts are rarely halakhic and more about crafting, if not a narrative, then some kind of homiletic argument. Most divrei Torah are like that, but other people (communal rabbis, certainly) seem to be able to do that and still understand halakhic argument.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this, and I’ve been on my computer for an hour (admittedly not writing the whole time) and it’s midnight, so I’ll leave things there for now. I guess it’s just about my feeling of not having a place in the Orthodox community. I wish I had asked Rabbi Sacks about this (somehow) while he was still alive.

Normalising Religious Struggle

Yesterday and today I listened to an episode of the Normal Frum Women podcast on Normalizing Religious Struggle. I thought it was a brave episode for opening up the whole idea of religious struggle, whereas usually in the Orthodox world people suppress any religious struggles they are having and don’t talk about them with others.

I did find it interesting that the podcast focused mainly on halakhic and sociological struggles, that is, practical struggles rooted in Jewish law or the Jewish community, rather than theological struggle. Maybe it’s because I’ve had a lot of theological struggles over the years (a while back I listed about a dozen different potential philosophical or textual arguments against God and Judaism, and I’ve wrestled with most of them in my time) or maybe it’s because when I joined the blogosphere around 2005/2006, there was a lot of fierce discussion of theological challenges, particularly evolutionary science (the fallout from the Slifkin Affair[1] was still, well, falling out) and Biblical Criticism (Higher Criticism; Lower Criticism didn’t seem to bother people as much).

Either way, it did make me wonder if people were too scared to voice doubts about the existence of God or the divine origin of the Torah in public or if people simply care more about a practical issue (how women should dress or how to clean vegetables of insects) than anything more abstract. Certainly the “how should women dress?” issue is probably on some level a proxy for deeper, and perhaps partially philosophical, discontent about women’s role in the Orthodox world. This was actually voiced by one woman on the podcast, a lawyer, who felt more respected for her intelligence and professionalism in her non-Jewish workplace than in the Orthodox community.

Despite this, it was a very brave topic to broach, so I thought I would talk about some of my own struggles.

My big halakhic struggle was around 2016-17 (I think… to be honest, that period of my life is a mess of anxiety and despair when I look back it). At this time, my religious OCD was at its height and the whole issue of kashrut, the dietary laws, particularly regarding separating dairy and meat, and the special Pesach (Passover) dietary laws became almost unmanageable to me in the volume and intensity of anxiety they threw at me. It wasn’t until I did exposure therapy that I began to realise that most of the conflicts were imaginary, inasmuch as the halakhic (Jewish law) issues I saw simply weren’t there. Until then, I was consumed almost constantly with anxiety that we (my parents and I) had treifed up (made religiously inedible) our kitchen. I asked almost daily questions of rabbis and the London Bet Din Kashrut Division question service (which was probably not intended to be used that way). Almost everything was OK, but I was terrified of having done the wrong thing, particularly with regard to Pesach (where, to be fair, we had done some things wrong in the past).

I felt that God would punish me for doing wrong, but I was also terrified of having some major fall-out with my parents where I wouldn’t eat in their home. The fear of argument with my parents is telling, as it seems likely that the OCD was largely triggered by our moving house when I didn’t want to move, as well as the fact that I was conscious of still living with my parents in my thirties due to my history mental of illness. (I did in fact move out at one point to try to get things under control.) The OCD made my already existent depression worse and for a while I was deeply depressed and struggling to have any kind of joy in my religious life (or any other aspect of my life, for that matter) and I viewed kashrut and Pesach with a mixture of dread and anger. For a while I became very angry and resentful of God and the calmer religious lives other people seemed to lead. Fortunately, I’m a lot better these days, although I have to be vigilant against falling back into bad habits of checking and questioning; even this week I’ve felt myself slipping slightly and needing to be strong.

My main problem nowadays is sociological rather than halakhic. I still struggle desperately to fit in to an Orthodox world that seems geared up for neurotypical, confident, healthy married couples, not an autistic, socially anxious and sometimes depressed older unmarried person. I would of course suffer in any neurotypical social environment, but the Orthodox world has a lot of specific stressors, from an approach to prayer and religious study that is often louder and more vocal than in other religions to a culture of intricate ritual even in interpersonal interactions. This is compounded by consciousness of being a ba’al teshuva (someone not raised religious who became religious later in life) and my regret at not having gone to yeshiva (rabbinical seminary), even though I doubt I would have been happy there.

Related to the last point is my consciousness of not being able to study Talmudic texts independently or even really to keep up in group discussion, even when I prepare in advance (which I do at least try to do). I do feel like there is something lacking almost in my masculinity, in Jewish terms, from my not being able to study Talmud, something which is only compounded by my failure (so far) to marry and procreate. The fact that I am (I think) reasonably good at understanding aggadic (non-legal) Jewish religious texts is a strange kind of consolation prize, as this skill is not rated highly in the Orthodox community, particularly among men. I used to be able to daven from the amud (lead services), but since moving communities, my social anxiety has kicked in there too and I try to avoid it, so that’s another area where I could have felt that I was fitting in, but don’t and instead seem passive and ‘useless’ (by the community’s standards).

The reality I have come to lately is that my problems are as much due to my faulty autistic brain wiring than the community itself. I struggled to feel accepted in online Doctor Who fandom too, a much more open and less rule-bound environment, so maybe it is too much to ask to feel accepted in the Orthodox Jewish world. As with my religious OCD, my fears are probably more imagined than real. I don’t know how other people at my shul (synagogue) view me, but lately I’ve become more open to the idea that they don’t hate me and think I’m an idiot, which I guess is progress.

A side-light on this comes from Yeshiva Days: Learning on the Lower East Side, Jonathan Boyarin’s ethnographic study of yeshiva study (“learning”) in a New York yeshiva, which I’ve been reading the last few days. Part of the interest for me is the way Boyarin negotiates his situation being, on the one hand, an ethnographer doing a study project and, on the other, being a Jew wanting to study Torah for its own sake (albeit by his own admission a Jew less Orthodox and strictly observant than the other people he meets at the yeshiva). It’s a kind of hokey cokey of being an insider and an outsider successively or even at the same time. I find it interesting that I understand and relate to my own community better through the eyes of ethnographers like Boyarin or Sarah Bunin Benor (Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language and Culture of Orthodox Judaism) than I do in person. Maybe that’s the autism/Asperger’s again.

Ultimately, as the podcast stated, Judaism is ultimately a relationship, involving trade-offs and compromises. I’ve never got to the point with Judaism where I’ve walked out — not a trial separation and certainly not a divorce. I suppose that must count for something. Past theological issues notwithstanding, I think I have a deep level of faith in God and Torah that transcends any particular doubts or social awkwardness. The thought of not being Jewish in an Orthodox sense seems barely imaginable, even as I acknowledge that the vast majority of Jews, let alone non-Jews, are happy with living their lives that way. This is my identity in a very deep-seated and secure way, even if I can’t articulate it to others. In some ways, the inarticulacy is the proof of how embedded it is in my psyche; it’s deeper than words.

I feel uncomfortable with much of the discussion around intersectionality, but I feel that the last five months, since my autism/Asperger’s diagnosis, have led me to a re-examination of the “intersection” of my Jewish and autistic identities and a sense that, even if my behaviour and socialisation doesn’t meet the required standards of the community, it is at least the best I could do. Perhaps a better, if darker, image than ‘intersectionality’ is drawn from Kafka’s unfinished novel The Castle, which he said would end with the main character, K, being told on his deathbed, that his legal claim to live in the village was not recognised, yet he was permitted to live and work there, an image that combines acceptance and isolation at once.

[1] Rabbi Nosson Slifkin, as he then was, wrote three books on Torah/science controversies, including, but not limited to, creationism and apparent scientific errors in the Talmud. He only quoted accepted mainstream rabbinical sources. He largely accepted modern science and reinterpreted problematic statements in the Torah as metaphorical, and saw those in the Talmud as simply errors coming from the rabbis relying on the science of day rather than being based on a religious tradition that had to be accepted as revelation. This approach is based on major Jewish thinkers like Rambam (Moses Maimonides) and Rabbi S. R. Hirsch and initially gained cautious acceptance even in parts of the Haredi world (ultra-Orthodox), but eventually the books were banned by a number of prominent Haredi rabbis, causing a huge ruckus about both science and Torah and about the limits of rabbinic power that still thunders on in parts of the internet. In the early days of the Jewish blogosphere, where someone stood on the Slifkin controversy became an indicator of how Haredi or ‘modern’ they were.

***

As for today, the morning was taken up with volunteering for the food bank. We were short-staffed again (I guess some of the younger people are still leading summer camps and maybe others are on holiday), so I was glad I went. It was cooler this week and I didn’t get a migraine. I did have to shleppe a lot of stuff, especially as we didn’t seem to have the trolleys we usually use. The afternoon was mostly taken with writing this post, which may not have been the most productive use of my time, but helped me unwind a bit. I also spent an hour or so writing a glossary for the (nearly 100) Hebrew and Yiddish words and phrases used in my novel. I’m not sure how consistent and thorough I was. It’s really intended as a quick reference and not a detailed philological guide! Also, the word ‘Yiddishkeit‘ is really hard to define. But this means that my novel is pretty much ready to go out into the world and try to find an agent and a publisher!

I watched another episode of The Blue Planet and was struck by the penguins: ungainly and even comical on land; graceful and elegant in the water. There is probably a lesson in there about fitting in to your environment, although I’m not sure how it applies to me and shul.

I Lost My Heart to a Starship Trooper

I struggled to sleep again last night, although the temperature has dropped a bit. I’m not sure why I’m having trouble sleeping at the moment (trouble falling asleep; I have no trouble staying asleep, unfortunately!); maybe it’s connected with the slight uptick of anxiety and irrational (I think irrational) guilt I’ve had lately. Drinking hot chocolate seemed to help, and it’s far fewer calories than eating porridge, which I had been doing when insomniac. I think I’m adjusting to the sweetness, which may not be a good thing.

Work was pretty dull and I felt I was clock-watching even more than usual. I don’t know how people do dull office jobs 9.00am-5.00pm and five days a week. Part of the day was spent looking for invoices that we didn’t have, and which probably don’t exist, which is irrationally more frustrating than if I’d spent an identical amount of time and energy searching for invoices we do have.

I was surprisingly busy when I got home, doing some late research for my novel (see below), cooking dinner (plain pasta, I didn’t have that much energy) and trying to do more Torah study (I do some on the Tube into work), but being too tired to do much, and then feeling vaguely guilty about prioritising novel research over Torah, although I honestly thought there would be a period after dinner where I would feel more alert and less distracted for having eaten before the tiredness set in.

I told E yesterday that I’m vaguely anxious lately, and vaguely anxious about why I’m getting anxious, which I suppose is meta-anxiety (anxiety about anxiety).

***

I’m currently reading Yeshiva Days: Learning on the Lower East Side, an ethnographic study of a yeshiva (“rabbinical seminary” although many of the students are not intending to become rabbis, and certainly not communal rabbis) in New York by Jonathan Boyarin. It was supposed to plant ideas of incidents or anecdotes for my novel, but it’s not really the same type of institution my protagonist (I can’t really think of him as a ‘hero’ despite/because he’s based on me) attended. It is interesting to read, though.

It did make me wonder whether I misunderstood what yeshiva study involves somewhere along the line, although the institution in the book isn’t the type of yeshiva that I could have studied at, not least because it isn’t residential (the thought of communal living and shared dorms is hugely off-putting). Boyarin spends some time looking at the intersection between the yeshiva and popular culture. He says there are more references to popular culture than would have been the case at a more “right-wing” (=fundamentalist) yeshiva, but at the same time I think references are mainly to popular culture that people grew up with (either before becoming religious or when a child and allowed more freedom), rather than contemporary popular culture they might experience as an adult. In other words, it’s OK to have had access to popular culture, but not necessarily to have access to it now. I’ve noticed this in my shul (synagogue) too (the rabbi referenced Space 1999 this week!). I saw something similar on a blog years ago, where the blogger said that even in very fundamentalist communities where university was forbidden, it was OK, even celebrated, to have gone to university in the past, particularly if you got a prestigious qualification like medicine, just as long as you weren’t currently at or planning to go to university.

Watching Boyarin navigate the multiple levels of meaning and depth (religious, political, social, humorous) in the conversations at the yeshiva, I realise that maybe it’s not surprising that I struggle in similar situations. After all, Boyarin struggles at times, and he isn’t (I assume) on the autism spectrum. And when I say conversations, I don’t just mean the study conversations; even the casual bantering can work on multiple levels and require effort to keep up with it. (I have seen this at shul too.)

Reading the book, I’m brought back to what I think I’ve wanted since university, even if I haven’t always been able to articulate it: a chevra, a group of friends who I really connect with and can feel comfortable talking to and joking around with, like I used to have at school, where there were only about five people I could talk to (out of a school of 1,500), but I was completely unselfconscious with them. This is possibly not something I should be looking to replicate (even aside from Asperger’s/autism).

***

At least E knows what to say to me. Her verdict on Doctor Who: Rise of the Cybermen (new series, 2006): “that episode just sort of seemed like an inferior reworking of Genesis of the Daleks” (original series, 1975).😍

Vague Anxieties

Shabbat (the Sabbath) was OK. It was the first Shabbat without compulsory masks in shul (synagogue). I wore mine anyway, despite the discomfort. About ten or twenty per cent of the people there wore them. There didn’t seem to be any particular demographic (age, religious observance etc.) that wore them more than others.

I missed shul on Shabbat morning. I woke up about 8.45am and could have gone to shul an hour or so late, which I have done before, but I couldn’t face walking in so late and ended up staying in bed until I fell asleep again, which is social anxiety avoidance, I think. I told myself not to feel guilty, that I had a hard week, with last Shabbat being Erev Tisha B’Av and so not being as restorative as usual, then Sunday being Tisha B’Av (the saddest day of the Jewish year), not sleeping Sunday night, difficult phone calls at work on Monday, Zoom shiur (which was very draining) on Tuesday, my family birthday get-together on Wednesday, a lot of car travel and more difficulty sleeping on Thursday night and the shock of discovering more dark secrets from my family history the same day. That’s all true, I did have a tough week, but I did feel somewhat guilty. I wanted to go, and now I worry I’m back in the socially anxious, “out of the shul habit” mindset.

I’m having weird guilt thoughts or feelings about something else too at odd times, so I guess I’m in the guilt mindset more generally.

I was worried I would not sleep last night, as I slept so much during the day. I tried drinking hot chocolate before bed, which seemed to help me sleep. I had never drunk it before. I wanted to find a less calorific alternative to porridge, as I don’t like warm milk by itself. The hot chocolate was OK, but it’s very sweet to the point of making me feel somewhat sick.

***

My parents were going out to friends’ house at lunchtime today and I wished them a good time. “Not really, as we’re going because we couldn’t make it to [friend’s mother’s] stone-setting [tombstone consecration].” Ugh. I have a lousy memory for things that don’t directly concern me, and sometimes for those things too.

***

I’ve had some vague anxiety today, a bit like the anxiety that I used to get every Sunday evening as a teenager, when I would be anxious about the new school week, although I didn’t recognise it as anxiety at the time. (I think I was a lot more anxious and unhappy about school than I realised until years later.) I don’t know what is fuelling it today. I guess there’s the realisation that I’m at the stage with my book where lots of people are going to criticise it, even in the best-case scenario, and also realising the challenges that E and I are going to have moving our long-distance relationship on. To be honest, we’re both pretty sure that we want to get married to each other, but also that if we tell anyone that at this stage, when we’ve been actually together in the same country for about four days in total, they will think we’re completely mad. Even when it’s socially acceptable to get engaged, there will be a lot of practical and financial difficulties in getting married and finding somewhere to live. I even worry a bit about what if I suddenly die and E is left alone (yes, I’m a cheery person… listening to the song Moonlight Shadow probably didn’t help with this — it’s a song about a woman whose boyfriend is shot dead by a criminal on the run. Good song, though).

Shabbat Hazon and Tisha B’Av (Mood Diary, Not Another Religious Post)

Shabbat (the Sabbath) was OK, except that I did not manage to fall asleep until 3am on Friday night, possibly because of the heatwave, so I overslept and missed shul in the morning again.

I went to shul (synagogue) for Minchah (Afternoon Prayers) and Talmud shiur (religious class), then went again after seudah for a pre-Tisha B’Av drasha. It was good, but I felt self-conscious not just in a blue shirt, but no jacket or tie. I think I could have got away with no tie, but I should have worn a jacket. My parents said I would be too hot and I agreed, but deep down I knew that everyone in my shul would be wearing a jacket even if they took it off on reaching shul. Also, the rabbi had said something about my wearing a blue shirt during the Talmud shiur — not critical, but it made me feel self-conscious.

I didn’t have a low chair for Tisha B’Av and was planning on just sitting on the floor (Tisha B’Av is a day of mourning for the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem; in Judaism, sitting low down or on the floor is a sign of mourning). Someone lent me a low chair, but I didn’t want to use it. I’m not sure why. I was a little worried it was higher than permitted, but I think mainly I just felt too self-conscious by that stage: was he being friendly or did he think I was a total am ha’aretz? And my non-leather trainers (not wearing leather shoes is another mourning custom) weren’t particularly comfortable either, although that could have been from sitting on the floor. I also got confused too about when to wear a COVID mask, and realised that I gave my mother mistaken instructions regarding end of Shabbat ceremonies when Tisha B’Av starts immediately afterwards.

Along with this, I couldn’t really follow Eichah (The Book of Lamentations, read on Tisha B’Av). I don’t know why I’ve found it so hard to engage with it the last few years. I just can’t follow or connect. To be fair, I find the Hebrew quite hard to translate in my head, but even following along seems to be hard. I just can’t concentrate that much at 10pm, especially in a heatwave and while sitting on the floor (and feeling socially awkward). Then in my shul we do kinot (laments) to ourselves, really quickly rather than slowly and communally as in my old shul. I read some kinot in Hebrew without really connecting with the poetic Hebrew, so I switched to English (really the only time of the year where I say set prayers in English), but still ran out of time. I did the last kinah at home, in Hebrew, but looking at some of the English, which felt a bit better.

As usual after Shabbat when I’m in shul I helped to fold up the tablecloths, but I’m so bad at that that I feel I would be better off not helping, except that it feels wrong to just walk out without helping. I was reminded of something I said on Ashley’s blog last week about autistic people wanting to help, but actually just getting in the way.

I struggled to sleep again last night, because of the heatwave, because of creative thoughts I kept having that I kept getting up to write down, and perhaps because shul had left me feeling disquieted. Perhaps consequently I overslept today, and when I woke up, I was not able to get up for a long time. I felt utterly drained again, and perhaps somewhat depressed, and aware that I didn’t want to break my fast until halakhic midday, a little after 1pm. I missed Shacharit (Morning Prayers. I think I finally got up about 2.30pm, made havdalah (on tea) and had something to eat. I felt a bit better after that, but I did feel that I wasn’t quite in the right mindset for Tisha B’Av, but also that I was scared to get into that dark mindset. I read Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust for a bit (a book I’ve been reading only on Tisha B’Av; in about five years, I have not finished it yet, although I might try to finish the few remaining pages before next year) and listened to a Zoom talk on antisemitism via my shul. I also went to a Zoom shiur (religious class), again through my shul, but the organiser hit “Mute all” and forgot to unmute the speaker’s computer, so it was inaudible. Someone posted in the chat to say there was no sound, but it took a while for someone present at the shiur to notice and unmute it.

I feel like I don’t find Tisha B’Av as meaningful as I used to, and I don’t know why. Not fasting (because of the danger of fasting while taking lithium tablets) is probably a big part of it. Fasting used to make me ill (headache, nausea, sometimes vomiting), but not fasting feels like not really participating. I tended to avoid shul during the day even pre-COVID, because I don’t want to have to turn down a mitzvah because I’m not fasting. Plus, I often experience burnout after the night of Tisha B’Av from the shul experience (as much social anxiety as religious devotion this year, as I said above) and then crash on the morning and struggle to get up, especially as I try to fast until halakhic midday. Or maybe not being depressed means that Tisha B’Av is not the day that I most connect with emotionally any more, the one where I can easily get into the right state of mind. To be honest, I feel like as a general rule I’m not as connected to the festivals and fasts as I’d like to be, and I don’t know how to change that. I spend so much of holy days either worried about social interactions or sleeping and trying not to oversleep that religion struggles to get in there.

I did write a Tisha B’Av thought, on the suggestion of my rabbi mentor that it would make the day more meaningful for me. I wasn’t sure what to do with it, though. In the end I posted it here, although it’s not really a good match for my blog, but I don’t want to send it to my devar Torah mailing list as it doesn’t seem right for there either — maybe not quite frum (religious) enough and a bit too daring.

Fear of Normality

I had a stressful day at work today, but mostly tied up in the difficult task that I sometimes have to do that I don’t really want to talk about here for confidentiality reasons. So I’m a bit stuck with my usual strategy of blogging to offload stress. I told E and my parents, which seemed to help. The other problem at work was the water cooler leaking, which was quite a big thing, but isn’t really worth relating here.

***

I just emailed a friend and, without really thinking about it, said that I’m a bit nervous about elements of coming out of lockdown. That surprised me a bit, but when I thought about it, I realised that I am nervous, although I hadn’t really considered it before, and although part of me wants to be out of lockdown. I hate wearing a mask, but I think I’m now scared to be in crowded settings without one, and with other people not wearing one. Already people on the Tube are not wearing masks, even though Transport for London has made it clear that masks will be required for the indefinite future. And from next week I will (probably) be travelling home on the Tube at rush hour. Sooner or later I’ll have to start coming in during morning rush hour too.

I am also nervous of the return to socialising – or not socialising, in my case. The feeling of being left out when everyone else socialises and I’m too anxious (or friendless), and also the discomfort I feel generally in social situations that I might try to join in, like shul kiddush (refreshments after synagogue services). Then there’s the fear that COVID will return, or something like it, or something worse (there are viruses more infectious and deadly than COVID).

The good thing about coming out of lockdown is that it brings nearer the time when E will be able to come over here to visit! But that’s still not looking like it’s going to happen soon, given the restrictions on US-UK travel. So it feels a bit like all the scary social stuff I’ve avoided for nearly eighteen months is coming back, but the one thing I really want to happen seems as far away as ever, which doesn’t really seem fair.

Adulting Fears and Empathy Overloads

Today I slept a lot, had anxiety dreams (I don’t know why I still get anxiety dreams about breaking Shabbat when I’ve been shomer Shabbat for twenty years), woke up still feeling burnt out, as well as overwhelmed at the things to do in the next few days, in particular fitting Talmud study and writing my devar Torah around work, dinner with my family and therapy, as well as buying Dad a belated Father’s Day present, collecting my repeat prescription and hopefully continuing to work on my novel.

Once I got going, things got a bit easier and I began to work out when I could do things. I spent an hour redrafting my novel. There was some procrastination, but I actually did quite a lot, writing about five hundred words, although I’m not sure if I should necessarily be writing much more at this stage. I probably need to cut and rewrite as much as write more. I do need to force myself out of narrating and into showing, and hopefully the new bits helped do that. It also showed my protagonist’s interactions with his family a bit more, another of my main targets for this redraft.

I was a bit stuck for both ideas and time for my devar Torah this week and spent forty minutes or so revamping an old one from years ago and expanding it significantly. I’m not really happy with this, but I feel overwhelmed this week and it seemed the best thing to do.

I went for a walk and my mood went down a bit. The future seems scary sometimes. Even the good things, like building my relationship with E, will lead to scary things, like possibly changing communities or even countries or dealing with immigration law in the UK or US, buying a house, and other scary “adult” things. Then there are the things that are scary without any positives, like the fear that I might never being able to hold down a full-time job, while simultaneously not being eligible for compensatory state benefits. E and I have been told to stay in the present and not race ahead to the future, but it’s hard, particularly when (a) we’re both pessimists and worriers by nature and (b) the present is frustrating because we don’t know when we can spend time in the same country due to COVID travel restrictions.

E and I “went” to a Zoom shiur (religious class), the first of five on Devarim (Deuteronomy). It was very interesting, with a lot of information to grasp in a short period. One thing that happened that I found curious, not related to the content, was that the teacher had made a mistake on one of the handouts, mistranslating “eleventh month” as “twelfth month,” which had a knock-on effect to which month was being referred to. I noticed the mistake, both spotting the word and knowing that the month should be the eleventh one, but I didn’t say anything because I was too shy. The strange thing was that I became filled with a lot of anxiety lest someone else point it out and embarrass the teacher. Eventually someone did pick up on it, and I felt quite embarrassed for several minutes on the teacher’s behalf, as it were.

I know people think that autistic people don’t feel empathy; I think the reality is the reverse, that we feel a lot of empathy and can “pick up” other people’s emotions without really understanding them or being able to process them properly, which is what happened here.

Prayer Mindsets

I went to bed late last night, as I didn’t think I would sleep, having forgotten to take my meds when I got home from the restaurant, plus I needed passive unwinding time in front of the TV. I watched Doctor Who (Bad Wolf and The Parting of the Ways), and felt myself frustrated by Russell T Davies’ writing style again. To be fair to him, some of it is just contemporary TV in general rather than him in particular, but I can put up with other writers more easily.

When I did get to bed, I remembered something I need to do today, but I was too tired to get up and write a note, which was a very bad idea, as if it’s not written down, I don’t remember it and now I can’t work out what it is. I think I figured it out in the end, but frustrated and worried me for much of the day.

I woke up very late and after breakfast was so tired I went back to bed (or laid on the bed, as it was hot). I’m not sure if I dozed; I think just lying in a cool (ish), quiet, dark room helped restore me after all the social interactions, social anxiety and sensory overload of yesterday. I felt a bit fatigued afterwards, but not burnt out. Unfortunately, it was 3.30pm by that stage and I was still in pyjamas.

I spent a while trying to track down the complete Hebrew original of a Midrash (rabbinic expansion of the biblical story) that I had only read in part for my devar Torah; when I finally found it, I couldn’t make much of the bits that I didn’t have the translation for, which was frustrating. Aside from that, I spent about half an hour starting to write my devar Torah. I’m glad to have got the bones of it down, although I need to work on it some more tomorrow. I am conscious that I could have done more if I hadn’t been burnt out, which is frustrating, but there isn’t a lot I can do about it.

I didn’t really have time to exercise today, and I thought it was too hot even for a walk.

After dinner it was cooler outdoors than in. I sat in the garden and worked on my novel. Making amendments after having finished a couple of drafts turns out to be like remodelling the bottom layers of a house of cards after I’ve finished it; one false move and everything collapses. That’s how it feels, anyway. I’m terrified of accidentally repeating myself or introducing a continuity error or just introducing a very obviously interpolated and out-of-place passage. When writing a new passage, I “merely” have to think up something interesting, original and true and write it down, but rewriting requires revisiting written (and half-forgotten) passages and restructuring them, keeping them doing what they were doing, but also fitting with my new writing.

***

One of my religious targets for this Jewish year was improving my kavannah, my concentration, or, better, mindfulness, in prayer, although I wasn’t really sure how to do this.

There is a kind of paradox in Jewish prayer, that if God is omniscient, omnipotent and benevolent, He knows what we need and supplies it, so what is the point of praying? There are many approaches to this. I once gave a shiur (religious talk) about just three of them. To summarise very briefly:

  1. Prayer is a process of building a relationship with God by asking Him for everything we need and telling Him all our thoughts. The content is less important than the interaction, which builds relationship. (Rebbe Nachman of Breslov)
  2. Prayer is a means of establishing a “covenantal community” which happens to include God as a member. Asking for things isn’t the point as much as establishing the community. (Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith)
  3. Prayer is a self-reflexive process of examining ourselves and whether we truly need the things we want and whether we will use them well. If we undergo the process correctly, we can become worthy of things that we did not deserve previously. (Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, Horeb)

(1 and 2 are quite similar, except 1 is personal and 2 is communal, including other Jews. I’m not sure if Rav Soloveitchik views the covenantal community as being the local community or the entire Jewish people.)

The last week or two I have been trying to focus on one of these mindsets of prayer while saying the Amidah, the most important prayer and the centrepiece of every prayer service. It’s been an interesting experiment and it has definitely helped with kavannah. I’ve mostly been focusing on numbers 1 and 2, as 3 is more self-reflexive than I’ve felt up to lately and doesn’t really apply on Shabbat (when I have most time and energy for prayer) as Shabbat prayers are not petitionary, at least not to the same extent as weekday prayers.

Hanging on the Telephone

Work was difficult today. I spent an hour on an unusual task, which I can’t really talk about here, but most of the day was spent phoning people to chase fees. A lot of them had simply forgotten to pay and a few actually paid by credit card immediately, which was good, and others promised to send a cheque soon. Someone claimed to have posted a cheque two and a half weeks ago, but it hasn’t arrived, which I will have to follow up on Thursday. Some people have financial difficulties, which we try to be sympathetic to, but it’s obviously easier to do that if people are upfront about it, instead of just not paying and hoping we will go away.

Unfortunately, when I called the first person on my list I remembered too late that I had phoned her a few weeks ago and that she is immobile and with poor eyesight and has to wait until a relative can help her to pay. I was very apologetic about phoning her again, but I wish I had remembered in time and not phoned. Then I had one call where the person sounded… well, to be honest, she sounded like she had dementia (many of our members are elderly). I was trying to politely get off the call and ask J what to do, when suddenly she sounded more ‘with it’ and asked if she could pay by debit card. I said yes and she read all the right card details to me. So I’m not sure what happened there, but I do feel somewhat uneasy without knowing why.

I still have a lot more calls to make. I guess it’s good exposure therapy, as I struggle with phone calls both from social anxiety and autism/Asperger’s, but it is very draining.

I was exhausted after all of this, but I had arranged to meet my sister and brother-in-law for dinner, as my parents are away for a few days. I wanted to do some more Torah study before then (I’d done forty minutes on the Tube to work, but was aiming towards an hour), but, even after a shower, was still exhausted, so watched The Simpsons instead until it was time to go.

Dinner was good. We went to a new pizza restaurant near where we live (OK, fifteen minutes walk away. I consider that near). I was nervous, as I planned to tell my sister and BIL about me and E being back together and was nervous about how my sister might react. She was pleased for us, but I was nervous enough that I got indigestion. Also, the restaurant is literally opposite the place where my shul (synagogue) davens (prays) during the week. We don’t have our own premises and rent a small room in a shul above a shop during the week and a part of a primary school on Shabbat and Yom Tov (Sabbaths and festivals). Because of this, I saw half a dozen or more people I know walking past, which was a bit distracting (I also saw the Head of Informal Jewish Education from my secondary school days, looking greyer but otherwise unchanged a quarter of a century on).

Also, perhaps because of the exhaustion from work, I did not cope well with autistic sensory overload. I originally sat opposite a screen on which a football match on TV was being projected, but found it too distracting and had to sit on the other side of the table so I couldn’t see it (unlike the two young boys standing outside watching through the glass door until the manager chased them away). I found the loud “background” music uncomfortable as well. It is interesting/strange/frustrating how my tolerance for things like this can vary so dramatically depending on other factors like tiredness and anxiety.

Now I’m pretty exhausted. I would like to have another attempt at more Torah, but I can’t face it. It’s hard enough to face ten minutes of Ma’ariv (Evening Prayers) and another ten minutes of Hitbodedut (unstructured, spontaneous prayer) in my very hot bedroom. Technically, as I have the house to myself, I could try to find somewhere cooler, but (a) there is an idea about praying in the same place every day and (b) I am an autistic creature of habit.

I’m glad I have the house to myself tomorrow, as it will be nice to have space to myself for the first time in over a year, but I’m also vaguely worried, as I don’t always do that well by myself (I’m an autistic introvert, but the last few years have shown that I’m often better if there are one or two people around, as long as I don’t have to talk to them much). I’m tempted to eat ice cream. I’m trying to eat less junk (not that I ate much before except on Shabbat) and in particular to limit myself to ice cream no more than once a week, but it is hot and uncomfortable and I had a very stressful day, so I might reward myself with Ben and Jerry’s.

Stop/Start Writing and People Who Have Left

I woke up exhausted again. Maybe I did too much yesterday.

I spoke to my rabbi mentor and tried to spend some time working on my novel, although it was mostly a day when I ended up thinking about what to write (and procrastinating) more than actually writing. I know that my writing process ebbs and flows, that I find an idea for a chapter or smaller section slowly, but then can work faster for a while until I hit a block again, but it’s frustrating. The fact that I can’t write every day, and can rarely write for more than an hour when I do write, means that it takes a disproportionate effort to get started. I know lots of writers struggle to start work, but if you only write for one hour a day, or one hour every two days, the procrastination time is longer, proportionately, than if you can write for three or four hours in a day once you get going.

Other than that, it was quite a busy day: I worked on my devar Torah and went over Shabbat‘s Talmud shiur (class), I cooked dinner and went for a walk. I also collected the books I lent PIMOJ. I was rather apprehensive about seeing her again. I don’t really like running into ex-crushes or ex-girlfriends or, generally, people who I consider to have ‘left’ my life… I dislike running into ex-schoolfriends unexpectedly and things like that. Once someone has left my life, I feel uncomfortable welcoming them back to it. (The big exception here is E.) I have to say that I avoided a conversation with PIMOJ by saying my Dad was waiting for me in the car, which was true, but he wouldn’t have minded waiting a few minutes. I just got nervous and wanted to avoid an awkward conversation.

I skyped E afterwards, which was at least a reminder that I communicate with her a lot better than I did with PIMOJ. By the time that call finished it was late and I was very tired, and now I’m racing to bed as I have to be up early tomorrow for volunteering.

Hidden Joy

I had some somewhat confusing task at work today, looking over bank statements and papers related to investments. I don’t really know about shares or serious financial investment stuff. I found it somewhat confusing. I had a couple of social mishaps too, which I’m deliberately not going to relate, as I suspect that rehashing things like that here as I usually do just encourages my social anxiety rather than discouraging it.

I also went to the bank, which got me out of the office on a nice sunny day, but also took me into parts of London that are becoming very busy again, which perhaps left me more drained than normal by the end of the day (although I get pretty drained even on a normal day).

***

I was thinking about my religious life and whether I find joy in it. I’ve worried in the past that I don’t, which makes me wonder if I really am just being frum (religious Jewish) out of habit or fear. I don’t think that’s the case, but it was only today that I realised why. I think it all gets mixed in with the remnants of depressive anhedonia (inability to feel pleasure) and autistic alexithymia (inability to recognise or understand one’s own emotions).

I think I do get joy and/or meaning out of at least some davening (prayer), Torah study and other Jewish activities. I can’t necessarily feel or understand it directly, but I know some prayers feel less fulfilling than others, some Torah study sessions are harder going than others and so on, so by comparison at least some of the time I must be more engaged or it would all seem the same. I can see a difference, even if I can’t always put that difference into words. Even with Talmud study, which I do find hard and a bit of a chore, there are times when it clicks and it doesn’t seem a chore, and times when I find it interesting even if not necessarily for the reasons I’m supposed to feel it (for historical reasons as much as because I’m “thinking God’s thoughts”).

I do get a lot of pleasure from sitting and thinking about Jewish concepts, playing with ideas and putting them, and disparate texts, together to try to generate new ideas (chiddushim). Even though I’m not sure how many rabbis would list “sitting and thinking” as a legitimate or productive religious activity, even if some of the ideas do end up going into my divrei Torah.* Certainly my parents find it a little weird when I’m just sitting staring into space, or pacing up and down rapidly (I tend to pace when thinking).

Similarly, although not religious, I used to worry that I didn’t love my family enough. However, lately I’ve been having some morbid thoughts about death and I realise that losing my parents would be devastating for me, beyond any practical or selfish thoughts about the change that would necessitate in my life. I can, so to speak, see the hole it would leave and infer the love that must surround it unseen.

Less morbidly, socialising often leaves me feeling awkward, anxious and miserable, but the times when I have socialised and not been left feeling awkward, anxious and miserable were presumably the times I enjoyed myself (as with the Shabbat lunch I went to a few weeks ago), even if I wasn’t sure that that was what I was feeling. So I must enjoy some social events.

Possibly I was living a life of (at least some) joy and love all along and I never realised…

*This is a digression, but I think contemporary society in general and frum society in particular has a real problem prioritising busy-ness over idleness. I mean real idleness, not staring at your phone. Sometimes idleness can be very productive. It’s no surprise most of these “sitting and thinking idly about Torah” sessions happen on Shabbat when there is no phone, computer or TV.

Feeling Good, Feeling Bad

I woke up late today, but I felt good, at least after breakfast and coffee had dispelled the waking burnout feeling. It does feel that in the last few months, since my Asperger’s diagnosis, or maybe even a little before, my life has begun fitting together in a way I never predicted. I think my relationship with my parents has improved over lockdown and Mum’s cancer, I have a part-time job that gives me time to write and my relationship with E is great, even if it is awkward being long-distance and not knowing when we can be together in person because of COVID. I don’t feel I deserve it, but I thank God it’s happened.

Today felt odd because it’s a bank holiday. If I’m not at work, and not busy with other things, it should be a Sunday or a Tuesday, but it’s neither! I struggled to email a friend who is having marriage problems. I think I mentioned her last week. I wasn’t sure what to say, even whether she wanted advice or just wanted to vent.

I phoned the Judaica shop about buying new tallit strings. This sounds trivial, but it takes a lot of courage for me as (a) I hate phoning because of social anxiety and autism and (b) I’m not even sure if they sell tallit strings or if they will tie them for me. Nevertheless, there was no answer again, which makes me wonder if they’re even open at the moment. I can borrow Dad’s tallit for now, but I would like to get it sorted.

I spent an hour working on my novel. Actually, I spent most of an hour procrastinating, but I did a bit of work on the novel. It’s always hard to come back to writing after a long break, and it’s hard to start a new chapter, let alone a new draft.

I then spent over an hour working on my devar Torah (Torah thought) for the week. I was mostly working on that and not procrastinating, but after two and a half hours sat in front of my computer, I was exhausted, as if I’d done a whole day’s work. I was going to go for a walk, but Mum and Dad wanted me to have tea with them in the garden. They were having scones and cream; I don’t like either, but they had bought me rugelach (chocolate pastries), so I decided I would be a good son and sit with them for a bit. Then I cooked dinner, as Mum had some other things to do, and listened to a short shiur (religious class) while doing so.

By this stage my mood had plummeted and I don’t know why. I get disconcerted that my mood can change so quickly and with so little reason. I was thinking about antisemitism, but I’m not sure if that triggered the low mood; I think the reverse may be true.

The thoughts were that in France the Chief Rabbi said many years ago that Jews in France shouldn’t wear the kippah (skullcap) because of the risk of violence, and now the German (!) government is saying that German Jews shouldn’t wear it either, and the US, which was supposed to be the safest diaspora country for Jews, has had loads of antisemitic attacks in the last few years which the authorities have done very little about. Statistically, I believe a Jew in the US is more likely to experience a hate crime than an African-American, but you wouldn’t know that from the media coverage. So I wonder how long it will be seen as safe to wear a kippah here. I’m not terribly anti-authority, but I hate people trying to stop me being religious, so I would want to wear it regardless. On the other hand, I’m a coward. At any rate, I’m glad I no longer work at the further education college where I had students making antisemitic remarks behind my back not quite out of earshot.

I went for a walk in the hope that would help my mood, but I just feel tired as well as depressed now, and my bedroom is hot and stuffy; I doubt sleep will be easy. I wish I knew how these low moods can appear out of nowhere. I guess it’s good that it’s the bad mood that seems to come out of nowhere, with the good (or at least not bad) as the default. In the past it would have been the other way around.

I feel too tired and depressed to write or read, so I’ll watch The Simpsons for a bit (season five of Babylon 5 is sufficiently not great (not bad exactly, but not great) enough for me not to want to watch two episodes in one day).

Weekend Thoughts

I’m catching up on the last few days here, as I decided not to post after Shabbat (the Sabbath) last night.

Over Friday night dinner, I told my parents that I’m back together with E. Fortunately, they were supportive, although I think Mum is a little more cautious than Dad, who is very enthusiastic. But they both said they look forward to meeting E when she comes to the UK to see me, which will hopefully be soon, but is COVID-dependent, obviously.

I went to bed at 12.30, which was reasonably early considering how late we eat dinner on Friday nights in the summer, when Shabbat and shul (synagogue) both start late, but I couldn’t sleep. I’m not sure if I was still tense from my conversation with my parents (which was rather nerve-wracking, as I was scared they would not approve) or if my room was just too hot. I thought a bit about a plan for a devar Torah (Torah thought) for this coming week and eventually I got up and read. I think I finally fell asleep some time between 2.00 and 3.00am. Unsurprisingly, I overslept and missed Shacharit (Morning Prayers) even though I had been hoping to go to shul again after last week.

I went for a walk after lunch, but still ended up napping in the afternoon. I woke up in time for Minchah (Afternoon Prayers) and my weekly Talmud shiur, which was focused on a difficult grammar-based passage of biblical analysis. It was a good Shabbat overall, insomnia and missing Shacharit notwithstanding.

This morning I had an interview with a PhD researcher doing research into how people on the autism spectrum cope with job interviews and how they can be made better for them. As this is an area where I’ve really struggled, I was happy to take part for free, but at the end I was told I would be paid by the university (£15), which is even better. One thing I found myself mentioning at the end of the interview which I hadn’t really thought of before was how social anxiety (which is often found with high functioning autism/Asperger’s) can feed into sensory or executive function/processing issues and make them worse than normal in an interview. For example, I do sometimes miss things people say because I don’t process it properly and have to ask them to repeat, but it seems to happen much more often in job interviews precisely because I’m so nervous.

I wasn’t up particularly early this morning, but I fell asleep for ninety minutes in the afternoon. I felt a lot better afterwards, but I worry I won’t sleep this evening. I also missed the chance to phone the Judaica shop again to see if they can repair my tallit (prayer shawl) although I’m not sure if they’re open because of COVID. Their opening hours have always seemed a bit arbitrary and prone to being shut at odd times even before COVID.

I went for a run, which was my main achievement of the day. It’s weird that, even though I run the same route, the distance recorded by my iPod varies a bit and I don’t always hit my 5km target. I’m not sure if some days I deviate more from the shortest route to avoid people on the pavement or if the distance calculation on my iPod isn’t accurate. I came back with a headache, unfortunately.

I still haven’t picked up work on my novel again. JewishYoungProfessional very kindly read the third draft, liked it and gave me some very useful constructive criticism, which is encouraging, and makes up for PIMOJ feeling so uncomfortable with it (something I’ve mostly erased from my memory, to the extent of thinking that JYP was the first person to read the whole manuscript). Because I fell asleep in the afternoon and because I had an exercise headache, I didn’t manage to make any progress on rewrites today.

Having a headache, I sat and vegetated in front of Doctor Who along with E (on different continents, but watching the same episodes). We are still watching the 2005 season, the first of the twenty-first century series, and we were watching the two part Aliens of London/World War III. It’s probably the most vulgar Doctor Who story ever, and, as E said, a story aimed very much at pre-pubescent boys (Doctor Who is usually pitched more at a family audience), but it’s a story I’ve learnt to accept on its own terms. It’s not the Invasion of the Bodysnatchers chiller or Yes Minister satire that I hoped it would be on transmission, but it is quite fun with a few genuinely scary moments, even if writer Russell T Davies is more interested in the characters than the mechanics of the plot (which is my probably biggest criticism of his writing across the five years he was showrunner/lead writer for the programme — he takes narrative short-cuts and hopes that we’re primarily invested in the characters and won’t care).

Positive Shabbat

I have been trying not to turn on my laptop after Shabbat (the Sabbath), as it finishes so late at the moment (it finished after 10pm today, then there’s a longer Ma’ariv (Evening Service) afterwards and tidying up). However, I had a good day and didn’t want to wait until tomorrow to share.

I actually managed to get to shul (synagogue) for Shacharit (Morning Service) today, something I hadn’t managed for months if not years because of a mixture of autistic burnout, depression, social anxiety and fear of wearing a mask for three hours straight. I managed this despite a not very good night’s sleep, where I think I woke up every time I turned onto my left side, which is where I was vaccinated yesterday. I didn’t have any side-effects other than that, fortunately.

I was only about fifteen minutes late (it started at 9.00am), which would be early in some shuls, but most people arrive on time in mine. I was so busy worrying about other things that I forgot until I got there that I might get an aliyah (called to make the blessing over reading the Torah). I did in fact get one, but was OK with it, including navigating the revised COVID restrictions on what we can and can’t touch while there. I feel relieved that that’s out the way for a while and I can try to get back to regular Shabbat morning shul-going.

My kavannah (concentration/mindfulness) in prayer was pretty good and I found the whole experience much more meaningful than shul or davening (prayer) have been for quite a while.

The reason I went to shul was because I had been invited to lunch with friends, now that COVID restrictions have been lifted somewhat. Technically only six people are allowed; my host informed me that there would be seven and gave me the option to leave if I was uncomfortable. I was a bit uncomfortable, but felt that it was too late to leave, so I went. I wonder a bit that even someone as law-abiding as me has bent or even broken the COVID rules in minor ways a few times, so I guess it’s no surprise that less scrupulous people have totally disregarded them.

Lunch was good. This my first real social event since my autism/Asperger’s diagnosis. I wasn’t consciously thinking about it, but I think I felt a bit more open speaking to people, also helped by the fact that there was only one person there that I didn’t really know. Interestingly, I owned up to feeling challenged by halakhic (legal) passages in Talmud and to preferring aggadah (narrative) only for other people to agree with me, which surprised and reassured me a little.

I came home tired and read a novel for a bit before going back to shul for Minchah (Afternoon Service) and Talmud shiur (religious class), the latter of which I followed a bit better this week. I also noticed that the number of people who speak up a lot to ask or answer questions in the shiur is very small, maybe four or five people out of a dozen or more attendees, so maybe I’m not the only one who struggles to follow the thread without actively participating. I do wonder a bit how much Talmudic ability is innate or acquired. I suppose you would expect lawyers and other people with very analytical jobs to do well, but the person who speaks up the most is a shopkeeper. His two teenaged sons also have sharp Talmudic minds, so maybe there is a genetic element (I think he also has two other children who have left home, one who is not religious, so there are obviously a lot of factors at play).

By the time I got home, I was exhausted and had a headache, which perhaps was not surprising. I read a little, but felt too headachey. I had seudah shlishit (the third Shabbat meal) with my parents and that was it really. I would have liked to have gone back for Ma’ariv (Evening Service) and got a full house of Shabbat prayer services, so to speak, as I used to do, but I was too tired and headachey. Maybe next week. The headache did eventually go, and that has to be considered a successful day overall, part of a general upward trend over the last few months since my Asperger’s diagnosis, the occasional setback (like last week’s job interview) notwithstanding. I hope to continue my Shacharit shul attendance next Shabbat. Definitely the thing to do is keep up the momentum, as I know from experience that skipping a few weeks lets the social anxiety creep back in.