Minor Trials and Tribulations

Today seemed quite busy. I slept badly again, struggling to fall asleep and then struggling to get out of bed. Today was Rosh Chodesh (New Moon) I managed to get up a little earlier to say some of the extra prayers, although I’m still saying a much-reduced Shacharit (Morning Service).

I spent the morning at work processing cheques people have sent in to pay fees. I think I had a few moments of autistic executive function block where my mind went blank and I didn’t know what I was doing and possibly I didn’t save data properly. I think/hope that I caught all of those. I intended to check all of them at the end, but checking forty-six payments seemed excessive (not to mention likely to send me back down the path of OCD compulsive checking), so I checked three or four random accounts and the data was always saved properly, so hopefully it was all OK. Later I processed a credit card payment over the phone and made a mistake, but the payment still went through when it probably shouldn’t have done. I put the wrong name on the card because I was confused by a woman paying on behalf of her mother. Hopefully that won’t be a mess that I need to sort out next week. Other than that, the main diversion was another trip to the bank to pay in the cheques. The cashier looked at the big pile of cheques and said I obviously hadn’t done any banking for a while. “Not since Monday” was my response. Almost everyone pays their annual fees in January, so we have to pay a lot of cheques in, although J says more people are paying by phone or online this year, which is easier for us.

J and I left work early today and despite going a different route home to avoid traffic, I had time this evening to finish and send my devar Torah (Torah thought) and work on my novel for twenty minutes or so.

I spoke to PIMOJ for an hour. She wanted to call on WhatsApp, which was fine, but I didn’t realise my phone hadn’t connected to the wifi properly when I came home, so I used 80% of my data for the next month (it just refreshed a few days ago). Not good. It’s not disastrous, as I don’t generally use much data, but it is frustrating.

PIMOJ bought me chocolate, which she sent in the post. I feel a bit apprehensive about the amount of gifts she gives me. They’re mostly small things, but I don’t really express affection that way and I wonder how she wants me to express affection to her. I wouldn’t know what presents to buy her and it wouldn’t really occur to me to do so without prompting. I’d say it’s an autistic thing, but it’s probably a male thing. Possibly PIMOJ and I need to talk about “love languages” (if you believe in love languages), but we already had one serious conversation today and it’s probably just as well we didn’t have another. At least we were on the same page about the serious conversation we did have.

I got given a confectionary package from my shul (synagogue) today too. Do they think I’m still shielding? I’m not sure, and I’m not sure who to ask/tell. It was probably a bit unfortunate that it came today as I sent off the email asking for a shul fee reduction given my employment/financial situation.

But certainly dieting with this much junk food around will be hard!

***

My glasses broke last night. I’m not sure how. The arm came off the little hinge. I suspect it’s either really easy to fix, or completely impossible and I need a new pair. Dad tried to take them in to Specsavers today. In ordinary times, it would be a simple thing, but because of COVID you have to get an appointment just to speak to someone about a broken pair of glasses and they forgot to phone him back. I wore my spare pair of glasses to work, but they have an old prescription. They were OK, but after a day wearing them, I think my eyes were getting strained, so I took them off. I generally only get new glasses when my prescription changes; then I take the older pair as an imperfect spare. I rarely need to use my spare glasses and even then usually for only a day or two, so it’s not usually a problem, but of course COVID makes everything a problem.

***

From my devar Torah (Torah thought) for this week:

Finally, Rashi tells us that sometimes Moshe [Moses] is put before Aharon [Aaron] and sometimes Aharon is put before Moshe to teach us that they were equal.[1]  This is puzzling, as we know that Moshe was the greatest prophet, so how could Aharon be his equal?  According to Rav Moshe Feinstein, Aharon was equal to Moshe in two senses.  First, that Moshe would not have succeeded without him, so his participation, like Moshe’s, was essential even if Moshe was greater.  Second, Aharon achieved the maximum of his potential, just like Moshe.  Although Moshe’s achievement in absolute terms was greater, both brothers achieved 100% of their potential and are equal in God’s eyes, as He judges success by the proportion of a person’s mission that is achieved and not the amount achieved in absolute terms.[2]


[1] Rashi Commentary to Shemot 6.26

[2] Quoted in Rabbi Nosson Scherman ed, The Stone Edition Chumash: The Torah: Haftaros and Five Megillos with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings

This idea, about achievement being relative to a person’s potential in God’s eyes rather than an absolute value, is not a new idea to me. So why it is so hard to accept?

***

The pharmacy I use is one of the six in the country that are providing COVID vaccinations. It’s just been on the TV news because the minister in charge of vaccine roll-out was there today. Selfishly, I am vaguely worried about whether this (the vaccinations, not the minister or the news) will have any impact on how fast and easily I can collect my monthly repeat prescriptions, particularly as I have one that needs collection on Monday.

***

None of what I have written here is serious, but it has all left me pretty exhausted. I’m going to do a bit more Torah study, then watch Doctor Who for a bit and go to bed.

Hyperfocus, Procrastination and Spies

I was able to spend longer on Shacharit (morning prayers) yesterday and got a lot out of it. I wanted to do the same today, but struggled to get up and get going again, feeling tired after yesterday. I’m glad the emotional symptoms of depression are largely (although not entirely) gone, but I wish the physical symptoms (oversleeping, lack of energy) would go too as they really stop me living the life I want to live. I struggle to understand why one has gone and not the other (autistic burnout is a possible explanation, or partial explanation). That said, I did get up a bit earlier than I had been even on work days, and spent a bit longer on Shacharit, even if not as much as I would have liked.

I felt very tired on the train into work and was unable to do much Torah study. It was hard enough to stay awake, and it took two cups of coffee at work (after an earlier one at breakfast) to wake up enough to work adequately.

Work was OK. I was doing something that was not, in the abstract, particularly interesting, but I got involved in it. I know I feel negative sometimes about the presentation of high-functioning autism as a positive thing, but maybe I do have the ability to focus on things that are not so interesting. I do still worry about making mistakes. I feel that I am less meticulous than I used to be, and I don’t know why. It occurred to me today that maybe my anxiety about making mistakes is actually causing me to make mistakes.

I did also realise that procrastination for me is more about anxiety than boredom. When I started the task, I was daunted by it and worried that I would mess it up and I was easily distracted, but as I got hold of what I had to do, it became easier to focus on it.

***

I dreamt last night that I was with one of my shul (synagogue) friends and realised he was abusing his wife and children. I woke up feeling guilty that I could think that about him even on an unconscious level (he’s a nice person and I’m sure he treats his family well), but I also tried to work out what my mind was trying to tell me. My best guess is that I’ve had a break for a couple of weeks from my novel, which deals with themes of domestic abuse, and my unconscious is sending me a message to get back to work.

***

I seem to be on a spy kick at the moment. James Bond, writing about John le Carré yesterday and now I’m watching one of my Chanukah presents, the DVD of The Sandbaggers. This is a 1970s TV spy drama. I heard about it years ago, but only got around to checking it out now. It’s my sort of spy drama, low on violence and action, but with lots of politics (Cold War geopolitics, but also internal politics in Whitehall), jargon and strong characterisation. I’ve only seen the first two episodes, but they were very good.

That makes three strong “new” (to me) TV series I’ve seen this year: Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes, Twin Peaks and now The Sandbaggers. I’ve also dated two women and found a job, (re-)started volunteering and got to a much more stable place of mental health. Dare I say it, I think my 2020 has actually been better than most people’s. Even the biggest personal shock/worry – Mum’s cancer – turned out alright (cured), albeit with the usual caveats about worrying about cancer returning.

3 Shopping Days to Lockdown

When my alarm went off at 9.00am (I usually set an alarm, even though I often turn it off in my sleep when it goes off), I actually thought I would get up. My mind felt reasonably alert, but my body was just too drained and burnt out after yesterday and I couldn’t get up and I fell asleep again after a few minutes. I didn’t end up getting up for another two hours, which was not good. The vaguely ill feeling I had yesterday has gone, fortunately, but I do feel drained. I’ve become better at seeing this as a symptom of autism (social burnout) rather than a sign of weakness, even before my assessment, but it is frustrating.

I think I had a dream about my novel and suddenly getting an idea for a much better novel that I had all planned out in my head and not knowing whether to switch to work on it. It’s sort of reflective of where I am at the moment, inasmuch as I worry that my mainstream novel is not working and I should switch to an idea I’ve had for a series of Jewish fantasy novels. I’m not actually going to switch at the moment as I don’t like leaving things half-finished and I want to see this project through. I also know that many authors have doubts when sitting down to extensive redrafting, so I shouldn’t set too much store by them at this stage. Nevertheless, I do wonder if the mainstream novel is going to be readable, let alone sellable.

Since writing the above, I read something, a blog post about sexual harassment. Although this is not the same as my novel (which is about domestic abuse in the Orthodox community, culminating in marital rape), it was similar enough that it made me think that I have a mission to write this book to the best of my ability and try to get it published.

***

I bought the new trainers I’ve been meaning to buy for a while. Hopefully these will support my arches better when running. My Dad took me to a big retail park with a number of warehouse-sized shops, including a sportswear shop. I wouldn’t have been able to get there easily on public transport, so I was grateful for the lift. On the other hand, when I shopping with my parents, I tend to let them take over. I guess it’s lack of confidence and social anxiety as well as a sense that I don’t know what I’m doing. Dad felt that in the past I had been sold over-priced and unsuitable running shoes by asking the shop assistants what shoes they would recommend for running. Dad said instead to go for a well-known brand (he said Nike), find some I like and then ask the assistant if they’re suitable for running. I’m not sure this is necessarily a better strategy, but I tried it and have black Nike trainers now. Hopefully they will be better for running than the previous ones.

***

My other real achievement (aside from scanning my autism assessment from 2006 to send to the psychiatrist doing my current assessment) was writing my devar Torah for this week. I am reasonably, but not completely, happy with it. It has more of a moral or even slightly polemical point than usual.

I also attended (on Zoom) a shiur (religious class) at my shul (synagogue). I was attracted by the fact that it was based on the teachings of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira, the early twentieth century Hasidic rebbe and Holocaust martyr. I read his book Sacred Fire a few months ago and was very moved; I quoted a few times here ideas about suffering and God’s empathy.

A few points I took from the shiur were that hinukh (education) should be about revealing the potential of the student; that we should aim for nothing less than spiritual greatness in our lives and not accept mediocrity; that we should daven (pray) as much as we are able, which sometimes might be less than other times (this was important to me as I can’t always daven properly due to depression and burnout) and to focus in prayer on consciousness of standing before God; and that we should be human and eat, drink and rejoice with our friends. The element that I struggled with was the injunctions to avoid sadness and worry; it is hard to tell what to do when these become pathological depression and anxiety.

Last-Minute Date

I struggled to sleep last night. I probably slept too much during the day. I finally fell asleep after 2am, then woke around 9.00am after an anxiety dream. I don’t really remember the content of the dream, just that I woke a bit anxious and very burnt out, but somehow I managed to get up. I said some of the morning prayers on time, which was good, although I skipped a lot of prayers because I felt so tired, more than I would usually skip if I got up so early and did not need to leave early.

I went on a date with PIMOJ. We were supposed to go on a date in town on Thursday and PIMOJ had already booked time off work, but then the new lockdown was announced and we hurriedly rearranged for today so that we could see each other one more time before the lockdown. I didn’t really want to go into town, given that infection rates are rising, so we went to the same park we went to on our previous three dates. Even I, with my autistic predilection for the familiar, found this a bit much, but we both agreed it was the best option available. Fortunately, we managed to go to another part of the park, a wooded area that was quite tranquil, although very muddy and slippery in places. We enjoyed each other’s company and I was glad to go out in nature, which I think I have needed to do for a long, long time – it helped me to calm and focus, I think. We also found a pergola, which I had been to before, but forgotten was in this park, so that was a nice surprise. Afterwards we went for a coffee.

I think I spoke more than on our last date. I was nervous at first, more so than on previous dates, but I think that was a product of opening up a bit more about myself and my world, being more willing to voice a differing opinion and so on. There was a slightly awkward moment at the end, but it led to an important text conversation afterwards and I think we’re in a good place right now.

And now we have to freeze for a month (at least). Fortunately there is Skype and instant messenger!

Other than that I didn’t do much today, an hour of Torah study and not much else. I feel a little ill now, achey and with some stomach cramps as well as quite hot although that’s common in the winter because my parents like the house warmer than I do. I hope I’m just tired and not coming down with something.

***

It’s been a busy few days, but when not busy, I’ve drifted into political thoughts again about the craziness in the world, this time about the Labour antisemitism scandal which has resurfaced again (first time as tragedy, second time as farce, so Karl Marx was right about one thing) and the religious murders in France. I don’t really feel that I have much original to say, and I don’t really want to get into an argument about them, so I stay silent, but there is a price to pay for silence in terms of silently carrying tension and sometimes anger. Sometimes I feel I might change someone’s mind if I spoke up, but that seems to happen so rarely in online discussions that there hardly seems any point.

So, TV to try to relax, and bed.

Yom Kippur

I nearly forgot to blog about today, I was so busy instant messaging PIMOJ after breaking my fast (which is good). Yom Kippur was strange, but I guess it was strange for almost every Jew this year. I didn’t go to shul at all as I’m still wary about infection risks. I’m hoping to go over Sukkot (next week), but Dad isn’t planning on going until after Mum has finished radiotherapy, saying he is worried about falling ill (from COVID or anything else) and not being able to drive her to her appointments (Mum can’t drive at the moment because she’s still recovering from surgery and has limited use of her arm).

Yom Kippur is the only biblical fast day in Judaism and the only one I’m allowed to fast on while on lithium. My medication gets disrupted, as I take the first dose early, before the fast starts (before 6.00pm yesterday) and then skip the morning dose entirely. As a result, I became very tired in the evening and dozed off as soon as I finished davening (praying) last night, slept for two and a half hours, woke up, did some Torah study and recreational reading, struggled to fall asleep again, then slept for something like ten hours or more and struggled to get up and get going without being able to eat breakfast, which I usually rely on to kick-start my day.

I lay in bed for quite a long time (I think several hours), feeling too faint and drained to get up, but apparently not tired enough to fall asleep again. I tried to think about teshuva (repentance), but my mind kept coming back to the idea that I am getting better (as a person/Jew, I mean, not necessarily mental health-wise) and that, considering what I’ve been through, it’s quite amazing that I do still believe in God and am still frum (religious). I’ve met autistic people who have left religion, lots of mentally ill people who have left it, plus there are “older singles” in the frum community who leave the community in their thirties feeling, regardless of God, that the community has no place for them at that age without a spouse and children.

Once I got going I davened, going through the set liturgy of confession as well as my own private one (the idea is that Jews confess a set liturgy in the plural as a sign of collective responsibility which covers everything anyone might have done at a basic level; I then add in specific things that I’ve done and want to atone for, but not everyone does this). I did feel I have room for growth, obviously, but I still felt that I’m doing well. Which I guess is good, although I’m not sure how much it was in the spirit of the day. I wrote the other day of a shiur (religious class) I heard the other day from the psychotherapist Rabbi Yehoshua Engelman, where he spoke about the importance of having a mature and honest dialogue with God about our relationship to Him and how we feel honestly about the mitzvot (commandments) and why we are meeting them or not meeting them, rather than expecting to get a list of praise/blame like a school report, so I guess it was in that spirit.

As I said, I did eventually get up and get dressed and davened some of the prayers, albeit that some can’t be said without a minyan (prayer quorum) and others I was too late for. My parents and I mostly davened together in the dining room though, which we haven’t done until now in lockdown (I usually daven in my bedroom) and it was nice to sing some bits together; we also read Yonah (Jonah), the haftarah (reading from the prophets) for Yom Kippur afternoon together, which was nice.

So, although I was not really conscious for most of it, that was a fairly meaningful Yom Kippur. I didn’t even get ill for once. No headache at all and just some dizziness when standing in the afternoon.

Rosh Hashanah (Religious Experiences)

Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) was good. I felt bad about sleeping through most of the mornings and missing the right time for most of the morning prayers. I’m pretty sure it’s mostly my meds doing that, but it’s hard to be sure, plus I wonder if that’s really an excuse. I can get up when I need to, for work, so why am I in such a deep sleep when I need to get up to pray? When I was thinking about going to shul (synagogue), social anxiety was playing a part in keeping me away, but shul hasn’t been an option for six months or more. I don’t really understand it.

Otherwise it was good. I enjoyed time with my parents and we heard the shofar (ram’s horn trumpet blown on Rosh Hashanah to acclaim God as King) at a socially-distanced outdoor blowing in my parents’ shul‘s car park. I was glad as I didn’t want to miss it; I missed it too many years because I was too depressed and socially anxious to go to shul. I did quite a bit of Torah study (Rav Kook, Mishnah, Iyov (Job)), although not much recreational reading. I don’t mind that – Rosh Hashanah is always a religious-focused time rather than a relaxing one.

I think I had reasonable kavannah (usually translated as ‘concentration,’ but I prefer to translate as ‘mindfulness’) when davening (praying). I did go into a bit of a downward spiral about that last night, thinking that my kavannah and my religious experience in general was not good enough. In retrospect, I don’t think we can expect peak experiences every time we do something religious. It takes time to build up to a peak experience, and you can kill it by overthinking it, as my guilt was trying to do. Plus, I think there still is a residue of depression that stops me from truly having wonderful experiences. At least with Judaism you’re never far from another opportunity for a religious experience, particularly this month, with so many festivals.

We didn’t do tashlich (special prayers by a body of water on Rosh Hashanah talking about God throwing our sins into the sea) because we were worried about crowds again. It’s permitted to do tashlich for another three weeks, so it’s not a huge problem, and in the final analysis it’s a minhag (custom) not a mitzvah (commandment), so I wasn’t worried about postponing it until later in the week.

And that was it, really. I’m going to get something to eat, as if I hadn’t eaten enough already.

Trying to Do Things

I think I may have found a really simple way to improve my kavannah (mindfulness) during prayer: speak slower. Like a lot of frum (religious) Jews, I have a bad habit of gabbling my prayers, perhaps because of the sheer amount of prayers that Jewish men are expected to say every day. If I speak slower, my brain gets the opportunity to take in the meaning of the Hebrew. I’m sure I will still end up gabbling them sometimes, from lack of time, energy or concentration, but it’s something to bear in mind for the coming year.

***

I got up a little earlier today again, but still later than I wanted, and, again, I ended up checking emails and blogs after breakfast because I felt too tired to get dressed straight away. I felt very drained today, perhaps a product of going to the Zoom depression group meeting yesterday, which I tend to find draining.

I applied for a school librarian job. I’m not really sure that I have the right experience for school librarianship, or that I’m really suited to it, particularly after my experiences in further education (although these children would be much younger). I applied via the job website where the job was advertised, only to get an email from HR at the school saying that they can’t accept applications that way and I have to send in an application form (one of those fiddly Word document ones too). Why did they not say that on the advert? I would not have wasted my time sending it. I don’t know why so many employers try to make things deliberately difficult for job applicants. I will try to fill out the proper application tomorrow.

The application and therapy were my main tasks today, although I had to bring in the supermarket delivery by myself as my parents were out, which seemed to take longer than usual, perhaps because I was tired. I tried to work on my devar Torah (Torah thought) for the week, but struggled to concentrate. I spiralled downwards towards sadness as therapy time approached and I’m not sure why.

Therapy was helpful, although I felt I struggled for words a lot and stumbled over them semi-incoherently. We spoke about career stuff, about the fact that I feel out of my depth a lot of the time with work and job applications. My therapist said that lots of people are struggling with coming out of lockdown even if they aren’t depressed or anxious and that I shouldn’t beat myself up about it and to try to stay in the present and not catastrophise. I did feel overwhelmed not just after therapy, but even during it, feeling the desire to withdraw and cut myself off from the world, to retreat to bed and wrap myself in my duvet. Just feeling too tired to say or do anything. I did get through the whole session though.

I wanted to go for a walk after therapy, but it was raining, so I didn’t. I still felt rather tired, but wanted to Do Stuff because I felt I hadn’t done much earlier (which is not strictly true, as I applied for a job; it wasn’t my fault I have to apply again).

I did write an email I’ve been putting off, asking a friend if they want to go on my devar Torah mailing list. This person I suspect would want to go on the list, but I was scared of asking her because of social anxiety and not wanting to appear presumptuous. I did about twenty minutes of Torah study too, which is a lot less than I’ve been doing recently, but I was very tired in the evening.

I can see that I did quite a lot today, but it never feels like I’ve done enough. That’s true every day, but particularly on a day like today when I feel I wasted time and accomplished few of my aims.

It is not yet 10.30pm, but I need to go to bed as I’m completely exhausted, so goodnight.

Quiet Shabbat

Someone is playing loud music outside at 10.30pm…

Shabbat was pretty good. No insomnia this week. I woke up at 9ish and said the Shema (the most important morning prayer, which at the moment should be said by 9.30ish). I wanted to stay awake, but was tempted to wrap myself in my duvet to self-comfort and fell asleep BUT I woke up in time for the later deadline for saying the Shacharit Amidah (second most important morning prayer), so I’m counting this morning as a win as usually I don’t manage those at all. I didn’t doze this afternoon either (read, studied Torah and went for a walk), so I might go to sleep at a reasonable time tonight (if the music stops).

I mentioned to my parents my theory that my depression is now mostly autistic burnout after doing too much and they agreed. They said they’d thought that for a while, but hadn’t known how I would react if they said anything. I definitely still have odd days when I hit clinically depressed-type lows when burnt out, but I don’t think they stick around long enough to be classified as clinical depression (which should last two weeks). I look forward to hearing what my therapist says about this on Tuesday. (For what it’s worth, I think I still do have things to bring to therapy at the moment.) I do still struggle with mornings, although as my Dad said, none of us in the family are morning people (actually my sister is now, but only since she married a morning person).

That was it, really, aside from some dating anxiety. I seem to be able to keep a lid on it during the day, but it explodes in the evening for some reason. I’m excited to be messaging the person I’m messaging and so far things seem good, we seem to be connecting well, but I’m just terrified some unsolvable problem will open up somewhere down the line. I know, it’s been LESS THAN ONE WEEK that we’ve been messaging each other, I really shouldn’t be worrying that far ahead. But I do jump ahead when thinking about dating. I get so terrified of rejection, or of losing someone who I have come to care about, that I worry about it from the off, which is not good on multiple levels.

***

Speaking of JDate, I got an amusing message from someone who does not think we are a match but who recognised me from primary school! I have to say I don’t recognise her, but I suspect her hair in her profile picture is not her natural colour or style. In any case, I don’t really remember most of the girls from primary school, I didn’t really speak to them much at that age. I mean, I didn’t speak to most of the boys, let alone the girls.

***

I mentioned that I’ve been reading Mishlei (Proverbs in Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible) and that I’ve struggled in the past with its rather rigid theology that good is always rewarded and evil punished in this world, which is not what I see. It’s fair to say that many of the proverbs do read like that, but some don’t. I found one I liked over Shabbat: “The way of a man may be torturous and strange/Though his actions are blameless and proper.” (21.8, The JPS Bible translation). I like that. I don’t know if my life is bad, but it does feel torturous and strange at times, so it’s good that I don’t have to blame myself for that. Also, the Hebrew word translated as ‘torturous’ is ‘hafakhpakh,’ which is a good word to say aloud (the ‘kh’ is a guttural like in the Scottish ‘loch’).

ANXIOUS!!! Scrupulous?

In the last few days I’ve been feeling confident in some ways, not in others.  I feel curiously confident about my ability to write – I don’t think I’m a great author and I’ve definitely got a lot to learn, but I feel I could write.  However, I don’t feel confident about my ability to get published, in terms of producing what publishers want as well as persevering through rejection and learning the technical procedures for laying out submissions and so on.

I’ve found a job to apply for that might be good for me.  It’s slightly unusual.  The job description was not detailed, but it involves working to improve search engines by rating keywords and search terms.  From the company site, I think it is really about training AI algorithms, although I won’t be doing the technical stuff, just collecting data.  The attraction is (a) although not intended for a librarian/information manager, my information management skills may be useful, (b) I can work from home, (c) I have flexible hours, maximum 20 hours a week.  So this would be in a non-stressful environment (home), allowing me to work, say, 10am-6pm each day, three days a week with two days for writing!  It is a freelance, contract position, so no job security, but you can say that about most jobs nowadays (even before COVID).  I spent nearly two hours applying (one of those annoying cases where they want a CV plus an online application form that just paraphrases your CV).

***

Eliza recommended Shabbat.com as a dating site, which I had not heard of (I’d possibly heard of it as a site to find a Shabbat host, but not as a dating site).  I signed up and created a profile.  Unlike JDate, it’s free.  There were a lot of Anglo-Jewish women on there (including the daughter of friends of my parents who lives down the road and who my Dad has been trying to set me up with for years, but I’ve never seen the slightest sign that she’s interested in me), but I just got overwhelmed and shut it down.  Sigh.  Maybe I don’t have the stamina for online dating, to contact so many people to try to find The One.  It’s an effort for me to open up to anyone.  I suppose it does reassure me that there are women out there, if only I could work out how to meet them.  Someone has to like me, right?  (No, they don’t, says my inner critic.)

I couldn’t cancel my JDate subscription (the three day grace period turned out to be only in parts of America) so am committed for three months and might as well use them.  Losing £90 is a pain, but it’s only money, and money isn’t a huge problem for me right now (I have no job, but I also have no life beyond buying occasional books and DVDs, mostly second-hand and cheap; my parents aren’t charging me rent).  I’m trying to focus on trusting God that everything is for the best, even if nothing works out and it all just turns out to be expensive social anxiety exposure therapy.

That was my thought in the early afternoon, when I realised I couldn’t cancel.  Since then, four people sent me a “flirt” on JDate, which as far as I can tell is a way of signifying interest in someone’s photo and profile without saying anything substantive in case they don’t reciprocate.  You just get a message saying “Person X sent you a flirt” and you can decide whether to respond with a more substantial message or not.  Two of the flirters didn’t have information or photos on their profiles beyond living in the US, so I put them to one side for now.  Both looked slightly suspicious (beyond the lack of data) in apparently being willing to date anyone from 35 to 75, which seemed an suspiciously large age range.

As for the women who looked more legitimate, one is Modern Orthodox, but living in the States – which is not impossible given my experience with E.  The other is from someone whose profile says she’s “culturally Jewish,” but when I responded to her flirt with a short message introducing myself, she sent me a longer message which seems very religious.  It is true that some people really don’t like labels and particularly “Orthodox” (which admittedly is kind of a dour and unattractive thing to call yourself: “Right-thinking”).  I’m going to respond to her before going to bed, and to the American woman tomorrow – I don’t think I have the stamina to reply to both now (see below for why).

I guess it’s nice to be thought attractive, given that these women “flirted” me based on a photo and a short profile.  Still, the thought of actually messaging them, or anyone else on either site, makes me feel anxious.  When I’m single and lonely, I just feel how nice it would be to be in a relationship with someone I like and trust.  I forget that to build a relationship of love and trust, I have to start by talking to a lot of women I don’t know and am scared of, and face a lot of rejection.  At the moment, I want to cower under the table until my bashert (soul-mate) finds me.   Sadly, life doesn’t work like that.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t pleased at getting a reaction, though, nor that both these women, but particularly the UK-based one, seem like the type of person I would be looking to meet.

***

I’ve been feeling very anxious today about both applying for the job and internet dating and I wonder if the latter at least is not more than just social anxiety.  ‘Pure O’ OCD (obsessions without compulsions) can sometimes be called “scrupulosity,” because sufferers are often obsessed with being morally perfect.  In the past I have had this with Jewish dietary laws (on the plus side: yesterday someone did something at home that would have sent me into a huge panic and sending emails to rabbis just a couple of years ago and I was fine with it, so I’ve made progress there at least).

While I’m not sure I have scrupulosity regarding dating in a strictly clinical sense sense, I do have a lot of worries about not wanting to mislead women, not wanting to waste their time dating them if I think it won’t work out and so on.  It adds to general social anxiety about dating and makes it hard to cope.  I can have it a bit (to a much lesser extent) with job applications, trying to be honest in my application about my skills and experience.  Whether because of autistic black-and-white thinking or scrupulosity (autistic people are disproportionately likely to suffer from OCD), I have always struggled with the idea that it’s OK to bend the truth a little on job applications, or that it’s OK to chat on dating sites with women up to a point without being sure that you want to go out with them.

Because of the tendency in frum circles to only date if ready to marry, I kind of feel I shouldn’t date without a firm career and good mental health, but if I pursue a career as a writer, I may never have real job security (if anyone does these days) and I don’t think my mental health is ever going to be perfect.

After I’d done all of this, I remembered an email from my rabbi mentor some time ago where he said I should just try to meet a lot of women to see what I want/need from a relationship.  That sounds weirdly unrabbinic advice, but I’m pretty sure it’s what he said (although I can’t find the email).

I did find the email where he said it’s OK to email two or more women at once, as long as I don’t do that once I move one relationship to the point where we’re actually dating.

***

Achievements: aside from job application, setting up a dating profile and messaging on JDate… thirty-five minutes of Torah study (I might try to do a little more) and a run.  So a pretty busy day.  The run led to another exercise migraine, sadly.  I only realised after the run, and after the headache had set in, that I hadn’t davened Minchah (said afternoon Prayers), so it was a struggle to do that by the deadline.  I pushed myself to start, then I stopped and had to go to the toilet because I was retching, came back and restarted, stopped and actually threw up… even then I wanted to finish the service until I realised how silly it seemed.  I suppose it shows how much I push myself to do what I feel I “should” do religiously without taking into account my health.

Someone To Love

I slept badly, waking up exhausted and covered in sweat.  I really need summer pyjamas, although I’m not sure it’s worth it for the few weeks I would actually need them each year.  It’s hard to believe it was so much cooler at night just a couple of weeks ago.  The hoped-for thunderstorm never materialised yesterday.  Today we could hear distant thunder all afternoon and also saw lightning after a while, but the rain has not reached us, and the sky remains blue.  The thunder has stopped, but there is more of a breeze, which helps a bit.  In late afternoon it was cool enough to go for a walk, which was good, although I came back with a headache.

All I could think of today was how hot and uncomfortable I am, which I guess means I am not feeling anxious about anything else, but also means I am not doing anything productive.  I wish we had air conditioning.

Mum had her last chemotherapy session today, so there’s progress there at least.  Now she has a break for recuperation before surgery in a month’s time.

Achievements: the walk, half an hour of Torah study, an hour or so working on my devar Torah (which still isn’t finished, even though I’m taking most of it from just one book, Rabbi Joshua Berman’s The Temple: It’s Symbolism and Meaning Then and Now).  I did a bit of reading of a book on writing.  That’s about it.

***

At some point I stopped praying every day to get married.  I’m not sure when.  I suppose it was some months ago, when my hitbodedut (spontaneous prayer) became shorter and sporadic, sometimes abandoned completely.  It was around the time I broke up with E.  Hitbodedut was when I used to ask to get married.  I think I stopped asking for much at all, other than the set prayers, and prayers for people I know who are sick in my Amidah (I have also been saying special prayers for the whole world since COVID hit).  To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what I say when I do my hitbodedut at the moment.  I probably do ask for things, but not consistently, and mainly small things like meeting my goals for the next day.  I probably do still pray to get married, just intermittently and not every day.

I suppose it was hard to believe that the big things I asked for would ever be granted.  It felt like God had no interest in giving me what I was asking, so why bother ask?  Like, I suspect, many things I think or feel, this is theologically problematic.  For one thing, we’re supposed to ask for what we want.  For another, there are plenty of Jewish approaches to prayer that see it as a lot more than “Ask, Get.”  I once gave a fifteen minute shiur (religious class) on three approaches to prayer; one did not even deal directly with asking for things at all and the other two saw the asking as subsidiary to other processes.

But still, I struggle to ask.  Some of it is feeling hopeless about ever meeting the right person (or coping with meeting a lot of wrong people first), but a lot of it is what I wrote the other day about not feeling ready to get married, but wanting to be in a serious, committed relationship, even if it’s non-physical.  That doesn’t really exist in Orthodox Jewish culture and it’s hard to ask God for something that is ostensibly wrong.  Sinful, even.  (Admittedly the Talmud says that the burglar prays to God that he won’t get caught before he burgles a house, but this is hardly intended as an example to follow.)  But praying to get married seems silly when I may never get to that stage.

I think I do still sometimes pray to get a job, get married and have children, but not every night, consistently.  Just sometimes.  Praying to get a job AND get married AND have children sounds a lot and something that couldn’t happen for ages, if at all.  I suppose I should be praying to feel a bit less depressed and exhausted, and to sell some writing or something.  Small steps.

***

One of the things I struggle with because of autism is reading people (in the sense of understanding them) and knowing if they’re interested in me, interested either in being my friend or, in some cases, having a relationship with me.  I have probably lost potential friends who I misread or who panicked me and I didn’t know how to talk to them, even though I thought they were nice and would have liked to be friends with them (this is social anxiety).  Similarly, I probably bored and upset a lot of women who I wanted to date, but was too shy to ask, so I just hung around them, hoping something would happen and we would magically be dating.

A third category, which I was thinking about a bit today, is people who drifted into my life and then drifted out again, leaving me puzzled and confused.  This happened mostly online; I think the nature of the internet and blogs is that people drift in and out very quickly.

I came across an email today from 2014.  This was from someone I “met” online, where we were both commenting on a Jewish website.  She was really complimentary and asked for my email address and we emailed back and forth for a bit, but most of her emails were short emails saying she was slowly writing a long email that would tell me more about her.  I never got the long email; after a while the short emails stopped too.  I don’t know if she was interested in me romantically and then lost her nerve or something else.  She was about to start an Orthodox Jewish conversion (her father was Jewish, but not her mother), and the bet din (rabbinical conversion court) would not have been happy to know she was in a deep personal conversation with a Jewish man before conversion (it might make them see the conversion as not motivated by sincere belief, but in order to have a Jewish marriage), so it would be understandable if she wanted to stop emailing.  She was also starting a programme of study abroad, although I forget what, so that might have explained her lack of time to write too, but ghosting me just left me wondering what happened.  That’s an extreme example, but similar things have happened to me and they always leave me feeling puzzled and confused, wondering if I did something wrong or if I misread the whole situation from the start (although in that situation I was fairly confused about what she wanted even from the start).

***

I’m sitting in the garden, because it’s cooler than the house and my room is so hot that my headache gets worse if I sit there.  I just finished reading Muck, Dror Burstein’s quasi-modern reimagining of the biblical Yirmiyah/Jeremiah.  I feel too tired to do anything, but not tired enough to sleep, plus my room, as I say, is uncomfortably hot.  I might watch Star Trek Voyager on my laptop in the garden, with headphones in, as Mum and Dad are out here talking and they will probably go inside and put the TV on loudly soon (the TV is right by the French windows into the garden, which are open).

Heat and Light

Shabbat (Sabbath) was OK, but a bit of a struggle.  It’s just too hot.  I know that in some places it gets hotter and more humid, but bear in mind houses in the UK are built for cold.  They are insulated and sometimes poorly ventilated.  So it’s pretty sweltering.  I couldn’t sleep at all last night.  I stayed up reading.  I eventually fell asleep around 5.00am.

Once I slept a lot again over Shabbat, despite the insomnia.  I slept late once I got to sleep and I napped in the afternoon, so I’m super-awake now, which is not good.

***

Today we ate in the garden, both lunch and seudah shlishit (the third Sabbath meal).  I was apprehensive about this, because I had a vague sense it ought to be religiously prohibited, but I couldn’t think of a reason why, or at least, not a reason I couldn’t argue against.  That said, if I hadn’t seen our super-Hasidic next-door neighbours do it last week, I don’t think I would have done it.  Still, I guess it’s progress in being less religious OCD-defined, and more open to things generally.  There’s probably a good deal of autistic “I don’t want to do anything new” in the “It’s halakhically forbidden (forbidden by Jewish law),” as much as OCD and over-caution.

***

My mood was variable.  I had the weird thought that in terms of dates, I’m doing about as well by just posting stuff on my blog and occasionally meeting people romantically that way (meeting online or in person) than I am being proactive in the real world or even hoping non-internet women would want to date me.  Obviously my online presence is more confident, more charming, more I-don’t-know-what than my in-person presence (unsurprising, as in-person presence is socially crippled by social anxiety and autism).  Who knows whether I’ll meet someone else that way?  Still, I do feel the odds are against my finding anyone soon, or even really being able to manage a relationship soon.  It’s just counter-productive to dwell on those thoughts.

(It’s strange, but despite my shyness and social anxiety, I do quite like meeting people in person who I have “spoken” to online.  I’ve done it quite a lot.)

I realised that somewhere along the line I stopped praying to find my spouse.  I’m not sure why.  I know in the last year or so I’ve cut down a lot of voluntary/spontaneous prayer because of feeling depressed and tired and overwhelmed and far from God.  That was probably a bad idea, making me more distant from God, but it’s hard to know how to get back to it.

I never know what to pray for about dating anyway.  I don’t exactly feel like I could get married at the moment, certainly financially and maybe emotionally.  Maybe I should pray to find some other activity or social network that would take away the loneliness?  But it feels unJewish to be in my late thirties and unmarried and not doing the one proactive thing I can really do about it (prayer).

Plus, how would I pray to feel less sexually frustrated, from a Jewish point of view, without praying to get married?  There isn’t another option.  It’s pretty clear from the Talmud that praying to reduce your libido doesn’t work (“There are no half blessings from Heaven”); marriage is the only option.  But what if, financially and emotionally, that isn’t possible right now, maybe never?  What should I pray for?

***

Those thoughts about finding a spouse by just waiting until she finds my blog (maybe) cheered me up a bit, but others brought me down.  I started crying while I was davening Minchah (saying Afternoon Prayers), I’m not sure why.  I had been thinking about a chiddush (novel Torah thought) I had and I’m not sure if it was connected.

In Bereshit (Genesis) chapter 6, God tells Noach (Noah) to build the ark and that it should have a “tzohar.”  It is not clear what a “tzohar” is.  The Medieval commentator Rashi (based on the Midrash in Bereshit Rabbah) gives us two options: “Some say this is a window and some say this is a precious stone that gave light to them.”

However, contrary to the way a lot of people read it, Midrash isn’t just about finding quirky facts about the Torah.  It is about finding deeper meanings.  What is this teaching us?

In his book Genesis: From Creation to Covenant, Rabbi Zvi Grumet notes that the description of the flood undoes the Creation narrative from chapter 1 of Genesis, with the world being uncreated stage by stage in reverse order as everything is destroyed, back to the point where the waters above and the waters below were divided on day two, leaving only the light created on day one.  The only thing not mentioned are the luminaries, created on day four.  We can assume they were covered by clouds, from the point of view of the ark, but this is not explicitly stated.

We might then argue that the “window” opinion assumes that the luminaries were still visible and all that was needed was a window to let the light of the sun and moon in, whereas the “luminescent stone” opinion assumes that the luminaries were invisible, and some artificial (quasi-supernatural) light source was necessary for the ark’s inhabitants.

Perhaps the deeper symbolism is this.  The “window” option assumes that even at a time of strict justice, when God withdraws his mercy and lets destruction reign on the world, even then there is hope as a natural part of the world.  There are intrinsically positive aspects of creation still around, still shedding their light from a distance.  God’s Presence can always be felt.

The “luminescent stone” approach is darker, in all senses.  It says that sometimes the world is so dark that you can find no natural source of light altogether.  The world outside is absolutely awful with no exceptions.  At a time like this, we have to rely on God to cast light for us directly and miraculously because the outside world is just too dark and horrible for us.  (I feel that this is a post-Holocaust type of perspective.)

I thought about the above, then I immediately went to daven Minchah, as I said, and I suddenly started crying and I didn’t know why.  I strongly suspect it is connected to what I was thinking, but I don’t know if I felt overwhelmed that God was providing light for me after all, or upset and alone that I feel He is not providing light for me.

***

My parents and I didn’t play a game on Shabbat this week, partly as Shabbat is finishing earlier now and partly because our neighbours came to the door for a socially distanced conversation with my parents towards the end of Shabbat, when we’d been playing (we all nap in the afternoon).  I’m trying to persuade my parents to play a longer, more involved game on a Sunday afternoon, as we’re all in at the moment, maybe Trivial Pursuit or Risk (my family don’t like to play Trivial Pursuit with me because I win.  I think at one stage they would only play if I answered the Genius Edition questions and they answered questions from a similar, but easier, quiz game).  I don’t remember the rules to Risk, but I’ve been thinking lately that I want to play it again.

***

I’m trying to listen to a long playlist on Spotify, but someone keeps editing it, so every time I open Spotify to listen to it, the track order has been changed and it’s hard to keep track of what I’ve heard to and what I haven’t.  Very annoying.  It’s one of the Spotify-produced (as opposed to user-produced) playlists too.

OCD Slightly Resurgent, Otherwise Quiet

I woke up and got up early again (at least by my standards), which was good.  Less good was that I woke up from a very disturbing dream, in which I had tried to do something to promote unity between different groups of Jews and instead inadvertently created a situation which led to more division, and the burning of some religious papers by someone else out of spite (religious papers in Judaism should be buried respectfully, not burned).  The dream ended with me crying uncontrollably as a rabbi said I had done the right thing, but had been let down by other people.

I think the dream was primarily about my feelings of discomfort with the frum (religious Jewish) community.  I feel some (not all) people in it can be divisive and even spiteful, like the people in my dream.  However, I also feel that my feelings of discomfort are a product of my own prejudices as much as reality, so I could be the spiteful people in the dream too.  It is hard to be objective.  I woke up feeling sombre and upset, but I somehow managed to get up rather than just go back to sleep as part of me wanted.

The dream did at least get me up early again today, so I could say the most important morning prayers at the right time, and say more of the morning prayer service than I usually manage.

***

I spent two and a half hours working on my novel.  My main character/narrator just got assessed and diagnosed with high functioning autism.  It brought to mind my worries about whether I am on the spectrum and (different question) whether I will be diagnosed as being on the spectrum, bearing in mind I’ve been assessed twice and told that I’m not on the spectrum, but am challenging that diagnosis given that I have now done more research and have observed myself in new work and social environments (my previous assessments were before I had worked or even volunteered).

I started to worry that I’m not on the spectrum.  I made myself worried enough that I did an online screening (similar to the one I had in person eighteen months ago) which showed that I probably am on the spectrum, but I wish I didn’t have this kind of obsessive worrying about it.  As someone in my novel says, getting a diagnosis won’t change who I am or what I experience, even if it explains it.  However, it would change my perception of myself, so it is no wonder that it seems important and anxiety-provoking.

***

Other than that, today was mostly the usual stuff: cooked dinner (vegetarian kedgeree, because it’s one of my easy recipes), a walk, nearly an hour of Torah study.  I lost a lot of the time I had gained by getting up early.  I’m not sure where it went.

I did write a letter to E., not to send to her, just to express my feelings to myself.  Reading it back, I sounded a lot angrier than I thought I was.  Maybe I’ve been carrying a lot of anger around for the last couple of months since we broke up, or even before then.  I worry about how E. is doing, but I still haven’t got back in contact with her.  I noticed she’s posting stuff on Goodreads (I didn’t unfriend her, I’m not sure why, maybe because I don’t use Goodreads as a social media, only as an online catalogue of my books), so I know she’s still alive and functioning, but I am still reluctant to communicate directly.

***

My religious OCD has been dormant for a while, but it never goes away fully.  Everyone has “crazy” thoughts sometimes; what turns them into OCD is when they won’t go away and you end up obsessing about them (‘pure O’ OCD) or performing compulsions to get rid of them (more stereotypical OCD).  I have in the past had ‘pure O’ OCD about the Jewish dietary laws (kashrut), among other things.

Lately there have been a few kashrut issues where I thought on balance they were OK, but I wasn’t 100% sure.  When my OCD was at it’s height, I would have asked a question of a rabbi or the London Bet Din (yes, I emailed their food technologist a lot when my OCD was raging a few years ago.  I still blush to think of it).  I was trying hard not to ask the question, because asking just provokes more questions – the way OCD grows is that you can never be 100% sure of anything, so every answer provokes more questions, as well as accustoming you to asking questions rather than relying on your own judgement.  I was fairly sure things were OK and was intent on just leaving it like that.

Unfortunately, today I gave in to ask a question, and then it snowballed.  I think I’ve got it under control now, and even for the hour or so that it happened, my anxiety levels were nothing compared with a few years ago.  Nevertheless, it’s a reminder of how fragile my mental health can be and how easily things can unravel.

***

I haven’t got much else to say today.  I feel a lot calmer and present-focused now I’ve cut a lot of internet use.  I haven’t strictly kept to only using the internet and email twice a day as my therapist suggested, but I’m not doing a lot more than that, except for novel research.  I’m also not looking at news and opinion sites much and not at Twitter at all (I haven’t been on other social media sites for years).  I feel a lot happier and peaceful, but I worry that I’m becoming ignorant of the world.  I guess I feel I can’t change the world much anyway, and the areas where I could change it, I still keep up with.  Still, we’re constantly being bombarded with messages about the importance of making a stand, demanding change, “silence is violence” (which I think is a glib and misleading phrase, although it has an element of truth) and so on that not being super-aware of what’s going on seems vaguely immoral.

Another Busy Day

I woke up early today, at least by my usual standards.  I usually wake up in the early morning, but then I feel tired and usually fall asleep again until much later.  I decided the other day that I would try to force myself to stay up, which I managed today.  I was pretty tired (even though I had about seven hours of sleep), but I managed it.  I was OK once I drank coffee and I was glad to get an earlier start on the day and say the morning Shema and Amidah on time.

I did doze for half an hour in the afternoon though.

Achievements (although the above are really achievements too): I spent two hours on my novel and finished another chapter.  Only one more chapter to go!  I’m up to 72,000 words too, which is novel length, just about.  Hopefully the manuscript will grow a bit in redrafting.  The time taken to write each chapter seems to be becoming shorter too, even though they chapters are mostly the same length.  I have mixed feelings about the quality though.  Some of that is probably low self-esteem and it is just a first draft.  My English teacher used to say that a first draft is 99% of the work, and for non-fiction I would tend to agree, but I think writing fiction is more organic and individual and I need to redraft more, particularly as I’ve never written something this long before.

I did an hour of Torah study, much of it difficult Mishnah, which was good.

I also went for a half hour walk.  My ankle felt a bit strange when I woke up.  I’m not sure how to describe it – kind of weak and fragile.  It wasn’t painful, but I didn’t want to put too much weight on it.  I think something is wrong when I run, but I’m not sure if it’s my trainers or if I’m running incorrectly (it can happen).  I don’t really want to go shopping for new trainers at the moment because I’m avoiding shops except for essential items to shield Mum.  I could mail order, but my parents have put me off that by saying that returning them would be hard if they’re a bad fit.

I attended depression group online via Zoom.  I hadn’t attended for a while because I’ve been having therapy on Mondays and was too tired after that to go, but I’ve moved therapy to Wednesdays so that I can go again, plus my therapist is away this week anyway.  I mentioned my novel and people were really supportive, which was nice.

My mood was mostly good today, although it was drifting downwards when I dozed off in the afternoon, so maybe it was just as well that I fell asleep at that point.  My mood did dip slightly into self-recrimination and worry while walking, but mostly I was able to focus on the present.

Someone at depression group asked if I find it easier or harder online.  I find it harder, but I’m not sure why.  I think some of it is feeling that I’m being stared at by the camera the whole time, whereas in person I can see people are focusing on the person speaking, not me.  I also think there’s blurred boundaries when Zooming in from home (am I at home or in the group?) and less of a transition from home to group and back again and transitions are really important for people on the autism spectrum.  I find it hard to give people my full attention on Zoom, harder than in person, and I was getting fidgety by the end, which I know is autistic stimming and my way of trying to focus (rather than boredom), but I was glad that people couldn’t see that I was tapping my fingers because it might have looked rude.

I didn’t stick exactly to my limits on internet usage/email checking that I agreed with my therapist, but I did mostly stick to them and that does seem to help stay present-focused, not to compare myself with others so much and to avoid negative thoughts.  Actually, depression group can provoke comparing thoughts, a kind of procrustean bed where if they’re doing well, I feel I should be doing as well as they are, but if they aren’t doing well, I feel that I should be doing more things as I’m not so depressed.  I try not to think like that, but it’s not always easy.

I didn’t feel like I’d done much today, but writing it down I see that I have done quite a bit.

***

I made a mistake online.  Not a major one (it was less something I didn’t know and more something I phrased badly), but normally I would beat myself up about it, but I’m trying not to, which I guess is good.  With CBT for social anxiety, one technique is to make deliberate mistakes to become inured to them (one nineteenth/early twentieth century yeshiva (rabbinical seminary) used to get the students to do something similar, and there is an XKCD cartoon with a similar point…).  I did not do that when I did CBT for my social anxiety; as I think I’ve said, I don’t think I tried hard enough with CBT for social anxiety, although what I did seemed quite difficult at the time.

***

This passage in Healing from Despair: Choosing Wholeness in a Broken World (by Rabbi Elie Kaplan Spitz and Erica Shapiro Taylor) resonated with me: “A sensitive child, burdened by his natural physical desires and the emotional and intellectual demands he inherited… Rebbe Nachman entered into depressed periods throughout his life.”  My emotional and intellectual demands were not inherited, but came partly from social expectation and partly from my own inner drive for excellence, but otherwise it was very similar to my childhood and adolescence.

Like a Lion

I’ve been struggling to get to sleep this week, not hugely, but persistently.  I woke up early (for me) this morning and rose “like a lion,” like I’m supposed to (per Jewish texts).  I managed to get going quite quickly and say the Shema prayer and the Shacharit Amidah (the main Morning Prayer) on time, which I almost never manage these days because of depression, even though I skipped most of the other morning prayers.

My mood was quite good today, except while I was davening (praying) I suddenly had self-critical thoughts about myself, thinking that I must be a disappointment to my parents compared with my sister.  Still, I’m trying not to get sucked into depression and negativity.  I try to tell myself I’m on my own path.  Try to focus on the present.

***

Today is 10 Av, according to the Jewish calendar, and my Hebrew birthday.  The morning is still a sad period from Tisha B’Av and the Three Weeks of mourning, but from the afternoon, the mourning restrictions are lifted and one can listen to music, go on holiday, shave, trim nails etc.  I’ve done or am looking forward to doing all those things, except no holidays this year because of COVID and Mum’s cancer.  I’m not a great traveller anyway.  Maybe it’s good that my Hebrew birthday always starts sad and gets better (except when 9 Av falls on Saturday, then the fast is postponed to 10 Av and the whole day is miserable).

***

I tried to apply for a librarian job at a charity, but the online application system said I have already applied there.  I have actually applied for three different roles there, most recently in February.  I assume they never recruited because of COVID and are looking again.  I emailed them to check that my previous application will still be considered.  I did get called for interview for one of the three jobs, so I think it’s worth applying again.  I’m unsure about applying to a different institution where I also had an interview, but I felt that I wasn’t a good match for the institution’s culture.  I also applied for a job I don’t think I’m qualified for, because it was an easy LinkedIn application that only takes two minutes.  I’m not sure how sensible that was.  My thinking was that if I’m really not qualified, they won’t even call me to interview and that the risk was worth it considering how little time it took to apply.

I’m still concerned that most jobs in my sector are full-time and I don’t think I can cope with more than three days a week (at most) at the moment.  My parents say, “Apply and worry about that when you get the job.”  I’m not sure.  I think I need to think about other jobs in other sectors.  I did go to a careers advisor before COVID, but I felt he didn’t know the library sector and skill set so well.  He suggested being a private tutor, but I feel I need training in how to teach someone (including how to mark work, not something I’ve had to do before) and was not sure how to get it.

***

Achievements: aside from the job stuff and the usual pre-Shabbat chores, I went for a walk and worked on my novel.

***

I’m feeling pensive at the moment because today I’ve been reminded of a number of my friends and friends of my parents who are struggling with major health issues for themselves or their families right now.  It makes saddened and empathetic, and also puts one’s own problems in perspective.  The only way I can really believe in God, given the amount of suffering in the world, is to assume that this world is a “vale of soul-making” as Keats put it or the “ante-chamber” to the “banquet hall” as the Mishnah says and that we are here purely to grow, not to be happy.  Not that there is anything wrong with accepting happiness where we find it, but happiness is the natural state of the Next World; in This World our natural state is to struggle so that we can make our souls (Keats) and prepare ourselves (the Mishnah), which are really two ways of saying the same thing.

I didn’t really want to end on a down note, but I need to go as we’re heading towards Shabbat now, so Shabbat shalom (peaceful Sabbath).

Two Years

Shabbat was good.  The usual mix of praying, studying Torah, eating, sleeping (too much) and reading.  I came last at Scrabble.  I had some rotten letters, far too many vowels.  I’m not very competitive, but I am getting annoyed that I’ve only won one game so far this summer.  There was some discussion as to whether ‘boxy’ (my word) is a word or not.  Our dictionary (Collins) says no, but now Shabbat is out, Merriam-Webster online says yes.  Maybe I’d have been better off with ‘oiled,’ but I couldn’t remember how many ‘L’s were in it.

I finished Sacred Fire: Torah from the Years of Fury, 1939-1942, kept up with weekly page of Talmud and read a bunch of Tehillim (Psalms) in Hebrew.  I didn’t do much recreational reading, just a little bit more of Muck, which is very good.  I didn’t go for a walk, partly because I slept and then wanted to study Torah and read, partly because it looked like rain.

***

Yesterday I realised it is nearly two years since I left my further education job (it’s nearly two years since I stopped working, although I was technically under contract for a couple of weeks in August when I was on holiday).  It feels much longer.  I think leaving may be the worst decision I ever made, and I’ve made some pretty bad ones.

For those of you who don’t remember or weren’t reading then, my initial contract was up.  I was not sure if it would be renewed, as everything in the library world, and the education world, is suffering from lack of funds.

I was offered a permanent contract, but my boss made it quite clear that she didn’t think I was handling the job as well as she expected.  The permanent contract was in many ways a new job, working all the time at the college’s secondary site (instead of once a week there and usually at the main site) where I would be expected to have much more contact with staff, talking to them, getting book recommendations from them and trying to get them to bring students to the library more often.  This terrified me given my social anxiety and the fact that the interpersonal aspects of the job so far had convinced me that I am autistic.  My boss had also made it clear that she felt that this interpersonal interaction side of the job was something I was particularly bad at.  I agreed, and decided to turn the job down, which seemed to astonish her, even though her vocal lack of confidence in my skills was a major factor in my turning it down.

If I’d realised how hard it would be to build a career or even to find a new job that is mostly backroom librarian stuff with minimal interpersonal interactions, maybe I would have taken that job.  Since then I’ve only worked for seven months in total out of twenty-three (not counting that August when I was paid, but not working).

I made a list of everything I’ve done in the last two years to try to work out if they were good or bad.  Aside from only seven months working, I had some interviews and tests and did badly in a lot of them, but not quite all (obviously two I did well in as I got the jobs).

I went on two dates with one person via a matchmaking site (not a success) and was in a long-distance relationship with E. for four or five months that also ended badly.

My mood (depression) has been extremely variable, and although I had some CBT last year for social anxiety, my social anxiety has got worse because of lockdown.  I also think I didn’t push myself hard enough with the CBT, although being restricted to ten sessions on the NHS didn’t help.

On the plus side, I finished my Doctor Who non-fiction book, but failed to get a publisher, or many readers when I self-published.  I have written most of the first draft of a novel.  This is the biggest thing in my life at the moment, aside from helping around the house now Mum has cancer.

My therapist, who I’d been seeing for years (seven?  Something like that) stopped seeing me in late 2018 because she said there was nothing else she could do for me.  That made me feel hopeless (not the first time mental health professionals have basically said that they can’t do anything for me as my issues are too difficult for them).  I started with a new therapist a few weeks ago.  She seems good, but I have seen so many therapists over the years, I see it as being more about letting off steam than being “cured” or one day having a “normal” life.

I still haven’t had an(other) autism assessment, despite being pushed towards it by the further education job and then by the following office job, which nearly drove me insane and made me realise my brain really isn’t wired like most people’s.

I made some new friends, mostly online, but quite a few friends have stopped talking to me, or I’ve stopped talking to them to prevent arguments (or from fear we would drift back into a relationship again in the case of E.).  I feel incredibly bad about this, but don’t know how to stop it happening again.

I think I had begun to fit in slightly better at shul (synagogue) and talk to one or two more people before lockdown.  I led services a couple of times too, but wonder if I should have done that (I had tremor issues again someone said I looked “like you were going to have a coronary”).  I still feel the community is not a perfect fit for me, but it’s the best on offer.  A few people know I have medical issues even if I haven’t told them the details, but I don’t always feel supported, although the rabbi has been messaging to check in regularly during lockdown, which is good.

Reading this back mostly makes me feel despairing, seeing how little has gone right in the last two years.  The plus side, I suppose, is that a lot happened, even if much of it was bad, so perhaps I should be hopeful that the next two years won’t be stagnant, even if I feel the chances of finding a job (let alone a good job), finding a girlfriend/wife or finding a publisher for my book all seem slim.

Negativity and Meaning

I felt quite depressed again today.  Dad took Mum to her appointment with the surgeon and then for a socially distanced visit to my sister’s house, so I had the house to myself for a bit, which I like.  It’s nice to have personal space, not that we get in each others’ way very much (I’m usually in my bedroom, my parents in the lounge or office).  I did feel very depressed and lonely, trying not to catastrophise my thoughts about the future into complete despair (about marriage, children, having my writing “cancelled,” etc.).

I tried to work on my novel before therapy, but really I just wanted to cry.  I did, eventually get down to it and wrote quite a bit.  It was a violent scene, and although that was hard on one level, because domestic violence is pretty draining to write, I did find the actual writing flowed more than recently.  I definitely think that mainstream literary fiction is not 100% right for me (although I intend to finish the book) and I should be writing science fiction/fantasy adventure or something similar in the future.  It’s bits like that that have been easiest to write.

Therapy was difficult and very draining.  We spoke a lot about family and childhood.  Also about Mum’s illness and being increasingly conscious of my parents’ mortality.  I mentioned what Ashley has said about my having lots of “shoulds” and we worked a bit on finding alternative thoughts.  I don’t like replacing “should” with “could” because I feel I could do just about anything so saying, “I could do X” doesn’t help me make decisions, especially as it makes it hard to see how urgent or important a task is.  So we’re trying with phrases like “I would like to do this because…” or “This is in line with my values because…”  I like the latter, because sometimes I do things I don’t enjoy because it’s in line with my values e.g. prayer (which is not always enjoyable or uplifting, although it can be) and housework.  I’m also writing some questions to identify when I’m being self-critical e.g. “Is this my critical voice?” and “Would I talk to someone else like this?”

I often go for a walk after therapy, but I felt too tired today, especially as I knew I had shiur (religious class) later.  The shiur was on meaning, the last of three shiurim on the topic.  The first was on what meaning is; the second was on whether a person has to be religious to have meaning; and this one was on how can we make our lives more meaningful.  The shiurim were given by Dr Tamra Wright and Rabbi Dr Michael Harris.

The shiur this week was not so much a religious shiur as a talk on philosophy and positive psychology, but it was interesting.  Some points I took from it:

  • The optimal level for a meaningful element in your life is not always the maximal one.  In other words, if praying is meaningful for me, that doesn’t mean that praying 24/7 would be the most meaningful level of prayer.
  • Meaningful events/things can be small, not major life-changing things.
  • Recognising meaning or value that is already present is important.  Even increasing this recognition a little is good even without recognising the good perfectly.  (All of the above points taken from a book by the Israeli philosopher Iddo Landau.)
  • Writing a gratitude journal of things that went well and why they happened helps make life meaningful.  I already list things that I’m grateful for, but I don’t write it down or write why they happened.  Maybe I should change that.  Writing why they happened is supposed to show your agency more clearly.
  • One can have a flourishing, meaningful  life even without a cheerful disposition via pro-social emotions (e.g. compassion), engagement, relationships, a sense of something greater than me and achievement.
  • Spirituality is independent of religion (I knew that) and is “a sense of a close personal relationship to God (or nature or the universe or whatever term each person used for higher power) and a vital source of daily guidance. (From work by Lisa Miller)  This is associated with meaning.  I’m not sure how much I have this.  I struggle to feel a close personal relationship with God, although I believe in Him.  I suppose He is a source of daily guidance for me inasmuch as I try to live according to Jewish law and values, but I’m not sure that that was quite what was meant.
  • George Vaillant identified six tasks of adult development.  They’re too long to list here, but I’m not sure I’ve achieved any of them yet, maybe not even “identity” fully (separation from parents), which I should have managed by now.  The only one I might have achieved is “Becoming a keeper of the meaning – role of ‘wise judge’; impartial; conservation, preservation, passing on traditions.”  Because I’m more Jewishly observant and knowledgeable than my immediate family, they look to me for religious guidance.
  • Vaillant also says that self-worth is a dead end and meaning is found in thinking of ourselves less.  I find this hard.  I have noted my rather solipsistic self-absorption, which is perhaps partly from autism (after all, the name “autism” is about being self-contained), partly from social anxiety (not reaching out to others) and partly by temperament (tendency to ruminate).

Speaking of which, I did not really interact in the discussion because I was feeling too socially anxious.  Sigh.  I need to think about how to add some of those meaning-techniques to my life.

Brushes with Criminality

Sigh. I was trying to write less about disrupted sleep here, but I got woken again at 8.15am by the illegal minyan (prayer meeting) in the garden next door, which now seems to be a fully-fledged, three times a day minyan – basically an open-air shul (synagogue).  I decided I was rested enough after seven hours of sleep to get up and get an early start on the day, and was glad they aren’t davening (praying) before 7.00am, as would be normal if people were going out to work.  Later this week is the festival of Shavuot (Pentecost), when it is customary to stay up all night studying Torah and pray at first light, so I have worries of being woken at 3.30am.  I can’t bring myself to inform on a minyan, however illegal, so I have to put up with it somehow.  I don’t want to sleep with my windows shut, because it makes the room stuffy and I worry about waking with a headache.

I will try not to mention the illegal minyan again, as it’s probably not good to make this type of thing well-known (chillul hashem); there’s been enough in the mainstream press about Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews breaking lockdown here, in the US and especially in Israel.  But I can’t promise they won’t do something outrageous that I have to offload here.

Getting up early did at least mean that I davened a bit more of Shacharit (Morning Prayers) than usual, and at the proper time for once.  I also used some of that time gained to work on my novel, managing about an hour and a half in the morning. Quite a bit of that time went on research, but I wrote 600 words before lunch.  Overall I spent nearly two and a half hours on the novel today, despite doing several other things (see below), writing over a thousand words, which was very good.  So maybe some good will come of the illegal minyan after all, if it sorts out my disrupted sleep pattern.

I had a Skype call with my rabbi mentor.  Unfortunately, it was a short call and I did what I’ve been doing with therapy and have done in the past at depression group, which is just blurt out a huge load of stuff at the start, expressing a lot of thoughts and emotions that I’ve had lately, all in one go, like a tidal wave of anxious/depressive emotion.  My rabbi mentor felt that I was doing well at understanding and processing these feelings and thoughts, which is good, and he helped me with one or two specific matters.  I do feel a bit strange when I just blurt all this stuff out, though.  Slightly embarrassed, and vulnerable and exposed.  Exhausted too and even a bit shaken, which I suppose is unsurprising if I’m revealing a lot of private thoughts.

It was Mum’s birthday today.  We had a socially distanced tea in the garden with my sister and brother-in-law.  They were very nervous about getting close to Mum, so there was good social distancing.  It was good to see them again.  We’ve had some doorstep conversations, but nothing as long as this since before lockdown.  I think it’s getting harder to stick to lockdown; half lockdown is perhaps harder to maintain than full lockdown (that’s somewhat analogous to Jewish law where very difficult things are often psychologically easier to stick to than apparently trivial ones).  I know I’ve complained about people bending the rules, but I think Mum would have been really upset if she couldn’t have seen my sister, given that she starts the next bout of chemo tomorrow.  I tend to be very rule-abiding (I suspect that people on the autism spectrum tend to be either extremely rule-focused or totally anarchic) and I’m not sure what I would have done if I had been the person who lived outside the family home.

Then we had a more legitimately lockdown-approved Zoom talk with my Israeli family, but I found it draining after a while especially as it was a long call.  It left me somewhat peopled out, particularly after the tea with my sister and BIL.

As it was Mum’s birthday, we had takeaway and watched the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) comedian Ashley Blaker’s latest show, which was posted online for people who paid.  Then I went for a walk in the gathering dusk, as I had been sitting all day and needed to stretch my legs.  I managed forty-five minutes of Torah study too, although it was a bit of a struggle not to feel bad about not making it up to an hour.

I decided to break my “no screens after 11pm” rule (which is much honoured in the breach anyway) as after such a busy day with so much peopling, I need a passive TV-watching break to avoid burn out tomorrow.

***

Two things that have left me thoughtful today:

  1. My rabbi mentor says he enjoys my weekly devar Torah (Torah thought).  OK.  My uncle said that he enjoys it to and has been forwarding it with some other divrei Torah to his friends from shul (synagogue).  I’m not quite sure what I think of that.
  2. Ashley Blaker told some really rude jokes in his act.  Jokes I won’t repeat here because I would blush.  This has made me ponder a lot more about what the rules are in the frum (religious Orthodox Jewish) community and who has the impunity to break them, given that he is very frum-looking (beard, dark suit, velvet kippah (skullcap), black hat).  It matters to me because I’m writing about sexual violence in my novel, which I feel is an important subject, but I wonder if that will get me a bad reputation (I would do it anyway, I think).  Is this one of those cases where if you ask the question, you’ll be told it’s forbidden, but if you have the chutzpah to just do it, you can get away with it?  Does the transient nature of a comedy show mean he can get away with more than in a permanent medium like print?  Unless people from his shul are in the audience, no one is going to know.  Is he assuming that any frum person who gets the sex jokes is going to have to pretend not to understand lest it become clear that they have dirty minds too?  Particularly given that part of the routine was about frum people being so naive that there are hilarious double entendres in the frum press apparently unnoticed.  Hmm.

Hypotheticals and Counter-Factuals

I was up late last night.  I mean, I’m up late every night, partly because depression makes me nocturnal and partly because having a girlfriend in a timezone five hours behind me makes for a lot of late night Skype calls, but I was up particularly late, partly writing my blog post (which shouldn’t have taken that long) and partly dealing with difficult emotions.  Watching an episode of Ashes to Ashes had triggered a lot of thoughts and feelings about could I have become a really bad person, like the villain in that episode (a sexually frustrated and religiously-motivated rapist and murderer), if my life had gone just a little bit differently.  Really there’s no end to counter-factual questions like that, because there’s no way to test which of our characteristics are innate and which are acquired, or even how much of each.  But depression (and, I guess, pure O OCD) love those kind of “Am I really a bad person?” questions, particularly if they can lead to me beating myself up for things I’ve never done and would never too.

I probably do ask myself these type of hypothetical questions too much.  I know I was asking here the other day about whether I would continue any Orthodox Jewish practice if I lost my belief, and I do often wonder if I was an atheist what my source of moral inspiration would be and so on.  Up to a point those questions are interesting, but once you go down the “How close am I to being a murderer?” route it’s more a sign of mental illness.

Then I realised (this is still late last night) that an invitation I had to a Zoom anniversary get-together for a shul (synagogue) friend’s thirtieth wedding anniversary (yes, my shul friends are mostly a lot older than me) was yesterday and not next Tuesday.  I was a bit upset to have missed it.  I wasn’t entirely looking forward to it, as I find Zoom events hard, but if I didn’t go I would have wanted to send a message beforehand to explain why I find them hard, rather than just not show up.  I sent an apologetic text today, but I still feel a bit upset.  I guess it is easy to lose track of time in lockdown.

I got woken up early in the morning, unfortunately by Mum being sick from chemo side effects.  I got her some water and she said she thought she was OK, so I went back to bed and then fell into a deep sleep for hours, waking up after midday, which was disappointing when I’ve been trying so hard lately to move my wake up time a bit earlier in the day.  It was almost the end of time for Shacharit (morning prayers), so I somehow managed to get dressed quickly and pray a little bit before breakfast, which I usually find impossible because I’m too drained and depressed until after eating cereal and drinking coffee.

I didn’t do as much as I would have liked today, partly because of that late start.  I spent a bit over half an hour working on my devar Torah (Torah thought) for the week, which might not have been the best use of time.  I’ve been trying to give my divrei Torah more definite conclusions.  The typical way most people would do this is either ending on a takeaway practical moral or personal development point or a quasi-prayer that the world should be redeemed soon.  I don’t really feel comfortable with either of those, but I feel like I should try them.  The topic for this week pretty much forced me down the “prayer for redemption” route this week, but I think generally I’d be happier with the “moral point” version.

I worked on my novel for a little while, but I didn’t do much.  That was partly due to starting late and finishing early (as I had a Zoom shiur (religious class) this evening), partly due to feeling a bit stuck.  I’m starting to write a new chapter, and that can be hard, and this time it’s 100% events from my research and imagination, not drawing from my personal experience except in the most general sense.  It doesn’t help that my confidence in this project is a bit reduced.  I don’t think it’s going to be amazing.  I am trying to stay confident that it might get published and speak to people, but I think there’s a limit to how good could be, and that’s difficult for a perfectionist like me.  In the end I wrote about three hundred words in an hour so, which I guess illustrates how productive I have been recently, that this now seems very substandard.

I also went for a walk for half an hour or so.  It has turned cold again.

In the late afternoon, my mood dipped.  I tried to accept the difficult feelings without fighting or giving in to them, but it was hard.  I was thinking that my life is so much better than it was a number of years ago, when my depression was a constant and unbearable thing, but I also reflected that I’m still struggling with my mood and especially with my engagement with the world (which is a combined depression/social anxiety/high functioning autism thing).  I no longer have the confidence in my ability to work as a librarian or cataloguer.  At the same time, I don’t yet have confidence in my ability to write professionally, and especially not in my ability to sell my writing to publishers, which stems from a mixture of low self-esteem and social anxiety, perhaps also some autistic social ineptitude.

***

As I mentioned, I had an online shiur (religious class) for an hour and a half on Zoom this evening.  The class was on Rashi (Hebrew acronym for Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak), the most important biblical commentator.  I struggled with it.  I find Zoom classes very difficult.  Even in speaker view, where you see primarily just the person talking (as opposed to gallery view, where everyone on the call is visible at once) the picture changes too much for me and there is often too much extraneous noise.  I think a lot of people struggle with this even without autistic sensory overload issues.  I feel self-conscious moving even slightly knowing that I’m on everyone’s screens and my usual lack of confidence in answering questions was magnified.  I didn’t really say anything at all, even when we were in smaller groups.

It didn’t help that I think I seemed to be more familiar with the texts in question than most people there, so I knew a lot of the answers in advance, but not because I worked them out, just because I had encountered them previously, so I was reluctant to say anything.  I struggle to find the confidence to speak out in classes and shiurim in general, even though by this stage I know that I am often right, and that at the London School of Jewish Studies I’m usually one of the more knowledgeable people in the class, and my confidence could use the boost of being told I’m right sometimes (which is probably a horribly arrogant thing to say).

So, I’m slightly apprehensive about the other five classes in this course.  I’m also somewhat apprehensive about another Zoom shiur I’m booked for next Monday, but I think that will be a more traditional “one person talks and everyone listens” format; likewise a three session course I’m thinking of going to in a few weeks on meaning (I feel desperately in need of more meaning in my life).  Monday’s course might help me decide what to do about the meaning course, although my current thinking is that I should have skipped the Rashi course and done the other two shiurim/courses.  However, I have paid for the Rashi course, so I will try to get the most out of it.

Avoidance, Esteem and Too Much Theology

I got up at 10am again today.  I tried to make it for 9.30, but I kept drifting in and out of sleep, having weird dreams.  I did go online before getting dressed though.  I try to tell myself I am a work in progress.  The problem is that, particularly early in the day, when I’m not doing anything, the depression rushes in.  It stops me getting started on my day and it can also creep in when I’m doing other things.  I felt pretty depressed while davening (praying) this morning, for instance, without an obvious trigger.

I had another day that got away from me, another autistic-bad-at-planning day when I made an over-enthusiastic plan and quickly drifted away from it.  Actually, it’s as much depression’s fault as autism’s, given that I would be OK for a bit and then suddenly hit by a wave of depression.  I feel like I use autism and depression to make excuses for myself, but then again maybe I just use them to blame myself in different ways.

I did manage about an hour and a half on my novel, just over a thousand words, battling procrastination and not really wanting to confront some of my less than stellar times at Oxford.  I would have liked to have written some more, but I could feel the kind of tension inside my skull that I associate with exhaustion and imminent burn out, so I stopped.  By that stage I had also drafted my devar Torah (Torah thought) for the week, done some hoovering to help with the housework, and been for a forty-five minute walk.  I did about twenty minutes of Torah study too.  So, not a bad day productivity-wise, even if I would like to do MORE all the time.

***

(The next paragraph or two gets a bit theological, so you might want to skip ahead.)

This evening is the start of my paternal grandfather’s yortzeit (death anniversary).  Usually my father would go to shul (synagogue) for Ma’ariv (Evening Prayers) and say the Mourner’s Kaddish prayer.  This has to be said with nine other men, and doing it on Zoom is not permitted.  Instead, we davened Ma’ariv on Zoom, with a whole bunch of Dad’s friends and some family, but without Kaddish (and one or two other things that can’t be said remotely).  Instead, following rabbinic advice, afterwards I read out and explained a Mishnah (the oldest part of the Talmud, the Jewish oral tradition).  I just read the most recent Mishnah in my ongoing study of Seder Zeraim, the order dealing with agricultural law, specifically Terumot chapter one, mishnah one, the volume dealing with the portion of the crop given to the priests in ancient times.  It’s really not the best thing to pick, but I wasn’t sure what else to do and picking another mishnah at random seemed a bit arbitrary.  At least it wasn’t a very complicated one to explain.  The idea is that by us studying the mishnah together my grandfather has prompted Torah study, which results in him attaining greater reward in Heaven.

My problem is that I struggle theologically with the idea that we can do anything meaningful to help the dead.  I see Kaddish as being primarily for the mourner, to reconnect with God after loss.  The idea that Torah study by a person’s descendants can help a dead person is only about a hundred and fifty years old, which is yesterday in Judaism.  Not ancient at all.  Even Mourner’s Kaddish “only” goes back about 1,000 years.  Before teaching the Mishnah on Zoom, I was supposed to say “May my grandfather’s  neshama (soul) have an aliyah (be elevated), but I really feel uncomfortable saying that, as I’m really not sure reward works that way.  I feel very uncomfortable with the idea, widespread in contemporary Orthodox Judaism, that we can transfer our merits around to anyone in need, living or dead.  I don’t believe reward (and punishment, for that matter) is something external.  As the former rabbi of my shul said, “Heaven isn’t a palace in the sky and if you do enough good things they give you the keys.”  Occasionally, we get material reward in this world, which is external, but usually reward is in the next world, where I believe it is a form of closeness to and understanding of God, a product of what we made our souls into in this world, not an external gift given to us by God.  As one rabbi said, it is like memory, and just as you can’t give your memories to someone else, you can’t give the connection you made with God from doing a mitzvah or studying Torah.

I think this is perfectly Orthodox, but I know that 99% of Orthodox Jews disagree with me, so it’s a(nother) thing I just keep quiet about.

Anyway, in my head I was teaching the mishnah in memory of my grandfather (to perpetuate his memory among the living), but I said something like “hopefully it will be an aliyah for his neshama.”  I felt I had to say it because people might have prompted me if I didn’t and partly just in case I’m wrong and it could do something for him.  But I feel vaguely dishonest and hypocritical.

I also felt a bit bad that I had written an explanation of the mishnah and just read it out.  When I do public speaking, I usually prefer to write notes and speak partially from memory rather than reading out, but I didn’t feel that I understood the mishnah well enough to do that.  At least I didn’t shake.

I didn’t stay for the lechaim (drink) afterwards as I don’t like Zoom and it sounded like the organised chaos of twenty or thirty people on Zoom at the same time, talking at the same time, shouting to be heard, and interrupting each other, plus, of course, I don’t drink.  Eventually my Dad’s friends left the call and it was just family.  I felt like I should have been there for more of the family call, but I needed to eat and unwind a bit.  Only a few hours earlier I was writing about my fictionalised younger self’s tendency to withdraw and not connect with people when the opportunity presented itself and then I was falling into the same patterns of avoidance.  I did eventually decide to go down and join in the rest of the call after I had eaten, so there is some progress since I was in my early twenties.

***

I have a folder where I save positive blog comments and emails that I’ve been sent.  I use them to cheer myself up and boost my self-esteem when it’s low.  The problem is that I don’t remember to look at them.  I used to have some printed out and blue tacked to my cupboards so I saw them.  Speaking about this to my new therapist on Monday, I decided that I should do that again.  I’ve been cutting and pasting some quotes from people and feel quite emotional… there’s a lot of people, most of whom I’ve never met in person, who seem to have positive things to say about me and my writing and I’m not entirely sure how to deal with that.  My mind is trying to make me beat myself up for losing contact with some of them, but I know that the way the online world works; long-term contacts are rare.  I’m more inclined to beat myself up about people who were once my friends, but who have fallen out with me, usually for reasons I do not fully understand or agree with.  I have thought about deleting these comments and emails in the past, but so far I have not done so.  Aside from it seeming a bit like a Stalinist rewriting of history to pretend that we were never friends, I like to remember that we were friends once, even if it didn’t last.  I’m not really a grudge-bearer.

Also, while looking in the folder, I found the first email E. ever sent me, which I thought I had lost forever, so that cheered me up.  It’s weird to think if she had never sent that email, both our lives would have gone on completely different paths.

Very Short Post

I was going to be good and not go online after Shabbat (the Sabbath), but I needed to put my computer on to send an email and record some writing ideas, so I thought I would say hi.

The shul Zoom Kaballat Shabbat (synagogue Zoom Friday evening service) was not great.  I had a lot of social anxiety, worried people could see my room, worried people would think I had switched off my webcam when it simply doesn’t work for more than a minute or two, worried I could be heard even with my microphone muted, just generally worried…  They got everyone to mute their microphones, but it meant it didn’t sound particularly loud and “together,” if that makes sense.  I probably won’t do that again.  To be honest, I think using Zoom for more than three or four people just freaks me out and confuses me a bit and I’m not sure why (probably an autism thing).

I seem to wake up around 8am and go back to sleep because I worry I haven’t had enough sleep or simply feel too overwhelmed to start the day.  I think I need to try to get up then and stay up, somehow, as it would get me some more time in the day.

That was it, really.

Oh, I get emails from various library blogs for work reasons.  I opened my email after Shabbat and found that The New York Public Library blog has just posted a massive list of “raised Orthodox, rebelled, became secular” fiction and non-fiction to go with Unorthodox.  I know I said the other day that I don’t think there’s a massive conspiracy of publishers to promote leaving Orthodox Judaism and to silence people who join it, but it seemed a bit much not to put any books that present Orthodox Judaism in a positive light on the list, not even Chaim Potok’s The Chosen and its sequel The Promise or My Name is Asher Lev and its sequel The Gift of Asher Lev, both of which deal with people who defy the conventions of their Orthodox upbringing while not entirely burning their bridges with the community and still remaining fairly religious.

Wanting To Make Good Impressions

I went to bed early last night, at least for me, before midnight, but I couldn’t sleep, probably from having screen time too late, being up speaking to E. then blogging, then finishing the episode of Star Trek Voyager that had been interrupted by the Zoom call to my family.  I think I eventually fell asleep sometime between 12.30am and 1.00am.  As I expected, I didn’t wake up any earlier today or feel any better when I did wake up.  It’s hard to function when I can carry negative experiences over to the next day, but not positive ones.

I tried to do two hours of work on my novel today, thinking if I aim for two, I might regularly hit one, rather than aiming for one and ending up not doing anything.  E. says to regard writing as my career, but I keep feeling that it’s a hobby and I shouldn’t focus on it to the detriment of family stuff, religious stuff, exercise, job hunting and so on.

I’m also worried my female protagonist isn’t proactive enough.  I’m trying to make her story more clearly a kind of parabola of being sucked into an abusive relationship and then escaping from it.  Nevertheless, I spent about two hours writing (including some procrastination time, but I think my unconscious mind keeps working even when my conscious mind is stuck in ‘idle’), producing 1,000 words.

On a related note, I listened to the Intimate Judaism panel discussion on the presentation of Hasidic sexuality in Unorthodox, the Netflix TV series based on Deborah Feldman’s memoir of leaving her strict Satmar Hasidic upbringing.  I’m vaguely worried that in writing in my novel about issues like domestic abuse or mental illness in the frum (Orthodox Jewish) world, non-Jews will have an unfairly negative view of Judaism and Orthodox Jews will feel I’m doing a hatchet job on the community, which is not my intention.  The problem is that well-adjusted people living healthy lives with healthy relationships does not make for an interesting story!  Drama is built on conflict.  In later drafts I may deliberately expend some energy on more balanced secondary characters (I will need to work on secondary characters anyway; in classic autistic style, I’ve struggled to remember that my three main characters can actually interact with other people).

I remember when the book version of Unorthodox came out.  I think several other ex-Orthodox memoirs came out around the same time.  There was a lot of discussion online about them, and whether secular publishing houses were biased in favour of religious-to-secular-journey memoirs rather than secular-to-religious-journey ones.  While the former probably does make more sense to most potential publishers and readers, I suspect the lack of secular-to-religious books is dictated by the numerically small number of ba’alei teshuva (Jews raised secular who become religious) and gerim (non-Jews who convert to Judaism) and the fact that the Orthodox community simply does not put a premium on literature.  Our energies go elsewhere, rightly or wrongly.  In any case, it is hard to imagine a ba’al teshuva memoir that wasn’t reluctant to acknowledge negatives in the religious community or which didn’t create a stark moral divide between the Orthodox and secular worlds, the former positive and the latter overwhelmingly negative.  I’m not saying it’s impossible, just that I can’t see the type of people who write “how I became frum” memoir articles for outreach websites writing it.

Although I also worry that my book is going to finish to heavily in the “God” camp.  I’m trying to work hard to earn some measure of redemption for my characters, but it’s hard.

***

Other than that, I went for a forty-five minute walk, including a few minutes in Tesco.  I was worried to see that they have apparently ended the “one in, one out” policy they had in place.  I still got the milk we needed, but I will try to avoid going back there until after lockdown, although it’s not always possible.  I spent about ten or fifteen minutes finishing my devar Torah for the week and another half an hour on other Torah study (I’m hoping to do a little more before bed).  I also backed up my iTunes library, a task that I’ve been putting off for ages and was pleasingly easier than I feared it would be.

***

My omer beard itches like crazy, and we’re only halfway to Lag Ba’Omer.

***

My shul (synagogue) is doing a special Friday night thing tomorrow.  Starting with a lechayim (why must alcohol be involved?) they are doing a Zoom Kabbalat Shabbat, the early part of the Friday night Shabbat service, where most of the singing is.  Most of this can be said before Shabbat so computers can stay on.  This will stop before Shabbat so we can turn off our computers and then finish the service by ourselves.

I’m not sure what I feel about this.  It could be good to sing Kabbalat Shabbat in a group again.  However, I feel it might feel weird over Zoom, plus I do often find the service too noisy if people are banging on tables or clapping.  Plus, we would be starting extra early, which might make things a rush, especially if tomorrow I feel burnt out from doing so much today.  Still, it would probably be good to feel part of a community again, even if only virtual.  Hmm.

Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases

“You’re a loser, Joni, or whatever your name is, because you live in fear and that isn’t really living at all, is it?  Now, I don’t live in fear.  I’m alive.” – Life on Mars episode 1.4 by Ashley Pharoah

I woke up at 10am today and got up at 11am, which was good.  It was late, but earlier than recently.  In terms of activity, I tried to work on my novel for an hour after lunch.  I made a little progress, but struggled to write light, witty, flirty date dialogue unsurprisingly.  I’m not sure how I’m going to get through this chapter.  Hard work, I suppose.  I wrote about 250 words, which is half of my usual hourly target.  I spent a lot of time procrastinating and read a “long read” article on the BBC news website about the US government’s response to coronavirus when I should have been writing.

I felt very anxious and depressed today, which also didn’t help me to get in the writing zone.  I had less specific anxiety about coronavirus or Pesach (although a little about the former) and more general feelings of depression and anxiety.  I know from my past that anxiety about X can manifest as worrying about Y, even though X and Y are totally unrelated and X may be vastly more important and serious than Y.  Some of that may be happening here.  I do over-analyse myself, “What am I feeling?  Am I feeling the right thing?”  As if there’s a “right” thing to feel.

I’ve never had much success with mental health/CBT affirmations, but I’m trying to tell myself “My thoughts are not always my friends” which helped somewhat with controlling my religious OCD in the past.  The anxiety and depression fluctuated throughout the day, getting better after my run (see below), but by the evening I was feeling awful, just wanting to curl up and sleep while the world went away.  I had a brief Skype call with E., but I felt bad at being in a state, although I know she cares enough to want to see me when I feel like that.

***

I went on my Officially Sanctioned Single Daily Exercise Session (I went for a run).  I added a bit more distance to my usual run, which coincidentally took the time taken up to exactly thirty minutes, which is good.  Pace and stamina were pretty good too, at least by my recent standards.  There were a few people around, but most looked like they were exercising rather than going anywhere in particular.  The run did seem to help with the anxious thoughts, which is good to know for the future.

***

I joined in with a global simultaneous Jewish prayer meeting.  No Skype/Zoom connection, just thousands of people praying at the same time.  I stuck with the shorter list of Tehillim (Psalms) and prayers on the Orthodox Union website rather than the longer, more mystical list of prayers sent out by my rabbi (although that list confirmed my suspicions that Tehillim chapter 120 on the OU list should have read 121).

The other virtual community thing I did today was watch a live shiur (religious class) given by Rabbi Lord Sacks via YouTube.  I haven’t really been part of a streamed event like that before, so it was interesting to see the number of viewers grow.  There were about 770 by the end, which was good considering that it was only advertised today.  It’s weird how social isolation is bringing people together.  I then spent nearly an hour researching and writing my weekly devar Torah (Torah thought).  So it was a fairly solid day from a religious point of view.

***

Back to anxiety and depression…

Another of parents’ friends had another baby.  I just feel… It’s like other people have bad times – illness, bereavement, relationship breakdown, unemployment – and then after a while it goes and something good happens.  And with me, I have bad things, and they stick around, and eventually other bad things join them and I feel even worse.

Compared with the quote at the top, I do feel like I’m living in fear, of everything (illness, bereavement, relationship breakdown, unemployment), and it isn’t really living, but it’s all I’ve got.  Which leads to all the “Why is this happening to me?  Am I a bad person?  Does God hate me?” questions.

Anyway, I need to go, or I’ll miss my “No screens after 11pm” deadline.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

I’ve been sucked into more anxiety about coronavirus/COVID-19.  Shuls (synagogues) are closing down for the indefinite future, which is scary.  Even the Nazis couldn’t stop Jews praying together, but apparently coronavirus can.  Now I’m having all kinds of fears about the next few weeks, the run up to Pesach, perhaps the most intensive Jewish festival in terms of preparation.  It’s like Christmas on steroids, in terms not just of cooking, but cleaning and kashering (removing all trace of food and taste from utensils, sinks, ovens etc. usually using intense heat).

What if I get COVID-19 and can’t kasher our kitchen for Pesach?  Will that cause problems?  What if Mum gets it and can’t cook (I can do some of the cooking, but I don’t know how to cook meat)?  How will we have a seder if some of us (meaning, my family) have it and some of us don’t?  And, of course, the underlying worry, what if Mum gets it with her immune system suppressed?  That’s probably the root fear at the moment.  There isn’t much I can do about any of this, really.  I know on the “worry tree,” this would all be hypothetical.  Except it doesn’t feel hypothetical, it feels very real, particularly when this is the only subject on the news.

***

Margaret commented the other day to say that she envied me my faith.  It’s strange, because I don’t feel like I have strong faith and haven’t for a long time.  I mean, I believe, but in Judaism there’s a difference between emunah, belief that God exists on the one hand, and bitachon, trust that God will protect, on the other.  I struggle a lot with bitachon.  There is just so much bad stuff in the world, and there has been so much bad stuff in my life.  On some level I do believe that God is in control and that everything is for the best, but it’s hard to see that in the world around me sometimes.  And I don’t like easy answers about “everything will turn out for the best” because it seems a betrayal of my experience and the experiences of millions of others who suffered.

There’s a joke about a rabbi who spends years searching for the meaning of life, studying TorahTanakh, Midrash, Mishnah, Gemarah, Kabbalah, Hasidut, Mussar, everything Jewish, and at the ends, after years of searching he sits up and says, “Life is good.”  And then he pauses and thinks and says, “But if life is good… how come it’s so bad?”  That’s probably a very Jewish joke.  To say that everything is good and some things are bad.  That’s a line we actually see in our holy texts and even in halakhah (Jewish law).  That’s the twist at the end of Iyov (Job), that God is in control… but it’s Iyov who questioned God’s justice who is vindicated by God, not his friends who mouthed platitudes about everything being for the best.  Iyov was true to our experience of the world and the greatness of God; he didn’t cut God down to size to fit our preconceptions.

That’s also the meaning of an interesting halakhah.  If something good happens, we say one blessing to thank God for it.  If something bad happens, we say a different blessing, to accept God’s decree.  So the Talmud asks, what do you do if something happens which is bad now, but will be good later (the example is a flood, which destroys this year’s crop, but deposits sediment that will fertilise next year’s crop and make it grow better) and it says we say the “bad thing” blessing, because that’s our experience now.  When the Messiah comes, we will say the “good thing” blessing all the time, because we’ll see the good that is present in the bad, but now we’re not there yet, we have to recognise the bad and not deny it.

Jews do think that there’s no contradiction in saying (A) A benevolent, omnipotent God controls the universe for the good and (B) Many things in the universe seem, to our subjective experience, bad, even very bad.  I know since I got back together with E. that a lot of things that seemed bad in the past now seem like they happened for a reason, to get us both together.  So maybe we’ll look back on this one day and understand it.  But for now, a lot of things seem bad, and it’s enough of a struggle just to see the bad and accept it as from God without trying to find the deeper meaning.

Ugh, I’m not sure where I’m going with this any more.  Sorry, that turned into a bit of a ramble.

***

I’m still trapped in a nocturnal cycle, which is not good.  I stayed up late yesterday doing Torah study and working on my novel, then watching TV to unwind a bit before bed.  I think I need a ‘no screens after 11pm rule’ as it can be hard to sleep afterward TV or computer use – not always, but sometimes, which makes me take a chance too often.  I wanted to get up earlier today as I knew the doctor was phoning (a phone appointment I made before coronavirus made the surgery switch entirely to distance appointments) and wanted to be dressed and ready beforehand, but I was very depressed and exhausted as usual on waking at 10am and stayed in bed drifting in and out of sleep until 11.45am.  I felt better after eating something, which makes me wonder if there’s a better way of dealing with this, but I was still in pyjamas when the doctor phoned.  I used to feel bad about taking phone calls in my pyjamas, but over the years it’s become normal.  In a way it’s good that I’ve adjusted somewhat to my illnesses and issues, but in other ways it feels bad, like I should be pushing myself more.

The doctor wrote me a new medical certificate.  He sent me a copy on my phone that I could print, but, of course, he hasn’t signed it, because it’s online, and now I’m worried what the Department of Work and Pensions will say.  I’m sure that the doctor has written medical certificates online before, but I still worry.  More troubling than this, I can’t get the form to download or print properly and I can’t work out why.  It won’t download on my phone nor will it download or print on my laptop or my Dad’s laptop.  I need to speak to the surgery tomorrow.

I also asked the doctor about the stomach cramps I’ve been experiencing and he felt that as they were intermittent and becoming less frequent they weren’t anything to worry about.

The rest of the day was another day of functioning, but not thriving, with moments of strong depression.   It took me about two hours to cook dinner.  Partly this was because I was listening to a podcast (Giles Fraser talking to Rabbi Lord Sacks on Unherd) and am bad at multitasking and stop cooking to listen at times, but partly it was because I was overwhelmed emotionally a couple of times.

I spent some time on my devar Torah (Torah thought) for this week.  I was hoping to get this done quickly and use some time later in the week for preparing divrei Torah for the Pesach sederim, but it took me an hour and twenty minutes, although I did at least learn more than I knew when I started writing and researching.  Sefaria.org is an amazing site for out of copyright Jewish texts in Hebrew and Aramaic and also sometimes in translation, although I’ve been warned that not all the translations are accurate.

That was about all I managed to do today.  I wanted to work on my novel too, but decided it was too late and I was too tired.  I’m not going to reach my “no screens after 11pm” target tonight, but I might get off my laptop shortly after 11.00 if I don’t work on my novel, then finish the episode of Star Trek Voyager I’m halfway through some time before midnight.

***

My parents’ copy of my non-fiction Doctor Who book arrived today.  Dad asked me to sign it, insisting me it should not just be “To Mum and Dad, with love,” but something personal.  I’m pretty bad at this sort of writing.  My birthday cards usually just say “Dear X, happy birthday!  Have a great day!  Love Luftmentsch”.  I need to think of something.  My parents do watch Doctor Who, but they aren’t avid fans, so in-jokes like “Happy times and places!” aren’t going to work.

***

To explain about the title, I thought it was a good title, but I don’t really have anything to say here at the moment about me and E. (yes, it’s going fine, no I don’t want to jinx it by speaking to much about it, or violate her confidence or our privacy).  But I thought it was a good title, so it’s staying even though it doesn’t relate at all to the contents of the post.  Think of it in the tradition of Doctor Who titles that bear little relation to the episodes they grace, like Coronas of the Sun (not Coronaviruses of the Sun).

***

Wiped Out

I woke up at 10.00am feeling OK, except for a sore neck, but somehow I feel asleep again and when I woke up after 12.30pm, I was very depressed and exhausted, although my neck didn’t hurt any more.

I intended to have a run before lunch, but I was too depressed and exhausted to get going, still being in my pyjamas at 3.00pm.  I had a What’sApp chat with E., which at least raised my mood enough to get dressed and have lunch, although I postponed davening (praying) until after lunch, which I don’t like and usually manage to avoid doing.  I wanted to get at least a bit of exercise, so I went for a half hour walk in the cold while it was still just about light.

I emailed some job agencies yesterday to say I’m looking for work again and one emailed me back with something.  I had already seen the job on a job email and hadn’t applied yet as it is full-time, which I don’t feel up to doing, and requires experience with serials management, which I don’t have.  But I thought I should at least go for it and see what happens, so I asked them to put my CV forward.  Of course, I’m now worrying that I’ll have to work on Purim and Pesach and have problems with Shabbat starting early on Fridays and so on, not to mention working full-time or nearly full-time…  I know, I should get the job before I worry about how I will cope with it.

The other major achievement today was finishing the bibliography for my non-fiction Doctor Who book.  It ended up about 100 items, which seems OK for a select bibliography, especially considering I did little research as such, I just drew on nearly thirty years of experience obsessing about Doctor Who and tried retroactively to remember where I’d seen facts years before.  I also spent twenty-five minutes on Torah study, reading The Art of Biblical Poetry, which was a lot given how bad I was feeling.

Successful Shabbat

Shabbat (the Sabbath) was good, overall.  Shul (synagogue) on Friday night was OK.  I had dinner with my family, which is still overshadowed by Mum’s cancer diagnosis, then back to shul at 8.30pm for an evening learning event.  There were twelve of us, including the rabbi running the event (not the regular shul rabbi).  First was chevruta (paired) study of the key sources in the Talmud and later commentators and law codes.  We spent about thirty or forty minutes coming to grips with these and then there was a short shiur (class) for fifteen or twenty minutes applying the principles from the texts.  I was paired with one of my friends, to my relief, and we did OK going through the texts.  We were on similar levels, I think, which made it better than these situations sometimes go with me, both in terms of confidence and thinking of things to say.  It was a highly technical discussion of a point of law in the Jewish laws of property and damages, not the type of thing I usually like study, but I found it quite interesting.  There was a short piece of aggadata (non-legal material, in this case narrative) in the midst of the halakhah (Jewish law) which made things a bit easier for me (about a caravan in the ancient Middle East that was being stalked by a lion, so every evening they left one of their donkeys for the lion in the hope that it would be satiated and not attack the caravan.  It made me wonder what they did if they ran out of donkeys).  Afterwards there was potato kugel (kugel is a kind of pudding that can be made of various things, sweet or savoury, but most often grated potato).  This was the one week when we had potato kugel for dinner at home, but I would never turn down more.  As I said to Dad, kugels are like buses, you wait ages and then two come along at once.  I was glad to be socialising in a ‘safe’ environment in shul and was glad there were relatively few people there, so I did not get overwhelmed and also was visibly joining in and not merging into the background.

When we were sitting around eating kugel and drinking whisky (not me, but the other men) the rabbi quoted something (I didn’t catch where from) that said that doing a mitzvah against difficulty means the reward is one hundred-fold.  He was thinking of all of us coming out in the cold, wet and wind at night, but I thought of my depression, social anxiety and autism.  Even if “one hundred-fold” is rabbinic hyperbole, I felt that maybe I should cut myself some slack for trying to be a good Jew under difficult circumstances.

I didn’t push myself to get up early for shul this morning, but I did go back for Minchah, Talmud shiur and Ma’ariv (Afternoon Service, Talmud class and Evening Service).  There was no one willing or able to lead Minchah so I was asked.  I hadn’t done it for about five  years, not since we came to this community.  I have been more tuneful, but I don’t think I made any obvious mistakes aside from misunderstanding the rabbi about when to start on two occasions.  I even coped with slowly reading the Aramaic passage recited when taking the Torah scroll out, although I felt that people were staring at me and mentally wondering why I didn’t restart.  I shook with anxiety a little, but not as violently I did when leading weekday services at this shul previously, so maybe I’m becoming more confident with participating in this shul.  I didn’t (thank G-d!) drop the Torah scroll from shaking as I was vaguely worried about.

My devar Torah (Torah thought) email that I shared with a slightly wider group of people before Shabbat this week also seems to have gone down well, so maybe I’m beginning to move outwards into the community again after a period of retrenchment and mental health struggle over the last five years.

***

Today is my parents’ wedding anniversary (before you ask, no, they didn’t deliberately go for a Valentine’s weekend wedding, it just ended up like that).  They bought a very rich chocolate cake for dessert for Shabbat meals.  They don’t normally do that for their anniversary, only for family birthdays, and I felt that it was partly a kind of reward because of the stressful few weeks we’ve had with Mum’s cancer diagnosis.  It was really good cake, though, and we’ve still got quite a bit left.

***

After Shabbat, I did a bit more work on the bibliography for my non-fiction Doctor Who book.  I got through a pile of books that came out between 1997 and 2006, basically from the point where Doctor Who seemed to be dead until the point where it had come back, but the new generation of fans had not quite arrived yet.  It’s the Doctor Who fandom I heard about and tentatively joined in via Doctor Who Magazine (particularly the editorships of Gary Gillatt, Alan Barnes and Clayton Hickman), books like Doctor Who: From A to ZLicence Denied and Doctor Who: The Book of Lists and later joined more fully in the Oxford University Doctor Who Society (Doc Soc) and its fanzine The Tides of Time.  It was a slightly strange fandom, a place where on the one hand people would take the programme extremely seriously and write lengthy quasi-scholarly articles about themes or characterisation, and then five minutes later they would be completely taking the Mickey and making fun of the whole thing, sometimes even in the same article.

I suppose I was only ever really on the fringes of that fandom; the Doc Soc was my greatest involvement, and that was only a small society when I was there.  In 2005 the programme came back on TV and completely changed the demographic of fandom; later the arrival of social media and Twitter would alter the way that fans communicated.  I’m not really involved in fandom any more.  I just read and comment on a couple of blogs run by people I consider friends as much as fellow fans.  I still read Doctor Who Magazine (and tried to pitch to write for it, without success), but it feels very much like an ‘official’ piece of merchandise now and not the upmarket glossy quasi-fanzine it once aimed to be.  You won’t see anyone criticise anything or lightly make fun of anything; in fact, they’re not even running reviews of the new episodes.

I’ve sometimes ventured onto Doctor Who Twitter, but I find it a bit scary: sometimes quick to take offense and rather political, plus I find Twitter in general a source of angst and time wasting and I try to avoid it.  I’ve never been to a convention, either pre- or post-new series.  Part of me would like to go, but part of me, particularly the autistic part of me, is scared stiff at the thought of it.  I would like to find that kind of fan commentary/appreciation/gentle mockery that I used to find in the late nineties and early noughties, but I’m not sure it even exists any more, let alone where to find it.  And I wish I had been a bit more involved in “my” fandom when it was thriving, even if I wasn’t in it now, although I suppose I was too young and socially anxious to get much more involved.

***

I wrote a long comment tonight about autism and my religious beliefs on MidWestAspie’s blog.  I’ve decided to cross-post my comment here (cutting off a bit that is a not relevant and correcting a couple of typos) as it touches on some issues I’ve raised here, but never really spoken about at length:

Interesting post. I have heard other people on the spectrum say that their ASD made them leave their religious upbringing. I’m the reverse. I’m a religious Orthodox Jew and in the process of getting an ASD diagnosis (I’m pretty sure I’m on the spectrum, and have been told I am by mental health practitioners, but don’t have the bit of paper yet). I was raised traditional, but not fully religious and became a lot more religious in my teens and early twenties. I’ve never really felt a clash between those aspects of my self (ASD and Judaism).

My university background is in the humanities (history and then information management) rather than science, so maybe that’s made me more open to the idea that things exist, and can be shown to be likely to exist or to be a certain way, without our being able to “prove” that they exist like a scientific or mathematical proof. For example, I think Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo, but I can’t prove that in the way that a scientist can prove that e=mc2 or the way Decartes tried to prove that “I think therefore I am.” When I was in my twenties I went through a kind of religious crisis about this type of thing, but this was the position that I eventually came to. I think whether a system has meaning is not falsifiable in a Popperian sense. You can say that God is an unnecessary hypothesis, but if you find meaning in an idea or a practice, I think there is truth to that meaning even if the data it rests on is, in some sense, flawed (I’m not sure if I’m explaining this well).

OTOH, I have a quite existential approach to faith. A number of years ago I was reading a lot in Jewish religious existentialists (e.g. Rav Soloveitchik, Levinas, Heschel, Fackenheim, Buber) and am still very influenced by them. The emphasis on dialogue and encounter and ethics. I don’t feel much security from my faith in the way that you say your parents do and in the way that I see other people in my community react. I went through another religious crisis of a kind in recent years where I was sure that God hated me, but I eventually realised that I was just projecting my own low self-esteem. But I don’t feel that God is my Cosmic Buddy who will do what I ask, nor do I think much about the afterlife or reward or stuff like that. I talk to God, but I don’t expect Him to answer me in an immediate or overt way. I don’t expect my life to go well in this world just because I try to keep the Torah. Maybe it’s not part of my psychological make-up (or ASD), maybe it’s the pessimism that comes from two decades of mental illness, or maybe it’s just that Judaism is a very present-centred religion and we don’t talk much about Heaven or reward, even though we believe in them.

I’ve never had the type of religious experience you describe and I wouldn’t know what to do with it if I did. I absolutely don’t believe Judaism means giving up my responsibility. On the contrary, Judaism, and especially Jewish existentialism, means accepting a huge amount of responsibility. Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, the nineteenth century proto-Jewish existentialist thinker, said, “The seeking is the finding” and that is how I relate to Judaism, it is an ongoing quest for me to find meaning in my life and in my people’s traditions, not a set of answers someone else is spoon-feeding me.

I know there are people in the Orthodox Jewish community who like being spoon-fed. I know that there are people who believe a lot of stuff I consider incorrect, silly or occasionally dangerous, whether its creationism or magical thinking (segulot) or whatever. And on my blog I write a lot about my trouble fitting in to my community and getting annoyed about things people believe or say. But the fact that other people believe things that I think are wrong doesn’t make me think that everything they believe must be wrong, if I find meaning in it. And I’m not bothered about other people finding meaning in their own traditions, because I believe that, as Rabbi Lord Sacks said (and got in trouble for saying with the ultra-Orthodox) God is bigger than religion and God speaks to people in different ways. I do believe the Torah to be a qualitatively different type of truth from other religions, but even if I felt that Judaism was exactly equal to other religious truths, there is a Burkean conservative aspect to my mind that makes me think there is meaning and goodness in following and maintaining the traditions, customs and festivals of one’s own people regardless of what others think or do.

There probably is more I could add to this, but it’s late and this post is too long already.  I will say that there probably was a time, when I was in my teens or twenties, when, if my life had gone differently, I could perhaps have become an atheist, possibly even the aggressively militant type.  I suppose I was lucky that I knew enough to convince myself that the militant atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens etc.) were overstating their case and didn’t really know much about Judaism from the inside.  It does make my head hurt a bit wondering what might have been and what that would mean for me, but you drive yourself mad thinking like that.

Crashing

I struggled with sleep again, mostly insomnia, but also waking a bit earlier than intended.  I got about five and a half hours in the end and dosed myself up on coffee this morning.  I got up extra-early because it was Rosh Chodesh (New Moon) and there was extra davening (prayers) although I only do I tiny amount of Shacharit (Morning Prayers) most days because of depression, excluding the days I’m too depressed to get up in time to daven Shacharit at all.

At work the people from the company who I wanted to speak to about setting up a library management system (LMS)/online catalogue (OPAC) phoned an hour early.  I was going to be super-ready for them, but because they phoned early the cleaner was hoovering in the library and I had to hurriedly find somewhere else to take the call, which probably didn’t seem very professional.  The call was short as they said what I expected: that the LMS/OPAC is really for larger libraries with larger budgets.

After that I made and laminated some signs for the library so that people can locate books now that I’ve moved things around a lot.  I also started looking at alternatives to the LMS and OPAC, using websites intended for individuals or small libraries to catalogue their collections for free or cheaply.  I think this is promising, although I’m not sure if we will be able to link easily to the institution’s website.  A bigger problem is that I doubt that either system can allow cataloguing in Hebrew, but I had a quick look around the library and I estimate the number of Hebrew (rather than bilingual) books is fairly small as a percentage of the whole library, so this may not be a big problem.  (EDIT: as I was writing I heard back that one of the sites does allow non-Latin alphabets, but the search function using them is not as thorough.)

The main issue is whether I have a job after this week.  I spoke to the benefactor who owns the library.  He seemed pleased with what I had done, but didn’t really look around or ask what I had actually been doing.  He said that he will only carry on paying for my salary if the institution as a whole contributes, so I’m currently waiting to hear what will happen.  I’m pessimistic as to whether they have the money or inclination to keep me on.  There isn’t any work to do on this phase of the plan (as opposed to if they keep me on to try to find a cataloguing solution), so at the moment I’m not going in on Wednesday.  The benefactor said to invoice for it anyway, which was nice.  I found the whole meeting awkward.  I was nervous and worried that I was incoherent.  I wasn’t entirely sure what he wanted to hear, and we were having the conversation while there was a shiur (religious class) going on across the room, so it was not under ideal conditions.

I feel pessimistic about the job and shouldn’t.  It is possible that the institution and the benefactor will come to an agreement about paying my salary.  Even if they don’t, I’ve had some good experience in writing proposals, planning, researching and executing a project unsupervised, as well as dealing with stakeholders and “difficult” library users (a classic interview question, so something to remember).

The pessimism has spread.  I feel more downbeat about my relationship with E. today, not the relationship itself, just whether we will ever manage to sort it out.  I still think we probably will, even if it takes years.  It’s hard to wait though and if we want children there’s a time limit (albeit not a very imminent one).  Although whether we could cope with children is yet another issue.

I am unsure whether I should try to go for Chartership (the next stage of librarianship).  I was going to try, but if I don’t have this job as experience, I’m not sure I will be able to complete the necessary amount of work in time and there is a fee just to start so I don’t really want to do that if I’m not going to get anywhere (annoyingly CILIP’s website doesn’t say how much the fee is).

I decided I couldn’t be bothered to return the defective second-hand CD I bought (case completely broken and a track I don’t even like doesn’t play properly, but it did download to iTunes so I can play it there).  Having spent well under £3 for it, including postage, it didn’t seem worth the bother and I could easily end up spending more to buy a replacement copy.  But it just feels like another thing going wrong.

Just to round the day off, I watched yesterday’s Doctor Who episode, which I didn’t watch on transmission because of the family dinner.  I thought it was awful.  A “laughing at” rather than “laughing with” episode.  And it could have been so good!  The ideas were potentially intriguing, if somewhat familiar from previous years.  Bear in mind that I quite like Arachnids in the UK, perhaps the Chibnall episode most like this*.  Meh.  I’m not enjoying this series at all, and I take no satisfaction in saying that, especially as I felt series eleven, while not great, was on the way to being something better and defended it against people who said it was “Too PC” or “boring history lessons.”  But everything that was interesting and innovative about that series seems to have been jettisoned and replaced with tired rehashes of Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat’s greatest hits.  (Although Heaven Sent and Hell Bent seem to have been forgotten as the Doctor is back to mere “thousands” of years old and Gallifrey is destroyed twice rather than three times, four if you count the novels.)

Doctor Who rant over!

***

Just generally speaking, today I feel that the world I live in is uncomfortable and just plain wrong, but as a student of history and a reader of science fiction, I’m not sure I know of any other worlds that are any better.  I feel that I just mess stuff up and that stuff I don’t mess up is messed up for me.

I’m not sure what to do with the evening, what’s left of it.  I’m too tired for extra Torah (I managed half an hour or so on the Tube in to work, but was too tired to do any on the way home) or work on my novel.  I might just watch Star Trek Voyager and hope it’s better than Doctor Who was, disloyal fan though that makes me feel.  I feel too depressed to do anything useful, and despairing about the future (work, E., life in general).  I’m not sure where this has suddenly come from.  I feel like I’m a bad person even though I don’t think I have evidence to substantiate that claim, or not enough to prove it to the extent that I feel.  I feel like I’m not going to keep this job or find a new one.  I feel that E. and I will never get things sorted no matter how hard we try.  I feel that my life never works out.  I have a physical health issue I won’t go into now (not hugely worrying, just irritating).  And I’ve just remembered there’s a super-scary thing happening this week that I’m really worried about that I can’t even write about here.

I just feel in a state suddenly.  I hate it when my mood suddenly plummets.  Somehow it seems my fault.  Like, I was OK (admittedly for a very poor definition of “OK”) a few minutes ago, so why can’t I stay OK like normal people?  OK isn’t even happy, just moderately OK for a bit.

My parents had a dinner party a few weeks ago and bought Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.  There’s been a load left in the freezer ever since and I haven’t eaten any because of my semi-diet.  E. said I had strong will-power.  That may change…

***

One amusing thing today: I read a news article too quickly and for a moment I thought that the Labour leadership frontrunner Sir Keir Starmer was advocating a system of government “built on the principle of feudalism.”  This seemed shocking and unlikely, but after the last five years I wasn’t ruling anything out as impossible.  Perhaps fortunately, on re-reading it turned out that I had misread “federalism.”  This is a shame, as I was hoping for a new career as a knight errant.

 

* Admittedly my favourite bit from that episode only happened in my head.  When the Doctor asks Robertson, “Are all your hotels built on repurposed sites?” he answers, “No, some of them are built on Native American graveyards.”  It’s my headcanon and I’m sticking to it.

The Real Me

Shabbat (the Sabbath) was much like other recent Shabbatot: a mixture of shul (synagogue) and home stuff.  The home stuff was OK; the shul stuff was mostly OK, but I still missed Shacharit (Morning Prayers) again due to social anxiety.  I think trying to “build up” to morning shul isn’t going to work because the problem is more complex than straightforward social anxiety.  On a fundamental level, I’m scared of rejection in this community, partly from my mental health issues and autism (cf. the person who was dismissive of my explanation for not attending shul), and partly because I know my religious level is not completely right.  At the moment I can put up with things, but I worry how people would react if the “real me” came out, either through sending out some of my devar Torah (Torah thought) emails to people and seeing how they react or through something bigger.

I could have put myself forward to lead Mincha (Afternoon Service) today because no one else was willing/able, but I was too scared and in the end they got someone else.  I think no one actually believes I could do it.  It would be nice to prove them wrong, but I am too worried about shaking.

A different, scarier, way that the real me could come out presented itself today.  There are weekly devar Torah sheets in shul.  One is a weekly halakhah (Jewish law) digest.  This week the topic was separation of genders.  This is a big difference between Modern Orthodox and Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) communities.  In Modern Orthodox communities there is division of men and women during prayer, but generally not in other events (Torah study events, shul social events, wedding parties etc.).  In Haredi communities gender segregation is the norm absolutely everywhere from fear that “immorality” will result from social contact.  If you get invited to dinner at someone’s house you will often find men at one end of the dining room table and women at the other, although this is not an absolute rule.

This halakhah sheet was very strict, probably more so than my shul, which can be a bit half-hearted, so at kiddush (refreshments after Shabbat morning service), men stand one side of the table and women on the other, but people talk across the table and not just to their spouse, which I find sillier than complete mingling.  I guess I worry what will happen if I get married.  I don’t really want a gender-segregated wedding, as I find it halakhically unnecessary and my friends and family would find it weird and disconcerting.  My understanding is that forty or fifty years ago even in the most ultra-Orthodox weddings there was mixed seating at the party and no one had an issue with it; the sexualisation of Western popular culture in the last half-century has prompted an extreme movement in the opposite direction in the Orthodox world and as is usually the case, both extremes are problematic and the best course is in the middle.  But then, would that mean that I couldn’t invite anyone from my shul to my wedding?

(Of course, first I need to sort out getting married…)

So that was Shabbat.  After Shabbat I spent about an hour working on my novel, with a bit of procrastination but not too much.  I wrote about 500 words again.  I spent some time researching self-publishing for my Doctor Who non-fiction book.  I’m now tempted to go with Lulu.com as I think it will be cheaper than IngramSpark, although it’s hard to guess how costs will mount up.  I’m worried that I have zero skill for graphic design (for the cover) and marketing, which will be major factors in making sales, but this has really turned into a vanity project and I just want to get it out there now.

And that’s about it for today.  Going to try to go to bed soon even though I don’t feel tired in the hope I might get up earlier tomorrow.

No Man Is an Island

… and that goes double for members of traditional communities, who find themselves with strong communal obligations, but not necessarily communal support.  To put it another way, I had a good Shabbat (Sabbath) on a personal level, but a not so good one on a communal level.

On the plus side, I did a chunk of Torah study and mostly followed the Talmud shiur (class) this week.  I had mild insomnia again, but I read quite a bit of the novel I’ve just started, Penguin Lost, the sequel to the novel Death and the Penguin, about a Ukrainian obituary writer and his pet penguin who get involved with the Russian Mafia.  I read the first book in the worst period of my life, the winter of 2003-04, when I was in Oxford, depressed, suicidal, feeling desperately lonely and unable to work, but my tutors wanted me to stick around to see if my antidepressants could kick in at some point (they didn’t).  I’m not sure why I decided to read it then, as it has comedic elements, but is dark.  The sequel came out fairly soon afterwards, but I didn’t get it, although I enjoyed the first book, as I didn’t feel like re-reading the first one in preparation.  I eventually decided that Death and the Penguin lingers in my memory much more strongly than books I’ve read far more recently, so I might as well just get the sequel and read it.  So far it’s good, but not as good as the first one, although I might be mis-remembering after sixteen years.

The other good things were not freaking out with religious OCD when someone did something that I would not have done, but which my rabbi mentor tells me is OK; and not being jealous of the person my age at shul (synagogue) whose eldest son was bar mitzvah.  I think I can see other people’s lives as just so ridiculously different to mine that there is no point even getting upset over the differences any more.  While it’s still possible that I’ll work full-time, get married and have kids some day, it’s clearly not happening any time soon.

On the downside…

As I mentioned, there was a bar mitzvah in shul over Shabbat so there were a lot of extra people on Friday night and I couldn’t sit in my regular seat or anywhere near it.  This is the type of thing that I used to think didn’t worry me in an autistic way, but I now realise actually does throw me, particularly if there are knock-on social anxiety implications.  In this case, I was sitting next to someone I didn’t know so well and was worried about who I would have to shake hands with and wish gut Shabbos to after the service.  After Lecha Dodi, there was circle dancing again and this time I left the room because I just couldn’t face it… and one of the bar mitzvah guests followed me out!  On one level, I was kind of glad that I was not the only person who couldn’t cope with the dancing, but I also worried that he would initiate conversation, particularly about why I wasn’t dancing, so I spent several minutes moving around the rest of the shul trying to avoid him, which probably seemed rude or just weird.  I did manage to shake hands with the rabbi and father of the bar mitzvah boy after the service and wished the latter mazal tov, which for a while looked far too difficult for me to manage.

Then on the way out the person with some authority in the shul who has criticised me for not going to Shacharit (Morning Service) on Shabbat and made light of my saying that I have health issues asked if I was going to come the next day as he would call me to say the brachot (blessings) over the Torah.  I muttered something noncommittal, but I’m sure it made me feel super-anxious on Shabbat morning and unable to get up despite waking up early for once.

When I went to shul for Mincha (Afternoon Service) this afternoon, no one was willing/able to lead the service.  I wanted to volunteer as I used to do it in my old shul, but I was too shy.  It was partly social anxiety, partly fear of shaking and partly the fact that there’s a big paragraph of Aramaic in Mincha in this shul that we didn’t say in my old shul and which I read really slowly because I don’t understand Aramaic and I was worried about delaying everyone.  I felt bad, because, as with the divrei Torah (Torah essays) that I write, but am too scared to share with my community, it feels like a waste of whatever talents God has given me, but I’m just too scared of messing everything up and/or getting rejected by people.  I don’t know if they would even believe I can lead Shabbat Mincha if I volunteered, so little have I shown myself able to do things in this shul.

Then, after Mincha, when we were sitting around waiting for the Talmud shiur to start, someone asked why I led weekday Mincha the other week when I visibly did not look like I wanted to do it.  I didn’t realise it was so obvious.  I don’t know if he actually saw me shaking, but it will make me feel more self-conscious about it next time.  The dislike is more because of the shaking than anything else.  If I could get rid of that, I would feel a lot better about leading services, although I doubt I would actively volunteer for them (not least because that always seems arrogant and wrong to me).  Unfortunately, the shaking is caused by my taking olanzapine.  Various psychiatrists have tried to cut out the olanzapine, because it’s difficult to see what it’s doing for me when I’m also on clomipramine and lithium, but every time we try, my mood plummets dangerously and I have to come back on it.  So I guess I won’t be comfortable leading services for some time yet.

I wish I was good at something religiously in a way that I could use to fit in to my shul community.  If I could daven from the amud (lead services), write divrei Torah that I felt comfortable sharing, participate in the Talmud shiur more actively (ask and answer questions) or even just get to more services (like Shabbat mornings) so that I was a very regular shul-goer, particularly on weekdays when they struggle for a minyan (prayer quorum) it would be a start.  It’s things like that that help someone get accepted in a new community.  I feel I don’t have anything to buy my way in with (so to speak).

Oh, and someone told the story about when the rabbi of the Thursday shiur bet a £50 gift to tzedaka (charity) that no one would know the answer to his question and I answered it correctly.  I almost wish I hadn’t answered, so much has that question followed me around for the last few years.  So, on the whole a mixed Shabbat.

Motzei Shabbat (Saturday evening) has been a bit better.  I came back to see that an issue that has been ticking away in the background for a week and a half is still ticking away and I don’t know where it’s going or what I can do about it.  It’s worrying.  I did at least work for forty-five minutes or so on my novel, procrastinating a bit at the beginning, but being quite productive once I got down to it and writing 600 words (613 to be exact, a number loaded with Jewish significance).  I then watched Quantum of Solace, which apparently has a reputation for being one of the worst James Bond films.  I think it lived up to its reputation.  I am vaguely nostalgic for it, though, as I saw it in the cinema (one of only three Bond films I’ve seen in the cinema) with a group of people from a Jewish mental health support group.  I even squeezed in a Skype call with E., so the evening was better than the day.

Running on Empty

That was a difficult Shabbat (Sabbath).  I didn’t really want to go to shul (synagogue) on Friday evening (afternoon really; Shabbat started at 3.48pm) because I just felt too tired and overloaded.  I forced myself to go and probably would have felt worse if I had missed it, but I didn’t get much out of it.  I don’t seem to get much out of shul any more, if I ever did.  The mini-shiur (class) in the middle was on an obscure halakhic (Jewish law) matter that is, I suspect, primarily a superstition that has crept into minor law codes, but which has been unearthed by Haredi scholars who are looking for more laws and assume that nothing external to Judaism could enter the halakhic process so it must all be authentic and meaningful.  If you’ve read the famous essay Rupture and Reconstruction by Rabbi Haym Soloveitchik you’ll know what I mean (the essay concludes “Zealous to continue traditional Judaism unimpaired, religious Jews seek to ground their new emerging spirituality less on a now unattainable intimacy with Him [God], than on an intimacy with His Will, avidly eliciting Its intricate demands and saturating their daily lives with Its exactions. Having lost the touch of His presence, they seek now solace in the pressure of His yoke.”).

I came home and got through dinner with my family, but then I went and lay on my bed in the dark for half an hour.  I’m never sure, when I do that, if it’s a type of autistic withdrawal from emotional overload or just depression.  I guess they could overlap.

I just felt all evening that I’m running on empty, religiously.  I suppose emotionally too, although I’m only realising that now.  I still believe in God, and the Divine origin of the Torah, and the importance and meaningfulness of halakhah and the mitzvot (commandments), but it’s a struggle to get motivated to do anything Jewish.  I try to daven (pray) and do some Torah study (more on this below), but it’s hard.  Perhaps it would be easier if someone external was congratulating me when I do these things, or perhaps that would just feel patronising and make it seem worse.  I don’t know.  I just feel I have nothing left to give.  I want to keep Shabbat (it’s currently the only truly meaningful or enjoyable Jewish practice in my life) and I wouldn’t do anything drastic like stopping keeping kashrut (the dietary laws), but davening and Torah study get harder and harder, as do mitzvot that aren’t particularly strongly embedded in my life, like not listening to women singing (I was just listening to Annie Lennox/Eurythmics) or not watching stuff that has a lot of sex and violence (my recent binging on James Bond films that I had seen for decades, although to be honest I’m not greatly fond of sex and violence in fiction generally… I like the Roger Moore Bond films because they’re all deliberately cartoonish and unreal).

I don’t think I’ve ever got much out of my religion.  I know my parents became more religious because they found adopting certain practices meaningful or enjoyable, but that’s never been my motivation.  I’ve enjoyed too little for that to motivate me.  I used to enjoy Torah study.  I suppose I still do, if it’s about something that interests me.  I’m enjoying the Maggid Koren series of literary critical books on Tanakh (Hebrew Bible).  In fact, I finished the volume on Bereshit (Genesis: From Creation to Covenant) over Shabbat.  But these days I rarely experience any kind of meaningful connection with God when I daven or “learn” (study Torah… it’s probably telling that I usually say “study Torah” rather than “learn” as most Orthodox Jews do).  I’ve largely stopped meditating.

I know we’re supposed to serve God because it’s the right thing to do, because we’re in His covenant, but we’re supposed to enjoy it as well.  Other Jews talk about what they get from Judaism, whether it’s intellectual stimulation from “learning” or connection from davening or meditation or the feeling of emotional support in the community, or the warmth of Jewish families…  Religious Jews will say that Judaism enables us to enjoy the physical world meaningfully rather than hedonistically over-indulge or ascetically abstain, but I don’t enjoy much generally (depressive anhedonia), have had to curtail my diet because of medication-led weight gain and, am not allowed to have sex because I’m not married, which I suspect is the main thing people are thinking of when they say that Jews are allowed to avoid physical stuff within boundaries.  I know we’re supposed to serve God as an end in itself, but it’s hard to keep going when I’m getting nothing in return, just on a simple practical need for refuelling.  All I can say is that depressive anhedonia means that not being frum would probably be just as miserable for me, so I might as well stick with Judaism in the hope that there is an afterlife and I get something there that I can’t get here.  Which is entirely the wrong attitude, for practical reasons as much as religious ones.

For a while I thought that at least I could model positive aspects of Judaism to non-Jews/non-religious Jews, but I don’t think that’s true any more.  If anything my recent bursts of religious OCD just present it in a bad light here.

The other thing that worried me over Shabbat is whether I actually care about anyone.  I know my parents care about me and my sister does and E. certainly cares about me, but I find it hard to know what I feel about other people.  My feelings are often a black box that I can’t easily access except with therapy or slowly writing stuff here.  I know some people think that this blog is self-indulgent navel-gazing, but really it’s a kind of archaeology, slowly trying to unearth and understand what I’m thinking and feeling at any given time.  I just happen to let other people read it too.  I’m not sure that I know exactly what “caring about someone” would feel like.  I worried that I didn’t care much about my cousins, but then when we were worried that my cousin had gone missing last Shabbat (which I think I downplayed here because by the time I could write she was home, but I was really worried at the time) I was very upset that something might have happened to her, so maybe I do care about people.

Asking myself “Would I do X for person Y?” to try to see how much I care about them doesn’t really help as I’ve conditioned myself to think that I should (my favourite word again) give anything, my life even, to help others, even though the reality is that if I had to go out of my way for most people, it would make me resentful, but some of that would be autistic annoyance at disruption.  If someone said, “Can you do something minor for me right away?” or “Can you do something major for me in a week’s time?” I would probably find the former harder, because I wouldn’t have time to plan for it and accept it, whereas the big thing I know is coming and can prepare for, practically and emotionally, which is much easier from an autistic point of view (my parents have never entirely grasped this, one reason we don’t see eye to eye lately).

I read a bit and went to bed earlyish even though I didn’t feel tired and had no intention of trying to go to shul in the morning.  Even so, I couldn’t sleep, so I got up and read some more.  I don’t know what time I fell asleep in the end.  Probably somewhere around 2.00am.

I slept through the morning again, struggled to get ready for lunch and then had to go back to bed for a bit afterwards, before eating seudah quickly and hurrying to shul.  I did somehow daven a bit at home and get to shul for shiur and Ma’ariv (Evening Service).  I only really did that because I have my little job tidying up the papers after Ma’ariv.  I didn’t really want to go to the shiur or the service.

The shiur was on Daf Yomi.  Daf Yomi is a thing whereby you study one page (that’s both sides of a page) of Talmud a day and you complete the whole Talmud in approximately seven and a half years.  It’s been going since the 1920s I think.  They just completed/re-started another cycle (in fact I think the re-start is tonight/Sunday), so it’s been in the air in the Jewish community recently.  In theory it allows ‘ordinary’ people to study the whole of the Talmud, although I’ve never been sure if the average person really understands that much Talmud in one go, even if they go to a shiur.  It would take me about an hour to study that much Talmud, but that would really just reading through it.  Serious comprehension would take longer, possibly indefinitely.  But apparently tens of thousands of people manage it, including growing numbers of women (although not in the Haredi world).

The rabbi spoke about making a set time each day to study Torah.  He said even doing five minutes, even two minutes, a day was OK if you genuinely could not do more, which reassured me a bit.  Unfortunately, he then undermined this by saying that we should all really do Daf Yomi, that Rav Moshe Feinstein (the leading Haredi posek (jurist) of the twentieth century) said that there’s a mitzvah to study the whole of the Talmud that can be fulfilled through Daf Yomi (I very much doubt any rabbi before the twentieth century would have said there’s a mitzvah for all men to study the whole of the Talmud; Talmud used to be for an intellectual/religious elite, not everyone) and that everyone should have a set time for studying Torah morning and evening even if they’re ill.  So that just fed a load of my fears about not doing enough and thinking that I will never be a good enough Jew and that even thought I’m ill, I should be doing a lot more study.

I’m home now, obviously, and back in weekday mode.  I still have these worries about running on empty religiously, and how much worse I might feel once I start work and have that drain on my resources, and whether I care about my parents or E., not to mention what caring for E. would/could/might one day actually entail and so on.

It was hard to do anything this evening.  I didn’t manage any proofreading, but I spent a bit of time working on my novel – a bit under an hour, and even less when you take out the procrastination time dotted inside that hour.  I did write over 600 words, which is better than my usual target of 500 per hour.  The procrastination just made me feel more depressed, seeing things online that upset me one way or another, not necessarily in ways that are easy to explain, but tied in with my weak sense of self and identity, and my isolation in the frum community.

Days Like Crazy Paving

Unsurprisingly, I woke up late after yesterday.  I wasn’t particularly depressed, but I was exhausted and spent a long time reading online trying to find energy and then struggling to get dressed and daven (pray).  I actually had to eat not just breakfast, but also lunch, before I had enough energy to daven.

My main achievement for the day was going for an after dark run.  I was worried about how this would go, as I was feeling tired just from my warm up, but it was OK.  I do worry a bit about running after dark.  I’m not the most aware person and even when walking I can step into the road without looking or cross a driveway without noticing the car reversing out, and when jogging I have music and the distraction of feeling exhausted.  I do worry I’m going to be in an accident one day, running or even walking, and it will be my fault (I’ve had a couple of close calls already).  Plus there are trip hazards running after dark.  Still, I survived.  And the post-run positive brain chemicals flowed for a bit.

I tried to work on my novel a bit, making the plan more detailed, but I didn’t get far because I was depressed as well as exhausted from running.  I have mentioned that I’m more of an intuitive writer than I expected.  To be honest, I feel I’m more of an intuitive writer than I really feel comfortable with.  I have an idea of the main events in every chapter and some chapters are plotted in quite a bit of detail, but so much seems to be being left for the writing.  I’m not sure why.  Some of it is not wanting to set things in stone, but let the novel grow organically, but I think some of it is a genuine inability to plot properly or perhaps even laziness.  It worries me.  I think of myself as a meticulous planner, although I’ve come to realise in recent months that I’m a very bad planner or at least very bad at sticking to plans, but I feel worried that I will suddenly run out of petrol mid-story, so to speak.

I’ll try to return to the story plan in the coming days.  I also have to start the proofreading job I said I would do for a friend and start planning for my new job.  Plus the usual things: pray, study Torah, exercise…  (more on this below).  All I did today was the run, and a little bit of work on the novel.  I didn’t even get up to ten minutes of Torah study.

I had dinner with my parents, which was not ideal, because I was stressed.  I was somewhat worried about my book, I was exhausted and hungry and a bit bad-tempered because of that, plus I didn’t really feel like eating as a family; I really just wanted to vegetate in front of the TV.  My Dad was making small talk and my autistic brain struggles with that at the best of times.  The autistic brain goes, “Why are you asking me about my run in such detail?  What can it mean to you?  And even assuming that you genuinely want to know the answer, I can’t remember what happened when I was running.  That was a few tasks ago.  I can only focus on one task at a time!”  So that didn’t go too well, although we didn’t have a blazing row or anything, just a general feeling of tension.  I got soup down my polo shirt too.

And that was it for the day, really.  I felt too exhausted and depressed to do anything else.  I watched half a Bond film (Licence to Kill), but it was too uninteresting for me to watch the whole thing in one go.  I think that James Bond, like Doctor Who, is better fun, even if slightly silly.  I think a lot of fans of both would disagree, but there you go.

***

Ashley Leia asked on my previous post, “if the frum ideal is for adult men to devote almost all day to Torah study and davening, how does anyone avoid feeling inadequate?”  I think it’s worth answering this here.

It’s only in a subset of the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) world, the most extreme part, that people believe that literally all day should be devoted to Torah study (with no paid employment).  This mostly happens in Israel for reasons that have more to do with politics than religion (it’s connected with avoiding the draft for the Israeli army out of a fear that the army is a secularising influence).  In my type of community there’s a more nebulous idea that all available free time should be used for Torah study.  This allows paid work, but it also allows a degree of relaxation time, provided it’s taken with the intent of returning to Torah study refreshed (rather than because I want to watch TV or I’m too lazy to study).

I suspect that there are some people at my shul (synagogue) who don’t do much religious study, although I haven’t asked them and it could be I’m making assumptions based on my own preconceptions of the type of people they are or misunderstandings of things they’ve said.  On the other hand, there are definitely people in my shul who get up at 5.00am to get in an hour of Gemarah chevruta (paired study of Talmud) before Shacharit (Morning Prayers) and paid work.  And in between are people who study Mishnah for an hour on the train into work or the like.  I’m assuming most of these people are able to live with their consciences and don’t feel seriously inadequate i.e. they all think they are doing “enough,” for their own values of “enough” – which may not be exactly the same as other people’s value of “enough.”

I guess the problem for me is that this is fairly nebulous, and I’m not good at nebulous, probably for reasons that have as much to do with autistic black and white thinking as low self-esteem or depression.  In some ways, living in the ultra-Haredi “no work” environment would be easier, because at least I would have a clear ideal to work towards, even if I would find it impossible.  I don’t know how much study (or prayer, although the boundaries there are clearer) is “enough” particularly when I’m not able to do a consistent amount from day to day.  Some days I can manage an hour, which is probably what a lot of people in my shul are doing every day, but other days, because of depression or simply lack of time (which is in part also due to depression, to be honest), I only manage ten minutes and it’s hard to feel that something that was not enough one day can be enough the other day.

***

I came across an interesting thing today that is somewhat relevant to this.  Giles Fraser is a Church of England clergyman and one of my favourite writers on UnHerd.com.  He tends to write a lot about theology and philosophy.  He writes here:

The word they use in theological college about the process of “becoming who you are” is formation. In this context, formation is achieved by acclimatising oneself to a tradition that stands over and against one’s individual choices. Indeed, it is only by recognising that one is situated within a given set of values that precede who we are that we are enabled to make the very choices that have come to define adult responsibility.

I feel very much that I need the Orthodox Jewish tradition as a set of values that precede my choices, even if my choices are not always the ones that the tradition would dictate.  There probably would be less of a disconnect if I was in a Modern Orthodox community rather than a moderate Haredi one, but that’s not really an available option at the moment.  I suppose I feel at least I’m in dialogue with tradition, even if I can’t fully follow it.  I want to choose with a tradition rather than against it, to find my place within a tradition rather than to create myself ex nihilo.

Is this rationalisation after the event?  Possibly.  I thought that a commenter on my previous post suggested I give up religion; she was actually suggesting I give up my volunteering opportunity, but I misunderstood and it got me thinking about what religion adds to my life.  I can’t really imagine what my life would be like without Judaism.  I would lose the things that give me structure on non-work days, as well as my only regular in-person social contact.  I don’t know if I could cope with the guilt, or the feeling that I’ve lost something.  I would lack meaning and purpose, inasmuch as I even have them now.  I would feel cut off from my ancestors, which would be a big thing for me.  Would I be happier if I wasn’t frum?  I don’t know.  Quite possibly, but I don’t think happiness is everything, to be honest, nor something I can really aspire to for long periods with my poor mental health.  If I’m staying religious, it would be better if I had a stronger feeling that God loves me or if I had more support and acceptance from my community, but that’s not really an option right now.

Lately I’ve been reading Genesis: Creation to Covenant by Rabbi Tzvi Grumet, which is a literary critical analysis of the book of Bereshit (Genesis), based on close reading.  One of the main things I’ve taken from this is Rabbi Grumet’s idea that the biblical characters grow.  I knew that already on some level (it’s most obvious for Yosef (Joseph) and David both of whom change a lot), but he really shows at great length that Avraham (Abraham) doesn’t always understand God, that Yaakov (Jacob) has to learn how to be devious, but also how not to be too devious and so on.  I don’t agree with all of his arguments, particularly his presentation of God making mistakes, but I think it’s true that Bereshit presents us with a God who seems to make mistakes, even if it’s with a big kavyachol (“If it were possible” – Talmudic language for saying something about God that isn’t theologically the case, but is how something seems to us).  It’s reassured me a bit that growth is allowed and I don’t have to get everything right first time, which is very much something I struggle with.

***

I forgot to mention my Chanukah presents yesterday: the complete DVD box set of Star Trek: Voyager and some dark chocolate coins from my parents and the DVD of Darkest Hour (which I missed when it was in the cinema, to my annoyance) from my sister and brother-in-law.  I had been agonising for ages over whether to buy the Voyager box set.  I watched it on TV when it was first broadcast in the UK and while it wasn’t as good as the earlier Star Treks, or the more recent Discovery, it was entertaining enough.  Then the price of the DVD suddenly dropped and it was within budget for Chanukah (we don’t do surprise presents in my family, rather we ask for things or even buy them and get other family members to pay us back).  At any rate, it should be good escapism, particularly as I’m getting a bit tired of James Bond and could do with slowing down my viewing of those films.