It’s All Here Tonight: Wedding, Baby, Work, Social Interactions, Judaism

Today was busy, so busy that it feels more like a couple of days than just one.

I went to volunteering in the morning. I tried to make myself speak to people a bit more. I’m not sure how well I did, but I did try to sit with them when we had coffee. Initially I had ended up at the other end of the table to everyone else, but after a while I moved to sit with the others. I also asked to be put on the WhatsApp group. And we were given nice thick, warm fleeces with the organisation’s logo on it. They’re bright purple (the organisation’s colour) which is a bit more vibrant than my usual taste, but they look nice and were very warm.

Afterwards, I went with my parents to a potential wedding venue nearby. It was more or less ideal.  Nothing is ever perfect, but this was 99% perfect. As well as having the features we want, it’s relatively local, in an area I’m familiar with (I used to work down the road) which is probably good from an autistic point of view (dislike of the unknown), plus Sister and Brother-in-law live nearby, which will make it easier for them to bring Nephew. There are other venues that may be as good, but as E and I want to get married quickly, there doesn’t seem to be much point in looking at them, particularly as they would probably be not quite as good overall. So now the next step is to find a caterer that can do one of the dates we would like, then confirm with the rabbi and book the wedding!

A few emotional/autistic things that came out of this: I felt Mum and Dad drowned me out a bit when we were talking the site manager (I don’t know what her real title is, but that will do for here). I don’t mean that in a critical way, but they are quite loud personalities and I struggled to be heard, both literally and metaphorically. I needed their moral support there or I would have just frozen up, but it is my wedding and I felt that I wasn’t saying much. It doesn’t help that I notice they have a way of switching from “serious” to “joking” and back again in conversations of this kind that I just can’t do. I can do that with people I know well and trust, but not with a total stranger I only met ten minutes previously. I get stuck in “serious” then feel awkward when everyone else starts joking.

I am excited about the wedding, but I don’t think it shows much. When I was with my parents, I did feel a little excited, but it was only when I discussed it over Skype with E that I really felt it, although it probably still didn’t show much. I don’t know how much of that is just my personality and how much is alexithymia (difficulty feeling and understanding my own emotions). When we had the civil wedding last August, E’s mother filmed us when we were pronounced married. E starts bouncing up and down with a big smile on her face, whereas I look a bit confused and then hug her. When my cousin saw the video, she said I looked like I was happy, but didn’t know what to do, which is basically true. I don’t really know what to do with my emotions sometimes and it’s mostly the positive ones I struggle with, perhaps because I experience them less frequently or maybe because I feel there’s more social expectation around them.

After that we went to Sister and Brother-in-law’s house nearby. BIL was at work. We ate lunch and chatted to Sister for a bit, then she went to do work elsewhere in the house while we looked after Nephew. I held him a couple of times and helped feed and wind him (E thought it was funny when I said I winded him, so I guess it’s not an American usage. I mean to I tried to get him to burp). I ducked out of changing him this time. I am still a somewhat nervous uncle not used to babies, but I am becoming a bit more confident with him. I shook slightly while holding him, but not much, which is probably a sign of growing confidence. Nephew often has a somewhat startled expression, like he’s surprised to see the world’s still there, and is not entirely happy about it. Sister says at his age (not yet two months), he can’t focus on things that aren’t near his face. He did seem to make intense eye contact with me for a while, though.

Sister showed us the book she bought him. It’s made of fabric and is about farm animals. It reads, “Dog. Sheep. Cow,” with relevant pictures. I said I was impressed by the unexpected twist ending…

As if that wasn’t enough for one day, I have some paid proofreading work! It’s not much, and my rate is artificially low at the moment (well below minimum wage), but I hope that will generate reviews. It’s a slightly strange request for reasons that I don’t want to go into here, but it seems to be legitimate, but it’s left me with vague unease. I hope it really is legitimate.

***

A few days ago I emailed a rabbinic email helpline for people in the Orthodox Jewish community who have mental health issues. You can email a rabbi for advice on halakhah (Jewish law) as it pertains to mental health. The rabbis on the helpline have mental health training, unlike most communal rabbis. I asked about the way my autism leads to frequent exhaustion and difficulty in religious situations that are also social situations, and also how to cope with any religious obligations when feeling autistically exhausted. Autism isn’t a mental illness, but I felt out of other options for the kind of halakhic support I wanted.

I heard back from the helpline yesterday. The rabbi said that as autism is a spectrum and manifests in different people in different ways, so too halakhic adjustments can vary. From what I described, he felt I should not push myself to go to shul (synagogue) when exhausted or push myself to any social interaction related to a mitzvah (commandment) when I feel incapable and not to feel pressure regarding mitzvot generally. He said I could email him with more details of my situation for a more specific response. He also suggested davening (praying) at the same time as my shul even if I don’t feel able to go there, which is an idea I have heard before and tried to do during the first COVID lockdown, but drifted out of the habit of doing. I might try to go back to it, at least some times. The idea is that if you pray at the same time as the community, your prayer is still with them, even if you aren’t in the same building.

I’m not sure what I think of reply. It’s good that the rabbi told me that I shouldn’t force myself to do things that are just making me exhausted or burnt out. It’s not very specific, but I don’t really have very specific questions at the moment, just a general feeling of overwhelm at everything that’s expected of me religiously. I guess I feel that there’s a lot of grey area there inasmuch as it boils down to “Do what you feel able to do and don’t worry about the rest.” That’s probably my fault (“fault” isn’t the right word, but you know what I mean) because I didn’t ask very specific questions, but I worry it will just shift my worries from “Do I need to do more religiously?” to “Am I exhausted enough that I don’t need to do more religiously?” which might not be much of an improvement. I’m going to think about what they wrote and maybe write back if I can think of a more specific question.

Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There!

I have heard that we have a fixed amount of self-control. You can practise self-control to increase the amount you have over time, but at any moment there are limits to how much is open to you (I wonder if this is still considered valid or if it’s one of those social psychology findings that’s been found to be unrepeatable).

I feel like I’ve been struggling with self-control for the last few months, in terms of eating more junk (not a huge amount, but I really would like to lose some weight, even if my weight gain was from medication) and going to bed later. Probably buying books too. I think I’m using up all my self-control waiting for E’s visa to arrive and lose control on other areas. Have I mentioned that I miss E?

***

I’ve been in my job for over two years and I still can’t use the phones properly. When someone calls, the call automatically goes through to the phone on J’s desk. Only if he’s using that does the phone on my desk ring. This means that if the phone rings while he’s out, I have to hurry over to his desk, answer the phone and then often transfer it back to my phone so I can do stuff on my computer for the caller. Except, as happened today, I still can’t get the hang of how to transfer calls. I cut someone off twice; the third time, she gave me her number and asked me to call her back, which was embarrassing.

My phone doesn’t work properly anyway and we were going to experiment with moving the phones around. I’m in without J next Tuesday, so I might play around with them, but I’m worried we’ll end up with my phone as the default and I’ll have to take all the calls. I guess it will be good exposure therapy for my phone anxiety, but most of the calls are for J and I worry I would cut them off transferring to him.

***

I led Ma’ariv (Evening Prayers) in shul (synagogue) today. I didn’t really shake, but I was glad we were in the small Beit HaMidrash and not the larger main shul so I didn’t have to project my voice.

***

I feel that I’m being drawn slowly towards autism activism in the frum (religious Jewish) community without knowing what to do or how to do it and without feeling that I have the time, energy or skill-set to do it. I also feel the word “activist” is overused. Every journalist, writer, artist, musician and academic claims to be an “activist” these days. As they said on the Deep Meaningful Conversations podcast I listened to the other day about Sarah Schinerer, sharing something on social media does not make you an activist!

Dare I say it, I think the world might be in a better shape if there were fewer people being active and more being still and thinking. Don’t just do something, stand there.

***

I was thinking a bit about spirituality and alexithymia (inability to recognise or understand one’s own emotions, which I have). I struggle to define, understand or experience spirituality. Maybe it’s a nebulous, abstract concept that many autistics would struggle with. Maybe it’s because I didn’t go to yeshivah (rabbinical seminary) and meet super-spiritual religious leaders who could give me experiential proof of it. Or maybe alexithymia stops me recognising when I experience spirituality or simchah (joy) e.g. simchah shel mitzvah (the joy of performing a religious commandment) or simchah shel Yom Tov (the joy of a festival). I feel my religious life is performed without joy, yet it doesn’t exactly feel “joyless” in a painful way, so maybe I’m feeling something I can’t recognise.

It doesn’t help that the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) world sees spirituality in withdrawal from the wider world, while Modern Orthodoxy sees spirituality in bringing Jewish values to the wider world. I prefer the latter, but perhaps this is harder to notice and feel; it’s certainly in many ways harder to do. (This is the fundamental internal conflict of the Jewish people, the conflict between Leah and Rachel, which is later the conflict between Yosef and Yehudah (Joseph and Judah) and then between the Southern Kingdom of Yehudah and Northern Kingdom of Yisrael (Israel), but I don’t have time to elaborate.)

***

On the autism forum, someone asked who or what we identify with. Almost everyone who responded put animals or nature, then the marginalised and disadvantaged. Most people responding felt that they struggled to connect with most other human beings.

I think my response will not be popular:

The short answer is “Almost no one.” The longer answer:

As Franz Kafka said, “I have hardly anything in common with myself”.

  1. My wife. She is genuinely the only person who really “gets” me and is on the same wavelength, so I can unmask with her.
  2. Intellectuals, particularly ones who are dead, eccentric and/or Jewish, most especially those who were probably neurodiverse or mentally ill.
  3. Lonely people. I would say “marginalised” etc., but it sounds awkward.
  4. Children (but only quiet, well-behaved ones).
  5. I do genuinely try to care about everyone and feel obligation to care for them.

I don’t feel any connection with animals. They often frighten me. I find them unpredictable, especially dogs. I didn’t have any pets (except fish) as a child, plus I’ve been attacked by dogs and by a duck and twice had apples stolen from my hands from goats, so maybe that’s it.

I should really have put “Other Jews” in there before “everyone,” but I didn’t want to get into an argument about whether it’s OK to care about some people more than others (Judaism says it’s human nature to extend compassion outwards from the family to the community to the nation to the world, but lots of people would disagree).

I suspect there is a part of me that wants not to fit in, that looks for difference and existential incomprehension instead of finding common ground. I never feel more Jewish than when with non-Jews or less autistic than when with other autistics. I need to find a way to move past this if I want to make close friends.

***

Ugh, I’ve been online too long and now it’s midnight and I’m exhausted (QED regarding staying up late due to poor self-control). It will be good when E comes to the UK and at least some of my life can move offline.

Come Back Bill Hartnell, All is Forgiven

I went to bed at 1am, but somehow woke up before 8am and couldn’t get back to sleep. I guess it was because I slept so much during the day. Anyway, I got up early, which was good, as long as I’m not sleep deprived tomorrow (I’m likely to go to bed late tonight because I speak to E late because of the time difference. And also because there was a feature-length episode of Doctor Who on this evening). It was good to be up early and to daven more of Shacharit (say more of the Morning Prayers) than I usually manage.

I looked into the demand for a tax return for the tax year ending April 2021. From both the dates and the reference number, I’m pretty sure that this is the tax year for which I submitted a tax return less than a month ago on the HMRC website. I do have an email receipt for that form, but it doesn’t specify the year, it just says that a copy was received. I don’t have a copy of the form itself, because it was all online (the problem of the all-digital approach). I will have to phone on Tuesday and find out what is going on. Worryingly, the tax return I filled in doesn’t seem to be on the ‘track progress’ page. Why is bureaucracy such a pain?

My alexithymia post on the autism forum met with some positive responses. Someone said that they try to identify their emotions by “birdwatching”: noting all their physical traits and working out what emotions they would indicate. It did make me think that, having to deduce my own emotions logically or empirically, and do the same for other people’s emotions, which I also struggle to read, then it’s no wonder I find personal interactions so draining! I spent quite a while responding to the comments on that post and reading and contributing on some other interesting/relevant posts.

It was quite a busy day besides this: my sister and brother-in-law came for lunch, I went for a walk and did some Torah study. I thought maybe I should try to see what I enjoy, in terms of recent thoughts here about trying to understand myself and what I would like to do better, and I enjoyed the walk (listening to a podcast) and the Torah study. I didn’t really get any new insights, but I think I found some good questions to think about in the future. It’s that kind of engagement with Torah that I enjoy, rather than passive reading. This was the fairly quiet day I hoped for last week and didn’t think I was going to get (I don’t think I could do literally nothing all day). I wanted to do some writing too, but ran out of time.

***

As a rule, I don’t get into political discussions online, but I read a blog post on The Times of Israel about a panel discussion by a couple of academics about the rise of Hitler, which inevitably concluded that “OMG, the USA today is like Germany in 1933!!!!!!!” This angered me so much that I wrote 500 word comment, which I had to halve because of a word count limit in comments, pointing out how wrong this is (I’m not linking as I commented under my real name). I know I’m bound to be criticised, but I just could not stand such ridiculous alarmism. Saying “There was inflation in the 1920s, there’s inflation now, IT’S THE SAME”is just nonsense. The hyper-inflation of Germany in the early 20s was much worse than today’s inflation: prices in stores rose hourly and people’s life savings were wiped out over night. That’s not happening today.

I said more and would have said even more if the word count had been longer, but the bottom line is that the world is bad enough as it is without make-believing that it’s much worse. I recommended people read The Coming of the Third Reich by Richard J. Evans to learn what Weimar Germany was really like. There seems to be a certain type of person who loves to feel that the Fascists are at the door, and only they can save civilisation.

***

The rest is about Doctor Who, feel free to skip.

In the evening, the BBC Centenary special episode of Doctor Who was on. I feel that the BBC celebrating itself is rather arrogant. I’m not feeling particularly well-disposed to the BBC at the moment, not least because The Jewish Chronicle has just submitted a petition to Parliament asking for a parliamentary inquiry into reporting of Jews, antisemitism and Israel at the BBC,  but also from a broader feeling that the BBC, for all it plugs itself as “for everyone” is actually for a very particular subset of the population: middle class, centre-left, secular, probably Boomer, culturally bourgeois, with some quite rigid views while preening itself as tolerant and cosmopolitan.

Moreover, I’ve lost a lot of interest in new Doctor Who over the last couple of years as a result of some uninspired episodes. I don’t even care enough to hate it, it’s just there. It’s clearly not made for someone of my aesthetic tastes any more, and I can’t even be bothered to complain about David Tennant and Russell T Davies coming back. Some things are just inevitable.

I found tonight’s episode badly-plotted, confusing to the point of unintelligibility, focused on spectacle rather than content, and loud and sentimental, but that’s par for the course. I liked some of the references to the past, but thought the sheer number of them was overdoing things. I don’t think that any of the three new series era Doctor Who showrunners have particularly liked science fiction or shown much interest in science fiction-based stories, although Steven Moffatt was clearly fascinated by time-travel stories, and all three are long-term Doctor Who fans. This lack of interest in science fiction among the showrunners for the BBC’s flagship science fiction show perhaps seems strange to non-fans, but Doctor Who has never been a straightforward science fiction show, more a genre hybrid with science fiction trappings, and many of the most avid fans (and some of its past creatives) have little interest in the genre as a whole. Even so, some affinity in writers is useful, to put it mildly.

In the twentieth century, Doctor Who was made on a relatively low budget and prioritised plot and character over effects and spectacle. In the twenty-first century, that situation is reversed, perhaps inevitably, as the show competes with TV and film blockbusters in the CGI era, working on a much smaller budget than the likes of the Star Wars and Marvel franchises. Even so, some of the greatest episodes of the new series era have been relatively low key in terms of effects, and probably filmable fifty or sixty years ago without too much rewriting concentrating on character and suspense, not spectacle (e.g. Father’s Day, Human Nature/The Family of Blood, Blink, Midnight, The Doctor’s Wife, Heaven Sent, Rosa).

Chris Chibnall’s first season as showrunner was oddly low-key and had no absolute classics, although Rosa (about Rosa Parks) came close. But it had a number of stories that made me think, “I didn’t know Doctor Who could do that” and left me interested and hopeful for the future. But since then Chibnall has mostly focused on spectacle with only Flux: Village of the Angels really standing out in my memory, and having only seen it once, I’m not sure how much of that is my memory cheating. The scenes in the later episodes of Flux with Yaz, Dan and Professor Jericho having fun, clever, adventures left me wishing that the whole series could be like that, but now Doctor Who is made by fans, for fans and the series thinks that Time Lords, Daleks, Cybermen and the Master are inherently interesting on screen without doing anything interesting. This was how I reacted to the programme as a child, but then I grew up and found secondary layers of meaning. But, with a budget twentieth century Doctor Who producers could only dream of, twenty-first century Doctor Who doesn’t need to grow up, it can show us that Dalek-Cyberman-Master team up that the twentieth century version would never have dared show us (I guess The Five Doctors is the closest). The problem is for those of us who want something more, some original ideas rather than plot contrivances or eerie atmosphere rather than wall-to-wall explosions.

I feel I’ve written this review a lot over the last seventeen years, and I don’t want to upset or offend anyone, as I’ve got to a point where I realise this (Doctor Who, but popular culture generally) isn’t really made for me and I have to find my entertainment elsewhere or make it myself. I don’t privilege my opinion any more or feel any more that there’s some kind of “spirit of Doctor Who” that has been betrayed and that I am more in touch with it than other people. It’s just not really made for me any more, although I still watch out of a mixture of curiosity and hope. I feel better knowing this, less bitter and rejected.

Black Box

I did not have a good Shabbat (Sabbath). I felt too exhausted and ill to go to shul (synagogue). I feel exhausted from the Jewish festivals and that I’ve been on the go for months without a break (wedding, visa application, festivals and work disruption). Having dinner with my parents when drained can be difficult, as they make small talk the whole time and I often find it overwhelming, particularly if Dad starts asking me questions to try to “bring me into the conversation.” I haven’t really been able to explain to him that my brain is wired in a way that small talk is difficult and uninteresting for me.

After dinner I read the Chofetz Chaim on Pirkei Avot (Torah study) book for fifteen minutes and finished it, but then I fell asleep. I woke up around 2am. I was too tired to quickly get ready for bed and go back to sleep, which paradoxically meant that I began to wake up before I could get back to bed and I couldn’t sleep. I spent the next couple of hours reading, then fell asleep around 4am. Then I fell asleep again this afternoon, after lunch with my parents. Last Monday (Shmini Atzeret), they were out for lunch and I ate on my own, and I didn’t fall asleep afterwards, although I felt tired. I wonder if this is connected. I didn’t used to react like this. I feel like I’m becoming more autistic, which is impossible; more likely, I find it harder to mask and pass as allistic (non-autistic).

I felt very overwhelmed both when I woke up in the night and during the day today. I still felt tired and had loads of thoughts in my head about what I wanted to do, needed to do and so on. I managed very little Torah study and was glad that I managed to pray at all, although my kavannah (mindfulness in prayer) was rubbish.

After Shabbat, I looked at my existing To Do list, and the list of things that needed to go on the To Do list. Quite a lot of the existing tasks are long-term things related to the wedding that we can’t move forwards with until E gets her visa, so at least I don’t have to worry about them right now. There is still a lot to do, though, including sorting the whole tax situation from last week; booking at trip to New York; setting myself up as a proof-reader; and trying to get back into a regular pattern of exercising, novel researching and novel writing.

I miss E a lot too. Long-distance is hard.

***

I just posted the following on the autism forum, about the ‘Black Box’ that is the emotional part of my brain:

Does anyone else have alexithymia (difficulty understanding and describing their own emotions)? I do have emotions, but I often struggle to understand or describe them, especially if they’re subtle or conflicted. This has arguably been a problem when trying to access mental health services or even being aware of my slides into depression.

Some emotions are powerful enough to make their presence felt, particularly the terrible trio of depression, anxiety and despair, but others can be harder to feel. Even strong positive emotions can be hard to find; sometimes I have to look for practical evidence to prove that I really do love my family, because I’m not sure what I feel. A lot of the time I feel rather numb and blank, sometimes with a faint undertone of mild depression or mild anxiety.

My main way of processing emotions is through writing. I’ve written a journal-type blog most days since 2006 (excluding an eighteen month period where I stopped) and that helps me process the events of the day, as well as get feedback from my small, but supportive readership. This probably sounds strange, but sometimes I don’t really know how I feel about things until I write them down. I’ve tried private journaling, but somehow I need a sense of an audience, even a very small one, to give me the impetus to communicate. If I can’t write on one day for some reason, I tend to carry around all the thoughts of that day with me and feel a need to offload.

I write fiction to try to understand bigger emotions, including ones that I haven’t personally experienced. I’ve always read a lot too and I think that’s probably an attempt to learn about emotions, on some level. I guess I get that from TV and film too, although I find modern TV and film overwhelming in its amplified display of emotions sometimes, at least what I see of it (which isn’t much).

I would be interested to hear of anyone else who struggles with this, as it feels quite isolating sometimes, something that even other autistic people don’t experience. I would also like to know if anyone has tips or coping mechanisms.

***

Another thing I’ve been thinking about lately is how much my identity has become located at the intersection (to use an over-used and over-politicised, but useful, word) of autism and Orthodox Judaism. I feel like being autistic gives me struggles that allistic (non-autistic) Orthodox Jews don’t have, but being an Orthodox Jew gives me struggles that other autistic people don’t necessarily have, in terms of things I’ve described here about Judaism being such a social religion. I don’t know which I would consider my primary identity; I think both are pretty integral to who I am. I probably need to think about this some more to find practical solutions.

Guilt, and Being

Shabbat (the Sabbath) was a bit of a battle with exhaustion and guilt. I was too exhausted for shul (synagogue) last night. I felt a bit better after dinner and did some Torah study, but went to bed late as a result (juggling pros and cons of doing things vs. relaxing is hard). I woke up about 7.40am, decided I wasn’t going to shul, felt guilty for not going to shul because I felt it was basically social anxiety keeping me away, decided to say a few of the morning prayers (Birkat HaShachar and the Shema), then felt totally exhausted by that five minutes of praying and wondered if it was exhaustion keeping me away from shul after all. Slept for a while longer, hurried to get dressed and eat breakfast in the sukkah (the hut in the garden that we eat in during the festival of Sukkot) before my parents’ friends came for Kiddush. Alternated praying and stopping to recuperate, because I was that exhausted. Felt guilty for not answering the door while praying when one of my parents’ friends was late. I really was praying, but if I hadn’t had social anxiety, I probably would have interrupted one of the less important prayers. I was just scared of having to speak to someone I didn’t know well. No one heard her and by the time I got the courage to go downstairs, she had gone. We had lunch in the sukkah, but it started raining, so we went in after the soup. Then it stopped raining and we stayed inside and I felt slightly guilty, although halakhically there is no need to go back out. I did have seudah (the third Shabbat meal, more of a snack at this time of year) in the sukkah, and dinner after Shabbat. I dozed in the afternoon, which is bad because (a) it will mess up my sleep further, (b) it reduced the Torah study and recreational reading I could do and (c) arguably I should have slept in the sukkah, but I think it was too cold even at 3.30 in the afternoon. So, more guilt.

I know that wasn’t terribly readable, but I wrote it as it seems to me, just one thing after another, most of them bringing guilt with them. Not relaxing at all. Although the nap in the afternoon was quite refreshing.

***

Lately, when I’ve been experiencing (what I think is) autistic exhaustion, I feel light-headed. It seems to have been getting worse, or maybe I just notice it more. I am not sure if this is a normal symptom, or if it is related to low blood pressure (which I think I also have). So little is known about autistic exhaustion. There is also the feeling that my brain is being squished, which I’m pretty sure is autistic exhaustion, although goodness knows what actually causes it (I’m assuming my brain isn’t actually being squished, and I’m doubtful that there are nerves inside it that would experience a sensation if it was being squished).

***

In other news, I miss E and winter is approaching with all that entails, and there are still another three days of Chol HaMoed and Yom Tov (semi-festival and festival days)!!!!!! And then straight into two consecutive days of work again afterwards. I don’t want to sound sacrilegious, but I am ready for a return to normal weeks with normal schedules I can cope with and where I know what to expect.

 ***

On Friday night, I read a short devar Torah from a blog that I had printed out before Shabbat. Written by Tanya White, an English Orthodox Jewish educator living in Israel, it presents Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) through the lens of the story of Kayin and Hevel (Cain and Abel), via a wordplay that doesn’t really work in translation (Hevel is the same word-root as “Hevel hahevelim” “Vanity of vanities” at the start of Kohelet).

The devar Torah drew on Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchiks’ The Lonely Man of Faith. This looks at the different creation narratives in the first and second chapters of Bereshit (Genesis) and posits two different modes of human nature, the “Majestic” (creating, controlling, dominating) and the “Covenantal” (contemplative, spiritual, being). White’s argument is that Kayin was Majestic and Hevel Covenantal. To Kayin, focused on having things, the experience of not-having (not having God’s approval for his sacrifice) was too much to bear and he killed his brother to destroy the feelings of finitude, inadequacy and “nothingness” provoked inside him by Hevel’s sacrifice being accepted while his was not.

Reading Kohelet and living in the sukkah is, according to White, a chance to contemplate and accept the “nothingness” in our lives. By this, I think she means that Sukkot reminds us that we really own nothing, that our lives are fragile and transient, even our houses and possessions are really shacks that could blow down and this is OK because God is in control, not us.

The reason I thought about this so much over Shabbat was it resonated with a discussion I’d been having with Angela (Best/Worst of Times blog and Letting Go of Me podcast)  about disability and not being able to do things we once could do or want to do (although we have different disabilities) and about living a life of meaning rather than doing. The devar Torah reminded me of the concept of covenantal living, just experiencing being, and the importance of living life in this way (although Rabbi Soloveitchik’s point was that we need to live both majestically and covenantally, not one or the other).

This in turn made me think of Eichah (Lamentations) 3.28: “Let him sit alone and be silent, for He has laid it upon him.” The Mishnah (Pirkei Avot 3.2) sees this as proof that, although Torah is ideally studied in pairs, even if a person studies alone, God will reward him. In a religion focused on doing, this is a support for just being and contemplating.

***

From another blog: “The Torah has no commandment ‘Be normal.’”

Yom Ki-Migraine

Yom Kippur was a mixture of good and bad. I had a very moving Kol Nidrei service at shul (synagogue) last night. I was on the brink of tears a lot. It took me a while to realise that there were a lot of different emotions inside of me, some good, some bad, or rather, some positive, some negative (I don’t think negative emotions are ‘bad’ as such). I worked out what some of them were and just sat with the other ones. It’s strange having emotions and not knowing what they are (alexithymia), but I’m trying at least to become attuned to when I’m having the emotions, even if I can’t understand them.

When I got home, I wanted to do some Torah study, but after a little over ten minutes, I felt too tired. I switched to reading A Wrinkle in Time (one of those books I should have read as a child, but didn’t), but soon was too tired to read that and went to bed.

I woke up in the middle of the night with a headache. I think it was a migraine. In the past, my migraine headaches tended to be incredibly painful over a wide area, like someone had hit me on forehead or crown with a metal bar or axe, a really all-consuming form of pain to the extent that I can’t focus on anything else. Lately, I’ve been getting headaches in a small point, about an inch or two above my right eyeball, like someone was drilling into that point. The pain is very strong there, but not anywhere else. Sometimes after a while the pain spreads to the eye itself, which I don’t usually get. I wasn’t going to take medication for a non-life-threatening condition on Yom Kippur and tried to sleep it off. I drifted in and out of sleep for the rest of the night, but the headache/migraine stayed. Once we got to morning, I wanted to try to get up, thinking that, with localised pain, I could make it back to shul, but I didn’t manage it. It hurt too much, and soon I was feeling the exhaustion I can get with or after migraines.

The migraine went of its own accord around 3pm, but I was still exhausted and by this stage, I was beginning to feel faint and light-headed from fasting, as happens to me every year. I usually spend more of the afternoon of Yom Kippur outside the shul, trying to get some fresh air and feel less headachey and nauseous than in shul davening (praying). I went for a walk for a few minutes to see if that would clear my head, but I just felt dizzy and worried about going back to shul in that state. Even then, I might have made it, but I couldn’t catch up to where they were, so I just davened at home at my own pace.

I feel a bit bad about spending yet another year when I wasn’t in shul much for Yom Kippur. Between migraine (not to mention fasting headaches), COVID, sleep disruption (whatever causes it) and social anxiety and/or depression, I’ve rarely been in shul much on the holiest day of the Jewish year for many years.

When not catching up on davening at home, I read some of a book of the Chofetz Chaim’s (pseudonym for Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan) teachings on Pirkei Avot, the volume of Talmud dealing with ethics. It seemed appropriate reading matter. But I was only really awake, up and even vaguely functional for about four hours today (excluding last night).

I still found myself thinking a lot while davening about child abuse in the Jewish community and wondering how we (collectively) can be forgiven if so many people are still abusing or covering up abuse. I’m not sure what I can do about this. I also don’t know why this has become such a big obsession for me.

I drank three energy drinks yesterday, to try to boost my sodium level before the fast and avoid getting a headache. Despite the migraine, it might have worked: I think the migraine was triggered by stress, or was just one of those things (I have had a couple of migraines like this (the ‘drilling above my eye’ type) in recent months, always after I’ve gone to bed, if not to sleep). I did feel light-headed and faint in the afternoon, but I don’t think I got a dehydration headache. On the other hand, as when I tried drinking the energy drinks last year, I didn’t actually do very much during the day. So it’s unclear whether they helped.

Quotidian Piety

I struggled today at work again. There was actually a reasonable amount of work for me to do; I didn’t have to do the paper-sorting (which isn’t make-work, but also isn’t a priority if there are other things going on). However, I felt like I was struggling and making mistakes again. I was going to go to the bank as it’s the end of the month. In the afternoon, J gave me a new task to do. I spent a while on it, then realised I needed to go to the bank if I wanted to be back by the end of the day. That in turn meant I needed to close off the banking. So I rushed through the new task and then didn’t finish it when I realised I was making mistakes, and I rushed to close off the banking. I had made a mistake on the banking spreadsheet too which took a while to find. I just hope I didn’t make a mistake paying in the cheques. I’ve done that before. I’ve put the wrong number on the paying-in slip and the bank queried it.

I found the bank trip difficult too. The crowds in London, the noise, the omnipresent video screens… it was just autistic overload for me. When I got back, J said I could finish for the day (not because of the overload, but because it was the end of the day), but I felt overwhelmed and sat in the Beit Midrash upstairs for a bit (it was quiet, and I turned off most of the lights, but the security guard turned them back on and told me to leave them on. I didn’t realise they were supposed to be on), then davened Minchah (said Afternoon Prayers) before coming home. The journey was stressful, with too many people and someone next to me invading my personal space. I would say ‘manspreading,’ but it was a teenage girl! Someone in the carriage had noisy music on their phone too. I felt pretty much physically attacked by all of it.

Then my sister and brother-in-law came over for dinner. It was fun, but I was feeling really burnt out and overloaded. Then I spoke to E (we Skype every day that isn’t Shabbat or Yom Tov), which at least didn’t exhaust me further. I should really go to bed, but I wanted to get some of my thoughts down.

Some autistic people see autism as a “super-power,” like the homo superior of the David Bowie song Oh! You Pretty Things. I don’t really experience it that way. On days like today, it feels like a real disability.

***

Someone on the autism forum said she was a failure because she hasn’t achieved anything except getting married and having children. Unthinkingly, I said that I didn’t think she was a failure, mostly because I would say that to anyone. I do think that getting married is an achievement for someone on the spectrum, and having children is an achievement for anyone (strictly speaking, it should be that raising children well is an achievement). I realised, of course, that I view myself as a failure despite being married (sort of) and having a part-time job. I feel that I do my job badly, and that it’s not full-time, and I don’t know if I’ll ever have children or how I would cope with them. It made me think a bit about what I mean by ‘achievement.’

Everyone says that Western society prioritises wealth, fame, status, looks, power – lots of things I think are not worthwhile. Realistically, most people are probably the same. Apparently research shows that most people really care about more spiritual or caring goals, but that they think that no one else does. Even so, it’s true that the media promotes wealth, fame, status etc. But I’m not interested.

I should say that my religion provides meaningful achievements for me, but too often it turns into a list of things I don’t do, or don’t do “enough”: (communal)(meaningful) prayer, Torah (Talmud) study, mitzvah (commandment) performance, charity and so on. At work I sometimes come into contact (albeit usually through looking at old minutes and letters) with extremely rich people who are able to devote significant amounts of money and time to charity and community work. I can’t do this. I feel that my ‘issues’ (autism, social anxiety, disordered sleep etc.) interferes too much with my religious life.

Today I came across the term, ‘quotidian piety,’ coined by historian Elisheva Baumgarten to describe the daily religious practices of Medieval Jews and how they were intertwined to their lives. I wonder if I have ‘quotidian piety.’ I do religious things every day. I wonder if they are ‘achievements’ in this sphere. I wrote the other day about trying to move towards God instead of more concrete, but often unachievable, goals. I guess that is a similar idea in terms of seeing small steps as an achievement.

Lately I have been thinking less about wanting/needing to write and be published as an achievement. This is probably because I’ve been too busy with E’s visa application and Yom Tov to think about it, but I’d like to try to keep it up. I don’t think it’s sensible to think of writing as an achievement or peg to hang my self-esteem on at the moment.

“Oddly Fond But Also Mocking Bits”

Today was a not terribly good day, although not an awful one, and not for any reasons I haven’t written about here before.  I struggled to sleep last night, probably because I didn’t have enough time to relax before bed.  It’s strange how much difference watching half an hour of TV or reading something light for a bit can make.  I did read briefly before bed, but not for long and, I suspect, not something that I enjoyed enough.  In the end I got out of bed and watched Fawlty Towers for a bit, which helped.

I worked today instead of volunteering as J asked me to switch days.  Work was draining, for all the usual reasons.  I thought I was going to have to phone people to ask for money that they owe us, which I hate doing.  I didn’t, but I probably will have to do it on Thursday.  I read more of When Rabbis Abuse at lunch and on the way home, which probably didn’t help my mood much.  I wanted to scan documents needed for E’s visa application when I got home, but I felt incredibly drained and overloaded, so I left my computer and read Dara Horn for a while, and ate carbs, which made me feel better, but isn’t good for my diet (or quasi-diet).  I do feel the urge to eat junk tonight too – not good.  I still feel rather overloaded.  I should probably not be on the computer and be aiming for low sensory stimulation activities (reading, maybe familiar TV), but there’s so much to do.

The best part of the day was going to the small shul (synagogue)/library upstairs after work and davening Minchah (saying Afternoon Prayers).  It was very quiet and peaceful and I had good kavannah (concentration/mindfulness).  I’m not sure what it says about me that my best kavannah is in a shul, but when there are no people around as Jewish prayer is supposed to be communal.  I vaguely recall a story in Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim about a future rebbe who used to break into the shul after the congregation had gone so he could daven alone, but I can’t remember the details.

***

I was going to try to write about the thoughts I’ve been wrestling with for a long time now about trying to believe in a loving and forgiving (rather than punitive) God, but also wanting abusers to suffer, and trying to work out how Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur  fit with that.  However, I couldn’t untangle my thoughts sufficiently to write them down.  I still feel down and overwhelmed, and missing E, so instead here’s a thousand words on nostalgia for the Doctor Who fandom of thirty years ago.  Feel free to skip the rest of the post!

I have the book-buying bug again.  I’m tempted to buy a couple of humorous or semi-humorous Doctor Who non-fiction books from the 90s.  As I’ve mentioned before, I am nostalgic for the fandom of the 90s, when fandom seemed to be about being either super-literate and analytical about the programme or mercilessly making fun of it (out of love).  At the time, Doctor Who wasn’t on TV and seemed destined never to return.  The BBC had minimal interest in brand management and Doctor Who Magazine and Virgin Publishing (who had the licence to produce Doctor Who-related books) were given a huge amount of freedom, far more than producers of any kind of spin-off merchandise usually get.

Doctor Who: The Completely Useless Encyclopedia was essentially a bunch of jokes about Doctor Who, Doctor Who merchandise and Doctor Who fandom, ordered alphabetically to look like an encyclopaedia.  It was spoofing Jean Marc Lofficier’s Programme Guide and related books The Universal Databank and The Terrestrial Index.  It’s going on eBay for about £5, lots of copies available, so it’s probably not that rare.  I have the follow-up book, Doctor Who: The Completely Unofficial Encyclopedia.  This is precious to me, as it spoofs the first couple of years of the new series (post-2005) and the merchandising frenzy that accompanied it.  By that stage, the BBC were much stricter about brand management and clamped down on that sort of thing (satire or even gentle spoofing or affectionate mockery), which is probably why the book wasn’t so much as mentioned in Doctor Who Magazine.  I came across it by chance in Forbidden Planet, the science fiction bookshop.

However, the book I’m really thinking of buying is The Dis-Continuity Guide.  This came out a couple of years before Doctor Who: The Completely Useless Encyclopedia and was really the first Doctor Who non-fiction book not to take the programme totally seriously.  It had some serious material (capsule reviews of every story to date, suggestions of their inspiration, quotable dialogue, attempts to smooth out the programme’s most notorious continuity errors and establish a consistent future history) with much sillier stuff (quotably bad dialogue, double entendres, technobabble, goofs, fashion disasters and more).   Some of the reviews were snarky too; one story, dull and the 70s equivalent of woke, is described as “like watching socially-aware paint dry”.  To me, it’s the epitome of 90s fandom: very serious and very silly at once, utterly reverent and taking the mickey simultaneously.  I don’t own either book; at the time, I borrowed them from my oldest friend.

The Dis-Continuity Guide goes for quite a hefty price on eBay, but someone is selling a copy, along with two books I don’t want (Jean Marc Lofficier’s aforementioned The Universal Databank and The Terrestrial Index)) and one that’s vaguely interesting (Lofficier’s book on unmade Doctor Who films) for £9.99 plus postage.  Really I ought to buy them just for resell value.  However, I can’t quite bring myself to buy even more books at the moment.

I am also worried about being disappointed.  The Television Companion, which I bought for £2 a few months ago was another 90s nostalgia hit, but it disappointed me, with reviews that repeated the fan consensus of the 80s.  At the risk of totally alienating my readers, I should explain that for various reasons, the Doctor Who stories of the late 70s were superficially more humorous and less violent and scary than those of the mid-70s.  This was not at all to the liking of nascent fandom, largely made up of people in their teens and older, who remembered Jon Pertwee, if not William Hartnell, but convinced themselves, in the absence of videos and repeats, that in those far-off days the programme was a Serious Drama and not a children’s/family programme and that the new episodes were a childish betrayal of the legacy.  Then in the 80s there was a change of regime and episodes more to their liking were made (followed a while later by a massive decline in quality and viewers, which may or may not be a direct result).  Then, in the 90s, a new generation of fans who had grown up on the late 70s stories started championing those stories as intelligent, proto-postmodern and simply more entertaining than those of the 80s.  They also saw the series as a family entertainment programme and not some kind of Serious Drama.

This is the fan era I walked into around 1996, just as the tide was turning.  When I got to see these late 70s stories (which were only just being released on VHS perhaps because they were so unpopular initially) in the coming years, I came to side with the revisionists who loved them, although I do love some of the 1980s stories too: life is complicated, and so is Doctor Who.

Despite first being published in 1998, The Television Companion is very much in the 1980s Serious Drama camp, its analysis section bolstered by quotes from reviews from fanzines – not a bad idea, but most of the fanzines are those of the 80s, not the 90s.  It’s predictable and annoying in parts.

I know there are more up-to-date non-fiction Doctor Who works out there that I haven’t read and might enjoy: fanzine collections or the massive and still-being-published Black Archive cultural studies books on individual stories, which I’ve never even got around to reading, not even the volume written by my friend!  (I think these are written by and for “aca-fans,” fans working in academia in fields like media studies and cultural studies.  I’m not exactly a fit for that group and feel that that’s another boat I perhaps missed.)  That said, I feel less and less interested in what fans think these days as I often think differently.  Instead, I feel drawn nostalgically to my adolescence, the style if not the content, even though I know it’s bound to disappoint, and even though I own far too many books already.

I probably should just spend £13 on the book; I can always resell it for £40…

Existential Spirituality

I wonder sometimes about my spiritual life. I feel I have more of a religious life than a spiritual one. I would like to have a more spiritual life, but it’s hard to know where to start, especially from inside a major religion — where do you go when you’re already where you’re supposed to be, and don’t want to leave, but aren’t fully fulfilled? I want more spirituality, not less Judaism. Further, I find ‘spirituality’ a vague and unhelpful term, and Hebrew words like ruchniut aren’t any better.

I used to read a lot of Jewish religious existentialists (not all Orthodox). I found Jewish existentialism an approach that resonated with me more than many approaches in the Orthodox world, so out of curiosity, I searched online for stuff on existentialist spirituality, despite knowing that secular existentialism is very different to religious existentialism.

I found an article on existential spirituality in psychotherapy the other day that says the following:

There are four primary existential ways of being-in-the-world. They include:

  1. Umwelt: Being-with-nature or the physical world.
  2. Mitwelt: Being-with-others or the social world.
  3. Eigenwelt: Being-with-oneself or the world of the self.
  4. Uberwelt: Being-with-the-spiritual or over world.

Boss (1963), Binswanger (1963), and May et al. (1958) described the first three of these existential ways of being. van Deurzen (1988) added the fourth.

I do struggle with several of these areas. I’m able to experience nature well when I’m in a natural setting, but I struggle to find one in the suburbs. It might be good for me to walk more often in a little area of land left wild at the edge of the nearby park (although it only takes five or ten minutes to walk the length of it).

Skipping number two for the moment, I am a lot more OK at being with myself than before. I still have low self-esteem, something worsened by autism-induced mishaps, and some social anxiety and catastrophising, but I’m mostly comfortable being inside my head. I feel positive about my sense of integrity, which ties into my Jewish practice as I practise Judaism less to feel “positive” or “spiritual” in the moment and more because overall I have a feeling of integrity and rightness from acting in accordance with my religious beliefs and as part of a three thousand year old community.

The really hard areas are two and four. I think being with others is very important (this is perhaps the biggest thing I take from Jewish existentialism), and it does help me when I find a way I can interact with others well, but finding that way can be hard. I definitely missed volunteering the last couple of weeks when it was on a break and I felt depressed until it restarted yesterday. The downside is that I feel depressed and burnt out today, which may be cause and effect or may be coincidence.

The fact that I go to shul (synagogue) a lot less than I did seven or eight years ago is probably a negative here too, from a social point of view as much as anything. Communal prayer does create social bonds. In recent years I have gone to shul a lot less, as a result of sleep disruption, social anxiety, changing communities and then COVID. I’m now totally out of the habit of regular shul attendance and struggling to get back into it.

I think my marriage to E might be the biggest positive change I can make here. Following the Talmud, I see marriage as the primary model of a loving relationship (the Talmud sees “Love your neighbour as yourself” applying particularly to marriage) and I think the intimacy (emotional as well as physical) there will help me feel more spiritually-fulfilled. I think already our emotional intimacy has led me to feel better in this way. It is hard at the moment, though, when we are so far apart and know it will be so long until we get married. E said it feels like we should be married now and our current status is a weird aberration, and I agree with her. E also thinks that God wants us to marry so I can help her be more religious and so she can help me to have more fun, which may be true too.

Connecting with God directly is harder. I struggle to connect with God through Torah study, except on occasions when I suddenly gain some new insight. That doesn’t happen often, but maybe I have to do a lot of study to provide “scaffolding” for those moments of connection. But often it’s easy to forget God while studying Torah and just focus on the text as a text. Possibly I should try to get back to reading something inspirational or about personal growth every day.

I have improved my kavannah (mindfulness) in prayer lately, but even then it can be hard to concentrate on God. I can focus on God or on the words of the prayer, but it’s hard to focus on both at once.

I guess a lot of the problem is the subjectivity of what constitutes a spiritual experience or a connection with an invisible God. Maybe I’m trying to over-analyse.

***

I got a phone call from A, the person who seems to be a middleman between me and the psychiatrist. He turned out to be a psychiatric nurse. He said that before my medication was reviewed by the psychiatrist with a view to reducing it, could I tell him what happened about the autism assessment I was referred for in 2019, as they had no further information. I was pretty shocked he didn’t know about my diagnosis. In fact, I don’t think he even knew I was referred for an autism assessment, as he thought it might have been for ADHD (the hospital assesses for both). I offered to scan the report and send it to them, which was fortunate as he said he could write to the GP, but that would take weeks (!). You would think that an advantage of a single, national healthcare provider would be some kind of shared data base, at least within the locality. Honestly, this service is just so useless.

***

I was going to go for a pre-wedding haircut after this, but it started raining really heavily and I decided to go after work tomorrow instead. It’s still quite hot and I think the rain and heat/humidity combination along with the disruption to my plans brought my mood down. I am nervous of having my hair cut by a stranger again. I’ve always found haircuts intrusive, probably for autistic reasons about personal space and sensory stimuli, but for many years now I’ve had tremor in some social situations and haircuts are a major trigger, indeed, they were the first trigger when it started. I hope it doesn’t happen tomorrow.

I forgot to go to shul (I want to go on Wednesday evenings), although I wouldn’t really have had much time to spare. Instead, I submitted my first novel to two more agents, both UK-based. I’m trying to focus on UK agents at the moment. One is Jewish, but is super-influential and well-connected, so I probably won’t be accepted by him. To be honest, I suspect all the agencies on the list I’m using are too big for me and that I need some small boutique agency. E disagrees with me here; I hope she’s right.

***

I got sent £3.34 from Lulu.com, which means someone bought my non-fiction Doctor Who book!

Honest Jewish Experience and Novel Submission

I’ve mentioned before that I read therapist Elisheva Liss’ weekly “schmoozeletter,” which combines thoughts on the weekly sedra (Torah reading) with insights from modern psychology and psychotherapy. This week she spoke about people in struggling (but not abusive or clearly not working) marriages. She tries to get them to label their interactions and other aspects of the marriage with marks out of ten, with one for the worst possible experience and ten for the best. Then she tries to get people to accept that a set of perfect tens is unrealistic and that a wider range of values can result in a marriage that, while imperfect, is still rewarding and enjoyable. “Maybe getting to a range of 5-7 would be transformative and beautiful in its own imperfect way, if we stopped fixating on the elusive, unrealistic 10?”

I wondered if I should apply this to my religious life. Maybe I’m looking for perfect tens for my davening (prayer), Torah study, mitzvah (commandment) performance, middot (character traits), emunah (faith) and so on. Perhaps I can accept a religious life that is good enough rather than perfect. I haven’t, as yet, assessed the different parts of my religious life and I’m not sure that giving them an exact score is a good idea, but instead I should try to feel that I don’t have to have perfect concentration and connection when davening, I don’t have to have amazing insights every time I study Torah and so on in order to have a meaningful religious life. I just have to be having a better than average experience regularly.

Part of the problem is knowing what I actually FEEL when davening/studying Torah/etc.? I don’t have an official diagnosis of alexithymia (difficulty recognising and distinguishing my own emotions), but one therapist was very sure that I have that difficulty and that is my own experience too. When I feel that my davening or my Torah study lacks a feeling of connection or joy, perhaps the issue is recognising and distinguishing the emotions rather than actually feeling them. This is supported by the fact that I continued with davening and Torah study during the years when I was severely depressed, often at a reduced level, but it was important for me to do something and that probably indicates more than fear and certainly more than just habit.

Likewise, I believe that God exists, and I can tell that I hold this belief much more strongly than I have in the past, so the fact that I don’t feel a strong connection to Him may be a product of unrecognised emotions rather than absent emotions. That said, thinking about connection with God is an inherently subjective and emotional subject, so maybe I shouldn’t see that as the be all and end all of my religious life.

***

Another thought was prompted by an Orthodox Conundrum podcast featuring Rabbi Pesach Sommer talking about whether it is possible to educate for faith (not indoctrinate). He spoke about Orthodox thinkers that teenagers should be introduced to (I had read most of them, pleasingly) and one was Hillel Zeitlin. Zeitlin is a fairly obscure figure who was raised in a strict Hasidic family in late nineteenth century Poland, stopped being frum as a teenager, getting into secular philosophy and Russian literature, then later became frum again, but combined his passion for philosophy and literature with Judaism, writing about religion in Dostoyevski and Tolstoy from a Jewish perspective alongside articles on Jewish figures like Rebbe Nachman of Breslov and Rav Kook and, if I remember correctly, trying to compare Judaism with Eastern religions. He was eventually murdered in the Holocaust.

I was familiar with Zeitlin from a volume of his writings that Jewish Renewal rabbi Arthur Green published a number of years ago and he did inspire me, albeit more by his example than by the writings themselves (as with Franz Rosenzweig). The relevance of this here is that Rabbi Sommer saw Zeitlin as a useful writer because he was not a rabbi and was therefore freer to write about his religious doubts and growth than ordained rabbis. He can therefore be a model of the religious quest, rather than a static view of Judaism and Jewish belief and practice.

The point of all this is that it made me wonder if there is benefit to my recording my thoughts about Judaism and my religious growth, including false starts and wrong turns, after all, precisely because I’m not a rabbi and I don’t need to pretend to be living a perfect religious life. I can be honest and authentic without needing to pretend I have all the answers. I can, in fact, try out different answers without having to be sure that they are “correct.”

***

I struggled to sleep again last night. I got four or five hours sleep and I got up alright this morning, but I made a lot of mistakes at work, perhaps due to tiredness, or to sensory overload from the noise of the air conditioner — or autistic executive function issues, or incompetence, or, or, or…

A small victory: doing mundane tasks while listening to podcasts at work, I listened to a therapist critique the shidduch system of arranged dates in the Orthodox world. She said single young people should enjoy the best years of their lives and not worry about being on the shelf in their early twenties. The “best years of their lives” bit would have depressed me in the past as my teens and twenties were mostly spent unemployed, clinically depressed and very lonely, not doing very much at all, and desperately needing the autism/Asperger’s diagnosis I wouldn’t get for years. I did wince a bit, but I just went on with what I was doing. Yes, I had a miserable time. Yes, lots of people had more fun. Probably the net amount of fun they have over their lifetimes will be greater than mine. But there isn’t much point in going over that all over again. I guess things can only get better? (And, yes, we’ve discussed here before whether teens and twenties really are the best years of your life.)

I got the marriage paperwork I was trying to get hold of yesterday, so we’ve got that to look forward to…

***

I submitted my novel to another agent. I wanted to submit to two, but this one wanted so much stuff that I had didn’t have to hand (elevator pitch, one page synopsis) that I ran out of time. It took well over an hour to submit. It’s frustrating that agents all want different things. One wants a one page synopsis, another wants a two page synopsis and it’s harder than you might think to turn one into the other. When what they want is straightforward, I can submit in twenty minutes or so, but this took nearly four times as long.

The agent that I submitted to was the one who found Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. I can’t pretend that this didn’t leap out to me because I’m currently reading it, but I guess there are some similarities, although I didn’t list it as a published novel similar to my own (I thought that would be gauche; if there are similarities, she can spot them for herself). I broke my informal rule of not submitting to the CEO of an agency (unless it’s a very small one) because she genuinely seemed like the best fit at this agency. I just hope she has the time to deal with the books she represents.

To be honest, I feel my first novel is a mess, an attempt at writing autobiographical fiction that mutated into more imaginative fiction, but not enough. Some of the autobiographical bits are OK, but the strongest part is the non-autobiographical plot thread about a frum woman being abused by abused by her husband. If I wasn’t involved in other writing (and wasn’t afraid of charges of appropriation?), I’d be tempted to try to expand that to a whole novel on its own. Of the three people (other than me) who have read it, two liked it (and the third arguably was not the target audience), which I guess counts for something. I feel that my current novel is better, but also significantly flawed (I just realised a major flaw in it so far). I guess it’s a learning process.

As is often the case when I submit my manuscript, I was left feeling that I am a bad writer and reader for not reading modern fiction. In a weird way, this is probably due to autism/Asperger’s. Like many people on the spectrum, I like to stick with things I know I will like and can understand deeply rather than trying to understand something new. I read the same authors and sometimes I re-read the same books multiple times, although I’m trying to do that less. I’ve read all the short stories of Jorge Luis Borges (most of them multiple times), all the surviving fiction of Franz Kafka (ditto), all of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse novels, much of the prodigious outputs of Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, H. G. Wells, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (all the Professor Challenger stories as well as the more famous Sherlock Holmes ones), Agatha Christie, John le Carre and various other writers. I haven’t read anything from contemporary writers who have only written one or two books. Reading broadly is more of a problem than reading deeply, and reading modern is more of a problem than reading classics.

A Perfect Storm

I feel like I’m headed for a “perfect storm.” My parents are away leaving me in the house by myself, which always brings my mood down and makes me feel lonely (for an autistic person, I’m surprisingly bad at living on my own). It’s one of the worst times of the year for me, when the weather is still cold and wet and the days are short and dark, but it’s so long since summer that it’s hard to believe that it could ever be different. I’m feeling frustrated with my excessive sleeping and low energy on waking, doubly so as I know it’s a factor delaying my wedding. My parents are away, and the cleaner can’t come as I’ll be at work, so there is more shopping, cooking and cleaning that I should do (I’m not sure how much I will do — I’m already planning to eat mostly from the freezer on Shabbat to reduce cooking). I was also aware that I hadn’t dusted my room for ages and it looked unpleasant (it takes ages because of all the bric-a-brac and wargaming miniatures that I’ve painted that I have on display. Probably some of them at least should go, I’m not sure how many “spark joy”). And to cap it all, there’s a Tube strike tomorrow, so I will have to commute to work on the bus, which will take longer and I may not be able to read on the journey because reading on buses increasingly makes me travel sick, which was not previously the case, so no catching up on Torah study on the way in or relaxing on the way home (if reading The Coming of the Third Reich counts as “relaxing” which is questionable). It’s also Rosh Chodesh (New Moon) tomorrow which means longer prayers. I only do a small fragment of the morning prayers, but I try to do a bit more for Rosh Chodesh (Hallel and Musaf), so that adds another ten minutes before I’ve even factored in the Tube strike. It just feels like a lot to have to deal with, although it’s not exactly a catastrophe (just compare with the news).

I haven’t been able to speak to the occupational therapist who might be able to help me yet. I’m waiting for her to get back to me about when we can speak. I need to wait a bit longer before I can really chase it. I am on a massive dose of vitamin D, but as yet it hasn’t improved my energy levels. My therapist said her son was also vitamin D-deprived and he was told it could take a month to have any effect. I am also still on a lower dose of olanzapine without any change in my sleep pattern. I will come off it completely when my parents get home, but I know my mood dips when they are away, so I thought I would stay on it for another week just in case.

Because of all of this, my mood has been a bit down, although I’m not depressed, exactly. I feel like I should be able to cope better on my own, given that I’m an autistic introvert who doesn’t even like most people much. For all that I get annoyed when my parents want to talk and I don’t, the brief bits of conversation probably do keep me grounded and not entirely lost inside my head. Talking to people does probably help a bit with emotional regulation too, although I’m not sure why. It’s easy to think that everything is awful and I’m a failure at life when there isn’t anyone around to call me out on that, or just distract me.

I did manage to do a few things, therapy, dusting and other housework, a little novel planning and I finished my devar Torah and got it ready so I just have to hit ‘send’ when I get home tomorrow. I didn’t have much time/energy for Torah, but I have to remind myself that I am not just wasting time. I do feel pretty useless, though, and I miss E like crazy and wonder when we will be able to live our lives together. (I find time with E restoring, which is not the case for most people I know.)

Related to the idea of activity and energy levels, Ashley’s post the other day about goals versus identifying valued directions chimed with something I’ve been doing lately. I’ve tried to stop setting targets for the things I do during the day and how long I spent on them and recording them daily (which was relevant when I was too depressed to do much at all, but less so now) and focus on doing things in a more general way without obsessing over time (although I do still tend to notice it) e.g. I try to do some Torah study and some work on my novel without setting rigid targets. Doing ten minutes of set hitbodedut (informal, spontaneous prayer, talking to God) had stopped working and it was just becoming painful sitting and not thinking of anything to say, so I just do a few minutes or none at all if I don’t feel like it. I feel OK doing this as my kavannah (usually translated at ‘concentration,’ but I feel ‘mindfulness’ is a better term) on set prayers has been better lately.

***

To cheer myself up, I watched The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash while eating dinner and then dusting my room. It’s a spoof documentary, essentially about The Beatles, written and part-performed by former Monty Python Eric Idle. I’d seen it a number of years ago, but didn’t remember much about it. It was moderately amusing, but I think I’ve grown out of Monty Python-style humour (Michael Palin also had a small role). The cleverest aspect was Neil Innes’ Beatle-pastiche songs, that sounded authentic, but not quite close enough to prompt lawsuits. Innes also played John Lennon parody Ron Nasty.

I chose to watch it as I’ve been listening to The Beatles a lot recently, particularly their early music, which I don’t listen to as much. It did make me feel a bit better, but my mood went down again afterwards. I should just go to bed soon as I have an early start and long day tomorrow…

Cutting Away the Deadwood

Suzanne left this comment on one of my posts a few days ago, and it made me think:

It just struck me that you seem to to need to each end day feeling it was an action-packed day. Not just a day in which you you accomplished something. But a day for which every waking minute involved something meaningful on your part.

It’s true that I do feel pressure to make my time count. Maybe not every hour, and certainly not every minute, but at least every day. I don’t know how much is Judaism, which stresses the idea of having a mission on earth and not wasting time and how much is a bourgeois sense that time is money, or at least that it’s valuable. It also occurred to me that my experience of CBT might play a part, as it has pushed me down the route for years or even decades of recording and monitoring my activity every day, something that I might try to stop for a bit. And I want to move to a position where I can work more for when E and I get married, so that also pushes me down the route of focusing on squeezing out more productivity.

I do feel that most of my peers are working thirty-five hours or more a week and many have families; the frum (religious) ones are balancing prayer, religious study and other communal and religious commitments. I don’t even work full-time. I work two days a week, and those days are still a little short. So I feel that I need to do more. I do manage to do several things a day, but what I manage to do is mostly three or four hours of stuff, not what a full-time worker with three kids and shul (synagogue) roles would do.

I need to find balance in my life, and that, without any sudden changes in my medication and energy levels, that’s going to have to involve cutting back some activities to allow more time for others. And while internet procrastination is something I would like to cut back a lot, other, more productive activities will probably be cut back too, as procrastination has a habit of creeping in when not wanted. I would like to find more time for fiction writing and novel agent-hunting, both of which I have sorely neglected over the last six months or so, but also to ensure that I relax properly each day. Yesterday I did a few things (sorting papers, Torah study, 5K run), but I did not relax much and when I went to bed I could not sleep despite feeling exhausted. I had to watch an episode of The Simpsons before I could sleep.

I also have a focus on constantly monitoring how near I’m getting to the end of books or TV programmes, and worrying about my To Read list which is probably all unhealthy.

One thing I might stop doing is my hitbodedut spontaneous prayer/meditation. Judaism has three obligatory (for men) set prayer services a day, reading prayers and biblical passages in Hebrew, but for years I have also been doing hitbodedut, which is speaking to God spontaneously in the vernacular. It was important for me in the past, but lately I can’t connect at all through it, whereas my kavannah (usually translated as ‘concentration’, but I prefer ‘mindfulness’) in the set prayers has been somewhat better, so I might focus on those.

I feel like I want to try to cut away some of the deadwood in my life and move forward.

Whoops, I Accidentally Bought a Library…

Work was difficult today, comparing data from a database with a spreadsheet and trying to find the discrepancy, which inevitably was something I did wrong. To be fair, I knew it was wrong at the time and tried to rectify it, but the system messed up the rectification. Then I struggled with another problem with a different database later, not my fault this time.

I nearly led services in shul (synagogue). I’m getting closer to doing it, but I’m still too scared of being too slow, and also of not starting the communal repetition of the Amidah prayer as soon as I’ve finished the private prayer, but waiting until I can see that nine other people have finished as required by halakhah (Jewish law). This, I suspect, will not be popular, because it also slows things down.

Perhaps because of this, on the way home, when I saw that the local charity shop was still selling books (I thought they had stopped), I went in “Just to look” and ended up with a couple of books by science fiction author Olaf Stapledon, one of those authors I’ve always meant to read and never quite got around to it. This is why I have so many books that I haven’t read, and no shelf space…

Looking in All the Right and Wrong Places

I think I did too much yesterday, between work, an hour or so of Torah study (about half after I got home from work rather than on the train in to work), dinner with my parents and doing a load of holiday-related banking stuff. I only got half an hour or so to relax, excluding reading at lunch at work and on the Tube home (which is not entirely relaxing), watching an episode of The Twilight Zone (Ninety Years Without Slumbering, not the best, but not the worst either). Today I was exhausted and didn’t get up until after 1pm, much to my father’s exasperation.

I felt somewhat depressed all day. Some of it was probably autistic exhaustion. Even so, there is so much wrong with the world that I can’t do anything about (Ukraine, the genocide of the Uyghurs, the incompetence of our political class…). It’s easy to get fixated on that.

I also had another novel rejection. There isn’t much more to say about that.

In terms of what I did achieve, I wrote to the JobCentre about my benefits again. I think these should have been stopped ages ago because (A) they were only supposed to last a year; (B) I am now working and earning more than the permitted amount; and (C) my diagnosis has changed, and while I still experience the same difficulties with energy, concentration and motivation in the workplace, I think autism, unlike depression, is (wrongly) not considered a genuine impairment to working. I know it’s silly to look for trouble if they’re still willing to give me free money, but I worry about being arrested for benefit fraud, or at least about being made to pay money back (for all that the amount I receive is pretty small).

It was a struggle finding the paper trail, though. I think of myself as an organised person, but I increasingly realise that I’m not, and that my filing for important papers (savings, work, tax, benefits etc.) need a serious overhaul. It still has the semblance of order, but has grown out of hand through lack of attention. I keep far too much stuff, a problem I had as a librarian too. I ought to sort it before getting married, but it just feels like Yet Another Thing to do alongside work, submitting my novel, researching/writing my second novel, learning to drive, keeping up with household chores, Torah study, relaxation (which I’m beginning to accept I need to take more seriously if I’m going to live with autism) and so on.

In an attempt to find fat to trim, I’m trying to cut internet time to an hour and a half a day. That’s for blogging, reading blogs, reading news sites and general internet browsing, not for using the internet for a non-recreational purpose, such as internet banking or shopping. I’m doing this partly to free up time, partly because, in monitoring what contributed to autistic fatigue and what restored me from it, prolonged internet use emerged pretty quickly as something I do a lot, but which rapidly becomes draining rather than restoring.

It is too early to say if it is working, although I haven’t had great success with similar attempts in the past. I just need more time in the day. If nothing else, I would like to relax by reading more actual books instead of blogs and news sites (important though those are). It would help my attempts to be more productive if I didn’t tire so easily and need so much sleep, particularly after work (see my first paragraph). It’s hard to get through life as an adult with adult responsibilities when I seem to need eleven, twelve or even thirteen hours of sleep most nights.

***

Holiday: Sunday 23 January

By this stage, E and I had established a pattern where she would work during the morning (her work hours are flexible, but she wasn’t on holiday) and I would sleep in a bit and slowly go through my morning routine, then we would go out late morning or early afternoon. Nevertheless, I was still feeling very frustrated at how tired I can get.

We went to The Jewish Museum, which we both found found disappointing. There weren’t enough exhibits on display and the most interesting thing was a special exhibit containing a collection of netsuke, seventeenth century Japanese miniature carved statues, which was not what you would expect to find in a Jewish museum. The exhibition it was part of was about a wealthy Austrian-Jewish family that lost their property, including the netsuke, in the Holocaust and tried to get it back afterwards. As E said, it was sad they lost their property, but lots of people lost their lives in the Holocaust (the family all seemed to flee to safety when the Nazis took over, just leaving their possessions behind to be seized), and it was hard to be too concerned over them, especially as they still seemed to be very wealthy. Still, the netsuke were interesting, if not exactly what I would have gone to the museum for.

The funniest thing was the (expensive) museum shop, which had a fair bit of what can only be described as Ruth Bader Ginsburg fan memorabilia. There was an RBG children’s book, which reminded me of something I saw in the paper a while back, where a columnist was complaining that one of the biggest bookshops in London had no children’s books about Chanukah, but did instead have a selection of children’s books on woke heroines like Greta Thunberg, Kamala Harris and RBG. What, she wondered, would an English five year old, make of a book about an American politician or judge?

But my favourite item in the shop was an RBG chanukiah (Chanukah lamp), with six inch high mini-RBG brandishing a gavel at the person lighting the lamp. The lamps stood on blocks that spelt out “I DISSENT,” which was also the title of RBG children’s autobiography, apparently to make her seem an exciting rebel rather than an accepted part of the political order. We saw a woman with an RBG tote bag later in the week too, so there’s obviously a market for this sort of “merch” (I hate that word). Welcome to the era of politics-as-lifestyle (and lifestyle-as-politics).

Afterwards we went to Central Park again, then on to some bookstores, new and second-hand. I picked up a copy of Doctor Who and the Doomsday Weapon, the more excitingly-titled novelisation of the 1971 Doctor Who story Colony in Space. The Doctor Who novelisations are a subject of nostalgia in their own right for many fans, particularly older ones. I read the novelisations of most stories before I got a chance to see them and they were a huge part of my childhood. I do vaguely think sometimes about trying collect the complete set (I have about forty, only a quarter or so of the total). Doctor Who and the Doomsday Weapon, like many of the early novelisations (before they started churning them out mechanically) has ‘value added’ in terms of more detailed characterisation and world-building compared with the TV story, so it was enjoyable to read (on the plane home) even though I’ve got the TV version on DVD. It also shifts the focus from the Master’s attempt to steal the titular weapon to the human drama of the colony (despite the titles suggesting the opposite), which is probably an improvement. E read it too and was also impressed.

Some time after sunset I realised that I had forgotten to daven Minchah (say Afternoon Prayers), and now it was too late. I seem to do this once every winter. In the evening, we got takeaway dinner from a kosher Mexican restaurant. We were impressed by the food, less so by the refusal of the kitchen staff to wear masks. Eating in E’s apartment, I realised the rubber sole was falling off one of my walking boots, and it did indeed fall off before I left for home. Fortunately, the boot still had a leather and plastic sole underneath that protected my foot during the ten minute walk back to my apartment, in the falling snow.

Monday 24 January

We visited The Book Cellar, a nice second-hand bookshop, and I picked up three more books: Talmudic Images (which I’ve already blogged about), the second Harry Potter (after making sure it was an English edition and not one ‘translated’ into American English) and the first volume of Richard Evans’ three-volume non-fiction study of Nazi Germany. Including the Doctor Who book and two Jewish books I ordered to come to E’s apartment for me to collect (to avoid international postage), I was coming back with six more books than I left with! Fortunately, throwing away my walking boots gave me some more space in my suitcase… Even so, I was disappointed to have to leave the two-volume hardback Annotated Sherlock Holmes on the Book Cellar’s shelves.

In the afternoon, we went to The Museum of Modern Art. We enjoyed the galleries on the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but struggled with the noise in the building, which came not from patrons, but from some extremely noisy art installations. I was also annoyed that the cloakroom was closed, inevitably because of COVID (?!), and I was not allowed to wear my rucksack and had to carry it around instead. Add in the usual mask discomfort and, again, we only stayed for a couple of hours whereas pre-COVID we might have stayed for longer.

In the evening we had dinner at a kosher pizza place with E’s mother, who was visiting New York. This seemed to go well. It was good to meet her in person. Afterwards E spent time with her mother while I went back to my apartment and started reading Talmudic Images and generally pottered about not feeling like doing much. This turned out to be a bad sign, an indication that I was rapidly running out of spoons.

Work Keys, and Burning Out on Holiday

On the way into work, I got in a panic about not having completed a tax return, until my Mum pointed out that the return would be for the 2020-2021 financial year, where it’s unlikely I earnt enough (even including benefits) to pay tax, rather than the 2021-2022 financial year, where I probably will have to pay tax. However, I spent some time worrying about it before she pointed it out, and I do need to check the figures.

When I got into work, J told me I had made a mistake before going on holiday. Some people send in record books with their membership fees, which is supposed to be a way of recording how much they have paid. I am always worried that I will absent-mindedly send their cheques back with the books. It turns out that I did do that a few weeks ago. At least J wasn’t angry, but I feel embarrassed about these kind of executive function errors, even though I know they come with the autistic territory. We are not using the record books in the coming year, so I do at least have limited opportunities to make this mistake again.

J asked me to take a photo of some forms and send them to two contractors, which I did, but then realised I was charged by my phone company for sending media texts; I should have WhatsApped them (which I wasn’t sure I could do, but I now think I can).

Other than that there was a lot of basic admin work and a trip to the bank, which does break up the day. It was my last day as a contractor; tomorrow I become a permanent member of staff! Because of this, J gave me an electronic fob key for the front door, so I’ll be able to get in even if the security guard isn’t at his desk, although I need to get the key activated (or something technical) first.

I went to the shul (synagogue) in the building for Minchah and Ma’ariv (Afternoon and Evening services). No one wanted to lead the services. I sort of wanted to take the initiative, but held back because of social anxiety; fear that I would start shaking (which is a medication side-effect, but triggered by social anxiety and shortness of breath when masked); and fear that I would lead the prayers too slowly. I can not daven (pray) as fast as most people in this shul, and I would not daven that fast even if I could, as I think it’s insulting to God to speak to Him like that. I know most people at this minyan are taking time out from work and need to get back quickly, but I feel an extra two minutes would not hurt. But I worry what response I would get.

It is funny how some services seem to have ‘prestige’ and others don’t. People will fight for the right to lead some services (e.g. Kabbalat Shabbat (Friday evening), Mussaf (additional prayer service on Sabbaths and festivals), leining (Torah reading) and haftarah (reading from the prophets)), however those same people will fight not to have to lead weekday services, which seem to be seen as unimportant, probably because they are chanted rather than sung ‘properly’ and because relatively little skill is required to lead them compared with the more ‘prestigious’ services. You need to be able to read Hebrew reasonably well, but you don’t have to be able to sing, or memorise the vocalisation and musical notation of a passage.

***

Holiday: Thursday 20 January

E and I went to the Metropolitan Museum for a couple of hours, looking mainly at the Ancient Egyptian and Medieval Art galleries. It was fascinating and there was a lot to see, but we both got uncomfortable in our masks and I felt that I was tiring easily (which may have been due to masking, cold weather, autism and/or who knows what else). We ate lunch in Central Park (or I did; E doesn’t really eat lunch) and went for a bit of a walk around it, but it was uncomfortably cold and I was starting to get a headache (again), so we went back to E’s apartment so she could work and I read. It was nice just being in the same room, to be honest.

We had dinner at an Italian restaurant, in a COVID ‘outdoor’ seating area, a hut with a raised roof to let the air circulate, essentially a secular sukkah. I got them to turn the music down as it was giving me painful sensory overload. Sometimes I surprise myself (in this case regarding my confidence and ability to speak up for myself).

When we went out on this day, E noticed that the lockbox I was supposed to store the keys in at the end of my holiday had disappeared. It was fortunate that she noticed this, as I was able to get the landlord to buy a new one in time, otherwise my plans for my last day could have gone dramatically wrong. Sometimes it does feel like God is looking out for me (see also: having a free seat next to me on both plane journeys).

Friday 21 January

I felt pretty exhausted on this day. It led me to feel that, because of my autism, I can only do one thing per day, at most. This disappoints me, particularly after the packed holidays that my parents used to take me on as a child. I know E finds my lack of stamina hard to deal with too, but I don’t know what I can do to boost it.

Because of lack of stamina and exhaustion, I didn’t do much on this day, mostly just shopping for Shabbat, although Shabbat started so early I wouldn’t have managed much else anyway. My mood slumped at lunchtime and I’m not sure why.

E came over to my apartment for Shabbat dinner, although we didn’t get what we really wanted (sushi) and ended up making bad decisions about alternatives due to feeling stressed and overloaded (sensory overload and social overload).

Saturday 22 January

This was a chill out day, with E in my apartment for much of it. I had been enjoying being in an Airbnb, but from this point on, I began to find it a little creepy, like there was a ghost haunting the flat, by which I mean the presence of the landlord, who usually lived there when not abroad. I had amused myself making Sherlock Holmes-type deductions about her from her books and the newspaper clippings on the fridge, but I began to feel an impostor, like she wouldn’t want me to be there if she knew me (this was partly political, feeling that she wouldn’t agree with me politically and would think me a bad person). Things were made worse when we dripped some wax on a chair when making havdalah (ritual at end of the Sabbath involving a multi-wicked candle). She was OK about it, but I felt she ought to be angrier, even though the ‘house manual’ provided did not say anything about not lighting candles (contrary to what she said).

More practically, the bed was uncomfortable for me: the mattress too soft, the pillows too thin and the cushion I used to try to raise my head was the wrong shape and too hard, as it was a beanbag cushion. Perhaps as a result of this, I had weird dreams all week.

“The silence you hear is Mr Neddie Seagoon sitting and waiting”

Work was stressful as I spent nearly five hours inputting cheques for membership fees onto the system and then going to the bank to pay them all in, about fifty cheques in all plus some cash. J pointed out some mistakes in previous work, and I worry that working on this for so long with just one real break for lunch would lead to more errors. In addition, one of the cheques I took to the bank on Monday went missing. I think it was the bank’s error (I’m not sure how it could have been mine), but it worries me a bit, and I worry that today’s lot could easily have a mistake made by me as well by as the bank teller. One of the cheques had somehow got a bit sticky, and I worry that it will stick to another cheque and not be processed separately, which is probably what happened on Monday.

***

I went to shul (synagogue) for Minchah and Ma’ariv (Afternoon and Evening Services) at the shul in the building where I work. It was super-fast as usual. I suppose people davening (praying) in this shul during the week are mostly working and need to get back to work, but it’s far too fast for me and I’m still davening when the service is over. It’s hard to find a shul that davens at the right pace for me; sadly, I don’t think I’m going to find it in the United Synagogue.

***

I’m not going to shul this Shabbat (Sabbath) as I want to avoid COVID before my trip by isolating as much as possible, although my Dad will go to his shul. I had a close call today when I heard that the rabbi of the shul in the building where I work is isolating after getting COVID. I had seen him in shul (albeit from a distance) on Monday and don’t know if he was infected then. I did a test when I got home and it was negative, so hopefully I’ll be OK if I just avoid people between now and Tuesday (hence the title of this post, from The Goon Show: The Junk Affair, about sitting in silence and waiting).

I have some anxieties about travel, beyond getting asymptomatic COVID and being grounded, but I’m trying not to give in to catastrophisation. Wish me luck…

***

I admit I was too zonked after work to read this properly, but someone sent me to Temple Gradin’s article about good jobs for people on the autism spectrum. She did at least mention librarian (so I wasn’t in the wrong field entirely, I just went about it in completely the wrong way, albeit for reasons that were perhaps outside of my control). Many of the other jobs are IT/maths/technical jobs. Sometimes I feel like I got all the bad parts of autism and none of the good parts, skills with maths and computers. There are also some very low-grade jobs too. Gradin does say to opt for jobs where you have to sell your work, not your personality, which suggests I’m right to look at writing, copywriting and proof-reading, but I’ve never been able to build up the portfolio of work needed to get more work, and anything freelance requires a leap in the dark about how much to charge and how quickly I can promise to do things. I have no idea how long it should or would take me to proof-read a thesis, or how much to charge for doing so, or how to prove to someone I can do it when I’ve never done it before.

***

This article asks what holiness is. I’ve always struggled with this, perhaps surprisingly, given how religious I am. I’m not a mystic, so I’m not convinced it is a “metaphysical substance” that our souls can perceive. Although Judaism generally sees the holy as that which is ‘beyond’ or ‘set aside,’ with my religious existentialist leanings, I tend to see it as being ‘between’ — between human beings or between human beings and God. I think there was holiness at the food bank and the asylum seekers’ drop-in centre where I used to volunteer. In this regard I think of what Rabbi Sacks said about the holiest place in Judaism being the gap between the wings of the cherubs on the cover of the Ark of the Covenant, from where God’s voice emanated, to teach us that holiness is about between spaces, interactions, between people and God and between different people. Rabbi Sacks also used to talk about the importance of listening as a religious act. But if holiness is between human beings, then I’m very bad at accessing it, or being able to access it, given my autism and social anxiety, so I feel like I’ve defeated myself in a way. That said, I do feel something on Shabbat that I can’t describe, and that may be holiness; at least, I hope it is.

Put Your ******* iPhone Down and Listen to Me

I overslept today. I think my clock radio alarms (plural) didn’t go off. Luckily, I set another alarm, on my phone on the other side of the room (in case I turn off the clock radio alarms in my sleep as often happens). I rushed to get ready, but was slightly late leaving, although I got to work at a reasonable time. I’m slightly concerned that this may change if Transport for London goes into administration soon, as may happen. I think there’s currently a game of chicken going on between the Mayor of London and central government, particularly the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is refusing to give any more money after having already given a lot. The computerised destination boards at the station weren’t working today and haven’t been for some weeks now and I wonder if they have been deliberately left unfixed as ‘leverage.’ The staff don’t announce which trains are leaving from which platform; you really have to take a train, hope it’s the next one leaving and then check when you get to the next station to see if it’s going on the right branch (the station is the end of the line, so all the trains are going south, but the line splits into two branches further down).

***

At work I was phoned by the autism hospital who said I’m on the list to be screened to see if I can have autism-approved CBT. The person who phoned me reassured me that, for people diagnosed by the hospital (as I was), screening is usually just a formality. Less reassuring was the next bit: being approved would lead to my case being sent to the CCG to get funding. If I get that, then I get on the waiting list — which is currently running with a thirty to thirty-six month wait! I’m sure this has been worsened by COVID, but it’s pretty horrific. I’m not 100% sure that the three years (or whatever) only starts at that late point. It’s possible that I misunderstood and have already started the three year wait. However, with the NHS it’s usually best to assume the worst-possible outcome (and lower expectations from there).

Between the NHS and the Tube, it’s tempting to say something about underfunded public corporations, and whether they could be fixed by spending sprees or privatisation or re-nationalisation of the already-privatised bits… I no longer know or care what the solution is, I just wish someone could SORT THINGS OUT.

***

I used my SAD light box at work. I felt a bit self-conscious with it, but I don’t really get time to use it at home on work days, and on non-work days I wake up late and am wary of using it late in case it stops me sleeping later. I’m still not sure it does much when I do use it. I didn’t feel depressed after using it today, but by evening I was utterly exhausted, the type of exhaustion I get from being autistically overloaded, and I struggled to really focus on things. I wanted to get away from the computer because computer stimulation doesn’t help when I feel like this, but also wanted to Skype E and to write this, both of which involve being on the computer.

I did skype E in the end, and it was good, despite some depressing topics of conversation (the likelihood of another COVID lockdown and the difficulty of raising children in an era of social media and online bullying). Speaking to E revives me rather than depleting me, which is good.

***

I’ve had a bit of reversal of my thoughts about the United Synagogue and potentially rejoining a US shul (synagogue) at some point in the future. I have nearly finished Rabbi Sacks and the Community We Built Together, which reprints some chapters from an (I think) out-of-print book by Rabbi Lord Sacks, where, to my surprise, the former head of the United Synagogue says that he never liked it growing up and only became a regular participant at a US shul when he became the rabbi of one. There are plenty of Haredi rabbis with communities in the US that would clearly never daven there if it wasn’t their job to do so, but I saw Rabbi Sacks as a solid US man. His reasons for disliking the US are similar to mine: US shuls are too large, too anonymous and too focused on the rabbi and the chazan (cantor) doing things and everyone else spectating. I’d add a lack of commitment to meaningful prayer and Torah study on behalf of many of the congregants and also chazanim who rush through the silent prayers and then drag out the prayers that they get to sing, even though the silent prayers are more important.

Rabbi Sacks’ change of mind came about when he realised that the US is essentially the only place in the whole world where shomer mitzvot Jews (Jews who keep the commandments) and non-shomer mitzvot Jews meet as equals in a religious context. He sees it as a fundamentally inclusive organisation (in a passage written long before “inclusive” became an over-used buzzword) that allows for growth through example as well as overt preaching.

So that made me wonder if maybe I have things to offer in such a situation, whereas I feel I don’t in an shomer mitzvot-Jews-only type of shul. A couple of blogs I follow have been writing about whether it’s better to be a small fish in a big pond or a big fish in a small pond. I tried to be a small fish in a big pond in many situations from university onwards, and I’m not sure where it got me. My biggest triumphs were mostly when I was a big fish in a small pond. I know Pirkei Avot says to be the tail of a lion rather than the head of a fox, but Pirkei Avot is unique in Talmudic literature in that it is seen as good advice rather than strict law; it’s not such a problem to decide it doesn’t apply to a particular situation (and it has various internal contradictions that we don’t try to iron out the way we do with other volumes of Talmud).

***

The Jewish website I applied to write for has clarified that they do want to publish the article I sent them (the one that has already been published elsewhere), but that they won’t pay me for it as they don’t pay for reprints. This does not encourage me to exert myself to investigate the copyright/reprint situation, bearing in mind I felt burnt out this evening, even though they want to post it next week. They did say I could pitch articles to them in the future and that they pay for articles, all of which is positive, although I’m not quite sure why they didn’t pay for my first article. Was it simply because I didn’t ask?

***

I should say something about COVID, but I don’t have anything to say except that I think we’re headed for another lockdown, I worry that we’re going to vaccinate enough people to get herd immunity without mandatory vaccinations (which make me uncomfortable even though I’m pro-vaccine) and that, unless we have a frank and taboo-busting discussion about exactly how many additional deaths we’re willing to accept per year in return for not living like prisoners and not letting our children grow up traumatised and uneducated, we’re going to be stuck here forever. Deaths per day in the UK are much lower than in the early days of the pandemic and in the peak earlier this year (after the bungled lockdowns around last Christmas). I feel there is a point where the costs of further lockdowns outweigh the benefits, but I’m not an epidemiologist or a medical statistician and feel inadequate to having an informed discussion without some help from government and media figures who don’t seem to want to have the conversation. At some point COVID is going to have to be treated like flu or pneumonia, a hazard of life that we take some precautions against, treat and take seriously, but don’t bend our society out of shape to avoid. I’m not sure what that point is, but we need to start discussing it rationally without people saying that one COVID death is too many or alternatively that the pandemic is a hoax.

***

Listening to A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip, an album by Sparks from 2020 that I got for Chanukah the other day. It’s very good. I’m not sure what it means that the song that resonated most with me so far is iPhone with its refrain, “Put your ******* iPhone down and listen to me.” So true, sadly. Although maybe I’m just fixated on iPhones to avoid thinking about all the various awful things I’ve mentioned in this post that I can do nothing about.

Post-Shabbat Blues

Shabbat (the Sabbath) was tranquil on the surface, but I think it pointed out hidden tensions in my mind and I feel quite drained and low now.

I went to shul (synagogue) on Friday night. When I got home, I had quite a long talk with my parents about the cremation they had been to for my Mum’s cousin. I hadn’t really been able to speak to them about it before, as they only got back from it an hour or so before Shabbat and I was busy showering and getting ready for Shabbat. There was something Mum said that I won’t talk about here that I think I need to spend some time internalising, maybe in therapy.

***

Mum told me that my oldest friend was in one of the Jewish newspapers. I had emailed him last week as I hadn’t heard from him for ages. He hasn’t got back to me yet. I struggled with some thoughts again. I’m pleased that he’s doing well with his life, but sometimes it seems like our lives were so similar in primary school and the early years of secondary school and then we grew apart as we got older, although we never fell out or lost touch, just went in different directions. The fact that I’m not on social media probably doesn’t help us stay in touch, as I think he uses Facebook quite a bit for life announcements.

I try really hard these days not to feel jealous of other people’s lives, when they seem to be doing much better than me, and a lot of the time I succeed, but my oldest friend is ultra-hard given how parallel our lives once were. We even looked alike, except that he was a lot taller – people assumed he was my older brother. I kept thinking of the two identical goats for Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement) in ancient times, the one for God and the other thrown off the cliff (the origin of the word ‘scapegoat’). I think I was the one who got thrown off the cliff.

After a bit of time on Friday night I got to a point of relative equanimity about this, but then I dreamt about my friend last night, so it’s obviously still bothering me unconsciously.

***

The other dream I had last night was about Rabbi Sacks. I feel like I’m still grieving him, and grieving the guidance I feel he could have given me about my life if I’d been able to engineer a situation where I met him. If I could have had the confidence to go to some events where he was, or if I had been in a Jewish youth movement especially as a youth leaders, or a leader at the university Jewish Society, as so many prominent people in the Modern Orthodox community were. But I was terrified of most people my own age as a teenager because of being bullied at school and perhaps also because autism meant I simply couldn’t communicate easily with them and understand unspoken communication. The result was that I avoided most group social stuff until it was too late. By the time I was in my late twenties or thirties and wanted to meet people, they were all married and settling down.

I should probably stop going on about this. I’m not sure how I can grieve someone I never met and only knew through his writing, which I still have.

***

After lunch I could have had seudah (the Third Sabbath meal) and gone to shul for Minchah (Afternoon Prayers), Talmud shiur (religious class) and Ma’ariv (Evening Prayers), but I went to bed for a bit and then davened (prayed) at home, and did Talmud study at home after Shabbat. I’m not sure why I did this, but it’s definitely an anxiety thing, probably fear of being asked to lead Minchah in shul as the second Minchah has few people and fewer who are willing/able to lead the service. I struggle to keep up in shiur and I feel uncomfortable helping to tidy up after Ma’ariv; I always feel I just get in everyone’s way and I don’t know how to help (I’ve mentioned before Amanda Harrington’s idea about people on the spectrum wanting to help, but just getting in the way). There’s probably some common or garden social anxiety too. It’s also hard to go out on Shabbat when it’s cold and overcast; it’s harder when the event I’m going to inspires so many negative feelings.

I feel like I’ve gone backwards over COVID time and the social anxiety that used to be around Shabbat morning prayers has spread to the afternoon too. Lately I’ve given up even trying to go in the mornings.

***

I finished reading The Quest for Authenticity: The Thought of Reb Simhah Bunim by Rabbi Michael Rosen, about the rabbis of Przysucha (pronounced Peshischa) and Kotzk. It’s a book that clearly resonates with me as this was the third or fourth time I’ve read it in thirteen years.

In the closing pages of the appendices (p. 355-356), Rabbi Rosen writes:

Yet with all its concern for the people, it must be said that the average Jew would not have found his place in Przysucha. The Kotzker might have been more strident, but the value system of Przysucha by definition excluded the Jew who did not want to think deeply, who did not want to extend himself, who wanted neither the agony nor the ecstasy, but who just wanted to identify and feel heimish (at home). There was no place in Przysucha for the Jew who simply wanted to pay his dues to the religious party, as it were, without being forced to ask the question, “But why?”…

By its very nature, membership or identification with a group entails some personal compromise. Przysucha was strongly opposed to such compromise. Thus its very nature entailed a dilemma, and perhaps the seeds of its end. However, for many of those who have a reflective personality, the quest for authenticity must have been almost irresistible.

I think I’ve been very reluctant to make real or apparent compromises over the years, hence my resistance to so many groups where perhaps I might have made friends and been accepted if I’d just let my guard down and gone. I also feel that nowadays most of the Jewish community is closer to the “feeling heimish” end of the Jewish spectrum than the “quest for authenticity” end. Maybe, post-Enlightenment and post-Holocaust, heimish is the most we can hope for from the community as a whole. Or maybe it was ever thus. Or maybe organised yeshiva (rabbinical seminary) and sem (women’s seminary) study for young people provides a mechanism for some people to grow and develop, although I’m not convinced that this is always the case from what I’ve heard. Ironically, it is the sense of authenticity and fear of dropping my guard that contributed to my not going to yeshiva (as well as my not being a youth/Jewish Society leader), although there were other reasons too.

***

There’s a lot of negativity in this post. I don’t really feel negative, just a bit down. I mostly feel cautiously positive these days, but I guess there’s a lot of anxiety and fear below the surface about the fact that I’m still trying to get my life together. I can see the next step or two, but not beyond that, and that’s scary when you’re nearly forty, only working part-time and, in some sense, disabled, and want to settle down and try to start a family.

Autistic Regression, A Tail to Foxes, and More

You can’t become autistic. You’re either born on the autism spectrum or not. However, autistic people can mask their autistic traits, suppressing their desire to stim or forcing themselves to endure sensory overload, using their cognitive skills to engage in social interactions that allistics (non-autistics) do intuitively and so on. Sometimes they can mask so well and for so long that they don’t even know that they are autistic until it suddenly becomes to much and — BANG! — they start showing autistic symptoms because they’re too drained to mask any more. Hence adults appear to suddenly “become” autistic, to the surprise (and often horror) of family, friends and work colleagues. (This is kind of what happened to me, although not entirely.) This process of losing the ability to mask and “power through” disability has the rather brutal title of “autistic regression,” where people can lose skills (possibly permanently, although research into this is ongoing).

As well as coming at a time of autistic burnout, autistic regression can happen at any time as a result of autistic overload. One autistic person whose blog I read can lose the power of speech when she is very overloaded. I don’t lose speech totally, but when I’m overloaded I can become monosyllabic and irritably refuse to engage with anyone who tries to talk to me.

The last few days I seem to have been struggling with sensory sensitivity and I’m not sure why. Yesterday I was really overwhelmed by the smell of the mint in the chicken Mum cooked and served (I’m vegetarian on weekdays, so I didn’t taste it, which was a bit of a relief). Today the highlighter pen I was using at work had a smell that made me feel a little ill, even from a distance of a foot or more. I went into the shopping centre on the way home and there is a stall there that has some kind of flashing light thing that I usually tolerate or even like, but today it was just too overloading. I definitely am less able to tolerate sensory stuff at the end of a long work day, but I’m not sure why the mint was so overwhelming yesterday. It is a bit scary when this happens, when I suddenly seem to slip towards the less functional end of the autism spectrum.

***

Work was difficult today. There was an element of helping with the Very Scary Task. I also realised I had thrown away something that J wanted me to keep. To be fair, I think he said to throw it away, although there was probably a communication error. This has not stopped me being self-critical, although not as much as in the past. I also had a very difficult task, trying to reconcile four pairs of accounts. I sorted the first two pairs and am still on the third; I haven’t touched the fourth yet. It took me a while to work out how even to approach the third pair, but I got there in the end (hopefully).

***

I stayed for Minchah and Ma’ariv in the shul (synagogue) building where I work. The speed of davening (prayer) was incredibly fast as usual. I am used to the slower speed of my shul. I am trying to remember if the fast speed is typical for the United Synagogue. I think it was fast even for the US, but the average US speed is faster than my current shul.

I was thinking about this because I’ve been reflecting on the future and one day moving back to a US shul. I would not like to have a shul that davened as fast as the work shul as my main place to daven. However, I had reflected recently that I may feel more comfortable in a US environment where I am one of the more religiously learned and capable members, partly because there is less fear of being rejected, but mostly because I am more likely to engage with the community and do things (lead prayers, share my divrei Torah, give shiurim) if I feel there are few people in the community who can do these things. The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot says that it is better to be the tail of a lion than the head of a fox, but I think I’m more comfortable as a fox head. But should I be trying to be comfortable?

***

Tomorrow is going to be hectic, as my parents are going to the cremation of my Mum’s cousin, who died a week or two ago. She wasn’t religious; cremation is not allowed in Orthodox Judaism, nor is leaving a body unburied for so long without a good reason. For some reason this has disturbed me and I’m not sure why. To clarify, cremation is believed to cause great pain to the soul and that is why it disturbed me. What I don’t know is why this particular cremation upset me. I wasn’t close to the cousin (I think I only met her once) and I’ve had other relatives cremated without feeling the same way about them. But something about this has got to me, and I’ve been thinking about her periodically. Feeling that I want to do something, but there isn’t anything I can do. Maybe it feels worse because she has fallen out with her sister, who isn’t sitting shiva (mourning) for her.

The reality of Judaism in the twenty-first century is that frum (religious) Jews are a minority of a minority. This means that many frum Jews have non-frum relatives. The options are either to accept that you can’t control other people, even family, even your children; or to cut people who think or act differently to you out of your life. Some frum Jews do the latter quite ruthlessly and, to be fair, there are non-frum Jews who cut newly-frum relatives out of their lives. I made the choice many years ago to go down the “accept I can’t control other people” route. It’s hard sometimes, but I’m sure in my mind that it’s the best option, morally, religiously and pragmatically. It does sometimes lead to thoughts and feelings that have nowhere to go, though.

***

I am currently reading Orlando, which E gave me for my birthday. I wanted to read it as it’s her favourite book and I thought that as she is watching Doctor Who, I should do something in return. I’m finding it more readable than I expected. I didn’t have very clear expectations, but I guess I had an idea of Virginia Woolf as an austere litterateur and humourless political radical who wouldn’t believe in joking around until Patriarchy is destroyed. Actually, Orlando is pretty funny. However, I can see why Philip K. Dick described Woolf as someone who wrote about nothing at all, meaning that there isn’t much plot.

***

I listened to episodes of Hancock’s Half-Hour while walking to and from the station on work days this week. Hancock’s Half-Hour was a sitcom on the radio and later the TV in the fifties and early sixties. I grew up listening to it and recently bought what survives of the first radio series on CD (as with early Doctor Who and many, many other TV and radio programmes, not all of it survives). It is dated in places, but remarkably modern-sounding in others. It’s hard to listen to dialogue when walking along busy roads, but it has cheered up my walk home when exhausted at the end of the day this week and makes a change from music.

Falls the Shadow

I went to bed late last night because I was trying to Do Stuff. This was basically a mistake, as I struggled to get up in time for work today. Although if I hadn’t done it, I would probably be feeling even more useless and even further behind with all the things I have to do. I felt intensely depressed today and was wondering again if I have Seasonal Affective Disorder, or an element of it. My depressive episodes tend to start at this time of year, although they can persist through spring and summer, so it’s probably SAD co-existing with an underlying vulnerability to depression. Although I should see how I feel over the coming weeks, as I’ve only had a couple of bad days; I might feel better next week (maybe).

I don’t think I made any mistakes at work, but J discovered a bad one I must have made recently, not updating the address on an invoice that I was revising from a template. I’m not quite sure how it got to the right person. But even without many obvious errors, I was stuck in self-criticism and negativity today. I felt that it’s so hard to change my life, particularly to change it enough to be able to get married (having enough money to support ourselves, but also so that E can be allowed to immigrate). I wish I could work more and earn more, just for those practical reasons rather than because I want money or consumer goods in and of themselves.

Since I’ve got home from work and have snacked on some fruit, I feel quite a bit better. I think work is a not-ideal environment for me. The people are really nice, but the building itself is dark and gloomy and that does affect my mood, doubly so when I’m also tired or hungry. I don’t really begin to feel myself until after lunch most days because of that.

***

On the way home I listened to an Intimate Judaism podcast about whether Judaism is ‘sex positive’. There was some talk on the podcast about how the Jewish community should think about people who can’t have sex in the way that Judaism wants because they’re gay, transexual and so on. The sex therapist on the podcast was probably more liberal here than the rabbi. I’m not gay or trans, but that feeling of moral dissonance is something I’ve been experienced I hit adolescence over twenty years ago. E says I’m “strong” for staying a virgin for so long, but I rarely had the option not to be one. The actual times I’ve consciously made a choice not to have sex can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand. On the other hand, the times I’ve deliberately or unintentionally broken Jewish law around sex and sexual fantasy (without ever actually having sex) are far too many to be counted. However, I really feel strongly against any kind of “making excuses” for myself. But at the same time, I want people to understand what I’ve been through, hence the books I want to write. I want people to understand without lowering their standards, but having more compassion.

***

Some months ago, E sent me a link to an Instagram post from Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt where she said:

How about we invest in real Orthodox art? What if instead of investing in askanim & bloggers to whine about misrepresentation – we empower frum independent-minded artists to do creative work, tell stories of our communities, bravely, *candidly*? The beautiful & challenging, the inspiring but also the systemic issues that emerge in communities in which there is the inevitable tug-of-war between individualism & conformity, tradition & modernity...

No, not “my Orthodox life is fun & perfect” tales, but stories of faith, conflicts, struggles? Not sanitized hagiography, but flesh & blood. Not “content,” but art. Stories that show we are human & nothing more.

I want to do this, to the limit of my ability, and it’s one of the main things that motivates me to want to keep writing and keep searching for an agent/publisher even when (as at the moment) things are hard both in my head (mood) and in the world (rejection or just lack of time and energy).

I don’t think I’ve suffered more than most people, although I don’t think I’ve suffered less than them either. I’m not sure that many people are free of suffering for long. When I think of other people suffering, it motivates me to want to write to let people know that this suffering exists. However, when I think of my own suffering, I just want to give up. It’s hard to get to the right mindset.

It did occur to me last night that Rebbetzin Chizhik-Goldschmidt, as a prominent Jewish journalist and also as a rebbetzin (rabbi’s wife) might have contacts in the world of publishing and I was vaguely thinking about trying to email her to say what I’ve just said here and outlining some of my projects and ask if she had any suggestions of where to look for an agent or publisher. But when I started to look for contact details online I discovered that her husband has literally just been fired from his job and the family has been made homeless, as well as facing a huge amount of criticism from their former community. So it’s probably not the best time to try that.

***

There was a time when I tried to read one poem a day. I stopped doing that in an earlier episode of depression; it was just one more ‘should.’ Now I only read poetry when blog friends post it, and not always then (sorry). I have been wanting to re-read T. S. Eliot lately, though, primarily The Waste Land, but The Hollow Men has been on my mind a bit, thinking about wanting to write and writing not being the same thing:

Between the idea
    And the reality
    Between the motion
    And the act
    Falls the Shadow
                                    For Thine is the Kingdom
   
    Between the conception
    And the creation
    Between the emotion
    And the response
    Falls the Shadow
                                    Life is very long

Twice Exceptional

Yesterday was fairly ordinary. I submitted my manuscript to another agent, went for a run and Skyped E. I got an exercise headache again. I didn’t blog because there didn’t seem much need for it.

Today was more difficult. I had some OCD-type anxiety in the morning and again this evening. I had vague anxiety and intermittent vaguely low mood across the day. It’s hard for me to understand my feelings sometimes (often), but I felt some gloom and lethargy, albeit that that’s probably usual for me when I’m at work. Work was OK, though, not too many mistakes.

I came home determined to work on my novel(s). I did manage about half an hour of work on them, doing some research for my second novel and also trying to track down the publisher and agent of someone who has written an award-winning Young Adult novel that is Jewish-themed (frum), but aimed at a general audience. I am tempted to submit my first novel to the agency, and maybe the publisher, although I’ve been warned to be wary of approaching publishers directly even when they permit it.

I would have liked to have done more, but it wasn’t really possible for reasons I can’t go into here. I did some Torah study too and ate dinner with my parents (we try to eat together on Mondays) so it was pretty productive. I’m too tired to read now, so will probably vegetate in front of the TV. I guess there is always a price (although I did read quite a bit on my commute and during my lunch break).

***

There was Minchah and Ma’ariv (Afternoon and Evening Prayers) in the shul (synagogue) where my workplace is housed this afternoon and I went, my first weekday prayer service in quite a while. The rabbi asked if I wanted to lead Minchah and I turned him down pretty much instinctively from social anxiety. I wish I had had the confidence to lead the service, as I’d like to find that talent again. Also, the people who did lead the service were too fast. I like Goldilocks davening (praying): not too fast and not too slow. Unfortunately, davening at this shul is, as J says, “Nusach Einstein: davening at the speed of light.”

***

I’m in the middle of a Norman Frum Women podcast episode where they are talking to a psychiatrist about parenting neurodivergent children. I’m finding it interesting, not least from hearing the parents’ perspective, although my neurodivergence was undiagnosed when I was a child, so my parents didn’t deal with it in the same way. (I was walking while listening to this and so could not take detailed notes, so any mistakes are mine not theirs.)

There was an interesting functional definition of neurodivergence as being about having a brain that accumulates excess stress in everyday situations. There was a stress on the idea of neurodivergent disability being environmental (I think ‘situational’ might be a slightly better word), in that it manifests in a particular set of circumstances, but not others. I can cope with noise and people being in my space sometimes, but then throw in a day of work stress or my HALT triggers (being Hungry, Anxious, Lonely or Tired) and suddenly I’m not coping (that’s my example, not theirs, again in case of errors).

I was particularly interested to hear about “twice exceptional” children: children who are exceptional in being neurodivergent, but also exceptional in terms of being clever and often also well-behaved (which sounded like it could be a bad thing if they’re avoiding testing boundaries for the wrong reasons). These twice exceptional children can find it hard to get support in school, because everyone assumes they’re doing well. This definitely resonated with my school experiences, although realistically I’m not sure what help was actually available for me twenty-plus years ago when high-functioning autism was even less well-understood than it is now.

There was a positive note about adult neurodivergents often finding a “better fit” for their lives once they no longer have the artificial and stressful environment of school. I think there is some survivorship bias here, as the psychiatrist seemed to be judging based on some of her academic mentors/supervisors who she thinks are on the spectrum. I would suggest there are a lot more people on the spectrum who aren’t in high-powered academic jobs. Certainly I feel that the kind of life that would work for me is not one that is really on the table at the moment, if ever. I’m really only functioning with any kind of independence because a lot of people (my parents, E, J) are not making the demands of me at home or in the workplace that would perhaps normally be expected of a thirty-something with two degrees. I would like to build some kind of career of a writer, either full-time or with a small amount of part-time office work, but I have no idea if I’m going to be able to do so; my steps so far have been extremely faltering and rarely successful. I don’t mean this as a criticism, just my viewpoint.

I would be interested in a follow-up episode on adult neurodivergence in the frum (religious Jewish) community. Although maybe Normal Frum Women isn’t the best place for that, as there is a lot to say about men. The frum community makes considerable demands on both men and women. Men are more forced to do particular things at particular times (especially communal prayer) and are forced into noisy, crowded communal spaces like shuls and batei midrash (study halls). Women are encouraged/expected to support large and often noisy and messy families, so I can see there would be problems for neurodivergent women too. It would be interesting to hear how other autistic or otherwise neurodivergent people, male or female, manage it. I’ve struggled to find a place for myself communally, in shul and “learning” (adult education) and lately I feel as if I’m detaching myself from my current community. If anything, COVID has only accelerated this trend, by adding health anxiety to already existent social anxiety and showing me that I can survive well enough without communal prayer or Torah study. I’m not sure if our shul has got louder in recent since we got a more Hasidish rabbi about a year before COVID, but I am definitely struggling with the noise more since lockdown. By noise I mean clapping and thumping tables during Kabbalat Shabbat, rather than talking (there is very little of that at least). There is also occasional dancing, which I can’t cope with at all.

***

Yesterday saw the start of the new series of Doctor Who, structured as one big, six episode story. It was vaguely diverting, but I think twenty-first century Doctor Who isn’t really for me. I used to think it was due to things like pop cultural references, sexualising the Doctor/companion relationship, and hyper-sexual characters like Captain Jack and River Song, but even without all these things, I struggled to get involved. I just find it fast, loud, melodramatic, self-important and portentous in a way the twentieth century version was not (OK, the twentieth century version was melodramatic, I’ll give you that). I think it’s a charge you can level at a lot of popular culture e.g. superhero films, the Daniel Craig Bond films and so on.

I wouldn’t say it’s bad, just that it’s not for me. But I watch, perhaps out of loyalty or nostalgia, and I’ll probably give it a second viewing at some point, because re-watching when I know where the bad bits are helps me to find more good bits. Possibly I’m the epitome of the obsessive self-hating (or insane) fan. Even so, I’m glad the second-hand back-issue of Doctor Who Magazine from 1996 that I ordered arrived today. The issue is a tribute to third Doctor actor Jon Pertwee, tying in with the fact that I’m about to introduce E to him via one of his most memorable stories, The Green Death.

Stress, and Political Narratives

I haven’t posted for a couple of days as not much happened. I’m trying to reduce my blogging. I started this blog as a mental health blog, and it became an autism blog. I feel that, as my mental health has improved (although it’s not perfect) and I’m getting more used to my autism diagnosis and what autistic life means for me, there is less to say, albeit with the caveat that whenever I’ve spoken about blogging less in the past, something has happened to push me back towards it.

Certainly today was a bit of a mental health-straining day. I woke up just before 7.00am. I lay in bed wondering whether I should get up, as I’m trying to force myself to get up if I wake up early (not with much success so far). Then I started thinking about E’s trip to the UK and got into a complete panic about whether we had booked the right COVID tests for her. It took me half an hour of searching online to confirm that we had booked the right tests. By that stage, I thought I should stay up. I had breakfast, but went back to bed afterwards, probably because I was still overwhelmed with anxiety that I had not discharged. Inevitably, I fell asleep again and woke up late. Then when I was davening (praying), I had intrusive OCD-type thoughts, albeit not with OCD levels of anxiety, but still some anxiety. I hope I’ll feel better once E is actually here safely.

At lunch time one of the circuit breakers went and kept switching off whenever we reset it, but we couldn’t see why. Then, a few hours later, we found a leak in the garage, which has probably got into the electrics somewhere. As a result, we’re going to have a plumber and an electrician here later in the week, which is not ideal consider E is staying with us, but there isn’t much we can do about it.

Other than that, things were pretty good. I gave my bedroom a thorough dust before E comes to stay, I did some Torah study and went for a run. I got an exercise headache again, but I did have the best pace I’d measured since May.

***

I’ve nearly finished The Righteous Mind. Jonathan Haidt argues that, “The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor. Everyone loves a good story; every culture bathes its children in stories.” He quotes the psychologist Dan McAdams that people create “life narratives” to understand their lives. The narratives may not be objectively true, or at least not entirely, but that isn’t really the point. The point is to shape an understanding of the self and the world. Haidt brings this to explain why people who are predisposed to one sort of political worldview by genes or upbringing (yes, our political views are partly genetic, he argues) can end up with a very different worldview in the end, influenced by the narrative they create to explain their world.

This made a lot of sense to me, and helped me to understand the way my political views have evolved over time, particularly the way I started somewhat left-of-centre (probably in part because of my family and friends), but increasingly felt that “people like me” were not welcome on the left and drifted rightwards, even though I don’t strongly identify with all conservative ideas and especially conservative attitudes and parties, including on Haidt’s multi-polar six ‘flavour’ model of morality.

On a non-political level, it underlined to me that my improved mood in the last eight months or so is at least partly from having my autism diagnosis, which enabled me to create a new narrative about myself, one where I no longer perceive myself as a person repeatedly failing at simple tasks for no obvious reason, but as an autistic person doing my best with tasks that are not always suited for me. I think that more than anything has stopped me drifting back into depression (well, that and E).

That said, I think Haidt perhaps focuses a little too much on politics as ideology or values rather than pragmatic factors. I feel strongly about caring for other people (which Haidt sees as something liberals feel more than conservatives, although he says conservatives do feel it), it’s just that my experience of the NHS and the benefits system led me to believe that the state is often inefficient and even counter-productive when it tries to help people.

***

Ashley was asking how people chose their blog names and I thought some people here might like to see what I responded (slightly amended from what I posted there):

“Vision of the Night” is a quote from Job. I wanted to write a Jewish mental health blog (having blogged about mental health in a not very Jewish way previously) and was looking for something biblical and somewhat depressed-sounding, but not taken by other people. This was what I ended up with.

I find thinking of titles generally hard and titles for blogs more so (I mean the title of the blog, not the particular post). My most obscure blog title was one of my Doctor Who blogs, which was called “From Lime Grove to Beyond the Sun” which is a very obscure Doctor Who reference, Lime Grove Studios being where the earliest episodes of Doctor Who were filmed, and Beyond the Sun being an abandoned title for the story fans refer to as The Daleks. I think it sounds quite good as a title.

In case that wasn’t crazy enough, it had a subtitle for a while, “The blog for fans of Cliff, Lola, Biddy and the older man with a character twist” (the idea was I would change the subtitle periodically to something funny). Doctor Who doesn’t feature anyone called Cliff, Lola or Biddy. They were suggestions for characters in the early proposals and story guides from before the series was filmed; by the time of transmission, they had become Ian, Barbara, Susan as well as the Doctor (older man with character twist). I think I was trying to reach out to the cognoscenti, but it didn’t really work. I see it as very much part of my mindset of trying to write stuff that could have been in Doctor Who Magazine in the late nineties rather than what was actually going on in fandom at the time when the series had been revived and had suddenly become popular with people who were only vaguely aware that it had a history before 2005, let alone shown the obsessive background knowledge developed by fans who were around for the wilderness years when it wasn’t on TV.

The Hive Switch

I’m still reading The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt. I had a bit of a paradigm shift reading it, which I think ties in to one I had a while back reading Rabbi Shagar. Haidt talks about people being 90% chimpanzee, 10% bee — not in a literal, biological sense, but that most of the time we are individuals who compete against each other (chimpanzee), but occasionally we can form a group that cooperates to compete against other groups (a bee hive). The competition doesn’t have to be violent, just in the evolutionary sense that we compete for resources.

Haidt talks about “The Hive Switch,” a metaphorical switch in our brains that can shift us rapidly from individual mode to group mode. Examples of things that can flick that switch include: ecstatic religious dancing (once common in every society except the individualist West); raves (the contemporary Western substitute); being in nature (I think similar what Freud termed the Oceanic Emotion, the awe on seeing nature); group singing; marching in formation with others; going to a political rally or protest; and taking hallucinogenic drugs. These things promote group identification, enhanced empathy for group insiders[1], improved morale, improved cooperation and increased willingness to die for comrades [2]. They are also connected with a religious sense of connection to the Infinite and intense love for everything.

(Incidentally, you can see here that the only contemporary Jewish movement really plugging into this is Hasidism, which has very much been about group singing, ecstatic dancing and alcohol (no hallucinogenic mushrooms in Poland or the Ukraine) since its origins in the eighteenth century, very much the return of the Jewish repressed, although even Yeshivish or Modern Orthodox weddings can get a bit like this.)

Reading this argument, I was struck by seeing two of my major struggles, as recorded in this blog, connected: my struggles to connect emotionally with God and my struggles to connect with other people. You can even locate the two at once in the ecstatic dancing in shul (synagogue) on Simchat Torah. I assumed that both problems were unrelated. My social struggles and anxiety often occur within the Jewish community, but I assumed that was simply because that is my main social environment. But Haidt suggests (although he doesn’t explicitly state it, so I could be wrong) that having experiential encounters with God/the Divine/the Infinite/whatever you want to call it is the same sort of thing as feeling accepted as part a group of people.

Now, I have had that Hive Switch flipped at times, but generally in ways that are hard to replicate. Paradoxically, I had it sometimes when in a period of suicidal depression, where I sort of got overwhelmed with how awful the world seemed and emotionally exhausted by my thoughts and feelings (and sometimes physically exhausted by anxious pacing or walking) then felt an intense feeling of God’s presence. One year I managed to get into Simchat Torah and really enjoyed the dancing (I’ve never worked out how I did that or how to replicate it). I have had it a bit with being in nature and maybe a tiny bit at pro-Israel rallies, although I usually feel out of place at any kind of political event, even if I agree with the platform. So it is possible to flip my Hive Switch, just very difficult. Incidentally, Haidt says the switch is an analogue slide switch rather than a binary on/off switch, meaning it’s possible to be a bit groupish and a bit individual; it’s not one or the other at a given time.

So this makes me wonder if autistic people, the mentally ill or maybe even all introverts have difficulty moving this switch along. I know that when my switch gets pushed, it sometimes encounters resistance. When I’m somewhere where people are bonding over shared political, religious or cultural views, a voice starts up in my head with opposing views (an extreme version of Rabbi Lord Sacks’ idea that the Jews are the question mark in the margin of the record of the conversation of mankind). I probably have some resistance to God too, which is probably a strange thing for a religious person to say, inasmuch as I’m resistant to miracle stories and proofs of God’s existence; for me, God has to exist alongside the Abyss, at least in this world.

The focus on awe in nature and very ‘real’ emotions reminded me of the essay My Faith: Faith in a Postmodern World by Rabbi Shagar (Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg), which I read over Sukkot and which had a powerful affect on me. I want to re-read it before I feel I fully understand it, but the main thing I took away from it was the idea of faith being experienced in what Rabbi Shagar terms ‘the Real.’ This is a term from Lacanian psychology, referring to the early stages of infancy, where the baby can not distinguish between different people and objects, but experiences the world as a sense of wholeness, not as separate objects. Not only that, but he doesn’t experience himself as a body or identity, but as “an amalgam of organs, energies, and urges.” Faith is rooted in experiencing the world as the Real and is about acceptance of the self, which is not narcissistic if accompanied by unity with God; or, alternatively, a creative search for meaning of one’s own. (I would have liked greater detail here.)[3]

I had been trying to live more in the moment, without really knowing how to do it. Then, when I read Rabbi Shagar’s essay, I started trying to note down if I felt myself to be living in the moment and experiencing absorption in the Real when doing anything, or if I feel any connection to God (my hypothesis being that if I experience God, then I’m in the Real even if I don’t know it). This is obviously hard to notice, because as soon as I notice it, I am coming out of it. I find it hard to experience it for more than a few moments and it is impossible for me to go into it deliberately. It’s also hard to tell if I’m really in the Real, so to speak, or if I feel I should be in there, or I want to be there, or I expect to be there. The easiest way to get there seems to be prayer or hitbodedut spontaneous prayer/meditation, but the connection only comes intermittently, maybe every few days, and often for no more than a few seconds. It doesn’t come so often with formal Torah study, but does happen sometimes (often on Shabbat evenings), when a creative interpretation of a passage of Torah, Midrash or Talmud suddenly comes to me even without formally studying the texts.

Being in the Real and flipping the Hive Switch seem to go together, although I’m not sure what is cause and what is effect yet. I would like to know how to trigger them both in myself, and whether I’m always going to struggle with that from autism, introversion, mental illness, personality or anything else.

[1] I think Haidt thinks that, contrary to what is often stated, groupishness doesn’t automatically lead to reduced empathy for outsiders, but I haven’t checked.

[2] Haidt’s argument is that soldiers in battle are willing to die primarily for the fellow soldiers in their unit, rather than nebulous ideas about nationalism or political ideology.

[3] Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz said something similar about the Talmudic statement about babies in the womb learning the whole Torah, which he understands as referring to experiencing God as a nurturing, undifferentiated whole.

***

Other than that, it’s been a fairly quiet couple of days. I somehow got up early yesterday and today. I went to bed early yesterday too, but I was very tired at work this morning. I submitted my manuscript (or the first ten pages of it) to another literary agent. It took me two hours to fill in the online submission form, but I guess it’s good experience even if I don’t get accepted. I do worry that the early parts of my novel (the bits agents ask to see) aren’t interesting enough to capture the attention of anyone not predisposed to like it.

I did various bits of chores and Torah study yesterday and today and I had work today. We had an audit of various valuables the organisation owns. If ever I wanted to see a demonstration that autism is not the same as introversion, it was this. J is typically quiet and introverted like me, but he had a long ‘small talk’ conversation with the external auditor, while I hardly said anything to her that wasn’t an answer to a direct question.

Completely Unprepared

Someone wrote a book on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement), called This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared. I haven’t read it, but it’s how I usually feel by this stage (a few hours before Yom Kippur), however much preparation I’ve done. I’ve been focusing on High Holidays reading in my Torah study for a couple of weeks, I’ve done a cheshbon nafesh (ethical/religious self-assessment) and spoken to my rabbi mentor, but it doesn’t feel enough. “Enough” is “enough to spend twenty-five hours living like an angel in the presence of God” so it’s quite a high bar to clear. Even without COVID, autistic fatigue and social anxiety making everything harder.

It’s customary on the day before Yom Kippur to apologise to everyone for any potential wrongdoings in the last year. It’s a custom I find increasingly unsatisfying, as it’s too brief to be meaningful. In any case, I’m aware that the people I’ve hurt most are the ones I can’t apologise to, usually because they aren’t in my life any more. Knowing that I mostly hurt them unintentionally doesn’t help much. According to Jewish tradition, you can’t be forgiven by God for sins against another person unless they forgive you first, which is difficult. In the Doctor Who episode A Town Called Mercy, an alien war criminal says that in his culture, to get to the afterlife, you have to climb a mountain carrying all the people you wronged. Sometimes I think about that and wonder how many people I would be carrying. The fact that I hurt most of them unintentionally, or at least not fully intentionally, does not really help.

Even so, if I upset or offended anyone here, I’m very sorry. It wasn’t intentional. Please forgive me.

I realised the other day that this new Jewish year is a make-or-break kind of year for me. That might be a bit melodramatic, but I do have a lot going on in terms of trying to make my job permanent (or to not get fired for my mistakes…), trying to find an agent and publisher for my novel, starting my second novel and, most of all, moving my relationship with E into uncharted territory in terms of building a real relationship involving accepting each others’ human imperfections and moving towards getting married, with all that implies in terms of stress, bureaucracy, immigration, new experiences, potential new community and so on. This would be scary for anyone, even without autistic fear of new situations.

So I feel I should be on top of things now, ready to pray for a fresh start, really after twenty years of failed adulthood. Instead, I find myself terrified into my ‘freeze’ response, just staring at the headlights of the oncoming twenty-five hour fast juggernaut without moving out of the way or doing anything productive. To be fair, I think a lot about repentance and improving myself during the year, so maybe that’s why it’s hard to get the energy for another intense day of repentance. “Intense” isn’t something I’m good at any more at the best of times.

I’m trying to focus on the idea of just being there. Not in a literal sense (I know I’m likely to miss a lot of shul tomorrow to autistic fatigue and dehydration headache), but to, in some sense, open myself to God and “answer” His call (“answer” being my new understanding of teshuvah, commonly translated as repentance). I’m not sure what that would involve though. Maybe I can’t know in advance, maybe it’s supposed to be spontaneous to be authentic (cf. Martin Buber).

Writing About Writing

Just a small note about today. Shul (synagogue) was OK last night, but it’s still starting quite late on Friday evenings so I got to bed late and struggled to sleep when I did get there. I woke up at 8am this morning, but could not face shul without really knowing why. I fell asleep again, woke up around 10am and fell asleep yet again, and napped in the afternoon. I didn’t go to shul for Minchah (Afternoon Prayers). I’m not really sure why. Part of me felt “shul-ed out” after Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year), but I think there was more to it than that, hopefully not laziness. I feel a bit guilty now. After Shabbat (the Sabbath) I resolved to work on my writing. I added a few ideas for my next novel that came into my head over Shabbat to the document where I’m brainstorming it. I spent ten minutes on my short story before realising I was far too tired to do anything. It was nearly 10pm. Shabbat hadn’t finished until 8.15pm, then with Ma’ariv (Evening Prayers) and helping to tidy up I didn’t start writing until gone 9.30pm, which is probably too late to do much. I still feel vaguely guilty about that too.

I’m wondering again if my writing is good enough. Writing proceeds slowly, a few paragraphs at a time, partly because writing well is a slow process, partly because I’m fitting it in around work, family and religious obligations, as well as recurrent autistic fatigue. Self-criticism, however, runs constantly and at the speed of light. I keep reading other people’s writing and thinking mine isn’t as good. I worry that I was never able to fix the major flaw in my first novel, that the villain was too darker-than-dark for a realist novel. I keep throwing “shoulds” at myself (“I SHOULD write more often, I SHOULD read more often, I SHOULD read more current fiction, I SHOULD read more focused on the genres I want to write for, I SHOULD get on with submitting my manuscript). I’m trying not to put pressure on myself at this difficult time of the Jewish year, but it’s hard, especially as I want to try to build some kind of writing career to help E and I move our relationship on. I worry that I don’t have enough good ideas, or really know how to develop them. I worry that I don’t really know how to be a writer (what does that even mean?) and am just winging it. The world seems big and unforgiving sometimes. I suppose I shouldn’t be so hard on myself; at least one big piece of the puzzle of my next novel popped into my head over Shabbat, and I remembered it until I could record it afterwards.

At least I’m a bit more understanding of myself regarding inspiration. I used to think I could never be a writer as I didn’t have good ideas. Then I thought I did have ideas, but I didn’t have the patience or ability to sit and develop them. Eventually, I realised (unconsciously) that it was confidence as much as ability that was holding me back. I didn’t think I could write anything worthwhile, so I never really tried. Even so, staring at a blank Word document is hard. Finally, I realised that planning a novel isn’t something you can do in one go, or even in a sustained way over a number of days. Not for me, anyway. Just staring at the document for hour after hour doesn’t do much. I have to let stuff percolate in my head for weeks or months, ideas distilling one at a time, at odd moments, when I’m at work or in the shops.

I really want to write stuff that’s distinctive. I worry about just churning out bland stuff. I would hate to be that kind of writer. E asked me in the week why I like Twin Peaks, as she didn’t think it would appeal to me. I don’t think I answered well, but afterwards I thought that I like TV that’s distinctive and unique. Favourite programmes like Doctor Who, Twin Peaks, The Prisoner, Sapphire and Steel and The Avengers (in its Emma Peel heyday at least) are all really distinctive. You wouldn’t stumble across them while channel-hopping and struggle to work out what they were, even if you’d never seen that episode before. It’s true that a lot of them are science fiction, and I do like the genre, but somewhat generic SF things like Star Trek or Star Wars don’t live in my head in the same way. It’s the same with prose fiction. You can’t mistake a Kafka story or a Borges story or something by Philip K. Dick for something by someone else. I really want to develop that kind of distinctive voice in my writing.

Well, I guess I SHOULD go and eat something and go to bed, as it’s late and I haven’t taken my tablets yet. I SHOULD read, but I feel too tired and too down, so it’s probably TV for me.

Work, Music, Friends

Work from home is making me exhausted and depressed.

I slept badly last night. I woke up about 5.30am after disturbing dreams, full of anxiety about work and the Very Scary Task (I should probably think of a better name for that here). I realised I had forgotten to tell someone something and that was worrying me. I got up and drank hot chocolate and read Philip K. Dick (We Can Remember It for You Wholesale) for a while, which calmed me down a bit. I went back to bed, but as I was trying to fall asleep, J texted me at 6.30am to check some details. I guess he assumed I get up early for Shacharit (Morning Prayers). I went back to sleep, but didn’t sleep well, with more disturbing dreams. My alarm went at 9.20am and I probably would have fallen asleep again were it not for more work texts (not from J this time). I had breakfast and sent a text to resolve the problem of forgetting to tell someone something, but then J messaged me with another query. It wasn’t hard to resolve, but the whole process of this task is all quite nerve-wracking. I hope I don’t have to do this again next week — or for some time longer, really. Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing in advance, and the odds are I will have to do it again next week.

I was very nervous of something going wrong with the Very Scary Task, but no one phoned me with a problem, so I guess it went OK. The main work for today, the data entry, was more tedious than ever. I found it hard to concentrate and I could not work out if that was related to Very Scary Task anxiety; being tired from yesterday and not sleeping well; or just the cumulative effect of doing this boring task for days on end.

I wanted to listen to music while doing the data entry, but I wasn’t sure what. Not the loud rock I usually listen to, because I needed to concentrate. I found some chazanut (Jewish liturgical music) CDs that belong to my parents and thought listening to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur music might get me in the appropriate mindset for those coming festivals, but I discovered that I dislike traditional chazanut as much when listened to as music as I do when listening to it in shul (synagogue). It’s all very emotional and wailing and loud and dragged out… I know some people feel the music and chazanut helps them to pray more intently, but I always get the feeling that the chazan just wants to show off and I would rather spend my time and energy focused on my private personal prayers. Maybe that’s why I struggle with going to shul; it’s certainly why I go to a shul where the focus is very much on personal prayers without much chazanut.

In the end I listened to incidental music from Twin Peaks. Similarly, on Monday I listened to incidental music from Blade Runner while I did the data entry. Incidental music isn’t as intrusive as other music, and evokes the atmosphere of enjoyable TV or film while I’m doing a boring task.

***

Towards the end of work, I started feeling very negative about myself, wondering why I’m doing basic data entry tasks of the kind that would normally be done by an intern when I’m in my late thirties and not being able to work full-time. It got mixed in with thoughts about the Jewish cultural website I wrote about yesterday, some resentment that many of the writers there have gone on to write professionally, or were already professional writers and got a boost, whereas for a long time I wanted to write for them, but wasn’t able to. (I did write a couple of guest posts eventually.) I also felt that a lot of the writers seemed to have mental health issues, but also managed to have families, careers, religious lives, community involvement and creative outlets and I never worked out how they did all of it. In the end, I became a sort of self-loathing troll, posting comments that attacked not others, but myself and wallowed in the misery of so much of my adult life.

I thought I had put the site behind me (it’s pretty much defunct now), but I realise I have such a mixture of thoughts about it. I thought, or at least hoped, I could make real friends there, I had a kind of “friendship crush” on so many of the writers, wanted to be noticed by them and converse with them in the comments. I made a couple of online friends I still sometimes connect with, including one who has been a bit of a writing mentor to me, but those were other commenters, not the writers. But then I remember that once I wrote a comment about being pretty suicidal and a bunch of the writers wrote messages to support me, so I guess they were friendly. I never quite worked out if they wrote it because they like me as an individual or if they just saw “A person is in trouble, we should help!” and it didn’t really matter who I was. Maybe it doesn’t matter.

E found my blog through my comments there, I think, so I guess that’s one tangible positive that came out of it for me.

Thinking about this also makes me realise that I’ve been so focused lately on getting my manuscript ready to try to find an agent, and brainstorming ideas for future projects, that I haven’t actually done any creative writing in ages, even though I have an idea for a short story. I would like to write it, but with the possibility of another week of crazy work next week and then the autumn Yom Tovim (Jewish religious festivals), I’m not sure when I’ll have the time.

***

Aside from work, I went for a walk and did some shopping, which was where the negative thoughts got worse. I finished my devar Torah and skyped E and did a few minutes of Torah study, but that was about it. E is still the biggest positive in my life, even on stressful days.

***

The results from my recent blood test show my lithium level is slightly down. The results say it’s OK, but I thought 0.68 was sub-therapeutic. It might explain why my mood has been down a bit lately. My cholesterol is still a little high, but I don’t seem to be able to shift that much. I know, I should cut cheese, butter and eggs out of my life completely, but I can’t face it. I don’t eat much butter or eggs as it is, and I slashed my cheese consumption and, at the moment, can’t face cutting it further. I hope this doesn’t come back to haunt me one day.

Prayer Mindsets

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

Hidden Joy

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Positive Shabbat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pre-Yom Tov Burnout

I woke up still feeling burnt out and exhausted, but my mood was better on waking. It’s gone downhill as we get towards Yom Tov, I don’t know why. I don’t think Shabbat and Yom Tov are good for curing burnout, even though they are supposed to be relaxing. I spend too much time “peopling,” whether at shul (synagogue) or family meals and much of what time I do have alone (and not sleeping!) is spent on Torah study or prayer, which are not usually restoring for me, regardless of what other merits they may have.

I did sleep very late today, although that was probably inevitable given how late I went to bed, due to a late shiur (religious class) after Shabbat and a headache that wouldn’t shift. I’m resigned to not doing well on the interview and blaming it on burnout and Yom Tov (festival) even if the interviewers will probably think I’m useless.

I looked over some old interview notes with suggestions of how to answer frequently-asked questions, but I’m not sure how much it will help. I think the only way to practise at the moment is to do a practise interview, but this interview was at such short-notice that I haven’t had time for that.

I did half an hour or so of Torah study, so that I didn’t have to leave reading all of this week’s sedra (Torah) reading until later in the week, that being the one thing I absolutely always keep up with (even though I do it once rather than twice a week as required). I still have to do the end of the sedra, which is one of the most repetitive parts of the Torah (Bamidbar/Numbers chapter 7).

I intended to stay for the shiur between Minchah (Afternoon Service) and Ma’ariv (Evening Service), because it’s silly to go and come back again almost straight away, but I’m not going for the cheesecake (yuk) and alcoholic drinks and shiur before Minchah because I’m pushing myself up to and probably beyond the limit of “peopling” this Yom Tov as it is, even without going straight into a job interview the day afterwards. Indeed, I’m going in to Yom Tov already peopled out from Shabbat, and the closer I get to time for shul, the less I feel able to actually go.

My shul has relaxed the laws around mask wearing and food on the premises in accordance with the government’s new guidelines. This means that the things keeping me away from Tikkun Leil (all night Torah study on the first night of Shavuot) don’t actually apply any more. However, I feel disinclined to see if there are any spaces left. I guess I don’t feel up to that long and intensive a shul session, particularly for Tikkun Leil, which is a relatively recent custom and not a law (Tikkun Leil was introduced by kabbalists (mystics) in the sixteenth century and seems to correlate with the arrival of coffee in the land of Israel i.e. only after the introduction of coffee did anyone manage to stay up all night studying).

I do wonder how much other people get out of all the Torah study sessions scheduled over Shavuot (even excluding Tikkun Leil). As I mentioned yesterday, my shul seems to have scheduled an hour and a half to two hours of shiurim (religious classes) around afternoon and evening prayer services over the coming festival. These are often strongly halakhic, which isn’t my favourite type of study (although arguably I neglect it too much), but even the format of one speaker speaking for an hour or so isn’t going to be right for everyone, whether those who prefer something more interactive or those, like me, who prefer to study from books with time to re-read or pause and digest.

I watched some Babylon 5 to kill time before Minchah, which may not have been the best choice, as season four is pretty grim. I feel I should be helping my parents, but I genuinely do not have the energy. It’s going to be a struggle even to go to shul, particularly in the torrential rain. Plus, there have already been warnings of an increase in antisemitic incidents over the last few days so my shul is getting everyone to do security duty and that’s just another ball for me to juggle. Actually, I feel less like I’m juggling balls at the moment and more like flaming clubs, and like I’ve been juggling them for a week with no break.

Just in case things were getting too easy, I’ve felt for the last day or so that I’ve been just about keeping the lid on some pure O OCD thoughts and that it wouldn’t take much for them to suddenly become more anxiety-provoking.

I’m genuinely not sure if I’m going to make it to shul tonight, or at all over Yom Tov.