Playing the Autism Card

I somehow got up early, ate breakfast and did some things online, but felt depressed and went back to bed. I don’t think I fell asleep again, but I’m not sure; certainly I was in bed for over an hour. I hope these depressed feelings pass soon and don’t turn into another episode of clinical depression.

I did some work on my application for the Emerging Writers’ Programme I’m applying for. I’m not sure how well it’s going to be honest. I am playing the “autism” card as well as the “Orthodox insider” card, hinting that I might write an UnOrthodox-style anti-religious story when that is not my intention, while also talking about wanting to show the Orthodox in a realistic light, which can mean positive or negative, however the judges want to read it. I do mention God, though, and repentance, which might be a bad idea, but at least it’s a Unique Selling Point. It’s not like there are many contemporary literary authors writing about pornography addiction, or anything really, through the prism of repentance and encountering God.

It reminds me of an article in Tablet Magazine a while back about university bursaries and scholarships intended to go to disadvantaged teenagers going to middle-class teenagers who are taught by their (private) schools and their (middle-class) parents (probably working in academic, law or HR) how to write applications with the correct narrative, a narrative of, “I struggled against prejudice because I’m a member of minority X, but I triumphed over it because I’m strong, resilient and successful, therefore you should accept me both for reasons of diversity and because of my skills and capabilities in fighting oppression.” Less-privileged teenagers are not taught how to write this way and fail to get the money and places intended for them.

***

I went for a run, but ended up feeling light-headed, dizzy and slightly nauseous at times, even after my warm-up, let alone the run. I was slow and sluggish while running, with low stamina. I only managed to run for thirty minutes rather than my usual forty and got a headache when I got home. I wondered about this, and about other health issues on my mind lately.

I’ve mentioned that my cholesterol is slightly high. I looked on the NHS patient site and it looks like my cholesterol has been increasing for several years now (with one slight dip), which worries me as I certainly haven’t been steadily increasing the amount of cholesterol-heavy foods I eat. In fact, I rarely eat meat and especially not red meat and I’ve cut back my consumption of cheese (and eggs, although apparently that’s considered less of an issue now) so I’m not sure why my cholesterol continues to rise, unless it is a(nother) medication side-effect.

Then I have frequent issues with low energy and feeling “ill” in vague and undefined ways, particularly when tired after work or days out with E, plus I have problems sleeping too long and struggling to get up. I assumed these were medication side-effects and/or autistic exhaustion, but now I’m not sure. Also troubling is that several times recently I felt like I have nearly lost my balance and just stabilised myself in time, twice in the shower and a couple of times on the stairs.

Unfortunately, some of these issues cut across each other. When I got an exercise headache after running, I knew (or at least suspected) that eating crisps (for salt) would help, but crisps are hardly good for weight loss or cholesterol, so I put off eating them. It got to dinner time and I felt headachey, nauseous and my hand was shaking as I tried to drink my soup, so I ate a packet of crisps. Before I had even finished the packet, the headache was less intense, the nausea went and I stopped shaking. Sometimes I have these “salt-withdrawal” issues without having exercised first. I know salt issues can be related to taking lithium, which I do.

I think I should see my GP, even if it means waiting ages on the phone to get through to the receptionist and then playing the autism card again to get an in-person appointment and one with my preferred GP (currently appointments are supposed to be on the phone in the first instance and with the first GP available, not my preferred one). I will have to say that, being on the spectrum, I struggle with phone calls and new people, which is completely true, even if it feels a little disingenuous to say it.

***

Looking at my unpublished novel to find an excerpt to submit for the Emerging Writers’ Programme application, I’m struck by how many references there are to toilets in it. I didn’t mean to be vulgar, but since childhood I’ve been struck by how artificial it is that toilets, and toilet functions, aren’t mentioned in “realistic” fiction. My toilets appear for solid narrative reasons, not to gross people out (although one of them smells bad), but do seem somewhat unusual. I guess I’m aware of it because the toilet has long been an escape room for me when suffering from autistic overload in social spaces, which is how it appears in the novel.

***

I should probably mention that they announced the new Doctor in Doctor Who, Ncuti Gatwa. I can’t judge whether he’ll be any good, as I haven’t seen him in anything. As I mostly watch old TV, I generally don’t know new Doctors in advance, unless, like Peter Capaldi, they already appeared in the show as another character. But he’s the first new Doctor to be younger than I will be when his first episode airs (you know you’re getting older when the Doctors get younger). I still feel the Doctor should be older. I know I liked Matt Smith a lot, and I don’t dislike Peter Davison, but I still feel the Doctor should be played by someone over forty. I definitely feel David Tennant was too young (and too good-looking…) although that’s the least of my problems with the Tennant Doctor. Not for the first time, I feel returning showrunner Russell T Davies has a very different understanding of the show to me.

“They think it’s Passover… It is now!”

I haven’t blogged what happened so far during Chol HaMoed (the intermediate days of the Pesach festival when work is permitted if necessary or contributing to the enjoyment of the festival). I was too busy and tired, and used my blogging energy for a password-protected post about Yom Tov that was more important. But I want to quickly catch up here.

For those who didn’t see the password-protected post, E and I mostly had a good Yom Tov, with interesting seders and E was OK meeting some my parents’ friends and family.

On Monday we (my parents, E and I) went to Cliveden, a National Trust stately home. The house is now a hotel, but we wandered around the grounds all afternoon. Thankfully, my parents left E and I to walk alone. E wanted to see bluebells, so we walked through the woodland until we found some big patches. We also walked around some of the more formal gardens on the site. It was the first time E and I really had proper alone time/date time since E came over last Tuesday and we both really enjoyed it.

In a second-hand bookshop on site, I found a Doctor Who book, The Television Companion: The Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to Doctor Who. Despite the name, this is a reissued and expanded edition of the official BBC Television Companion issued a few years earlier. I was uncertain whether to buy it, as I had read the online version of the first edition, which was on the official BBC Doctor Who website, but in the end nostalgia for the Doctor Who of the wilderness years when it was off TV (1990-2004) won out (the first edition was published in 1998 and the revised edition I bought in 2003). I’m not sure how much extra material there is, but for £2, it was probably worth it.

Yesterday E and I went on a Pesach LSJS tour of the Egyptian galleries of the British Museum. It was fascinating and even though I knew some of what was said (I’ve done my own research on biblical archaeology), I learnt a lot. The rabbi taking it, Rabbi Zarum, spoke to me briefly. I’m not sure if he recognised me or not; I’ve been to a number of his shiurim (classes) in the past, but I tend not to say much and try to blend into the background. He asked me which shul (synagogue) I go to, which is a standard Orthodox Jewish conversational opening gambit, and I explained about going to [Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) shul] but probably transferring soon to a Modern Orthodox one because of E. I probably cut a strange figure as a quasi-Haredi Jew, wearing a Doctor Who t-shirt and holding hands with someone I’d just identified as not married to me. I feel my life would be easier if I just found my “tribe” or community and stuck there, but I seem to have this restless desire to fit into several very different communities at the same time. (Similarly today I think someone from my current shul saw me wearing a Beatles t-shirt and holding hands with E again.)

In the afternoon E and I went to the Stonehenge exhibition, also at the British Museum. This was interesting to me as I know very little about prehistoric society. However, I felt the exhibition lacked context and was confusingly laid out, with the order you were supposed to read the exhibits unclear and poor signage. There was also ambient noise (sound effects and music) that annoyed me after a while. This seems to be becoming a thing in modern museums and galleries. They are super-diversity aware, but apparently have a blind spot when it comes to sensory sensitivity.

Afterwards we walked around Bloomsbury for a little while, but we got a bit bored and a bit lost and came home. We watched Doctor Who in the evening, Planet of the Dead, which E enjoyed more than I did.

***

Today I was burnt out, perhaps unsurprisingly, given everything we had done (including walking well over 10,000 steps both days – more like 14,000 yesterday). E had to go out for work all day. I wanted to get up to see her off, but failed and slept through most of the morning. I got up when the Tesco food delivery arrived, but went back to bed afterwards. I had weird dreams, but not particularly memorable, except for wanting to move in the dream and not being able to, which I think is an unconscious desire to get up. I also dreamt about snakes, I’m not sure why. E and I are both concerned about this (the sleep/exhaustion, not the snakes). I still don’t know whether I should be looking for help from doctors, occupational therapists or someone else, or if it’s just autistic exhaustion and I have to just accept it, or find workarounds, or if serious energy accounting might help and how I could manage going on fun days out if I know I’ll run a massive energy deficit the next day. All I know is that the exhaustion is very real and not just me being lazy (although I don’t always remember that).

In the afternoon helped Dad with some chores and spent an hour working on my novel, writing about a thousand words, which was extremely good. It was hard, though. My mood definitely declined in the afternoon, despite the good work on my novel, and I felt depressed and frustrated, and missed E even though I knew I’d see her later. I had the usual feeling of wanting to just be able to get up early and do more during the day. It’s frustrating.

I can’t believe tomorrow is Yom Tov again! E and I will be out for dinner at friends of mine from shul. They are really nice people, but I’ve been masking somewhat around them (and everyone else from that shul) and I wonder what will happen when the meet E and possibly see there’s more to my personality and outlook on life than I’ve let on in the past. I also don’t know if anyone I don’t feel as comfortable with will be there.

The Stressed Time of Year, Forum Discussions, and Culture in the Frum World

We’re in the busiest time of year, the weeks before Pesach (Passover), when we’re focused on preparations. Think Christmas plus spring cleaning, multiplied by ten (or a hundred). I tend to be OK during the day because I’m busy, but at night I feel stressed and anxious when I’m not doing things, but also lack significant relaxation time to unwind. Yesterday I cleaned the larder for Pesach, but I was too tired to continue to clean the Pesach worktops and sinks in the garage as I had intended. Afterwards, I had difficulty sleeping, being very agitated and anxious (fidgeting/stimming in bed, which is unlike me). I had taken olanzapine that night, but I wonder if it had not got into my bloodstream yet, given that I am taking it every other day at the moment.

Work was dull today and difficult on four hours of sleep, but I got through it. I did a little bit of writing when I got home and went to an online Pesach shiur (religious class). Which is a lot, on four hours sleep.

In between times, I was online. I was on the autism forum quite a bit. There are lots of people in distress there and I can only respond to some for reasons of time, emotional capacity, and knowing what to say without saying the wrong thing. I have some guilt for arbitrarily connecting more with some people than others. I have long had this feeling, that I should like everyone equally, which is not really possible (or Jewish; Judaism is about loving individuals for their individuality as opposed to agape). We just connect with some people more than others; it’s normal. Still, I feel bad that things like typos can influence whether I respond.

I am also less likely to respond to people who are very blunt about being depressed and suicidal and don’t give much of an opening to respond or seem open to conversation/suggestions from other commenters. I feel bad about this, as I’ve done my own share of self-focused blog writing/commenting when severely depressed, but I know that when I was in that mood, I really wanted to vent (or possibly to argue that my life would inevitably be awful) rather than be open to suggestions. I was trying to speak to someone in crisis just now, but I think another user was doing much better.

Elsewhere online, on a Jewish site, I saw an article by a woman I had a crush on years ago (she was the person who rejected me because I didn’t go to yeshiva, which pretty much made me despair of ever finding a frum wife). I don’t have any crush feelings for her now, but I feel an envious kind of feeling that I can’t get paid for my writing or do something with my life the way she seems to have done.

The article was on finding religious messages in popular culture, part of a series of articles on this site. I have argued this myself in the past (e.g. that Doctor Who has Jewish messages), but now I’m sceptical. I think most of it is the residual Judaism in the residual Christianity in now mostly-secular art and much of it is not really significant or profound enough to be worth mentioning. I think it’s OK to like popular culture, but I don’t think much of it is profound, religiously or otherwise.

The debate always seems to be organised around popular culture. There are obviously big things to discuss about religion in writers like Dostoyevski, Tolstoy, Graham Greene and so on, but they don’t get mentioned, possibly because they don’t lead to pat, “And this teaches us to do tikkun olam!” messages (this seems to be the main “Jewish” message of Doctor Who, that and questioning/learning). Years ago I found an article online by Rabbi Dr Alan Brill complaining that Orthodox culture is so bourgeois and unchallenging, and I agree (although I think most culture full stop is bourgeois and unchallenging, pretty much by definition). I know that this is one of E’s biggest reservations about joining the Orthodox world, the conformism and the lack of serious culture, and I share her reservations while not seeing any alternatives for myself.

“Marry the freak”

I was looking today at websites for couples therapy for couples where one is autistic and one neurotypical. Some were fine, speaking about difficulties both partners might experience. Others were — I hesitate to throw around words like ‘ableist,’ and maybe this is partly my paranoia, but some definitely felt like, “Well, you could be in a relationship with an autistic person [or man, as female autism hasn’t really registered on most of these sites], but you should know that they won’t love you, care for you, or understand you and you’ll spend your entire life bending yourself out of shape to fit in with their crazy whims. And they probably won’t even want to have sex with you, at least not as often as you want or in the way you want. But, here are some resources if you do still want to marry the freak.” Obviously they didn’t literally say that, but it seemed to be the subtext.

E and I struggle with some things (particularly finances), but we’re both pretty good and communicating our needs and trying to meet each other’s needs (the couples therapy is to help with one very specific topic that we think we might need some objective support with). I know living together will be harder in some ways than living separately, but I’m not really worried about that. Of course, we’re wondering if E is on the spectrum too, which might make a difference.

***

I don’t think it was because of those therapy sites (although they didn’t help), but I’ve felt somewhat down all day. I’m still wondering if I should up my olanzapine dosage towards what it was previously. I was on 2.5mg twice a day; I’m now on 2.5mg every other evening, so one quarter of what I was on before. I should probably try to monitor that more rigorously and think about increasing to 2.5mg every day if necessary.

I realise that the last year and a bit have seen a number good things for me. I got my autism diagnosis, my family accepted my diagnosis and support me, I got engaged to E, my part-time job was made permanent. Still, I often feel overwhelmed at the thought of all the things I still want/need to do, in both the short and long term.

In the short-term, Pesach (Passover) is getting really close now and the tension is beginning to rise (I had a few Pesach OCD thoughts which I managed to keep under control so far). In the longer-term (in no particular order) I want to: organise a wedding; deal with my exhaustion/burnout/oversleeping/whatever it is so I can do more during the day; try to find a way to work more days in the week and earn more money; learn to drive; investigate whether E is neurodivergent; find a place in the Jewish community for E and me; and find the right balance of work/writing/religion/family/relaxation for me. And more.

There’s a lot of fear of the “will I ever get the life I want: wife, kids, some financial independence, friends, life balance?” Reading on the autism forum can be dispiriting, because, on the one hand, there are people who seem to have got their lives completely together, and I can’t seem to do that, but on the other hand there are parents with young children who are school-refusing or otherwise having extreme difficulty, and part of me thinks: “I could manage school. I was mostly fine at school (bar some bullying and loneliness), even though many people on the spectrum think that school is just Hell for autistics. I coped. So why can’t I cope now, when, in theory, I have more self-awareness and more control over my life?”

***

I did manage to submit my novel manuscript to two agencies and spent half an hour writing my next novel, so from a writing point of view it was quite good. I’m trying to use fewer Hebrew and Yiddish terms in my second novel than in my first one, as I worry that that has put agents off, but without them, dialogue for frum (religious Jewish) characters sounds ridiculously stilted and unrealistic. Imagine writing a teenage character, but not allowing yourself to use any contemporary slang in case people don’t understand; it’s a similar thing. It just sounds wrong.

I came across a literary agent today who is also a practising lawyer. Last week, I found an agent who is also a dentist (not sure if she’s practising though). Sometimes it feels like other people are living several lives, while I don’t even have one.

I used to feel that “good sense of humour” is a stupid thing to put on a dating profile, as it’s completely subjective and no one in the world thinks that they have a bad sense of humour, even if others disagree. I think “strong storytelling” is the literary agency equivalent. So many agents say they are looking for “strong storytelling.” Are there are lots of fiction writers thinking, “Well, I can’t tell a story at all, but I have beautiful prose”? Perhaps some, but many? I find it a profoundly unhelpful thing to ask for.

***

Other than that, I went for a walk and did some shopping, but didn’t accomplish much else other than some emails. I wanted to do more, but by the evening, I was drained and very low, bordering on depressed (by which I mean, if I felt like this consistently for two weeks, it would be diagnosed as depression). I thought of posting some of these thoughts on the autism forum to see what response it would get, but I’m scared to admit these complicated feelings about autistic people struggling more or less than I am. I’m also wary of talking about my religious practices and community there, because I don’t know what response I would get (I haven’t seen anyone else talk on there about religion, any religion). I’ve already asked about autistic burnout/exhaustion and no one really seems to have any solutions.

Counter-Factuals

Today I felt exhausted. The familiar feeling like I’ve been run over by a steamroller. I woke up early, was excited to wake up early, and immediately fell asleep again before I could get the energy to get up. This happens to me a lot and I wonder if there’s some way to extend the brief moment of early waking into one of early rising, but conscious thought doesn’t have a lot of time to kick in before I fall asleep again.

I wonder if I shouldn’t have worked on my novel after work yesterday. I might have been less exhausted today and put in more effective time on it. Or I might have been just as exhausted and not had any time or energy to work on it.

I missed out (if that’s the right term) on helping Dad with Pesach (Passover) cleaning because I got up so late and felt so awful until after lunch. Then I started getting a headache and feeling sick. I went for a walk, which didn’t make it better (or worse). I managed to skype E and read this week’s sedra (Torah portion), which is Tazria (Leviticus 12-13), which is probably the hardest sedra in which to find anything meaningful or even strongly understandable from a modern perspective (although next week’s sedra comes close — they are usually read together, but as this year is a leap year, they’re split). I sent a few emails too, and bought a new rucksack online, but didn’t manage to write fiction or a devar Torah or do seder preparation, submit my novel or anything else I had hoped to manage.

I feel a bit down about not achieving much (yes, I know we’ve discussed here before that I do more than I give myself credit for). As E said, I want to improve my sleep and energy levels to get more out of the day, but I can’t do the things that might help me to do that, as I don’t have the time/energy in the first place.

***

I got an email from the organisation where I was interviewed last week. I knew as soon as the email came that it was a rejection, as they haven’t even reached the closing date for applications yet, so it couldn’t be a job offer. They said they want someone with more experience of independent, senior-level work and also more teaching and management experience. It’s not really a surprise, despite the agonies I put myself through thinking about what I would do if I got the job. Part of me wonders if that’s the truth, or if I was just an awful candidate who shouldn’t be working in the library sector and who consistently under-performs at interviews. I guess there’s no way of knowing. I did email to thank them for the feedback to ask them to get in touch again if they need an assistant librarian at any point.

***

This last bit (which is most of the post) is a bit of a rant about the sociology of religions, so feel free to skip if you aren’t interested.

I often read the Rationalist Judaism blog (written by Rabbi Natan Slifkin) and I’m not sure why any more, as there is very little discussion in the posts or comments of what a rationalist Judaism would look like today and a lot of pointless arguing about the flaws and the future of the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) world. I mostly keep quiet even if I have something to say, as, to be honest, the conversation does not seem that pleasant. There’s a lot of flaming going on, perhaps unsurprising given the subject matter is mostly religion with an occasional bit of Israeli politics (often the points where it meets with religion).

At the moment, there is a big argument across multiple posts about a supposed miracle featuring Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, the Haredi scholar who died less than a fortnight ago, which has been rumbling on pretty much since his death. The argument is now turning into a general argument about religion.

I find myself annoyed with both sides, but too intimidated to comment there – but I need to vent, so here goes:

There seems to be an assumption on both sides that how miraculous an event is can be measured on an objective scale (e.g. Normal-Unusual-Extraordinary-Freak Occurrence-Miracle) and beyond a certain point in one direction everyone would have to believe God did it. Both religious and anti-religious commenters seem to think this and just disagree on how much things move the needle. I think miracles largely take place in the mind (I heard the historian and sociologist Keith Hopkins advance a similar argument, but I can’t quote directly as it was twenty years ago), meaning, something happens and we decide what significance to accord it. It’s not immediately obvious. Not for nothing does Judaism see the miraculous as something that makes the observer feel the closeness of God rather than something necessarily beyond nature.

An extremely rare event might be dismissed as a freak of nature by an atheist, while a very natural event might be full of religious significance to the believer. In On the Reliability of the Old Testament, the archaeologist Kenneth Kitchen argues that most of the miracles of Exodus and Numbers (e.g. splitting of the sea, water from a rock, the ground swallowing Korach) are credible, given what we now know of natural conditions in Egypt, the Nile Delta and the Sinai Peninsula. What we do with this information is up to us. To a believer it might indicate that these stories are possible or even probable; to the non-believer, it simply shows that someone experienced freak, but natural, events and passed them on as a legend.

The more general point being made was that only weak-minded credulous people become religious. Someone spoke about some female ba’alei teshuvah (people who became religious late in life) who were successful in the secular world, but who said they became religious because the religious life offers more meaning. This was disputed by someone else, who insisted they must all be lying and actually be thirty-something women desperate to find a husband and father rather than people who really believe.

This annoyed me. It annoys me as much as the reverse case, which is when religious people assume people who stop being religious are all either extreme hedonists who want to abandon Jewish law or abuse survivors who are just escaping from their childhoods.

Taking on the entirety of Jewish law is a lot to take on just to find a husband, and thirty-something single women in the frum community seem to find it harder to find a husband compared with their secular counterparts rather than easier, there being far fewer single thirty-something frum men than non-frum men (and if they did become frum to get married, it would probably say something if they did see frum men as better husband/father prospects than secular men).

That aside, the reality is that people’s religious choices are intensely personal and that fair-minded, rational people can come to different decisions about major topics like God and meaning. I can accept that there are plenty of agnostics, atheists, Buddhists, Christians (etc., just going a little way down the alphabet) who have freely and rationally chosen lifestyles and philosophies that work for them, but would not work for me. I find it hard to understand why so many people don’t get this and assume that the beliefs of people they don’t agree with (more religious or less religious) can be “explained away” on the grounds that those people are not acting rationally or are not being honest about their reasons. It’s OK and normal for rational, honest people to disagree!

Religions are sociologically-complex. Online arguments about religion seem to assume becoming religious is entirely a cognitive process: you reason about the world, this leads you to a metaphysical conjecture (religious/atheist), and then you live your life accordingly. But that’s simply not how it works for most people. Religion combines the purely cognitive with the sociological and emotional: family, friends, community, tradition, rootedness and so on. It’s not as simple as “Belief X is untrue, therefore religion Y which holds it is meaningless.”

As for the blog, inasmuch as I am interested in what a more rationalist contemporary Judaism would look, like the recent books Ani Ma’amin: Biblical Criticism, Historical Truth and the Thirteen Principles of Faith by Rabbi Joshua Berman, To This Very Day: Fundamental Questions in Bible Study by Rabbi Amnon Bazak and The Principles of Judaism by Rabbi Samuel Lebens have all been much more informative and stimulating for me than the blog, alongside Rabbi Slifkin’s pre-blogging books The Challenge of Creation and Sacred Monsters. Rabbi Lebens in particular has some ideas that run completely counter to those of Rabbi Slifkin about what constitutes “rational” or useful ideas in twenty-first century Orthodox Judaism, despite starting from similar points.

In the Future, Everyone Will Be Cancelled for Fifteen Minutes

Work was difficult today, chasing people for money they owe and arguing about whether we had been paid or not. Not fun.

On the walk to and from the station, I listened to another Deep Meaningful Conversations podcast (formerly Normal Frum Women). It was the first time I was disappointed in one of their podcasts. It was on frum (religious Jewish) finances, and I hoped to hear how to manage a large family on a small income (possibly single income, as in “learning” families the husband studies Talmud all day, and in “earning” families men work, but women are often stay at home mothers), but there weren’t many helpful tips.

The guest (whose name I forget) spoke about the importance of discussing finances with your spouse and children, which is true, but I would have liked more practical tips. She focused a lot on the need to apply your religious values to your spending or saving, and kept saying that bringing spirituality into your spending will “bring Mashiach” (the Messiah) (I think she is Chabad). I appreciate where she’s coming from, but I find messianism off-putting in a practical context. I think a lot of problems in the Jewish world today stem from too much messianism.

The discussion also left me brooding on the small shortfall in E and my finances that my Dad and I identified when budgeting, but couldn’t quite resolve. Then I realised we hadn’t budgeted for giving any tzedakah (charity), which would make the shortfall more complicated. According to Jewish law, one should aim to give 10% of post-tax disposable income to charity (shul (synagogue) fees and religious education can count towards this) and I have tried to do this over the years when possible, although as I’ve been dependent on others, it often has not been possible. It probably won’t be possible for E and me either, which upsets me a bit and makes me wonder how we can decide how much we can afford to give.

The other thing that this makes me wonder is if I’m overly cynical for a frum person. I find it hard to mouth the platitudes about God providing, every baby coming with a purse and so on, or to find significance in the miracle stories people tell (I’m not talking about biblical stories, but supposedly contemporary urban myths). I guess it takes me back to the question of whether everyone in the frum community is living amazingly spiritually-focused lives or are just trying to pass as someone living such a life by saying certain things.

***

On the podcast, someone referred to “The days of blogging” in the past tense. I do think there are fewer blogs than there used to be. I certainly come across fewer Jewish or Doctor Who blogs. However, I don’t think blogging is quite over yet.

There was also talk on the podcast of doing what God wants me to do. I struggle with this. Sometimes I feel that writing is what God wants me to do, but I think I felt like that about librarianship too. Not exactly that it was what God wanted me to do, but that it was what I should be doing. That didn’t turn out well, so I feel wary of staking so much of my self-esteem and hope for the future on writing professionally.

I did manage forty-five minutes of novel writing when I got home. It’s much easier to feel awake at 6pm when it’s still light outside now the clocks have gone forward. I would have liked to have got to an hour, but dinner was ready and I was too tired afterwards. I have pretty much got to my first thousand words (I’m actually on something like 993), which makes me feel a bit better.

I am still nervous about the content of what I want to write. E said that if I write about a pornography-addicted rabbi I’ll be cancelled in the frum world and if I follow it with an anti-woke political satire, I’ll be cancelled in the secular world too. This is probably true, but I’m trying not to think about it. As Andy Warhol nearly said, in the future, everyone will be cancelled for fifteen minutes. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll end up in a situation where the only people who will talk to me, in the real world and online, will be E and my close blood relations.

None of this makes me think seriously of not writing what I want to write, though. Going back to what God wants me to write, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov said that a rebbe who won’t go to Gehennom [Hell] to save his hasidim isn’t a true rebbe. I feel I have to at least try to go and rescue people or no one will. If it’s in Gehennom — well, at least I know the territory.

***

I didn’t wear a mask on the Tube on the way home. I was tired and couldn’t really face it, and it seemed pointless if no one else on the Tube was wearing one (my understanding is that some masks help a bit, but more to stop infected people spreading COVID than to stop uninfected people catching it, so it is only helpful if most people are doing it). I did feel somewhat anxious and “wrong” (immoral), but I was mostly OK. I feel like we need to come out of the pandemic.

I haven’t told my parents that I didn’t wear my mask, and inasmuch as I feel immoral for not wearing one, it is probably because my parents are very COVID-cautious, particularly my father (although they have been to the theatre a couple of times). I did argue with my Dad a bit about this on Shabbat. He was complaining that only about twenty people out of a hundred or more were wearing masks in shul on Friday night (I’m not sure there were even twenty). I said that the pandemic was over. He said there were three million new cases last week (checking, this seems to be wrong, and by an order of magnitude). I asked how many people actually died of COVID last week? And how many new cases of flu were there last week?

Really you can keep this debate going indefinitely on both sides. I worry that it’s hard to tell where sensible behaviour during the pandemic shades into health anxiety post-pandemic.

***

When I was feeling down the other week, I mentioned leaving a comment on the autism forum that the original commenter didn’t reply to, and I wondered if I had offended him, as he replied to the other comments. He did reply to me today, so I feel better now.

Purim and Accepting My Feelings

I had insomnia again last night. Then I woke up at 8am and couldn’t get back to sleep (I didn’t have to get up until 9am). I feel like I’m in one of those Twilight Zone episodes where people get what they wish for and it all goes horribly wrong. “You want to sleep less? How would you like it if you couldn’t sleep at all?” Can’t I sleep a normal amount, seven or eight hours a night? No more, no less?

I lay in bed for an hour this morning feeling anxious about my interview next week. I’m not sure if I’m more anxious about making a fool of myself; being offered the job and not knowing if I should take it; or taking it and being out of my depth. Can I work four days a week? Should I take a one year job, knowing I’ll be unemployed and probably with a mortgage at the end of it? It’s hard and I don’t really know how to solve these problems. My gut says I should stick with my current job, which will still be there in a year, but I worry my gut is just scared of pressure and change. My parents and E say to just get through the interview before I worry about whether I should accept the job, which is probably true.

I went to a daytime Megillah (Book of Esther) reading at my parents’ shul (synagogue) again. It was a late morning one and, as I expected, somewhat quieter than yesterday’s reading. I was annoyed by someone sometimes (but not always) singing along with the reader, not exactly under his breath. He wasn’t even close to me! (Other than my Dad, there was no one really close to me.) I think even allistic (non-autistic) people would find that annoying; to me it was really distracting.

I think I heard everything, even when I stumbled over one of the bits we do read aloud (the ten sons of Haman, who all have long, difficult Persian names) and the rabbi re-started leining (reading) aloud before I had quite finished. This was the rabbi who waved at me yesterday. I actually asked him afterwards if what I did was OK which may not be good from an OCD perspective, as I shouldn’t check stuff, but I realised I feel more comfortable asking him questions than my own shul rabbi, which I guess is good if I’m thinking of asking him to marry me and E. I think she’ll like him, but it’s hard to know. I might try to introduce her to him when she comes here for Pesach (I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned before that she’s coming for Pesach).

I nearly cried twice today, once when the Jews were saved in the Megillah (why? It’s not like this was news to me) and once over my lunch/Purim seudah (feast), which was me eating beans on toast by myself. I guess it upsets me that I almost always eat Purim seudah on my own, as my parents usually work and I don’t have enough frum (religious) friends to get invited out much. I’m not sure why this upsets me so much, as I’ve eaten alone before on Shabbat (Sabbath) or even sometimes on Yom Tov (festival) when my parents have been invited to eat at their friends. Perhaps there’s something about Purim that means I want to celebrate it more gregariously. Hopefully I won’t be alone next year.

After that, I helped my Dad deliver mishloach manot (presents of food) to his friends. By the time we’d done that, I was pretty exhausted from the day. We live in a frum area, so outside all day had been kids in fancy dress (cute), cars blaring loud music (annoying) and, by 4pm, a couple of very drunk adult men. I was peopled out just being around so many people all day, even though I hadn’t had many actual interactions. The article someone posted here the other day about Purim on the spectrum was right; just the carnival wrongness of the day is draining if you’re on the spectrum, the not being sure of what will happen next or even who people are under the make up and fancy dress. Even though I’d eaten seudah already, I decided to have some Purim bread with my parents at their seudah, wearing my jester’s hat, which I hadn’t worn earlier as the cleaner was here.

I think some of the problem for me on Purim, and every Yom Tov really is the feeling that I need to internalise the message of the Yom Tov in a very tangible way and experience noticeable spiritual growth, not just doing the relevant mitzvot (commandments) and enjoying the day. I wonder how many Jews actually do this? Aside from super-tzadikim (saintly people)? I had a bit of a discussion along these lines with my rabbi mentor after last Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement). I got the impression that he didn’t think that many people do achieve this. I don’t know how many even care about achieving this.

Sometimes it feels that contemporary Judaism is full of messages that I’m supposed to take with a pinch of salt (like very Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) communities where iphones are banned, but everyone has them, but won’t admit to it), but I struggle to do that, perhaps because of autistic literalness. I guess it’s harder than most festivals on Purim because the theme of the day is so out of my comfort zone. The same applies to Simchat Torah, but I’ve largely stopped going to shul for that, whereas on Purim I still want to hear the Megillah, which means engaging more than praying/studying at home.

So did I have a good Purim overall? It wasn’t how I expected. I had intended to spend time watching TV to chill out, which I didn’t really do, as I helped Dad with his mishloach manot and then ate a second seudah with my parents for the company. But I did enjoy that time with my parents, and I did do all the mitzvot, which matters to me a lot, and I did get something from the Megillah readings. In a weird way, I think I even enjoyed dropping off the mishloach manot, at least to my parents’ friends who I know reasonably well. So I guess it was good even if it didn’t exactly feel good. I just wish I could feel and accept my positive feelings more, but then I guess I need to learn to understand and accept all my feelings better (alexithymia). It’s hard to know where to start with something like that, although my therapist might have some ideas. I think I’ve got a bit better at it over the years, but there’s still a long way to go.

In My Family

I realised I missed the first anniversary of my high-functioning autism/Asperger’s diagnosis a few days ago. I got the date wrong in my head (thought it was the 19th, but it was the 9th). It seems strange to think that it was only a year ago. I had been living with the suspicion of autism for some time, so maybe that makes the date of confirmation less significant somehow, but it was a major turning point in my life, and things have been better since then, even if still difficult in many ways.

I definitely feel that “high-functioning” autism is a misnomer. I think technically it just means that I don’t have any learning disabilities, but it gives people the impression that I am mostly OK and functional. I am high-functioning in some ways and at some times. But some tasks that are considered “simple” regularly defeat me (like basic conversation with people I don’t know very well) and being stressed, particularly being hungry, anxious, lonely or tired (what I call being HALTed) can sweep away my coping strategies and ability to mask and put me in a much worse state very quickly.

My cousin was diagnosed with high-functioning autism recently, although I only found out last night. It was a bit of a surprise, as we all thought he has ADHD, although I think a second diagnosis has not been ruled out. There’s a lot of neurodivergence (autism and ADHD, diagnosed and suspected) on that side of the family. I think out of me, my sister and my five cousins, it’s only my sister and maybe one cousin who present as neurotypical! My parents think that my grandfather (the common grandfather) was on the spectrum, so I guess that could explain it (autism and ADHD are often found in the same family, for reasons that aren’t really understood yet). It’s good inasmuch as at least it makes it easier to feel accepted, but I guess I worry a bit about how some of us will cope, especially those of us dealing with mental health issues on top of neurodiversity.

On a related note, I sent my email about Purim on the spectrum to my devar Torah group and got a positive response from one friend who I hadn’t previously told about my diagnosis. He said I was brave to open up about it.

***

I had racing thoughts again last night and couldn’t fall asleep until 5.00am, then woke up around midday feeling tired and a little sick, but with more subdued thoughts (because the racing thoughts have passed or because I was so tired? It’s not clear at this stage). I struggled all day with vague aches and pains as well as feeling run down and hot and bothered. They got worse rather than better as the day went on and I started feeling light-headed in the evening. I did a COVID test (not because of this, because my sister came over) and I was negative, so it’s not that. It could be from sleeping at the wrong time and probably having bad quality sleep or it could be physical withdrawal from the olanzapine, as I’ve only been off it for a couple of days. I’m leaning towards withdrawal as an explanation. I feel better at the moment, but I warned J that I might not be in tomorrow if I wake up feeling awful.

***

I spent a chunk of the day talking about financial things with my parents and sister. I’m not going into money matters here, but it was all positive and hopefully lets E and I move closer to getting married. I do feel uncomfortable discussing finances, though — whenever I discuss them, I feel like a child playing at being an adult, like I don’t really know how these things work and I can’t really understand them. E says I underestimate my practical skills a lot and that I’m a lot better at “adulting” (hate that word) than I give myself credit for. I really hope she’s right!

***

While I couldn’t sleep, I thought a lot about gratitude. The word ‘Jew’ essentially means ‘one who is thankful’. I’m grateful to my parents for their support over the years and I’m very, very grateful to E for caring about me so much and accepting me for who I am (even when I am HALTed and not coping). And I’m grateful for my readers here. I don’t have, and don’t want to have, thousands of readers. I have about nine or ten readers who read frequently and comment supportively and perceptively and I appreciate it so much, especially as I know some read and comment despite having a lot of issues of their own (and I also know that I don’t always have the time to comment on their blogs). I don’t know how I would cope without it, as I don’t really contact my non-blog friends very often (something I should probably work on, but that’s another story). I know I struggle with a lot of stuff online and try to avoid sites like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram as they just aren’t good for me, but I’m very glad to have this space to write and be read. (Also, without the blog, I would never have met E, who basically liked my writing so much she decided to marry me, but that’s a whole other story…)

Exciting, But Scary

The exciting, but scary thing that happened late yesterday was that a friend sent a job advert to me, for a librarian role as maternity cover for a year. The unusual aspect was that this was in the institution where I had my first job. I would basically be covering for the person who replaced my former boss.

There are advantages to this: it’s familiar (assuming it hasn’t changed much in five years) and I meet all of the essential and most of the desirable skills on the job description, at least on paper. It might also jump-start my library career.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of disadvantages too: aside from my usual fear in applying for library jobs, that my skills are rusty and perhaps not as instilled in me as they should be, I would have to be self-driven in this role in a way I haven’t had to have in most previous roles — no one to tell me what to do when I come in each day. I would be telling other people what to do. I would have to work a lot more than I am now, both in terms of days per week and, some days at least, hours per day. Then there is the fact that previous work there resulted in depression, which was probably at least in part autistic burnout, which may or may not have been caused by the working environment — I mean the physical layout of the building, which is unlikely to have changed for reasons I can’t go into here. I also worry that they remember the depression/burnout, as they became distinctly less sympathetic as time went on. Even in the best case scenario, the job is only for one year, then I will be looking for work again, having given up my current permanent role.

The other difficulty is that, if I was working four days a week, I would not have time or energy to write. This sounds trivial, as all the money I’ve ever been paid for writing amounts to a tiny amount, probably about £100 in all. However, in the last five years I’ve had almost no praise for the library jobs I’ve had (except one role on a short contract which I was technically over-qualified for as it wasn’t really a role for a trained librarian), whereas I’ve had quite a lot of praise for my writing. I certainly feel I get into my ‘flow’ while writing sometimes and I haven’t felt like that in a librarian role for a very long time.

It’s not an abstract fear, as even though I have not had anywhere near as much time for writing in recent months as I would like, I feel that the plan for my second novel is going well. I never really thought I would be able to devise a whole plot and characters (my first novel was partly autobiographical, which is a bit of a cheat). I guess I’m reluctant to put that aside for a year for work reasons, although I had more or less come to the conclusion that it would have to go on pause for a while when E and I get married, househunt, etc., so maybe I should just write the rest of the year off.

I did apply for the job, despite my misgivings, but I feel like I’ve spent the last twenty-four hours remembering every workplace mistake I’ve made in the last five years or more. My CV seems to be a mess of unemployed gaps and irrelevant non-library work. I always thought that having a job was better than no job, even if it wasn’t part of my career plan (not that I ever really had one), but potential employers might not think the same way when they see just how much of my career has been spent in non-library work, long after I qualified as a librarian and began that career. Not for the first time, I feel that I don’t have a career in the way that I’m “supposed” to or at least in the way most middle class, university-educated people are supposed to do. Those huge unemployment gaps are scary too.

In terms of other career moves, I have been trying to think of ideas for articles to try to sell to the Jewish website I wrote for before, but have not really succeeded. Their articles tend to link either to pop culture or relationships, to attract a non-religious audience, and those are not my strong points.

E and I have also spoken about trying to get me set up as a paid proofreader or copy editor, which I think could be good for me (I could do two days a week in my current job and split the rest between editing and writing), but it will take some time to organise and my previous attempt did not work out at all. It would be good to work from home and have greater control over my hours.

As I say, I did apply for the library job, and if I get called for interview, I will go, and maybe try to have a conversation about autism and workplace adjustments, but it is scary and I have been a bit more anxious than usual today.

Other than that, the day was a bit better than recently. I got up a bit earlier than usual, admittedly to help Dad with the Tesco delivery and to be up for therapy, which I had earlier than usual today. I have resolved to go back to the doctor next week to talk again about my exhaustion and hypersomnia, this time trying to get to speak to the doctor who knows me better. I am also speaking to the OT on Friday to see if I can get any help there.

***

My therapist suggested that I have too many files open in my brain all the time and can’t switch off from anything. This is a reasonable description of the difficulties people on the spectrum can have with moving from one task to another. It also suggests why we sometimes “crash.” We just have too much running in our brains. She suggested visualising shutting down windows or files, which I will try to keep in mind.

The friend who sent the job description to me is also on the spectrum, and wrote about her own struggles with work at the moment, the office environment as well as the commute. I am sorry for her, but also a bit pleased that it’s not just me who struggles with this stuff. It makes me feel a bit less useless.

***

I do feel I need better coping skills, or some coping skills, but I’m not sure where to go to find them. I suppose I could ask my therapist. Therapists I’ve seen in the past have been reluctant to give such practical help, although this one has been more willing. I suppose I could ask the OT too.

I do wonder if blogging is such a great coping skill. It does help me process my emotions and I do intend to continue with it, but I think I should try to make more of an effort not to blog on work days, as being on the computer after a day in front of screens is exhausting rather than relaxing and restoring, but is also addictive. Once I get on the computer, it’s hard to come off again.

***

The weather has been a bit warmer and sunnier, and the days are noticeably longer, although still fairly short. For all that the Jewish spring festivals inspire anxiety in me, it is good to be heading towards spring at last. By coincidence, Here Comes the Sun has just come on my music on shuffle.

Purim on an Irrational Planet

Purim is coming next week. Purim is the most carnivalesque Jewish festival, a rare Jewish festival that is actually what non-Jews would think of as a festival. Since my autism diagnosis, I’ve wondered how I ever coped with it. Then I realised that I didn’t. For the past few years, my anxieties have focused, via my religious OCD, on the problems of hearing every word of the reading of the Megillah (Book of Esther) as Jewish law dictates, when custom also dictates the making of a lot of noise whenever the villainous Haman is mentioned. But even before this, I struggled with it. Obviously the years when my depression was at its worse, I largely avoided the festival entirely, staying at home and not hearing the Megillah at all. But I think even as a child I felt uncomfortable with the noise, costumes and general atmosphere. I do still spend Purim in a state of nervousness, worried that something unpredictable will happen (unpredictability is a major source of anxiety to those on the spectrum), some prank or noise that will upset or scare me.

I can remember one year I was ill on the Fast of Esther (day before Purim) and although it was from fasting, my parents told the rabbi that “Purim made [me] ill,” that they thought I was sick with anxiety about it. Even then, before I was depressed or diagnosed autistic, my parents intuited that I struggled with Purim. My first depressive episode, which I increasingly feel was more like autistic burnout than depression, started on Purim when I had what I now recognise as an anxiety attack in a Megillah reading; it feels like Purim is completely entangled in my struggles with mental illness and autism. I have fantasised what an autistically-comfortable Purim might look like, but I can’t see anyone doing it, certainly not when high-functioning autism isn’t really spoken about in the frum (religious Jewish) world, and the community in the UK is really too small to make room for minorities of minorities.

Beyond that, Purim is the start of a month of intensive preparation leading up Pesach, which is hard in itself, for everyone, but also leads to the fear that my Pesach religious OCD will flare up again, particularly worrying this year as E will be here. I just have to face it, but it’s scary.

***

Last summer, when the Jewish internet was full of people complaining about negative representation of Orthodox life in the mainstream media, E pointed out an Instagram post to me, from the journalist (and rebbetzin) Avital Chizik-Goldschmidt, which I saved to re-read at when I feel despondent about my writing. The text reads:

There’s so much frustration right now in the frum community; I get it. But the problem lies not only with corporations seeking sensationalism – it is also with our inability to foster a creative class that tells honest American frum stories that aren’t PR.

How about we be the change we want to see? How about we invest in real Orthodox art? What if instead of investing in askanim [activists] & 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. Being both a frum journalist & a rabbi’s wife, I see up close how much pain there is, how much work there is to do.

All the energy poured into posts about how amazing our lives are, the shine of Shabbos & the impeccable wigs & sparkling family portraits, all the stories we tell ourselves – what if we would channel that energy & time into telling actually compelling stories, *for a wider audience*? 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.

Why is it only people who leave who tell stories? Yes, it sells, but perhaps also— because we don’t create spaces to tell our most raw stories.

If you want to compete in the global stories market – publicity & hashtags don’t work.

Find real storytellers: the impassioned frum screenwriters, novelists, poets, filmmakers, artists, thirsty for platforms. Educate them. Cultivate their talent. Give them tools they need to succeed. Support their work & their honesty. Don’t censor them, don’t tell them to pursue other professions because parnasa [livelihoo], & — this is important — don’t shut them down when their work offers true critiques of communities they love & live in. 

It’s on us to create community where honest storytellers can thrive – where stories are told from within, unflinching.

Reading this, I felt “At last, someone else gets it! This is exactly why I write!” But also, it’s worrying, because there’s the implication of the penultimate paragraph that communities do censor, they do discourage artistic careers and they do shut people down if they present an non-idealised picture. It makes me feel that there could be an audience for the stories I want to tell, but I have to get through two sets of gatekeepers, each with very different priorities: first the publishing world gatekeepers of agents and publishers, who are indifferent at best to stories about Judaism and religion (except Holocaust and “off the derekh” (stopping being religious) stories), then a community that often seems concerned more with making itself look good on the page or screen than listening to the marginalised.

I would feel happier if there were places I could share my Jewish writing, like Jewish writing groups. Hevria.com was good when it existed, even though I never felt like I really fitted in there. I would have liked to have written for them regularly. When they started doing in-person creative events, I obviously couldn’t go as I live on another continent.

Lately though it has been a struggle to write at all, because I feel exhausted all the time. I feel that I don’t know where to look for help as I don’t know if the problem is physical health, psychological health or medication side-effect. I feel I should wait to see if the vitamin D the doctor prescribed helps, but my parents think I should try to see my preferred doctor (if the receptionists will let me) and ask what he thinks.

I feel I do need to change something, as I can’t carry on only managing to work two days a week and needing to sleep ten or twelve hours on non-work nights and I certainly can’t get married in this state. I wake up, and I want to get up, but somehow the signals don’t go from my brain to my legs. Then I fall asleep again. This happened several times across the morning today, with increasing frustration. It was almost physically painful to fight the exhaustion to get dressed this morning. The whole situation just makes me feel down.

Between exhaustion, worries about being physically able to write, writing anything that has a chance of getting published, worries about Purim and Pesach, worries about how E and I will earn enough to get married… I feel I talked myself into a depression today. I feel as bad as I did when I had depression; I hope it will just last a day or two, and then go, without becoming another full-blown depressive episode. I do feel a bit better for having spoken to (variously) my rabbi mentor, my parents and E, and brainstormed ideas for what to do next.

I did have other surprising news as well, late in the day. Unexpected cliff-hangers are not only features of improbable TV series. But I’ve written enough for today, so it will have to wait for now…

The Autism Treadmill

I woke up late again and drifted quickly into self-criticism. I feel I have to sort this oversleeping (actually hypersomnia, as my sleep pattern is longer than it should be, not just shifted later in the day) and lack of energy, but I don’t know how, and I don’t know how I can work it out without knowing what is causing it: medication, autistic exhaustion (which in itself is not well-understood) or something else like avoidance. I’m not even remotely sure how much of it is a physical issue and how much an emotional one. But I feel it’s one of the main factors – arguably the main factor – holding back E and me from getting married.

One of the few things I took from Sara Gibbs’ autism memoir Drama Queen was the metaphor that if being neurotypical is like walking on a treadmill going at a walking pace, being autistic is like being on a treadmill going at a fast running pace, all the while being expected to keep up with the walking neurotypicals who don’t understand why you’re struggling to stay level with them. More than any other issue I have, I think of my energy issues here.

I had to do some shopping, which stopped me going for a (literal) run, although I’m not sure I would have had time anyway. I did walk quite briskly, so it was not a total failure in the exercise department.

I had hoped to finish the plan for my second novel today. In the event, I did about forty minutes of work on it, but still have a lot more to do, even though I’m deliberately not planning down to the last detail as my experience with my first novel is that things grow organically during the writing process (at least for me) and it’s better not to over-plan in advance. Writing seems very daunting, particularly if I want to actually get published and earn money from it. Then again, everything seems daunting: marriage, work, getting up on time, shul and community (see below).

I’m glad my parents are home tomorrow (albeit very late) as I’m feeling that I can’t take much more of living alone for now. I do feel quite depressed (and glad I haven’t completely come off my olanzapine) and stressed about additional housework and, well, everything. Everything just seems overwhelming and difficult at the moment. I just emailed the mental health charity that helped me years ago again to try to see if they can help me now with sleep/life skills, but I’m not sure if I’m still eligible.

***

My shul (synagogue) wants people to help with moving books and the like to our temporary premises and then on to our new premises later in the year (hopefully). Part of me would like to help, but I just feel completely disconnected from them at the moment. I’m scared of being asked about my wedding and I just feel that my time there is running out. I never really felt accepted the way I hoped, which is probably at least partly my own fault. The temporary premises are about twenty minutes from my house (rather than ten minutes for the current ones) and in what is probably going to be a small, cramped room and full of autistic “new experience” anxiety. Then when they (we?) move to the new premises, that’s also twenty minutes away, and hopefully by then I’ll have a clearer idea of when I’m getting married and probably moving somewhere else (E doesn’t really want to live around here).

I sometimes get to a point with something where I just feel, “This is over” and lose all motivation to do anything to keep it going and I feel that’s where I am with my shul. I liked their commitment to quiet davening (prayer) and sense of humour and perspective about frum life, but it obviously was not enough for me to feel accepted, given the generally more moderate-Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) outlook as well as my mental health and autism situation, not to mention being one of the few unmarried “older” people and the lack of interest in setting me up on dates as I expected/hoped (obviously not an issue now, but more of an issue a few years ago). My fear is that the social anxiety and autism will still be there in future shuls, and I’m already dreading going back to a shul where people talk in the davening (which is most Orthodox shuls, sadly).

***

Since finishing The Twilight Zone, and as E and I aren’t watching any Doctor Who together at the moment, I sped up my viewing of Twin Peaks. Unfortunately, I then hit the third season. The original Twin Peaks had charm, warmth, wit and strong characters. The third season has none of this, substituting semi-incoherent weirdness and long, aching, empty scenes, with occasional good bits that prevent me skipping it. The lack of incidental music makes the whole thing feel even stranger, like watching raw footage. However, I’m curious to re-watch to see if it makes more sense second-time around. So far the answer is yes, just about. And I recall that the final two episodes were pretty good, so I’m sticking with it for that.

However, the last couple of days I’ve been too down to want to watch this, so I decided to watch Doctor Who. As I want to watch good episodes of Doctor Who with E, I decided to watch something too awful to suggest watching with her, so — Silver Nemesis. It’s really not good at all. Maybe I should try to persuade E to restart watching good Doctor Who with me.

“Nothing you can do but you can learn how to be you in time”

I picked the title of the post, from The Beatles’ All You Need is Love before Shabbat, as I’ve been listening to The Beatles a lot lately. Except that over Shabbat things went downhill and alternative titles could be I’m Only Sleeping, I’ll Cry Instead or I’m a Loser. Also The Long and Winding Road, but I find that a maudlin and annoying song.

***

I felt drained on Friday. I’m not sure if it was more physical or emotional/psychological. I had a busy week, and a busy day on Thursday, but I also had an emotionally-draining week, being home alone and missing E. I am not sure whether occupational therapy or Access to Work help will be able to help me with any of this, if I can’t tell where it’s coming from, if it’s physical or emotional. I did the chores I needed to do to get ready for Shabbat (the Sabbath). I didn’t think I would go to shul (synagogue) as I was tired, but then I felt a bit better right before Shabbat, so I went after all.

This turned out not to be the best decision. I was worried people would ask if E and I had set a date for the wedding yet. My closest friend at shul has asked me this twice already. I was slightly relieved that he wasn’t there, but the rabbi asked me (I guess he assumes he’ll be mesader kiddushin (officiating)). It just reminds me that E and I are currently in limbo, engaged, but with no real idea when we’ll get married. Maybe I find this harder than E because of social expectation, that in frum (religious Jewish) circles marriages usually take place within a couple of months of engagements (we got engaged three months ago). I think I would want to move things on even if that wasn’t the case. Unusually for me, I just want to leap in to married life while E is the one who is more cautious and wants to check we both have enough energy and can earn enough money whereas I feel there’s no real way of knowing how we will both react to living together until it happens (one of the weird things about our relationship for me is that I’m the optimistic one, relatively speaking, although I guess we both overthink things).

There was dancing in shul too, as we’ve just begun the super-happy month of Adar II (“When Adar begins, we increase in joy”). No one tried to get me to dance this time, but it reminded me that Purim is in two weeks and Pesach in six weeks, with all the anxieties and potential mental health triggers those two festivals involve.

On the way home, I kept thinking that the kids who bullied me at school had won. I had always assumed that I would get my own back on them (so to speak), by having an amazing post-school life because of my incredible intelligence and diligence (these both turned out to be really over-estimated), but actually my life since school has mostly been awful, lonely, depressed and unsuccessful, with occasional short periods of vague competence.

I don’t know why the kids bullied me. My parents thought they were jealous of my academic success. I think they saw me as an easy target. In retrospect, some might have genuinely mistaken my autism and social anxiety for some kind of deliberate snub. It was hard to avoid thinking that they were right: I am a freak and I’m not going to have a good or happy life. Whatever the cause, they were not helpful thoughts. I’m not really sure what triggered them, but they bothered me obsessively all evening, until I focused on the few things I am proud of having done in my life, such as teaching people Torah. That helped me set those thoughts aside.

I do wonder why I just can’t ever be happy. Things have got better for me over the last year or so and maybe they will continue to improve, but somehow it feels like things have to peak and decline now. It feels like things could only go well for me when they were going badly for the rest of the world (COVID), and now COVID is ending it’s back to normal (bad) for me.

The rest of Friday night was OK. Mostly reading and Torah study. I read a bit of The Coming of the Third Reich, but it didn’t really seem appropriate for Shabbat (when one should try to feel positive) so I mostly read Doctor Who Magazine, but that frustrated me, because I feel I should be writing articles on the best Fifth Doctor comic strips (etc.). I’ve tried pitching article ideas and offering my writing services to DWM before, but they aren’t interested. I’m not sure if I pitched wrongly or they don’t like my writing style or what. Fifteen years ago, I was hopeful that my fanzine/internet fan writings would get me work from them, but it never did. I don’t know how they find their new generation of writers. The convention circuit or Doctor Who fan Twitter or some other outlet I don’t use.

***

I woke up at 7.30am this morning. I didn’t feel tired, but I thought it was too early to get up, especially as I hadn’t gone to bed until nearly 1am, and went back to bed, which turned out to be a mistake as, of course, I slept through the morning. I woke up the second time with a neck ache that I still have and a bunch of self-recriminatory thoughts, which I also still have. My mood was low and I struggled to do any Torah study. I worry I’ll never be well enough/energetic enough for E.

***

I don’t speak lashon hara (gossip) much, so it tends to stick in my mind when I do. When I was at university, two students got married in term-time. The man had graduated the previous year, but the woman was in her final year when they got married. I couldn’t understand why they didn’t wait until she finished her finals and opined to this extent to a friend. It was wrong of me, although in retrospect, if that’s the worst lashon hara I ever speak, I’m probably not doing too badly. I have wondered in the past if my largely non-existent love-life was Divine payback for this. Now I wondered if it was delaying my marriage. I guess this comes from the Talmudic/Midrashic approach that views even trivial misdeeds as potentially the cause of significant suffering in this world, to avoid suffering in the next world. I don’t know what I could do about it now. I tried internet searching for those people, but I can’t find them.

***

I mentioned I’ve been listening to The Beatles a lot recently. I had never bought their early albums as I don’t like them so much, but the completist bug got to me and I bought a whole bunch of albums very cheaply second-hand. I got five albums for about £17. (I’m still waiting for With the Beatles.) Listening to them, (a) their early songs are much better than I remembered, but (b) even so, they weren’t so good at the start. I guess it’s heartening to me to think that my first few novels don’t have to be my best…

***

This post seems rambling and self-obsessed even by my usual standards. Thanks if you got this far.

Suffering

The perfect storm I feared yesterday was not so bad, although I still have a few more days to get through.

I had trouble sleeping again last night. I went to bed so tired I could barely keep my eyes open, but an hour later I was still awake. I’m not sure what is going on there.

The commute on the bus (because of the Tube strike) was crowded and tiring. I read a bit, but found it hard after a while and eventually started getting travel sick. But I got through it. I arrived a bit late in the morning. I usually get to the office between 9.15am and 9.30am, but today I arrived at 9.45am, which wasn’t too bad. J let me leave early so I didn’t get home too late, even after doing shopping.

Work was OK, although I nearly went crazy spending two and a half hours staring at spreadsheets this morning. And I obviously did not stick to my plan of not going online after work, not least because I skyped E, but I did try to minimise time online, and to avoid going online soon after getting home. I did lose all self-control in the evening and read politics and religion sites that frankly have too much arguing to deal with at 11pm.

I did some preparation for Shabbat this evening. I have quite a bit to do tomorrow, but hopefully I should get it all done in time, even if I end up too tired or late to go to shul (synagogue). I have been feeling a bit self-critical the last few days, though, the sort of mood where I blame myself for every bad thing I’ve ever done since childhood. I haven’t been doing it a lot, but I catch myself doing it from time to time. I guess the thing to do is to catch myself and think about other things rather than dwell on it.

***

I saw an article on Chabad.org the other day about there not being such a thing as being “stuck.” I sort of see the point, that wherever we are, God has put us there for a reason. There must be a task to perform there. At the same time, it’s the type of attitude that, if it doesn’t inspire, can really annoy and even upset, especially if people can’t easily see the positive side or find the task to perform. It can even seem like victim-blaming: if you are feeling stuck, that’s because you’re too wicked (or stupid) to see the positive. That’s without analysing the question of rigid autistic thinking making it hard to find a new perspective.

Something else I’ve wondered about for a while is possibly related to this question of suffering and finding a purpose in it. In Bereshit (Genesis), there are various genealogical lists. The trend is for the genealogies of the “off-shoots” of the covenantal family, the “cousins” of the Israelites who aren’t going to end up in the covenant and part of the Jewish people, to be rattled through very quickly, putting a lot of information into a short space. I mean the genealogies of Avraham’s (Abraham’s) brother Nachor, Yitzchak’s (Isaac’s) half-brother Yishmael (Ishmael) and Yaakov’s (Jacob’s) brother Esav (Esau). These families are listed relatively briefly compared with the long narratives of the covenantal family and it gives the impression that not much happened to them, that they grew very quickly and easily. The covenantal family, however, grew much more slowly, with frequent problems with infertility and difficulty finding a wife (or marrying the right one) as well as rivalries between wives and concubines. It seems that the covenantal family simply has more suffering and angst than the branches that opted out of the covenant, or were never part of it in the first place.

Is this real, I have asked myself for some time, or is it just a by-product of literary technique: that because we focus on the covenantal family, we hear more about their suffering, whereas because we aren’t interested in the other branches and skip over them, we necessarily don’t see their tzores (angst). We don’t know if Yishmael’s wife had fertility issues or if Esav’s wives got along because the Torah simply isn’t interested in telling us either way. Or is the Torah telling us that the road to spiritual greatness is paved with suffering?

I incline towards the latter view, even though the evidence from Bereshit is circumstantial at best. Certainly the Talmud states that “Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai says: “The Holy One, Blessed be He, gave Israel three precious gifts, all of which were given only by means of suffering: Torah, the Land of Israel, and the World to Come.” (Brachot 5a, translation from the Steinsaltz Talmud via Sefaria with changes.) The pinnacles of the religious life: Torah study, the Land of Israel and the afterlife, can only be achieved through suffering. There is also the slavery experience of the Israelites in Egypt, which seems to be a necessary precondition of covenant and land. There is a lot more that could be said about this (tzarich iyun).

I feel I should have some kind of take-home moral or practical point from this, but I don’t.

Authenticity

I had an introspective Shabbat (Sabbath). On the way to shul (synagogue) on Friday afternoon, I was thinking about something Rabbi Lord Sacks said, about cultures of sight versus cultures of sound. He said that the West is a culture of sight. In English, all our ‘thought’ words are based on sight. We talk of hindsight, insight, foresight. When we understand, we say, “I see.” Judaism is a culture of sound. “Shema” (hear/listen) is a key word in Devarim (Deuteronomy) in particular. The Talmud introduces an argument by saying, “Come and hear.” If a rabbi rejects an argument, the Talmud says, “He couldn’t hear it.” Rabbi Sacks sees sight cultures as focused on exteriors and sound cultures as focused on interiors.

It occurred to me that the West is even more sight-focused than when Rabbi Sacks said that (I’m not sure when exactly but probably about fifteen years ago). We talk a lot about how people ‘present’, particularly regarding race and gender. If someone feels a book resonated with her experience, she says, “I felt seen.” If not, she says, “It erased me.” Even the idea that the best moral value is to “be the best you that you can be” seems somehow superficial in the absence of detailed introspection about who you actually are and especially whether there is an objective standard of morality, which it seems to more or less assume doesn’t exist.

This led to thoughts about feeling that the (Western popular) culture around me is very superficial and it’s no wonder I don’t connect with it, leading to wondering whether frum (religious) Jewish culture is any better, because it’s possible to pray, study Torah, perform mitzvot (commandments) and acts of kindness and so on and still be superficial. The Kotzker Rebbe said, “Someone who studies Torah and isn’t moved by it, who sins and forgives himself, who prays today because he prayed yesterday – a completely wicked person is better than him!” It is, however, hard to tell if people are being superficial without knowing them in detail. Non-superficial people, pretty much by definition, can’t be identified from the outside, only by the depths of their souls.

I wondered what authenticity really is. I used to think it was about depth, being passionately into something worthwhile, but I wondered if it was also about breadth, having a balanced outlook and many different interests. If being into one thing, however positive it is in the abstract, is ultimately limiting (e.g. the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) super-focus on Talmud study ahead of things like being economically self-sufficient and serving the country you live in).

There is a saying from the Greek poet Archilochus that, “The fox knows many things; the hedgehog knows one big thing.” I used to think ideal people were foxes (Renaissance men), then I thought that they were hedgehogs (Romantics); now I wonder if they need to be a bit of both. I don’t know where I fall, but I want to be a bit of both.

However, I wonder if this argument moves us away from authenticity. I’m still reading Rabbi Samuel Lebens’ The Principles of Judaism. Today I saw the quote (in the context of what he terms “Extreme Hassidic Idealism,” namely the belief that the universe is just an idea in the mind of God, an idea that he perhaps surprisingly argues forcefully in favour of), “If God tells you that you’re a figment of his imagination, what would your prayer be? “Make it non-fictionally true that I’m a poignant character is your dream,” or “within the story of your dream, give me health, wealth and happiness”? Lebens seems to think everyone would naturally go for the second option, but I really don’t see it (this is assuming that poignancy is related to authenticity, which may be a leap). I’m not saying that I wouldn’t go for that option in the end, but I would really have to think about it, maybe trying to fudge it by saying that I need the latter to be the former (which is basically how Jewish prayer works, where we ask for God to inspire us to be good, but also to give us wisdom, health, wealth, etc. because they make it easier to be good).

Or is poignancy not the same of authenticity either? Maybe authenticity is something instinctive, something that vanishes if you overthink it. I’m not sure. I feel I haven’t really come to a conclusion here, after spending a whole day thinking about this.

***

Other than this, Shabbat was normal, or “new normal” (i.e. normal from the pandemic onwards). The rabbi led Ma’ariv (Evening Prayers) and started a circle dance (or “dance,” as the layout of the crowded room and, to be honest, the average age of the congregation means that it’s a slow shuffle around the room in a shape that’s more of a square than a circle, but holding hands, which I don’t like). He tried to drag me into it, which I felt uncomfortable with on multiple levels. I feel he should respect my feelings not to join in, which are mostly autistic with a little COVID fear. But I also wish I could be “normal” and get something out of bonding with people that way and entering into the moment and the emotion (back to authenticity, I guess).

Other than that I didn’t do much: some Torah study, mostly Yehoshua (Joshua) and Rabbi Michael Hattin’s book on it, a little Talmud and more of The Principles of Judaism, which I’m really enjoying and finding meaningful even if I don’t understand all of it. I read a little of The Coming of the Third Reich, but not much, as I fell asleep last night, in my clothes, about 11.30pm. I woke up at 1.00am and quickly changed into pyjamas and went to bed. I felt drowsy after lunch today and drank coffee to stay awake, but I still slept for nearly two hours in the afternoon. I fear I won’t sleep tonight, and also that I’m getting too old to be able to eat a heavy meal without needing to sleep it off.

More/Less Successful

I saw an advert today for an event at the LSJS where one of the presenters is someone I was at university with. I didn’t know her well, but she’s obviously successful as a barrister (lawyer), from the advert, as well as presenting at an institution I only attend as a student.

I thought I was over these feelings of inadequacy, but obviously I’m not, even if I feel I have a sort-of exemption from achieving things now I know I’m on the spectrum. Although that doesn’t feel like a good sort of exemption, more like someone saying, “Luftmentsch is special” in a very patronising tone of voice.

Then I saw in the Jewish Chronicle that (Orthodox rabbi, social commentator, civil rights activist and writer (and former Hevrian, which is how I know him/know of him)) Rabbi Shais Rishon (also known by his nom de plume of Ma Nishtana) came out a while back as autistic and polyamorous. Leaving aside the polyamorousness, which is is really his own business [1], the autism claim inspires uncomfortable feelings. When I see people who are more competent and successful than me coming out as autistic, a whole load of thoughts go through my head. First, are they ‘really’ autistic? Have they been diagnosed professionally? I feel bad for even thinking this, because I know I should support people on the spectrum, or who are moving towards diagnosis, but this is the first thought that comes into my head, sadly. The reason for this is because after this thought, I have more uncomfortable thoughts. I wonder if I should be as successful as they are. Note the “shoulding” and the implication of being required to be successful if someone else with autism is successful, even though autism manifests itself in different ways in each individual. I think on some level I also wonder if people are going to be less understanding of my issues and say that I should be like the successful autistic person. Sad to say, the ‘ideal’ high functioning autistic person from my point of view still has considerable struggles — but not too many, to make me feel like I’m the one whose faking it and making excuses for being useless.

[1] Actually, reading stuff about other people’s successful sexuality makes me feel inadequate too. E thinks I’m strong for being thirty-eight and still a virgin, but I’ve never seen it that way, mostly because, one or two occasions aside, it wasn’t a conscious choice, but something forced on me. I probably would have decided this way if it was a choice, but I can’t be sure, but ideally I would have been married ages ago and it certainly wouldn’t apply. But I guess this is something that I just have to deal with.

***

One thing I do want to do, which I thought about before I saw all of this, is to start a non-anonymous blog on The Times of Israel and/or The Jewish Weekly (two linked Jewish newspapers, one Israeli (although English language) and one British, both with prominent user blog sections) for my divrei Torah (Torah thoughts), just to put them out there and see if anything results. It probably won’t, but it’s worth trying. I won’t do it for a few weeks, though, as the current weeks at the end of Shemot (Exodus) and the beginning of Vayikra (Leviticus) are very ritual-based and hard to connect with from a modern perspective. I don’t want to start and then get stuck for things to write for several weeks.

***

I picked up another book from the free book box, this time Simon Sebag-Montefiore’s history book, Jerusalem: A Biography. I feel at the moment I am buying and acquiring books far faster than I’m reading them. I feel particularly guilty about the free book box, as I haven’t really donated anything other than a rather grubby history book, but have picked up quite a few books. I feel I should donate some things that I’m unlikely to read.

In Lieu of Ranting

I struggled to sleep last night, despite being exhausted. There’s definitely something about work nights at the moment that stops me sleeping. Am I unconsciously anxious?

I did get some sleep, more than on Sunday night, which was good, as I was in the office by myself most of the morning and had to do the Very Scary Task. This is becoming marginally less scary with time, but I still spent much of the day in a state of anxiety, and worried that one person I have to deal with is always annoyed with me. He doesn’t get angry, but patiently explains that he’s busy, or I’m not prepared properly, or whatever it is, which in some ways is more upsetting.

***

Yesterday I mentioned in a comment that in the years when my mental health was bad, I felt that all my problems would somehow resolve themselves at once, like falling dominoes, or not at all. The reality, of course, is that they do not resolve themselves all at once. The psychiatrist and psychotherapist Robin Skynner said that changing your life is like steering an oil tanker: you pull the steering wheel down as far as it will go and twenty minutes later it moves slightly to the right (I’m not sure if the metaphor was original to him).

My last year and a bit has been good. I got a job, got an autism diagnosis, broke up with someone who wasn’t right for me (and recognised that she wasn’t right for me first), got back together with E, got engaged to E and had my job made permanent. That’s quite a lot for about sixteen months. Yet somehow I want things to happen even faster. I doubt I could cope if they did go any faster.

***

I read a scary article about sensitivity readers today. If I hadn’t been at work, I would have ranted about it, but I was at work, and now I’m too tired, so no rant, and no lengthy quotations from Orwell about the totalitarian dangers of trying to recreate society on the basis of Rationality or Love. Certainly sensitivity readers come from the good place of wanting not to offend or stereotype people, but inevitably the people who volunteer for this type of work are likely to be people who value holding the right political opinions ahead of literary quality, and who have the mindset of approaching a text looking for all the ways they could find it offensive (and the hermeneutic of suspicion means that everything can be deemed offensive if you only look hard enough).

I get annoyed at the way Jews are presented in fiction, yet I’ve seen other Jews be trigger-happy, in my opinion, about finding offence in the presentation of Jews too. It’s a tightrope to walk and I can see that some writers want some help. And writers have always done research, asked people who have “lived experience” (I have mixed feelings about that phrase) for advice before applying their imagination to their research, with the caveat that no one person’s lived experience can speak for an entire community. The problem is when the tail wags the dog and the sensitivity reader starts making literary decisions.

I worry that my writing (the novel I’ve written and the ones I want to write) would fail the sensitivity reader test that might be applied to it if I find a publisher. I do not represent all Jews, or all autistic people, or all autistic Jews. That is, I would say, one of the main strengths of my novel: it is atypical. There is a saying in the autistic community that, “If you’ve met one autistic person, then you’ve met one autistic person.” Doubtless we could extend that to one black person, one lesbian, one transwoman and so on. No individual can speak for an entire community, and thinking they can is just another form of stereotyping.

I wrote about abuse without having been abused, from having listened to abuse survivors and read their accounts. Nevertheless, there was one element in that part of the story that I was concerned about, but kept in because I felt the plot development needed it. I’m pretty sure a sensitivity reader like the ones in the article would pick up on it as a negative trope and tell me to remove it, but I would only do that if I could think of a better way to achieve that plot development instead (I can’t), otherwise the book would suffer a literary deficit. Novels must function as novels and not just as a window into the life of another person, important though that is.

Given the type of stories I want to write, I find the notion of sensitivity readers troubling. David posted recently about being accused of antisemitism in his writing, even though he’s Jewish, and proudly so. Once we go down the route of inspecting everything forensically before publication, that’s where we’ll all end up. I could definitely see people seeing the books I want to write as somehow antisemitic, not to mention anti-many other things. It’s a product of wanting to tell bold stories about unusual people, to write things that have a unique identity and are not bland, inoffensive waffle. That’s before we even get into my identity as someone who is an Orthodox Jew, a Zionist and a small-c conservative (Sammy Davies Jr. used to talk about his multiple identity as a black person, a Puerto Rican and a Jew: “When I move into an area, I bury it!” I suspect my multiple identity would cause sensitivity readers to want to bury me, even before they read a word I have written). If nothing else, it seems like another major obstacle to get over to get my writing published and read.

Doing Things, Reading Books

Shabbat (the Sabbath) was pretty normal (for me, by recent standards). I went to shul (synagogue) on Friday, but not Saturday, and tried not to beat myself up about this. I got pretty overwhelmed (sensory overload) at shul on Friday and stayed that way through dinner. Mum and Dad were mostly talking about friends of theirs who I don’t really know so I didn’t join in the conversation and just felt uncomfortable from the overload. I fell asleep for an hour after dinner, which was not good, but was probably an inevitable reaction to the overload.

After Shabbat I helped my parents prepare for an annual online supper quiz for charity that they are hosting. Different houses host people and they send their answers in online. I have participated in the past, but, to stop people googling the answers, most of the questions are ‘mind-bender’ type puzzles that I’m not very good at and don’t enjoy, rather than the general knowledge questions that I am good at (my parents want me to go on the quiz show The Chase). I did at least manage to answer one question no one else could answer.

Instead, I listened to The Beatles (the Magical Mystery Tour quasi-album) and sorted through a lot of bank papers, work papers and other papers I needed to sort through. I thought it would take hours and hours, but fortunately it took about an hour and half to get through a fair chunk of it. I’ve still got one bulging folder to sort through, and a big pile of old bank statements and the like to shred. I did a bit of Torah study too, and a tiny bit of novel research, so I guess it was a busy evening. I hope I haven’t overdone things. I should go to bed, as it’s nearly 1am. I feel asleep after lunch, as well as sleeping late in the morning, which is probably why I don’t feel too tired.

I have Your Mother Should Know and Baby You’re a Rich Man by The Beatles stuck in my head now from the Magical Mystery Tour listening.

***

Lately I’ve started reading a couple of interesting Jewish books. The Principles of Judaism by (Rabbi Dr) Sam Lebens is an attempt to formulate the core doctrines of Orthodox Judaism according to the principles of analytical philosophy. He’s not proving Orthodox Judaism, but trying to show if Orthodox Judaism is correct, then what should its doctrines look like (he does apparently have a work in progress book for a more popular audience about why one might choose to be an Orthodox Jew).

I’m much more familiar with ‘Continental’ philosophers rather than ‘Anglo-American’ analytical ones, particularly regarding theology (e.g. Abraham Joshua Heschel, Emmanuel Levinas). The difference is bracing. I’m struggling at times, but I like the idea of testing each step in the chain of logic; I get fed up with philosophy that just seems to assert stuff (this was the problem I had with Franz Rosenzweig’s The Star of Redemption, although most of the time I couldn’t even work out what he was asserting; strangely, I ended up stealing his surname for the main character of my first novel, I don’t remember why).

(Full disclosure: back in 2020, when this book came out, I did ‘go’ to a Zoom lecture where Lebens spoke about the book, and he gave a discount code to attendees, which reduced the significant price tag a bit, although it was still an expensive buy, hence my procrastinating about getting it for eighteen months.)

***

The other book I’ve been reading, fiction this time, is The Idiom and the Oddity by Sam Benito, or “Sam Benito” as it is apparently a pseudonym for a (so far) anonymous Haredi Rosh Yeshivah (ultra-Orthodox rabbinical seminary principal). It’s a coming of age novel in 1950s Jewish Brooklyn, which is not unusual, but it’s also a becoming frum (religious Jewish) novel, which is unusual. I’m just over halfway through. The first half was mostly about the narrator’s non-frum upbringing and relatives, so I’m only just getting to the yeshivah bits.

So far it’s been interesting, but hard to get through, partly because it needs a good proof-edit. It seems to be self-published, which explains it. Commas are a particular problem, perhaps because of the lack of punctuation in the traditional Talmud page. It also has a dense web of references to the canon of Western literature and complex wordplay in the narration, which also makes it heavy-going in places. I also struggle with the use of baseball as a master-metaphor for so much of the story. I know almost nothing about baseball! It’s very clever, perhaps too much so. I am enjoying it, but it’s not an easy read despite the short length (well, short-page count. The narrow margins, another sign of self-publication, probably means that it’s longer than it looks).

After the Holiday; The Holiday Retrospect

I think the Talmud says it takes three days to recover from a journey (this had practical halakhic (legal) consequences in Talmudic times that don’t apply any more). A journey in Talmudic times was obviously likely to be longer, more difficult and more dangerous that the one I’ve got back from, but I still feel exhausted. To my surprise, I found the energy to go to shul (synagogue) on Friday night, albeit somewhat late. I sat at the back and didn’t talk to anyone after the service. I didn’t really want to socialise. I was probably exhausted at dinner and everything I said seemed to come out sounding more angry than I intended. I napped for an hour and a half after dinner and consequently couldn’t sleep at night. I might still be running on Eastern Standard Time instead of Greenwich Mean Time.

Today was mostly spent sleeping and doing Torah study again. I didn’t feel up to going to shul or shiur (religious class), which did not surprise me, as it’s such a struggle to go at the moment (post-COVID) even without jet lag and travel stress. After Shabbat, and helping to tidy up, I didn’t do much except plough through some emails and write this.

***

I argued with Dad about COVID restrictions. I said I might not wear a mask to shul in future, which he thought was risky. I said that I’m triple-vaxxed so COVID is unlikely to be like more than a bout of flu for me, and I accept the risk of catching flu every year. My sister currently has COVID and says it feels like a bad cold. To be honest, I vacillate on this. Sometimes I do feel that we have to accept COVID as being like flu and live with it; other times I worry about going to places with no masks. I think my father is similarly confused; he went to the theatre (masked) with Mum while I was away, which I am currently very reluctant to do, even though I travel on the Tube a couple of times a week. I find it hard to work out a consistent level of COVID safety that satisfies me, as so much depends on habit (I’m used to using the Tube in the pandemic by now; I’m not used to going to the theatre or cinema), media influence (if I’ve been reading articles for or against greater opening up) and peer pressure (including the negative peer pressure of masking to allow myself to look down on anti-maskers).

***

Over Shabbat I finished reading Talmudic Images, a series of short biographical essays on leading figures in the Talmud by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz that I bought and started reading in New York. I find it has given me more of a grasp of the chronology of the Talmud and how it fits together, particularly for the post-Mishnaic period. Perhaps strangely for someone on the spectrum, I find it easier to understand abstract arguments if I understand a little of the people proposing them. This approach was controversial with the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) world, though; one of the reasons why Rabbi Steinsaltz’s Talmud translation/commentary was rejected by that community was the (much shorter) biographical sketches he provided there of leading Talmudic figures. Rabbi Steinsaltz’s willingness to state that great rabbis had human flaws, and his suggestion that their personalities and worldviews might have influenced their halakhic (legal) reasoning are seen as incorrect and even immoral in the Haredi world, which prefers to see great rabbis as perfect saints operating in a universe of pure logic and reason.

***

Holiday: Tuesday 18 January: Coming to America

I arrived at the airport only to feel rather overwhelmed by the number of people and the confusion about what I had to do. Airports are not the most autism-friendly places. I managed to check in at the automated check in point and then drop off my luggage and get my COVID vaccination and test details checked. A baby in a parallel queue started waving to me; I waved back at her, but felt sad that she couldn’t see me smile because of my mask. As humans are social beings, and communication is through body language as much as speech, mask-wearing is not a cost-free option.

I got through security OK and eventually onto the plane. I was lucky enough to have a free seat next to me on both the way out and the way back, despite both planes being nearly full. This made me feel more comfortable and less crammed in. One of the air stewardesses looked and sounded exactly like Jodie Whittaker (the current Doctor Who), at least as far as I could tell with her mask on.

I did get a headache on the flight which approached being a migraine. It probably kicked in about three-quarters of the way through the flight. I’m not sure if I was dehydrated, as the amount of liquid they give you on an eight hour flight is minimal and I forgot to buy a bottle of water after clearing security, or if it’s a form of travel sickness, as I got a migraine last time I travelled abroad too. A quick internet search shows that aeroplane headaches are apparently a thing lots of people suffer. I hope this isn’t going to be a regular feature of air travel for me. I took some painkillers, but they didn’t help much.

I passed the time with reading The Psychology of Time Travel (very good science fiction mystery novel), listening to the Intimate Judaism podcast and, listening to episodes of The Goon Show and Round the Horne. When the headache became too bad to read I tried watching a wildlife documentary on the in-flight entertainment console, but it had a rather more sadistic focus on the brutal death of young chicks than I felt able to deal with in my headache-weakened state, so I gave up and watched The Simpsons. From what I’ve seen, recent episodes are not as funny as the early episodes, but they are still amusing compared with most comedy on TV.

I met E at the airport without any trouble, but my headache was worsened by the long taxi journey to the apartment I was renting, and I was glad I didn’t throw up in the cab. E and I were both driven quietly crazy by the cab’s audio system, which seemed to be playing the same half-dozen adverts over and over and over. When we arrived, we found the lockbox that was supposed to contain the apartment keys open and the keys missing. We were about to find a cafe where we could try to message the landlord when I remembered she had a cleaner and thought that she might be in there. I buzzed the apartment to find that, yes, the cleaner was running late and still up there.

I was more intimidated than I thought I would be by the loft bed (a sort of bunkbed for grown-ups), but someone had made the bed on a mattress on the floor instead, so I didn’t have to climb up every evening. I was also intimidated by the copper kettle, to be boiled on the gas stove. I was terrified of breaking it somehow, so simply refused to drink hot drinks in my apartment. I also realised that American toilet paper is awful, far too thin and flimsy.

When my headache felt better, E and I ventured out for dinner. We went to a kosher pizza restaurant relatively close by and ordered one pizza to take away for the two of us. I was worried if this would be enough, but when it arrived, it was big enough for two. We ate in my apartment, after which E left me so I could have an earlyish night.

Emotional Authenticity

I overslept massively today. It turns out that it’s not enough to ‘balance the books’ in terms of energy accounting; I also have to go to bed at a reasonable time to get up earlier! I stayed up too late procrastinating online and reducing an iTunes playlist with 400+ “favourite” songs down to a round 100, which wasn’t really a priority. I do sometimes get focused on these trivial, but compulsive, tasks, saying I’ll do it for ten minutes, but end up being sucked in to doing it for much longer, until it’s completed. I think I finally went to bed around 2am; getting very hungry late at night and needing to eat didn’t help either.

Today I got up well after noon and felt very drained. Of course, it could be that it wasn’t so much a result of last night as much as running a big energy deficit over the week and not paying it off over Friday and Saturday. Perhaps, just as I feel the government shouldn’t run a massive fiscal deficit, I should be more careful about my own energy deficits. But it’s hard when I have a looming, unmovable event (my trip to New York) that I need to prepare for, alongside work and other regular chores.

The other annoying thing when I got up was weighing myself for the first time in a while and discovering that I hadn’t lost any weight, despite trying (not always successfully) to cut back. It’s not exactly surprising, as I have, if anything, been exercising less lately, as a result of poor weather and general busyness, and I’m pretty sure my weight gain is medication-driven anyway. Still, I had hoped to shift a bit of weight before my trip, and especially before my wedding (which still hasn’t got a date, so there’s time there I guess, but I’m unlikely to succeed if it’s completely medication-driven).

My main task today was to book holiday insurance, which I did, although it took a while. I also went for a walk and did an hour of Torah study and skyped E, so it was not a wasted day, but I still feel overwhelmed at the thought of my trip, and the busy work days I’m likely to have this week in addition to getting ready.

***

I haven’t had time to work on my novels recently, either researching/writing the new one or submitting the old one. I’ve been too focused on relationship and travel stuff, which is fine, the novels can wait. Something came up recently that reinforced my desire to write the type of novels I’m trying to write.

Sadly, there has recently been another Haredi (ultra-Orthodox Jewish) abuse scandal. I won’t go into the details, because it’s not really relevant and is all over the internet anyway. It has produced a lot of outrage and debate online. One blog post I read used the abuse to make a more general point about the lack of emotional honesty in the Haredi world. “People pretend to feel things they do not feel, exaggerate feelings, especially when connected with spiritual matters, or quite frankly—are completely emotionally dissociated, such that all their actions stem from a place of artificiality… Many emotions are taboo—like anger, doubt, and pride. Which leads people to feel uncomfortable admitting that they have them.” The writer goes on to say that people present themselves as doing the right things and ignore the confusion of their inner lives, resulting in secrecy and a tendency to defend the image of the community and not acknowledge its complex reality, including abuse and corruption.

The blog post resonated with me for various reasons, partly because I have a religious mentality of trying to get to the truth of my beliefs and actions and see if I’m really doing things for the right reasons or not (this is not always healthy and can lead to overthinking and religious OCD, but at least avoids just telling myself that I’m doing what is expected). But also because, in my writing, to some extent here and especially in fiction, I want to get at the truth of my religious experience and try to represent that.

I’m not sure if I really succeeded with that in my first novel. I know I felt kind of forced by the nature of fiction to add some kind of epiphany for the main character that I felt rang a bit false. However, I didn’t know how to end it without that. Only later did I read Dara Horn’s essay on Jewish fiction in People Love Dead Jews, where she speaks about the idea of epiphany, ending, closure etc. in fiction being essentially Christian in origin, and about Yiddish and modern Hebrew novels often not having that closure and just stopping abruptly without the protagonist really having grown or changed. As an approach, it intrigues me, but I’m not sure I could write it, or accept it if I read it, or sell it to an agent or publisher.

I think in particular, there’s a lot of confusion and inner conflict and hypocrisy in the Haredi world around sex, of which abuse scandals are just a part, albeit the most troubling part. And there’s also a lot of confusion and inner conflict and hypocrisy in the secular Western world around sex, and, again, abuse scandals are just a part of that. I’m interested in what those two worldviews say to each other and what happens to people caught between the two of them. I suspect writing about this will not make me popular with either side.

(Of course, I need to actually write which I haven’t been doing recently…)

More Anxieties

I’ve been so focused on holiday stuff lately that Shabbat (the Sabbath) felt like something of a pause. I went to shul on Friday night and had some COVID anxiety. I might have had it anyway, but the windows and doors, which had usually been left open since COVID started, were mostly shut because of the cold, and that made it worse. I didn’t go back today, which may be COVID anxiety-related or that may be a way of rationalising something I wouldn’t do anyway, as I haven’t been to shul on Saturday afternoon much since the clocks went back. But I am worried of catching COVID and not being able to fly to the USA next week. Perhaps strangely, my biggest fear is getting asymptomatic COVID and not being able to go despite feeling fine, which somehow seems worse that not being able to go because I’m too ill to get out of bed.

I’m also wary of going to shul in case people ask when my wedding will be (this has already happened to me once, from someone who I thought would not do it). I guess the norm in the frum (religious Jewish) world is for a gap of six weeks to three or four months or so from engagement to wedding, although I admit this is partly guesswork on my part, as I haven’t known anyone frum enough to watch the process play out for them. The reality is that E and I are hoping to get married sometime this year (as in 2022, not Jewish year), but probably later rather than sooner. E has some anxiety issues that we want to work on first, to make sure they really are anxiety in the psychological sense and not misgivings about us, so we’re dealing with that in various ways, including my forthcoming trip. We probably won’t start organising the wedding until the spring. But I don’t really want to say that to people

I had some slight anxiety myself today, probably because I forgot to take my morning meds. The anxiety focused on my trip, mostly about practical things about my trip, particularly getting mugged. My mind associates New York with muggers, although I think statistically it is about as crime-free/crime-ridden as London these days. Possibly I’ve read too much Batman. I did get mugged in London several years ago, on a quiet suburban street, in broad daylight, round the corner from where I lived at the time, which probably is a lesson that the things we worry about are not exactly the things that happen. But mostly I was OK today, which is a good sign, showing that I’m not as dependent on my antidepressants as in the past.

E and I both have some COVID anxieties about restaurants too, and that came up today too. I have eaten in restaurants in the UK since COVID started, but not often and generally preferring those establishments that were not full or that allowed outside eating (before winter set in). I think E and I may have to play our eating out by ear, or eat a lot of takeaway, which would be a shame, but this is going to be an unusual trip and a learning curve in so many ways. The important thing for me is to see (and hug) E and make her feel less anxious, rather than to have an amazing holiday in terms of food and sightseeing.

I drank a cup of coffee at seudah shlishit (the Third Sabbath meal, although really a snack at this time of year, when Shabbat finishes a little after 5pm) and that stopped me falling asleep in the afternoon as I have done too much lately. I did some Talmud study instead. That said, it is 11.30pm and I am not in the slightest bit tired, so I probably still slept too much.

I’m still recording energy intake and expenditure to do some energy allocating/budgeting. I want to do it for a while longer before I make any decisions, and allocating numerical values to show how much various activities drain or energise me is a bit arbitrary, but already I’ve noticed massive energy deficits on weekdays, particularly on workdays, but even to some extent on other weekdays. No wonder I always feel tired. I feel I ‘balance the books’ more over Shabbat, but at a cost of limited shul attendance and perhaps less Torah study than I would have liked.

Reality Bombs

I woke up at midday feeling exhausted. I didn’t think I’d done much yesterday to get so tired, but apparently I did. I do need to see a doctor about this, although I’m sceptical of what they might say. Autistic fatigue is not well known in medical circles, and there isn’t much idea of what helps deal with it. I lay in bed for half an hour feeling too exhausted to move, even though I knew how late it was. I’m not entirely sure how I finally managed to get up. I went back to bed after breakfast too. I just felt wiped out. Even bentsching, saying the grace after meals after lunch, which I normally would rattle through, was an effort. Likewise, reading a short devar Torah that would normally take five minutes was a painful effort to finish.

It got so bad that mid-afternoon I went to bed for forty minutes. I don’t think I dozed, but lying with my eyes shut in a darkening (as it was after sunset), quiet room did help me. As that’s my usual cure for autistic overload, it does make it seem that that was the problem, even though I didn’t really do much at all yesterday to make me overloaded.

I felt a lot better afterwards, but I’d lost most of the day. I did about forty minutes of Torah study and read over an article of mine that the Jewish website is publishing next week (see below), but that was all that I managed before dinner. I ate with my parents, as we usually do on Mondays, then joined the National Autistic Society forum because I thought it might be a way of connecting with other autistic people and asking advice, looking for moral support etc. In particular, I want to know more about autistic fatigue and coping strategies.

I ran out of time for novel research, novel writing, devar Torah writing, more Torah study or tzitzit tying. Sigh. It sometimes feels like things go on the ‘to do’ list faster than I can take things off it.

One other thing I did do was my ironing, while watching an awful not favourite episode of Doctor Who (Journey’s End). I am vaguely amused by the way Russell T Davies arbitrarily introduces magic ‘science’ to handwave his way out of trouble, then has to introduce more magic science to explain why the first handwave won’t work again to add the danger back (in this case why the Doctor can’t extend the TARDIS forcefield to protect himself against Daleks as in The Parting of the Ways). There’s a lot of plot handwaving here too, and posing of fake moral dilemmas for the Doctor. Logopolis is also overrated and not very good, but at least it had a more thoughtful take on the end of the universe. (Although Logopolis and Journey’s End end are so different, it’s hard to believe they come from the same programme. In a sense, they don’t.) Also, I am so sick of “Rose is special”; the Doctor shouldn’t have a favourite companion (and if he did, it should be one the ones the fans hate, like Dodo or Adric).

It has left me wanting to watch proper original series Doctor Who, but I don’t want to do that without E. I guess I could watch something that would be low down my list of stories to show her because most people think it’s rubbish, but I secretly love it (The Space Museum, The Invasion of Time and Delta and the Bannermen are all good examples).

***

I did find a useful page on the National Autistic Society website. The idea of energy accounting sounds good, if I can find an effective way to do it (including dealing with work and not guilt-tripping myself into doing more than I have energy for). It’s similar to spoon theory. I do feel that autistic fatigue is my primary problem at the moment. I’m just tired so much of the time. I probably don’t relax ‘properly’ either. I try to push myself too hard to do ‘useful’ things (work, exercise, Torah study, prayer), then crash and do endless internet browsing/procrastination, which is not actually restoring, just time-wasting. Sometimes it makes things worse, if it’s stuff in the news upsetting me. I know just listening to a comedy radio show on my headphones the way home from work seems to have helped a lot with my after-work recovery.

***

The Jewish website I wrote for previously are running a revised version of an article about religious OCD that I wrote some years ago for a geek website. It’s revised to bring it up-to-date and stress that I’m not still suffering with OCD. Despite saying that I’m better, I’ve had some OCD anxiety about getting takeaway later this week, in case the food is not packaged correctly for kosher takeaway. It’s not by any means the level anxiety I had a few years ago, but it is a reminder that the OCD thoughts never fully go away and I always have to be on my guard against them. Truly, the price of freedom from OCD is eternal vigilance.

Pause and Release

I don’t celebrate Christmas, so this time of year can feel a bit weird, particularly when Chanukah is early and long-over, as it was this year. Everything is shut and there’s a sense of almost hibernation, of pause and release combined with hope and nervousness about next year. I’m trying to savour the pause from paid work, although, as ever I am trying to keep busy with my own stuff such as Torah study and devar Torah, novel research and novel writing (yes, even though I have a ton of research still to do, yesterday I decided I could contain myself no more and put pen to paper, or fingers to word processor, and started writing my second novel), so there isn’t so much of a break. Then again, I don’t do total inactivity well.

I wanted to go for a run today, but I had several headrushes just moving around at home, so I decided a run would not be sensible, particularly as it was so damp out and my parents weren’t around to come looking for me if I collapsed somewhere. I went for a walk instead and Skyped E.

I did some novel research. I wanted to do some novel writing too, but got caught up in research and ran out of time, but it’s all relevant. Although I do wonder if the posters on the Jewish pornography addicts forum I was looking at would feel uncomfortable if they knew I was reading for research, and for a novel they probably would not feel able to read (because not Haredi as well as about sex), but I guess there’s no way of telling.

The big thing this week for me is waiting to see what new COVID regulations get added in tomorrow, so I can see if I can visit E in New York in January. We both really want to spend some time together, so I’m hoping travel is still reasonably possible.

***

I’m still tired (obviously — I’ve been tired much of the time for twenty years) and getting headrushes and light-headedness (fairly new, and possibly two distinct sensations). I probably should try to see a doctor, but I don’t want that to clash with New York, if I can go. I’m also dreading hanging on the telephone for hours.

On a similarly medical note, I started to apply for my provisional driving licence. I’m pretty sure I can meet the sight requirements wearing my glasses, and probably without them, but I’m not sure, and I don’t know how to check without having another eye test (I last had one a year ago, so I’m not due for a while). The problem is, it looks like at the moment, because of COVID, I would have to wear a mask while having driving lessons, which means my glasses would steam up, so I wouldn’t wear them — and I’m not sure my eyesight would be good enough then. I could, of course, concentrate on the written exam first, which might be a better idea anyway, in terms of having free time for it.

In the end I decided I will phone the optician on Wednesday and see if they can tell me, from my records, which category I’m in (able to drive with or without glasses) before I apply for the provisional licence. In the meantime, I should think about the written test. Although frankly the whole idea of learning to drive terrifies me. Like many people on the autism spectrum, I am bad at judging distance and speed and I’m also terrified of being overwhelmed or distracted (both very possible with autism) and having an accident. But I promised E that I would at least try to learn and certainly it makes sense for one of us to learn how to drive, and at this stage I’m the more obvious choice.

***

E and I are back to watching Doctor Who new series, season four. I watched The Stolen Earth today. I could write a negative review, but it’s easier just to point out that writer/showrunner Russell T Davies and I have radically different understandings of plot logic, verisimilitude, dialogue, humour, emotional drama, Doctor Who, David Tennant’s acting range and pretty much everything else and it’s a wonder that I liked any of his stuff at all. Sadly, from this stage until he leaves (at the end of a year of special episodes), everything is written or co-written by Davies, turning up all the parts of his writing that annoy me and forgetting about the stuff I liked. And now he’s coming back in two years. Oh, well. I’ve long-since realised that I don’t have much connection with contemporary TV Doctor Who.

***

As a couple of people have commented about them, I should probably explain about the password-protected posts that I’ve posted lately. I wrote them thinking I might post them for a small audience, but would see what E thought first, but once she had seen them, I didn’t feel a pressing urge to share them more widely. I don’t know if I’ll continue doing this. If I do want to share, I have the email addresses of the people I would want to share with, so I’ll let them know the password.

Super-Neurotypicals and Functional Autistics

I had to do the Very Scary Task today at work. It’s not so bad when I’m in the office, as J is around if I get stuck, but I still feel that I don’t 100% know what I’m doing. I do still find the phone calls draining and a bit scary. I also had to do another task that involved checking and editing details back and forth on two spreadsheet tabs and compared with a print out with teeny tiny print on it. It was not fun, and I have more to do on that on Wednesday (Wednesday rather than Thursday this week).

I was pretty exhausted/burnt out/punch drunk/whatever it is after work. There was a long wait for dinner, so I did some novel research, but by the time I got to dinner, I was too exhausted to answer Mum and Dad’s small talk questions in anything other than monosyllables. E thinks my parents are sort of super-neurotypicals, meaning more social, chatty and small talk-ey than most neurotypical people, let alone autistics. That may be true (Mum is an extrovert; Dad self-describes as an introvert, and he does need alone time, but I think he may be an ambivert or a very social, social introvert). It certainly feels like family dinners on Mondays tend to fall into a pattern of Dad throwing questions at me and me not knowing what to say, or having the energy to say it. There are autistic issues too e.g. Dad asked if the Tube was busy and I wasn’t sure what to say without a parameter of what a ‘normal’ Tube day is (pre- or post-COVID? Rush hour or off-peak?).

I would have liked to have done some more Torah study this evening, but my energy went into research instead.

***

I’m not sure that asking my therapist for an extra session tomorrow was such a good idea. To be fair, she chose to give it to me even though she is on holiday; I just said (honestly) that I couldn’t remember if she was on holiday this week or next week. I just feel that the anxiety I was feeling over the weekend has subsided somewhat.

***

I read this article on The Lehrhaus (Orthodox Jewish site, much more rigorous and intellectual than most), reading a couple of Talmudic narratives through an autistic lens (the author is on the spectrum). Even before I read it, I was excited to find something in the frum (religious Jewish) world about autism. I noticed that the author, Rabbanit Dr Shayne, gave her email in the biography section and decided I would email, less because I had anything to say about the article and more to reach out to another frum autistic. Working out what to say was hard, though. The author seems so confident and comfortable in her autistic identity, not to mention her rabbinical and secular educational qualifications. I often feel like some kind of awkward thing, barely functional in practical, educational, religious and social areas and barely recognisable as the excellent student I once was. She talks about the way autism “informs and deepens” our relationships with Judaism, but to me it feels like a fairly impenetrable barrier to ‘real’ Judaism.

***

OK, crashing now, TV…

The Three Jewish Stories

I overslept again. I made a bit of an effort to get up when my alarm went off at 9.30am, but I failed and fell asleep for another three hours. I don’t like sleeping so much, and being so exhausted so much of the time when awake, but my sleep pattern is really resistant to change, after twenty years of this, and the winter is worse than the summer, because I just go into hibernate mode. I feel like I’m already trying to do a lot (relationship; paid work, albeit part-time; trying to build a career writing articles and novels; exercise; Torah study; chores) even without factoring in planning a wedding. It’s a real balancing act and I feel like I’m wobbling a lot.

The difficult thing is that I’ve finally got some kind of self-esteem about who I am and what I should be doing — and now I feel like I can’t keep all the balls in the air. I feel I should be doing paid work, but also working on articles and novels that, realistically, no one else is going to be writing (I mean, not from the same perspective and sometimes not at all). This means I need to read (other novels, non-fiction for research and Jewish texts if I’m writing about Judaism) and think about things. And I feel more than anything that I should be with E, that we are soulmates. We will need money! Which means working at least part-time. And everyone needs to exercise and do housework. It’s hard to balance everything. I feel like, if I’m fulfilling my mission on earth, shouldn’t it be a bit easier? I mean, it should at least seem feasible. I can’t streamline my life down to just E and writing, because those things are interleaved with so many other things.

I looked at some old divrei Torah to see if any could be turned into website articles that I might sell, but most were not usable. I went for a walk and tried to think up some article ideas, but still struggled. My divrei Torah are mostly based on reading the weekly Torah portion and looking at traditional commentaries on it, whereas Jewish website articles tend to take ideas in the news or popular culture and find some inspirational Jewish connection. I feel like I need the security or framework of a text, whereas they seem to prefer articles only tangentially related to a text, presumably to avoid being off-putting to less religious people.

The only idea I had on the walk was about why I don’t like inspirational stories about supposed miracles. I had a friend who wrote a lot about the miracles in his life that made him frum (religious), but he currently no longer identifies as Orthodox or observant. That struck me as salient initially, but on reflection, I think it’s mean of me to draw too close a connection between the two as I don’t really know his story any more and I suspect there were a lot of other factors. I do think religious observance needs to based on more than miracles if it’s to last long-term, but I probably shouldn’t hang that idea on his story. So now I’ve talked myself out of the one idea I had in half an hour of thinking.

I had another idea from a day or two ago that I went off too. I’m trying to read the Jewish websites I’d like to pitch too, at least some of their articles, and hoping that will generate some thoughts, but so far I haven’t had much. I don’t know how so many of their writers can see events in the news or in their lives and expand them into a 700 word article with a neat moral point. I find it hard, and not just because my brain tends to be suspicious of neat moral points.

***

It’s probably too early to tell, after sending to just six agents, but I wonder if I used too much Hebrew in my novel. I wrote it, particularly the first-person bits, the way frum Jews speak, English peppered with bits of Hebrew and Yiddish (sometimes referred to as Yinglish or Yeshivish). I think I’ve said here that it would seem wrong to write about a character from broadly my religious background saying “On the Sabbath, I prayed at the synagogue” when he or she would clearly say “On Shabbat [or Shabbos], I davened at shul.” But maybe this is too off-putting for non-Jewish readers. I did get a non-Jewish editor friend to look at the first chapter, and she said it was fine from that point of view, but I think she thought that chapter introduced all the words I would be using, whereas there are a lot of new ones throughout the book. I think I’ve got eighty or a hundred words and phrases in the glossary, so it probably is a lot. I do feel daunted by the thought of a total rewrite, but maybe I need to grasp the nettle. But I’ll try it with some more agents first before taking drastic action.

I do need to find a way of submitting to more agents, though, as so far I’ve only managed six. E thinks I’m perfectionist about meeting the requirements regarding layout of submissions and even the text of my enquiry email and that is probably true.

***

I feel like there are only three types of story the mainstream world wants to tell about frum Jews:

  1. The Leaving Story: how the main character leaves traditional Judaism (e.g. Unorthodox);
  2. The Marriage Story: how the main character avoids an arranged marriage to someone s/he doesn’t like and/or gets married to someone his/her parents disapprove of, often not Jewish (e.g. Fiddler on the Roof) — this can be neatly combined with The Leaving Story so that the hero leaves traditional Judaism in order to marry someone deemed inappropriate;
  3. The Holocaust Story: any story set in the Holocaust (see this article by Amy Newman Smith on the banality of much Holocaust fiction and especially Holocaust romances, which apparently are really a thing).

A while back I saw a YouTube video by a frum artist studying book writing and illustration. Her coursework was an illustrated novel about an ‘older single’ in the frum community. She depicted the problems he has finding his soulmate. When she showed her professors, they all wanted to know when the hero would leave Orthodoxy. They assumed if he couldn’t get married and was increasingly uncomfortable in the frum world, he would leave. It was with difficulty that she persuaded them that it wasn’t that type of story. It is possible that any story about frum Jews for a wider audience would have to drift into apologetics just to get the audience to accept the premise of being frum in contemporary society. This depresses me.

I feel there is definitely an opening for more books with frum characters, although I have no idea who will read them, outside of the Modern Orthodox and moderate Haredi communities (the very Haredi communities won’t read anything from outside the community). I don’t know if non-frum Jews or non-Jews will read them. Still, I think they would be a good idea, and I would like to write them, if I can find the time. Today I got stuck on working on articles and going to therapy and doing the ironing; I started to do some novel research, but ran out of time and energy on a work night, which kind of proves my point.