Reading Lists

Work was OK today. I was very tired and could hardly do any Torah study on the train in, but I was OK once I got to work and drank a second cup of coffee. The morning was mostly spent sorting out paperwork. I don’t mind doing this, although it’s fairly routine. I’d say it’s not challenging, except I seem to find almost everything challenging these days. Anyway, it left part of my brain free to be miserable (see below).

The afternoon was mostly spent trying to phone people to get them to pay their membership fees. It was not always easy. To my secret relief, a lot of phones weren’t answered, or went to number not available.

***

I feel that I haven’t done much reading this year. This is not true, although arguably I have not done much recreational reading. I’ve been doing quite a bit of Torah study/reading. I tend to do Torah study on the way to work or volunteering. I would normally do recreational reading on the way home, but J gives me a lift home from work, which becomes dead time in the car, as these days I can’t read in the car without getting motion sick, plus it would be rude to read and, anyway, J has the radio on so I wouldn’t be able to concentrate.

A while back I decided to alternate fiction reading with non-fiction, not least because I had accumulated a big pile of non-fiction books from charity shops and library withdrawals. Worse, these were books I was often not that fussed about, but owning them meant I wasn’t buying or reading non-fiction I might like more. So I started adding in more non-fiction to get through the backlog and maybe buy books I might like more, but now I worry that my writing will not be so good if I read less fiction, especially as, on a page-by-page basis, I read fiction faster than non-fiction, both because it’s easier and because I’m more likely to pick up a fiction book than a non-fiction one. So one non-fiction book probably displaces more than one novel. Then again, having a wide general knowledge is also good for a writer.

I also have some classics to read or re-read (on the grounds now I’m older and will understand them better) which I never get around to reading either. In the last few years (decades, if I’m honest, since I was depressed), they have often seemed too daunting. I’m not sure why. When I was very depressed it was understandable that I didn’t want to read “heavy” books, whether fiction or non-fiction (although periodically I did read them, and sometimes enjoyed them), but now I’m just tired so much of the time, it’s still hard to read heavy-going things.

Lately I’ve come to realise that although the book I’m working on is mainstream and somewhat literary fiction, I’m never going to be a “serious” author. I want to write science fiction, fantasy and maybe horror hybrids with Jewish themes and characters, partly for my own amusement and hopefully to amuse others, partly to get Jewish ideas out there, to Jews who don’t know their own heritage and non-Jews who see Judaism as weird, or more likely just don’t see it at all.

So I feel I need to be reading quality popular fiction. This isn’t such a problem, as I already read a lot of it. My problem is more that I tend to read particular authors in great depth rather than read around particular genres. There are quite a lot of authors on my bookshelves where I have all, or at least a significant amount, of their work, often piled up vertically to save space. I also re-read books I’ve already read. On the other hand, while I’ve always been a fan of what I once pompously referred to as “non-mimetic fiction” (science fiction, fantasy, magic realism, horror… anything that doesn’t aim at reflecting the world just as it is), I often feel like I’ve never explored any genre in great depth. I’ve always been quite a small-c conservative reader, afraid of trying new things in case I don’t like them, or simply because I’m autistic and love to turn to the same things again and again to explore them in depth. I feel this is not ideal for an aspiring author. I want to write a Jewish fantasy/horror/time-travel book, and I feel I need to do a lot of research reading fantasy and horror (and Jewish books, I guess) as well as the more obvious research on the relevant time period.

This was taken six years ago, in our old house, on my old bookshelves, but it gives you some idea both of space issues and variety of content

***

I’m nervous of writing the next bit, because I can see myself being attacked from two sides, but I have been thinking about it and feeling miserable about it all day. There’s a video going around on social media showing Israeli youth on a march shouting “Death to Arabs!” I’m not sure why this upset me so much. And I think it was shame, sadness and maybe even anxiety I felt, not righteous indignation and superiority (which seems to be the main thing people feel when they criticise Israel). I wasn’t naive enough to think that there’s no racism in Israel before this, so it wasn’t shock per se. I’m aware of the internal “Jew vs. Arab” violence inside Israel during the war a few weeks ago, which had not really happened in previous conflicts. I’m also aware of a Kahanist (Jewish Fascist) party getting a member elected to the Knesset in the most recent elections. I suppose I should say that I was worried about the chillul hashem (desecration of God’s name — making it look like God supports violence) or about pushing off the coming of the Messiah again (and with the Three Weeks around the corner), but I wasn’t thinking it through that much, I just felt emotionally sick and fixated on returning to it again and again all morning (and never has Mishlei’s/Proverbs‘ simile of the dog returning to its vomit seemed more apposite).

It fed into something I’ve been feeling for a while, but haven’t spoken aloud, the feeling that Israel was manipulated into the last war by Hamas. To clarify, Hamas started and was morally responsible for the war, but Israeli politics created the situation where Hamas thought it was worth firing at Israel and where it thought it could get away with it. Once the rockets started flying, Israel had a right and duty to defend its citizens; my — not anger, but astonishment and fear — is how a civil court case about occupancy that didn’t even involve the government and that had been drifting through the courts for years led suddenly to war. It is hard to avoid blaming Binyamin Netanyahu, if not directly, then at least indirectly for causing the constitutional crisis that led to politicians desperately scrabbling around trying to put together some kind of government to avoid the fifth election in two years, because of Netanyahu’s refusal to accept defeat and step down. Because I can’t see Hamas chancing their luck in this way without that context, thinking things were confused enough in Israel that they might get away without much in the way of reprisals.

As an editorial in The Times of Israel said towards the end of the war, in Hamas has been thinking strategically, while Israel has merely been thinking tactically, not just now, but for years. The war enabled Hamas to position itself (and not Fatah) as the leader of the Palestinians, and of “resistance” to Israel generally. It let Hamas show its value as a proxy army to its funders in Iran. It won a propaganda war in the Islamic world and in the West (actually two propaganda wars, with very different messages: to the West they presented themselves as passive victims, but to the Islamic world even the dead were martyrs and mujahideen — warriors on jihad). It may well have sabotaged a potential Israeli-Saudi peace deal, which could have improved Israel’s strategic position. All Israel managed to do was destroy some of Hamas’ arms, which will doubtless be restocked soon by the Iranian government.

Contrary to most people who berate Israel’s position, I don’t have a magic solution. Years ago, the political scientist Shlomo Avineri suggested that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is insoluble and the focus should be on de-escalation, not solution, as per other long-running conflicts. Some problems are insoluble, at least within the terms available. Hamas is not interested in compromise, but is not powerful enough to destroy Israel. Israel is neither willing nor interested in genocide (contrary to what its enemies say). This being the case, neither side can win, and all that can be done is kick the can down the road a bit further with sporadic outbursts of violence until something game-changing happens (like an Iranian nuclear weapon, God forbid).

I guess I sound depressed. Well, lately I am depressed, not clinically, but when I look at the world. There is an idea in Judaism that the Messiah (if you don’t believe in a Messiah, think of utopia) will come when everyone is absolutely good, or when everyone is absolutely terrible. In the first instance he comes not so much as a reward as the culmination of the individual narratives of redemption. In the latter, God gets so fed up with mankind’s misbehaviour that He intervenes to pull the plug on history before we wipe ourselves out. I feel that we are not absolutely good (obviously!), but the world isn’t absolutely terrible either. Despite excitable media coverage, I can’t see the world today, or the position of the Jews in it, as anything like as bad as the 30s and the 40s. Or even later (think of Cold War flashpoints like the Berlin Airlift or the Cuban Missile Crisis where a nuclear war seemed likely). I wonder how long the world can go on being awful, but not absolutely awful.

Ugh. I feel I’m just rambling, and I’m afraid what the comments will say, so I’ll wrap this up. Genetic testing shows that the ethnic group most closely related to the Jews is (you guessed it) the Palestinians. Some people think the Palestinians are the descendants of Jews who weren’t exiled from the land of Israel by the Romans, but hung around and, when the Arabs invaded a number of centuries later, converted to Islam and forgot their Jewish past. The similarities between Judaism and Islam are manifold, much more so than the more well-known similarities between Judaism and Christianity. The conflict seems just pointless. I can’t do very much about that, but since the war I’ve been reading Islam by Alfred Guillaume (tying this back to my reading) to try to understand more. To be honest, I probably already knew a lot more about Islam than most Jews, having studied some Islamic history at university. I want to read the Qu’ran (I do actually have a copy), although I think a person can misunderstand a lot by reading ancient religious texts without context and interpretation. But I want to understand more, even if I can’t actually do anything. I’ve said before htat, contrary to the “You can change the world!” message endlessly repeated in the media, I don’t think individuals can do very much at all to change the world, but I think we can aim to improve our understanding and empathy and gain some kind of personal redemption for ourselves and those around us.

Obsessive Thoughts, and Finding Your Mission

I had volunteering this morning. For some reason we were preparing fewer bags of food this week. The number varies from week to week (I’m not entirely sure why), but not usually this dramatically. There were also some leftover bags of non-perishable food, which further reduced the number we needed to get ready. The result was that I was finished before 10.00am, rather than between 10.30am and 11.00am as usual. I think there were other tasks I might have been able to help with, but I was not unhappy to leave earlier, as days when I do both volunteering and therapy are tiring and I was glad of the extra time to recover and do other things.

In the afternoon I tried to create a revised version of my Doctor Who book on Lulu.com so I could sell it at a lower price, but the system is still misbehaving, telling me I need to select a book size even though I already have done so. I emailed the helpdesk again, although I did not find their previous response particularly helpful. They emailed back to say that I can’t publish a new version of my book without starting from scratch (which admittedly wouldn’t be a huge problem, but still isn’t right) because since I published the book, they’ve changed the site. This is a bug, apparently. Hmm.

I worked on my novel for a little under an hour. I procrastinated, I didn’t make much progress and I’m not happy with what I did write, but I wrote something, which I guess is the important thing, just to keep hammering away at it.

***

Therapy was good. I spoke about my obsessive pure O OCD-type thoughts, which have got a bit worse in the last few days. I sometimes get intrusive violent thoughts. This leads to obsessive worrying that I could become violent or a murderer. I tend to worry in particular when I read news stories about rapists and serial killers and see similarities with myself (usually that they are loners with few/no relationships and friendships). I know it isn’t likely that I would hurt someone (I’m terrified of hurting people even verbally and unintentionally, let alone physically and intentionally), but it’s easy to get sucked into “How can I know for sure that I wouldn’t do that?”-type of thoughts, or even to think that if I have intrusive violent thoughts for long enough, I’ll somehow act on them by default. The thing to do with these thoughts is just not to pay any attention to them, although it’s very hard not listening to a voice in your head saying that if you aren’t careful, you’ll turn into Jack the Ripper.

In therapy today I realised that these thoughts aren’t all that different from the “Am I a bad person?” thoughts I get. It’s a more extreme form of “bad,” but the thought itself is not that different in nature. And I realised that I haven’t really got very far trying to prove to myself that I’m not a bad person (or a serial killer), so maybe I should just try not to respond to these thoughts. I noticed that I got to shul (synagogue) last week without really thinking about it much, rather than spending ages thinking that I had to go and worrying that I wouldn’t make it, so maybe ignoring obsessive thoughts is the way to go.

***

As well as Lulu.com, I’m angry at victim-blaming antisemitism, but what can you do? There’s a lot more of them than there are of us.

***

Looking for a particular quote for my devar Torah, I was looking at Rabbi Lord Sacks’ z”tl book To Heal a Fractured World. It ends with a two page list of reflections on an ethical life. A lot of this resonated with thoughts I’ve been having recently about trying to work out what I’m here on Earth for, what I can actually do with my life. I’m not going to quote all of it, but here is some of it:

I make no claims to wisdom, but this I have learned:

  • that each of us is here for a purpose;
  • that discerning that purpose takes time and honesty, knowledge of ourselves and knowledge of the world, but it is there to be discovered…
  • that where what we want to do meets what needs to be done, that is where God wants us to be;
  • that even the smallest good deed can change someone’s life…
  • that those who spend at least part of their lives in service of others are the most fulfilled and happiest people I know…
  • that each situation in which we find ourselves did not happen by accident: we are here, now, in this place, among these people, in these circumstances, so that we can do the act or say the word that will heal one of the fractures in the world…
  • that it is not the most wealthy or powerful or successful or self-important who make the greatest difference or engender the greatest love;
  • that pain and loneliness are forms of energy that can be transformed if we turn them outward, using them to recognize and redeem someone else’s pain or loneliness…
  • that we can make a difference, and it is only by making a difference that we redeem a life, lifting it from mere existence and endowing it with glory;
  • and that if we listen carefully enough — and listening is an art that requires long training and much humility — we will hear the voice of God in the human heart telling us that there is work to do and that he needs us.

***

E and I have been watching the 2005 season of Doctor Who, the first of the revived run. It’s strange to think that I was doing my undergraduate finals when these episodes were broadcast. I didn’t have a TV at Oxford, and the episodes were broadcast on Shabbat, so I couldn’t get myself invited to someone else’s room/house, so I only saw episodes one to three around the time of original transmission; the rest my parents taped for me and I binge-watched them after finals. It seems like yesterday. It also seems a lifetime ago.

It’s also strange that “new” Who has very nearly been around for more of my life than the original series. In fact, as I was eight when I discovered Doctor Who, for me the new Who era is longer than the era when I was a fan, but Doctor Who was not on TV regularly, even though that feels like the default for me.

***

I finished reading Moonraker (SPOILERS ahead!). I think prose James Bond is rather better than film Bond. Maybe that’s a bit unfair, as they are trying to do somewhat different things, although it takes a while to realise that. Prose Bond is not by any means realistic, but his actions have consequences; he’s not a superhero like film Bond. Here, Bond gets badly hurt and ends up in hospital. His detonation of an atomic bomb in the North Sea (to avoid it destroying London) leads to hundreds dead and missing and M worrying about the fall out, in all senses of the term. The “girl,” Gala Brand, is a capable undercover policewoman and she, rather than Bond, works out what the villain’s plan is and how to stop it. Most surprising of all, not only does Bond not have any real amorous encounters (one kiss is about it), Brand turns out to be engaged and chooses not to spend a month with Bond on the continent, but to get married to her fiance instead. I was impressed.

Noise Pollution

Well, I made it to shul (synagogue) over Shabbat (the Sabbath), for Friday evening, Saturday morning and Saturday afternoon. I was there for the start of Shacharit (Morning Prayers) on Saturday morning and even helped set up (we were praying outside as the weather was good so that we didn’t have to wear masks). In the afternoon I followed parts of the shiur (Talmud class), although we covered more ground than I expected and went on to material I hadn’t prepared for, not that preparation always helps me follow any better. Also, even though I haven’t made many close friends at shul, I feel that quite a lot of people there know my name and will say “Good Shabbos” (typical Shabbat greeting) to me and seem pleased to see me, so I think on some level I’m accepted there.

I also went for a walk, did some extra Torah study, played (and lost) two games of Rummikub with my parents and did a little bit of recreational reading (still the James Bond novel Moonraker). I’ve kind of accepted that the way I live my Shabbatot, there isn’t much time for recreational reading. I don’t seem to have much time for recreational reading in general at the moment, because I’m prioritising Torah study, because I don’t travel home from work on the Tube (which used to be a reading time) and because I find I’m often exhausted in the evening and watch TV instead of reading. I grab brief moments to read a few pages over lunch or before bed.

I got to bed at 1.00am, which is late, but not so surprising when Shabbat didn’t finish until about 10.30pm. I avoided turning on my computer after Shabbat, which is what can keep me up until stupid o’clock in the morning, that and watching TV (I watched an episode of The Simpsons, but nothing longer).

I woke up late today (11.00am), but didn’t feel fatigued or burnt out, so I’m counting this as a success.

***

Today was good. I did some Torah study, went for a run (not brilliant stamina, but it was hot), did a little over half an hour of work on my novel despite an exercise headache and the distraction of loud music from outside (see below). Then I had a virtual lecture/tour about the Medieval Bible/Talmud commentator Rashi. It was interesting, but I had to shut all the windows to shut out the noise so that I could hear, which made me feel ill from the heat (or more ill, as I already had an exercise headache). Afterwards I wrote some emails. I worry that frustration from the noise made me somewhat abrupt in the emails. That and the fact that I felt I was running out of time this evening and just needed to stop procrastinating and write the emails. In particular, there was one to a friend who seems to be drifting towards divorce judging from her recent emails and I don’t really know what to say to her, or how serious her concerns are — is she just telling me to let off steam or is it a “near the end of her tether” situation? I’m not good at reading these things.

I did a lot, but felt like I was running out of time, and felt ill from the exercise headache and noise. I’m pretty exhausted now, and frustrated and ill from various factors (including the continuing noise) and in a weird way, I feel I did both too much and too little today, being hampered by the noise and the virtual tour being at a slightly awkward time, as well as my propensity for getting exercise headaches. I had a Skype call with E too, but felt that I wasn’t fully engaged, partly from the late hour and the noise outside.

***

I realised that a disproportionate amount of my divrei Torah (Torah thoughts) deal with the question of individuality and the relationship between the individual and society. It seems a fundamental question to me in a religion which believes in the sanctity of the individual as the image of God, but also in the collective as the source of religious authority and locus of religious life. I had an idea over Shabbat of a triangular map of Jewish (or general?) religious life with God at the top and the individual and the community in the bottom corners. Sometimes the community tries to absorb the individual, or the individual tries to leave the community, or to leave God, resulting in the triangle getting bent out of shape. But I’m not sure where I’m going with this.

***

We had a neighbour who was playing really loud music today, either in the garden or with the windows open. They had some kind of party going on, with a lot of crowd noise too by the late afternoon. I could hear it with the windows shut (through double glazing), and I don’t want to shut the windows in this weather. During the afternoon I had to have the windows shut, fan going and still could hear the bass loud enough to stop me thinking clearly. It’s not an immediate neighbour, but someone down the street and in the street behind us, so it’s hard to work out who it is to complain, not that I would have the confidence to complain (just as we never complained about our Haredi neighbours’ illegal minyan in the lockdown). I tend to be sensitive to noise at the best of times. In our old house, we had a neighbour who would hold a charity concert in his garden once a year and would always warn us in advance, so I’m a bit annoyed. Things seem to have stopped now, but I worry it will happen again. I think we’ve had excessive noise in the past. We say we’ll complain, but we never do. I guess that’s very English.

Hidden Joy

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strings Attached

I went to bed late and got up early for volunteering at the Jewish food bank, yet somehow seemed to function better this morning than on many later ones. Do I need a reason to get up, as volunteering provided today? Then again, I had a reason to get up early last Saturday (shul/synagogue) and I overslept. I feel I need to think carefully about my sleep pattern and maybe my sleep hygiene. I know I often turn my clock radio alarm off in my sleep; I wonder if I should put it across the room, although it’s not a tactic that has worked well for me in the past. I also have a problem on Shabbat, as I won’t use the clock radio alarm (a) in case I turn it off and (b) because if I don’t turn it off, as per Shabbat, it will sound all day and drive us all insane. I use my phone’s timer, but the alarm sound is pretty puny and easy to sleep through.

I got to volunteering a bit early, so I hung around outside and tried to make an appointment to see the doctor, as I am supposed to do regarding my Asperger’s diagnosis. I phoned at 8.28am and was told the surgery was not open for appointments. I tried again at 8.30am and was told I was behind more than thirty people in the phone queue. I appreciate there is a pandemic, but it does seem more difficult than it should be. Dad suggested to try again on my way to work tomorrow. It is possible to set the system to let you hang up and it will phone you back when you get near the front of the queue. I didn’t do that today as I knew the garage at volunteering has poor reception and I doubted I would be able to hear the call, but I could try doing it tomorrow, assuming I’m not underground on the way to work when they call.

Volunteering was good, but pretty exhausting. I do still feel that I end up looking stupid or annoying the organisers with too many “What should I do now? We’ve run out of crackers, what should I do?”-type questions that the other volunteers don’t ask. But I guess I’m doing it for free, so they can’t expect too much of me.

Afterwards I took my tallit to be repaired, but they wanted to charge me £13 for the new tzitzit strings and £20 for having them tied, which is about half the price of a new tallit in total. I bought the strings and had another go at tying them myself, hoping the new, and hence non-twisted, strings would be better than the reused ones. It seemed to go OK, although it took two attempts and I always worry with something like this that I’m doing something wrong. (Incidentally, there’s a video on how to tie tzitzit here.)

While I was in the Judaica bookshop, I used the £15 I had from having a completed loyalty card (literally a physical piece of cardboard with stamps on it, very Old School) to buy Faith Shattered and Restored: Judaism in the Postmodern Age by Rabbi Shagar. I have heard good things about Rav Shagar seriously addressing postmodern thought and applying it to Orthodox Judaism. I just hope I can understand it. Philosophy doesn’t always come easy to me. Rabbi Shagar (actually an acronym for his name, Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg) was supposed to be one of few Orthodox Jewish thinkers addressing postmodern thought until his death in 2007.

I spent some time in the afternoon working on my novel and was pleased to make progress, even if it only amounted to a few hundred words. Just getting back in the habit of writing it is good. I did some Torah study too, not so much in terms of time, but difficult Mishnah and Gemarah. I spoke to E too, so it was quite a busy day overall.

***

I’ve seen a part-time assistant school librarian job advertised. I don’t really want to apply for it, but I vaguely feel that I should. I think I need to speak to my parents about what type of jobs they are expecting me to apply for at the moment, if any (given that I am working).

***

I’ve been thinking about antisemitism all day again. When Rabbi Lord Sacks died last year, one of his daughters reflected that he would throw weighty questions at her while waiting for the kettle to boil and the example she gave was about how to end antisemitism. Part of me seems to think that I can succeed where Rabbi Sacks did not, even if I have to boil the kettle a few times. I think endlessly about antisemitism and have done for years, as if I can somehow succeed where generations of Jews have failed and end antisemitism, and bring peace to the Middle East as an encore.

I don’t really have the bravery to write about my thoughts. I doubt that they are particularly profound anyway. Judging by Tablet Magazine and The Times of Israel blogs, if they are in any way representative, lots of Jews, in Israel and the diaspora, are feeling “unsafe” right now and have been feeling that for quite a while, from before the latest round of Middle East violence. I don’t know how we change anything though. As Rabbi Sacks said elsewhere, Jews can’t end antisemitism. Only non-Jews can do that. But it feels like we can’t even communicate our fears without being mocked and attacked.

Knots

The day started badly with a number of minor irritants, the worse of which was somehow tearing off one of the fringes on my tallit (prayer shawl) – each corner is supposed to have four strings looped and knotted five times leaving eight strings hanging at the end, and I think I must have stood on one that was trailing and moved and — snap!

Work was OK, but was cut short today as J needed to go to a funeral (a distant relative). I think the work for me to do comes in to the office periodically through the day, so he can’t just give me a list of stuff to do in the morning, he has to keep giving things to me during the day as they appear or as he works on them, so when he leaves, I leave.

I got home early because of this, but spent a lot of time trying to tie the strings from an old pair of tzitzit (small prayer shawl undershirt) onto the tallit. I just got in a mess. A rabbi showed me how to tie tzitzit once and it seemed easy enough under his supervision, but every time I try to do it, I just get in a mess. It’s possible the problem is that I try to tie strings that have been used before and are all twisted and kinked. I think it’s going to be easier just to find a Judaica shop that will repair it, whatever the cost. I think I like the idea of being someone who can tie tzitzit more than the reality. Like, “Look, I’m frum! I can’t understand Talmud, I’m too socially anxious to lead services any more, I never kept up my leining, but I can tie tzitzit!”

Between the tzitzit and spending a lot of time today brooding about antisemitism and what (little) I can do about it (see below) I feel I wasted the day; it’s another day when I haven’t really sat down to do any work on my novel(s). Possibly I should have done that instead of going for a walk this evening; I just wanted to get out while the weather was good and exercise.

***

I’m still thinking a lot about Israel and the recent explosion of antisemitism, which is continuing even though the latest Gaza conflict is over. So many Jewish newspaper articles and blogs say that Jews must all speak up to defend ourselves in the court of public opinion. I feel like a coward, but I know if I write, I will get into arguments, and I don’t feel strong enough to cope with that. I’ve done it before and I’ve been hurt without changing anyone’s mind significantly (although I can’t deny that I had some effect). I’m told I’m a good writer, but I’ve never felt myself to be a good polemicist, and polemic is what is apparently wanted. Polemic makes me sick, and if I see anything too strident, I take the opposite position, even if it’s not something I would normally agree with. Even pro-Israel polemic makes me uncomfortable. I think Israel has a right to defend itself, but it isn’t beyond reproach. But there is no room for nuance any more.

Part of me wants to be a fearless truth-teller like George Orwell (one of my literary heroes, despite our political differences), but I also want to be liked, or at least not to be called a Nazi, and these things do not go together. I get upset about things and want to shout out, but then I worry about the consequences and stay quiet. It’s not a good combination. Orwell said that writers should be politically engaged, but shouldn’t tread the party line (any party line), but then Orwell never got involved in a flame war on Twitter.

Most of the Jewish blogs I read have not said much about this situation, and I wonder if this is wise or not. I feel that the number of Jews in the world is so small, and the negative stereotypes so embedded after two thousand years or more, that it is impossible to be heard. Some antisemitic pop stars and “influencers” apparently have more followers on Twitter or Instagram than the total number of Jews in the whole world, several times over, so it is hard to see how a few Jews can reach so many people. This is defeatist of me. If Judaism is about anything, it is about the ability of a small number of people to change the world. But just posting the I-word makes me anxious that I’m going to get abusive comments. Writers like Moshe Koppel and Ze’ev Maghen say that the correct response to antisemitism is to be a more engaged Jew, which is true, but hard to do when people are calling you a Nazi.

It would be nice to claim that my Jewish life is all quirky rituals like tying knots in tzitzit string, happy days like Shabbat and Yom Tov, and the search for meaning in prayer and Torah study, but it is also worry about my family and friends (literal and metaphorical) in Israel, it’s stuff getting shouted at me in the street, people throwing pennies at me, it’s wondering whether I should take my kippah off in public (as my uncle suggested yesterday). It’s worrying whether one day I’ll be one of those “Religious [read: Visible*] Jew Stabbed in the Street” news stories that never seem to trouble the non-Jewish press too much. It’s wondering whether I’m more likely to be attacked by skinheads or Guardian readers (spoiler warning: I think there are more Guardian readers than skinheads in the UK). It’s wondering where the next Holocaust will be: Israel, Europe or the US, or all at once.

*An article in one Jewish paper (before the latest violence) wondered how much the rate of antisemitic hate crime would rise if all Jews dressed like Orthodox Jews — in other words, if more secular Jews were visibly identifiable as Jews to non-Jews.

Eating Out; and Self-Esteem

I got up late again, burnt out and depressed, the latter worsened by reading stuff about antisemitism and about Islamism. I feel that there isn’t much I can do about this and all the other bad stuff in the world. This is in diametric opposition to the “You can change the world!” attitude on social media and elsewhere. I feel the history of the last hundred years or so indicates that small groups can indeed change the world, but mostly if they’re well-organised and ruthless, like the Nazis and the Bolsheviks. I’m not sure that nice, contemplative, middle of the road people can do much.

Over lunch I watched a video about having a “growth mindset” rather than a “fixed mindset.” I was wary of this, because, like a lot of social psychology research, it’s questionable to say the least. Still, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to learn to think more flexibly, but the video didn’t really help with that. It was very basic and introductory and didn’t tell me a lot that I hadn’t heard from other places. I suppose we’re supposed to buy the presenter’s books to find out more.

I went for a walk and picked up my repeat prescription, and worked on my devar Torah for the week. It’s OK, but I think the ending needs work, although I needed a break from it after nearly an hour. Hopefully I’ll finish it off tomorrow or Thursday. I filled in an over-complicated contact form at Lulu.com to ask for help changing the price on my self-published non-fiction Doctor Who book. I want to change the price, which should be a simple matter, but the website says I need to finish the design stage before I can revise prices and I don’t know why it is seeing the design as unfinished. I got an automatic reply saying I don’t need an ISBN to sell my book on Lulu.com, which had nothing to do with my question! So I had to reply again, pasting my original complaint in. I worked a little bit on my (second) novel, but didn’t have much time before having to go out for dinner.

We (me, my parents, my sister and my brother-in-law) went to a restaurant for dinner. I hadn’t been out to eat in well over a year. The food was good (kosher Chinese). I was slightly worried about the lack of vegetarian choice. I only eat meat on Shabbat and Yom Tov (Sabbaths and festivals). Because of the prohibition of serving meat and dairy at the same meal, kosher restaurants serving meat have limited vegetarian options (no cheese or milk), plus culturally vegetarianism isn’t a big thing in frum (religious Jewish) circles. So there were only three vegetarian main dishes on the menu (which is actually two dishes more than this restaurant had last time I went there!) and it turned out that the one I wanted wasn’t available. Instead, I picked the “lettuce wrap” which turned out not to be any kind of wrap, but fried mixed vegetables on a bed of lettuce. It was good and more filling than I had expected, especially when combined with various side dishes (we all ordered one different side dish each and then shared them between us). I had ordered some vegetarian spring rolls too, as I wasn’t sure the lettuce would fill me up, but they were unnecessary, not that they went to waste. Dessert was good too, chocolate volcano.

However, the mask hygiene in the restaurant was not good. One waitress wore her mask properly; unfortunately one male waiter failed to cover his nose (is it purely ornamental?) and the other didn’t wear a mask at all. The chef came outside the kitchen at one point without a mask too. So that made me feel a little ill at ease. Kosher restaurants have a reputation for poor service; I hope we’re not going to have to add poor mask hygiene to that.

This also reminds me of a disgusting experience at a pizza restaurant in Tel Aviv years ago, where you could see into the kitchen from the restaurant and I saw the chef open a bag of pizza cheese by biting into it!

***

I’m still getting positive feedback for my article on having Asperger’s in the Orthodox community. It’s reassuring to have my writing praised, but some of the feedback that stays with me most strongly is from friends here on the blog who don’t know me in real life and said that I look normal or handsome in the photos on the article. I don’t think I have hugely awful body image (despite having low self-esteem about other parts of myself), but I’ve never thought of myself as particularly good-looking either, perhaps a legacy of terrible adolescent acne, and my unfortunate romantic history, or lack of it. I didn’t even go out on a date until I was twenty-seven. I assumed women simply weren’t attracted to me, but in retrospect I simply didn’t meet enough women and was too nervous and awkward when I did meet them.

***

On the subject of self-esteem, I’m re-reading Leaping Souls: Rabbi Menachem Mendel and the Spirit of Kotzk by Chaim Feinberg on the Kotzker Rebbe. I thought this passage (pp. 72-73), although long, was worth quoting in full (punctuation emended slightly for clarity):

One must never confuse lowness, coarse degradation, with the blessed light of humility. Ayin, spiritual self-effacement, does not mean spiritual emptiness. It is rather the rasha, the wicked man, who inwardly wallows in his own worthlessness:

Reb Mendel said: “Not only one who hates his fellow man is called a wicked person — one who hates himself is also called wicked.”

The good Jew, however, draws his esteem from God:

“It is proper for a man to believe that his deeds are important and beautiful in the eyes of God, for through this belief he will prepare more and more good deeds. But precisely the opposite is true if he believes he is far-off from God, that his deeds are unimportant to Him because they are not totally pure. Heaven forbid, but such a notion can lead to a total self-distancing from God, and this is exactly the advice of the evil inclination, the yetzer hara. About such a state of mind, King Solomon has said: ‘Do not be overly wicked.'”

Books and Thoughts

I couldn’t sleep last night and ended up only getting about five hours of sleep. I think I was excited from speaking to E! I somehow managed to get up more or less on time for work. Work was pretty dull. I spent a lot of time this morning searching through old records (computerised and ledgers) looking for information and then in the afternoon looking through old papers to see which could be thrown away. Not terribly interesting, but it pays, and lets me feel less guilty about spending time writing, not that I’ve worked on either novel much lately.

I decided not to go to virtual depression group tonight, partly as I was tired and didn’t have the energy — Zoom calls are draining, as is trying to be a good listener to others in distress. Not going was supposed to let me catch up on some chores after I ran out of time for them yesterday, and take some of the pressure off the next few days, which are busy, although the reality was that the chores took longer than expected and I was very tired, so I didn’t achieve much.

I received a letter from my GP’s surgery saying I should phone to discuss the results of my autism assessment. I hope this will be a chance to talk about being referred for autism-adapted CBT. However, I have to navigate the awful phone switchboard, which involves phoning at 8.30am for an appointment and spending ages waiting to get through. I don’t usually get up for 8.30am on non-work days! I can’t face doing it tomorrow; maybe Friday or next Tuesday. I also hope I can speak to my usual GP. Technically, the surgery doesn’t let you have your ‘own’ GP, you have to take the first appointment available. But, if I can find the confidence, I will try to say that I have one GP I’ve seen a lot about my autism and mental health issues and I really would like to speak to him. The worst that can happen is they say no.

I wanted to go for a walk and do some more Torah study after dinner, but I felt exhausted and it was raining heavily so I was not inclined to force myself to walk. I guess I feel lately that I can achieve some of the things I want in my life (relationship, work, writing, exercise, religious study, prayer), but not all of them, and that’s without going down the route of marriage and children (yet — E and I are both clear that we want these if we can cope with them). I guess I worry that I’ll never be able to balance all these things or that I’ll have to completely write some things out of my life if I want to be successful at others. Maybe no one can balance everything, and other people are just better bluffers than I am.

I somehow managed to do some more Torah study despite being rather tired. That done, I needed to fill the hours until bed. I’m about to start the fifth and final season of Babylon 5 in my re-watch. I don’t think season five is quite as bad as “everyone” says, but it is the weakest season by far, and the first half is definitely worse than the second. So I wasn’t in a hurry to watch it. The book I started reading at lunch is a serious introductory book on Islam and I didn’t feel up to returning to it. Fortunately, the second-hand James Bond omnibus book I ordered arrived today. (Although I feel that a “James Bond omnibus” is technically the double-decker Roger Moore drove in a car chase in Live and Let Die.) The omnibus book is slightly frustrating, as it contains the first two books of the loose “Blofeld” trilogy, but not the third, which is a slightly weird decision, plus the books are not printed in order of internal chronology, even though there is some continuity across the books. Still, I got five books I haven’t read (plus a sixth I’ve read, but didn’t own) for £5, so I can’t really complain. Very good condition too. I read for a while, until I felt too tired to carry on.

***

Lately I’ve been feeling a desire to post something deeper here than my usual daily updates. When things were not good for me, I felt I was expressing deep emotions and self-analysis, but now things are (thankfully) a lot better, I feel I don’t have much to say. Part of me would like to write about the things I think about, about antisemitism or Israel or Jewish theology, not in the abstract (I don’t want this to be a politics blog or a theology blog), but how my understanding of them affects my inner thoughts, feelings and worldview (if that isn’t terribly millennial and self-obsessed). However, I never seem to get around to it. I’m scared of writing anything about antisemitism or Israel, however bland and inoffensive, because just sticking those words in a post brings out the haters. Jewish theology has other problems. Partly it’s that I’m not sure that anyone would be interested, partly that there would be so much to explain just to make it intelligible to the lay reader that I’d write hundreds of words before even getting to what I want to say, plus I’m conscious that I have no formal training in theology, in either its rational philosophical or mystical kabbalistic forms, and I’m hardly an expert on Jewish thought. I would fear that I would be talking rubbish. So I stay quiet and bottle a lot of thoughts and feelings up inside of me out of fear and, I suppose, laziness.

Fitting In at Shul

I didn’t write yesterday because I didn’t want to go online after Shabbat (the Sabbath), because I know that once I do that, I’ll be on the computer for hours, and it was already late (Shabbat didn’t finish until nearly 10.00pm). I’ll be trying to do that each week over the summer, assuming my willpower holds.

Shabbat was good, although I overslept as usual. I was hoping to get up earlier. I slept in the afternoon too which I also did not want to do and which probably had consequences later.

As an experiment, I wore a black suede kippah (skullcap) instead of my usual white crochet one, black suede kippot being considered less ‘modern’ that white crochet ones (there is a kind of etiquette about these things). No one at shul (synagogue) said anything or seemed to notice, which I guess is good. My Mum noticed. I’m not sure which kippah I will wear in the future. To be honest, the white one is probably too big and not a good fit for me anyway (although the fashion with white crochet kippot is to wear very big ones), so I might stick with the black one from that point of view.

At shul (synagogue) for Minchah (Afternoon Prayer) I was given an aliyah (called to do something in the service) again, this time actually called to make the blessings over the Torah reading. I was nervous and self-conscious, as I always am these when given an aliyah, but I think I did OK, aside from dropping my siddur (prayer book).

The last few weeks I’ve been wondering if I’m more accepted at shul than I thought I was. People do say Good Shabbos” to me and seem pleased to see me. I find it hard to read these situations, but it seems more positive than I previously thought.

The Talmud shiur (religious class) afterwards was taken by a guest rabbi, as it was last week. I’m not sure why, as our rabbi was around. I’m kind of hoping this new rabbi will take the class permanently, as I seem to follow him better. I’m not sure why. I think he goes somewhat slower and recaps more. Also, he seems to keep the shiur more focused. In a shiur, people often ask questions that take us from the point. In particular, practical halakhah (Jewish law) is often unclear in the Talmudic discussion and, in practice, sometimes what we do is not what the Talmud says we should do. This sometimes prompts questions that take us far from the topic at hand, and this rabbi seems to answer those quickly and stick with the discussion in the Talmud where other rabbis get diverted. This helps me focus a lot.

As I mentioned, I didn’t switch my laptop on after Shabbat. I did look on my phone to see how many emails and blogs I had to read, but I didn’t start reading them all. I went to bed before 1.00am, which for a late spring/summer Shabbat was good going. I woke up at 5.00am and couldn’t get back to sleep. I davened the whole of Shacharit (prayed the whole of the Morning Service), which I hadn’t done for ages, and went through my emails and blog posts. Then I got tired and lay down for a bit, and fell asleep for three hours. So in the end I had a normal amount of sleep, just interrupted. I lost my early start, but I did daven Shacharit at the right time for once.

I didn’t do a lot else today. I went for a run, despite having a stomach ache. It was OK, but at one point I felt flushed and had to stop for a few seconds until it passed. It felt like the headrush of standing up too fast, so I wonder if it’s a blood pressure thing (my blood pressure tends to be a bit low). The thing is, this has happened a couple of times recently, never for more than a few seconds, but usually when I’m not exerting myself particularly strongly e.g. going for a walk. I’m not too worried about it, but might mention it to a doctor at some point.

Other than that, the main thing today was promoting my article on Asperger’s/high functioning autism in the Orthodox Jewish community which is now up (I’m not linking to it from here as it has my real name on it). So far the feedback I’ve had from friends and family has been positive, although I haven’t dared to look at the comments on the article yet.

Actually, there was one other thing, but I don’t want to talk about it just yet… hopefully in a few days (trying not to be a tease, but also not to neglect something pretty important).

Gimme Some Truth

Warning: this is rather more rambling and pity partyish than usual. Please don’t feel obliged to read.

Nietzsche wrote about mental illness being “fierce dogs in the cellar.” I think they’ve been barking a lot more in the last few days and I don’t know why. I was practically in tears while davening Shacharit (saying Morning Prayers) again today, and again at lunch, and a third time in the afternoon when doing Torah study, and I still don’t know why. I don’t know why specifically Shacharit and not the other prayers either; Shacharit is the least logical service for me to cry in, as I’m invariably late and rushing through just a few prayers before the final deadline. It would make more sense if I was in tears in the other services where I say the whole thing and at least try to have some kavannah (concentration/mindfulness).

I was actually doing OK early today at trying to stay in the present and not worry and obsess about the future, but over the day I drifted into one of my “I’m Fouled Up Beyond All Hope” moods.

***

Early today I felt that I should just rip up my novel and my Asperger’s article and start over, because neither of them have truth in them. Perhaps truth is the main thing distinguishing a good writer from a hack. George Orwell wrote about this, I think. Not some transcendent religious or philosophical truth, but simply the truth of someone’s experiences. I think my blog sometimes has truth, but not my other writing.

I thought of a particular saying from the Kotzker Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, nineteenth century Hasidic leader) “The Evil Urge has found a new method, in which it succeeds; no longer must it do battle day and night. It toils only to take from you the delicate chord of truth in your heart, and afterwards it lets you do as you will: to work, to study, to pray… for without the point of truth, whatever you do is no longer important to the Evil Urge.” (The Sayings of Menahem Mendel of Kotsk [sic] edited by Simcha Raz, ellipsis in original) I think it’s a long time since I’ve had the “point of truth” in my writing, my study or my prayer.

I don’t think I’m that truthful in friendships and relationships either. By truthful I don’t mean ‘not lying’ (I’m not dishonest), but being fully open and ‘myself.’ I’m quite truthful with my parents, but I generally only talk about the dark stuff when it gets unbearable. I’m not always truthful with my sister. I can joke around with her, and my parents, but not always talk about the dark stuff. With most of my friends, I’m not really myself and not open at all. I would want to be truthful and to be myself in a relationship, but I don’t know if I could. I think I did with E. There were things that didn’t work in that relationship, but that aspect did work. Sometimes I wonder if I made the right decision in breaking up, although it was already an on/off relationship, so clearly something wasn’t working. I wasn’t able to be truthful with PIMOJ at all, which is why the relationship failed, although to be fair she expected me to be truthful without being the same herself. I was truthful with my first girlfriend, but, again, she wasn’t with me, and again, it contributed to the failure of the relationship.

I was going to say I’m truthful with my therapist and my rabbi mentor, but even then I’m not entirely. I’m fairly truthful with my rabbi mentor, probably more than with other people. I try to be truthful with God. I don’t know how much I succeed. I can’t hide anything from God, although a lot of things seem too trivial to mention to him, even though they upset me a lot. I don’t joke with Him much, but it hardly seems important to do so with Him.

***

On a more positive note, when I went to look up that quote from the Kotzker, I found a bookmark pointing to the page that had this quote that I had forgotten about: “We have not found in any place in the Torah that a person is commanded to be a scholar and erudite in all the chambers of the Torah. For the purpose of study is not to be a scholar, but to be a good man, to do what is good and to act beneficently towards your fellow.” This is pretty much entirely against the prevailing worldview of the Haredi world, or at least the Yeshivish part of it, which sees becoming a great scholar as the only purpose of Judaism, at least for men. It reminds me of the man who boasted to the Kotzker Rebbe that he had been through the whole Talmud three times. “Yes, but how many times has the Talmud been through you?” the Rebbe responded.

Of course, it’s entirely open to question whether I’m a good man who does what is good and acts beneficently towards my fellow, but it’s a more viable target for me than going through the Talmud three times.

***

I did eventually sit down to work on my article. I read some published articles about Asperger’s and learning disabilities on Aish as research and I think my article isn’t hugely wide of the mark, although there are still many reasons it might be rejected. I spent about an hour reading and re-writing. I think tomorrow I will actually write the pitch and see what happens. I tend to be less successful at pitching things than writing them, I think.

I went for a walk after that. It was very windy, the wind blowing clouds of blossom around so that it felt like walking through snow or confetti.

I spent half an hour researching my devar Torah (Torah thought), using the English translations on Sefaria more than I would like (Sefaria translations are often crowdsourced and sometimes inaccurate). I have an idea of what topic to write about, but not really what to say, which probably means it’s going to be another week where I feel like I’m bluffing my way through it. I think writing a devar Torah each week is a good exercise for multiple reasons, but some weeks I do feel a bit of a fraud (truth again). I doubt I could do it if I worked full-time.

***

It gets REALLY pity partyish from here. Honestly, I won’t mind if you don’t read it.

I wish I knew how to cope with being celibate. The internet is monumentally unhelpful about this. After more than twenty years of celibacy since I hit adolescence, I feel at my wits’ end. I emailed Intimate Judaism about this, but the sex therapist there didn’t respond to that aspect of the email, only saying she would try to set me up with a shadchan (matchmaker) who works with people with special needs in the UK. She said she has asked her colleagues and is waiting for an answer. I am doubtful, as I have made similar inquires in the past. Even if she finds one, there is also the realistic likelihood of me being too modern for such a shadchan and her clientele. And I still need help to cope with celibacy in the interim, especially as I’m not sure if I should go to a shadchan while only working two days a week and financially insecure, not to mention being emotionally fragile.

(I should probably add in terms of the special needs shadchan that when I tried looking for one a few years ago, my father asked the wife of the then-assistant rabbi at his shul (synagogue) if she knew anyone who could help someone with depression get married — at that stage, depression seemed to be the main issue as I wasn’t diagnosed on the spectrum. She said “Rebbetzin D” who I never got around to phoning. There always seemed to be good reasons (it was nearly Pesach; I found a relationship independently; I went to a different shadchan that seemed more promising and so on), but I suppose unconsciously I was socially anxious and unsure whether she could help or even how I would start the conversation as Rebbetzin D isn’t a shadchan and I was wary of what “help” she might be able to provide and how she would respond to being phoned out of the blue by a stranger. I suppose I could try to contact her now, although it’s three or four years down the line, and, as I said, I don’t know if I should be looking to get married in my current financial situation.)

I need touch sometimes. I live with my parents, so I can still get hugs, although physical contact with my parents can still be awkward for autistic reasons and reasons based on my past. I do long to be with someone I really connect with again. That wouldn’t necessarily be a partner, but could be a close friend; nevertheless, since adolescence, I’ve only had such close friendships with women, which makes them awkward when they are platonic, because usually I want them to be more, but the other person doesn’t, or because the other person isn’t Jewish or isn’t religious enough for me, which is also awkward. I have dated women less religious than me, at my rabbi mentor’s encouragement, but I don’t know how viable such a relationship would be in the long-term. Certainly it put strains on those relationships which contributed to their ending.

Above all, I want to learn how to deal with sexual and romantic desire when single from a halakhic (Jewish law) point of view. I don’t think I have a particularly high sex drive, but I do have a greater desire for love and sex when depressed and lonely — in other words, when marriage seems most distant from me. This is rather cruel. I can’t say that I live my life entirely halakhically regarding sex. I just try to do the best I can, but I don’t know whether I could do better if someone guided me, or if I had more willpower or more control over my thoughts and emotions (autistic emotional regulation is not always the best). And I don’t know what God thinks about me, whether He thinks I’m at least trying to keep halakhah or if He thinks that frankly I could do better and wants to punish me. Or is punishing me. To be honest, while my low self-esteem is rooted in negative childhood experiences like bullying (among other things) the constant level of sexual guilt since I was thirteen and hit puberty probably hasn’t helped much. The Orthodox world’s only answer to this is early marriage, which doesn’t really work when you’re thirty-seven.

(And I should say that although I feel hugely guilty about my sexuality, I’ve still never had anything approaching actual intercourse, which somehow makes the whole thing seem even more pathetic.)

It feels like the most realistic option for me is to learn to be happy alone and celibate, but everyone just says, “No, you can get married,” without doing anything practical to advance that outcome. It’s weird, because I’m used to people saying that you should be “happy with your lot” rather than endlessly daydream about some eventuality that might never come to pass. Yet everyone encourages me to stay positive about finding a mate even after so many years and so many rejections. It’s like everyone was suggesting I should solve my financial problems by trying to win the lottery when I want to find a job.

I feel that what I want more than anything is for God to tell me that He thinks I’m a good person (God, not human beings who don’t know me and might lie to make me feel better). But He won’t, not in this world.

Dating to the Right and Left

I should say that “right” and “left” here refer to more or less traditionalist Jewish rather than politically right and left.

Yesterday my therapist encouraged me to stay in the present, to think about being able to succeed in my current job rather than worrying about my future career and to try to build a connection with someone rather than worrying about marriage. This is easier said than done. She suggested I “check in” with myself every few hours (I decided on every four hours) to see if I am staying in the present. I am not doing very well. Worries about marriage kept surfacing.

Early this morning I was thinking about a Jewish idea — possibly a popular spirituality idea rather than something in major primary sources; certainly I don’t think I’ve seen it there, but I’ve seen it on popular sites like Aish.com — that you have everything you need for your mission on earth. This is problematic when you think about people who lack the basics of life (historically, many important rabbis lived in extreme poverty at one point in their lives e.g. Hillel, Rabbi Akiva and others). Fortunately, my parents are supporting me financially, but, if I have everything I need, why do I feel such a need to give and receive love? It is a basic human need and I can’t pretend I don’t feel it. Maybe I need the need, but still, I don’t know what to do with it.

On the way to work, I was overtaken by hordes of Haredi (ultra-Orthodox Jewish) primary school-aged girls on scooters, going to school. I see them every time I go to work. I found myself wondering where they would be in ten years time, how many would still be in the Haredi community and how many would be married. Statistically speaking, the answer to both questions is “Most of them.” The retention rate is much higher in the Haredi world than the Modern Orthodox one, and early marriage is the norm.

Thinking about the Haredi community and its higher retention rate, I found myself wondering if I should be looking for a moderate Haredi spouse. After all, I go to a moderate Haredi shul (synagogue) and have some friends there. I can, apparently, “pass” on a basic level, even if I’m not a complete match for the ideology, and even if I worry a lot about being caught out. I feel a bit like I may not get the choice, as there are not many frum (religious) young people in the Modern Orthodox (United Synagogue) community in the UK, while the Haredi community is booming, and is younger (thanks to a high birth rate and high retention rate). There is also a tendency in my family for the men to marry “up” religiously and the women to marry “down” i.e. more religious women marrying less religious men. My previous girlfriends have mostly been less religious. Maybe that’s where I’ve been going wrong?

That would involve being set up on dates with Haredi women. The sex therapist from Intimate Judaism who responded to my email the other day offered to try to find a shadchan (matchmaker) specialising in people with “issues” for me. I’m not sure that she’s going to be able to do so, as I tried to find one myself some years ago, without success. But if she does manage it, I would imagine they would be more to the Haredi end of the spectrum, as shidduch dating (arranged dating) is more common there. So, again, that might push me in that direction.

Nevertheless, there is an issue here, which is my reliance on Doctor Who and other British TV science fiction as a coping mechanism as an autistic special interest and a coping mechanism for life stress. This is a bit weird even in the Modern Orthodox world (my Modern Orthodox rabbi mentor doesn’t even have a TV) and in the Haredi world TV is viewed with suspicion and even people who have one tend to keep it hidden. Being so into a TV programme (bear in mind I have even written and self-published a book on Doctor Who, for love rather than money) — well, it’s weird and geeky even in the secular world, let alone the Haredi world. I fear it would be a deal-breaker for many Haredi women and maybe even some Modern Orthodox ones.

I thought about the other obstacle I have to frum marriage, the fact I haven’t been to yeshiva (rabbinical seminary). Realistically, not going was probably the right decision for me, although if I hadn’t been in the depths of despair, a gap year after university instead of before might have worked. I worry about not being attractive to frum women by not being able to study Talmud, and potentially teach it to my children.

My parents think that I’m a good person and should therefore find a good wife, sooner or later. I’m not strongly convinced that I’m a good person (I think it’s more that lots of other people are subpar, and society is OK with that), but I worry that the type of woman I’m looking for will be looking for a good Jew rather than a good person, and that I’m not a good Jew because of my problems studying Talmud. I don’t think a frum woman would be faced with a choice between me and a bad person, but between me and an equally good person who can also study Talmud. This pushes me to date more non-frum women who wouldn’t care about Talmud studying ability, despite the problems I’ve had there. Then again, I could also say that a woman (frum or otherwise) would be faced with a choice between me and an equally good person who doesn’t have a shedload of other “issues.”

Which brings me back to the “special needs” shadchan. I haven’t tried this, but I worry that I would not be set up with the right sort of women. My one brief attempt at dating with a shadchan ended badly when, possibly because I had mentioned my depression and autism, she set me up with someone with learning disabilities who simply was not on my intellectual level. Admittedly, it didn’t help that there was zero chemistry between us, but I do wonder what would happen if I go down this route. Asperger’s is frustrating as it can involve being extremely intelligent and functional in academic areas, but absolutely not functional in basic social skills, which doesn’t make finding a compatible partner any easier.

So, for a day when I was supposed to be in the present and not worrying about my future, I was worrying a lot about my future. It didn’t help that work was quite slow. The morning was OK, but the afternoon was largely spent on fairly mindless work that left my brain free to worry about things. Being at work probably didn’t help, as I couldn’t really write things down to get them out of my brain until I got home. I’m going to post now, rather than before I get ready for bed as I usually do, to see if that helps me get rid of the thoughts and lets me sit in the present more this evening.

Also, the Talmud thing is a big issue for me (you may have noticed…), not just with dating, but with self-esteem and social conformity generally, and I don’t know what to do about it. Actually studying Talmud (the obvious solution) doesn’t work as I struggle so much with it. I’ve tried all kinds of different ways: different types of classes, chevruta (one-to-one) study, private study, all without success (actually, I did have some success with the LSJS class, but that was years ago and it hasn’t run since). I’ve been told it’s not an issue and I shouldn’t worry about it, but it seems like a big thing to me. I don’t know how to fit in comfortably to the frum community, whether looking for friends, community or a wife, without it. But my brain seems not to have been designed for Talmud study and now lacks the plasticity to learn.

Fear of Living, Fear of Dying

We have local elections next week. An election for the Mayor of London and a by-election to replace a local councillor who died. I didn’t want to go to a polling station in the pandemic, so I have a postal vote and need to send it soon. I don’t know who to vote for. I still feel pretty annoyed about all the parties. If I’m a “Tory anarchist” (as George Orwell wrote), lately the anarchist part is dominant. I’m pretty angry at the moment with political parties of all stripes, and big business, especially Big Tech.

Local government, including the London Mayor, doesn’t really have much power in the UK, so the whole election seems pretty pointless. I don’t know who my local councillors are or have much of a sense of what they do. I did know the one who died, sort of, but only because he was well-known in the local Jewish community, and because he was the solicitor who acted for the people my parents bought their house from in the sale. As for the Mayor, in theory he has powers about a range of things, but I only really have a sense of him as the person who decides if the Tube fares go up. Most people just use local elections as a glorified opinion poll on whichever party is in power in central government.

In the last European elections, mid–Brexit, I spoiled my ballot and wrote abusive comments by the candidates’ names, the only time I have done this, because I was so angry that the parties could not get their act together to sort Brexit out, to the extent that we were having European Parliament elections while trying to leave the EU. I didn’t even have particularly strong views about Brexit, I just wanted to get it over with and get back to reality. When the last general election happened, I was still angry and voted mainly to keep Jeremy Corbyn out than because I was impressed with anything anyone else was offering. Now I’m mainly apathetic. I don’t think there’s one party that represents what I think, not even close. I don’t even think I have the energy to spoil my ballot.

I was brought up to take voting seriously because “people died to get you the vote” (which is actually a really stupid reason to do anything). And I think people should take voting and politics seriously, it’s just very hard to admire the current crop of politicians, and hard to feel that anyone listens to people like me at the moment. I’m not even sure what I would say if someone was listening.

Ugh, I didn’t mean to write 400 words on politics, I just feel annoyed and confused.

***

Other than that, it was a quiet day. I had therapy, I drafted my devar Torah (pretty much on autopilot, it’s not one I’m particularly proud of) and looked over the next Talmud section before shiur (religious class) on Shabbat. I didn’t go for a walk as it rained a lot and I was too drained to walk in the rain after therapy. I feel like I’m doing a lot of what I want to be doing… but I haven’t done any fiction writing for about two months! The friend who said she would read my novel said to wait until after Pesach, so I waited until then, but then I got cold feet about sending it to her as I wasn’t sure if she wanted to be paid, or how enthusiastic she was about reading it. I didn’t want her to do it out of some kind of sense of obligation. Now JYP is reading it, but I feel I ought to try to write something else to keep the writing habit going while I’m waiting, but I don’t know what. I have an idea for another novel, but I’m not sure it’s sensible to start it yet. I’m not sure what will happen to my work, exercise and Torah study regime when I try to factor in an hour or two of fiction writing a day, but we’ll see.

***

In therapy we spoke about being in the present rather than falling into anxiety about future careers and future relationships (or the lack of either). I said that I feel I missed some developmental stages when I was a teenager. Because I was autistic, but didn’t know it, and because I’d been bullied a lot, I withdrew into myself. Autism made me fear change and the unknown, and being bullied made me fear other people my age (I still struggle to feel comfortable with older children or teenagers). I didn’t go to youth groups the way most Jewish teenagers do. I didn’t date or party or do any kind of leadership or personal growth activity. A bunch of my friends went backpacking in Europe the summer after we finished school and I was originally going with them, but fairly early on in the planning I stage I panicked and backed out of it.

Now I find I need to go through the adolescent maturation stage, twenty years too late, regarding finding what I like to do and what I can do, career, friendships, relationships and so on. This was when my therapist spoke about staying in the present and not trying to worry about the “What ifs?” of career and relationships. To focus on being satisfied with the work I do and not worrying about how it will lead to a career, and to focus on making a connection with someone and not worrying about whether we will get married. I do feel like the clock is ticking on both things, though.

I didn’t mention this in therapy, but a while back I heard about Otto Rank, who was a student of Sigmund Freud. Unlike Freud, he saw the human psyche as being driven by two fears, the fear of living and the fear of dying. Rather than their literal meanings, he saw the fear of living as being the fear of individuation and separation, and the fear of dying as the fear of being absorbed into the collective. I tend to bounce between these two quite violently, wanting to individuate and be different from other people, particularly in a religious community that I find quite conformist, but I also want acceptance in the community, close friends and a romantic relationship, which involve, or seem to involve, making at least some concessions to the expectations of other people. What I want more than anything is to be fully accepted, with all my “issues” and geeky quirks and complicated history, but I’m scared of making myself vulnerable enough to discover whether anyone could accept me.

The email I received from Intimate Judaism yesterday said that they don’t have time to answer every email sent to them, but my “sense of isolation” was very apparent in the email I sent them and they wanted to respond. I guess it seems a bit strange to see that written down. I am a lonely person and have been so since my teens (if not earlier), but it’s just a kind of constant background noise for me. I do have a ‘loneliness’ tag on my blog, but I think I use it much less frequently than tags for ‘depression’, ‘autism’ and ‘anxiety’.

I wrote a whole essay for Hevria years ago on loneliness, where I think I said that the term obscures the fact that there are different kinds of loneliness. Someone can have family and yet still lack friends, for example. I myself have family and a few friends, especially online, but have few in-person friends (which I instinctively feel I would like, even if I can’t express why) and also lack anyone for my romantic/sexual side. I also, as I said, want to feel completely known and accepted. Above all, I feel that I want God to accept me, as only He can really know me, but I want to be accepted by human beings too, even though I’m hiding much of myself from them, even here.

***

I’m currently bearded, because of the omer, the period between Pesach (Passover) and Shavuot (Pentecost), part of which is observed as a time of national mourning, involving not holding celebrations, listening to music, cutting hair or shaving. I feel really self-conscious seeing myself bearded on Skype and Zoom calls. It just looks wrong. I kept looking at myself rather than my therapist on my Zoom therapy call today. Plus, people ask me why I’m growing a beard; “I’m not growing a beard, I’m just not shaving” is a confusing response. It itches too. At least I can shave it off on Friday.

Beating Myself Up

Today seems to have been a day for beating myself up. Most of the things below happened independently of each other, but all seem to have provoked me to beat myself up. I kind of take my low self-esteem for granted and don’t write about it much, but it is there a lot of the time, closely linked with social anxiety and autistic communication difficulties.

***

I was tired when I woke up this morning, but my mood was initially OK. I did spend too long online before getting dressed though. I don’t know why mornings are so hard. I went out to get my lithium blood test form and do some shopping and my mood dropped. I was somewhat self-critical and negative about the future. When I’m at home, I can feel OKish about where I am in my life: part-time work, single, living with my parents. But when I go out, I see other people and start to compare. Even if I’m not consciously comparing, I think I’m doing it unconsciously. I live in an area with a lot of Haredi (ultra-Orthodox Jewish) families, so I invariably see people ten years or more younger than me with children, which just makes me feel like I totally missed the boat regarding marriage and family.

I used to rate my mood each day out of ten, to track my progress. It occurs to me that maybe I should do that again to see how it fluctuates from day to day and even across the day. Today I felt bad compared to the last few days, but, trying to rate it objectively, I doubt my mood was less than 5/10, which is obviously much better than when it never rose above 3/10 even on a “better” day.

***

Someone at depression group last night spoke about people on the autism spectrum being good at noticing things and spotting patterns and discrepancies. This is an idea I struggle with. I have heard it often; I know the psychologist Simon Baron Cohen has published a book recently about autistic people being “pattern seekers” and therefore able to contribute to society in that way. I know some finance firms deliberately recruit people on the spectrum on the grounds that they can see patterns in the money markets better than neurotypical people.

I feel uncomfortable with that because I don’t know if I “pattern seek” at all; if I do, it’s not in a socially useful way. I do notice some things other people don’t. I stop suddenly in the street to look at an interesting insect and it’s hard for me to walk past writing without reading it, whether on a billboard, on a scrap of paper or leaflet on the street or on the newspaper of someone opposite me on the Tube. That might count as noticing things and seeking patterns, although it might just be that my interests are weird (which would also be typical for someone on the spectrum).

I can find patterns within the things I like. For instance, it excites me that David Bowie had a cameo appearance in the film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me because it’s two things I like (David Bowie and Twin Peaks) meeting unexpectedly. However, I don’t feel I can do anything useful with this ability, if it even is an “ability.” I can’t do anything that other people can’t do and I don’t think I am particularly good at finding patterns in the abstract or noticing things. In fact, in many ways I’m very bad at noticing things. I notice immediately if anyone moves anything in my bedroom, because I jealously guard my own territory, but I don’t necessarily notice if my parents rearrange the furniture downstairs, because “their” territory doesn’t really interest me or register on my consciousness.

I guess I would like to find an area where my autism/Asperger’s gives me some kind of advantage, if only to feel better about myself, but it’s hard to think of one.

***

A related issue is that of analytical ability. People on the spectrum are often very analytical. I’m not and I’m not sure if I ever was, or if it was eroded by depression. I did well at school, including in science, so I must have had some analytical ability as a child and teenager. Somewhere along the line I lost it though. In particular, I’ve never been good at studying Talmud, whether Mishnah or Gemarah (Mishnah, the earlier part of the Talmud, is somewhat clearer and easier than Gemarah, the later part of the Talmud which analyzes the Mishnah), back from when I first encountered it in voluntary lunchtime lessons at school. This was one reason among several why I never went to yeshiva (rabbinical seminary). Why would I spend a year of my life in a foreign country studying texts I can’t understand and don’t enjoy?

The problem, as I was reminded today listening to a shiur (religious class) online while I cooked dinner, is that Talmudic study is considered the paramount religious activity in the frum (religious Jewish) world, at least for men. Tanakh study (biblical study), which is probably my favourite Torah activity, along with the study of Midrash (the rabbinic expansions of the biblical text, which function as both creative commentaries and non-literal ways of exploring theological and ethical topics). It is more intuitive and creative that Talmud study, which tends to be strongly based on logic, but is largely ignored for men, except in parts of the Religious Zionist world.

The shiur I listened to was poorly recorded and had lots of untranslated Hebrew, neither of which endeared it to me (to be fair, the fact that I was cooking at the same time probably didn’t help matters), but it was mostly about the importance of studying Torah for its own sake, which mostly means Talmud. Even when I study Tanakh, I’m not sure how much I’m studying to “know the mind of God” and how much just because I’m frum and it’s what I’m supposed to do, just as I don’t enjoy fasting on Yom Kippur, but I do it anyway.

It’s strange that I have a strong connection to a form of Judaism that I’m unable to really practice or enjoy. If you look at the major aspects of frum life, I can’t study Talmud and halakhah; I find it hard to connect to God with prayer, whether set prayers or spontaneous prayers (years ago I could connect this way, but I haven’t been able to for a long time, at least not consistently); I’m too socially anxious to really engage in communal activity or chessed (acts of kindness); I have failed to get married and start a family… I can’t do these things well or at all, no matter how hard I try, and I do not enjoy most of them (which admittedly is not a brilliant measure of anything, as I’m pretty anhedonic even when not actually depressed and struggle to enjoy anything, but certainly the idea of enjoying studying Torah and enjoying doing mitzvot are key ideas in Judaism). Yet I continue to try to be frum, and to beat myself up for not succeeding. I’m not sure what spiritual or psychological drive is pushing that. It’s like I want to set myself a target I can’t attain. I suppose that no other religion or philosophy of life seems to offer a better alternative to me, and I believe in God and the Torah, and want to connect to the Jewish people, my contemporaries and my ancestors. But it’s very hard to actually do it.

***

I also heard back from the Intimate Judaism sex therapist. I just cringed when the email came in, the way I always do when I reach out to people and they respond positively — yes, I mean positively; positive responses can be as shame-inducing as negative ones, with less reason. I guess I feel that I am not worth it, or that there will now be another stage of possible failure e.g. the sex therapist says that she can suggest shadchanim (matchmakers) who might be willing to work with me to find a spouse, which raises all the fears around dating and rejection there. Actually, even beyond a further stage of failure, I’m so used to being ignored that when people are nice to me, I panic and don’t know what to do, and don’t feel like I deserve it. I think across my life the times when I wanted the ground to swallow me up were as much for compliments and positive attention as for shame and negative attention.

Now I need to find the confidence to respond…

***

Where has WordPress moved the tags box to? Why do they keep changing things? EDIT: it’s back now. Maybe the page wasn’t loading properly.

Coming Out As Autistic

I didn’t watch The Favourite in the end last night. After about ten minutes of it, my parents decided that, for a comedy, it was too weird and unfunny and stopped watching. I don’t mind weird, so I carried on for another twenty minutes or so, but I felt self-conscious, like there was a voice in my head asking me all the time if I was really enjoying it. Plus, I was getting annoyed by all the anachronisms. There was no “Prime Minister” or “Loyal Opposition” in Queen Anne’s reign and, although I wasn’t sure about this, I doubted that there was grouse shooting either (it seems I was right — I think in the early eighteenth century we’re still talking about guns that are difficult to aim accurately and take ages to reload). Also, while I can see that authentic eighteenth century dialogue would be off-putting, Tory leader Robert Harley saying something was “cute” just sounded weird (I was more offended by that than by conspicuous use of another four-letter word beginning with ‘c’ which was at least more authentic). So, I stopped watching, but I do vaguely wonder if I should have persevered.

I was a little burnt out on waking today, tired and a bit low, but I did manage to get ready for work. I had a small moral dilemma at work. Nothing huge, an issue of copyright law, but I feel a bit bad thinking about how I dealt with it. Other things being equal, I would not have done what I was asked to do, but I didn’t feel it was important enough to complain about, but now I feel vaguely guilty. I feel similarly bad about not socially distancing properly when I was dating PIMOJ, which was again something I sort of went along with to avoid making a fuss. I definitely find it easier to make a stand when I’m by myself, which is not a good thing.

At work I did tell J about my Asperger’s (I used that term rather than autism, although he did mention autism as something similar and I said it was a spectrum without going into details). I mentioned it in regard to processing verbal information, multitasking and phone conversations, as they seemed to be the most relevant areas. With regard to the first point, he said it’s OK to take notes. As for the other points, I didn’t make any specific requests or suggestions. It was a bit of a non-event and I suppose he may have been wondering why I brought it up, as nothing practical really came out of it, which I guess is a lesson for when I talk to the rabbi (which I still haven’t decided about yet).

We finished work early. We were going to one of our other sites briefly and J wanted to go before the rush hour traffic started, so I had a very truncated work day.

I wrote to the Intimate Judaism podcasters. I feel rather nervous about it. I worry I said too much. I would be a useless spy, I have the urge to confess all my secrets (see also: this blog). I’m also worried they’ll remember I wrote to them a year or so ago, when my life situation was rather different. I thought they wouldn’t remember, as they get loads of emails, so didn’t mention it, but now wonder if I should have done so. I asked for tips dealing with long-term celibacy and religious guilt, as well as feeling on the fringes of the frum (religious) community because of autism and mental illness. I’m not sure if a rabbi and a sex therapist were the best people to ask about the latter, but, having mentioned that I feel on the margins of the community as both a cause and a result of being single, it seemed silly not to mention it.

I had depression group in the evening. I wasn’t feeling particularly depressed, but wanted to go to support others, although I don’t say much in these meetings, aside from when it’s my turn to speak. I do this even when they’re in person, let alone on Zoom. I can’t always think of something to say and rarely work up the courage to say it; if I manage both of those things, the moment has usually gone by the time I’m ready to say anything. But I’m glad I went. I do feel more self-conscious at these meetings now I’m talking more about autism than depression, though. I’m not entirely sure why that is.

***

Recreation-wise, I finished reading Vampire Romance (amusing, but I found there were too many characters to keep track of in such a short novella). I just started reading Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell. I’ve read all of Orwell’s essays, even the not-famous ones, but not any of his book-length non-fiction. In terms of TV, I’ve been watching The Simpsons while I still have access to Disney+, although the more recent episodes are not very funny. My Babylon 5 re-watch is on hold (at an exciting bit) as the season four DVDs needed replacing like the earlier ones (why? WHY??). I’m also watching Doctor Who: The Time Monster, probably the least successful serial from Jon Pertwee’s five years in the title role. I’m not sure why I picked it. I think I wanted to watch something with Pertwee and, because this isn’t very good, I haven’t watched it as much as some of the others. It is silly, although not in the deliberate way something like The Creature from the Pit or Love & Monsters is silly. Nevertheless, I marvel that, in 1972, dialogue like “Being without becoming — an ontological absurdity!” was deemed suitable for a family show with a large child audience.

***

Names encountered today at work: Abraham Abrahams and Nathan Nathan (genuine names, but from the nineteenth century). Reminds me of Catch-22 and Major Major.

I (Don’t) Want To Hold Your Hand

Surprisingly, after going to bed after 1am last night, I woke up at 7.30am this morning and, after failing to get back to sleep, eventually got up before 8.00am, which is pretty much unprecedented on a non-work day!

I didn’t do much: a bit more Torah study than usual, a tiny bit of miniature painting (tidying things up) and a run (I felt heavy and lumpish at first, but my pace did improve as I went on). I’m also going to watch the film The Favourite (about Queen Anne) with my parents later. It was actually a relaxing day, which is not usually the case for me, as I tend to have things I want to do, usually more than I have time and energy to get done.

These are the fantasy wargaming miniatures I was painting (lizard men). I’m not entirely happy with them, but I’ve run out of patience to work on them more. They are quite small and fiddly, which isn’t so obvious in the picture.

***

I think I need to “come out” as autistic/Aspie. I hope to speak to J tomorrow about being on the spectrum and how it affects my work, specifically regarding difficulty using multiple spreadsheets and data bases at once (I get confused about which ones I’ve entered data in) and difficulty taking in a lot of spoken instructions in one go (I need to take notes). I might also say that I’m not always good with unstructured conversations, especially on the phone, which might impact on my work, particularly the new task I’m doing, which is on the phone, although it is actually a fairly structured conversation.

I’m thinking of talking to my community rabbi (not my rabbi mentor, who I’ve already told) about it too, but I’m not sure when. I’d rather do it in person than on Zoom or the phone, but lockdown doesn’t fully lift until June and that’s quite a long way off. I’m also not sure what I want to tell him, not least because I don’t have a clear sense of how autism affects me at shul, just that I often feel uncomfortable there. I’m not sure if I want to ask not to be given aliyot for a while; it would make me less socially anxious, but is running away from my fears instead of confronting them.

I am nervous about this, as I worry how people will react. I will probably self-describe as having “Asperger’s Syndrome” rather than “high-functioning autism” as I think the latter tends to make people assume lower capability than the former. This, despite my discomfort with mentioning Dr Asperger because of his Nazi/euthanasia links. I think there is a misconception that autism is a learning disability rather than a difficulty with communication and various other things such as executive function and multitasking. I need to find a way to explain this. This is especially important regarding dating. I think my one experience with a formal shadchan (matchmaker) went badly because of this, although I can’t prove it.

***

I found a study of Orthodox Jewish families in Manchester with children with autistic spectrum disorder or ADHD. It talked about hiding diagnoses to avoid stigma and of the child’s “difference” leading the family not feeling “belongingness” [sic] in the community. It does not correspond exactly to my experience, as these are much younger children, and less functional than I was at that age, but I do feel the sense of “difference” and not belonging, particularly with regard to marriage and family, as well as my impaired ability to participate confidently in activities where the social and the religious overlap e.g. kiddush (refreshments after shul) or seudah shlishit (the third Sabbath meal, held in shul). I feel this difference even if other people don’t explicitly notice it or draw attention to it e.g. if I manage to function well and “pass,” but feel it’s taking me a lot of effort and energy to do so and possibly end up very burnt out afterwards.

Possibly there is a need for someone to be a more visible high functioning autistic/Aspie in the Orthodox community to raise awareness, although, perhaps inevitably, I would only want to be that person if I could be visible in a quiet, unsocial way.

***

I think my lack of socialisation into the frum (religious Jewish) world despite decades of observance and my lack of romantic success go together, although both are obviously connected with my autism/Asperger’s and my poor mental health history. It goes both ways: my lack of socialisation has resulted in not being set up on dates, as per the usual method of Orthodox finding a spouse, but on the other hand, if I’d managed to marry someone frum, that would probably have brought me more into the flow of frum social life, because presumably she would have frum friends and a community that I would suddenly be a part of. Instead, I’ve tended to date women who are also on the fringes of the frum community, or outside it completely. My rabbi mentor has encouraged me to do this (date less frum women) and I admit I wonder if he would so encourage someone who didn’t have the social issues that I have. Is he being meikel (lenient) because he suspects I won’t get married otherwise? I’ve never had the courage to ask him.

Related to this is a feeling that I should be go back to being shomer negiah (not touching people of the opposite sex) when dating. I was shomer negiah when I dated my first girlfriend (the only one from inside the frum community), but she put a lot of pressure on me to change, which I did, not entirely unwillingly. We hugged a bit and she tried to kiss me once, which I didn’t like, and I’ve never been able to work out if that was because I wasn’t expecting it or if it’s another autistic touch thing that will be a problem down the line. We broke up when she started pressuring me to sleep with her, or seemed to be doing that; I’m honestly not sure if she knew what she wanted. I think she stopped being frum soon afterwards and left the Orthodox community.

My second relationship was long-distance and we were not around in person when we were actually dating, but E said she would wait to get married for sex, but not for hugging and I agreed to that in principle, again not entirely unwillingly. But we were not in the same country when we were dating. With PIMOJ recently, we held hands and hugged, but I felt increasingly uncomfortable with it, partly from fear we would meet someone I knew from shul, partly because I was conscious of breaking COVID protocol, but also I suppose because of the problems we were having with intimacy and opening up to each other in the relationship. When we broke up, she said she sensed I was feeling uncomfortable hugging, but put it down to relationship issues; I’m not sure how aware she was about shomer negiah (or COVID, which she was a lot less scrupulous about than I was), although I had half-heartedly tried to talk to her about it.

I wonder vaguely if this is covering for an autistic desire not to be touched. I don’t think so, although I have less “touch hunger” lately, but I think it is defending myself against touch I’m not ready for, as well as trying to cement my position in the frum community, a position that I don’t think I hold strongly enough to be able to cope with becoming shomer negiah again.

(And, now this is turning into a ‘frum autism sex/celibacy blog,’ if you can imagine such a thing.)

Eventful Day; Also Sex and the Single Orthodox Jew

Today was a pretty good day, but some unpleasantly familiar thoughts hovered in the background and at times came into the foreground.

Work was quite eventful. In the morning, J and I went to one of the organisation’s other sites. I’m not really able to say here what site it was, because it would make it too easy to work out where I work although it was somewhere people don’t usually go. I didn’t feel I contributed much, but it was interesting to see it. We weren’t there for long, about half an hour, but the length of the journey there and back meant we were out for most of the morning.

In the car on the way back, J and I went over the new task he’s training me for again, roleplaying a typical situation again. I felt I did badly at this, although I didn’t have my notes or the forms I would normally be filling in as part of the process; obviously it’s easier to remember what to say if you have a form of blank spaces to fill in right in front of you. Still, I felt a bit self-critical, something made worse by a mistake I caught this morning (by chance) that I must have made on Monday. I do worry about how many mistakes I must make that I don’t catch in time. I feel that I should be better at handling these tasks; after all, people on the autism spectrum are supposed to be good at routine tasks. I think the problem is that I have to have different spreadsheets and data bases open at the same time and people on the spectrum are not good at multitasking and going from one thing to another like that.

In the afternoon, a situation arose when I had to actually work through a type of situation that we had been practising in the morning. Again, I’d love to say what I had to do, but it would make where I work too obvious. Suffice to say that the task is not particularly autism-friendly or social anxiety-friendly, involving phoning various people, some of whom might be emotional, and getting quite a bit of information verbally and transcribing it correctly. I think I did OK, and J was listening in to the call and nudged me once or twice about some things, but I also think that maybe the time has come to tell J about my autism/Asperger’s diagnosis and what it means for me, especially about the way I struggle to take in rapid verbal information (J has a habit of throwing a lot of information at me at once). I’m not sure what exactly to say though.

One other awkward thing happened at work: I can’t easily check my emails on my phone and was hoping for an email from a friend who I was worried about, so during lunch I logged on to webmail on my work computer, only to be confronted with a not safe for work email subject line from the Intimate Judaism podcast. This features an Orthodox rabbi and sex therapist talking about sex and intimacy in the Orthodox world. I would not have done that if I had known the message would be there, but they email very rarely.

Best moment of the day: realising on the way to the other site that we were driving across a bridge that appeared in Doctor Who. Tom Baker stood here. It’s the little things…

***

I like the Intimate Judaism podcast (when it’s not embarrassing me at work), but after the awkward email today I found myself wondering why. I started listening to it when I was dating E. Although she was not frum (religious Jewish), she thought it might help me deal with some of the questions and anxieties I have about sex (in general and also in terms of Jewish law). Which it does, and it also has given me insight into parts of the frum world that I would not otherwise know about, which has been useful in my writing. I doubt I would have written a novel that highlights issues of sexual consent in Orthodox marriage without several discussions of this issue on the podcast making me aware of it.

However, it also highlights my feeling that I’m some kind of freak for being a virgin at thirty-seven, doubly so in a community where people typically marry in their early twenties and where kiruv (out-reach) professionals like to boast that Judaism celebrates marital sexuality. As well as feeling freakish, it makes me wonder if I can ever get married. For one thing, is there anyone left to marry? And can someone like me (autistic, socially anxious, prone to bouts of depression, not on a real career path) find someone to love him? I guess it turns sex into a spectator sport for me. Not in a pornographic sense, but in the sense that I’m listening to other people discuss their sex lives, knowing full well it’s of only academic interest to me, that I can’t get involved myself.

I actually feel like a freak and a child a lot, although I feel like a freak less often since I started making progress towards my autism diagnosis. These feelings are not just from being a virgin, they’re also from living with my parents; not working full-time; finding social interactions awkward; not being well-socialised into the frum community and so on. Nevertheless, being a virgin is a big part of it, not least because “being a virgin” is tied up so much with living with my social and emotional issues and lack of socialisation into the frum community.

Having only just broken up with PIMOJ, I don’t have any intention of dating again soon, nor do I feel optimistic that I will find the right person quickly (or at all) when I do try to date again, or even have a good idea what “dating again” would look like for me. I feel I’m out of options other than professional shadchanim (match-makers), a prospect that terrifies me. I’m not sure how I navigate the feelings of difference and inadequacy in the meantime.

I think about sex too much for a frum person. I wish I didn’t, it seems like I’m tormenting myself endlessly with what I can never know. I also feel that I write about it too much here, but feel I have to because (a) no one else does and (b) I need to vent periodically and I don’t have anywhere else to do it.

I am vaguely thinking about emailing the Intimate Judaism presenters about this, although I’m not sure what I’d say or what kind of response I’d be hoping for.

***

Related to this, I was trying to think what lessons I learnt from the three relationships I have managed to keep together for a few months (I think eight or nine months is the record).

Relationship 1) My first relationship, rather late (aged twenty-seven) so lots of things learnt for the first time: that someone could want to go out with me for a longish period; that I could actually maintain a relationship; and that I could care about someone else and make sacrifices for her. From the ending of the relationship, I learnt that I could set boundaries and end a relationship when I realised those boundaries were being trampled on (I used to wonder if I would stay in a painful relationship indefinitely for fear of being single).

2a) I’m not sure what I learnt from dating E first time around. Maybe that I could make a long-distance relationship work for a bit. Or maybe that even someone who really cared about me and wanted to marry me could still not cope with my “issues” in the long run.

2b) I suspect the main thing I learnt from dating E second time around was that on/off relationships are not a good idea and that if I’ve come to feel that a relationship could not have worked, restarting it because of loneliness and the excitement of the other person saying she made a mistake and still cares about me is not a good idea.

3) That a relationship needs chemistry as well as shared values to work (which is not always the Jewish dating experts’ message) and that while relationships need trust based on shared vulnerability, it has to be mutual or it won’t work.

Something I learnt from all my relationships is not to look back and wonder if it was a mistake to break up or there is no end to the potential regret and self-doubt.

Thoughts of a Frum Writer/Geek

I was sorting a load of papers relating to weddings from the last fifty years or more at work today. I don’t want to say too much about what and why because I don’t want to say too much about where I work. But I looked at the ages of when people got married. In the recent paperwork, there were quite a lot of people about my age, although mostly a little younger than me. So I guess that’s a bit reassuring that I haven’t totally missed the boat. But the papers also listed occupations, and most people were settled into good careers before marriage. Lots of Jewish doctors and Jewish lawyers, of both sexes.

I suppose I’ll muddle my way through life somehow, but I fear it could involve muddling through lifelong singledom and loneliness as well as lifelong financial (not to mention emotional) dependence on my parents. I guess this is one of the reasons I don’t like the term “high functional autism,” because I don’t feel that I function well when I’m this dependent and lonely.

***

Intermittently during the day (not just when dealing with marriages), I remembered PIMOJ and feel sad, but I still feel like I did the right thing in breaking up.

***

A Jewish writer whose blog I follow wrote today about her remorse at unconsciously using a trope in one of her children’s novels that she now considers racist, the “white saviour” trope. This pushed back into the forefront of my mind some issues that I have with my work-in-progress novel. One is the lack of non-white characters. It is mostly set in the London Jewish community, which is very white, but there are more peripheral characters that could be non-white. There are one or two already, but I might change the backgrounds of some others when I redraft. The other problem, which I’ve struggled with from the early stages of writing, is working out how to structure the climax of my plot so that the male protagonist contributes something meaningful to the resolution of the female secondary character’s plot without it looking like she has no agency (not so much a white saviour as a male one). I’ve changed the plot back and forth struggling to resolve this. The dynamic of the story, which requires tying A and B plots together, is at odds with my desire to show a capable and self-sufficient female character. Possibly this is where I really need feedback from an objective editor.

***

This is a very old post that I came across and read, about consumption of secular media by frum (religious) women. My personal outlook is closest to Kochava’s in the comments section. Reading the other responses, I wasn’t surprised how many were very anti-secular media. I already knew that most frum people have a negative view of secular media, even if they sometimes watch/listen to it. But I guess it did drive home to me that my novel (and perhaps the future novels I’m already planning) won’t find much of a home in the Orthodox world. My novel is not PG-rated, with suicide attempts and marital rape, as well as other sexual discussion. PIMOJ, who I think had a conservative upbringing (although not what you might think) was shocked by it. She asked me if I would want it read out in the Heavenly court and I unhesitatingly said yes, because I think what I wrote is true and needed saying. People on the spectrum and with mental health issues do suffer in the frum community. There are men in the frum community who don’t understand sexual consent in marriage. These are problems that are not going to go away if we ignore them. (Also, Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) is really not PG-rated either.) But I worry that I’m in effect speaking to people outside the community, which isn’t terribly helpful.

I know, I need to get the book finished and published before I worry about this…

This is also part of the reason I struggle to integrate into frum society. Even in my current, moderate Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community, some people have TVs, although many don’t. But to obsess over a TV programme as I do after Doctor Who and other TV science fiction is not really considered normal (it’s not considered that normal in the secular world). I’ve written and self-published a non-fiction book about Doctor Who, which is taking things to an extreme. This is out of the realm of relaxation and into the realm of autistic special interests, which can be intense and personality-shaping.

I’m pretty sure that my fondness for science fiction is rooted in my autism. I watch “outer space” programmes like Star Trek and Babylon 5, but my real interest and autistic passion is for series like Doctor Who, The Prisoner or Twin Peaks, where we see a real world that is distorted by the bizarre. Similarly for prose authors like Kafka, Borges and Philip K Dick who push the boundaries of the real. Because of my autism, I experience the world in a way that is similar to the way that neurotypical people experience it, but with weird distorting twists that make it hard to understand or cope with, so naturally I’m drawn to fiction that works like that, albeit exaggerated to an extreme. But it’s hard to explain this to people who are anti-TV or anti-secular culture, or who admit it to unwind after a tough day, but think it’s not entirely right to watch it.

Perhaps it would be easier if I went to a Modern Orthodox community, but Modern Orthodoxy in the UK means the United Synagogue, where most people are not shomer Shabbat (keeping the Sabbath, a litmus test for religious observance) and the few who are religious probably have similar ideas about TV to the people in my current community. Possibly I’m exaggerating (autistic black and white thinking), but it’s how I felt when I went to a US shul.

***

More frum thoughts: I realised I have the following thoughts a lot: I did not go to yeshiva (rabbinical seminary) as most frum men do on their gap year; I am not integrated into the frum community; I am not married; I am a bad Jew. It occurs to me that I present them as true and causal: I did not go to yeshiva therefore I am not integrated into the frum community therefore I am not married therefore because of all three of these things I am a bad Jew. Yet I see now that the first three statements are not causal and may have nothing to do with each other. Even if I had gone to yeshiva, I might not have integrated into the community or got married. And the “bad Jew” statement is frankly question-begging.

Which is not to say that I don’t feel like a bad Jew right now, because I do, but for different reasons.

***

Speaking of yeshiva and Talmud study, I tried to do some Talmud study this evening, reviewing the class from Shabbat. I really struggled with it. It didn’t help that I was very tired; unfortunately, after work seems the best time for Talmud study at the moment, if I want to keep up with the weekly classes, which isn’t ideal.

***

Other than, it was a fairly dull day: not much to do at work. I went for a walk when I got home, having realised that usually when working I would walk home from the station, but J has been giving me a lift, so I haven’t been exercising as much. I want to make this a routine on work days, although doing that and Talmud study might prove tricky.

Special Souls and Scapegoats

I’m feeling down today. I feel drained and listless. Also guilty. These days most of my guilt comes from wrestling with my sex drive and loneliness. I want to love and be loved, but I feel incapable of either of these, which sets me on a downward spiral to emotional places I don’t want to go (“sin” if you want to use stark Victorian words). Also, periodically I think about PIMOJ and feel sad that it didn’t work out for us and guilty that I upset her by breaking up with her. Watching Babylon 5 just reminds me that I thought she was like Delenn: gentle spiritual and intelligent, but even then the relationship didn’t work; I couldn’t open up to her or be myself with her. So who could I be myself with if I can’t be with someone who was practically my dream partner?

My sister and brother-in-law came over for socially distanced tea and biscuits this afternoon. I ate too much cake and biscuits, but otherwise had a good time. Then I left early to work on a job application and my mood came down again as I realised how my skills have atrophied and my career stagnated (see below). I went for a run after my Torah study, but it failed to boost my mood much.

There’s an idea in Judaism, particularly in Jewish mysticism (kabbalah) that people with severe learning disabilities, including severe autism, have special souls. I’m not particularly mystically minded (a problem PIMOJ had with me), but I wonder how this applies to high functioning autism. Somehow it doesn’t seem like the same idea applies to me, given how functional I am compared to a non-verbal person. Yet autism is a spectrum; at what point on it does having a special soul not apply? It would help me feel less broken and defective, and less of a disappointment to God and my parents, if this was the case, but maybe this idea is not coming from a good place in me. Maybe I just want to feel special, or at least special in a good way, rather than just feeling like a “broken” failure and freak.

I don’t know what can be done for someone like me who wants to fit in to the frum (religious Jewish) community, but doesn’t know how, who wants to love, but can’t find someone willing to love him and so on.

***

I read this week’s sedrot (Torah portions) of Acharei Mot and Kedoshim. Acharei Mot starts with the High Priest’s Temple service on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), including the choosing of two goats by lot, one sacrificed in the Temple and one sent into the wilderness and thrown off a cliff, symbolically carrying away the sins of the Jewish people. This goat is known in Christian Bibles as the scapegoat (hence the term). The Talmud talks about this at some length and speaks about the two goats being, as far as possible, identical in size and colour, like twins. People talk about the symbolism of this, the two goats that looked identical and expected the same fate, but the High Priest drew lots and one goat was sacrificed in the Temple (which is supposed to be the best thing that can happen to a goat) and one died horribly in the wilderness, symbolising that we don’t really know what will happen to us.

When I was at primary school, I had a “mentor friend” (as Tony Attwood describes a neurotypical child who befriends an autistic child and models social behaviour for him). We looked quite similar, except that he was a lot taller than me and had redder hair. We were together a lot and people thought we were brothers. We went on to secondary school together, where we drifted apart a bit, but stayed friends. We went on to Oxford together, although I ended up a year ahead of him, as he took a gap year at yeshiva (rabbinical seminary) first. We are still friends (we didn’t end up enemies like the Doctor and Master!).

I wonder about us in the light of the scapegoat. He started dating someone at the age of fourteen or fifteen; they have been married for many years now, with children. He has (non-Orthodox) rabbinic ordination and his own community as rabbi. He is very charismatic, was the centre of our geeky friendship group at primary and secondary school and was active in the Jewish Society at university, an environment that I completely failed to adapt to. I imagine he’s a popular rabbi in his community. He was once named on an annual Jewish newspaper list of the forty most influential people under the age of forty in the Anglo-Jewish community.

He has not by any means had an easy life, but somehow I feel he is like the goat sacrificed in the Temple, and I’m the one who has to carry the sins and get thrown off the cliff. I don’t feel jealous exactly, but I do kind of feel like I’m a failure in comparison to him, even though we were once so similar. And I know I shouldn’t compare, but I find it hard to see what I’ve achieved by myself. I’ve never really been happy, so being “happy with my lot” doesn’t really come into it, and I think my moods are unlikely to improve much (although I’m not sure why). I haven’t got tangible achievements (except one book no one bought and one novel that isn’t finished yet), I don’t think I’m particularly devout or spiritual, or a great scholar (Torah or secular) and I haven’t done much for other people in terms of acts of kindness or charity. I’m not sure what else I could do that I would value. I try to be nice to people and to listen, but I don’t think I’m good at that sort of thing.

I feel guilty about these jealous or comparing thoughts, just as I feel guilty about the sexual thoughts. I suppose that the fact that he was a mentor friend to me growing up, and that our lives ran so much in parallel from the ages of four or five until our early twenties mean that it’s harder to avoid comparing myself to him than it is to avoid comparing myself to other peers. Not that I find it easy to avoid comparing myself to them.

I just want to feel that I’ve done something meaningful and good with my life, which inevitably leads me to compare myself negatively to people who I feel have done something meaningful and good. That’s why I feel so uncomfortable about my shul‘s (synagogue’s) fundraising drive, that it puts a precise numerical value on my worth to the community, in tens where other people are worth tens of thousands.

I hope that writing about these things here will exorcise them, put them in a box and let me forget about them, but perhaps it just encourages them.

***

I wonder a bit why I’m still subject to so many low moods even though I’m “officially” not depressed any more. Also why I’ve so rarely been happy in my life, from adolescence (I can’t really remember childhood) to the present, even when I haven’t been depressed. The best I ever seem to get is a state of neutral contentment. I’m not sure what happiness would actually feel like. Some people say antidepressants can “even out” moods, getting rid of lows, but also highs. I’m not sure if that’s true. Or maybe I just feel so uncomfortable and out of place, being on the spectrum in a world designed for neurotypicals, that I just can’t get happy. Lots of people on the spectrum do struggle with depression and anxiety at clinical or sub-clinical levels.

***

I’m applying for the job I mentioned the other day, but I don’t feel positive about it. It’s a larger library than I hoped (seventy staff members and eight thousand users) and regular issue desk duties are a key part of the role, even though this is the part of librarianship that I have struggled with the most. The first role on the job specification is providing inductions, support workshops and training sessions to students and researchers. I have done things like that in the past, albeit in a very limited way, but I’m not sure I would want it to be a main part of the role. I think it’s as much a teaching role (teaching library use and general information literacy) as a traditional librarian role, which is not uncommon in modern libraries. Plus, looking at my CV, a lot of my skills are rusty, unsurprising given how little I’ve worked in the sector in recent years, and having my current admin job at the top of the list doesn’t look good, although the alternative is saying that I haven’t worked since January of last year.

That said, I’m doubtful that I’ll even be called for interview given that I don’t have much experience with the teaching work they want, so I’m not too concerned, although it does make me wonder why I’m filling in the application (to satisfy my parents? For practice? To feel like I’m still a librarian?). I’ve been told many times to apply for jobs where I don’t meet 100% of the criteria in case no applicant completely fits, but I think I often have far too few of the desired attributes and experiences. Sometimes I wonder if I actually fit more of the categories, but have too rigid a view of my experiences. If I didn’t think in such black and white terms, I could see I’ve had done of these things. Maybe.

Making this application is also a reminder that of the six jobs I’ve had, two weren’t in the library sector at all and one did not really need a librarian qualification (although it was actually a job I enjoyed a lot and got a lot out of).

***

The other news today is that I contacted a professional editor about my novel. She is an acquaintance from the online mental health community, but not a close friend, so I thought this might be less awkward then asking my writer friend for free feedback. She wanted to know a bit more about the novel before saying if she can take it on, so I just sent her an email with a bit more information and a sample chapter.

I feel pretty nervous now. E saw the first draft of the first few chapters when we were dating and liked them; PIMOJ saw the whole of the second draft and didn’t like it; both possibly had a distorted view from the fact that we were dating. Also, PIMOJ doesn’t read much fiction and was rather shocked by the discussion of sex and domestic abuse in the Orthodox Jewish community. I’ve written another draft since PIMOJ saw it. So, it is nerve-wracking showing someone my writing, and also wondering how much professional editing would cost. I guess I have to ask myself how much I want this book to be publishable.

***

This blog post is too long and I should go to bed as I have to be up early for work tomorrow, but I don’t feel tired, just melancholy…

Love and Autism

For those of you who don’t know, I broke up with PIMOJ yesterday. I think it was the right thing to do, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel sad, or guilty about making her feel sad. I wanted to let myself sleep in this morning, but got woken just after 9am by an alarm I forgot to switch off (how can my phone alarms not wake me when I want to wake up and wake me when I don’t?). I tried to go back to sleep, but found myself thinking, “Macbeth hath murdered sleep, so Glamis shall sleep no more, Cawdor shall sleep no more.” (Yes, I did Macbeth for GCSE.) Then, a few minutes later, “Yet each man kills the thing he loves/By all let this be heard/Some do it withering look some with a flattering word/The coward does it with a kiss/The brave man with a sword.” (Quoting from memory. I’m not usually this literate first thing in the morning.) I guess there will be some guilt and processing for a while.

I cried a bit while davening Shacharit (saying Morning Prayers) this morning. I guess it was a release. The tears, I mean.

I can’t really complain. I got what I wanted when I went on JDate, which was to alleviate my loneliness and practise my social skills by being in a relationship for a while, one which might have progressed further, even if, in the event, it didn’t. I wasn’t looking to get married quickly, the way Orthodox Jews are supposed to do, so maybe it’s not a surprise that it didn’t last.

It’s funny, I’ve never been comfortable with the concept of “chemistry.” For years, I’ve felt guilty that I “click” with some people (I’m talking as friends, not necessarily romantically) and connect with them easily, and don’t “click” with other people. And I beat my self up about that. Sometimes the non-clicking ones turn out to be better friends in the long run. But I think chemistry is real and there’s only so far you can struggle against it, particularly in romantic relationships, and PIMOJ and I didn’t have the chemistry, among other issues.

I’ve been worrying about whether I could really love someone. I think that some of the reasons I broke up with PIMOJ would apply in any relationship, or most relationships. I think I probably could love someone, but it would have to be a special person who was willing to let me love her in my own way, and so far I haven’t met her.

I do wonder if I can express love a way someone else can accept. I don’t feel I express love strongly to my parents or my sister and I feel my relationships with my friends are somewhat distant. I tend not to miss people strongly when I don’t see them or want to catch up, but there I some people I like thinking about and I suppose I’m glad they’re alive — or that they lived, in the case of my grandparents. I’m trying to find words for feelings that I can’t really describe… I’m not sure if this is love or not.

I think I express love mostly by listening, by being there for someone else with issues. I did that for my first two girlfriends, but PIMOJ didn’t have many issues and I think she believed that women shouldn’t “burden” their boyfriends/husbands with their issues, which is not how I see it.

I don’t really express friendship overtly with friends at all, except by being open to listen to them, but this is less of a visible thing, as we live in a culture where men don’t really express their friendship very overtly.

There is the idea of love languages, that people express love primarily either through words of affirmation (praise), acts of service (doing things to help), giving gifts, spending quality time together or by physical touch. PIMOJ was a gift giver and I have all sorts of little things she gave me and which I didn’t quite know what to do with when we were together, let alone now. I probably express love for my parents and sister by spending time with them, although I do have to tell myself consciously to do so. At least Shabbat is a time to spend with family, particularly as I’ve lived with my parents for so long.

Touch is important too, but it complicated in general by autism (I am sensitive to touch and shied away from it for a long time) and, in romantic relationships, by the Jewish laws of shomer negiah, not touching people of the opposite sex, aside from close family. This has made touch in relationships fraught with guilt and difficulty for me. PIMOJ noticed my discomfort hugging, but thought it was about me feeling uncomfortable with the relationship, rather than with the concept of hugging. She didn’t come from the frum (religious Jewish) community and I think didn’t realise how guilt-inducing touch can be to frum people.

Related to this, a couple of years ago, the BBC made a very good (surprisingly good) documentary series on Mrs Thatcher and her government (Thatcher: A Very British Revolution – worth checking out if it’s online if you’re interested in politics or history). The first episode focused on her personality and I found myself wondering if she was on the autism spectrum (with all the usual caveats about “diagnosing” a dead person in absentia). She had a very logical and analytical mind (she was a research chemist and then a lawyer before going into politics, two jobs requiring logic and analysis). She saw the world in a very binary, black-and-white, with-me-or-against me way and couldn’t really accept that people who disagreed with her were acting in good faith. She didn’t have much of sense of humour, at least according to her speechwriters, who say she didn’t get the jokes they wrote for her. She didn’t express much emotion and (this was the bit that really interested me) her children said that she didn’t tell them she loved them or express it physically very much, they just knew it from the way she looked at them. It all sounded a bit autistic to me.

I wonder if my parents would say the same thing about me, that they know I love them from how I look or something else a bit distant. I worry that that would be how I would be with a wife and children.

***

Therapy was difficult, but good. I spoke about the breakup, but also about my autism diagnosis making me revise my view of myself and my life and that maybe it’s good, post-breakup, that I have time and space to learn to be myself. I also spoke about feeling a sense of agency from having realised that my life was not working, having seen autism as a possible explanation for this despite having been told otherwise, then researching and fighting for the diagnosis and finally getting it and now beginning to understand myself.

I didn’t do much other than therapy today. OK, that’s not quite true: I did a bit of Torah study and went walking and shopping. And I changed the time of my dentist appointment in May – a trivial task but it took nearly a dozen phone calls to do it, as the number was consistently engaged, went straight to answerphone or, on one occasion, I got through only to suddenly and mysteriously get cut off. It would seem dentists are much in demand post-lockdown.

Therapy was tiring and I didn’t do much afterwards. I gave myself time off after my breakup and spent time watching TV (Babylon 5: War Without End); I intend to follow up with The Simpsons (I’m only going to have Disney+ for another fortnight or so, so I might as well watch it) and maybe read for a bit. Oh, and I ate ice cream, because I broke up and it’s what you do if you break up, albeit classically watching rom coms rather than Babylon 5.

***

I’m wondering what to do with my novel again. I have an friend (email friend, I’ve never met her) who writes and edits professionally. I asked her a while back if she would be willing to read it. I meant it in a casual way, like would she glance over it, but she said she would write and edit it professionally, but I would have to wait until after Pesach (Passover). Pesach is now gone and I haven’t been back in touch. Partly I’m scared to show anyone my writing, partly I made a faux pas when I asked her, not talking about payment, but now have no idea how much to pay (typical Englishman, I don’t want to talk about money), but also I worry it would be straining the relationship, which is friendly, but not close. So now I’m wondering about other options. I don’t really need much in the way of proofreading, I just want someone to read the story and tell me if they like it, if the story is interesting and flows, and how rounded the characters are. Hmm.

The Turkey Prince

I couldn’t sleep last night. I don’t know if it was from taking my tablets late, sleeping too much in the day, drinking tea late at night or something else. I got about four hours of sleep in the end, but I had to be up early to see PIMOJ. Yesterday it was so warm that I went for a walk in the afternoon without a coat or jumper. This morning, it snowed. I wrapped up warm, but it was difficult to tell what to wear, as it was warm when sunny, but cold in the shade.

***

I think PIMOJ had been having some of the thoughts I had been having about our lack of emotional intimacy and vulnerability, although she phrased it differently, saying we haven’t really got to know each other well yet. We had a long talk (in the park, not ideal – thank you COVID) and PIMOJ opened up to me about some things in her past and I tried to be a bit more open about my mood dips and persistent lack of energy. I think we’re OK, we just agreed to try to be more honest and open with each other in the future. Not that we were lying previously, but we were both hiding things, I guess from fear of rejection. I had some further thoughts after the date and texted PIMOJ to tell her that I’m often not good at talking things over spontaneously and need time to think about responses because of autism (hence texting her later because I didn’t think of this at the time!) and maybe it’s worth discussing things over a few days and/or letting me text some ideas later after I’ve thought it over. Unfortunately, neither of us likes video calling much, which is hard at the moment. She hasn’t got back to me about that.

The rest of the date was good, except that we were seen by two of my parents’ friends. I’m not sure if they recognised me, but it’s the type of thing that can start rumours in small communities. PIMOJ and I were together for over four hours and did a lot of walking. We got takeaway falafel. Still, I was left with some anxiety. I worry that my autistic brain simply isn’t wired for a relationship. “Autism” etymologically refers to morbid self-absorption (you may have noticed this here…). Meaning, being unable to relate to others. That although I pine away in loneliness while single, I’m not able to be in a relationship “properly.” Now I’m in a relationship with someone where I know there will be lots of extra obstacles beyond a regular relationship if we want to make this permanent. I want to do that, but I’m worried I’ll burn myself out trying or just won’t make it, and perhaps that fear is stopping me from fully committing to the relationship (unconsciously), along with guilt feelings that the relationship came about in a “wrong” way, religiously. Life is hard. Relationships are hard. Autism is hard. Life + relationships + autism = very hard.

I keep thinking of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov’s parable of The Turkey Prince. The prince goes mad and believes that he is a turkey, sitting naked under the table and eating food off the floor. No one can cure him until a wise man takes off his clothes and sits naked under the table with the prince, claiming to be a turkey too. Once the prince accepts him, the wise man puts on trousers, saying a turkey can wear trousers. When the prince wears trousers, the wise man puts on a shirt until the prince does the same, and so on until the prince is fully clothed and eating normally and is (we are told) fully cured.

Superficially, the story is about the need of the religious mentor to descend to the level of his followers to win their trust and to understand them and inspire them. However, as Arthur Green noted in his biography of Rebbe Nachman (Tormented Master: The Life and Spiritual Quest of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav), there is a uneasy air about the conclusion of the story. Is the prince really “cured” or has he just been tricked into acting in a more socially acceptable way? Does he really think he is a human again, or just a turkey who wears clothes and eats off a plate? (This is surely a big question in clinical psychology: how much are we “curing” people and how much socialising them into “normal” behaviour even when the “abnormal” behaviour is harmless?) Green suggests that the wise man, and even the other courtiers may be just as insane as the prince.

I feel I need someone to model behaviour for me, to show that an autistic person with a history of mental illness can: get a full-time job; make friends; write fiction; build a relationship and a family; and so on. But maybe this is not addressing the fundamental problem, which is my tendency to see myself as defective and to assume that everything I try to do will be affected by this defectiveness. Otherwise I’m in danger of being a Turkey Prince, acting in a socially acceptable way while still believing myself to be a turkey (“defective” autistic person).

***

Another thing that happened this afternoon has been on my mind. PIMOJ asked if my family were as religious as I was, and we got onto the subject of how religious I am. PIMOJ felt I am quite religious, but not exceedingly so, as I perform the mitzvot (commandments) as God commands, but have no interest in the spiritual reality behind them. I let this go at the time, but it’s annoyed me a bit since then and I don’t know whether to say anything (my natural conflict aversion versus our newly-stated desire to be honest with each other). I know kabbalists (Jewish mystics) say there are spiritual realities behind the mitzvot, and perhaps there are, but I have never managed to get my head around them. Rather than the mystics, I prefer the religious rationalists like Rambam (Moses Maimonides) who said that every mitzvah “serves to inculcate some truth, to remove some erroneous opinion, to establish proper relations in society, to diminish evil, to train in good manners or to warn against bad habits.” Some mitzvot have an obvious logic (don’t murder, don’t steal etc.). Those that don’t have obvious social benefits are symbols that teach important historical/theological concepts (like eating matzah on Pesach to remember the exodus) or inculcate character traits (eating only kosher food might instil self-control). Thinkers like Rambam and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch spent a lot of time and energy finding rational reasons for symbolic actions and it bothers me a bit to see that dismissed as not religious (see especially Rav Hirsch’s Horeb, which provides reasons for all the mitzvot observed today).

Maybe I ought to bring this up with PIMOJ tomorrow, although I feel that there are other things that might be more important to discuss. I guess it just makes me realise that we see the role of religious observance differently. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I’m not sure I can communicate the way I see it. It’s somewhat similar to the way she sees connection with God, and “hearing” His answers, as relatively easy things, whereas I see them as very hard, even a life’s work. It’s not that one is right and one is wrong, but they are very different.

***

There are actually other things that came up on the date that I’d like to discuss with someone, but don’t feel it’s appropriate to speak about here. I hope to speak to my rabbi mentor on Friday, and it would be good to raise some of this with my therapist too next week (I’m on fortnightly therapy at the moment). Still, it adds to the feeling of juggling a lot of balls and not knowing if I can keep them all in the air or what will happen if I drop one or two.

***

I was pretty exhausted when I got home after this, maybe not surprisingly. I took some time to write parts this post, which was hard as it meant focusing on the anxiety-provoking parts of the date as well as the more successful parts, and focusing on the work I will need to do in the relationship. I did a little Torah study, but I was too tired to do much. I watched some TV. My mood has been variable and I’m definitely dealing with some anxiety about the relationship, even though I think today went well.

Shrugs Shoulders

The last two days of Pesach (Passover) went quite well. No real religious OCD-type anxiety, which was good. I went to shul (synagogue) every evening. Today I decided not to wear a coat, as it was still quite warm in the afternoon, only to discover that we were praying in the outside area so we didn’t have to wear masks. I like not wearing a mask, but when we finished Minchah (Afternoon Service) and had a shiur (religious class) before Ma’ariv (Evening Service) it got cold quickly, especially once the sun went down.

I left soon after shul finished, not really staying to help tidy up as I normally would do, partly because I’m not sure where things go in our new socially distanced layout, partly because I wanted to get home and help Mum and Dad clear up the Pesach things (which normally takes several hours). I was pretty tired, though, and felt I didn’t do much to help and spent more time eating than tidying, although Mum and Dad said I did help significantly. 🤷‍♂️

Communicating in emoji rather than words indicates how burnt out I feel. I wish I knew what tires me out so much. I struggled to sleep last night, but slept through most of the morning and napped in the afternoon after a walk. I just seem to be tired a lot of the time and can’t function in mornings at all. Is it really autistic burnout? 🤷‍♂️again.

I enjoyed most of Pesach, but I again have the feeling that my chag (festival) lacked meaning and spirituality. Did I really meditate on the meaning of freedom? Did I really come closer to God? I feel like I didn’t. Do some people really manage this? I don’t know again, and I’m scared to ask anyone. This is when I feel like I struggle from not having many frum (religious) friends to talk to. Sometimes I wish I was an FFB (frum from birth i.e. raised as a religious person) who could take the basics of the festival for granted and concentrate on the deeper meaning. Or a BT (ba’al teshuvah, ethnic Jew who became religious later on in life) who had a major inspirational experience at some point to reflect on when feeling distant from God, to re-energise. I just became religious because I felt guilty for not being religious, which is probably exactly the sort of thing I would do, engage in a major life-change from guilt and obligation rather than inspiration and then try to keep it going. But I feel like I’m immune to inspiration. Even now I’m apparently over the depression (for now), I don’t seem to have much of an inspirable soul, at least not with the things that are supposed to inspire Orthodox Jews.

Possibly I assume everyone else is doing a lot better than me when that is not the case.

I have a date with PIMOJ tomorrow and should go to bed, but I want to watch TV for a bit to unwind or I doubt I will sleep easily. I’m going to try not to catch up with my missed blog posts from the weekend, part of an attempt to be online less. I skimmed down my friends list to see I wasn’t missing anything important, and I admit I read one or two posts, but I’m going to try not to read the rest. Sorry if I missed your opus, it’s nothing personal!

Vulnerability (Fragment)

I had killer burnout this morning and missed Shacharit (Morning Prayers) completely, even though now the clocks have gone forward you can say it until after 1pm, although Chol HaMoed (semi-festive day) prayers are off-puttingly long, and the Anglo-Jewish custom is to wear tefillin even though it’s semi-festive (I feel uncomfortable wearing tefillin, which I’m sure feeds in to my tendency to pray Shacharit late).

I had a long WhatsApp conversation with PIMOJ which was good, as I was worried the relationship was burning out. It turns out she dislikes video calls as much as I do. So that makes me feel better. I told her about feeling burnt out and she was sympathetic, but I didn’t dare to tell her that I was still in pyjamas, and in bed, at 1pm. I realised last night that I need to make more of an effort to be vulnerable with PIMOJ. It’s hard, because she’s understanding, but also very different to me, very outgoing and happy, and I worry about scaring her off with my issues. Being vulnerable is scary. But I think the relationship will only move on if we open up to each other more. I think we’re both hiding some inner thoughts. It’s hard to work out how much to open up and when, though, especially as I didn’t always have good experiences with this in previous relationships.

Sir Galahad

I wonder how much of my low self-esteem comes from guilt about sex. Religious guilt about thinking about sex, but also feminist guilt about being attracted to women. Did the low self-esteem, guilt and shame start when I hit adolescence? I was shy as a child, but did I have low self-esteem before adolescence? I can’t remember.

Is it hard for any “normal” male (or female? I don’t know) who cares deeply about a traditionalist religion to get through adolescence any more without feeling hugely guilty? Such is the culture clash between highly sexualised, even pornified, Western sexual culture and religious culture. Then there was my first relationship, much of which was spent negotiating what levels of physical contact we were comfortable with (contrary to stereotype, she wanted to be much more physical than I did; she was a lot more experienced than I was too). Whenever I try to think positively about myself, I feel my libido is there to indict me.

It’s weird being thirty-seven and still a virgin, or at least it seems that way from the world around me. Certainly in the Orthodox Jewish world it’s weird and rather pitiable, although no one voices that opinion. In the Western world its weird for for different reasons. I suppose I seem inadequate, or dangerous (the “dangerous misogynistic incel” meme). The first psychiatrist I saw thought I was gay because I was twenty and had never had a girlfriend. I wonder what he would have thought if he could have known I wouldn’t even go on a date until I was twenty-seven.

Maybe it’s different in a religious community that encourages monasticism and religious celibacy. In the Orthodox Jewish community, where early marriage and large families are the norm, I feel this weird pseudo-child, a fact not helped by my autism and mental illness history rendering me childish and helpless more often than I would like. I agree with the Orthodox Jewish prohibition on sex before marriage, but I wonder if I will ever get there — or if, when I do, it will be one more thing that autism renders difficult and uncomfortable for me. Many people on the spectrum struggle with sex for a variety of reasons, usually tied to sensory discomfort or issues around interpersonal relationships. My experiences with my first relationship don’t make this any easier, just adding more guilt and fear.

Now I’m in a relationship, which makes these worries both more and less pertinent: fewer worries of the “No one could ever love me?” type, but more of the “What if she decides I’m too broken?” or “What if I’m just too autistic to do make this work?” type, as well as the specific obstacles our relationship faces.

I’ve mentioned before my asexual childhood fictional heroes (possibly I had already intuited on some level that sex and relationships would be hard for me) have all been sexualised now. Not for the first time, I reflect that the diversity agenda (which I see a lot in librarianship) is, in many ways, not all that diverse.

I feel haunted by the question, “Am I normal?” Haunted both religiously and generally. Also, “Am I good?” I wonder if God thinks I am a good person or a good Jew. These questions are not uniquely related to sex, but they are not absent from it either. I would like to know very much if God thinks I’m a good Jew.

***

I don’t know if it was a cause or a result of these thoughts, or something entirely unrelated, but today I had a bit of a mid-Pesach slump. Actually, in OCD anxiety terms, it was good: some things that would normally have been very triggering were overcome quite easily, but my mood was low. I just felt down and struggled to get involved in anything. I managed about forty minutes of Torah study, which surprised me, as it was difficult to concentrate.

I went for a run, which was good in terms of pace and moved my low mood a bit, but also refocused the low mood as general angst: “What if PIMOJ breaks up with me?” “What if our relationship doesn’t work out for some other reason?” “What if I never progress past my autism to build a career?” “What if I never get published?” (Published more than I have been already, I guess.) It’s telling that I was worried about not getting published and didn’t even think about a librarianship career.

I do think lockdown has made my relationship with PIMOJ hard, particularly the last few weeks when we’ve both also been busy with Pesach preparation and she’s been working compulsory overtime several days a week and speaking on video, let alone in person, has been almost impossible. Hopefully things will get a bit easier from here on.

***

In the evening I had a Zoom call with a couple of university friends. It was good, but also hard in parts, partly because I’m not comfortable on Zoom, partly because I feel our lives are very different. One friend teaches in a law school, the other at a university and I feel a bit inferior. On the other hand, they’re really impressed with my novel, but I don’t like to talk about it for reasons I can’t understand. I was trying to say that someone had read the novel and not liked it without saying it was PIMOJ, because I haven’t told them about PIMOJ and don’t want to at this stage. I didn’t want to talk about my autism assessment either and was vague there when talking about bad Microsoft Teams experiences, which I had at my assessment. I don’t know why I hide so much from people in real life. I’m scared of making myself vulnerable, which is probably an issue I have with PIMOJ too. I’m trying to make myself more vulnerable to her and share more, but it’s not always easy. I’m scared of how she might respond. I also had the issue I had yesterday of wanting to know how long the meeting would last. It was a free meeting and so should have been forty minutes, but went on longer, which made me vaguely anxious. All that said, my mood was better afterwards and I’m glad I managed it.

***

Perhaps because my mood was better after the call, I decided to send the devar Torah (Torah thought, although this was shorter and less textually-based and possibly less well-reasoned than normal) I wrote earlier in the week after all, after having been on the point of dumping it because I disliked it so much. My belief that Judaism is fundamentally anarchist in outlook (not voiced in so many words) is one I have hinted at before, although I’m wary of stating it explicitly for fear of the response it will get. Obviously it’s a different kind of anarchism to that of modern anarchist thinkers, based on individual responsibility and self-restraint.

***

All day, when my mood was bad, I was saying I would just vegetate in front of the TV. But then I thought I would do some Torah study first and then I would run first and in the end I’ve only watched forty minutes of TV. I wonder if I do more than I give myself credit for, but I haven’t actually done much today, just thought about doing things.

Time Warp Pesach

Shabbat (the Sabbath) and the first two days of Pesach (Passover) were, on the whole, good. I wanted to do a blow-by-blow account, but it’s too late and I don’t have the time, so I’ll do bullet points. (I’m also not catching up on blog posts I’ve missed tonight; hopefully tomorrow, but even then maybe not all of them.)

  1. I saw a beautiful rainbow on the way to shul (synagogue) on Friday night. This got Yom Tov off to a good start.
  2. Shabbat was weird. (I’m not even going to try to explain how or why Shabbat the day before Pesach is so weird. Sorry, it’s just too complicated. If you don’t know, you might just want to skip to the next bullet point.) We had egg matzah for hamotzi. This is not entirely in the spirit of not eating matzah on Erev Pesach, but I felt the alternative was to eat pita bread and freak out about chametz (leaven) crumbs all through Pesach. I managed to get up around 8.00am to daven (pray) a bit and make hamotzi before the cut off time.
  3. Having Shabbat the day before Yom Tov gave the whole experience a weird Groundhog Day time warp effect where none of us were sure what day it was, something only compounded by the clocks going forward on Saturday night, when religious Jews can’t change them (because of Yom Tov) — except that some modern clocks adjust themselves, so on Sunday and Monday we kept having to check what time it was on different clocks to work out what time it really was.
  4. The sederim went pretty well. Even though there were only three of us (me, Mum and Dad), we had some back and forth of questions and suggested answers. I learnt some things, which was good. We had a good pace, not too fast or too slow. I do feel I’m too old to look for the afikoman, especially alone. I didn’t mind saying the Mah Nishtanah (the Four Questions, traditionally said by the youngest person present), and sang it, something my sister generally refuses to do. I do feel sorry for people doing solo sedarim though.
  5. My OCD anxious thoughts were mostly under control, more so as time went on. I am still struggling with a few thoughts intermittently. My rabbi mentor is usually uncontactable during Chol HaMoed (the intermediate days of the festival) and won’t talk about Pesach after the event, but I have some questions to ask him for next year.
  6. I went to shul a few times. This occasioned some social anxiety, although I pushed through it, as well as discomfort (feeling suffocated) from wearing a mask too long.
  7. I read a bit: more of Seder Talk: The Conversational Haggadah by Erica Brown, the Haggadah I used at the seder this year (it has eight essays, one for each day of Pesach); a bit of Grant Morrison’s Batman arc; and Anno Dracula 1918: The Bloody Red Baron, Kim Newman’s follow-up to Anno Dracula, itself a spin-off from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, positing a world in which Dracula was not defeated and became Prince Consort of the British Empire. In the sequel, expelled from Britain, Dracula becomes Commander-in-Chief of the German and Austro-Hungarian armies in World War I. One hundred pages in, not a lot has actually happened, but the “vampires in spiked helmets” imagery is strong and there are lots of cameos from real and fictional figures from the early twentieth century.
  8. I think I feel more comfortable in my head at the moment. I’m OK sitting with myself without reading, watching TV or listening to music. On Friday and today I got exhausted and took time out just to lie on the bed silently. I think I need to decompress from sensory overload more than I realised in the past, or maybe I actually need to do it more often as I get older. I’m wondering if I should set a “No screens for the first half-hour after I get home from work” rule so I can decompress properly. I’ve been feeling lately that I want to be on my computer less, but unsure how to do it when my main social interactions are through the internet: my blog and other people’s.
  9. I went for a walk today without a coat or jumper. Spring is finally here.
  10. It occurred to me today that so many of my thoughts about not fitting into my community because I don’t feel I’m appropriately religious (Haredi) might actually be about not fitting in because I’m autistic. I realised that while I have a few possibly mentally ill Jewish hero figures (with the usual caveats about trying to diagnose people who have been dead for centuries), I don’t have any high functioning autistic Jewish heroes and its hard to find my place in the community without them. I know there are not many female role voices and models in Orthodox Judaism but there isn’t a single autistic one.

The Hardest Task of the Year

On the day before Pesach (Passover), it’s customary for first-born Jewish males to fast, in memory of the plague of the first-born in the exodus story. The custom has also arisen to get out of this fast (unlike other fasts) by attending a siyum a religious celebration, usually for finishing some religious study. When Pesach starts on a Sunday, this all gets pushed back to the Thursday beforehand. This is why I got up early this morning to attend a siyum on Zoom. I decided it wasn’t realistic for me to go to shul (synagogue) for this. I couldn’t sleep last night, but even before that, I thought I was too tired to manage it. I don’t know what I would have done in a “normal” year, but this year there is still COVID, so I attended virtually. I didn’t manage to get up early enough to pray beforehand (the siyum is usually immediately after the morning service) or even to get dressed; I just got up and switched on my phone, leaving the camera switched off as I sat there in my pyjamas.

After I managed to eat breakfast, get dressed and pray, I hoovered my room and went for a walk. My mood dropped quite a lot while out. I was feeling negative (depressed and anxious) about Pesach, but also about my writing. Coming home and eating lunch helped quite a lot. Tiredness and low blood sugar can push my mood very far down, very quickly.

In the afternoon I made the charoset and baked cinnamon balls (biscuits). I was pretty exhausted after that, and after my anxiety got pushed up by something that happened, so I had to take time out to watch Babylon 5 to try to regain my composure.

Then came the worst task of the year: kashering the kitchen sink i.e. getting it ready for Pesach by pouring boiling water over it to remove any trace of food. The difficulty is that it has to be boiling water not boiled water, i.e. poured within just a few seconds of the kettle turning off. And it has to reach the surface of the sink (bottom, walls, drainer, taps) from an area of a couple of inches of where the spout hits the sink, or it will have cooled off too much. And ideally you should do it in one go.

I don’t know why I find it so hard. My rabbi mentor and my parents’ rabbi have both said it’s easy. Mashgiachs (kashrut supervisors) do it all the time. But something – perhaps some autistic body coordination problem, the reason I’m awful at ball games? – stops me doing it. Of course, OCD kicks in too: after two or three seconds I stop, convinced I’ve spent too long pouring when I probably still have a second or two to keep pouring.

Whatever the reason, I can’t do it in one go. I take seven or eight, maybe more, doing the drainer and taps, than the base of the sink, then the walls one by one, sometimes repeating bits I’m not happy with. This time I got to the end and couldn’t remember if I’d done the side nearest me. I was 80% sure I had, but not 100%. I decided 80% would have to be good enough; do it again, and I’ll be there all night doubting myself, redoing bits, fuelling the OCD. My rabbi mentor says I only have to get 51% of the sink for it to be considered done. I have no idea if I managed that. We put a plastic bowl in on Pesach anyway, which is a useful belts and braces approach.

It didn’t help that Mum and Dad were in and out of the kitchen the whole time while I was doing this, which just made me feel more awkward. I felt pretty rotten afterwards, not sure if I’d done the right thing and feeling undischarged anxiety pent up inside me. I hate this job, but I worry my parents wouldn’t do it the way I would like, so I have to do it myself.

I appreciate that this is probably very far from what most people would see as the place of religion. For what it’s worth, I feel that if I do this every year, despite hating it, purely because it is what God wants, according to the rabbis, then that is a kind of sacrifice.

Even this was not the end of the day. After dark, we did the traditional search of the house by candlelight for chametz. We were all pretty exhausted and not in the best temper. Usually this would be done on the night before Pesach, but that’s Shabbat (the Sabbath) this year, so we do it earlier.

With all of this, it’s probably no surprise I barely managed ten minutes of Torah study. Hopefully I can catch up over Pesach.

***

I feel that maybe I shouldn’t talk about OCD thoughts and anxiety here. Or at least, it’s hard to know what to say about them. They aren’t anywhere near the intensity of when my OCD was at its height a few years ago. Although I would like to hear from my rabbi mentor about one or two things, I’m mostly feeling OK, although something happened today that (frankly) freaked me out for five or ten minutes into stronger anxiety. Everyone has OCD-type “weird” thoughts all the time. The difference is that most people dismiss them easily, but people with OCD fixate on them and worry about them and their implications. I’m not at the OCD end of obsessing about things endlessly, but I’m not at the point of just brushing things off either.

The problem is that checking is bad for OCD, as it just fuels it. You can never be 100% certain, so checking just encourages double and triple checking. In Orthodox Jewish culture, it feels normal to check questions with a rabbi, particularly at Pesach, when the dietary rules are so different from the rest of the year, but that’s counter-productive with OCD. It’s hard to know what to do sometimes. I’m just trying to focus on trying my best and hoping that’s enough, but sometimes it doesn’t feel like it would be.

***

Ashley pointed me in the direction of this article on autistic burnout. I found it interesting that it sees burnout as being long-term, over a period of weeks or months. I have probably had burnout like that (possibly some of my depressive episodes were actually major burnout), but I experience extreme fatigue and desire to withdraw also on a regular basis for short periods (days or even hours). I certainly agree that burnout can cause loss of skills. I am fairly sure I lose skills in the short-term when burnt out, and I suspect I have lost skills long-term too, particularly my librarian skills. I also seem to make more mistakes in writing than I used to (wrong words, apostrophes), and find it harder to spot them. I used to be a good proof-reader; I’m not sure that I still am.

***

I’m not sure if I’ll get the time to write tomorrow. It’s not technically Erev Pesach (the day before Pesach), but as Erev Pesach is Shabbat, most of the usual Erev Pesach tasks get done tomorrow. It’s the busiest day of the year and I don’t know if I’ll get time to write. And then I’ll be incommunicado until Monday evening! I’ll be glad to actually get to Pesach after such a stressful build up.

The Long Twilight Struggle

I struggled with burnout again on Friday, but forced myself to do my usual pre-Shabbat (Sabbath) chores, as well as thoroughly hoovering and dusting my room for Pesach, including moving my bed and bedside table to hoover under them (not my desk though – too heavy, and food is unlikely to get under it as the three exposed sides are flush with the floor). At least that’s out the way for now; I won’t eat food (other than water) in there now until after Pesach.

I embarrassed myself phoning the hospital about the report from my autism assessment. I had misunderstood when it would be available, which turns out not to be for another two or three weeks. I was very apologetic to the secretary for wasting her time, but I felt bad.

Shabbat (the Sabbath) went well. I went to shul (synagogue) on Friday night. We davened Kabbalat Shabbat (said some of the Evening Prayers) outside so that we could sing. It was good to sing, but very cold, even if Saturday was the first day of spring.

I got up earlier than usual on Saturday morning, although I went back to bed after breakfast and dozed for a bit. I napped in the afternoon too, which I didn’t want to do. I didn’t do much Torah study, partly because of napping, partly because when Shabbat went out I got an awful migraine that took hours to shift. I didn’t even feel up to saying all of the Ma’ariv (Evening) prayers; usually I somehow soldier on, but I skipped the after Shabbat verses of blessing because just reading made me feel like I was going to throw up. This is an improvement, as in the past I would carry on. The last time I had a bad headache when davening (praying) was on Simchat Torah, when bowing at the end of the Amidah prayer actually made me throw up. Perhaps I’m willing to make more excuses for myself now.

I spent much of the evening wrapped in my weighted blanket, watching Babylon 5 (hence the title of this post from one of the episodes, used in a rather humorously melodramatic way). The painkillers I took finally kicked in, along with the cool and soothe strip. I feel a bit tired now, but not particularly sleepy. I’m going to have something to eat (I need to take my antidepressants with food) and maybe go to bed. My room is freezing cold; I opened the windows wide before as I prefer to be cold if I have a migraine, but I wonder how I will fall asleep now.

***

I’ve been missing PIMOJ a lot lately. I realised that I experience this not as pining after her the way I pined after various crushes in my earlier life, but in worrying that she will lose interest in me, that I’m not good enough for her and so on. I’m not sure what to do about this. Hopefully we can meet after Pesach or maybe even during it. We had a text conversation tonight, a bit more in-depth than either of us has had the time or energy for this week, and we’re hoping to speak tomorrow.

***

It’s strange thinking that not only do I now have autism, but I have had autism all my life, even when I was a child doing well at school. It still seems a little strange how well I did at school compared with how badly I’ve done since then, but school was a strange micro-environment, plus “doing well” is relative, as I had undiagnosed depression and anxiety when I was in the sixth form and maybe earlier, and I struggled a lot socially, with bullying and (not) making friends. I would do a lot differently if I knew what I know now, but it’s too late. Still, the thought of being autistic and still doing well academically seems slightly jarring, even though many people on the spectrum are the same. I wish I could identify how I succeeded then and work out how to apply it now, but the answer seems to be to seek out opportunities for rote memorisation of lists and tasks, focus 100% on work with no social or romantic life, and concentrate very hard on doing what I’m told, which does not necessarily make for a healthy adult life.

I was looking over Shabbat at a new haggadah (Passover prayer book) commentary I just bought. It has open questions to stimulate discussion at the seder service. Many of them ask the participants to think about major life events. I keep coming back to my autism diagnosis for so many of these questions. I definitely haven’t worked it through yet.

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I search for the truth, in what I suppose is a very old-fashioned way. I took a decision at some point, initially unconsciously, lately very consciously, not to cut out of my life people I disagreed with purely on matters of religion or politics. I feel that this is unusual. I try not to read material that is just supporting my views, although it’s hard to find the time to read things from “my” side let alone other opinions in depth, and naturally I prioritise material I think is going to be more accurate which correlates with material I agree with. But I do tend to try to work out what the other side thinks, more or less automatically, probably a hold-over from my university days, where my essays tended to sit on the fence and examine both sides of the issue without really being drawn to one over the other. Anyway, I feel that this behaviour is unusual and most people do not do this. I’m not sure what to think about this.