Mission and Identity

I haven’t blogged publicly much recently. I’ve had some issues that I didn’t feel comfortable sharing openly. Hopefully these are resolving now and I can go back to more regular public posts.

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Work was hard today. I realised I made a mistake that could have cost us £80, throwing out the office shredder that might have been working because I thought it was broken when it may have been that it just wasn’t plugged in. On testing it again, I think it really was broken, but I felt stupid and feel like I made myself look stupid in front of J again. This may be low self-esteem. Then I had to make some difficult phone calls dealing with someone who owes us a substantial sum of money, but who has cancer. I want to be sympathetic, but, as J said, being ill does not mean being poor, especially in the UK where the NHS does at least mean people don’t usually impoverish themselves seeking treatment. Moreover, this person’s son was supposed to be dealing the matter, but has let it drag on for a year. He said he would pay in two months’ time once J authorised me to waive 50% of the money owed. Again, I want to be sympathetic, but if we just write off large debts it’s not fair on those who do pay. Then I spent most of the day printing off a database again. I did at least listen to music some of the time.

***

On the train to work I was reading The Thinking Jewish Teenager’s Guide to Life by Rabbi Akiva Tatz. Yes, I know, I’m nearly forty, but I feel I haven’t got the “sorting your life’s mission out” aspect of my life down right yet. I have mixed feelings about the book. I’ve heard Rabbi Tatz speak a couple of times. He’s an engaging speaker, and writer, but I don’t always share his outlook on Judaism and life, not least because he’s a Haredi kabbalist (mystic) and I’m not either of those things.

Rabbi Tatz said to draw a circle and write inside it all your character traits, interests and so on and to write outside it all the traits and interests you admire. The stuff in the circle is you. Your mission will involve all those things and only those things. The idea is that you can concentrate on those aspects of your life. Your supposed to be able to do this by the time you are twenty or so, an idea I’ve also heard from another Haredi rabbi.

I have mixed feelings about this. I don’t know what my mission is at thirty-eight! Granted, I’m probably unusual as I have a disability that impacts social functioning (autism) that I didn’t know about until last year; until then I was pushing myself to do things that I just can’t do and feeling guilty or embarrassed about some things that are normal (for me). To be honest, I’m still struggling with this. It has certainly affected what I think my mission in life is and what I can reasonably expect myself to do.

Nevertheless, I’m aware I’ve moved from one career idea to another over the years with no consistency or success. I wanted to be an academic (actually, it was more that I thought I would stay in academia by default because I had no idea what else to do and wasn’t good at anything other than studying), then an academic librarian, then a writer. I have achieved none of these things and currently work in a non-career-advancing low status job. I don’t think your career and your mission are necessarily the same thing (although they are for some people), but Rabbi Tatz implies a strong correlation. I hope my mission is writing, but who knows if it is? And what if my mission is to bear suffering with dignity? It could be. It’s not an optimistic thought. At least Rabbi Lord Sacks said that the rabbinate (let alone the Chief Rabbinate) was his fourth choice career after failing to become an academic (philosopher), economist or barrister. I find those odds more reassuring.

***

On a related note, I’ve been thinking about identity a bit lately, partly the result of reading an article that complained that millennials use medical diagnoses, particularly mental health or neurological conditions, and particularly self-diagnosed from the internet, as their identity. I’m not at all sure that this is true, but it did make me wonder if autism is part of my identity, and what I would consider my identity to be.

I feel like my autism affects my identity, while not being my identity. I don’t feel being a Doctor Who fan is my identity either, although it apparently is for some people. I do feel being Jewish is part of my identity, a key part as it shapes so much of what I do and think, how I see the world and engage with it, but it isn’t the whole of my identity.

In the end I concluded that my identity, inasmuch as I can identify it, is a sort of zone where “What I am” meets “What I do” and “What I think and feel” even though none of those things by themselves would consist of my identity. It’s a dynamic process rather than an objective “thing.” But I’m still thinking about this and am open to suggestions.

***

You may have detected an undertone of self-criticism in much of this post. I have been struggling a bit with negative self-thought today, sometimes apparently justified, like with the shredder, sometimes perhaps not. I’m not sure how justified it is. I guess it’s good that I’m noticing it and being mindful of it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

Regenerations

I got up surprisingly early, mostly because E also got up early and we sat together, feeling tired and trying not to fall asleep. My satisfaction at this was soon broken when Dad told me that I had left my iPod in my trousers when I put them in the wash yesterday, and he hadn’t realised until after they had been through the wash. The iPod is currently sitting in a bowl of rice to try to dry it out. I turned it on before I put it in the bowl (not realising that that could short circuit it) and it seemed to play OK (!), but the touch screen was faulty and I didn’t play it long enough to see if it really plays OK, or just for a few seconds. I think it turned itself on before, in the rice bowl, too.

I may have to spend on a new iPod, but I had better luck when we went to the free book box when we went for a walk, picking up The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Empire, which suddenly seems more topical than it probably did a few months ago. I feel I should finish reading Richard J. Evans’ Nazi history trilogy first though.

E had to do quite a bit of work today, so, as well as having therapy, I took the time to submit my novel to another two agents, work on my new novel for half an hour (I felt it wasn’t terribly successful, but some days aren’t), do some research for where E and I might go in the near future as well as to find somewhere E can do a pre-flight COVID test on a bank holiday, and clean the sink ready to be kashered for Pesach tomorrow. In the evening E and I watched the Doctor Who episode The Next Doctor; not one of my favourites, but diverting enough. E was rather more tolerant of the second half than I was, which I think goes into somewhat unintentionally silly territory. I preferred David Morrissey as the ‘fake’ future Doctor to David Tennant as the incumbent.

***

I had got a bit bored of the Doctor Who posters I’ve had up in my room for several years (four posters each showing three of the first twelve Doctors, alongside monsters, and one of Jodie Whittaker, the current Doctor). I asked E if she would help me choose some new ones from the pile of posters that I have accumulated, mostly those that have come free with Doctor Who Magazine over the last twenty-five years. She said yes, albeit with the caveat that she should probably be suggesting something other than Doctor Who posters for decor (no, we won’t have them up when we get our own home).

In the end, I kept Whittaker up on the main door, but moved her down to the bottom half and put up a poster of her predecessor, Peter Capaldi, with smaller pictures of the previous Doctors, so that all the Doctors are shown (more or less, given that who counts as a ‘real’ Doctor is now open to question post-The Timeless Child). I had had this poster up before, when I lived away from home, but the other posters had never been up before, or not this way around, as a couple of them were on the reverse of posters I’ve had up. DWM loves double-sided posters, presumably in the hope people will buy the magazine twice to put up both posters.

One wardrobe acquired has two original paintings of Tom Baker stories, Genesis of the Daleks and The Deadly Assassin. Baker is my favourite Doctor, and The Deadly Assassin is a strong story. I think Genesis of the Daleks is a little over-rated, but still good, but E liked it a lot and its iconography makes it very suitable for art. The other wardrobe has a bold poster of couple of Daleks by the Brooklyn Bridge to promote Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks and a poster of Jon Pertwee and a Sea Devil from the latest issue, to promote the Sea Devils’ imminent return in this coming Sunday’s episode. The Sea Devils was one of the first stories I saw and one I have a lot of nostalgia for, while the Sea Devil costumes are one of the better original series designs, so I was pleased to put it up.

***

Not really a relevant thing, but I wanted to share. Some of you may know that Lord Wolfson has just resigned as Justice Minister in protest over the parties now known to have taken place in Downing Street during lockdown. I googled him, and according to the government website and Wikipedia, he’s an Orthodox Jew who spent a year studying at yeshiva (Yeshivat HaKotel) before university. I wonder if he’s the first minister to list a yeshiva alongside the more conventional Selwyn College, Cambridge and Inner Temple as a place where he studied on the government website?

Anxiety and Possible Shutdown

I didn’t want to write tonight, but I need to offload/process some thoughts before bed.

On Friday I woke up really drained, more or less physically ill and couldn’t do much until mid-afternoon. The afternoon was mostly taken up with pre-Shabbat (Sabbath) chores and a quick trip to the chemist. I went to my parents’ shul (synagogue) inn the evening. I had agitated thoughts there and later about antisemitism and the recent terrorist attacks in Israel. The thoughts were very intense and I couldn’t shut them off. This used to happen to me a lot when my depression was bad. It happens less now, but still sometimes. I guess it was worsened this time by worry about Pesach (Passover) preparations this week ahead of us (basically the busiest, most stressful week of the year) and a family illness that I won’t talk about on an open post.

Now the clocks have gone forward, dinner on Friday is late, meaning by the time we finished eating it was very late. I hadn’t had time/energy to do more than a few minutes of Torah study before Shabbat. I wanted to do some because I needed to connect with something Jewish, but this kept me up very late. I read fiction briefly after that, but not for long, partly because it was very late, partly because the book I’m reading, Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men, is interesting, but not a page-turner that I want to keep returning to.

It’s a science fiction history of the human race stretching millions of years into the future. Of course, it reflects the fears of the time it was written (1930 I think) more than current ones, but parts of it resonate. However there are no real characters to engage with; it’s written as a history book, and one with a broad scope and focus on social and even evolutionary change over thousands or millions of years. It makes it hard to get into. It’s not something I’m desperate to return to when I stop reading.

I also really disagree with the author’s cosmopolitanism, although writing why would take longer than I have to write tonight. It does feed in to why I stopped feeling part of the progressive left, while not feeling part of the political right either. The brief answer is that I think religious and national cultures are not something extraneous to us that can be removed, but something intrinsic in our upbringings that for many people forms part of their makeup even if they reject it. For various reasons (including the Reformation, Enlightenment and two World Wars), some Westerners over the last century or two have found it easier to detach religion and, to a lesser extent national culture from their lives, but it’s much more embedded in people (including me) from other cultures or even from other cultures in the West e.g. the American South. There is a lot more to say, but I’ve set a timer so I only write for thirty minutes tonight.

I slept late, as usual. I didn’t want to sleep after lunch, as I thought it would stop me sleeping tonight, plus I wanted to read and do more Torah study. To this end I went for a walk straight after lunch and when I got home I drank a cup of coffee, in the hope that activity and caffeine would help me stay awake. They did not. I slept for an hour and then spent another hour and twenty minutes in bed, too tired to move or even open my eyes. I wondered if this was an autistic shutdown. I thought of asking on the autism forum, but I’m wary of saying too much about Jewish stuff, and this situation really happens only on Shabbat and Yom Tov (festivals) and I’m not sure how that factors in. I might post a question there tomorrow.

After I woke up, I looked at the haggadah (Passover seder/ritual meal prayerbook) for twenty minutes or so, mostly at the commentary in the haggadah I bought last year. It has questions to ask to prompt debate as well as more detailed exposition. I always feel bad that we don’t discuss things much at seder. I read out ideas, but there is no give and take, and being on the spectrum, I struggle to know how to facilitate such debate. It’s hard on me, as I end up being the only one who doesn’t learn anything on the seder, because it’s just me reading things out (I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I’m usually the most Jewishly-educated person at our seder by a considerable margin). I hope the questions might help. I’ll just ask one or two a night this year and see how they go and maybe choose more next year. I would have liked to have spent more time on this, but I ran out of time.

There was one other thing that upset me a bit, but I don’t really want to write it on an open post and I’m not sure that I should write it at all. I’m also nearly out of the thirty minutes I gave myself to write this. Maybe I’ll post it on a password-protected post at some point, as it’s a long-term issue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Counter-Factuals

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Job Interview and Changing the Past

I was very early for my job interview today and hung around at the bus stop for twenty minutes, killing time. As my therapist suggested, I tried to use positive affirmations to get in a good state of mind, although I’ve never had much success with this. Telling myself, “I will do the best I can today; I don’t need to worry about tomorrow” helped a bit.

I feel I had my usual autistic problems in the interview: long pauses while I tried to process things and sentences that started confidently, but then trailed off as I realised I didn’t know what to say, or didn’t have as much to say as I thought, sometimes awkwardly ending on “and…” I had prepared notes and had them open, but when the questions came, I got focused on them and didn’t look at the notes. I made bland assertions rather than using the STAR method I’ve frequently been told to apply in interviews, where you talk about a Situation you were in, the Task involved, the Action you took and the Result. I find it hard to think of the concrete examples needed by the STAR method. I was also distracted by my surroundings, not lights or noises, but the very noticeboard on the wall behind the interviewers, with colourful animal photos, and a large photograph of a gorilla perched on the windowsill. Once I noticed that, it was hard to un-notice it (the weird opposite of the famous psychology experiment where subjects failed to notice a gorilla). I should add that neither wildlife nor photography have anything to do with this organisation’s purpose.

I think I answered most of the questions OK, but I got a bit stuck on being asked about a time when I gave excellent customer service. I have had this question before and I don’t like it. I had prepared an answer, but at the last moment, I felt that it wasn’t appropriate, and instead said that I always give the same excellent level of customer service to everyone (complete attention, politeness, etc.). It was not a great answer.

So, I don’t think I embarrassed myself, but I don’t think I did brilliantly either. I have had some help with interviews in the past, but nothing seems to really help once I get into one and my autistic brain is left to fend for itself.

***

When I got home, I wrote the full (800 word) synopsis that one literary agency were asking for. Looking at my manuscript, much of it makes me cringe, both in terms of quality and in terms of the parts that were based on my own life — there is much I would like to have done differently if I lived my life again. I felt initially that not enough happens in the novel too, although I feel that not enough happens in literary novels generally (I’m probably not supposed to say that). However, on looking at the novel as a whole, I think things do happen, they just start slowly, held up by stuff that mattered to me emotionally, but which probably isn’t necessary for the plot, but I don’t know how to change it now.

The agency seemed a bit picky in what they wanted, and on their submission guidelines they said they wanted the first five pages of the manuscript, but on the submission form itself they said they wanted the first twenty pages. I don’t think the agency will be a great fit, but having written the synopsis, I felt I ought to submit it.

***

I noticed today that although Transport for London are encouraging passengers to wear masks, none of the staff seem to wear them any more. It’s very hard to feel engaged in doing it any more.

***

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about embarrassing events from my past, mostly from my childhood and teenage years. I was mostly well-behaved, but did misbehave occasionally. When I did, I was not usually caught, but somehow I feel I should have been. I’m not sure why I feel guilty for harmless actions from a quarter of a century ago, but I do. Then, as I wrote above, looking at my novel today made me think about the events that inspired it, which are bound up in regrets and self-recrimination from a bad time of my life. Curiously enough, Paula wrote today about regretting or not regretting past actions. As I said there, it’s hard to imagine changing the bad without changing the good, or at least the necessary, and the most significant things were often out of my hands anyway. I feel it’s counter-productive to have these thoughts, but it’s easy to get stuck in it.

Then today I was reading The Principles of Judaism were Rabbi Dr Samuel Lebens argues that God can and will rewrite history so nothing bad ever happened. (Or “hyper-happened” as he would say, as something bad happened, but God “hyper-will” change it so it didn’t.) I didn’t really agree with this, although it was hard to find the logical flaw. It just seems wrong. The book had some surprising propositions, but this was one I really struggled to accept.

I think I preferred the theodicy Rabbi Lebens quoted from Gabriel Citron (who I knew slightly years ago) that, from the afterlife, our suffering in this world will seem as insubstantial as a nightmare. This is closer to my thinking. I’m surprised Rabbi Lebens rejects it, saying “I don’t see much religious value in the skeptical possibility that we’re not really awake right now,” as it doesn’t seem all that different to Lebens’ suggestion earlier in the book that we’re just ideas in God’s mind.

Questions

I had another novel agent rejection. He said, “You have an interesting story to tell and there’s a lot to like about your approach. But in the end I’m afraid I didn’t come away quite fully convinced this was something I think I’d be able to represent successfully.” I’m confused by this. Is it the literary equivalent of “I like you, but only as a friend”? (I got that a lot too in the years before E.) It makes me wonder if agents are really put off by the Jewish nature of my novel and think they can’t represent it. If so, maybe I ought to seek out Jewish agents (how would I find them?), or apply to the one or two Jewish or Jewish-ish publishers I know.

***

I woke up this morning to a text telling me I could apply for a vaccine passport. As the text did not come from an NHS number (they always say “NHS”) and didn’t link to an NHS website, and as I already have the NHS COVID app, I concluded that this was a scam, probably asking for money for phishing for personal details. Things like this leave me a bit shaken though. Not to a huge extent, but I worry that I might fall for a scam one day, and just experiencing it makes me feel negative about the world.

***

At work J sent me to get a key cut. It was a special key, so I had to go on the bus to a particular hardware shop. He said that if it took up to an hour, I should just stay in the area and collect it, but if it took more than an hour, I should come back and he would collect it later. I was told it would take an hour, so I wandered around the area for a while. There wasn’t really time to go anywhere. There was a small park nearby, but I hadn’t brought a book to read, so I just wandered around listening to Eurythmics’ greatest hits on my headphones. So many shops have video screens in the windows now. I’m sure it contributes to autistic sensory overload.

Other than that, work left me feeling vaguely stupid again for not using my initiative or common sense, probably for no good reason, or only a mild reason. I vaguely recall that when I was a child, adults used to say I had intelligence, but not common sense. I’m not sure whether that is shorthand for autism or not.

***

Almost no one is wearing a mask on the Tube any more. I feel torn. The evidence for masks, particularly cloth ones, is not great, as I understand it. I suspect a lot of it is about wanting to feel one is doing something at a time when we couldn’t do anything. The college where I am having a job interview tomorrow still insists on masks in public spaces (I’m not sure what the define as ‘public’). Being autistic, I like clear rules, and the clash of different masking regulations (entirely voluntary/compulsory in places) is confusing to me. I fail to make up my own mind.

I am wearing a mask at the moment more to avoid panicking others than because I think it will help me, maybe because my Dad gets annoyed if people aren’t wearing masks. I wore one to shul (synagogue) over Purim, but took it off when I realised almost no one there was wearing one.

***

My ability to catastrophise about my job interview tomorrow is impeded by my inability to work out if I want the job or not. I feel like I’ll mess up the interview and still be faced with the difficult decision of taking the job or not, even though both of these things can not happen simultaneously.

I said to my parents that I feel I haven’t done well at a librarian job in the last five years. My Dad said this was untrue. I think it is largely true, although not entirely. I had a job that lasted one month in a shul library that went OK, although no one ever gave me real feedback on what I did, or even seemed to really look at it. I also, as my Dad said, did well at the job at a university library. However, as I said to him, it was not really a job for a professional librarian, although they advertised it as such, but a trainee; someone else at the institution asked if I was going to train as a librarian and was shocked that I was already qualified. Other than that, my only library work in the last five years was the further education job, which was not good at all, albeit mostly because I was in a terrible environment for an autistic person (because I didn’t know I was autistic at that stage).

I’m not sure how much of this negativity is low self-esteem and autistic rigidity and how much is real. Dad seemed to think a lot was rigidity, but I’m not convinced. I still remember how my boss at the further education job told me that I wasn’t doing as well as she expected. I don’t think I’d ever really disappointed anyone that much before.

I do feel my professional qualifications have withered over the intervening years and I’m depressed by the fact that I rarely get interviews for library jobs and when I do get them, I don’t seem to do well. I wish there was some kind of objective test I could take to see if I’m still a good librarian, like doing my MA coursework all over again (although I felt that, like job interviews, library MA coursework tested exam-passing skills as much as the skills I would use in the field). I feel that maybe I should look for a cataloguing course on CILIP, but I feel that my once-desired career as a cataloguer no longer excites me. I’m too scared that my concentration has gone and I make stupid mistakes. I don’t know if that’s due to autism-unfriendly environments or my own decline.

Someone on the autism forum was saying the other day that he has built a successful career for himself as a librarian and that he thinks that many of his colleagues are on the spectrum (diagnosed or otherwise) and that it’s an autistic-friendly career, so I feel particularly useless that I could never get this to work for me. I was dealt a bad hand in the early years of my career (and before, when I was doing my librarianship MA), having to deal with burnout, depression, social anxiety and OCD all while not actually knowing the root cause of everything, the fact that I am autistic, so maybe I shouldn’t be too hard on myself.

I guess I feel I’ve despaired of building a library career and am already focused on writing, which is even harder to get into (see above) or earn a living from. Except I don’t let myself write, because I enjoy it too much, so I prioritise everything else over it. To be honest, sticking in my current job and working hard at my writing would be the best thing for me, IF I could find a way to fight the autistic/medication-induced exhaustion and get some serious writing and submitting time in each week. But maybe even that is running away from librarianship because I feel I failed.

The Joys of Spring

Well, I woke up earlier than usual today, but still struggled to get up until the doorbell rang and I realised I was the only person around to take the parcel in. Then I had to go back to bed for a few minutes, as I’d got up too fast and had a ‘blood rushing to the head’ moment and felt really dizzy. I think it’s a kind of progress, though, as I wasn’t in a deep sleep all morning or feeling too anxious to move.

I submitted my novel to another agency! Some agents seem to want things that are so specific, I wonder how they ever publish anything at all. Others want vague things like “strong characters” and “plots that stay with you.” One confessed a fondness for “the enemies to lovers trope” (“My alternative history romance begins in 1944, when Winston Churchill flies to a secret tete-a-tete in Berlin with Adolf Hitler…”). They all seem to have lifestyles and attitudes that are rather alien to mine, although maybe I’m reading too much into the tiny biographies. At any rate, I find it hard to connect, so I’m not surprised my writing doesn’t connect.

I wanted to submit to a second agency, but they wanted a full one-to-two page synopsis, including spoilers and the conclusion. I don’t think that’s a bad idea (I think my novel necessarily takes a while to get going and a full synopsis might sell it better than the first chapter or ten pages), but it will take me a while to write one, so I thought it was a good task for after my job interview on Wednesday, when I’ll probably be too tired for more creative writing.

I started to write down some ideas of things to share at the Pesach seder in a month. It took a lot longer than I’d hoped. It took about half an hour or more to write just one idea (I think it’s a good one, though). I think I will have to chose between seder preparation and devar Torah writing for the next few weeks, which isn’t much of a choice, as the sedra (weekly Torah reading) at the moment is in Vaykira (Leviticus) and it’s very hard to connect with it. Although this week is the death of Aharon’s (Aaron’s) eldest sons, which is a story I connect with; it’s about going too far in the pursuit of spirituality and crossing boundaries that should not be crossed.

I spent a bit of time on novel-writing too, although I didn’t get far. I deleted a couple of paragraphs I’d already written, started something else and didn’t like it (it sounded like the opening narration of a Twilight Zone episode, to the extent that I could hear Rod Serling reading it). I want an opening paragraph that is arresting, but not melodramatic. I think I slip into melodrama easily. E suggested just jump into the narrative and add a proper beginning later, which might be a good idea. I mainly focused on giving names to the main characters, something I hadn’t done during the planning stage. Names are hard, particularly when you have to worry there might be legal repercussions — it might be OK if you say “John Smith is a maths teacher,” but saying “Rabbi Cohen is a kodesh (Jewish studies) teacher and pornography addict” moves into more dangerous territory. If there’s a real Rabbi Cohen out there who teaches kodesh in a Jewish school, and there might well be, then he might sue.

E helped me prepare for my interview on Wednesday, asking practice questions. It does feel like it would be harder to think of a task less-suitable for someone on the autism spectrum than the job interview: a new environment with new people, where you have to process verbal information quickly and under pressure and communicate succinctly and effectively, telling the truth, but not always telling the whole truth. And it often has very little relationship to the day-to-day function of the job. E found me this article on how to talk about leadership experience if you don’t have any, but it just seems to underline that I’m really not a leader.

I went for a walk and had therapy too, where we discussed some coping strategies. I hope they are helpful in the future.

I did quite a lot overall, even though I didn’t get up that early. It’s certainly easier to do more stuff on a spring day like today, when it’s mild and sunny, and the daylight hours are about as long as the night than in the middle of winter when it’s cold and wet and dark.

“Cold turkey has got me on the run”

I didn’t have insomnia last night, which was good. I woke up a bit earlier than usual this morning too. Unfortunately, I didn’t get up for hours (and eventually fell back to sleep) because I was feeling really strong anxiety. Once I actually got up, the anxiety subsided somewhat, but it was really hard to get up. Maybe the olanzapine was reducing my anxiety without my really realising it? I remember the morning anxiety feelings from when my religious OCD was bad. It was pretty terrible. I am going to see how I am over the weekend, but I might try to talk to a doctor on Monday (if the surgery gatekeepers deign to allow me…). I felt the ‘hot and bothered’ feelings again too, which is presumably withdrawal again.

J wants me to work on Tuesday instead of Monday next week. I was supposed to have therapy on Tuesday as my therapist can’t do Wednesday this week. I felt paralysed with anxiety not knowing what to do. My Dad said I have to go to work, which deep down I knew. J is a very understanding boss, but he does sometimes throw changes to what day I work at me at very short notice, as if I don’t actually do much on my non-work days, although I guess he doesn’t know that I’m in therapy. I emailed my therapist, and she thinks she can fit me in on Monday or Friday, which is good.

I’m also desperate to move things on with E, but nothing will happen until she comes over here for Pesach. At least that’s only a month away. On the downside — Pesach is only a month away! That’s anxiety-provoking too! I hope staying eases some of the anxieties E feels about taking on so much religious stuff. I said she should talk to my parents about living with me, as they aren’t as religious as I am. It is scary and I do understand what she feels. I feel it a bit myself, especially on an anxious day like today. Unfortunately, E’s medical insurance wouldn’t let her see a psychiatrist about changing her meds. She’s still trying to resolve that.

I wanted to work on my novel, but I ran out of time, partly because of anxiety. I’m doubtful that I will get time after Shabbat tomorrow, and now we’re in the run-up to Pesach (Passover), with all the time-eating preparation that implies. I just feel such pressure to change my life in so many ways at the moment, to make time for things from more paid work to more writing and submitting writing. I find it hard to work out where to start, everything seems interconnected; to change one thing, you have to change everything else first. I need to start looking for more support after my phone call with my occupational therapist last week. This week was lost to withdrawal and Purim. At least the weather is more spring-like.

I’m going to try to go to shul (synagogue), especially as it’s the last week in our current premises and I doubt I’ll go again for six months (to the interim premises), until the new premises are open. I don’t really want to ‘people’ any more after yesterday. I feel I shouldn’t give in to anxiety and autism, although the people on the autism community would perhaps disagree. Then again, if I fight my nature to work, I guess I should fight it in other ways. I feel like people send me mixed signals about which parts of my personality I should be fighting and which accepting. As someone with poor self-knowledge, esteem and confidence, it’s very confusing.

Purim and Accepting My Feelings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

Suffering

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

Authenticity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

“Yes, I think I’m falling in love with myself again”

Today was a hard day at work, lots of phoning. I phoned the utility company, multiple times, to sort out a problem with missing invoices, then phoned people who owe money to encourage payment, and although no one answered, I left messages that I hope were not too garbled. I find this draining. I also feel I have approached one task wrongly and am struggling to find a new approach because of autistic rigidity. On the other hand, it was late, I was tired and maybe I just wasn’t thinking straight.

It made me think about something I saw on the autism forum recently, about whether you want to cure your autism. A lot of people say they like their autistic traits. I tried, and largely failed, to find any autistic traits I have that I like or value. I am very trusting and ingenuous, which I like, although it’s dangerous as I don’t always realise when people are lying to me. I can see that some autistic frum (religious Jewish) people probably find autistic logic helps them to understand Talmud. It doesn’t work that way with me, but maybe my ability to draw connections between different Jewish texts is, on some level, an autistic pattern-identifying ability.

Is my integrity and search for personal authenticity an autistic trait? I think some autistic people would say yes, but I’m not at all convinced that neurotypical people have less integrity or authenticity.

That said, whether they are autistic traits or not, I do value my integrity and authenticity. I have quoted the following passage (from The Quest for Authenticity: The Thought of Reb Simhah Bunim by Rabbi Michael Rosen, p. 355-356) before, but it’s important to me, so I will quote it again:

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

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

Sometimes I feel I make trouble for myself by pursuing authenticity in this way. That I would like to feel heimish sometimes. It’s probably a spectrum. You can be Chabad, and do Chitas (study the Five Books of Moses, Psalms and the Tanya, the early modern mystical theology work by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi) every day, or you can be Chabad and go to a farbrengen (Hasidic gathering with songs, Torah thoughts, food and alcohol) every so often and get drunk. Who is to say which is more authentic or ‘better’?

I suppose this is how most Jews do what they do, daven (pray), learn (study Torah) and perform acts of chessed (kindness) without always asking themselves (as the Kotzker said) “Why? Why? Why am I doing this? Is it the best thing I could be doing? Am I doing it the right way?” Once you start down this road, you can’t stop, and maybe it’s just as well that most people don’t do this. But as Rabbi Rosen says, for some of us, it’s irresistible. Whether it comes from my autism or not, it is a trait I’m glad I have, even if it’s not always easy to cope with.

In Lieu of Ranting

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

Brief Life Update

That’s a life update that is brief, not an update to a life that is brief. (Reminds me of an anecdote I heard about the Jewish law code called the Chayei Adam (Life of Man). Why did it get this strange name? (Admittedly many pre-modern rabbinic texts have strange names, often puns or quotes based on the author’s name.) Because the author knew a previous law code, the Shulchan Aruch (Prepared Table) was republished in an edited form, as the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (Shorter Prepared Table). He didn’t want an edited version of his law code published, so he thought that no one would publish a book called the Kitzur Chayei Adam (Shorter Life of Man). However, they did still publish an edited version, just with a different name.)

Earlier I was going to complain about my life feeling stuck, but then suddenly a bunch of things happened today! Unfortunately, it’s only the least interesting ones I can share for now…

My parents managed to get me a phone appointment with the doctor today about my exhaustion. We’ve agreed to reduce and then stop the olanzapine (one of three psych meds I’m on, all of which can cause tiredness) and to do some blood tests to check vitamin levels and the like. Annoyingly, I had one of my regular lithium blood tests yesterday; I would have waited if I had known. I’m hoping coming off some of meds is helpful regarding exhaustion, although I suspect at least some of the exhaustion is autistic fatigue (the doctor didn’t comment when I mentioned that). I’m not sure how long it will take to come off the olanzapine. The doctor said take a lower dose of olanzapine for a couple of weeks, then stop entirely, assuming the depression doesn’t come back, but that will be around the time my parents are hoping to be away, and that’s often a time when I feel lonely and depressed, so maybe not the best time for a medication change.

I heard from the Benefits Centre too. The money I was getting wasn’t a mistake. Some people are eligible for more than a year’s worth of benefits and I was classed as vulnerable and so permitted to keep getting benefits even though I was earning over the usual limit. I wish they had made this clearer. My benefits have been suspended now, pending my sending them more information about my earnings over the last fifteen months or so, and I suspect it won’t be restarted now I’m working.

Doing Things, Reading Books

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

***

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

***

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

Exciting News and Energy Accounting

I got up before 10am (just)! I told myself I could have a doughnut if I got up by 10am twenty times in January. I guess the lure of a doughnut at the end of the month (despite my diet) is strong enough to break my usual desire to sleep in. (That’s not the exciting news, by the way.)

***

I booked tickets to New York to see E later this month! (That is the exciting news.) Because of the need to do pre-flight COVID tests; my inability to do said tests on Saturday (because of Shabbat) or Sunday (because the pharmacy I want to use is shut); my unwillingness to spend less than a week with E after travelling over 5,000km to see her; and the need to isolate on coming home until after another COVID test, my trip is going to require my taking two weeks off work, even though I’ll only be out of the country for nine and a bit days. This is rather a lot at our busy time of year. Fortunately, J is OK with it.

I did some research on COVID travel rules and restrictions. I feel more confident about them as they’ve become more familiar, although I still worry about going to get turned away at the airport for doing the wrong tests or having the wrong papers, or that I’ll get COVID and be stranded in New York for an extra fortnight. Getting COVID on the return flight doesn’t bother me so much, I’m less scared of COVID (I’m triple vaxxed) than I am of disruption to my plans and all that would entail, although it would be annoying to miss work just as my new contract starts.

***

I spoke to my rabbi mentor. He was happy that my life is going well (engagement to E, job made permanent, depression hasn’t come back despite it being winter, etc.). I did mention that I feel overwhelmed a lot of the time and that I’m struggling to get back in the shul (synagogue) habit post-COVID and that I am struggling to spend an hour a day in religious study as I was a few months ago. He felt that doing one hour of Torah study a day at my age was more than most people would manage (which made me feel vaguely bad that this was largely because I am unmarried, childless and only working part-time) and that doing less would be fine. He asked if there’s anything in my life that I could/would like to just drop and, aside from procrastinating, I said there wasn’t anything, which made me realise that most of the stuff in my life (work, prayer, Torah study, writing fiction, blogging, exercise) is important to me; I just have to work out how to balance it rather than cut anything out entirely.

On a related note, at the suggestion of someone from the National Autism Association forum, I watched a YouTube video on energy accounting by ‘Purple Ella’ (autistic content creator). To be honest, I’m still somewhat sceptical at my ability to get energy accounting to work, but she suggested just recording your activity and energy levels for a fortnight to work out what’s working well and what isn’t. This sounded like a good place to start.

Purple Ella also suggested energy accounting on a weekly basis as well as a daily one, in other words, not just making sure you balance your energy budget (intake vs. expenditure) over the course of a day, but also over the course of a week, taking extra relaxation time before or after a busy day. I do this a bit already, in terms of leaving recovery days after draining experiences, but it’s probably better to think in a weekly mindset as well as a daily one.

***

My revised article on religious OCD is up on the Jewish site. Which is good, but I need to figure out a way to get them to pay me for writing. It’s strange, I never really thought of myself as a confessional writer, but it’s definitely the way my writing has gone over the last decade. Confessional writing is different to novel writing, but I guess they both tap into the same level of emotions, or the novels I want to write do.

***

I’m watching The Twilight Zone episode The Incredible World of Horace Ford, about a man obsessed with his childhood. I could probably write a list of weirdo Twilight Zone characters who are probably on the autism spectrum. Just off the top of my head, there’s Ford, Mr Beavis (from the episode of the same name), the guy from the episode Miniature and probably several more if I thought about it properly. I’m not sure if it’s reassuring or not that they seem to avoid social conformity at the cost of living a ‘normal’ life.

Horace Ford clearly had a happier childhood than I did, as I’m not in much of a hurry to return to it. He has somehow managed to get himself married, which is strange as his wife is intelligent and attractive, yet appears to want to spend her life with a man who has a mental age of ten. His mother lives with them too, for added infantilisation. You can tell The Twilight Zone is pre-feminism, because apparently woman are falling over themselves to play housewife and mother to man-children. Although the guy from Miniature married an Edwardian doll, which probably is even less feminist.

Rumination and Peopling

I tried to relax a bit before going to bed last night. I watched some Doctor Who and broke my diet to eat a couple of Quality Street chocolates. Even so, I struggled to sleep. I just feel too stressed at the moment. I’m not sure what time I finally fell asleep, but I did somehow manage to get up for work in the morning.

Work was dull today, and left too much time for rumination. I still feel like a dry drunk, full of uncured neuroses and poor coping strategies, just waiting to plunge into another episode of depression. I hope I’m wrong, but I’m not convinced. I’m not sure how I move on from this. I mean, some people do move on from worse issues than mine. But lots don’t. As I’ve said, psychodynamic-type therapy definitely helps me to understand myself (and write novels about thinly-veiled Mary Sues) and often brings about short-term clarity, but I have not had any catharsis. My problems did not magically solve themselves by my transferring them onto my therapist and working through them in therapy. As for CBT, I’ve said before that it doesn’t really work on people on the spectrum. For every reason I can give why I’m not worthless and a failure, I can give another ten reasons why I am exactly those things. It’s scary thinking that I’m coming into a marriage with all this hanging in the background.

Maybe I can cope better than I think I can. Maybe I have dealt with some of my issues in therapy. It just feels like I haven’t and I don’t know what to do.

I was wondering if E and I hadn’t broken up in 2018, and I had kept my job in further education (my last job that felt like part of a career, not a time-filler), maybe my life would have been better. But E and I needed the separate growth time, that job wasn’t right for me, and Mum and Dad needed my help when Mum had cancer in the first lockdown. You can go mad thinking like that. It seems that God has a plan, difficult though it is for us to comprehend it.

***

I had dinner with my sister and brother-in-law. It was a mistake on several levels. I was exhausted from work and not able to ‘people’ well. We had takeaway from a kosher restaurant (actually two, due to an order mix up), but a regular delivery company and it wasn’t double-sealed as it should be to stop contamination if they are carrying non-kosher food too. Then we brought some back for my parents because we had too much raising issues about our crockery and microwave. Having conferred with my rabbi mentor, I think it’s OK, but I hate the struggle between my “wise mind” and my OCD mind, with my halakhic (Jewish law) mind caught in-between trying to figure it all out correctly. To be fair to me, a couple of years ago I’d have gone into a terrible, non-functional, anxious state, and this time I did not do that and kept some proportion. I thought that it would probably be OK, and it was. But I did still get somewhat anxious and concerned.

On the other hand, I feel like a terrible goody-goody caring about this (the delivery packaging) and talking about it here. I know lots of people think God doesn’t care about the details, only the bigger picture. I could write a whole essay on why the details are the big picture, but I doubt it would change anyone’s mind, so I’ll just say that I wouldn’t want my brain surgeon or airline pilot to do roughly the right thing, not worrying about the details, and I don’t see why God’s Law is less important or fine-tuned than brain surgery or flying a 747.

On the plus side, my sister and BIL gave me a lot of help regarding booking travel and COVID tests (they’re also going to the US in January) and my sister lent me a stack of driving instruction books, although that just reminds me that that’s another terrifying thing I have to confront at some point, probably sooner rather than later. It was good to see them, but in future I will try to schedule some relaxation time between work and socialising.

I’m pretty exhausted now. I will watch some Doctor Who and go to bed, I think.

Energy Accounting and God’s (Lack of) Emotions

I struggled to sleep last night, and then massively overslept today (again). Then I felt wiped out in the afternoon, although I managed to go mattress shopping with my parents. (I was astounded as usual at the ease with which my parents can chat to the shop assistant. I can’t do this at all!)

I still feel like I’m struggling with all the stuff I’m supposed to do (generally, not just today), even without my near-permanent exhaustion. And I know that no one makes me do regular prayer and Torah study, or write a weekly devar Torah, or write novels and try to get them published and I could cut all these things from my life easily, except that it would be even smaller and less meaningful than it already is. I can accept that some of these things might have to be cut down or put on hold for a year or two as E and I move towards marriage. It doesn’t make it easier to decide what gets cut, and how much.

In terms of keeping up with writing while struggling to do other things, I’ve heard of “microwriting,” writing in tiny bursts of just a couple of minutes. I can see they would add up, but I feel that I need a longer period to really get in to some writing, so I’m not planning on microwriting my next novel.

I would like to do some “energy accounting” to balance my energy output and intake to try to stop the burnout. The hardest part of energy accounting is having no real knowledge of how much energy tasks require, or how much I get back from different types of relaxation, which makes it all seem like guesswork. Ashley suggested that factoring in more relaxation time might improve energy levels overall, and it might, but I feel I already have some relaxation and I’m wary of factoring too much. It’s hard to work out how much is “correct.” If I could swap procrastination time for relaxation time, that might work, but reducing procrastination time is difficult, as it creeps in when trying to do other things rather than being scheduled. I have been trying to turn to blogs and sites online that I want to read for novel research rather than the Jewish and news sites I usually turn to when looking to procrastinate, but spending ages reading about addiction probably isn’t the best thing to do for other reasons. (It’s also constantly expanding. I just discovered that Chabad.org has a whole section of their site, which I think is still the largest Jewish website in the world, for Jewish addicts of all descriptions.)

Aside from the mattress, I tried to write my devar Torah for the week, but was really stumped. It’s not even a ‘difficult’ sedra (Torah reading). I just couldn’t think what to say. I found a sermon in the Sacred Fire: Torah from the Years of Fury 1939-1942, the Holocaust sermons of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira, the Piasczno Rebbe that I will try to summarise and, if I feel up to it, add to. But I’m not sure if I’ll be able to add much, or when exactly I’m going to get the time or energy to do this.

I basically spent much of the day feeling exhausted and depressed (like clinical depression in intensity) and I don’t know why. Actually, I wonder if it’s because I’ve been off work for a few days. I think I do need the structure, even if it exhausts me.

I will try to relax tonight and tomorrow and again at the start of next week when I have another bank holiday-induced break. I think going to work on the Thursdays will probably be for the best.

***

I had a thought today. I mentioned I’ve been spending time recently reading things by frum (religious Jewish) addicts as novel research. An idea that comes up a bit and is supposed to be inspirational is: “If I avoid acting out, it will give HaShem (God) nachas.” Nachas ruach or nachat ruach is the Hebrew term for contentment; in Yiddish, nachas refers more to the reflected glory from your children or grandchildren doing something successful. The idea is that God is emotionally pleased when an addict chooses not to act out or that He is generally pleased when people overcome the temptation to sin, like a parent who is pleased when their child does something significant.

I feel uncomfortable with all of this. Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon aka Moses Maimonides) says that God has no emotions, because if God had emotions, we could divide God into ‘God’ and ‘God’s emotion(s)’. This would disrupt God’s unity and is a big no-no from the point of view of Rambam’s Medieval rationalism. The most we can say is that the Torah anthropomorphises God, saying He is angry, joyful etc. because it’s the only way to understand something that is beyond human understanding (the nature of God). But God Himself is never angry, joyful etc.

I wonder if this is why I struggle with the idea that God loves me. Because I view it as a metaphor for something I can’t understand and not something literally true, as the addicts were suggesting. I would agree with Rambam that the mitzvot (commandments) were given for our benefit; keeping or not keeping them makes no difference to God, Who is eternal and unchanging no matter what we do.

I do feel that Rambam and other Medieval rationalists only appeal to a very limited number of people, I suppose very intellectual people who don’t need much emotional connection to Judaism, or at least can separate the emotional connection from the intellectual. My feeling, having mostly studied Rambam second-hand, is that he neglected the affective side of Judaism and wanted everything to come through the intellect. So he wants Jews not to believe, but to know via logical proof that God exists and, while he is very open to the idea that mitzvot teach us behaviour and positive character traits, he sees this teaching as happening in a very intellectual way, making us think about something, not through the mitzvah making us have a particular emotion (this is the source of my disagreement with him about animal sacrifice which he struggled with, whereas I see it as building on fairly straightforward emotions even if it’s not exactly to modern tastes). I feel that the Medieval rationalists were right, or more right than the kabbalists (mystics) (from my limited knowledge of Medieval rationalism and kabbalah). But I find it hard to live my religious life like that. It’s too dry and unemotional.

(Aside: I just ordered this book. Even with a 30% discount code, it cost A LOT, for a book that I’m worried I won’t understand. I spent eighteen months procrastinating over whether to get it. But I feel that some of the things I struggle with intellectually in Judaism could be eased a little by serious academic Jewish philosophy. I am, generally speaking, be willing to pay a lot of money to learn things that I think are true and meaningful.)

(Actually, while the credit card was processed, it really looks like something went wrong with the order, as I haven’t had a confirmation email, and my order history on the publisher’s site is empty. Something else to worry about and deal with…)

***

I am nervous about buying plane tickets to go to New York to visit E tomorrow (buy the tickets tomorrow, not go to New York tomorrow, obviously), which is super scary, but I will try to do it. It would be scary even without COVID and the need for PCR tests, but with COVID it’s even worse. But I’m going to do it!

Shame and Guilt

Yesterday was a dull day at work. I didn’t have much to say, so I didn’t blog, although I spent somewhere between one and two hours writing a private post. It felt freeing and I don’t know if that was writing for just E and me, or writing about something I’ve never really written about before.

I did go into the Judaica shop in search of tzitzit and came away with tzitzit strings to tie myself (even though I said I wouldn’t do that any more — it turned out to be significantly cheaper) and an expensive book, which I want for novel research, but also want to read anyway (On Repentance by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, edited by Pinchas H. Pelli — the new edition). I’m not sure if this was sensible in retrospect.

I feel tired today, not hugely burnt out tired, but it’s hard to do anything. Maybe it is a bit burnt out, though, inasmuch as going for a walk was hard and studying Torah was hard. It’s hard to tell. I really feel that I need to speak to a doctor about this, the persistence of tiredness and lack of energy long after the low mood of depression has gone, as well as what seem to be occasional “blood rushing to the head”-type moments lately, particularly when climbing stairs. However, I’m scared of even trying to get an appointment at the moment, with COVID expanding queues and everything non-essential shutting for Christmas. I worry about not being taken seriously too; autistic fatigue (if that’s what it is) is not widely understood or accepted. And I suppose I’m vaguely scared of having some kind of undiagnosed physical issue, possibly blood pressure-related (I think I’ve historically had slightly low blood pressure).

I didn’t do much Torah study today, although I did finish my devar Torah for the week. It was a more speculative one. I somehow struggle to find the balance between the classic sources and my hiddushim, innovative interpretations. Maybe the ideal balance only exists in my head and I just dislike whatever I write.

I didn’t do much else either, I guess because of the lack of energy. I did a little novel research and then E and I went to a virtual class about the influence of Christian art on Medieval Jewish art. It was interesting and makes me want to learn more about art generally.

***

Doing more research about pornography addiction, I came across the idea (in Understanding and Treating Sex and Pornography Addiction by Paula Hall) that shame about sex or pornography addiction can actually feed the addiction, but guilt about it can help stop it. This is based on the idea that shame is about feeling you are flawed as a person, which is destructive and throws you back into the addiction, but guilt is about feeling an act you did was flawed, which leads you to want to stop doing that action.

I wonder if this applies to non-addictive shame and guilt. I feel a lot of shame comparing myself to my peers, especially at shul (synagogue) as well as school and university peers, for not having managed to meet the social expectations on clever or even average people my age (career, family, house, etc.). I also feel shame at shul for perceived inadequacy in prayer, Torah study and mitzvah performance. So this sucks me deeper into depression when I’m depressed, or low mood when not clinically depressed, and into lower self-esteem. If I focused on guilt for specific acts, this might be less all-consuming and more productive. It’s hard though. I get eaten up by shame very easily.