Time Warp Pesach

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

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

I Want To Break Free

I couldn’t sleep last night. I had slept during the day, I often struggle to sleep after a migraine, and the migraine itself meant that I didn’t take my antidepressants until after midnight, and I usually rely on them to knock me out, so it wasn’t a surprise. Still, it was frustrating not to fall asleep until 4am. I did get up about 10am today, which was good, as there was a lot of Pesach cleaning to do.

The cleaners we booked to come in addition to our usual cleaner to do a lot of basic cleaning downstairs before Pesach have cancelled two weeks running now, so we’re having to do more. I appreciate that “Our cleaners – and not regular cleaner, just our Pesach back-up cleaners – have cancelled” is probably the epitome of middle class first world problems. There’s a global pandemic, the worst recession in centuries, genocide in China, a coup in Myanmar etc. Cleaners cancelling is not a big deal, even a week before Pesach. To be honest, I’m a bit glad: if this is the worst of our Pesach trouble, we should be OK.

I’m not sure how long I cleaned for, probably about two hours. I also managed a walk and some Torah study, and Mum cut my hair, but I would have liked to have done more cleaning. I ran out of time and energy. I wish I knew why my energy depletes so quickly. Possibly I’m just getting older, although I don’t hit forty for a couple more years. I did speak to PIMOJ for over an hour, which was good, although would have liked to speak more had I not been conscious that it was getting late and I have work tomorrow.

As the day went on and my stress levels increased and I got tired and hungry, I became more prone to religious OCD-type thoughts again. They are essentially contamination fears about our food, only with the fear being about religious contamination (non-kosher contamination into kosher food; chametz (leaven) into Pesach food) rather than germs. It’s frustrating and I worry what state I will be in by the end of the week, but I did mostly cope OK even if I want to check some things with my rabbi mentor. One book I have on “pure O” OCD (obsessive thoughts without compulsions including religious OCD) is called The Imp of the Mind and it does feel a bit like this external monster stirring up my thoughts when I’m stressed and hungry.

It’s tempting to want to carry on cleaning or doing Torah study and/or seder preparation late at night, but deep down I know I need to unwind a bit or I’ll be a mess tomorrow, emotionally and possibly physically too. It’s hard to see watching TV as necessary and justified even though it probably is. This is the first year I’m juggling Pesach and paid work and a relationship, so maybe it’s not a surprise that I’m a bit more stressed than usual even without lockdown complicating things further.

While cleaning I Want to Break Free by Queen came on my ipod on shuffle. That would seem appropriate anthem for this Pesach on so many levels: the usual Pesach level of the story of the exodus, the usual Pesach cleaning, lockdown, trying to stay free of OCD…

***

I finished reading Contact last night. I’m glad I stuck with it, as it did get better, and the end was more open to religion than I expected, but I do wish non-religious writers wouldn’t assume that all religious people think like Bible Belt Evangelicals. Also, I now have a serious space issues on my bookshelves. I could buy another bookcase, but I couldn’t fit it in my bedroom easily, and I already have most of my Jewish books downstairs in the dining room on one of my parents’ bookcases.

***

After my headache subsided last night, I said the prayers I had skipped when I was feeling sick. The Ma’ariv for Motzei Shabbat (Evening prayers for the evening after the Sabbath) contain a long anthology of verses of blessing for the new week and finish with a Talmud passage to start the new week with Torah study. It says (Megillah 31a, translation from the Chief Rabbi’s Siddur):

Rabbi Yochanan said: Wherever you find the greatness of the Holy One, blessed be He, there you find His humility. This is written in the Torah, repeated in the Prophets, and stated a third time in the Writings. It is written in the Torah: “For the LORD your GOD is GOD of gods and LORD of lords, the great, mighty and awe-inspiring GOD, who shows no favouritism and accepts no bribe.” Immediately afterwards it is written, “He upholds the cause of the orphan and widow and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing.” It is repeated in the Prophets, as it says: “So says the High and Exalted One, who lives for ever and whose name is Holy: I live in a high and holy place, but also with the contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.” It is stated a third time in the Writings: “Sing to GOD, make music for His name — and exult before Him.” Immediately afterwards it is written: “Father of the fatherless and Judge of widows is GOD in His holy habitation.”

What struck me yesterday is that the verses about humility have very little to do with what in English we would think of as humility. Rather than being about putting yourself down or avoiding praise, they focus on hesed (love, kindness) and tzedakah (charity, justice, social justice). This would seem to indicate that humility is more about openness and care for others than anything about the self; if anything, it is putting aside thinking about the self (either in either a positive or negative way) and focusing your attention on the other.

Rabbi Twerski z”tl also said that humility is focusing on others, while pride is focusing on the self. Also that pride is past-focused (“I did X”) and humility is future-focused (“I will do X”).

Intelligent Life

I didn’t blog yesterday. I had a busy day, but there wasn’t much to put on a mental health blog, except for one thing that wasn’t time-related and was too long for the time available to write. The only other thing worth mentioning is discussing with my rabbi mentor my OCD anxiety about missing words of the Megillah (Book of Esther) on Purim. He said that it’s not my responsibility to check it is read correctly and that there should be other people in the room to do that (usually the rabbi, although he wasn’t in my reading this year because of the socially distanced parallel readings). He said he was once in a Megillah reading where someone in the congregation kept calling the ba’al koreh (reader) out on real or imagined mistakes. It was embarrassing for everyone and eventually the rabbi had to intervene to stop him.

As for today, I woke up early (6.50am) today to try to pray more before going to work, but I stayed in bed too long, actually getting up later than when I usually try to get up, so it was not a success.

At work J started training me for a task which is scary, because it’s client-facing and very serious and potentially dealing with people in emotional distress, so I’m a bit apprehensive. It’s definitely social anxiety provoking. However, I think it’s positive because it means J is at least still hoping to have a permanent job for me. It could also be exposure therapy for social anxiety. I’d like to explain more, but I don’t think I could do so without making where I’m working too obvious. I didn’t take notes when J was explaining it and although I wrote some notes once he had finished, I’m not sure I got it all down. He did say we would role play some situations on Thursday so I can practise it.

I went to depression group on Zoom this evening. We split into smaller groups this time with breakout rooms, which seemed to work well. I do feel lately that I’m not sure how much to share, how much I have the time (or the energy) to share of my history, particularly now the depression part (the reason for being there) is no longer really present for me on a day-to-day basis. I spoke mostly about my worries about my autism assessment next week. I experienced a lot of social anxiety and mostly looked at the keyboard rather than the screen or the camera. I am definitely struggling to keep going to the group now it’s Zoom only, and the fact that I’m not feeling so depressed means I feel I have less of a reason to go, although I do want to hear how other people are getting on. (Some people do keep going to the group after recovery for that reason and to support others.)

I also struggled to concentrate on the group because I was feeling agitated about something I didn’t want to bring to the group. Just before the group started, I was reading Contact. I thought it was going to be a fairly realistic science fiction book about what a near future first contact with aliens would look like, but it’s turning into a religion vs. science story. Or a Christianity vs. science story, as Carl Sagan’s arguments are more anti-Christian than anti-religious. The idea that Tanakh would be more believable if it contained a testable scientific law seemed to be a spectacular exercise in missing the point, like saying King Lear would be a more meaningful expression of the meaning of love and power if the Fool related Newton’s Law of Motion. Christianity is about belief and in a sense so is atheism; Judaism is about deeds. The test of Tanakh from a Jewish point of view is living Jewish practices and values and seeing how it changes you. Tanakh isn’t meant to be a science book. When I get annoyed by something like this, it runs over and over in my head

It reminded me that years ago I started writing a short story with a similar premise to Contact (radio telescope picks up signs of alien life, with a realistic tone, although I knew a lot less of the science than Sagan, obviously) except mine saw the presence of alien life in the cosmos as perhaps affirming of the existence of God, although I can’t remember how I reached that conclusion. Anyway, I didn’t finish it and now I can’t find the draft I started.

I don’t want to abandon the book, because I’m interested in its realistic presentation of a near-future first contact scenario and because I believe in encountering alternative viewpoints. I may end up skimming bits (maybe. I’m pretty bad at skimming things). I looked at the review on Goodreads and people were suggesting it’s positive about religion, but I think it’s positive about awe in nature, which isn’t the same thing. I find nature beautiful, but I find God in the miraculous survival of the Jewish people and perhaps in good deeds and “I-Thou” interactions (I’m actually not sure what I find God in).

***

Goodreads might need to refine their algorithm. It just suggested that “Because you read The Complete Peanuts 1987-1988: Volume 19 [you might like to read] 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep“. Aside from the fact that I automatically switch off whenever anyone says “late capitalism” (capitalism has been “late” for about 150 years now), I struggle to see the link between Snoopy and Marxist economics. Maybe Snoopy wrote “It was a dark and stormy night. Suddenly the end of capitalism rang out!”

Autism Fears

I had a usual eat/pray/Torah study/read/sleep too much Shabbat. I read more of Contact. I feel a bit like I do when I meet someone I objectively should like, but who somehow irritates me. I should like the book, and on some level I do, enough to stick with it, but part of me is getting annoyed. Maybe the feeling I’m getting from it is that the author feels that anyone who went down the humanities route at university (let alone anyone who didn’t go to university at all!) is an idiot and doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously. Maybe even that wouldn’t annoy me if it didn’t chime with my worst fears about the “Believe science” movement. Yes, I think science (empiricism, falsifiability, repetition) is valuable and an important element in policy decisions. No, I do not think unelected scientists should be making policy decisions instead of elected policy-makers, even if that means you sometimes get an idiot in control ignoring the advice. Elected policy makers can be replaced; unelected government scientists often can’t, or not directly.

***

I just watched an episode of WandaVision followed by one of The Mandalorian, the latter along with PIMOJ (simultaneous, but in different houses). WandaVision has gone from being a strange, not really funny spoof of old television sitcoms to a fairly conventional superhero series in the space of six episodes. The Mandalorian is technically accomplished, but lacking in soul. It reminds me of the final and weakest season of Blake’s 7. I found myself struggling to care about the characters in a story when almost everyone is a ruthless killer. Also, the droid was clearly voiced by Richard Ayoade from The IT Crowd, which was just weird.

***

I feel like I’m struggling to be a good boyfriend at the moment. To be fair, it’s hard. I can’t remember when the current lockdown actually started. Google says 5 January. Two months having a relationship on text and video has been difficult. It’s hard to be present and focused for someone I haven’t seen in person for months. Hopefully we’ll get to see each other soon, once the lockdown finishes on 8 March. We relate so much better in person.

***

Over the last couple of days I have been worrying a bit about my autism assessment. It’s on 9 March, a week and a half away. I worry that I’m going to be told that I’m not on the autism spectrum and I worry what that would mean for my self-esteem, when I’ve coped with work setbacks in recent years by telling myself that the environments were not suitable for someone on the spectrum. To be fair, I have done a lot better in jobs in healthier environments for me, which indicates that this is true. But the fear is there.

When I had the first part of the assessment, which consisted of me explaining to the psychiatrist why I think I’m on the spectrum, she said that it sounded like I was on the spectrum. However, after that I had to have a second assessment, where I was made to do various activities that would demonstrate whether I think in an autistic way and I have no idea how I did on this, so the fear of being told that (for example) I act autistic, but I don’t think autistic is strong. I don’t know what that would mean for me or my sense of self.

I felt on Friday that I wanted to do something I’ve never done before and ask some of my family and Jewish friends to pray for me. Praying to be autistic sounds weird and is probably against Jewish law, which says that you shouldn’t pray for things that can’t be changed, even if you don’t know what they are yet. The psychiatrist has probably decided her diagnosis, so I can’t pray for it to change. What I can pray for is to have self-understanding and acceptance. I would like others to pray for me partly, I suppose, because I think God may listen to them more than me, but also to feel supported by family and friends who were often long-distance people in my life even before COVID started, somewhat like Rav Soloveitchik’s view of prayer in The Lonely Man of Faith, where he sees it as less about asking God to do something and more about creating a “covenantal community” that includes God, but also other people. I do feel strange thinking about asking for it, though, so I’m not sure what to do.

Equanimity, and Reading

I struggled to fall asleep last night, probably as a result of having slept too much over the weekend. That’s probably the context in which the rest of this post falls, that I was a bit sleep deprived and not at my best. I think I was worrying when I couldn’t sleep, but I don’t think I was being kept awake by worry, just that with not much to think about, I worried. Again, that’s probably relevant later.

At work I spent five minutes looking for a cheque before I remembered that the person had paid twice by mistake and we posted their second cheque back to them. I had just forgotten to delete the second cheque from the incoming payments spreadsheet. Until I realised what was going on, I worried I had done something really stupid, like throw the cheque in the bin or post it back to the sender instead of their receipt, something I have nearly done on several occasions. I hope I didn’t seem too stupid to J.

In the afternoon, I worked on the inventory again. I struggled a bit emotionally. My therapist says it’s not so helpful to talk of “depression” now, given that my mood is mostly stable, and I think that’s true, but my mood did dip, perhaps because of my lack of sleep. The inventory is not a completely straightforward task, but it doesn’t require a huge amount of concentration either, which is a recipe for my mind to wander, apparently to worries and negative thoughts about myself, somewhat like last night when I couldn’t sleep. I did get through it, but I fear that my work was not particularly fast or efficient, and I’m still only about halfway through the inventory (or really through stage one of the inventory).

***

I worry a lot about not having peace of mind, including today while feeling like this, so it was interesting to see in the Jewish book I just started re-reading (The Strife of the Spirit by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz) that peace of mind is a negative thing in Judaism. We should feel inner conflict: “there are [spiritual] goals that cannot be attained except through struggle waged within the soul.” (p.5) Elsewhere (The Thirteen Petalled Rose p. 132) Rabbi Steinsaltz states that “The Jewish approach to life considers the man who has stopped going — he who has a feeling of completion, of peace, of a great light from above that has brought him to rest — to be someone who has lost his way. Only he whom the light continues to beckon, for whom the light is as distant as ever, only he can be considered to have received some sort of response.” This is rather different from what a lot of self-help books say. Alan Morinis writes that the Jewish idea of equanimity is like a surfer on a wave, staying balanced, but aware of what is around him. This approach intrigues me. It seems more feasible than complete calm and lack of emotional upsets.

***

I feel that I’m reading less. I should qualify that and say I’m reading less recreationally. I read a lot of religious material, in Hebrew and English. But I think I’m reading less for fun. Certainly I haven’t found a novel that really grabbed me, that I became immersed in, for quite a while. And I’m not sure if my idea of mixing more non-fiction into my reading schedule is so good. I like to learn about history, economics and politics, so setting aside time to read about them is good, but then I want to be a professional author, so I should read a lot of fiction. It can also be harder to get motivated to read non-fiction than fiction. Then again, I want to write Jewish historical fantasy, so a solid grounding in Jewish and world history and mythology is also important…

I also find that it’s easier to read blogs and news articles online than books or even longform online journalism. The Jewish Review of Books periodically posts long articles that they don’t include in the print magazine and I save them, but it’s hard to get around to reading them. Sometimes I print things like that off and read it on Shabbat as it’s easier to set aside the time to read then. Despite this, I still spend hours idly surfing blogs, BBC News and other news sites.

I guess the bottom line is that I haven’t found reading so much fun lately, so I’ve been prioritising television, particularly when tired (which is a lot of the time). I’m not sure what to do about this, or if this is even something I should do anything about. Reading has been my love since I was a toddler, it will probably reassert itself at some point, maybe when I’m sufficiently at peace with my own novel to be able to read other people’s work without taking it to pieces to see how it works and what I should (or shouldn’t) learn from it, which I’ve been doing lately (mind you, I do that with TV too).

***

I don’t normally post links, but as I was complaining about Haredi (ultra-Orthodox Jewish) lockdown non-compliance recently, I want to link to this interesting post that says that the data suggests Haredi compliance was greater than the community has been given credited for, at least in the first lockdown. And while I find many aspects of Haredi life personally uncomfortable, not to mention antithetical to my understanding of Judaism, I agree that demonising “Them” isn’t helpful. It opens the door to all kinds of nasty social engineering projects once you decide that some life choices are inherently wrong and need policing (or “helping”) by other groups (with obvious caveats for where those life choices affect those unable to choose, whether children or people vulnerable to COVID).

Shabbat and “Organised Religion”

Shabbat was mostly good. I finished reading Ruth: From Alienation to Monarchy. It was very detailed (it’s much longer than the other books I have in the Koren Maggid Tanakh series even though Ruth is a very short book), perhaps a little too detailed, but it was very thorough and gave me a new appreciation for the literary and theological depth of a book that I had perhaps dismissed in the past as merely a pleasant story and a bit of an “origin story” for the Davidic monarchy.

I couldn’t sleep at night and read a lot of the graphic novel Final Crisis. I found it fairly incomprehensible. I knew that was likely to happen, as it’s a “crisis” story where Detective Comics put all their superheroes together against a massive foe. As Batman, to a much lesser extent, Superman, are the only superheroes I know well, I was expecting to be faced with many characters I didn’t know well or even at all. However, no characters seemed to stick around for more than a page or two to get to know them, except for a long interlude of Superman with parallel universe Supermen in a weird limbo universe. I didn’t really understand what was going on or why an equation can drive the entire population of Earth to despair and servitude of a super-powerful alien being (Darkseid). I’m reading it as it’s part of Grant Morrison’s wider Batman story arc, but it doesn’t seem to be as good as the other, Batman-only, stories in the arc. Or maybe I’m still too much of a Detective Comics novice to appreciate it. I think Morrison isn’t such a great plot author and tends to rely on spectacle and innovation and reimagining existing characters to pull the reader along.

I told PIMOJ I would get up at 10am today. I’m trying to see if I can get up earlier if I make myself responsible to her. I didn’t manage it, but I did get up at 10.37 instead, which was reasonably good. Unfortunately I napped for two hours after lunch; not good, I won’t sleep tonight (hence it’s gone 12.30am and I’m still writing).

I had a headache after Shabbat. I hope I’m not getting back in the habit of getting a headache every week.

My parents and I watched a Zoom talk this evening. Someone from my shul (synagogue) was speaking about his life story, from birth into a non-Jewish Austrian family in the 1920s to conscription into the Hitler Youth and later the SS, to being captured by the Americans and being a prisoner of war in England and eventually converting to Orthodox Judaism quite late in life. It was interesting and he really had enough material to speak for two evenings.

After that I spoke to PIMOJ for a while and then did some Torah study that I hadn’t managed earlier because of my headache.

***

I had some thoughts about organised religion, based on the comments to my previous post. A number of people spoke about believing in God, or at least being open to God, but getting turned off by organised religion. I guess that’s something I can’t always understand emotionally, although I can see why some religious institutions would annoy people. Maybe it’s partially because Judaism doesn’t have the kind of structure that the Catholic and Anglican Churches have, the sense of a vast institution with wealth and power and a religious hierarchy.

When people say “organised religion” to me in a Jewish context I think of stuff like having a community with some kind of funding to own or lease a building for regular prayers, to ensure the lights and the heating there stay on, and having some kind of administrative set-up to ensure that the money is overseen safely, with no fraud, and that poorer people in the community can be supported from communal tzedaka (charity) funds and so on. Maybe also paying a rabbi to provide pastoral support. That’s not really anything that upsets or annoys me, or turns me off in other ways.

On the other hand, I do get annoyed by, and feel rebellious when confronted with various things. I don’t particularly care about being told what to eat or when to pray or who I can marry; I take that as coming with the territory of being an Orthodox Jew. However, I do react strongly if I feel people are telling me what I can read or are dismissing my beliefs, even if I know they’re minority views in the Orthodox community and more ‘modern’ than Haredi (ultra-Orthodox). Also if I feel people are saying I can’t watch Doctor Who, which is an obsessive autistic special interest for me and looms larger in my life than it probably should; I feel I couldn’t cope without it.

I don’t really associate this with “organised religion” though. To me it seems more of a sociological thing, maybe because it’s enforced by peer pressure rather than by overt means. I mean, when I joined my shul (synagogue), no one asked if I take the Genesis Creation story literally or whether I think non-Jewish religions are religiously valid for their adherents. But then I hear people (including) rabbis taking a different line on these things to me and I feel out of place and worried of being “found out.” I doubt they would (or could) throw me out of the shul if they did find out, but it would probably change how some people interacted with me.

I feel a lot of it comes from the nature of my community, with some very Haredi congregants and certainly Haredi rabbis, but other congregants who are more ‘modern’ like me. I used to go to my parents’ shul, which is definitely more modern, but I felt that people at my current shul took prayer and Torah study more seriously. Plus my current shul is much smaller; I felt overwhelmed by the number of people at my parents’ shul even on ordinary Shabbats, let alone festivals. I have an identity in my own right in my shul too, rather than just being an adjunct of my parents. So I stick with my current shul even though doctrinally it’s not a perfect fit.

This may sound strange to Christians in particular, but doctrine or dogma isn’t such a big thing in Judaism. Jews tend to focus more on what you do than what you believe. If you dress in an acceptable way, don’t publicly violate Shabbat or Yom Tov (festivals), are polite to people, and attend prayer services and shiurim (religious classes) regularly, people will probably accept you, at least on a basic level, without asking what you actually believe.

Trying Not to Get Annoyed

I was at work again today. I found it difficult to concentrate and made some mistakes. I don’t think I made any really bad mistakes, but I think J noticed some of the mistakes and I certainly felt sheepish.

I had some stomach pains at work. I’ve had them intermittently for the last week or so. When my depression was very bad, I developed irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and I’m worried it’s returning, although why it would suddenly return now when things are much better for me than they were the first time I had IBS is a mystery. I wonder if the approach of Purim and my anxieties about it has played a part?

I try not to get upset (or “triggered” as everyone says nowadays, which strikes me as an inappropriate use of a psychiatric term) by things that are not worth getting upset about, but stuff sticks in my mind and annoys me. Last night I wanted to read for a few minutes before going to bed and wasn’t sure whether to read the novel I’m reading (Contact by Carl Sagan) or the graphic novel I’m reading (Final Crisis, a Detective Comics “event” story). I flicked through the next few pages of Contact to see how long the chapter was and saw something that annoyed me a bit, to the extent that I decided not to read it last night, but was still thinking about it when I went to bed and again intermittently today.

The passage was about the heroine’s childhood, how she discovered the wonders of science and technology as opposed to other ways of seeing the world. There’s a scene when she’s at Sunday school and finds the Bible contradictory and immoral. The contradictory thing just seemed wrong because if she was at a non-evangelical church in the sixties, as the text states, I’m sure someone would have pointed her in the direction of source criticism as a solution (I don’t personally accept source criticism, but I think it was accepted in the non-evangelical Protestant world by the sixties). It seemed like another example of where non-believers (Sagan) assume all believers believe the most extreme fundamentalist beliefs on offer in their faith.

It was the immoral stuff that really bugged me, mainly because it wasn’t focused on stuff that really conflicts with contemporary morals, like the Bible’s acceptance of genocide, slavery and polygamy. It was pointing out stories, like Jacob and Esau (using the English names rather than the Hebrew as I would normally do because it feels distanced from me) and various other stories and assuming because the Bible doesn’t say “THIS IS BAD” in big letters, it must think it’s good. The truth is, Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) almost never steps back to pass judgement on its characters. It leaves it up to the reader to decide what was right and wrong and sometimes things are complicated and hard to resolve. It assumes a level of maturity and intellectual involvement. The assumption that, “Oh Jacob is a hero of the Bible, he’s the ancestor of the Jews, therefore it’s on his side and assumes he’s right” simply doesn’t fit with millennia of rabbinic interpretation (Midrash and commentaries) that have felt free to criticise the heroes of Tanakh. In Judaism, no human being is perfect, not Jacob or Abraham or Moses. The Talmud (or possibly Midrash, but the same era) says that the persecution of the Jews by the Romans, the destruction of the Second Temple and the exile from the land of Israel was because Jacob wronged his brother and my him weep just three tears (Esau is seen as the ancestor of Rome). That’s not really accepting of Jacob’s actions.

To be honest, the literature on the story of Jacob and Esau alone is vast and there are serious questions to ask before the morality of the story can be thought of, like how do you steal blessings? Doesn’t God know who to bless? How do you sell your first-born status? Was the blessing Jacob “stole” the one he and Rebecca thought he was stealing? (Short answer, probably not.) There is a lot to engage with here. I’m not asking anyone to believe it, but to see that it’s a rich literature that withstands prolonged study.

I know, the history of the Bible and of organised religion, how these texts have been used to oppress, puts people off. I get that. It still annoys me, I guess because I take Tanakh seriously and find it meaningful and insightful; it’s hard to hear someone suggest I’ve wasted so much time on a stupid or immoral text. It reminds me of when a blogger I used to follow, a classicist who spent her days studying and teaching difficult ancient Greek and Latin texts made fun of of the Bible on her blog with a really superficial post. I just felt, you should know better. You should know that you can’t read ancient texts – in translation – like a contemporary novel and expect them to give up their secrets like that. You should read in the original language, if possible, in context, with secondary literature to explain the difficulties of the text, the language, the customs, the history.

So this was annoying me today. To be honest, the protagonist of the novel would probably annoy me anyway. A super-clever geek, she would have been an identification figure if I had read the book in my teens or twenties, but now I feel like an incompetent impostor, she just seems to taunt me, the type of person I feel I might have been without autism and depression. But I want to read the book for its plot and ideas, so I’m sticking with it for now.

Then, with bad timing, I watched Babylon 5 this evening, and the next episode up was Believers. Which is a very good episode, about Doctor Franklin being faced with an alien child who will die without surgery, but whose parents believe that if he has surgery, his soul will escape through the opening. It’s a strong episode. It has a powerful, but downbeat ending (I won’t spoil it). I probably should have skipped the episode, as it’s a relatively rare stand-alone episode that adds nothing to Babylon 5‘s five year story arc, but I’m a completist, and I didn’t want to “penalise” an objectively well-written episode, and possibly I have autistic rigid thinking, so I watched it, and it left me a bit down.

And then a thought struck me about Jewish-sounding dialogue given to the aliens and I consulted Wikipedia, and, yes, writer David Gerrold is a secular Jew, like Carl Sagan. Given that quite a number of science fiction authors were or are secular Jews, I wonder what percentage of alien races in science fiction are just how secular Jews see Orthodox Jews: weird in appearance and attitude, serious, humourless, rule-obsessed, inflexible… (The Ferengi in Star Trek are worryingly like antisemitic parodies of Jews, and are mostly played by Jewish actors.) Actually, on the whole Babylon 5 is pretty good at depicting alien religions, it’s one of the reasons I like it so much, but still…

***

Also done this evening: Torah study, which has reached Eichah (Lamentations), so not so cheery, and a call with PIMOJ who had had a stressful day, so the evening felt a bit relentless. I titled this post “Trying Not to Get Annoyed” when I thought it was going to be just about Contact, but actually the post progressed to where “Trying Not to Get Overwhelmed” might be more appropriate. I do feel a bit overwhelmed at the moment, on multiple levels, but I’m too tired to go in to all of that now. I’m going to watch another (less depressing) episode of Babylon 5, eat my first Cadbury’s creme egg of the year and go to bed.

Oh, and apparently I have really bad Impostor Syndrome. To be honest, I knew that, but I just went through a psychiatric test and now I have a number to put on it.

***

Believers does at least have my favourite line in the whole of Babylon 5: Ambassador Kosh’s “The avalanche has started. It is too late for the pebbles to vote.” (Kosh was given cryptic utterances; that was one of his more understandable ones. It’s actually more cryptic in context.)

“I keep on wondering if I sleep too long”

I keep on wondering if I sleep too long
Will I always wake up the same (or so)?
And keep on wondering if I sleep too long
Will I even wake up again (or something)?

Sitting by Cat Stevens

I woke up in the night again, although not I think for long. That seems to be a pattern of waking for a while around 5.00am and may be part of a natural sleep pattern as Suzanne suggested. I woke intermittently across the morning, but was too drained to get up before midday, despite the noise coming from the building works next door, which I felt bad about (sleeping in, not the building works), even though I didn’t have work today and had a busy day yesterday. I feel like if someone told me there was a reason for my being so drained, yet managing to get up when I absolutely have to (work, medical appointments, volunteering), I could accept it, but as it is, I just feel lazy and useless.

I did go back to bed after breakfast and took a while getting dressed just because I was so drained. It was hard to “psyche myself up” to daven (pray) too.

I spent about an hour working on my novel, but it was slow work today and I didn’t achieve much. I’ve gone from wanting to write an amazing novel to wanting to write something vaguely publishable to wanting to write something that doesn’t totally embarrass me when I show it to people.

I tried to go for a walk to unlock my credit card that I accidentally locked last week when I forgot the PIN. I thought the ice and snow from yesterday would have melted, but it was very icy and treacherous. I didn’t go for a particularly long walk, but it took longer than usual because of the dangerous ice. The cashpoint wasn’t working properly when I got there. It was probably working well enough to unlock the card, but I’m wary of using damaged cashpoints in case they’ve been tampered with, so I didn’t even get that done.

***

Today was my father’s birthday. We had takeaway in the evening and played The London Game (travel around the Tube map going to tourist sites — I won). I was rather anxious – really religious OCD anxiety about whether the food was delivered correctly from a kashrut (Jewish dietary law) point of view. I think everything was OK, but I worry… I do think my anxiety is worse since stopping olanzapine, even though I was not aware of anxiety as a major issue before.

***

Because of burnout and family time, I only managed twenty minutes of Torah study, which disappointed me a bit. I think Dad appreciated spending time together in the evening though.

***

I’m creeping slowly towards the idea of buying a weighted blanket, but they just seem so expensive and I don’t know what practical benefit I’ll get from it. Will it help me to sleep better? Or just feel good? I’m not good at doing things just because they feel good…

***

People used to debate which was the more realistic dystopia for the twenty-first century West: Nineteen Eighty-Four (totalitarian oppression, perpetual war, The Two Minutes’ Hate) or Brave New World (the masses kept lazy and passive with mass consumerism, compulsory promiscuity and narcotics). Gareth Roberts made an argument in Unherd a while back about The Prisoner becoming disturbingly relevant again. But lately I’ve been thinking about Fahrenheit 451 and whether I’m going to end up having to single-handedly memorise the cultural heritage of the past to preserve it for the future. I have an image of handing a subversive, battered copy of Hamlet or The Third Policeman to my son or daughter like Obi-Wan Kenobi giving Luke his father’s lightsabre in Star Wars: “It’s called a ‘book.’ An elegant weapon for a more civilised age.”

COVID Test, Reading, TV

I’m still not feeling great. My sister and my Mum have been badgering me for days to get a COVID test despite my not having any COVID symptoms. My symptoms are hot flushes, restless legs, tremor and occasional light-headedness, none of which are really COVID symptoms, plus neither my parents nor J have come down with anything despite being around me last week when I was ill. However, my sister’s mother-in-law apparently had mild COVID for days thinking it was just a cold until she got tested, so my sister has really been badgering me to get tested in case I have undiagnosed COVID, even though I’m worried about wasting NHS resources and, well, lying about my symptoms to get a test (integrity is a core value for me, so lying is painful). Anyway, I’m going to a drive-in test tomorrow morning. My Dad volunteered to take me (I don’t drive).

There’s not a lot else to say. I read a lot over Shabbat, not so much in terms of pages, but in terms of books. I finished Morality and America During the Cold War, read more of Ruth: From Alienation to Monarchy and started The Garden of Emunah (book on faith PIMOJ gave me) and The Simulacra (Philip K. Dick novel).

After Shabbat, I watched another episode of The Mandalorian (Sanctuary). It was quite good, but I was distracted by the fact that the plot was basically the same of the Doctor Who episode The Girl Who Died (outsiders train villagers to beat better-armed marauders), but tonally, the two were completely different. The Doctor Who episode was mostly comic, with a tragic bit and an open ending. The Mandalorian episode was like every other Mandalorian episode i.e. like Star Wars, flashy, but unemotional. (I have realised that I notice more about story structure now I write myself.)

Everyone In The Country Is Maladjusted

A few years from now, the President of the USA will be an android and his entire government a fraud. Everyone in the country is maladjusted. Doesn’t seem possible, does it?

This is the beginning of the back cover blurb from my Chanukah present tonight, The Simulacra by Philip K. Dick. The novel was published in 1964, although the blurb dates from 2004. Even so, 2004 seems an age ago, when there was still a clear distinction between satire and reality.

***

Today was tiring. It started last night. I went to bed really early (10.30pm) because I was exhausted. About 4.45am, I was woken up by my Mum. Dad was taking her to the hospital because of what she thought was an allergic reaction, but which turned out to be cellulitis (bacterial infection). She has been struggling with this for a while now, mistakenly thinking it was an allergic reaction to her cancer-treatment dressing, so it’s good that it’s finally diagnosed and treated (anti-biotics). Still, she spent half the night in the hospital; I think Dad spent it in the car, because COVID means only patients are allowed into the hospital.

***

At work, J asked me to go to the bank and do some shopping. The bank and shop were local, but I managed to get lost several times and the whole trip took an hour and a quarter. This was in a very well-known part of Central London, albeit one I haven’t been to so much in recent years. More embarrassingly, it was where I was for a while with PIMOJ yesterday. I don’t think a poor sense of direction is usually considered a symptom of autism, but it would make sense to me if it is – I wonder if the sense of direction is in a similar part of the brain to the part with poor spatial awareness in autism. They seem similar to me, although I’m obviously not a neuroscientist. J didn’t seem to mind that I took so long, but I felt embarrassed. I had also pulled a muscle in my leg walking with PIMOJ yesterday, and that hurt more as a result of all the walking.

The afternoon went quickly. Without giving too much away about where I work, there was, before COVID, a regular minyan (prayer service) on the premises. They restarted it yesterday or today and I went along today, which was good, the first time I’d been to a weekday prayer service since I’m not sure when, probably February or even January. It was masked and socially distanced, but we sang Ma’oz Tzur when we lit Chanukah candles, which we should not have done. I don’t think we’ll be allowed to have a minyan on Thursday as London will have gone back into Tier 3 (which is basically strict lockdown again) by then. I don’t know whether my home shul will be allowed to run Shabbat services this week, but I suspect not. It feels like we are in a third lockdown.

Tonight’s donut: I haven’t decided yet, let alone eaten, but I’m leaning towards jam again. Sometimes you can’t improve on the classic version.

“I’m not gonna talk about Judy!”

I did manage to work on my novel today, although I could not quite manage to get to two hours before I felt burnt out and unable to continue. I would have liked to have got to the round number. The burnout was as much from stopping in the middle of working on the novel to go for a 5K run before it got dark, which left me exhausted. I was really lucky to get through anything in the second hour of work. I am nearly finished with the second draft of the novel, although the penultimate chapter is proving hard work and I don’t know when I will finish it. I feel like I’m missing a few links in the chain of the plot. I know what needs to happen emotionally, but I can’t quite find a plausible rationale for it to happen yet.

I still have mixed feelings about the novel and whether it “works,” or will work once I’ve finished redrafting it, but I just have to keep going for now.

I thought I had escaped an exercise migraine after running today, but I had a slight headache that was coming and going and eventually I took solpadeine when it looked like it was going to get worse.

We had takeaway for dinner. I had a vegan cheeseburger: pseudo- (non-meat) meat and pseudo- (non-dairy) cheese. I’ve never had real cheeseburger as it’s not kosher and I don’t think I had ever had pseudo-cheeseburger before. It was OK, but I don’t think I’m missing out on much, even allowing for the fact that non-dairy cheese doesn’t taste much like real cheese in my experience.

Something that happened around dinner set off my kashrut OCD thoughts for a few minutes. I did get it under control, but it frustrates me a bit that OCD thoughts are always lurking in the background and have to be kept under control. This is true for everyone. Even people without clinical OCD have OCD-type thoughts, they just control them almost without thinking. It is people who have OCD who have to consciously dismiss the thoughts. OCD never entirely goes away, you just (hopefully) get better at dismissing the thoughts.

After dinner, I spoke to PIMOJ, which was good. I started speaking to her right after I had watched the end of Twin Peaks: The Return, which turned out to be a mistake, as my head was still full of the ambiguous and scary ending. Maybe it wasn’t such a mistake, though, as I opened up about this, which led to a conversation about what we’re scared of which was interesting.

I had a second wind in the evening after talking to PIMOJ and did an hour of Torah study. Vayetze (Genesis 28.10-32.3) is a sedra (weekly Torah portion) I’ve always struggled with on multiple levels (language, meaning, morality), but I have at least a couple of initial thoughts to investigate for my devar Torah for this week.

I guess it was a busy day overall, looking back over this post, but I am apprehensive about tomorrow. This is a late night (nearly 1am) and I feel wide awake, as I forgot to take my meds and have only just taken them. They usually knock me out, but I think my natural state without them is insomnia. I have a lot to do tomorrow and I may not be able to fit in more work on the novel. Still, I was glad to work on it for so long today. Although I don’t like the penultimate chapter and it needs a lot of work, at least I have some idea of where I’m going with it.

***

I need to unwind for a few minutes before bed, so here are some thoughts on completing Twin Peaks.

Looking at my DVD shelves, I own a few series that varied widely over their run, either in terms of style (Doctor Who, The Avengers) or quality (Blakes’ 7, Star Trek: The Next Generation). Even so, the variety of styles and quality across just forty-nine episodes of Twin Peaks (counting the prequel film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me as an “episode”) is astounding, to the extent that I think of them as sub-units, almost separate series.

  1. Twin Peaks: the pilot episode, season one and season two episodes 1-10 (the investigation into the murder of Laura Palmer): absolutely astounding. By turns scary, funny, moving and weird. If this was all there was of Twin Peaks, it would be one of my all-time favourite TV series.
  2. Twin Peaks: season two episodes 11-22: the first few episodes after the solving of the murder are not very good. Although there is a slow return to quality by the end of the season, only the last episode or two are anywhere near the quality of the first batch of episodes. Some of the rest almost seem like self-parody.
  3. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me: this prequel film seems to be hated by fans and critics alike, but I rather liked it. The early section (the Chester Desmond/Teresa Banks investigation) is the bit of later Twin Peaks that is most like section 1. The second part (the last week in the life of Laura Palmer) is different stylistically to section 1, but I think it works as an examination of the mental collapse of someone suffering serious abuse, with the paranormal parts working as both horror and metaphor for psychological trauma. I have to say, when I saw the end, where the dead Laura arrives in the Black Lodge (a kind of afterlife) and bursts into tears of joy at being released from the hell of her life on Earth, I did think of the darkest days of my own depression and OCD where the thought of death seemed like a release.
  4. Twin Peaks: The Return episodes 1-16: I kept going back and forth about this in my mind while I was watching it. Around episode four or five I wanted to give up, but it did improve. Or maybe it just took me time to get to know the unwieldy and poorly-introduced number of new characters and to understand their relationships? Actually, I still have no idea what was going on with some bits of it. Apparently a mini-series pitched at nine episodes was expanded by the network to eighteen and it shows, with a slow pace, plot threads that seem to go nowhere and characters that are bloodily killed off when they’ve served their purpose (this reminded me of the worst excesses of mid-1980s Doctor Who, only gorier). I coped with the gore (exploding heads etc.), but could have done without it. All that said, I’m prepared to concede that it might make more sense on a second viewing if I can find the stamina, especially now the internet has primed me to look for some details I missed first time around.
  5. Twin Peaks: The Return episodes 17-18: I’m really not sure about this. Episode 17 seemed pretty good. Episode 18 was slow and confusing again, but building up to a disturbing final five minutes or so (the bit that freaked me out before Skyping PIMOJ), a deliberately ambiguous and psychologically-scary ending that makes you question the rest of mini-series, if not the original series too. A second viewing might elevate it up as high as section 1.

I could easily watch sections 1, 3 and maybe 5 again right away, so haunting are they and so much do I want to revel in their weirdness, their eeriness and also their humour and, in the case of section 1, the strong sense of place and theme (loss). I don’t want to watch section 2 and I don’t know if I have the stamina for section 4 again. I will probably watch again in a few months or a year, hopefully remembering enough to understand section 4.

I guess in the past, with confusing things, like The Prisoner or The Waste Land I would try logically to tease out meaning from symbolism. I think I approach things with less logic now and try to feel the experience on an emotional level. Certainly Twin Peaks seems to be something you feel more than understand. That said, while I haven’t found much Doctor Who presence on WordPress (or maybe it’s hard to find posts when searches get filled up with posts about “a doctor who did…”), there seems to be a Twin Peaks presence that I might investigate in the coming days…

Stories like Twin Peaks live on in my head in a way that I find hard to explain. I begin to see the world through the filter of their worldview. I would put Doctor Who and The Prisoner in the same category, maybe also Sapphire and Steel. In prose, parts of Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges and Philip K. Dick and (in a different way) John le Carré. Although it’s not a story, I would add The Waste Land too.

Volunteering, Religion, Politics and Spies

I volunteered again today. I got up even earlier than I did last week, but still arrived a few minutes late. It’s not hugely awful as people do drift in, but I would like to be there on time. I just seem to be late leaving whatever time I get up for volunteering. It’s not so bad with volunteering, but I want to stay punctual for work, although J seems pretty laid back about things like that. I know my line manager in my job in further education said on my last day that she was impressed that, despite my mental health issues, I was present and punctual. Considering she almost never gave praise, I thought that was quite something.

I was tired after that and didn’t do much all afternoon. I had a long chat with my rabbi mentor, which was good. He’s pleased with the way my life is going at the moment. I had to pick up a prescription and accepted my Dad’s offer of a lift, even though the round trip walking is only fifteen minutes, as I just felt too tired.

The only other thing I did today was go to an online shiur (religious class) in the evening. This was not through my shul (synagogue) or the LSJS, where I usually go to shiurim. It was being given by the former rabbi of my shul, who no longer lives in the area. I knew he has interesting things to say, so I went even though I knew I would be tired. It was very interesting and has given me a lot to think about, primarily in terms of what he said, but also in terms of thoughts it sparked about the nature of the frum (religious Jewish) community. However, I’ve already posted something political today (see below, if you haven’t seen it already) and I think it’s asking for trouble to post about politics and religion on the same day, so I will leave it there for now.

***

I published the post about politics that I’ve been tinkering with for a while. I hope I don’t get flamed. I know from experience that writing anything that even mentions Israel is asking for abuse, hence my staying away from politics posts for a decade or more. But lately I’ve felt a bit more comfortable here, so I wanted to push myself a bit. Even so, I spent so long discussing my personal political history that the mental health bit ended up as an afterthought, which is not really ideal on a mental health blog.

***

Wanting to read a spy novel about a week and a half ago, I borrowed an omnibus book of four spy novels from my Dad. I’d read the first one, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. It’s good, but I didn’t want to re-read it. The second was The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler. It was mostly good, but not really a spy novel; more a novel about criminals one of whom has moonlighted as a spy. The spy content was small. I wanted the type of book with detailed descriptions of spycraft like John le Carre, the kind not necessarily high in action, but high in detail, jargon, and internal politicking. This wasn’t the book I was looking for. It was pretty entertaining despite that, but I became less invested in the closing chapters, when the hero moved towards being an anti-hero; I struggle with books with anti-heroes. I’m not sure if that’s because I’m religious or because I have a rigid autistic moral sense (or both). I will probably carry on with the next book in the volume (The Naked Runner by Francis Clifford), although I had been switching between fiction and non-fiction books.

Persistence and Hoarding

I spent some time applying for a job, or rather three similar jobs at the same institution for which there was only one application form. I have applied for several jobs at this institution before, but only once got an interview, which I felt went badly; realistically, I don’t think the institution is a good fit in terms of atmosphere and outlook. Nevertheless, I felt I should persevere, so I did. The institution’s application website had saved my previous applications, but mangled them somewhat and I struggled to deal with it. I also struggled to deal with the wide open topic questions asking for evidence of competency. I can’t work out if I struggle with these because of autism, or because I don’t have so much work experience, having been out of work for so much of my adult life or else in jobs where I tried to avoid certain demands or experiences out of autistic “new situation” anxiety and social anxiety.

I suspect that lots of autistic people would freeze on being given a vague topic like “Please provide evidence of how you have provided a positive and responsive student or customer service.” I resisted the temptation to say, “I didn’t punch the students even when they were really annoying.”

I have mentioned before that I worry that my library skills in areas like cataloguing and classification have gone rusty with disuse, but it occurs to me that my transferable skills like leadership and customer service are not in great shape any more either, if they ever were.

I also have a law library job and a school library job to apply for this week, but I’m pessimistic about my chances with either, given that I have no experience in either sector and have rarely been interviewed when applying in either sector. But I feel I have no other options.

***

I went for another twilight run, although twilight was, of course, much earlier today. It was pretty good, in terms of pace (which is what I tend to focus on), despite cramp and a headache that came and went all evening despite taking medicine (the headache was only a 5 for intensity, but an 8 for persistence – just kidding, I don’t really rate all my headaches). After that I went on a virtual tour of Jewish London (money raised going to charity). I knew a lot of what was said, but it was for good causes.

***

I notice I’ve spoken about persistence twice in this post, once in regard to persisting in applying for jobs and once in terms of persisting with a run (and later Torah study) despite a headache. I suspect persistence is one of my key traits. At least, people have told me so. Once I get started, I tend to persist in doing things even when they seem unlikely to work out, like that job application. It was only when I read the book Calling Out to You (about depression and anxiety from an Orthodox Jewish perspective – recommended) that I really began to accept that rather than beating myself up for not doing enough prayer, religious study and other religious activities when depressed, I should be proud for doing anything at all. The analogy used was, “If you have a headache, you wouldn’t expect to function religiously as if you did not have a headache.” Then I realised that not only do I try to live my life as if not depressed when depressed, but even when I have a bad migraine, I try to carry on with prayers as if I was feeling fine, actually making myself throw up the last time I had a very bad migraine by making myself pray. Possibly persistence, like other virtues, is a vice if carried to excess (like my recent decision to stop persisting with books I’m not enjoying). It is hard to remember to see it this way all the time, though.

***

I am by nature a bit of a hoarder, albeit not to an extreme where hoarding becomes a psychological problem. However, lately I’ve been contemplating a clear out of some things. I doubt I will get rid of enough stuff to feel Marie Kondo-style possession-free, but I might free up some space on my over-crowded bookshelves. I have over a thousand books and it’s unlikely that many of those are going to get re-read, or even read once in some cases. I’d like to get rid of some books and also some bits of bric-a-brac that I’ve accumulated, what my parents would refer to as shmey dreys (a Yiddish word I’ve only encountered outside my family here, with a completely different meaning given) and other Yiddish speakers would call tchotchkes (a word I’ve never heard in our family… I think we speak slightly strange Yiddish, perhaps a different regional dialect. It might also be relevant that all four of my grandparents were born in England and only my maternal grandfather spoke much Yiddish). Much of the bric-a-brac consists of mementoes of holidays I went on, or that other people brought me back from their holidays, but I’m not sure how many “spark joy” or make me think about good times particularly. Some I would keep, but maybe put away somewhere so I have the shelf-space and so it’s less of a dust trap. I might put some of the fantasy war gaming miniatures I’ve painted away too. I’m proud of them, but they do make dusting hard, and maybe there are too many of them to create a good impression.

As for books, it’s hard to work out what I won’t read again, particularly with novels. I know I’m unlikely to re-read murder mysteries, but that’s the type of thing I would like to lend to my children (if I have any) to tempt them to read more adult books when they are ready for more adult books. As for non-fiction, I’ve picked up a lot over the years, either free from the duplicate pile at one library where I worked or cheap from another library and from charity shops and the like. At one stage I wanted to build a personal library, but I think I’ve rather given up on that. Still, it seems a shame to give away classic books like Hobbes’ Leviathan or Plato’s Republic even though that’s not really where my interests lie any more. I’ve got some odd books on Jewish history too which might be useful if I write Jewish historical/time-travel novels as I’d like to do, but I suspect a lot have been superseded by more recent research and would have to be supplemented if not ignored.

My parents have also encouraged me not to throw away books or objects that were given to me as presents or books given as prizes for academic achievement at school or university. I have quite a few of these (*blushes*) and they make up a lot of the “unread, unlikely to read” pile. Bear in mind my parents still have several large packing boxes of toys that used to belong to me and my sister in the hope that they will one day have grandchildren who will play with them although I’m not sure how much children would want to play with old toys, even classics like Lego and my train set. I can see the point in holding on to some of these, but I think others would better go to a children’s charity.

I also have a lot of Doctor Who videos, even though I’ve replaced them all with DVDs by now. I was hoping that they might become valuable collectibles at some stage, but I’m not sure that they will. I would like to keep the sleeves even if I get rid of the tapes as, perhaps surprisingly, the Doctor Who video range often used specially commissioned painted art rather than just photos, even though the latter is much cheaper. The pictures produced were often very good and even when they switched to photoshopped photos, the covers were still quite attention-grabbing. I just can’t bring myself to throw them away, although if I disposed of the videos I could store the sleeves easily in a folder.

It’s something to think about anyway. It’s probably be good that I’m even thinking about such a clear out.

NHS Fun and Games, Giving Up on Books, and A Slight Bit of Politics

I was expecting to be burnt out today after yesterday, and I was. I got up very late and felt burnt until late in the day, whereupon I tried to cram too much into too little time. There is only one job to apply for on my job application spreadsheet at the moment, and I feel it is really unlikely that I will get it (librarian at a big law firm), so I’m leaving that for the moment. I would like to have worked on my novel, but focused today on chores that absolutely needed doing. Hopefully I will get to the novel tomorrow.

***

More NHS fun and games: when I saw the psychiatrist a few weeks ago, she said that the company that manufactures my lithium was stopping production, so I would have to change brand. As I understood it, she wanted to decrease dosage and then build up on the new one. She said the details would be in a letter to my GP which she would copy to me. I haven’t received the letter. I tried to phone, but the number I had for (what I thought was) the clinic, which was also on the top of a (different, recent) letter from the psychiatrist was not recognised even though I’ve phoned it in the past. The second number on the letter wasn’t recognised either. Mum noticed a third number on the letter, which turned out to be the clinic main phone number; they said to phone the secretary and gave me a number which was the same as the first one, the one I thought was the clinic main phone number. I said it wasn’t connecting and they just insisted that was the right number. So I tried that number again (because insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome) and this time it connected and rang and rang, but no one answered. I hung up, waited twenty minutes, phoned again, and it rang and rang and no one answered. I think they shut at 4pm and I’m guessing they were being naughty and not answering the phone at 3.50pm so they wouldn’t be kept after 4pm. So I guess I have to try again tomorrow. Sometimes it’s hard to avoid the impression that there are people working at the NHS who enjoy playing elaborate pranks on patients. Remember, kids, we ❤ the NHS!!!!!! 👏👏👏 🌈

***

I’m struggling with the novel I’m reading, Dominion. It’s a “What if the Nazis won World War II?” novel. I only really realised after I bought it that I already have three or four of these. I think there’s only so much mileage in these books. Dominion is a thriller, but so far I’m 150 pages in and very little that is thrilling has happened and its vision of a pro-Fascist Britain isn’t terribly interesting (Oswald Mosley and Enoch Powell in the government, who would have guessed….). It was OK when the book was focused on the main character, but currently it’s focused on a possibly autistic man in a psychiatric hospital and I feel really uncomfortable with it. Maybe it’s just too close to home.

Maybe close to home in more ways than one. I don’t believe in the author’s alternative history. I can see a Lord Halifax-led government making peace with Germany in 1940, but I can’t see Britain becoming Fascist without invasion. Appeasement was popular in Britain in the 1930s because of fear that another World War would lead to massive carnage, which it did, but I don’t see Fascism having enough support in Britain for a Fascist government of the kind described here. I guess chimes with some experiences I’ve had recently, talking with friends who feel that the contemporary USA is on the verge of becoming a dictatorship. I don’t like Donald Trump at all, and I hope he loses the election, but I really can’t see America becoming Fascist overnight. I don’t believe that countries with a long experience of democracy suddenly become dictatorships without war, invasion or severe economic and social trauma. So maybe this is reinforcing my fears that I see the world very differently to my friends, and worrying that they would stop being my friends if they knew, the feeling I have alluded to in the past here when I say I want to write about the way my political views make me feel alienated.

All this said, I’m bad at giving up on books. E. used to tell me to be more ruthless, saying time spent forcing myself to read a book I don’t enjoy is time wasted that could have been spent with a book I do enjoy. But I’m not sure I really want to spend another 550 pages with this one. I’m not sure what else I would read at the moment though. I feel I probably need something light, but don’t have anything obviously to hand. The thoughts about what could make a country become a dictatorship have been pushing me to have another go at my Mum’s copy of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which I started when I was fourteen or fifteen and gave up on after a couple of hundred pages. I was probably not old enough for it, but I think it might be to heavy (in all senses of the word) for me at the moment.

***

Achievements: I went for a longish (forty-five minutes) walk. I did nearly an hour of Torah study and dealt with a lot of emails and little chores, but felt that I didn’t manage that much overall. It feels a bit like a wasted day.

Weird Stuff

I was in a deep sleep this morning and had some weird dreams. In one I had to control a very disruptive child, while also doing some important professional tasks and I struggled to do both at once. Perhaps the disruptive child is my negativity, which needs to be allowed to “play” a little, but also not to derail my job search, novel work or dating PIMOJ.

In the other dream, I was at school and had handed in some English homework, but I hadn’t done it properly. We were supposed to read and analyse a novel and I had read and analysed a short story because I felt too depressed (I think) to read a novel. I was waiting to see what my teacher would say, fearing he would tell me off.

I think this represents some thoughts I had last night about not being able to write “properly” because I read eclectically across genres, but paradoxically also focusing on reading specific authors that I read in depth and repeatedly (Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka, Philip K. Dick, John le Carré) rather than reading widely in a specific genre, as authors are “supposed” to do. This may be autistic, certainly sticking with favoured authors and re-reading them instead of reading something new seems somewhat autistic, not that that really makes a difference.

My current novel is mainstream fiction and I haven’t read much contemporary mainstream fiction since I stopped going to a book club a decade ago. My next novel I hope will be some weird merger of fantasy and/or science fiction with historical fiction and Jewish topics, possibly aimed at a Young Adult audience, and I don’t feel I read any of those genres enough and certainly not contemporary authors in those genres (it takes a long time for new authors to reach me, and for me to build up courage to read them). I would be willing to read a lot for research, although I don’t quite know where to start, plus I feel that although I would be advised to research, really I want my writing to be a bit weird and sui generis, deliberately not fitting with other authors.

I realised a while back that while I say I like science fiction, it isn’t really that simple. A lot of science fiction doesn’t interest me that much. I do watch and like programmes like Star Trek and Star Wars, but really my favourite stuff is in this weird zone (The Twilight Zone, if you like), where science fiction, fantasy, (mild) horror, surrealism and magic realism can meet, not necessarily all at once, but some of them. Authors like Borges, Kafka and Dick, and also Flann O’Brien and the Yiddish humourist Mendele Mocher-Seforim (Mendel the Book-Seller) are important to me and I think about them a lot. Also (perhaps more so) TV programmes like Doctor Who (particularly the original series), Saphire and Steel, The Prisoner, Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes, Quatermass, bits of The Avengers and even Mr Benn and The Clangers which were aimed at very young children, but amuse me. Stories where the normal and the weird are mashed against each other like a collage. Absurdist-type stories taking place in black or white voids. Mr Benn was probably the gateway drug to that, when I was a very young child, the idea that he would put on a costume in a fancy dress shop and then when he walked out the changing room door, he was in another time and place, something relevant to how he was dressed, and would have an adventure.

***

Today I did some shopping and ended up arriving at Tesco the same time as the children were coming out of the primary school next to the supermarket. I’d get frustrated by all the people at the best of times, but I just felt viscerally uncomfortable being there and worried that I was going to catch COVID, although I did at least do what I had to do and panic and run away. It showed that I really have work to do before I’m going to be comfortable at shul (synagogue) or busier shops.

I painted the garden shed again for Mum and Dad as it needed a second coat. I wanted to do a lot of hoovering (the stairs need hoovering), but postponed it until tomorrow as I was too tired to do more physical work. I spent some time redrafting another chapter of my novel. I hoped it would take an hour. In the end it took nearly two, partly because it was long, but also because I interrupted it to look after Mum who was feeling sick (we think indigestion rather than anything to do with cancer treatment, but still worrying). My concentration was pretty good, though.

I listened to a shiur (religious class) while painting the shed, although I didn’t have the time I wanted to do further Torah study in the evening. I’m finding it hard to balance everything that I want in my life and wish I could get up earlier, but I don’t know how to change that short of having some external reason to get up like a job. PIMOJ is an occupational therapist and part of me wants to ask her advice, but a bigger part is worried of scaring her off if she knew just how late I get up and how long it takes me to get going in the mornings (she is very much a morning person).

***

New reasons to hate the WordPress block editor: unless I’m missing something, you can’t easily insert letters with accents, as in ‘John le Carré’. Please let me known if you know how to do this!

“Eaten By the Monster of Love”

Shabbat (the Sabbath) was OK.  I slept too much again.  I did a bit of Torah study and not much else, not even much secular reading, although I finally started The Islamist, Ed Husain’s book about his experience as an Islamic fundamentalist, and why he finally left radical Islam.  It looks interesting, but serious, and I’ve been putting off starting it for several days (or years, if you consider how long it’s been on my shelf, but days since I told myself I would start it).

I was somewhat worried about whether I’ve made a bad idea with JDate.  It was a lot of money to subscribe.  I think I can cancel my subscription up to Tuesday.  I’m not sure whether to do it.  I think the money is less a problem than the fact I did something impulsive, and when I do that, I always second-guess myself.

There aren’t many frum (religious Jewish) British people on JDate.  Like, really not many.  When I browse, I only come up with a few profiles, even if I add in “traditional” Jews.  Actually, forget frum, there aren’t many British people on JDate.  I guess this is what it means to be a minority of a minority of a minority.  Do I feel up to another long-distance relationship?  I think there are more frum women on JWed, but that’s a site for people dating-for-marriage and I don’t feel I’m quite there, plus there’s still the limit on British people because of the small size of the Anglo-Jewish community.

Plus, dating-for-dating feels vaguely wrong, as I’ve said before.  I feel I should wait until I’m not depressed (which may never happen) or until I have a job or publish my novel (ditto) or until I have my autism assessment (why?) or…  I don’t know what.  It’s just easy to think of reasons it’s a bad idea.

My parents said to go for it.  My Dad says it’s a sign I’m ready to move on with my life.  I think it’s more a sign that I’m lonely, and that I periodically do crazy things when I’m lonely.  When I was growing up, when I used to procrastinate over something and then make a decision and then question it and start procrastinating again, my Dad said, “Whatever decision you made, it’s the right one.”  I think it was a quasi-religious statement about things turning out well (Dad is an optimist, not like me at all in that respect).  I just second-guess all my big decisions and then present them as moral failings.

I think some of the fear is that a lot of women on the site have posted very “glamorous” pictures of themselves on JDate, at parties or whatever, all made up, and I find that vaguely scary and off-putting, partly because “glamorous” isn’t really something I’m looking for, partly because I don’t think I could appeal to such a woman.  Mind you, my photo on there is of me in my dinner jacket after my sister’s wedding, just because it was a good photo.  You wouldn’t know that was one of two or three parties I’ve been to in the last ten years.

I suppose I should try to find something to write to someone on JDate tomorrow, or cancel my subscription.

Off to watch Doctor Who to try to cheer myself up…

Embracing Struggles, or I Possibly Just Wasted £90

I possibly just wasted £90.  I subscribed to full JDate membership.  I fiddled around browsing more.  I’m not entirely sure there are really enough frum (religious Jewish) or “willing to marry someone frum” people on there.  I haven’t messaged anyone yet.  Too scared, plus it’s getting to close to Shabbat (the Sabbath) to spend more time on it today.  I suppose it will be practise at “speaking” to strangers, if anyone responds to my emails, which, from experience, is not a given.

In Kafka’s parable Before the Law (written as part of The Trial, but also published separately), the man seeking admission to the law is refused admittance by the doorkeeper.  He is forced to wait outside for many years, but is never let in.  He tries bribing the doorkeeper, who takes the bribes, but still refuses to let him in, stating, “I am only taking it to keep you from thinking you have omitted anything.”  Eventually the man dies.  With his dying breath, he asks why he has never seen anyone else ask admittance to the law here; the doorkeeper responds that, “No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you.  I am now going to shut it.”

I have thought about that parable a lot over the years, with regard to depression and “recovery” as well as dating.  I feel I try everything, but it never helps; it just stops me thinking I have omitted anything.  Hence, the JDate subscription.  Sigh.  But I suppose it is “my” door (loneliness, depression, social anxiety and autism), and I can’t really go anywhere else, or expect anyone else to understand it as I understand it the way I do.  All I can do is embrace the struggles and the “now.”

“I was shot and found myself in 1983”

Well, unlike Alex Drake in Ashes to Ashes, I wasn’t shot, but I did find myself in 1983 when I came into this world thirty-seven years ago.

My birthday got off to a bad start today.  Mum had a bad turn soon after I got up and we were worried about her for a while, although she’s fine now.

Then I tried to book my blood test, but failed because of COVID restrictions on where it can be done at the moment.  There’s a whole long story here that I won’t go into, but the short version is that I don’t know where I can have it done and am struggling to get hold of my psychiatrist to find out.  Typical NHS bureaucracy.  I know this sounds a trivial problem, and it is, but it leaves me feeling very flustered with social anxiety about asking people things and autistic confusion about new situations that I’m not prepared for, and being put through to receptionists who are short with me just leaves me feeling worse.

Also, on weighing myself, it looked like I hadn’t lost weight after all.

However, I was cheered up by getting a LOT of birthday messages here!  Thank you so much!  Also some messages from family during the day.  My ankle seems a lot better today too, although I need to work out what’s causing the pain to find a long-term solution.  Dad suggested insoles to cushion my feet more which might be a good first step.  That said, I did avoid going for a walk today to help it heal.

***

I did a bit of work on my novel, but between my problems phoning about my blood test, therapy, and decompressing from therapy afterwards, and then having family over for my birthday, I didn’t get much time today.  On the downside, I realised that when I sent Doctor Who Magazine a review copy of my Doctor Who book last week, I forgot to put my email address and phone number on the covering letter, although I did put my physical address.  I tell myself, I had never sent such a letter before, but it still annoys me that I make sloppy mistakes like that, even though I know it’s the kind of practical/interpersonal thing that you might expect someone on the autism spectrum to get wrong.

I guess it’s frustrating as I never had the organisational issues at school or university that might have flagged up autism.  I had a friend at school who was very intelligent, but also not at all organised and (to be honest) rather lazy.  He never did his homework or had the right books with him and only engaged with his studies inasmuch as they interested him.  He didn’t go to university when the rest of us did, but didn’t really do much in the way of career-building; I don’t even remember if he even had a job when I last saw him, back when I was still doing my BA.  My sister knows his sister and ran into him a few years back.  He had a girlfriend who was pregnant; I got the impression he still didn’t have much of career, maybe not even a job.  His parents always seemed super-permissive and content to just let him coast through life.  They were a wealthy family, so maybe he didn’t need to do any more than that to survive.

My point is that in many ways he fitted the autism stereotype a lot more than I do, the stereotype of intense interest in some topics, but complete uninterest in others and total disorganisation and lack of social savvy.  I never forgot my books, but perhaps that was only because I was super-careful to follow my routine of packing every evening before bed, checking against the timetable and my diary notes so that I didn’t forget anything and even checking my bag multiple times on the way in to school to see if I had forgotten anything (autism loves routines).   The further I get from the organised routine of school and, to a lesser extent, university, the more I make sloppy mistakes and end up blaming myself.  My parents help me with some stuff (I’ve mentioned my Dad helping me with money), but they don’t know anything about writing and publishing.  I just feel so useless and incompetent at times.  I try to tell myself it’s not my fault, but I worry that it is my fault and that when I have my assessment, I’m going to get told I’m not autistic, just useless.

***

Therapy was good.  We spoke about loneliness a lot.  I also went back and forth with guilt and anxiety about breaking up with E., which I guess is looking for validation on some level.  I spoke about not always being aware of when my inner critic is talking when I’m depressed and not being able to think of practical strategies to beat loneliness when I feel lonely.  The therapist suggested making some charts (I guess I could do flow charts) e.g. “If I feel depressed –> ask if it’s my inner critic talking” or “If I feel lonely –> email a friend /or –> phone Samaritans” rather than sit ruminating.  I will try to do that this week.

I spoke a bit about dating too.  The therapist did say that someone who could cope with my issues is probably going to be a very “special” and kind person, which is something I’ve thought about myself, even down to describing her as “special.”  How do I even find such a person?  According to stereotype, every frum guy is looking for a kind (and pretty) wife; it’s hard to see how I can stand out from the crowd, especially as, also according to stereotype, every frum woman (outside of the yeshiva world of full-time “learning”) is looking for guy who can support a family while taking prayer and Talmud study seriously, which is not exactly me right now.  It would probably also have to be someone who had some kind of issues of her own or the relationship would be unbalanced.  I don’t know how I could deliberately find such a relationship with someone with issues, other than wait and hope God will intervene.  I don’t think dating is going to happen again for me for a very long time…  That may be just as well, as I think I still have a lot of difficult feelings to work through regarding E.

***

As today was my birthday, my sister and brother-in-law came over and we had takeaway pizza in the garden, socially distanced, followed by chocolate cake and ice cream.  It was good, but I always end up feeling vaguely guilty that I get “peopled out” before anyone else gets tired.  I always seem to get fidgety a good hour before anyone else seems to.

Presents: Doctor Who: The Complete Twelfth Series DVD from my parents.  This was the 2020 series.  I know, I was lukewarm about the series when it was broadcast earlier this year, so why did I ask for it as a present?  (We don’t really do surprise presents in my family, we just tell each other what we would like.)  I admit I did have second thoughts about that.  To cut a long story short, I wasn’t sure what could be ordered because of COVID hitting my favourite online bookshop with supply issues.  I decided I would rather have something on the day than wait for months.  I also know I do often dislike new episodes of Doctor Who on first viewing and then like them a lot more on repeated viewing.  I think it’s something about the area where fannishness meets autism that means I need time to adjust to new ideas in my favourite programme.  I used to think the 2008 series was absolutely the worst series of Doctor Who ever; now I think that its second half in particular is a really exemplary run of episodes.  I didn’t think most of these episodes (the 2020 series) were bad, just so-so (except Orphan 55, which was pants and antisemitic).  As Peter Davison (the fifth Doctor) said, if a Doctor Who fan thinks an episode is “bad,” that means he “only” watches it thirty times.  If nothing else, reviewing the episodes for my Doctor Who blog ought to be fun; I deliberately didn’t review them on first viewing because I was worried I would be overly negative.  And there is still £10 or so in the budget to get one or two books when the supply chain restarts.

From my sister and brother-in-law, I got Minority Report, which is volume four of The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, one of my favourite authors.  (I have volumes one to three of the short stories already.)  Also, Muck by Dror Burstein, which is a sui generis modern re-telling of the biblical book of Jeremiah, a “comedy with apocalyptic stakes” that looks fun and also worth checking out if I want to write Jewish-themed fantasy and science fiction.  I guess it’s appropriate Three Weeks reading too.

Mum and Dad also gave me a MoonPig birthday card with my picture on it.  It’s not such a bad picture, which I saying something as I usually hate looking at pictures of myself.

I’m pretty tired and “peopled out” now.  I did some late night Torah study just now (about half an hour, not bad considering how late it is) and I ought to go to bed, but I feel I need to decompress a bit with TV or something to unwind from therapy and peopling.

***

There’s been a weird, intermittent humming sound from somewhere nearby today, which makes my bedroom sound eerily like the TARDIS.  I really would like to be able to take my room anywhere in time and space.  But probably not to 1983.

Wanderer in the Fourth Dimension

It’s been a very difficult day.

I was feeling quite anxious on waking up this morning.  Then Mum was quite ill very suddenly.  I was going to write what happened, but then I thought she might not want me to.  She’s OK now, but I was very worried for a time and thought briefly I might have to phone for an ambulance.  It was very frightening.  So that added a new level of anxiety.  Fortunately she’s seeing her surgeon tomorrow, so she can tell him about it.  I’m not sure he’s the best person to tell, but it’s a start.  But it’s a reminder of my parents’ mortality, and of the fact that while Mum’s prognosis is good, she is still seriously ill.

After a while Mum seemed to be OK and the adrenaline rush from dealing with the situation wore off, and I drifted back into depression, possibly worse for being post-adrenaline.  I managed to work on my novel and wrote quite a bit without too much procrastination, but once I had stopped, the depression came rushing back at me again, with agitation and probably also anxiety and loneliness, although it’s hard to be sure.  I felt pretty overwhelmed.

I tried to get myself to do some Torah study without using “should” language about it, but it was hard.  It was just a slog to get through it.  Here are some things that are hard to read in the Torah, from a contemporary perspective: genealogies, descriptions of sacrificial Temple rituals and censuses, because they are all very long and repetitive and it’s hard to connect them to anything in modern spirituality.  I struggle to connect them.  And they were all in this week’s sedra (Torah reading).  There was a little bit of narrative, but not much.  I did get through it and technically I didn’t “should” myself into it, but I think that was because autistic determination/absorption took over, and not in a good way, and I sort of forgot that I had the option of stopping.

I’m also trying not to think about the future, but it’s hard.  And it’s hard not to do it without “shoulding” myself into not doing it (“I should not think about the future.”).

About 8pm it hit me that it’s been a really hard day.  I hadn’t really thought about it that way before then, I’d been too busy living through it.  I felt a bit tired, but really tense.  It was late, but I wanted to go for a run before dinner to relieve some of the tension.  Possibly there was some “shoulding” there, but I did feel that I would be tense all evening unless I went out for a bit.  I had a reasonable run, and didn’t get an exercise migraine, so that was good.  I was still feeling stressed, so I ate ice cream for dessert after dinner, which probably put back the calories I lost running.  Oh well.

***

I felt a bit bad that my sister seemed more worried about Mum than I was.  Of course, by the time Mum told her, I’d seen that Mum was feeling a lot better, whereas my sister didn’t know and was probably imagining the worst, so in some ways it’s not surprising that she was very upset while I was calm.

I spend all my time worrying about some fairly abstract things in my life and the world at large (if I’ll ever have a proper job, if I’ll ever get married, if antisemitism is getting worse), but I can be pretty detached about people who I actually care about.  I feel like it makes me a bad person, but I’m not sure what worrying would achieve; if anything, I’d rather worry less about myself than more about my family and friends.   I guess it can be hard distinguishing caring from worrying, the former being good and the latter bad.  Maybe this is another “should” to avoid.  I just wish I didn’t feel inhuman and uncaring sometimes.

Detachment can be another autism symptom too, of course.  It could be that I do care about my family and friends, I just express it in a different way to most people.

***

NB: this next isn’t really anything to do with today or anyone I mentioned here today, just something I’ve been thinking about recently.

I find it hard to understand people.  They’re… complicated.  Sometimes one person has apparently contradictory character traits.  They can be supportive to some people, but cold to others, or caring when they’re in a good mood, but unbearable when they’re angry.  I find it difficult to understand.  Maybe I’ve been an avid reader since childhood to try to get inside other people’s heads.  I know autism doesn’t make it any easier.  I wonder if I will struggle to invent believable characters in my writing because of this.  Already I think my second most important character is flat and bland, while the villain is probably too nasty.  He’s a psychopath; psychopaths are usually very charming to most people and I think I’ve struggled to show that.

I struggle to understand people on a societal level too.  I don’t feel like I belong to either twenty-first century Western society or to contemporary frum society.  I can “pass” in both, but not always very well.  I’m not good on details like slang or popular culture in either society.

Maybe I’m just afraid of opening up.  Maybe people would be OK with my idiosyncrasies if I did so.  Or maybe not.  I suspect on some level I studied history to try to understand societies better.  I’m not sure if it helped any more than reading novels helped me understand individuals.  Sometimes I try to look at our current society as if I were an outsider, a future historian.

Maybe that’s why I’ve always liked time-travel stories.  I’d much rather have a time machine than a spaceship.  Maybe that’s why I prefer Doctor Who to Star Trek (OK, among several other reasons).  The idea of being lost in time is scary, but sometimes that feels how I live my life.

“Have you ever thought what it’s like to be wanderers in the fourth dimension?  Have you?  To be exiles…?” – Doctor Who: An Unearthly Child by Anthony Coburn

Religious Overtones

I felt a bit better today, at least once I managed to get up and get going.  I did give in to OCD compulsions before I ate breakfast.  Once I ate, I felt calmer though.  I feel better than I did yesterday at any rate.  It’s hard to tell when my thoughts are wonky, because what can I measure them with except other thoughts?  Philip K. Dick (one of my favourite authors) said at one point in his quest to discover if he was psychotic or religiously-inspired (or possibly having messages beamed into his head by aliens, or the CIA – all these were possibilities for him) “Either I’ve invented a whole new logic or, ahem, I’m not playing with a full deck.”  I feel like that sometimes.

I had early therapy today and then a shiur (religious class) over Zoom in the evening.  The timing pretty much made writing out of the question, even if I had felt less depressed.  I woke up early, but was depressed and fell asleep again.  By the time I managed to get up, get dressed, daven (pray) a bit and have lunch, there was less than an hour until therapy.

***

I went for a walk after therapy and got freaked out again at the number of people around.  I know this is an “You aren’t in traffic, you are traffic” situation and I’m just as much a part of the problem as anyone else.  Still, given Mum’s compromised immune system, I’m very afraid of bringing coronavirus in and I wonder if I should start taking my exercise indoors.  I know E. hasn’t left her apartment block for two months now.  I do think there’s a mental health benefit to going outdoors and I’m reluctant to lose it.

***

I’m still thinking about religious stuff.  Community stuff first:

This is a comment I left on a previous post that I thought worth adding here, as I don’t think I’ve said it in a post before:

I’m still hopeful about finding a Modern Orthodox shul [synagogue] in America if I marry E.  Unfortunately, in the UK, most people who go to MO [Modern Orthodox] shuls are not frum [religious] at all. They are just traditional [keep elements of Judaism, but not the entirety of Jewish law], and I find it hard to connect with them.  My parents’ shul is MO and is fairly frum as MO shuls go. I used to go there (and do go there sometimes in the week), but it’s a bad fit for so many reasons: too big, too much talking in services, a chazan [cantor] and a choir I can’t stand and, because it’s my parents’ shul, I have no identity of my own there, I’m just my parents’ son.

I didn’t add that that’s the only really local Modern Orthodox shul.  There is apparently one the other side of the town, but it would take me ages to walk there and one can’t go by car or public transport on Shabbat (the Sabbath), so everywhere has to be walking distance.

***

I’ve also been thinking more theological stuff.

I think my understanding of God is quite abstract.  To be honest, once you really get involved in Jewish theology or mysticism, God becomes pretty abstract.  Richard Dawkins’ “jealous angry God of the Old Testament,” as well as being an ancient antisemitic polemic, isn’t anything that educated Jews ever believed.  I’m wary of simplistic statements like, “God is love,” “God is life,” “God is existence,” “God is the Infinite,” “God is the Other,” but any of those would be nearer to what I believe in than The Angry Old Man in the Sky.

At the same time, we’re supposed to believe we can have a personal relationship with God, on some level, and that’s hard when I believe in something so abstract and impersonal even though I don’t think there’s any theological reason preventing it.  I just struggle to see it in my life.  I also struggle to connect with Someone who has made me suffer so much.  Even if I believe it’s for my ultimate good, it’s hard to connect when I’m just afraid that things will get worse “for my own good.”  It’s not that I don’t believe good can come of suffering, because I do, I just feel I can’t cope with any more of it.

***

I also wonder what will happen to the people I care about after death.  I don’t really care what happens to me, particularly as Judaism doesn’t believe in eternal damnation and non-existence doesn’t bother me conceptually.  Still, I wonder what will happen to my friends and family who aren’t frum or who even are atheists.

Judaism is pretty vague about the afterlife.  I won’t go through the theology, from the almost total lack of mention in Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible), to its importance in the Pharisee-Sadducee split, the six (actually seven) questions asked of souls in the afterlife in the Talmud,  “All Israel have a share in The World to Come,” “The righteous of the nations have a share in The World to Come,” the Rambam’s Thirteen Principles of Faith, and so on.  It’s just that people don’t discuss it much, certainly not compared with Christianity (and possibly also Islam).

Growing up, I got the impression that most people (or most Jews?  This was vague) has a share in the Next Work (“go to Heaven” in Christian-speak).  The previous rabbi at my shul seemed to think that almost no one has a share in the Next World.  Rabbi Lord Sacks got in trouble years ago for saying all religions are sources of valid truth for non-Jews.  I worry about friends and family who aren’t so religious, or religious at all.  It is hard to know what to believe about something that is so rarely explicitly addressed.  Jews don’t really do theology overtly, only disguised in mysticism or Midrash (narrative).  We just assume God will sort everything out in the end.  Maybe that’s the best approach.

***

Part of the shiur this evening was about Sefer Vayikra (The Book of Leviticus) being about how to have a personal relationship with God, but I felt that this was not developed so much.  It’s something for me to think about though – tzarich iyun (this requires investigation).

***

I spoke about some of these worries in therapy today.  I also spoke about the fact that Judaism teaches that everyone has their own mission and their own expectations of what they can do, but that it can be hard to do that when the community has a “one size fits all” approach and there is a fear of stigma, both from depression and autism and from not fitting in completely with Jewish law.  The therapist did say that regarding my relationship with, even if E. and I didn’t have differences about religion and a need to compromise there, there would be other things we needed to compromise about.

***

Just because I can’t avoid religion at the moment, the next Star Trek: Voyager episode I watched to relax after therapy involved one of the characters having a near-death experience and then deciding that the afterlife is a lie as he didn’t experience it.  This might have been more affecting if he had mentioned his religious beliefs at all over the last three and a half years.  Star Trek generally assumes that religion is something clever people and cultures grow out of sooner or later.

Pause

I was thinking about the fact that my autism assessment has been delayed months by COVID-19 lockdown.  The NHS hadn’t given me an idea of when it would be even before lockdown (👏👏👏), but eighteen months was the likely amount.  It’s been on hold with lockdown so it will be eighteen months after things get back to normal, whenever that is.

My relationship with E. has been on hold too.  Not literally, as we’re still Skype dating, but we wanted to move it on.  E. was trying to come over here at some point this year so we could spend some time together.  Now we don’t know if that will happen until next year.  I’m still hopeful it might happen this year.  But our hopes of having a romantic time in the summer doing outdoors stuff like going to parks and outdoor attractions is looking less and less likely.  It’s more likely to be a wet and cold November or December (although if E. is her for Chanukah that might be nice, at least if she’s up for visiting my parents).

***

It was difficult to get going today.  I just struggled to do anything other than sit in front of my laptop in my pyjamas.  I wasn’t even reading anything, just flicking through pages, too depressed to get dressed.

Later, I had my windows open and could hear our neighbour’s teenage son “learning” Talmud with another boy, both speaking very fast, throwing concepts around in fluent Yeshivish (mixture of English, Hebrew, Yiddish and Aramaic, rather incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t spent a lot of time with Orthodox Jews, or rather Orthodox Jewish men as it’s something acquired in the men-only environment of yeshiva (rabbinical seminary)).  I feel bad that I can’t study like that.  It’s not just that I can’t study Talmud like that, I can’t study any Jewish texts like that, in a chevruta (paired study).  I’m not sure how much is social anxiety about not wanting to seem stupid, how much autistic issues about thinking quickly on my feet and interacting with my study partner and how much just the way my brain functions.

I tell myself that I wouldn’t thrive in a community where only one, very narrow, form of knowledge is valued, not even Torah/Jewish studies in general, but just Talmud and really only the halakhic (legal) parts of Talmud.  That’s some consolation, but I still feel my life would be better on several levels if I could study and understand Talmud better (it would help with my thoughts for future novels).  It probably is true that, if I want to write reasonably literate novels with a Jewish background at least partially for a Jewish audience, then I have to be roughly where I am.  Any more frum (religious Orthodox Jewish) and I probably wouldn’t see writing as a worthwhile activity; any less frum and I wouldn’t have the inside knowledge to write about Judaism and Jewish life.  Still, I feel like I’m walking a weird tightrope sometimes, and I do sometimes wish I had spent a year in yeshiva (rabbinical seminary), even thought I probably would have found it awful from an autistic and social anxiety perspective.

I tried to work on my novel, but it was hard to focus for some reason.  It didn’t help that I was distracted by noise not only from the teenagers learning next door, but from ongoing building works somewhere nearby.  I’m not sure if they are supposed to be at work, but they have been for some days now, if not longer.  I got a load of emails too, which probably didn’t distract me so much as allow me to procrastinate more easily, but they didn’t help.  I did write about 500 words in an hour and a half or so, which isn’t too bad.  I’m glad when I’m just making progress.

I went for a walk, but I am still getting panicked by all the people outdoors and the difficulty of avoiding them.  I worry not so much for my own health, but for fear of infecting Mum with her compromised immunity.  However, I don’t think I should stay indoors all the time.  It’s difficult.  Maybe I should start doing some aerobics instead of/as well as running (which might be a good idea anyway, to use different muscles).

***

I’ve nearly finished Decalog 2, the Doctor Who short story collection I’m reading.  I’m getting a bit bored of re-reading Doctor Who novels, and re-reading in general.  I don’t have any unread novels that I feel like reading right now (generally they’re too heavy) and I’m trying not to mail order stuff during lockdown.  I fancy something a bit meatier anyway, so I’m looking at my non-fiction shelves, probably either The Islamist (Ed Hussein’s account of his experiences with radical Islam) or The Siege Connor Cruise O’Brien’s political history of the modern State of Israel.  The latter is dated (it was written in the mid-eighties), but had an intriguingly good review on The Jewish Review of Books a while back as still a valid and worthwhile work.

Either book would violate my “no heavy books in lockdown” but I’m getting a bit sick of just reading fluff to avoid upsetting myself.  I would probably balance with some Batman graphic novels for when I’m not feeling so intellectual.

Writing Fiction, Writing Autobiography

I struggled to get going again today.  I just felt completely drained.  I’m not sure how long I spent on my novel today.  I tried to write more of it, but managed only about two hundred words and hit a wall.  I decided that the chapter was finished and proofread it, but I’m open to the idea that that decision may be a result of depression and I will have more to add on another day.  Reading over it, some of the earlier parts of the chapter were definitely quite good, but it’s a mixed bag overall.  Again, the surreal interludes are both more enjoyable to write and seem to be better written on re-reading.  The chapter weighs in at just over 4,000 words, which is a little short.  To be honest, the novel as a whole is probably a little on the short side (it’s currently around 30,000 words, depending on whether or not I include the prologue), but I’m hoping the second draft will expand a bit.

To be honest, I’m struggling a bit to keep going with the novel at the moment.  In the abstract, I think it’s a story worth telling, but I’m not at all convinced that I’m telling it well plus I worry that the autobiographical bit is of no interest to anyone other than me; likewise that the character most like me is boring, irritating and self-obsessed.  Am I just projecting my low self-esteem?  Or is it true?  It’s upsetting to feel that my life story isn’t interesting to anyone else, let alone that I’m a boring, annoying drama queen.  At least I have some ideas for other novels that would be very different in style and content from the semi-autobiographical novel of character dealing with Big Issues that I’m currently writing.  If nothing else, writing this novel has convinced me that whatever future I may or may not have as a writer, it’s not as a writer of highbrow literary fiction, perhaps sadly, but perhaps fortunately.

It’s funny because Bryony Gordon has a new book out that was being promoted in the newspaper yesterday, and she’s written so much about her issues, and I find myself wondering how she’s managed to do that.  Admittedly her issues inspired her to do crazy, impulsive, hedonistic, dangerous things that were probably bad at the time, but led to good stories, whereas my issues tied me to a life of… not quite monkish abstinence, but very little actually happening, just a lot of sitting around feeling lonely and miserable.

***

I went for a run, which helped my mood a bit.  It was good running weather: dry, but cold.  I like the bracing feeling of running in the cold, like swimming in the sea in winter (not that I’ve ever tried that).  I Skyped E. too; we have a routine now of studying some of Pirkei Avot (the part of the Talmud dealing with ethics) on Sunday (at her suggestion, I should add – I’m not forcing religion on her!).  So I felt better after the run and Skyping E. although it is hard not knowing when we will be able to spend time together in person.

Very Short Post

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

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

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

That was it, really.

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

Struggling

I found the last two days of Pesach (Passover) a struggle.  I was still dealing with some religious OCD from earlier in the week.  Added to this was depression, anxiety and pure O OCD (obsessively worrying I’m a bad person who could do illegal things).  The latter has not been seen for a long time and I was upset by its return, although in many ways it’s easier to deal with than the other OCD.

I did the usual Yom Tov (festival) stuff: pray, eat too much, sleep too much, go for one government-sanctioned exercise walk each day, study Torah and read.  I didn’t do so much Torah study or recreational reading as last week, as I was feeling too depressed and anxious.  I finished The Ritual Bath, a mystery novel set in the Haredi community, and decided that I don’t like police procedural mystery novels as much as Golden Age mystery novels.  I think I prefer impossible crimes, locked rooms, bizarre clues and eccentric detectives to sordid crimes, gangs, detectives with dysfunctional lives and mundane police work.  I started re-reading Decalog, a Doctor Who short story collection that I know I have read, but about which I can remember very little.

After Yom Tov ended, I helped with the big tidying up, even though I felt very tired and depressed and drank Coke Zero (I prefer Diet Coke) and ate chocolate to try to get energy, without much success.  I accidentally broke a dish that previously belonged to my grandmother and that was older than I am (from the seventies).  I put it in a cardboard box that I thought was sealed at the bottom, but the sellotape had rotted or been pulled away and the dish fell through.

Eventually I became exhausted and had to stop helping, although I would have liked to have continued.

***

I have a feeling today that I’m not coping so well.  I had various coping strategies and some of them were very maladaptive, but I stuck with them for lack of alternatives.  Now I can’t use them and I wonder how I will cope.  Maybe I’m catastrophising.  I hope so.  I wish I was in therapy still.  I feel being able to talk to someone objective would help.

***

I had a weird dream where I stood for election as chairman of my shul (synagogue).  I only stood to see if I could get any votes, as I thought someone else would win, but there was a split vote between the two leading candidates and I won.  I panicked, thinking I couldn’t cope with this, especially not with my mental health situation and Mum’s illness, but before I could resign, I was removed by the community, who felt I wasn’t involved enough in the shul and that I didn’t rebuke people enough for break Jewish law.  Then the dream shifted into upsetting stuff about antisemitism.

***

There probably is more to say, but I feel exhausted.  I’m thinking of watching TV even though it’s really late, as I don’t think I’ll sleep, despite exhaustion, as I slept too much today, as well as drinking caffeinated Coke Zero.

Lockdown

It looks like Mum’s cancer isn’t one of the ones requiring twelve week isolation, which is good.

I went for a half-hour walk and posted my medical certificate for benefits, which arrived from the doctor today.  I’m not sure when I should hear if I still qualify for ESA.  I’m going to try to take exercise most days, either walking or jogging.  While walking, I listened to an Intimate Judaism podcast on sexual abuse and halakhah (Jewish law) that turned out to be somewhat relevant to my novel, although that was not my original reason for listening.

Afterwards, I spent thirty-five minutes working on things to say at the sederim over Pesach (Passover), editing some essays by Rabbi Lord Sacks down to get the relevant points and writing a mini-devar Torah (Torah thought) about having sederim at the time of coronavirus.

The approach to Pesach is one of the times of the year when Jewish charities send out appeals.  It’s horrible to look at where I am this year and see that I have little to give and so many people in need, particularly with the damage coronavirus is inflicting on the economy, particularly for people on low income jobs.  I have to think hard about where money would be best spent, which is horrible.  I hate not being able to give more.

***

The above was written before the lockdown announcement.  I walked in while that was on the news.  I found it quite frightening.  I had a whole bunch of thoughts go through my head, perhaps not all rational: should I still go to my blood test tomorrow?  Will we get all the Pesach food we still need (particularly romaine lettuce for maror, the bitter herbs for the sederim)?  Will we be OK cleaning and kashering our ovens without disassembling the fan?  How will I cope going months on end without a haircut?  I have very thick frizzy hair, I could be a ball of fuzz by the time the barbers open again.  I had some vague worries about exercise even though one period of outdoor exercise a day is still permitted.  Some of my worries were more “out there”  – worrying if I would get arrested while walking to and from my blood test tomorrow, which isn’t that likely, but autistic fear of change + social anxiety = crazy fears.  I do wonder how my parents feel about indefinite separation from my sister.

The announcement completely threw me, even though it’s not unexpected and it took me a while to come back to normal.  My stomach cramps have come back, looking more psychosomatic than ever.  Autism doesn’t like change and uncertainty, and change and uncertainty is what we will have for the next few months/year.  It’s hard to know what to do.  In a strange way, Pesach might be a bit easier than in a non-lockdown state.  It is a principal of Jewish law that “ones Rachmana patrei” “The Merciful One exempts the coerced from punishment” i.e. if we try to do the right thing and are prevented by external events, it doesn’t matter.  Perhaps I will feel less psychological pressure even as we feel greater physical difficulty?  On this note, the London Beit Din (rabbinical court) sent out a list of food items that would normally require special Pesach supervision, but which this year they are permitting without supervision.  I think milk was the main one that might affect us, although Mum thinks we live in an area with enough Jewish shops that we should get some, even if we have to buy it just one or two pints each day.

I’m still telling myself stupid jokes to keep going.  On hearing that weddings and baptisms are to be stopped, but funerals permitted, I said, “That’s good, I was afraid I would be late for my own funeral!”  I guess it’s gallows humour.  My parents laughed.  I keep feeling really hot and worrying that I’m coming down with a fever, then realising that my parents have the central heating up high again.

The thought that occurred to me is that we’re going to end up like E. M. Forster’s The Machine Stops, all living underground in isolation.  We will all go separately when we go, as Tom Lehrer might have sung.

***

I didn’t get time to do much after the lockdown announcement.  I polished some of the silverware while watching Star Trek Voyager.  It’s another day when I’ve prioritised health, Pesach and helping around the home over writing.  I did actually try to do half an hour of writing, but I ran out of concentration after fifteen minutes and decided it was better to get off the computer as close as possible to 11pm than to carry on trying to write.

Writer’s Angst

I wasn’t going to blog today.  Not very much worth recording happened over Shabbat (the Sabbath).  I have to up early (OK, not early, but early for me) tomorrow to speak to my rabbi (which I’m nervous about).  But I am having difficult thoughts about my novel.

E. likes what I’ve written so far, but the more I think about it, the less happy I feel about it.  The novel is a novel of character about a bunch of characters in their twenties, religious Jews who meet at Oxford.  The bits I’ve written so far are largely about a depressed, high functioning autistic Orthodox Jewish Doctor Who fan (write about what you know).  Later there will be stuff from more outside my comfort zone about an abusive relationship.  Strangely, I feel more looking forward to that than what I’m writing now.  I feel that what I’ve written so is not the type of book I would read, and that just seems wrong.  Wrong as in it won’t be good if I’m writing against my inclination.  I wouldn’t generally read novels of character like this unless there was another point of interest for me, but I do sometimes read books simply for featuring mental illness, autism, or Orthodox Judaism (I’m unaware of books about Doctor Who fans).  Probably not as much as I should do to write a book like this, but then there aren’t so many books about these types of characters.  I don’t think I can relate easily to characters in modern novels of character.

The problem really is that the type of books I read, and TV programmes I watch, tell very different stories to the one I’m trying to tell not to mention the ideas I’ve had ideas about for future books.  That’s partly because people aren’t writing so much fiction about the mentally ill and almost none is written about the Orthodox world.  In the latter camp was Chaim Potok, who I like, and some recent Israeli films and TV, but not much else.  I haven’t seen Shtisel, the Israeli Netflix drama about a Haredi family, but David Aaronovitch wrote a hugely patronising column in the Jewish Chronicle a while back about watching it and discovering that Orthodox Jews actually have feelings like normal human beings; if nothing else, that shows how unrepresented the Orthodox world is in fiction.

As for what I do read and watch… well, looking at my bookshelves, and focusing on things that I would like to write like rather than read (I like golden age detective novels, but doubt I could ever write one), in books there’s Chaim Potok, as I mentioned.  Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka and Philip K. Dick are my favourite novelists.  I like Ursula K. le Guin a lot, and The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien is a book I’ve been thinking about a lot recently.  Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and Ted Chiang’s short stories are probably also books that I would like to be influenced by.

Looking at TV, it becomes even clearer that I like weird stuff.  Not necessarily straightforward science fiction or fantasy though.  I guess I like the point where realism and science fiction/fantasy blend in to each other.  A lot of Doctor Who falls here, as do the Emma Peel episodes of The AvengersThe Prisoner and Sapphire and Steel.  Jonathan Creek isn’t science fiction or fantasy at all, but has a similar atmosphere – and we’re definitely talking atmosphere more than genre (Doctor Who is definitely about atmosphere and not about genre purity).

The reason I’m writing this is that tonight I started watching Life on Mars, which for a bunch of reasons (most of which boiling down to “I’m autistic and scared of doing new things in case I don’t like them”) I didn’t watch when it originally aired in 2006 and the first episode was very much the kind of thing I’d like to do, not in terms of genre (police procedurals don’t interest me that much), but in terms of jumping between ‘realist’ and ‘surreal/possibly fantasy’ threads or images.  But I don’t think that would really fit into the novel as I’ve started to write it.  But maybe that just means I’ve taken a wrong turning and need to go back and start again.

A side-light on that: E. thinks that the protagonist’s Jewish identity isn’t strong enough, in terms of what he feels rather than does.  This is probably reflective of my own feelings of being stuck in Orthodopraxy (Jewish observance) rather than passionate observance.  It’s hard to write about other people’s feelings when I have a condition that makes it hard for me to understand my own feelings, let alone other people’s.

I will carry on writing for now.  I want to get a first draft finished by the end of the year.  (I think I was originally aiming for the end of the Jewish year in the autumn, but that doesn’t look so likely at the moment.)  I will still aim for that.  Once I have a complete draft, I can think about what works and what doesn’t, maybe ask some other people’s opinions, although I’m wary of doing that.  I’m not even sure if it was a good idea to show E. what I have shown her, but I felt I needed encouragement.

Still Burnt Out

I’m still feeling burnt out from Sunday.  It can take me a while to recuperate from busy days, and Sunday was very busy.  I had the usual struggles to get up and get going with depression and exhaustion.  The depression and exhaustion stayed for most of the day and there were intermittent worries about the future (near and immediate).  Although the depression and exhaustion they fluctuated, at times they felt worse than yesterday rather than better.  I think I’ve had this before, when I’m exhausted for several days and the second day is worse than the first.  I wonder what the reason is.

I tried to do some things, although it was still like wading through quicksand.  I did some Torah study, although not as much as I would have liked.  I read The Art of Biblical Poetry for about twenty-five minutes and had a cursory look over the content of last Shabbat‘s Talmud shiur (religious class) again as I’m supposed to do on my not-very-closely-followed weekly Torah study schedule.  I also cooked dinner.  I’m not entirely sure when I’m going to work on this week’s Torah thought, as I don’t really know what I’m going to say and I’m running out of time to research.  I don’t want to skip a week just as I’ve been trying to get people to read it.

***

I tried to get hold of my rabbi mentor, but he’s super-busy and then away.  I hope to speak to him at some point fairly soon.  It made me wonder if I should try to book a few sessions with my old therapist, as there’s a lot going on in my head at the moment: Mum’s cancer; my relationship with E. (which is good, but working out how we move it on is terrifying); my unemployment and fears it will be permanent; the stress of the coming Jewish festivals; and probably more stuff I can’t think of now…

I spoke to my parents about it, to check there was money available to pay her.  They felt it was worth booking a few sessions.  Mum said she has been worried about me lately, which made me feel bad, but I’m not entirely sure what “bad” is here.  I wasn’t exactly guilty or ashamed, but somehow it felt wrong for her to be worrying about me at the moment when she’s the one with the tumour.

***

I haven’t worked on my novel for a couple of weeks.  I’ve been focusing my creative energy on getting my non-fiction Doctor Who book published.  I feel that the novel is not going exactly the way I want, but it’s hard to work out why.  Related to this is a decrease in confidence and excitement about writing fiction.  Some is my natural tendency to self-criticism and the way depression blunts excitement and energy.  Some is that I am still at the beginning of learning how to write a novel and, realistically, some of it is probably quite bad, or at least unpolished.

However, I think some of it is that my tastes tend to be quite stylised and/or surreal.  Authors like Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges and Philip K. Dick or TV programmes like Doctor WhoThe Prisoner and Sapphire and Steel.  I suppose some of it is experiencing the world as strange and threatening because of autism and mental illness, so I want to see that reflected in fiction, but some of it is just admiring art that has a strong vision e.g. Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey, which are strange in parts, but also create very clear worlds that are very different to our own even in the more “normal” parts.

That’s not really where my novel is or where any of the ideas I have for future novels are and I wonder why I’m writing things that aren’t exactly what I want to read.  That may be inevitable.  My novel and my ideas for future novels are really about Jewish fiction that is meaningfully about religious Jews, our lives, our thoughts, our beliefs and hopes.  Few contemporary authors are interested in the Jewish community in that way.

My novel so far is very realistic, although I have a more surreal dream sequence planned for a later chapter, but I wonder if I should try to expand on that style if I can do it without it being too jarring.  I intended to do that when I started writing, to try to reflect the way I perceive the world as strange, illogical and frightening sometimes, but it has been hard to do, partly because the times when I see the world as frightening and strange are usually when I’m too depressed to write; even if I’m writing, I feel I don’t have the vocabulary or skills to put into words what I feel, even here, let alone in fiction.  On the other hand, I worry about scaring people off if my book, which appears initially like a standard love triangle with added mental illness and Jewish colour, suddenly goes off into The Third Policeman territory (to pick a very good novel, in my opinion, that wasn’t published in the author’s lifetime because it was so surreal and sinister, although it’s probably on my mind because it seemed to be referenced by Ascension of the Cybermen, last Sunday’s Doctor Who episode).

I worry that the book isn’t Jewish enough or fannish enough either, but maybe a little goes a long way there too.

***

Speaking of fannish stuff, I’m feeling a bit of buyer’s remorse with Star Trek Voyager.  I’m halfway through series two and while there have been few truly awful episodes, there haven’t been any great ones.  Most series of Star Trek take a while to get going and season two of Voyager is apparently considered proverbially bad, so I’m hoping things will pick up once we get to season three (of seven).  But it is a bit of a struggle to watch at the moment when I’m looking for something light and fast-paced.  I might watch some Doctor Who or The Avengers before bed, as I need cheering up and feel too depressed and exhausted to read.

I don’t have buyer’s remorse about reading the graphic novel V for Vendetta as I borrowed it from the library, but I do have mixed feelings about it.  It’s written by Alan Moore, who is one of the biggest names in comics, and drawn by David Lloyd.  It’s a dystopian story of an anarchist rebelling against a future Fascist UK government (future when the comic was written, but past now, which makes it feel like like a weird alternate timeline that would not have been the effect at the time of publication).  The atmosphere is good, what I have termed ‘austeritypunk’ (after the ‘cyberpunk’ and ‘steampunk’ sub-genres), by which I mean a future that evokes the imagery, technology and fashions of the 1940s and 50s.  It’s diverting and evocative, but I don’t entirely believe the world-building or the characterisation and I feel the hero/anti-hero is let off to easily for doing terrible things.  Plus, the art, while appropriately bleak, is confusing – I struggle to tell the characters apart, and the dialogue doesn’t always help.  This all contrasts unfavourably with Moore’s previous graphic novel Watchmen, which was much better in every way.

I feel it would reward a second reading and maybe be better and certainly easier to read, but it’s also so grim that I’m not sure that I can bear to read it again.

***

There were a few flowers in bloom in the garden last week.  There are a lot more today.  The days are a little longer, albeit that they are still short.  Spring is on the way, and on the whole that’s a good thing, despite some nervousness about the spring festivals of Purim and Pesach.  It is true that when the stress and potential religious OCD hazards of Pesach swing around, the days will be a bit longer and brighter and I will hopefully be able to draw strength from that that I can’t access now.  I stopped using my SAD light box for a few days, but maybe that was a mistake; I might use it again tomorrow.  It’s not spring yet.

Mum’s Results

My Mum got her test results today.  The good news is that the cancer hasn’t spread beyond where they already knew it is (breast and lymph) and that it is treatable.  The bad news is that treatment (chemotherapy, surgery and radiotherapy) will take about a year, including recovery, so 2020 looks like being a stressful year for all of us.  We don’t have a proper treatment plan yet, so I’m assuming that is only a rough plan; I’m not sure exactly how that would differ from an official treatment plan.

This is a side of the NHS I’m not used to seeing: fast, friendly and effective.  I think Mum even has a support nurse who she can turn to with questions and for emotional support.  It’s scary how different mental healthcare provision is from cancer treatment.  I’m not sure why mental healthcare is so under-resourced, whether it’s stigma and public apathy or simply the fact that mental healthcare is very labour-intensive.  Psychotherapy in particular can go on for years with no clear end in sight, making mental health a potentially bottomless pit for funding.

The prognosis seems to be good, but it’s scary to be suddenly confronted with my parents’ mortality.  I’ve never entirely been independent from them because of my depression (and, perhaps, on some level, because of the autism) and I’ve worried in the abstract in the past about how I would cope without them, but this makes it all more real.  I’m also wondering how it will alter the family dynamic.  I’m used to being the only person who is ill and now that will change, which is likely to be disconcerting to all of us, at the very least.

My sister and brother-in-law came over in the evening to eat dinner and discuss my Mum’s treatment.  We had a reasonably good time, despite the conversation being initially very serious.

***

I seem to be struggling with sleep even more than usual since Mum has been ill.  I’ve gone from sleeping ten hours a night to twelve hours, and I wake feeling exhausted and depressed enough that I would probably sleep more, or at least stay in bed longer, if Dad didn’t insist that I get up.  I know it’s not surprising, as sleeping more is always the first sign of depression in me and the last thing to improve (I haven’t really had a fully healthy sleep pattern since my teens), but it is frustrating.  It’s pushing me into a more nocturnal life, as I stay up late because I’m not tired and because I want to accomplish some of the things I didn’t manage during the day, but that probably just perpetuates the problem.

Although I felt a bit better after breakfast, I still struggled to get dressed and start the day.  Perhaps that was inevitable given that Mum had her big appointment.  Maybe I was unconsciously trying to push it off somehow.  Even after lunch I felt listless and unwilling to do anything.  I tried to practise self-care, turn down the Shoulds and so on, but it’s hard.  I still struggle to turn off the Shoulds and the self-criticism for fear of turning into a bad person.  I don’t think genuinely bad people are much bothered by self-criticism and I’m worried that if I stop criticising myself, I will turn into a bad person.

I did manage to do a few things.  I signed up for my local public library on their website, which I had neglected to do since we moved here.  I stopped using my public library when I went to university because I didn’t want to risk losing public library books by taking them up to Oxford, and then I got out of the public library habit because I got into the charity shop habit.  I can be possessive about books anyway and buying books for £1 from charity shops reinforced that and created an expanding To Read pile that I felt I should address before borrowing other books.  Still, if I’m going to be unemployed for a while, it makes sense to join the library, particularly if I need to do research for writing projects.  Plus, I’ve come to accept that a lot of the books on my To Read pile are going to stay there indefinitely; when I’m depressed (and it seems I will be depressed for the foreseeable future), I’m not realistically going to read The Iliad or heavy non-fiction or to re-read books like Great Expectations and Crime and Punishment, much as part of me would like to.

I felt too distracted to do much that was useful today, at least until Mum phoned after her appointment.  I spent some time working on my bibliography, but was easily distracted.  I managed to write up about fifteen references.  I’m now about halfway through the bibliography, but some of the remaining references will require a lot of work to locate, and to find out how to reference properly (I need to check how to reference DVD production subtitles and supporting features).  I’m hoping to get it finished by the end of next week.

***

Chaconia commented to say that I might still be eligible for ESA (benefits), but I’m feeling quite confused by the whole situation.  I should probably find some time to sit down and work out how many National Insurance credits I have, if I’m still getting them and if there are any benefits I might be eligible for.  I find the government benefits website rather confusing to navigate, perhaps deliberately.

***

As if knowing I would need cheering up, my Doctor Who sonic screwdrivers arrived moments after Mum and Dad got home.  They are pleasingly chunky and usable, with sound effects and, in some cases, lights and extendable parts.  I suspect that the ones seen on TV more recently were designed with merchandising opportunities in mind, for collectors and cosplayers (people who dress up as fictional characters) as much as for children.  I suppose now I officially count as a cosplayer myself, if my Tom Baker/fourth Doctor scarf didn’t already qualify me.  To be honest, three of the six screwdrivers in the set are virtually identical to each other, but the other three are all very different designs, so I’m glad I spent the extra £10 to buy the set rather than just buying the fourth Doctor one and maybe spending more to buy another one somewhere down the line.  I showed them to my family after dinner and everyone was impressed, although I haven’t told anyone exactly how much they cost – at nearly £40 it was rather more than I am usually willing to pay for a fairly frivolous purchase and an impulsive one at that, but given that I don’t usually spend that much money on things, I think I can be forgiven one frivolous expense at a time of emotional stress.  It is making me rather more excited about Purim, which was the purpose of the exercise, although there’s another month to go.

Achievements

I overslept again, had weird dreams that were disturbing, but too confused to relate and I struggled to get going, feeling too drained and depressed.  Feeling tearful at times and not sure why.

I was still beating myself up about things as I tried to eat breakfast and get dressed, albeit different things recently.  I feel like I’m cycling through different negative emotions lately: anxiety, despair, now guilt.  At the moment negative thoughts are sort of blocked out by a stomach ache that I’ve had on and off for a couple of weeks.  I think it’s a medication side-effect, but want to try to get an appointment with a doctor to check, if I can manage to get one (they usually get taken really fast when released at 8.30am (when I’m asleep anyway) and 6.30pm).

I went for a run, did forty-five minutes of Torah study, Skyped E. for an hour and a half or so and spoke to my sister on the phone for ten or fifteen minutes.  I also started to work on self-publishing my non-fiction Doctor Who book (remembering to stress that it’s “unofficial and unauthorised” on the title page so I don’t hear from the BBC’s lawyers).  It looks a bit harder than I was expecting.  Also, it seems that the formatting guidelines I’ve been following for pitching stuff are out of date (is this why I’m having such trouble selling my writing?).  If anyone knows of good online submission layout guidelines, I’d be grateful!

Lulu.com requires the entire book as a single document in a pdf.  I spent nearly an hour and a half late at night (yes, I’m still quasi-nocturnal) copying and pasting chapters saved as separate files into a single document and then adjusting the font.  I’ve still got some stuff to do to take away the notation I thought I should use for layout and italics when submitting to publishers.  I also need to add a few sentences to explain that the book went to press too early to cover 2020’s episodes (I’m too busy with my novel to return to the Doctor Who book for long enough to significantly revise the final chapter).  I’m also publishing as “Initials, Surname” rather than “First name, Surname” to distinguish this non-fiction Doctor Who writing from anything else I might ever publish (hopefully, one day) and might not want to see associated with self-published work in a different genre.

I guess that’s quite a bit done, even if much of it was later than I should really have been working.  I wish I felt more satisfaction and pride in achieving things like this, rather than just blaming myself for not managing more.  I guess that takes me back to guilt and self-recrimination.

***

I finished Penguin Lost last  night.  It was good, but not as good as Death and the Penguin, although maybe after over fifteen years my memory of the earlier book is wonky.  Slightly weird ending though.

I’m glad to say I enjoyed Doctor Who today, even though I didn’t understand it all (I was going to say it made very little sense, but I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt) and I still have no idea where the plot-device antidote came from.

No Man Is an Island

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

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

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

On the downside…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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