Running to Stand Still

I am still looking for agent for my novel. I submitted to two today. They are only the third and fourth agent I’ve sent to in last four weeks. I’m not sure why I’ve been going slowly; some of it is feeling that there are still a lot of things in my life that I need to deal with NOW (the treading water feeling that I am not progressing, just running to setand still). I have to prioritise, and it is easy to say that submitting my manuscript is not a high priority, which might not be correct.

Finding an agent and then a publisher is definitely a marathon, or a series of marathons, and not a sprint, but it is easy to get disheartened particularly when (a) I don’t have great self-esteem in general or belief in my writing ability, (b) I’m also looking for writing and other paid work and not getting anywhere and (c) I’m in a job where I frequently end up feeling incompetent and inadequate, which just undermines my self-esteem further.

***

Reading Orlando, there is a lot about Orlando struggling to fit in with the spirit of the literature of her age. Reading between the lines, I assume this is about author Virginia Woolf and her lover Vita Sackville-West (the model for Orlando) struggling to fit into the still-pervading atmosphere of Victorian conservatism and patriarchy in literature and society in the 1920s. Ironically, Orlando‘s gender-fluid and feminist themes mean that Orlando is very much in tune with twenty-first century Western literary mores, probably more so than Woolf could ever have dreamed. I am still hoping that the ‘diversity’ agenda that dominates contemporary publishing will work to my advantage, but so far as I can tell from the books that get the praise and the prizes, ‘diversity’ is primarily about being black, gay or trans (or all of the above), not disabled (autistic or depressed) and definitely not Orthodox Jewish. Which is a shame, as I feel that many people know rather less about Jews than they think they do, and that this ignorance leads to a lot of avoidable antisemitism.

(Don’t get me started on viewpoint diversity in publishing or elsewhere.)

***

I did a few other things today. I wrote my devar Torah in an hour. I felt like I was winging it. Sometimes reading the sedra (Torah portion) early in the week prompts an idea to talk about or sends me doing research in other books. Sometimes I already have an idea that I want to impart and look for a link in a sedra (Torah portion) where I can relate it. But today I was stumped for ideas and just thought about things I’d already heard about the sedra until I found one I felt I could write about for about 600 words. I think it’s OK, and I did try to write in a slightly different style to my usual one, with more of an arresting opening and a bit more inspirational than usual. This was partly to make my writing more attention-grabbing and purposeful, largely to nudge my style a bit closer towards that of the Jewish website I applied to write, to see if I can actually write in their style.

***

I phoned the autism hospital to try to get a number I can phone to find out if I’m on the waiting list for autism-adapted CBT. I phoned the person I spoke to last week who says she doesn’t deal with it any more. At the time I didn’t think to ask her for the details of whoever does deal with it and now I’m struggling to find out. I feel stupid about not doing this at the time, but I know autism + on-the-spot interpersonal interactions + telephones is not a good combination and I do end up thinking of things I should have said when I look back on these types of calls.

***

Overall, I did quite a bit today (I skyped E too, and went for a walk and did some shopping), but my ‘to do’ list is still so long, and I might have to submit to so many agents, that it can all seem very dispiriting at times.

A Conscientious Objector in the Culture Wars

I had a not-very-good-but-not-very-bad day leading to an exhausted evening. But in the back of my head all day was stuff triggered by the news, and I want to talk about that instead.

I do increasingly feel that we live in a world of lies (olam shel sheker is the Hebrew term, with mystical overtones, but I can use it quite literally). It used to be that politicians of different stripes shared the same values even if they disagreed on the means to attain them, and journalists felt an obligation to report the truth even if it reflected badly on “their” side. There was a time when the impartiality of the BBC was a real thing. Now we’re fragmented into little statelets of like-minded people, in a state of perpetual war with people whose worldviews are incompatible with our own. Even if we wanted to get along, we don’t see the world in the same way (sometimes in a profoundly metaphysical sense e.g. debates around abortion and euthanasia that revolve around the definition of ‘life’). We forget that ‘my opinion’ and ‘my narrative’ is not the same as objective truth (which only God has direct access to).

Note that I am using the first person plural. I want to be a conscientious objector in the culture wars, but people keep pressing guns into my hands, and I do not always get rid of them in time.

Philip K. Dick asked, “How does one fashion a book of resistance, a book of truth in an empire of falsehood, or a book of rectitude in an empire of vicious lies? How does one do this right in front of the enemy?” This is what we must learn to do, those of us who have to write. We must learn to tell the truth. Inevitably, we can only tell the truth as we see it, but we must tell it as we really see it, not as we think we see it or as we want to see it, not as the politicians, journalists, NGOs, etc. want us to see it, even if we lose friends, even if we get ‘cancelled,’ even if we lose our own beliefs in the process. As George Orwell said, “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.”

Autistic Regression, A Tail to Foxes, and More

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

***

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

Then and Now

I feel that sometimes bad things happen and I write about them, but when they get resolved, I forget to mention it. I think I forgot to mention that the ringing I had in my ears a while back stopped after a few days of steam inhalation. Similarly, I had a couple of recent days of emotional lowness and worried I was drifting into depression, but I mostly seem to have been OK since then, albeit with the caveat that my ‘normal’ mood is generally somewhat lower in the winter than the summer, and that I can dip into low mood for a while during a day in response to external events, or just being hungry or tired.

***

Yesterday I applied for the writing job I wrote about recently. That took much of my Sunday afternoon. I didn’t do much else. I went for a walk, skyped E, did some Torah study. That was about it.

Today at work I had to go to one of our other sites, which at least got me out of the office. I was absolutely exhausted when I got home (then had to make supper as Mum wasn’t feeling well). I couldn’t do the things I was hoping to do tonight, although planning to do anything after work is always risky. I worry how I will cope if I work more hours.

J pointed out that I’d made a fairly big mistake last week. It’s possible I just misheard what someone said to me over the phone. The more worrying interpretation is that my brain simply wasn’t working properly as I was trying to listen, write and think (and ‘people’ a bit, which is harder over the phone) all at the same time, while also trying not to give in to social anxiety. I guess Explanation 2 is just an elaborated version of Explanation 1. All of which makes me worry about my future in the workplace (any workplace). It’s hard to tell how annoyed/concerned J is about this, as he’s pretty laid back about everything and I can’t work out if that means this is OK or he’s angry, but chooses not to show it.

***

Lately I’ve been reading Rabbi Sacks and the Community We Built Together, a nicely put together (and surprisingly long) tribute book to Rabbi Lord Sacks published by the United Synagogue for his first yortzeit (death anniversary). The book is lavishly illustrated with photos of Rabbi Sacks taken at various events during his Chief Rabbinate. The Anglo-Jewish community is very small and I’ve already spotted a number of people I know in the photos with him.

Today I spotted my first girlfriend in one of the group photos. According to the caption, it was almost certainly taken while we were together. It was a bit of a shock, being reminded of my previous life. I was a different person back then. It did make me reflect, not for the first time, that E is really the best person for me. None of my other girlfriends/dates/crushes (not that there were many of the first two) came close to connecting with me, understanding me or caring for me as well as she does.

The downside of reminiscing is that part of me still struggles in the way I did back then with a lot of day-to-day tasks, and with sleep and energy levels, and I am not sure how to deal with that, because finding True Love apparently doesn’t magically stop you being autistic and socially anxious.

***

This week’s new Doctor Who episode was pretty much typical new Doctor Who. I was going to say something about the fact that I could barely understand it and none of it really resonated with me, but I keep coming back to the idea that the programme isn’t made for people like me (resolutely non-fashionable middle aged fans), it’s being made for a family audience and especially children of the twenty-first century. If it didn’t have the name Doctor Who I probably wouldn’t watch it and I probably wouldn’t care, but because it has the name on it, and because I’m emotionally invested in ‘Doctor Who‘ (whatever that means), I care.

It’s funny how much of my fan life has been spent trying to define the difference between the Doctor Who I like most and the Doctor Who I don’t like as much (or at all). There’s a fan joke that goes, “What’s the definition of a Doctor Who fan? Someone who hates Doctor Who” and, while I don’t think that’s entirely true, it does define a certain type of person, and certain part of most fans. We (i.e. fans) try to maintain that there’s just one big thing called Doctor Who, but really it’s made up of lots and lots of little bits and it’s OK to like some of it and not other parts without needing to explain yourself (he said, explaining himself).

***

I posted this on Margaret’s blog and thought it was probably better here than in a comment thread. It was responding to a meme about books being more lavish, detailed and beautiful than the films that are based on them. I wrote:

I don’t think that meme about the book vs. the movie/film is always true. I can think of a number of stories where the film is as good or better than the book, although to be fair, in some cases the book was written primarily as the first stage in writing the screenplay (e.g. 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Third Man). I think the meme discounts the artistry present in good direction, acting, cinematography and even design e.g. Blade Runner, which purely in plot terms is worse than Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, cutting out the subplots as well as over-simplifying plot and character, but the direction and design work add a whole level resulting in a film that feels like an immersive environment.

As a librarian, bibliophile and aspiring novelist, I feel vaguely treacherous for saying that the film can be better than the book, but I am a Dispassionate Truth-Speaker and will not lie!

The Fire Sermon

I felt exhausted all day on Friday. Shul (synagogue) in the evening was OK. It seemed quieter than usual. I’m not sure why, possibly there were fewer people. There was a devar Torah that I didn’t like that much. It was based on a very mystical worldview that I didn’t really buy into, and an approach towards Midrash that I don’t really accept, taken to some very strange conclusions. The person who gave it (it’s a slot open to the community) asked if I understood it. I said yes, which is true, I understood it, I just didn’t agree with it. I still struggle to disagree with people, and I feel a more Maimonidean religious rationalist understanding wouldn’t go down well in my community.

I had dinner with some friends, which was nice. It was just four of us, so I wasn’t as overwhelmed as I feared I might be. When I got home I had a long chat with my parents about their holiday. I also had a treat: I read Eliot’s The Waste Land, which I hadn’t read for years. I suspect Eliot’s worldview and understanding of literature is about as far from fashionable as is possible at the moment, and I have never really been able to analyse and understand the poem, but I’ve always found it beautifully written. There are lines embedded in my memory.

I woke up about 7am and thought about getting up. I knew I wasn’t going to go to shul in the morning, as I thought I needed to recuperate after socialising yesterday, but I thought I should get up to try to sort out my sleep pattern, but I just couldn’t face it, and ended up sleeping again. I napped twice in the afternoon too, once briefly, but once for an hour (my parents were also asleep, and we all slept through the end of Shabbat). I had wanted to go to shul for Minchah (Afternoon Prayers) and Talmud shiur (religious class), but didn’t make it. It’s hard to unpick why; I think the napping is avoidance, driven by social anxiety and feelings of disconnection with the community. I had these before COVID, but the prolonged periods without shul, or with uncomfortable regulations, has just made them worse. I’m not sure what to do now. It presumably is something I could work on in autism-adjusted CBT, but I’m not even on the waiting list for that yet, with the GP currently refusing to apply to the CCG for funding. I need to phone the hospital to ask what I should tell the GP, but I feel (a) like I’m playing Piggy in the Middle, (b) that the GP should know and (c) that the hospital won’t be any more cooperative than the GP. I will try to phone the hospital during the week, if I have the time.

I might not have the time because I’m juggling several possibly job opportunities. I need to prepare for my meeting with the autism job agency; fill in various forms for the job agency that got me work in the past; apply for a job that I’m not helpful about (it’s full-time. I don’t think I can work full-time, but my parents tell me to apply and see if they’ll let me have a job-share. I am sceptical about this); and, most excitingly, the Jewish website that published my article a few months ago is advertising for staff writers. This seems about the most promising job opportunity I’ve had for a long time, so I’m applying there as my first priority. In the past I would have been either thinking I can’t write inspirational posts or link Jewish concepts to pop culture and the news (as is their style), or I would be thinking that, as my Jewish worldview doesn’t match the sites 100%, I shouldn’t write for them, but I’m mostly feeling positive,so I guess that’s good.

I’ve got Doctor Who: Voyage of the Damned on as I write. I wouldn’t usually watch TV and write (I can’t multitask), but it’s long and dull, but it’s the next episode on E and my new Who watch. It’s one of those episodes where I wonder how I can have such different views of Doctor Who, and storytelling, than Russell T Davies (although “You couldn’t even sink the Titanic!” was quite a good line). I hope there are people out there who like my type of stories (or writing).

Treading Water, and James Bond

Today was mostly a treading water type of day. I did some housekeeping related stuff as my parents are away, went for a short walk and did some shopping, did some Torah study and worked on my novel a little (still research). But I didn’t spend long on anything. My mood wasn’t great, but also not awful considering how dark and wet it is. But I didn’t really do anything more than that. I’m glad my parents are home tomorrow, as the house seems a bit empty by myself.

***

I’m reading James Bond again, this time the (very short) short story collection, Octopussy and the Living Daylights. I’m trying to work out why I’ve got into James Bond again recently, particularly the books. Bond’s values aren’t my values, and it is hardly news to point out that the stories are sexist, racist, homophobic and snobbish — pretty much everything-ist, the outlook of the imperialist straight white male. A lot of articles have come out recently (because of the release of the latest film, No Time to Die (which I haven’t seen yet because of COVID fears about cinemas)), saying that Bond is A Bad Thing, without bothering to ask why so many people still like the films and books.

The films are basically just action films with a bit of English aristocratic style and slightly knowing humour that Hollywood just can’t do, but the appeal of the books by Ian Fleming is different.

I think there are two, connected, things. One is the prose style, which is spare and to the point. There is no purple prose, but it doesn’t seem illiterate either, more the product of someone used to choosing his words carefully. My GCSE English teacher hated Bond and used to roll his eyes when he caught boys reading it, but I think you could learn a lot about how to write effective, unflashy prose from reading Ian Fleming.

The other is that the books present a view of a particular person and a particular world, the world of the English upper class just as the British Empire was falling to pieces. Bond is usually thought of as part of the ‘spy-mania’ of the sixties that produced so many spy novels, films and TV series, and that is when the film series started, but many of the books were published in the fifties, the era of post-war austerity in the UK, and it’s hard to see Bond as anything other than an answer to that, a fantasy of hedonism: sex and legally-allowed violence (actually, the books have rather less sex and violence than the films), but also of fast cars, smart clothes and exquisite food and drink. The wallowing in detail over these things is the exception to my comment above about the precise prose. The Bond stories always pay a huge amount of attention to what Bond eats; the story 007 in New York even features a recipe for Bond’s preferred scrambled eggs!

If you see reading as being about entering a stranger’s mind for a while on his or her own terms, rather than judging the contents of what you find there (as per the cancel culture approach), then Fleming created a rigorously thought-out map to the tastes of an English gentleman spy whose world vanished pretty much as Fleming was writing (he died in 1964) and did so in such exact prose that living in Bond’s mind for an hour or two feels easy, even if (as in my case), I would never want to do so in real life. George Orwell wrote about this in a few places. He said a great author needs to be able to show a coherent worldview, but it doesn’t have to be one you would agree with or even feel is particularly sane (giving Jonathan Swift and Edgar Allan Poe as examples of successful writers with coherent and thought-out, but disturbed, worldviews).

First World Problems

(If I had a band, First World Problems could be my first album.)

My parents have gone for a few days in sunny (probably not that sunny) Bournemouth, so I’m home alone. I’m not sure how I feel about this. Aside from when they went to Ipswich for a few days earlier in the year, I haven’t been home alone since before COVID, so it still feels strange.

I wanted to go for a run today, but because I got up late, and because I prefer to do various tasks before I go for a run, knowing that I have a strong likelihood of getting an exercise headache afterwards, it was dark before I was able to go. I had a weird intuition that I shouldn’t run in the dark today. My parents never like me running in the dark, and, while I’ve done it before, running in the dark while the streets are full of piles of potentially slippery fallen leaves didn’t seem a good idea, especially when there was no one around to come looking for me. I do wonder how much I’ll be able to run in the winter if I stick to this plan. As it happens, I went for a walk instead, and it was drier and better-lit than I thought/expected (why did I think it had rained over the weekend when it hadn’t?), but I think I probably made the right decision regardless.

I didn’t do much else today aside from that walk. I cooked dinner (macaroni cheese, with enough pasta to go with a bought sauce tomorrow) and did some Torah study. I have no real ideas for my devar Torah at this stage; the story of Yaakov (Jacob), his wives and children in the household of Lavan is always one that seems bizarre and hard to understand, even understanding some of the history behind it (using maidservants to bear children for their barren mistresses who would then adopt the children by having them born while the maidservant sat on the mistress’ lap was a real practice in the ancient Middle East, strange though it seems to us now).

I’m thinking of stopping volunteering for a while. I feel very overwhelmed with my life at the moment. I’m not sure how much time it would free up, as I’m unlikely to get up that early without a reason, but it does leave me drained all day, from physical exertion and probably also from ‘peopling,’ so it might leave me with more of an afternoon, particularly on weeks where I don’t have therapy.

I feel that lately I’ve disagreed with people here and in real life about what my next move should be in life. Not big arguments, but I always doubt myself when people see things differently to me. Part of me says, “I’m the subject matter expert on my life, and I’ve researched what I want to do more than they have,” but part of me says, “I catastrophise from anxiety and I get stuck on particular ideas from autistic rigidity, so I should listen to other people.” Probably there is a medium to be struck somewhere.

***

Doctor Who was better than last week. Still a lot that didn’t seem to make much sense, and a lot I would have done differently, but it was broadly entertaining, although it was too long and I got fidgety.

I finished reading People of the Book:A Decade of Jewish Science Fiction and Fantasy too. It was pretty good overall, but the author biographies at the back are basically just lists of all the awards the writers have won, which I found intimidating when thinking of my own writing.

Falls the Shadow

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

Scary Monsters and Super Creeps

At this time of year, no sooner is one festival finished than we start preparing for the next one. The last few days have seen Dad and me building our sukkah, the portable ‘home’ (shack sort of thing, with tent like walls, but a bamboo-thatched roof) for the next festival, Sukkot. Timewise, we’re halfway through the festival season, but Sukkot, and the semi-independent, semi-connected festival of Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah that follows it, go on for nine days. On about half of those (Chol HaMoed), many types of work are permitted, so it’s not a massive enforced break from the norm, but the flipside of that is that I may have to do the Very Scary Task again to cover for J’s Chol HaMoed daytrip with his family on Thursday. Sukkot isn’t as emotionally intense as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as it’s a time of great joy, but it’s also more time in shul (synagogue) and with guests for meals — my parents’ friends rather than mine (my parents would let me invite friends over, but I won’t do it right now for a variety of reasons). And no TV to help me switch off; immersing in Doctor Who or whatever is more restorative for me than reading, important though books are to me, but while I can do it on Chol HaMoed, I can’t on the other days.

Shul was quite difficult over Shabbat (the Sabbath), which is one reason I’m apprehensive of the approaching festival. I found the clapping in Kabbalat Shabbat really loud and almost physically painful; at one point I wanted to run out the room, which was a strong reaction for me. There was dancing after Lecha Dodi (well, holding hands and shuffling around in a circle — there isn’t really room for real dancing). Someone tried to get me to join in; I just shook my head. I feel bad staying out, but I would feel bad if I joined in too. It’s hard to know what to do sometimes. I missed prayers on Shabbat morning as usual, but I did go back to shul for Minchah (Afternoon Prayers), as I didn’t want the social anxiety to grow. I need to work out how to beat it back a bit. I did manage to cope OK, although not brilliantly, with some jealousy-provoking thoughts. I was OK with seeing someone I was at school with in shul with his young daughter, but struggled more with him leading Kabbalat Shabbat (I used to be able to lead prayer services, but haven’t done it much in the last six years through social anxiety).

Today, aside from helping Dad with the sukkah for a while, I made a few small, but hopefully significant, changes to my novel before submitting it. Other than that, I didn’t achieve much. Typed up some notes to (hopefully) help me stop making mistakes at work, went for a walk, managed a few (very few) minutes of Torah study, did some ironing and Skyped E. My mood was rather down and I’m not sure if I was down because I didn’t do much or if I didn’t do much because I was down. I suspect a bit of both, but I think some of the “down” was exhaustion from shul recently and awareness that there’s a lot more to come (plus sukkah guests and possibly the Very Scary Task).

***

E and I both feel frustrated that we haven’t got where we expected to be in life by this point (our thirties), and that other people seem to manage it so effortlessly. We aren’t really sure how we catch up or get to where we want to be. Maybe other people don’t really manage it, or not so effortlessly, or maybe they do manage it, but it’s not our fault that we haven’t managed it too because we have our own challenges, but it’s easy to fall into self-blame and negativity (neither E nor I could ever be mistaken for an optimist).

***

Do I enjoy being scared? I always think of myself as a nervous child who avoided anything scary. I was too scared to watch Doctor Who for years after I first came across it, and I remember running from the room at the opening minutes of the James Bond film Live and Let Die. I also remember being terrified by the cover of a murder mystery novel my mother borrowed from the library; it showed nothing more frightening than a blood-stained shirt, although the black skull icon on the spine that indicated it came from the library mystery and thriller section was just as scary. Doctor Who and Sapphire and Steel were programmes that were intended to be somewhat scary, but they were also aimed at a family audience, not an 18-rated one, and by the time I watched most of them, I was too old to be really scared. Then again, I was probably in my twenties when I watched Invasion of the Body-Snatchers (the 1950s version) and found it mesmerising and chilling, even though it was probably a PG by modern standards.

Yet as a teenager or even a pre-teen, I read a lot of Victorian pot-boilers that laid the foundations of the horror genre: Frankenstein, Dracula, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (I’ve read that so many times I’ve lost count, probably half a dozen; the image clearly resonates with me), The Island of Doctor Moreau. I missed The Invisible Man, but picked it up later. None of these particularly scared me and most of them didn’t gross me out (Dracula a little bit, but Doctor Moreau was the only one I found really uncomfortable). Even before then, when I was seven or eight, I was always reading “non-fiction” children’s books about UFOs and ghosts (I don’t believe in either now, but was more agnostic then and wanted to find the yeti and the Loch Ness Monster when I grew up) and not-quite scaring myself.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the Jewish fantasy series I’d like to write and how it is somewhat on the boundaries between fantasy and horror: vampires, dybbuks etc. I wonder if I should read some horror novels to get a sense for the genre. Aside from those Victorian classics, I’ve only really read a couple of Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula alternative history/horror novels (“What if Dracula hadn’t been defeated?”). I did watch Twin Peaks, which I mostly put off watching in the past because I worried it would be too scary or gory. The original series turned out not to be much scarier than Doctor Who, but the 2017 series had some gory moments. Yet I seem to be able to put up with some scares or gore if the essential story is good enough (Twin Peaks, the Blade Runner films). Similarly, I’m watching The Twilight Zone and I definitely prefer the eerie stories to the fantasy or funny ones, but there isn’t anything gory about them and the scares are mostly psychological.

This came to a head a few days ago. Someone has set up one of those free book-swap boxes in a nearby road. I look inside periodically, but hadn’t found anything I wanted to take. Then the other day they had IT by Stephen King and I picked it up impulsively. I have never read it, even what I’ve heard about it scared me (although I’m not coulrophobic). It was almost like I was daring myself to read it. (It’s also flipping enormous, over 1,100 pages, longer than The Lord of the Rings and not much behind War and Peace.) It’s been sitting on my shelf since then. I’ve flicked through a couple of times, but can’t decide what to do with it. Should I read it or send it back to the book-swap box? I haven’t entered it on my Goodreads account yet, because I know once I’ve done that it will be hard to return it. The logical thing to do would be to start it and see what it’s like, but I don’t really do logical. Maybe that’s why I scare easily, because I can’t see how illogical most of my phobias and fears are. Or maybe I worry that I would be the impulsive kid who goes down to the cellar alone in the middle of a storm.

I guess the bottom line is that I like eerie atmosphere a lot, but I don’t like gore or sadism and I certainly don’t like jump-scares (which aren’t really an issue in prose as opposed to TV or film). And I’m not at all sure about how this fits in to my writing ambitions.

A Serious Day on Serious Earth

I didn’t intend to blog tonight after breaking my fast, but I’m not tired and the fast doesn’t finish where E is for another hour and a half, so I might as well.

I went to shul (synagogue) last night for the start of Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). I ended up doing twenty minutes of security duty instead of five. I didn’t even see a rota, I just assumed I got the time I put down for (ten minutes before the start of the service, when people were coming in) and then had to wait when no one relieved me. It’s possible that there wasn’t a rota after all. I didn’t actually mind, and letting everyone in at least challenged my social anxiety a bit and made me think that many people in the shul wish me well, at least in The Simpsons’ sense that they don’t actively wish me harm.

The service was actually good even outside, although I had to strain to hear the sermon because I was too socially anxious to walk round to the door where the acoustics were better. I did feel that the service had meaning for me, although I would be hard-pressed to say what that means, exactly, or what part of it stayed with me once the service was over.

I came home and did some Torah study for about twenty minutes and read The Sisters of the Winter Wood (the novel I just started reading) for another twenty minutes and then went to bed not long after eleven as I was very tired. However, I completely failed to sleep and was on the point of getting up to read again around midnight when I must have fallen asleep.

I woke up about 8am and should have got up and gone to shul. I’m not sure what held me back. Choose from: autistic fatigue; social anxiety; incipient dehydration; lack of food; laziness. (I don’t think it was really laziness, but who knows?) This pattern repeated itself for the next several hours until I finally got up some time after 3pm. I then sat on the edge of my bed for the better part of an hour (and briefly went back to bed) as I felt too fatigued/anxious/dehydrated/lacking food to get dressed. I spoke to God a bit. I did eventually get dressed, although my parents were a bit surprised to come home (their shul was on a break) to find me still at home and only half dressed at nearly 4pm. I focused on autistic fatigue as an explanation as I was embarrassed that social anxiety might have defeated me so badly.

The later it got in the day, the more anxiety I had about turning up late to shul. By the time I caught up with those prayers that I could catch up with, it was very late. I could conceivably have to gone shul for Neila (the final Yom Kippur prayer service), but by this stage I felt dizzy standing up, so I decided to do the final couple of hours of the fast at home too. I davened (prayed) more and did some Torah study, but I felt something was lacking and couldn’t escape feeling that I should have gone to shul, although I don’t know if I would have found more meaning or inspiration there.

The one thing this did all prove to me is that I need help to make progress on the way my autism and social anxiety affect me. In a virtual shiur (religious class) I attended a few weeks ago, Rabbi Joseph Dweck said that teshuvah (repentance/return) is as much about returning to the self as returning to God. I somehow felt today that I’m probably not such a bad person (unusually for me, and probably inappropriately for Yom Kippur), but that achieving my potential is currently stymied by autism and social anxiety. I need to chase up getting autism-adjusted CBT and see if that will help social anxiety (the CBT I already did for social anxiety didn’t help, perhaps because it wasn’t autism-adjusted, but also because I didn’t push myself as hard as I should have or keep up pushing myself after the CBT finished. Also, the ten session NHS maximum was too short; I probably need at least twenty). I also need to see what help is available for autism sufferers in the workplace. I looked into that a while back and got some help, but that was before I got a diagnosis. Now I have a diagnosis (a) I may be eligible for more help and (b) I have a better idea of what specific help I need, rather than just looking for help with CVs and finding autism-friendly careers (although the most autism-friendly careers, the inevitable accounting-investment banking-IT triad, does not play to my skillset). I knew some of this anyway, but my Yom Kippur experience just confirmed it to me.

The other thoughts I had were about abuse of differing kinds in the Jewish community and how it gets sidelined and covered up so often, particularly as those who suffer it are usually not those with power, or connected to those with power. I’m sure if a great rabbi’s daughter was abused by a teacher or couldn’t get a religious divorce from her husband the outcome would be different — but then again, maybe it wouldn’t. Maybe a great rabbi’s daughter did suffer this, and the victim-blaming and don’t make waves and don’t inform on fellow Jews and the bad for shidduchim circuits all kicked in as usual and silenced her too. I feel culpable, on some sense, through being part of a community that allows this to happen, and I felt that culpability today when making our formal communal sin confessions in the plural. It makes me angry, but I don’t know what I can do about it, except to carry on writing about it and trying to get my novels published.

I broke my fast with my parents, as usual. We all fasted reasonably well, but Mum had a headache towards the end. I didn’t get a headache, which may be because on E’s suggestion I drank a litre of Lucozade sports drinks yesterday afternoon, in the hope the sodium in it would stop me getting a headache. It may have worked, but then again, I didn’t really get a headache last year either when I was at home all day, so maybe it’s not going to shul that is the game-changer.

***

The title quote for this blog post is a paraphrase of a line from Philip Larkin’s poem Church Going. Yom Kippur is a serious day and I feel I only skirted the surface this year, maybe even most years. I search for meaning, but struggle to find it, or to hold onto it. Larkin’s poem, written by a very secular poet, is about visiting churches for historical reasons, wondering what will happen to them when religion has died out, but finally thinking that:

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

Judaism is not a religion of sacred space in the way that Christianity is. I once wrote a poem inspired by Church Going about finding the sacred through Judaism’s ancient texts, but now it seems to me that I was wrong and that Judaism’s parallel to Christianity’s sacred space is sacred time, of which Yom Kippur is the holiest of holies, and somehow I keep fumbling it, with autistic fatigue, social anxiety and generally being bad at fasting and having to spend much of the afternoon outside, nursing a headache and hoping not to throw up even when I do make it to shul. I am not sure what to do about this, except that Judaism’s sacred times do come around quite frequently, including Shabbat in less than twenty-four hours, and I seem to fumble that one (Shabbat) rather less than the other ones.

Writing About Writing

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

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

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

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

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

The Curses of COVID

I set an early alarm because I had a vague magical thinking fear that J would call me to do the Very Scary Task again early today. In the event he did not, thankfully, and I fell asleep again after turning my alarm off. It’s interesting how much magical thinking I’ve had around the VST this week. I don’t usually think of myself as a superstitious or magical thinking person, but I can’t deny the evidence of my own thoughts.

It’s been a fairly tough couple of weeks covering for J and working from home and I’m aware that it’s going to continue to be tough for a while, albeit for varying reasons. Next week I hope to ‘come out’ as autistic to my shul (synagogue) rabbi. I’ve prepared notes of what to say, but I really have no idea how it will go or even what I really expect or hope from the meeting. Then, for unrelated reasons, I’ve been invited to his house for Shabbat (Sabbath) dinner next Friday. I accepted, but only afterwards did I wonder how safe it would be, COVIDly. I mean, the government COVID regulations permit it, but I wonder if I’m being reckless. It’s hard to tell. But the real thing worrying me about it is the usual social anxiety stuff.

E was surprised that I don’t get extra-socially anxious with rabbis than I do with other frum (religious) people. To be honest, I think I’m nervous enough with ‘ordinary’ frum people that there isn’t anywhere else for the anxiety to go, plus I feel I’ve had exposure therapy with rabbis over the years. I have eleven Orthodox rabbis’ phone numbers on my phone (a minyan and a spare), so I do have experience with talking to them. They don’t intimidate me the way they do to some people.

If I get through that, then we’re into the autumn Yom Tovim (Jewish festivals), but I’m trying not to worry about that now, albeit that I’m starting religious preparations for Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year).

This week in shul we read the Torah portion of Ki Tavo (I admit I’m not that likely to get there for this in person). This contains the curses that will befall the Jews if they break their covenant with God. The Talmud says we always read this a couple of weeks before Rosh Hashanah so we can say, “Let the old year with its curses end, and the let the new year with its blessings begin.” I think we’re all looking forward to new blessings after eighteen months of COVID curses, although COVID doesn’t look to be vanishing any time soon.

E and I have both taken COVID very seriously, mostly followed regulations and are both double vaxxed; still, we’re both sick of it and want to get back to normal life, life without masks, travel restrictions and noisy social media arguments about masks and vaccines. We wondered last night how long it can carry on for like this and whether governments are secretly aiming for zero COVID deaths, which seems as unachievable and flawed a target as zero flu deaths. I don’t think the UK or US governments are aiming for this, although the New Zealand government seems to be doing so; I think it’s only possible in a small, sparsely-populated and out of the way country. However, I’ve heard people (experts and callers) on the radio who seem to really want zero COVID deaths. One expert even seemed to want zero COVID infections, on the grounds that infection, even in the young and vaccinated, can lead to long COVID and long COVID is debilitating, therefore the government should aim at eradicating it, presumably like smallpox and bubonic plague. This seems as crazy as vaccine refusal, albeit in the opposite direction.

Sometimes it’s hard to imagine ever getting back to normal. It just goes on and on. I still feel nervous at shul, one of only three or four people still wearing masks now they are no longer mandatory. At the moment E is worried about being able to come and visit me, in terms of fear that the USA might be put on the UK’s red list and Americans banned from entry, and at the moment I couldn’t visit her, because direct travel from the UK is banned, and also because I’ve had the AZ vaccine, which the USA still hasn’t recognised (all of which strikes me as a bit rich, considering how poor vaccine uptake has been in the US; please get your own house in order before criticising others). We just want to spend some time together this calendar year! Is it too much to ask? Sigh. At least we have Skype.

***

My shul is still bringing Shabbat in early, at 6.25pm today, so I didn’t have much time to do things, considering I slept late and struggled to get going. I did my usual pre-Shabbat chores and spent some time on my cheshbon nafesh, my self-reflection on the previous Jewish year. I didn’t get time to work on the short story I planned yesterday or to do much in the way of Torah study. The latter doesn’t bother me much, as I can catch up while I wait for my father to daven (pray) tonight, as his shul isn’t starting until 7.35pm.

***

I just wrote this comment on Ashley’s blog: “My self-esteem has been pretty low since adolescence, maybe earlier. Getting my autism diagnosis earlier this year has really helped, though, inasmuch as I can now see myself as an autistic person who is trying hard with some success rather than a neurotypical person who is frequently failing for no obvious reason.” I don’t think there’s really anything to add to that.

***

I read a Philip K. Dick short story last night that was extraordinarily misogynistic and generally misanthropic (Cadbury, the Beaver who Lacked). It rather made me regret my decision to read rather than just watching TV. Dick had issues with women, to put it mildly (he was married five times). His last completed novel, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, has a female narrator who is a likeable and interesting character, but most of his other female characters are not, to put it mildly. Still, I wasn’t quite prepared for just how negative the short story would be.

Stuckness, and Television

I feel vaguely anxious and stressed. I’m not really sure why or maybe there’s over-causation. I’m worried about another week when J is away, when I’ll be struggling to get up early and do the only, boring, task I can do from home, and when I might have to do the Very Scary Task again. I’m worried about speaking to my rabbi soon about my autism/Asperger’s, and extra worried as I don’t actually know when would be a good time to speak to him. I’m just focused on getting through this coming week. I’m worried about the upcoming Yom Tovim (Jewish festivals), with all they entail in terms of disruption to my routine, working longer or harder to catch up afterwards and time in shul (with a mask, but around people who won’t be masked) as well as the introspection these festivals entail. I haven’t yet done a cheshbon nafesh, an assessment of how my spiritual progress over the last year. I was supposed to do it today, but ran out of time. And at the back of my mind are vague worries about E’s trip to the UK and other obstacles to our getting together, although those worries are pretty swamped by more imminent ones, which I guess is good, in a weird way. Also at the back of my mind is an awareness that I haven’t done any creative writing lately, except for jotting down book ideas haphazardly as they occur to me. I don’t think I’m going to have much time or energy for that soon either.

I have a feeling of stuckness with a lot of things: COVID, getting to move my relationship with E on, my novel(s), work… Just contemplating my cheshbon nafesh I can see things have moved on since this time last year (I’m working a bit, I’ve finished my novel and I’m in a serious relationship with someone who is more suited to me than my previous relationship), but it’s hard to remember that sometimes.

***

Things done today: Torah study for just under an hour; went to collect my new suit; was going to go for a run, switched to starting my cheshbon nafesh when it started raining, then went for a run when the rain stopped. It wasn’t a great run. I had poor stamina and had to walk a lot, and for the first few minutes I felt so unbearably awful that I thought I was going to have to give up, but I managed forty minutes and just under 5K and I did run a bit better after a while. My mood was better afterwards, even if I spent a lot of the run worrying about the state of the world and about my family.

***

I have other anxieties. When I’m worried about something that I can’t do much about, I sometimes fixate on other things, often books I want to read or DVDs I want to watch or re-watch. Lately I’ve been wanting to re-watch Twin Peaks, even though I only watched it less than a year ago and know that a lot of it is not that good, but it’s structured in a way that makes it hard to focus on just the good bits. The soap opera-style plotlines make it hard to skip whole episodes without it losing coherence. I’m also aware that I’m watching Doctor Who with E and that I’ve also recently bought The Twilight Zone: The Complete Series (I’m partway through season two) and The Simpsons season three. I feel I should finish these first, without really having a good reason why. After all, they won’t go off, and I have no qualms about reading or re-reading novels with more recent (or less recent) purchases waiting. Perhaps more pertinently I feel I shouldn’t watch so much TV (not that I watch much more than an hour or an hour and a quarter a day) and that I should read more (even though I often watch TV when too tired to read or when in a bad state mental health-wise).

The “reading not watching” question is interesting. I enjoy reading, and, as an aspiring writer, I read to learn how to write as well as for enjoyment. My favourite writers, as I’ve mentioned, are Franz Kafka (who I hardly ever re-read, as a counsellor once told me not to read him when depressed and I find it hard not to do what authority figures say – I don’t consciously do this, but I do unconsciously), Jorge Luis Borges and Philip K. Dick (who probably shouldn’t be read by the mentally ill for a whole other reason). These writers have entered my mind in way that few others have, but I’ve been affected in a similar way by television series such as Doctor Who, The Prisoner, Twin Peaks and Sapphire and Steel. The writing is important in all of these, sometimes compensating for low budget, sometimes providing or supporting a sense of menace or surrealism that would be incoherent or silly with visual cues alone.

I’ve never really understood the criticism that TV encourages passivity. While many viewers are passive, I don’t think serious fans of a TV programme watch passively, however they respond to it: analysis (what tends to be dubbed ‘meta’ these days), fanfic (writing their own fiction with the characters and setting), cosplay (dressing up as characters) and so on. Fans respond in different, personal, ways, but they are not passive. Maybe it’s because I encountered Doctor Who largely through novelisations at first, and then original novels, so it’s always been on the boundary between TV and prose for me. At any rate, I watch attentively, looking at structure and characterisation, and as much as I would like to write like Jorge Luis Borges or Franz Kafka, I would like to write like Robert Holmes, P. J. Hammond or Steven Moffat (not with all Moffat’s “battle of the sexes” stuff though).

Just Coping

I struggled to sleep with the noise from the party outside last night. I actually tried to sleep in my sister’s old room, but I found the mattress uncomfortable, there was too much light from the streetlight outside and from downstairs (Mum routinely stays up watching TV until the small hours), and the room made odd noises of the kind pipes make at night. Eventually the music from outside stopped and I went back to my room, falling asleep around 3am.

***

I’ve put aside We Need to Talk About Kevin for now. I’m vaguely upset that I can’t seem to read heavy books any more, and there’s an element of “It was a present so I should read it” thing, but I’m not sure that I’ve ever read anything quite like this before. In the end I was worried that the book’s relentlessly negative view of relationships and parenting would have some kind of bad influence on me, so I thought it was best to put it aside. Fortunately, the other books I got for my birthday don’t look so intimidating.

***

I went to buy a suit. I was going with my Dad, as he needed new trousers and I feel I’m a poor judge of fashion and fit, and I was worried about going into socially anxious/autistic shut-down mode and not communicating what I needed to the shop assistant. My Mum decided to come too, which was probably too many people. I think the shop assistant thought I was much younger than I am, or maybe my parents are just more forceful personalities than me, as I felt that I was not really the dominant person choosing the suit, even though I would be the one wearing it. I swung into autistic ‘too many people’ mode instead, just feeling there was too much noise and too many people giving me orders about what to wear and which way to stand so they could see it better. I felt self-conscious of how much weight I’ve put on with clomipramine and I felt really uncomfortable when the assistant was trying to see how well the suit fit and to make alterations. It’s wasn’t a #MeToo situation or anything like that, but I feel really uncomfortable with strangers getting into my personal space. Because of this I shook slightly, which made everything even worse. I drifted into a vaguely passive aggressive bad mood afterwards, which was not good.

When we got home, my sister popped in for tea, which I was dreading, but somehow it got me out of my bad mood. I went for a run even though it was getting late and that did help burn off some of the negative feelings I was carrying around, although I also ended up with a persistent headache, albeit not at migraine level. I spoke to E, which was good too; it’s good that we connect in so many ways, and bring out the best in each other, although I don’t really want to say more here.

***

I feel that I don’t have much to say today, but I want to say something. So apologies if this post doesn’t really say anything. I feel like little things are stressing me out a lot at the moment, and there are some big things coming up soon, and if I can’t cope with the little things, how will I cope with the big ones? Will I fall back into depression? But I probably will cope somehow, I just feel I should be doing more with my life than just coping. I’d like to be actually thriving, but it seems impossible, even aside from the ongoing effects of COVID.

Noise

I’m writing after Shabbat (the Sabbath) again, to offload from a rather stressful (and ongoing) day. The ongoing bit is the people in the house behind us and to the left, who are having a party with loud music again. It’s currently 11.30pm and they haven’t turned it down. My Dad thinks they are students. I’m slightly sceptical, as we aren’t anywhere near a university or college let alone in a student area (it’s mostly families around here), but it would explain why they have loud parties regularly. I’m pretty angry with them, but have no real way of venting. I’ve got all the windows shut, which I don’t like to do even in the middle of winter, let alone August, but I can still hear the music through the double glazing.

***

I had a Skype call with my rabbi mentor on Friday. We spoke a bit about my current feeling of being overwhelmed and how to break my worries into smaller chunks, and also that, although I’m not doing much that’s particularly scary (except submitting my novel manuscript), a lot of things are going to happen in the next couple of months, and the cumulative effect is difficult, particularly with the autumn Yom Tov (festival) cycle starting in a month from tomorrow.

We also spoke a bit about how much Torah study I do. Although I haven’t been monitoring closely lately, I think I’m still averaging about fifty minutes a day, including some weekly Talmud study. My rabbi mentor said something to me about Talmud study that I don’t think I should repeat, but it did make me feel that maybe I am doing enough.

I woke up at 6.30am this morning and struggled with my conscience about getting up. It was far too early for shul (synagogue), but I wondered if I should try to stay awake so I could go. I fell asleep again, woke up when I thought I heard someone at the door, delivering my Twilight Zone box set, I guessed, although when I got downstairs, there was no one there. At some point I should have got up and stayed up, but I fell asleep again. It looks like social anxiety is taking over and stopping me getting to shul in the mornings again. I thought I’d made progress there, but the cost of liberty is eternal vigilance, and social anxiety exposure.

I don’t usually relate dreams unless I feel they are either very amusing or insightful. I think this is a bit of both: one of the occasions when I drifted back to sleep this morning, I dreamt I was back at school and rehearsing the lead in Hamlet. I’ve never really wanted to act, but I’ve long had an interest in Shakespeare’s great Dane, seeing parallels with myself (clever, moody, doesn’t have many real friends, messed up love life (OK that’s not relevant to me any more, but it was for a long time) and complicated relationships with his parents), although nowadays I don’t see him as a particularly positive figure. I’ve read Hamlet twice, once with notes, and I’ve seen two productions on TV/DVD, although never in the theatre. Anyway, I think dreaming of Hamlet was my unconscious’ way of chiding me for procrastinating about getting up for shul and falling asleep instead. I’m not sure why the dream seemed to focus on Hamlet’s death and my being stabbed, with a hidden pouch of fake blood to soak through my doublet, which would probably be excessively gory for a school production. Sherlock Holmes (another literary figure I identify with) was involved too, trying to solve the Elsinore murders. To be honest, Holmes would probably have made a better job of it than Hamlet did.

I did make it to shul for Minchah (Afternoon Prayers), although it was a struggle, given how wet and miserable it was outdoors and that I didn’t really want to be around people. I stayed for Talmud shiur too and followed some of it, although we covered more material than I had prepared, which is almost unprecedented.

My parents invited their friends who live down the road for seudah shlishit (the third Sabbath meal). They are friendly, but very loud and talkative. I mean, they talk a lot, and loudly. Even the son, who is also on the spectrum, was talkative and loud. They were already here when I got home from shul. They were looking at my birthday cards, which are still up downstairs; I was glad I had removed the card from E with a very personal message.

I ate seudah with them, but slipped away after dessert while everyone sat around talking. Conversation was about school experiences (the son on the spectrum had a very different experience to me), COVID and the Olympics, none of which interested me. I went upstairs and read a bit, although not for very long as Shabbat was nearly over, and there was a lot of noise from outside (see above).

My Dad wanted me to lead bentsching (grace after meals) which I did, and then to make havdalah (prayer at the end of Shabbat), which I also did, but found myself getting annoyed. I think I was just drained from so much peopling and so much noise. I know my Dad doesn’t read Hebrew well, so likes me to lead any prayers when his friends are around, but I guess I feel a bit taken for granted. I mean, I’m already struggling just to handle his friends being there when I don’t want to be around people, without feeling obliged to ‘perform.’

Now I feel somewhat down and headachey. I’d like to watch The Twilight Zone, but the noise from outside is not conducive to the right atmosphere, so I’ll probably watch The Simpsons, which doesn’t need atmosphere. I don’t feel tired as I slept so much (morning and napped again after lunch).

We Need to Talk About We Need to Talk About Kevin

Work was dull, painfully dull, but I guess that’s OK. I’m still sorting through my predecessor’s 2,000+ emails in his inbox to weed out the obviously irrelevant and spammy. Then in the afternoon I had a lot of trouble trying to make changes to our new database, probably a result of bugs rather than anything I’m doing, but I’m not 100% sure. Anyway, it was dull, but dull is OK. I practically counted the minutes until leaving, but ideas for my next writing project percolated up while I was in dull. There was one brief interlude of non-dull, going to inspect the building’s basement, owned by the organisation I work for, but leased to the business next door. It hasn’t been used since COVID started and J wanted to check it was OK and took me along too, which was good as (aside giving me a break from dull), it shows that he’s planning on having me around for the foreseeable future, although I’m still technically freelance and employed on a day-to-day basis.

***

I’m not sure whether to continue reading We Need to Talk About Kevin. I’m not quite a third of the way through. I knew it would be dark; it’s narrated by the mother of a school shooter. But it’s also written with a lot of metaphor and simile. It’s made me feel self-conscious about how little I use metaphorical language in my writing. My Dad says I “don’t waste a word,” which I guess is the positive way of looking at it. The language and the subject matter combined are making it very heavy-going, even if I can see that it’s objectively well-written and more daring than most novels that deal with tired tropes. “School shooters and the mothers who couldn’t love them even as babies” isn’t exactly up there with “Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl again” in the familiar plot stakes. It’s also hard to see where this is going. On page 130 Kevin is still a baby, but we know what he’s going to do, and that his mother doesn’t think he has any reason for doing it other than nihilistic rage at the universe, so I’m wondering what reading the next 345 pages will add.

The other thing is that reading Eva Khatchadourian’s second thoughts about having children is raising currently unanswerable questions about having children myself. E and I both want to have children, but we worry that it won’t be possible, or at least not responsible. We’re two people with the combined salary of about one well-off person, so it’s going to be hard to live together (probably impossible without parental assistance, which is uncomfortable to acknowledge) even without having extra mouths to feed. We each come with a shedload of pre-existing “issues” of our own as well as almost permanent fatigue for reasons we don’t really understand — again, not a great situation to mix in a baby or a toddler (or teenager). The sad thing is, we would both probably make good parents if we can only find a way through all of this before the biological clock chimes.

***

I finished the first season of The Twilight Zone. It was pretty good, although I was surprised by how many comedy episodes there were, most of which weren’t that funny. I preferred the eerie stories to the more overtly science fictional, which surprises me a little. I think I like ghost stories, but have mostly avoided them until now from a dislike to sudden shocks and gore, which are really more horror than ghost stories.

I think my favourite episodes were The Hitch-Hiker (about a woman haunted by a hitch-hiker who always appears ahead of her) and Mirror Image (about a woman encountering her double at a bus station). Judgment Night and Third from the Sun were also very good.

It turned out cheaper to buy the box set of seasons one to five new than to buy seasons two to five second-hand, even taking into account that I had bought season one already, so I’ll probably be staying in The Twilight Zone for a while, especially as the episodes are short so I can fit one in alongside an episode of Doctor Who with E and still not watch too much more than an hour of TV.

The Nightmare

I feel bad today, what I would term “depressed” if it continued for a period of days. At the moment I’m just thinking/hoping it’s a one-off bad day, perhaps a result of a somewhat negative Shabbat. I have felt a bit overstretched recently, particularly at work, even though I’m not really doing that much. I feel like the famous Fuseli picture of The Nightmare, with the horrible imp thing squatting on the woman’s chest. I feel as if there’s something heavy sitting on my shoulders, and I have the old feeling that someone replaced my brain with cotton wool while I was sleeping. I hope this isn’t the start of another episode of depression.

My parents went to a lechaim (drinks) for the son of friends who just got engaged. He’s about ten years younger than me. I’m glad I have E so I won’t fixate on this as I would have in the past.

Because of all of this, I’ve postponed reducing my olanzapine for a few days, just in case.

E is being supportive, but it’s hard for us to be so far apart when one or other of us has our periodic ‘downs.’ It makes me worry how we would cope if we had children to deal with too, or how we are going to get to a work/financial situation where we can afford to have children when neither of us can work full-time. I wish we could just have a chill out day together, although I’m very bad at chilling out. Even today, feeling bad, I spent an hour on Torah study, half an hour sorting out bank statements and emails and went for a run. The run was, perhaps unsurprisingly, not very good, with poor stamina and a lot of walking, but at least I was running for the first time in month (thanks to family get-togethers and Jewish fasts, as well as bad weather).

I spoke to E in the evening. I had a bit of an exercise headache and she was really tired, but we had an interesting and fun chat regardless and my mood was rather better afterwards, which is very positive.

***

Why do I fixate on antisemitism when I feel depressed? I don’t know, but I have done so for years. I still can’t get over the fact that “#HitlerWasRight” was trending on Twitter earlier this year, during the conflict between Israel and Hamas. I assume it’s defended as, “Not antisemitic, just critical of Israel,” which is how antisemitism is usually normalised these days. How is supporting the Holocaust not antisemitic? Or the convoy of cars that toured Jewish parts of London with the drivers shouting “Fuck the Jews and rape their daughters!”

I suppose that I feel that I should be able to “fix” things somehow, but, of course, I can’t. It’s pointless to complain. The people who need to hear it won’t listen.

***

I’m reading We Need to Talk About Kevin, which probably isn’t the best thing to be reading right now, in terms of being down, as it’s about a high school shooter, told from the point of view of his mother. It’s well-written and involving, but also dark and heavy. Although the thing I’ve really noticed is how many metaphors and similes author Lionel Shriver uses. I hardly use any in my writing, I know, something which I put down to somewhat autistic language use. I also don’t write long descriptions. My Dad said the other day that I don’t waste a word in my writing, which is the positive way of looking at it, although I’m vaguely worried about publishers equating interesting metaphors with good writing, even in prose.

***

Otherwise I guess things are OK. I’m not into the Olympics, but my parents have been fascinated by dressage, BMX biking and skateboarding; I joked that Dad should take up the latter. I didn’t even know that skateboarding is a sport, let alone that it is Olympic-standard.

The Purpose of Life

Today was not really a good day. I did remember, belatedly, the advice not to give a label which contains a narrative to something abstract, because it creates the thing it describes. In other words, a bad day is just a series of events until you label them “A Bad Day.” You can’t point to a “Bad Day” and see an object sitting there, rather you conceptualise it as a bad day. Still, a lot of stuff seemed to go wrong.

I thought I overslept. I hadn’t, but it meant I felt that I was on the back foot from the start of the day. I woke up out of what was probably on some level an anxiety dream about my shul (synagogue) and possibly about what would happen if I wanted to get married there (although the actual dream was about someone stealing the rabbi’s hat).

Much of the day at work was just boring, sorting through my predecessor’s emails and deleting those which are spammy or trivial. J told me that I had been consistently doing one task wrong, forgetting to record details on spreadsheets. I was recording on one or two, but there were another two to complete. There are so many spreadsheets in this job! It is hard to remember all of them even without autistic multitasking issues. Then I went to the bank, got a quarter of the way there and realised I’d filled in the paying-in slip wrongly as J had given me another cheque after I’d filled it in and I’d changed the spreadsheet, but not the physical slip (multitasking and spreadsheets again). I thought I would correct it in the bank and carried on, but when I got halfway there I realised they have taken all the pens away because of COVID. So I had to go back to the office and tell J what happened, correct the slip and then go out again. I felt like an idiot.

After that, the day went into terminal decline. J wanted some papers that I’d given him and wouldn’t believe that he didn’t already have them. Then he needed some other papers and I couldn’t find them. Eventually we discovered I’d filed them in the wrong folder. Then I photocopied them instead of scanning them, then scanned them as one document instead of two. Then it was leaving time, but I realised I’d forgotten to give J my invoice for July and I’d forgotten that he wants me to work on Tuesday next week instead of Monday (although at least I found out now and not on Monday).

***

Good things-wise, I wrote to my writer friend the other day about tips for finding an agent and she sent me some resources (and a warning to beware of fraudulent agents, which apparently are A Thing). That said, I think my first stop will be one agent E suggested who works with literary fiction, science fiction and fantasy with Jewish themes, so who might be sympathetic both to my desire to write specifically Jewish books and my desire to write literary fiction as well as science fiction and fantasy novels. I had been concerned an agent might want to force me down one path or the other.

The other good thing today was talking to E and hearing some good news, which I will not mention now as it’s still very up in the air. (Before you get too excited, no, we’re not engaged.)

Things did get better and I feel vaguely embarrassed about getting so upset about my work mishaps. I guess it shows that there isn’t such a thing as a Bad Day, merely a narrative about certain incidents in close temporal proximity to each other.

***

I’ve been thinking a lot today about The Black Iron Prison, Philip K. Dick’s gnostic/psychotic (in the literal, psychiatric sense) vision of the world and its politics as supernatural dungeon. And I was going to write about it, but after speaking to my parents and E I recovered from having a bad day and decided I didn’t want to write a melodramatic political post, so The Black Iron Prison will have to wait for another day when I’m feeling down and grumpy.

***

Reading an old blog post elsewhere on the internet, I came across this quote about Rabbi Chaim of Volozyn, nineteenth century Talmud scholar and mystic and founder of the first modern yeshiva (rabbinical seminary). The quote is from his son, Rabbi Itzele Volozyner: “He would routinely rebuke me because he saw that I do not share in the pain of others. This is what he would constantly tell me: that the entire person was not created for himself, but to be of assistance to others, whatever he finds to be in his ability to do.”

This is interesting because, more than almost anyone else (except his teacher, the Vilna Gaon), Reb Chaim embodies the attitude of total focus on Talmudic study as the primary religious practice (or primary practice full stop) of the religious Jewish man. Yet here the focus is on being good to others, in whatever way you can, or even just empathising with them. I suppose it makes me feel that my Jewish life can be worthwhile even if I am bad at Talmud study, if I can help others somehow. Admittedly I’m not great at helping others either, but it’s more achievable, and I do hope that writing and even blogging (and commenting on other people’s blogs) can help.

Normalising Religious Struggle

Yesterday and today I listened to an episode of the Normal Frum Women podcast on Normalizing Religious Struggle. I thought it was a brave episode for opening up the whole idea of religious struggle, whereas usually in the Orthodox world people suppress any religious struggles they are having and don’t talk about them with others.

I did find it interesting that the podcast focused mainly on halakhic and sociological struggles, that is, practical struggles rooted in Jewish law or the Jewish community, rather than theological struggle. Maybe it’s because I’ve had a lot of theological struggles over the years (a while back I listed about a dozen different potential philosophical or textual arguments against God and Judaism, and I’ve wrestled with most of them in my time) or maybe it’s because when I joined the blogosphere around 2005/2006, there was a lot of fierce discussion of theological challenges, particularly evolutionary science (the fallout from the Slifkin Affair[1] was still, well, falling out) and Biblical Criticism (Higher Criticism; Lower Criticism didn’t seem to bother people as much).

Either way, it did make me wonder if people were too scared to voice doubts about the existence of God or the divine origin of the Torah in public or if people simply care more about a practical issue (how women should dress or how to clean vegetables of insects) than anything more abstract. Certainly the “how should women dress?” issue is probably on some level a proxy for deeper, and perhaps partially philosophical, discontent about women’s role in the Orthodox world. This was actually voiced by one woman on the podcast, a lawyer, who felt more respected for her intelligence and professionalism in her non-Jewish workplace than in the Orthodox community.

Despite this, it was a very brave topic to broach, so I thought I would talk about some of my own struggles.

My big halakhic struggle was around 2016-17 (I think… to be honest, that period of my life is a mess of anxiety and despair when I look back it). At this time, my religious OCD was at its height and the whole issue of kashrut, the dietary laws, particularly regarding separating dairy and meat, and the special Pesach (Passover) dietary laws became almost unmanageable to me in the volume and intensity of anxiety they threw at me. It wasn’t until I did exposure therapy that I began to realise that most of the conflicts were imaginary, inasmuch as the halakhic (Jewish law) issues I saw simply weren’t there. Until then, I was consumed almost constantly with anxiety that we (my parents and I) had treifed up (made religiously inedible) our kitchen. I asked almost daily questions of rabbis and the London Bet Din Kashrut Division question service (which was probably not intended to be used that way). Almost everything was OK, but I was terrified of having done the wrong thing, particularly with regard to Pesach (where, to be fair, we had done some things wrong in the past).

I felt that God would punish me for doing wrong, but I was also terrified of having some major fall-out with my parents where I wouldn’t eat in their home. The fear of argument with my parents is telling, as it seems likely that the OCD was largely triggered by our moving house when I didn’t want to move, as well as the fact that I was conscious of still living with my parents in my thirties due to my history mental of illness. (I did in fact move out at one point to try to get things under control.) The OCD made my already existent depression worse and for a while I was deeply depressed and struggling to have any kind of joy in my religious life (or any other aspect of my life, for that matter) and I viewed kashrut and Pesach with a mixture of dread and anger. For a while I became very angry and resentful of God and the calmer religious lives other people seemed to lead. Fortunately, I’m a lot better these days, although I have to be vigilant against falling back into bad habits of checking and questioning; even this week I’ve felt myself slipping slightly and needing to be strong.

My main problem nowadays is sociological rather than halakhic. I still struggle desperately to fit in to an Orthodox world that seems geared up for neurotypical, confident, healthy married couples, not an autistic, socially anxious and sometimes depressed older unmarried person. I would of course suffer in any neurotypical social environment, but the Orthodox world has a lot of specific stressors, from an approach to prayer and religious study that is often louder and more vocal than in other religions to a culture of intricate ritual even in interpersonal interactions. This is compounded by consciousness of being a ba’al teshuva (someone not raised religious who became religious later in life) and my regret at not having gone to yeshiva (rabbinical seminary), even though I doubt I would have been happy there.

Related to the last point is my consciousness of not being able to study Talmudic texts independently or even really to keep up in group discussion, even when I prepare in advance (which I do at least try to do). I do feel like there is something lacking almost in my masculinity, in Jewish terms, from my not being able to study Talmud, something which is only compounded by my failure (so far) to marry and procreate. The fact that I am (I think) reasonably good at understanding aggadic (non-legal) Jewish religious texts is a strange kind of consolation prize, as this skill is not rated highly in the Orthodox community, particularly among men. I used to be able to daven from the amud (lead services), but since moving communities, my social anxiety has kicked in there too and I try to avoid it, so that’s another area where I could have felt that I was fitting in, but don’t and instead seem passive and ‘useless’ (by the community’s standards).

The reality I have come to lately is that my problems are as much due to my faulty autistic brain wiring than the community itself. I struggled to feel accepted in online Doctor Who fandom too, a much more open and less rule-bound environment, so maybe it is too much to ask to feel accepted in the Orthodox Jewish world. As with my religious OCD, my fears are probably more imagined than real. I don’t know how other people at my shul (synagogue) view me, but lately I’ve become more open to the idea that they don’t hate me and think I’m an idiot, which I guess is progress.

A side-light on this comes from Yeshiva Days: Learning on the Lower East Side, Jonathan Boyarin’s ethnographic study of yeshiva study (“learning”) in a New York yeshiva, which I’ve been reading the last few days. Part of the interest for me is the way Boyarin negotiates his situation being, on the one hand, an ethnographer doing a study project and, on the other, being a Jew wanting to study Torah for its own sake (albeit by his own admission a Jew less Orthodox and strictly observant than the other people he meets at the yeshiva). It’s a kind of hokey cokey of being an insider and an outsider successively or even at the same time. I find it interesting that I understand and relate to my own community better through the eyes of ethnographers like Boyarin or Sarah Bunin Benor (Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language and Culture of Orthodox Judaism) than I do in person. Maybe that’s the autism/Asperger’s again.

Ultimately, as the podcast stated, Judaism is ultimately a relationship, involving trade-offs and compromises. I’ve never got to the point with Judaism where I’ve walked out — not a trial separation and certainly not a divorce. I suppose that must count for something. Past theological issues notwithstanding, I think I have a deep level of faith in God and Torah that transcends any particular doubts or social awkwardness. The thought of not being Jewish in an Orthodox sense seems barely imaginable, even as I acknowledge that the vast majority of Jews, let alone non-Jews, are happy with living their lives that way. This is my identity in a very deep-seated and secure way, even if I can’t articulate it to others. In some ways, the inarticulacy is the proof of how embedded it is in my psyche; it’s deeper than words.

I feel uncomfortable with much of the discussion around intersectionality, but I feel that the last five months, since my autism/Asperger’s diagnosis, have led me to a re-examination of the “intersection” of my Jewish and autistic identities and a sense that, even if my behaviour and socialisation doesn’t meet the required standards of the community, it is at least the best I could do. Perhaps a better, if darker, image than ‘intersectionality’ is drawn from Kafka’s unfinished novel The Castle, which he said would end with the main character, K, being told on his deathbed, that his legal claim to live in the village was not recognised, yet he was permitted to live and work there, an image that combines acceptance and isolation at once.

[1] Rabbi Nosson Slifkin, as he then was, wrote three books on Torah/science controversies, including, but not limited to, creationism and apparent scientific errors in the Talmud. He only quoted accepted mainstream rabbinical sources. He largely accepted modern science and reinterpreted problematic statements in the Torah as metaphorical, and saw those in the Talmud as simply errors coming from the rabbis relying on the science of day rather than being based on a religious tradition that had to be accepted as revelation. This approach is based on major Jewish thinkers like Rambam (Moses Maimonides) and Rabbi S. R. Hirsch and initially gained cautious acceptance even in parts of the Haredi world (ultra-Orthodox), but eventually the books were banned by a number of prominent Haredi rabbis, causing a huge ruckus about both science and Torah and about the limits of rabbinic power that still thunders on in parts of the internet. In the early days of the Jewish blogosphere, where someone stood on the Slifkin controversy became an indicator of how Haredi or ‘modern’ they were.

***

As for today, the morning was taken up with volunteering for the food bank. We were short-staffed again (I guess some of the younger people are still leading summer camps and maybe others are on holiday), so I was glad I went. It was cooler this week and I didn’t get a migraine. I did have to shleppe a lot of stuff, especially as we didn’t seem to have the trolleys we usually use. The afternoon was mostly taken with writing this post, which may not have been the most productive use of my time, but helped me unwind a bit. I also spent an hour or so writing a glossary for the (nearly 100) Hebrew and Yiddish words and phrases used in my novel. I’m not sure how consistent and thorough I was. It’s really intended as a quick reference and not a detailed philological guide! Also, the word ‘Yiddishkeit‘ is really hard to define. But this means that my novel is pretty much ready to go out into the world and try to find an agent and a publisher!

I watched another episode of The Blue Planet and was struck by the penguins: ungainly and even comical on land; graceful and elegant in the water. There is probably a lesson in there about fitting in to your environment, although I’m not sure how it applies to me and shul.

My Name is Luftmentsch

Today was mostly dull, except for a time-consuming bit that made me realise my family history may be even murkier than I thought. That story also involves the awful way mental illness was treated by society in the not-too-distant past (things now are often also bad, but we tend to be somewhat more wary of institutionalising people for decades and just forgetting about them). I don’t really want to go into that story at this juncture, though. Otherwise it involved sitting in a car for about three hours in total, which is something I don’t like much at the moment, and losing work because of misunderstanding what I was cancelling. I am pretty tired now and didn’t do a lot of the things I wanted to do. What I did do was Skype E, which was good.

***

My non-Jewish readers will have been spared the many, many, many articles on Jewish social media and websites this week talking about My Unorthodox Life. I haven’t seen the programme. E told me that it was like The Kardashians, but with formerly-religious-but-now-very-not-religious Jews. I’m only vaguely aware of who the Kardashians are, but I have no real desire to find out more. I didn’t really intend to write about this, not least because writing about what you hate is a surefire way to tell people to watch/read it (Ayatollah Khomeni boosted The Satanic Verses‘ sales more than the publisher’s PR department did) and mostly because the discussion is really repetitive and tedious. However, this article is somewhat wider-ranging than most, looking beyond specific TV programmes or specific laws and attitudes to compare individualist-secular Western society with communitarian-religious Orthodox society, which is something I’ve often touched on here.

The author’s conclusion is similar to the one I have come to after years of feeling on the fringes of both societies: the strengths of each society are also its weaknesses. Orthodox society has a massive social support network that left-wing political parties can only dream of, but it functions by ensuring members signal their acceptance of the society’s values through a degree of social conformity that the secular West would never accept (Moshe Koppel (Judaism Straight Up) writes about this too). Conversely, the secular West offers more individual choice than any society in human history, but a society of extreme individuals is likely to be dysfunctional and uncaring. Without external communal bonds, many people feel little kinship with the needy and at best delegate their care to the impersonal state, and too many people find themselves socially isolated, free to do whatever they want, but without anyone to do it with or with any way of finding bonds of commonality with whoever they might happen to meet.

I feel a bit like a free-rider on both societies (Koppel talks about that too), not really conforming to either ideal, but trying to find the best of both worlds. I am quite individualistic, or at least idiosyncratic (high-functioning autistic people often are), but also I keep halakhah (Jewish law) and I desperately want to find an Orthodox Jewish community that will accept me for who I am, and which I can accept in return. If not a free rider, then I’m trying to find a Lagrange Point where I can be free to do (a lot of) what I want and still be (reasonably) accepted. That’s a bit of a simplification, as I do want to keep Jewish law, I just struggle to keep the social mores, as well as sometimes following minority opinions, particularly doctrinally.

It’s not really an abstract issue, but a practical one that appears time and time again as I navigate things like Yom Ha’atzma’ut observance, dating, or creationism vs. evolution. Above all, I want the intellectual freedom to write books dealing with Jewish subjects without feeling obliged to “prove” the “correctness” of Orthodoxy, and to be able to deal with difficult, shocking subjects, like pornography addiction in the frum (religious Jewish) community in my most recent writing idea. Although, forget my rabbi, I’m worried enough about my parents finding out about that one.

I guess the parallel for me isn’t My Unorthodox Life, but Chaim Potok’s novel My Name is Asher Lev, about a young Hasidic boy who is driven to be a serious artist in the Western tradition, including painting nudes and crucifixion scenes, and gets rejected by his community as a result (the sequel novel The Gift of Asher Lev sees him somewhat re-accepted into his community).

Packing, Watching, Reading

I went to volunteering at the food bank this morning, dragging myself somewhat unwillingly out of bed. I was glad I did go, as we were short-handed (a lot of teenagers/young adults who help are away on summer camp, I assume as camp leaders) and one of the organisers described me as an expert in sorting the large bags of non-perishable food. I’m not quite sure where expertise comes into it, as I just follow a list of what’s needed, but I was grateful for the compliment.

I also did a stock check, which made me rather nervous about miscounting, or rather mis-estimating, as I was often dealing with large quantities of food, counting packets in large plastic crates and then multiplying by the number of crates, something that would only work if all the crates had equal amounts of food in them, or if I noticed and took into account which crates had more or less than average. I think I did OK, though, and I don’t think it has to be hugely accurate, just to indicate what we need to stock up on before next week.

I did make the mistake of saying that a parking space was free when the area was supposed to be used later, which I felt bad about.

In the afternoon I spent a while working on my devar Torah. I’m not sure if my idea this week was any good, but I’m committed to it now. I also had therapy, so I didn’t have any time to work on my novel; as I said yesterday, I expected this and did some extra work yesterday to balance it. I did some ironing in the evening, so it was a pretty full day.

***

I mentioned yesterday that E and I are watching Doctor Who in sync. As she can’t watch every night, and sometimes I’m tired enough to watch more than forty-five minutes of TV, I recently bought a couple of DVDs to watch by myself. I bought somewhat on impulse some programmes I hadn’t seen before. I’m getting a little better at taking a chance on TV I haven’t seen.

When I was younger, I used to watch a lot of wildlife documentaries, but over the years I drifted away from them. I bought The Blue Planet to see if I could get back into them. I watched the first episode tonight. It was interesting, and breath-takingly filmed, but I think my attention-span was small when watching to unwind after a busy day and I didn’t take much of it in. Still, it was good to watch whales, even if they were attacking and eating other whales; I had forgotten, if I ever knew, that killer whales eat other whales (I thought they eat seals and the like), but I guess the clue is in the name.

The other DVD I bought was season one of The Twilight Zone. I thought if I’m into eerie vintage TV science fiction, then I should really give this a try, this being the urtext in many ways, at least for American television (the UK had the Quatermass serials before The Twilight Zone aired. I really like those too). So far I’ve watched the first four self-contained episodes. They held my attention, but weren’t especially eerie or scary, with the partial exception of the first episode, which might have been more mysterious if I hadn’t remembered a spoiler that I must have read years ago. To be fair, most of them weren’t trying to be scary, which makes me wonder when the programme started going down that route. I’ll probably watch at least one more episode tonight, as it’s too early for bed, but I’m too tired to read. To my surprise, the DVD came with a free book about the series which looks interesting, although it has mixed reviews on Goodreads. I’m more likely to read a physical book than to read production notes subtitles or watch a DVD special features documentary, so this seemed a nice bonus.

Speaking of reading, I started The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov at the weekend. A bit like The Twilight Zone, it’s holding my attention, but I’m not quite sure why. It feels like it’s supposed to be a comedy, but I feel I don’t quite get the author’s sense of humour, like watching Monty Python when you sort of get it, but not quite. I’ll persevere for a bit and see what happens.

***

Not that I would ever go for such a job, but I saw an advert for a “Gag Gift and Prank Product Developer”. I do wonder what you would get asked in an interview for that job! I mean, presumably you would want to seem irreverent and mischievous, but not to the extent that you would swindle the company or get them into trouble with some misconceived/offensive/dangerous idea.

Reading Lists

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obsessive Thoughts, and Finding Your Mission

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

Coming Out As Autistic

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

Powerless To Be Born

I’ve had a fragment of poetry in my head lately. Searching online, it’s from Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse by Matthew Arnold, a poem I don’t remember ever having read, although I have read Arnold’s Dover Beach, which is where I initially thought the line was from. It goes, “Wandering between two worlds, one dead/The other powerless to be born”. It sums up how I feel lately, in terms of my autism diagnosis, relationship breakdown and job situation.

I do think things can change. Ten years ago, I was twenty-seven. I had never had a paid job because of severe depression, was struggling with my Master’s degree again because of depression, had never been in a relationship or even gone on a date (actually, my first ever date was pretty much exactly ten years ago). I had largely put aside ideas of being on the spectrum after being assessed and told that I was not on the spectrum. I lived in a much smaller Jewish community and went to a shul (synagogue) that wasn’t an ideal match for me. I had occasional minor religious OCD, which would get a lot worse before I would get over it.

I still seem to struggle with low mood, even though I’m not sure I meet the diagnostic criteria for depression any more. And I’m still single and not in full-time work (or anywhere near), but I am in work and I have had enough relationships to think I’m not inherently unworthy of being in a relationship at least some of the time. And I’m diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome/high functioning autism, which has been a relief to finally have confirmed, despite all the difficulties that I have to deal with because of it. And I live in a much larger Jewish community and go to a shul that fits me better, even if it isn’t perfect. So things can change, just geologically slowly. Or that’s how it feels.

It’s strange that things seem so finely balanced between the good and the bad at the moment. I don’t really know what to think. I still hope to have some kind of career, in a meaningful sense, and not just isolated jobs. I’d like to be a professional writer, but that seems an unlikely thing to aim for, especially given my lack of success pitching articles to people. I hope to become financially self-sufficient at some point, unlikely though that sometimes seems. I really, really hope I have a relationship that works out at some point (where “working out” ideally means successful marriage and children, although I’m getting to the stage where I wouldn’t rule out getting married in my fifties or older, if that’s how long it takes for me to get my life together and meet the right person).

The thing is, there’s very little I can do at the moment to advance any of these things at the moment. I have to wait and hope it all works itself out somehow, which is scary. I should trust in God (PIMOJ would have said to trust in God), but, as I’ve mentioned before, although I believe in God and consider myself to live a frum (religious) life, I have a mental block around bitachon (trust in God). I believe that He does what He feels is best for me, but I fear that “what He feels is best for me,” will involve a lot of emotional pain and suffering, as it apparently did ten years ago.

***

I went to bed late last night and woke up late this morning. I think my sleep was disturbed, judging by the state of the sheets when I woke, but I don’t remember particularly disturbing dreams or anything like that. I had a lot to do today and didn’t really want to do any of it. I needed to phone the autism hospital about the mistakes they made in my diagnostic report; cook dinner; continue with my job application and start my devar Torah (Torah thought). Usually when I read the week’s Torah reading on Sunday, I get an idea of what I want to write about, but this week I had no idea. The double sedra (portion) had lots of mitzvot (commandments), but none really grabbed me as something I wanted to write about, except for one bit that was too similar to something I wrote about a couple of months ago.

However, I just felt depressed and burnt out. At 2.45pm, I was still in my pyjamas and hadn’t done anything since eating breakfast. I would get up, fiddle around on the computer for a bit, and go back to bed to feel lonely and depressed. I played the “I’m depressed and burnt out enough to listen to music in the omer” card, as my rabbi mentor said I could, but quietly, because I still don’t feel comfortable explaining that to my parents. I don’t know why I don’t feel comfortable explaining it.

I did eventually get dressed, somehow put on tallit and tefillin and davened Minchah (said the Afternoon Prayers) as I had missed Shacharit (Morning Prayers). I had lunch (watching The Simpsons to try to raise my mood a bit) and tried to Do Things. It was 4.30pm by this stage. I phoned the number my Mum has for the autism hospital (not the main switchboard, one of the secretaries’ work mobile number that she somehow got hold of and has been using as it’s more direct). There was no answer, but I left a message.

Dinner seemed the next priority, on the grounds that I could apply for the job tomorrow, but if I didn’t cook dinner, we’d all go hungry, especially as Mum was tired from treatment today. I listened to a twenty minute online shiur (religious class) while cooking, but it didn’t tell me much I didn’t already know. I’ve been unlucky picking shiurim that way lately. The idea was to listen to the shiur while cooking so that I could do some Torah study even if I was too burnt out and depressed to read anything afterwards.

I went for a walk after cooking dinner. I had a lot of thoughts and feelings that are hard to categorise, beyond noting they are negative. I’ve noticed that my thoughts become more visual when I feel depressed and agitated, snatches of images, and also negative feelings without thoughts (I’ve never agreed with the CBT idea that negative feelings are always caused by negative thoughts). I’m not sure I can put anything I was feeling into words, just feelings of being useless, of my novel being bad, of not contributing anything online, of wanting to withdraw from people, but also, I suppose, hoping they will follow me if I do. Wondering how many of my thoughts (about politics, religion, culture) are my own and how much are other people’s. Not in a psychotic “I think the government is beaming ideas into my head” sense, but just that we pick up stuff without really thinking from friends and family, colleagues, broadcast media, social media… I find it’s hard to really think about things and reach meaningful conclusions that are completely my own, or at least rigorously interrogated by me until I am sure they are true. Is that just me?

When I got home, I tried to force myself to work on the job application, even though the format — separate boxes to write in for every essential and desirable criterion — made it quite clear that I don’t have all the skills and experience they want. I persevered, but mostly because I felt my parents wanted me to. They say to apply for jobs I don’t meet the criteria for in the hope that I will (somehow) still be the best candidate (see what I mean about not coming to my own conclusions). I worry for the academic library sector if I’m the best candidate for this job. I don’t even know what terms like “synchronous and asynchronous library inductions” and “bibliometrics” mean, although I can guess. I am certainly not up-to-date with developments in higher education and copyright law, let alone in pedagogy. And I don’t think I have the “Ability to think innovatively and creatively to solve problems and improve services”.

Some of the jobs I see require so many skills that I feel daunted to compare the skills and experiences of those who I imagine are applying with my own. And these aren’t even particularly high-flying jobs! I just feel like I somehow picked up a library MA and library work experience by muddling through somehow and have been floundering ever since.

Not for the first time, I feel like the man in Kafka’s Parable of the Law (originally from The Trial, but also published as a separate story) who tries everything to get to the Law, but never makes it, even though the door he was at was only made for him, eventually dying on the threshold. I feel like I keep trying to get a job, get published, get married, make friends, and fit in to my community, but I can never quite do it. But I keep trying. I’m not sure if that’s perseverance or stupidity.

I feel that, as an autistic/Aspie, I struggle with applications and interviews. They tend to ask open questions, and autistic people do not fare well with open questions. We don’t know what to say. I know when I get a statement like write about “Experience of providing excellent support in an academic or research library” I should try to find concrete examples of things I’ve done in different jobs, but it’s hard to even think of examples, let alone relate them. I’m sure I have provided excellent support (OK, “more than just adequate support”), but I find it hard to work out what exactly they mean and think of examples where I’ve done it.

I spent about fifty minutes on the application, although technically a big chunk of that time was spent writing part of this blog post to vent my irritation. I went back and did another ten or fifteen minutes after dinner too, so it’s nearly completed.

I was just sitting down to dinner (and Babylon 5) when my phone rang. It was one of my shul (synagogue) friends phoning to ask about the fundraising for the new building. We had arranged it, but I forgot to put it in my diary, and if it’s not in my diary, I forget about it. I was probably somewhat incoherent, from being taken by surprise and from the subject matter, but I did not agree to make a bigger donation than I can afford, and I did not agree to set up a “team page” for my family (i.e. me) on the shul‘s forthcoming fundraising page. It was awkward doing this with my friend, but I think if it was anyone else, I would not have had the confidence to say no.

After dinner I worked on the job application a while longer, as I mentioned, and did another fifteen minutes of Torah study, but then I started to get tired and decided to call it a night.

For a day where part of me would have stayed in pyjamas, feeling lonely, depressed and burnt out, I did manage to do quite a few things. It’s easy to focus on the negative (I didn’t write my devar Torah, or do as much Torah study as I wanted; I didn’t finish the job application), but I managed quite a bit despite low mood and energy. I just wish life on the spectrum for me wasn’t just damage limitation, constantly running to get things done without any sense of purpose or direction (there’s a line from Babylon 5: Signs and Portents where Londo says “I want to stop running through my life like a man late for an appointment…afraid to look back, or to look forward.” He’s talking politically, about the decline of the Centauri Republic but that’s how I feel in my whole life). And I wish I didn’t still have such deep lows (whether I’m clinically depressed or not). And I wish I wasn’t lonely (although I’m probably less lonely than I was now I have an online support network to supplement my other support).

Anyway, this is a super-long post (really two posts in one), so thanks if you read to the end!

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).