Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow

My shul (synagogue) is meeting in an cramped classroom (apparently — I haven’t actually seen it) some way away from my parents’ house for the next six months. As a result, I decided I would rather go to my parents’ shul this week. It was a bit surprising. There were more people there than attended my shul even pre-COVID, but the room is large and it didn’t feel over-crowded. There was more background noise than in my shul, the noise of a large crowd of people, but also some talking, which we don’t get at my shul, but there was no real clapping or thumping tables and I felt less overwhelmed than I have done in my shul for a while. This is possibly an indication that the United Synagogue has more to offer me than I thought, although the issues around the chazzan (cantor) and choir would emerge if I went more often (I dislike chazzanut (cantorial singing) as well as choral singing, and the chazzan at my parents’ shul is controversial even among people who do like chazzanut as he tends to drag things out with his singing). My ideal shul is probably some non-existent unicorn shul (a shul that exists no more than unicorns do, not a shul for unicorns to go to).

I did some Torah study over Shabbat, but slept too much. After lunch, I felt so tired that I had to lie down. I knew I should drink coffee and try to stay awake, but bed was too inviting. I don’t know how well I’ll sleep tonight, and I will lose an hour as the clocks go forward.

***

We turned on the news after Shabbat to see President Biden giving a speech that would have been denounced by the Left as “Fascist” and “warmongering” if delivered by George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan. I say this not to take sides, but just to point out another example of how topsy-turvy politics in the West in general and the USA in particular have become over the last ten years or so.

I sought refuge from The World in Pigs Have Wings, the P. G. Wodehouse novel I’m currently reading. It is about as far from the real world as you can get. It’s so light, it threatens to float towards the ceiling if you let go of it.

I was imagining it taking place in the inter-war era, but, checking the copyright page, I found it was first published in 1952. I always imagine Wodehouse as inter-war, but he started writing over a decade before World War I and continued into the 1970s. I think most people would associate him and his books with the high society of the twenties and thirties, regardless of when they actually appeared. It’s similar with Agatha Christie, who did indeed start writing in the twenties, but was also writing well into the seventies, but somehow carries the atmosphere and outlook of the the twenties and thirties into her later works so that they seem earlier.

***

I was sufficiently awake tonight from sleeping in the afternoon that I did half an hour of late-night novel writing. It wasn’t terribly productive, but it was something. My parents were actually asking me questions about my novels on Friday night. They asked about my finished novel and I struggled to explain what it is about. I think one failing of that novel is that I can’t really summarise it in one sentence. What editors and publishers refer to as a “logline pitch” (for reasons I do not understand). I said something about it being about an autistic young man in the frum community, trying to downplay the autobiographical aspects, which I’m now a bit worried about. I’m bad about talking about (a) myself, (b) things I’ve done and (c) things that matter to me at the best of times (except to E, strangely), so it is hard to cope with these questions.

Then my parents asked about the novel I just started writing: what was that one about? “You don’t want to know,” was all I could say. I couldn’t face discussing pornography-addicted rabbis with my parents at the Shabbat dinner table, not without advanced warning. I do think that, if I want to become a writer, and if I carry on writing in this vein, I’m going to need to do some careful thinking about talking to people about my writing. I don’t mean agents, editors and reviewers, but family, friends and other shul-goers. What I’ve written and planned so far is… not what people might expect me to write about.

***

I feel that I’m torn between part of me that feels the urge to Do Things and to be busy and productive all the time (as some commenters here have noticed), and another part that likes time to do nothing and think and contemplate and be mindful of the world. It is good to have time for that on Shabbat at least, without work, TV or internet.

In his book Yeshiva Days, anthropologist Jonathan Boyarin tries to present yeshiva (rabbinic seminary) study as anti-capitalist, because it’s done for no material reward. I think, like a lot of critics of capitalism, Boyarin misses the point that capitalism isn’t about money, but about utility, defined in economic terms as “the ability to satisfy want.” Yeshiva study seeks to maximise utility in the Next World (afterlife) by building up the biggest possible Heavenly reward through the most valuable action (in Yeshivish theology), studying Torah. It simply replaces earning money in this world with earning spiritual reward in the next. That is sort-of anti-capitalist, but not exactly.

I feel like I could present a theory of why I increasingly like wasting time, not doing much, and thinking about things that would explain it in capitalist or religious terms. I could say that it gives me time to think about topics I would like to write about, and get paid to write about (please God, one day…). Also, that taking time to let my thoughts percolate is when I have interesting insights in Jewish topics, so that it can be seen as Torah study. I’m not sure how much either of these theories are true, however. I think I just find the pace of the modern world overwhelming and seek escape (although it often involves escape into thoughts about the world that I am trying to escape). In this I am like many autistic people, and probably many non-autistic people. I just like to retreat into myself rather than external distractions (although I do that too). I do often feel guilty though, that I should be earning money and/or doing religiously-valuable tasks, or at least writing, and trying to sell, novels.

Not Quite Trivial

I wrote the post below yesterday and didn’t post it, because I thought it was too trivial, but in retrospect, it does capture a couple of aspects of how I feel right now that are worth sharing:

I struggled to get up at 6.30am for the third day in a row this morning and even went back to bed for a few minutes after breakfast, something I don’t usually do on work days. This suggests that maybe I’m not ready to work four days a week.

Work was dull, but OK. I went on a small shopping trip after work that mostly ended in failure (one of the shops I wanted to go to was shut and I ended up with only one of the four items I wanted). I had hoped to work on my novel when I got home, although I was wary of whether that would lead to burnout tomorrow. However, by the time I had waded through blog comment notifications, job emails, other emails, forum posts and a couple of blog posts, I was too tired and it was too late. I need a better way of handling this. Or a secretary. And that was without looking at news sites (although I did glance at one of the Jewish newspapers, which is as depressing as usual).

I would like to avoid the news entirely, but (a) that seems irresponsible; (b) that’s pretty much impossible if you have an inquiring mind and an internet connection; (c) that seems self-defeating when I am still thinking of writing a satirical novel at some point — satire needs raw material. So, I tentatively look at a few sites and try not to get too dragged in. Likewise, if I want to use the autism forum as a way of communicating with other autistics and building some kind of support framework, then I need to read and comment on the forum. I can’t just expect to post when I have a problem and get lots of understanding responses if I don’t support others.

That said, I do think I am struggling to engage with people on the autism forum and I’m not sure why. I haven’t really had the type of conversations I hoped I could have on it. It’s more one person posts a problem and other people post one-off responses with solutions or empathy, not one person posts something and starts a wide-ranging conversation. And some people don’t respond at all, which makes me wonder if I’ve said the wrong thing. Interestingly, there seem to be as many or even more women on the forum than men, which is against stereotype — although maybe not so much. The traditional stereotype was that only men were autistic; it is now known that women are autistic too, but are often more creative and less stereotypically “autistic” (obsessively interested in numbers and mechanical things, difficulty communicating, unable to mask, few displays of emotion) than men, so maybe they are more inclined to communicate emotionally in writing, or at all. I tend to connect more with what the women write than many of the men, which again is unsurprising as I tend to present more like a female autistic.

(Last paragraph added today.)

(End of post from yesterday)

Today I slept late, probably inevitably after such a busy few days. I helped Dad move stuff around from the fridges to begin Pesach (Passover) preparations and went out to buy Mum flowers for Mother’s Day. I even had a little time to work on my novel. I only managed about twenty minutes between the other tasks and the usual pre-Shabbat (Sabbath) chores, and Shabbat still starting not long after 6.00pm, but I think I need to focus on this kind of ‘micro-writing’ (maybe at the expense of blogging and blog commenting) if I’m to make any progress at all with my new novel in the next month, the busiest time of the Jewish year (the month before Pesach). I wrote nearly 300 words. Probably not great words, and some will probably be deleted at some point but at least I’m no longer presented with the dreaded blank sheet of paper.

In Lieu of Ranting

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

“And I would fly 3,400 miles…”

I passed my pre-flight COVID antigen test, so I’m officially able to fly to New York tomorrow! I’m largely packed, except for some things that have to go in at the last minute. Today was largely taken up with the antigen test, scanning COVID-related documents for travel, and checking in. Everything seems to take so long, doubly so with COVID.

Looking at American money is exciting, although the coins and notes seem less interesting than British ones. The coins are all circular, and almost all the pictures are of former Presidents (and Alexander Hamilton). We have writers, scientists and social reformers on ours, plus Winston Churchill. Although with American coins, you can at least speculate on who will be cancelled next (Andrew Jackson is my guess, although James Polk is a possibility too).

I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to blog over the next week and a bit. If I do, it will be on my phone, so I’ll probably have to keep it short and there will may be more typos.

***

I finished reading The Impossible Office? The History of the British Prime Minister, in time to read something lighter (in all senses of the term) on holiday. It was good, but sometimes awkwardly written, perhaps a result of being credited to “Anthony Seldon with Jonathan Meakin and Illias Thomas”, which made me wonder how it was written, if Seldon did the writing and Meakin and Thomas extra research. It did feel a bit ‘written by committee’ in places.

The book ends with a rather bleak assessment of Prime Ministerial job and life prospects after leaving power. In Britain, with no maximum term limits, Prime Ministers usually leave involuntarily, rejected by the electorate, deposed by their own party, or suffering from serious and sometimes fatal illness. The book states:

The job should carry a health warning. Seven have died in office, and five dead [sic] within a year of leaving, with a further three within three years. Within ten years, half were dead. Given how young many were, it’s not a great prospect. Remarkably few achieve what they hoped. Most leave involuntarily… Many experienced pain earlier in their lives: one study suggests two thirds in office between 1812 and 1940 lost a parent in childhood, and asks whether their quest for power and prestige was motivated by protection against emptiness and insignificance. (p. 335)

Seldon goes on to list Prime Ministers who lost children, particularly during the World Wars (Herbert Asquith lost his son in the First World War, a war he had taken the country into), but also to AIDS. Several had children who developed addiction or serious mental illness. Despite infant mortality being low these days, two twenty-first century Prime Ministers, Gordon Brown and David Cameron, lost children in infancy.

It’s sobering stuff. I’ve long thought that the way that terms like ‘privilege’ are bandied about these days ignores the myriad ways that people can suffer and endure pain, not all of which can easily be given politicised labels or filed away neatly.

Still Drained

I slept through the morning again. Looking at my energy accounting record for yesterday, I was running a deficit again yesterday. I didn’t do a huge amount, but I didn’t do much relaxation either. I did a bit before bed, but that was probably too late at night, when I should really have been asleep. I do need to be online less and doing things that actually relax me.

I struggled through the day with low energy and mood, trying to do things. I went for a walk and wrote a devar Torah (Torah thought) that was nowhere near as good as I thought it would be when I had the idea for it a few weeks ago, and wrote some important emails. The other achievements were Mum cutting my hair and my checking which museums that I want to visit in New York are closed because of COVID. The Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace seems to be the only museum that is actually shut, perhaps because of the difficulty of socially distancing in an old house, but most of the other museums require, or at least recommend, advance ticket purchases, so E and I will have to plan which days we intend to go to which places. I feel a bit daunted, as I have no idea how my mood and energy levels will be, so planning days in advance seems like giving hostages to fortune, as if COVID hadn’t done enough of that already.

I didn’t do much else. My mood was brought down further by something family-related that happened that I don’t really want to go into here.

***

At the back of my mind all day was the ongoing Downing Street party scandal. I wrote two paragraphs about that yesterday and deleted them, telling myself it was too political for a blog that I try to keep apolitical. But I keep thinking about it and wondering if it would have happened whatever party was in power. There’s no way of telling, but I currently have a low opinion of all of them parties, and have done since about 2017. And weren’t there civil servants at this party as well as Conservatives? It’s all just sickening. The anarchist doctrine of “Don’t vote, it only encourages them” sometimes seems very true.

Monsters: Anxious, Insomniac, Green-Eyed and Antisemitic

At shul (synagogue) yesterday evening, they announced my engagement to E. Quite a few people wished me mazal tov and several wanted to talk a bit about E and me. Only one person seemed too inquisitive and unwilling to heed my hints that I didn’t want to talk about particular things (in this case, why E will probably be moving here rather than me moving to the US), which was probably a minor miracle, as people can sometimes be nosy. I think I was even a little bit pleased at the attention, although it did bring back some anxiety.

I was drained all day, but shul finished me off. I didn’t manage to do much Torah study in the evening, although I did a little.

I was pretty anxious over Shabbat, partly because of this, but also because I know E is struggling with anxiety too and it’s really hard not being able to be present physically for her. Over Shabbat I can’t even text or Skype. I just want to give her a hug! I decided that I want to go to the US as soon as possible in the new year. I was planning on going in January or February, but now I want to do it as early as possible (or safe). Unfortunately, the COVID news is not good. Today the Mayor of London declared COVID in London to be a “major incident,” (a term usually reserved for terrorist attacks) and the Netherlands went back into lockdown. A post-Christmas lockdown in the UK and/or US looks pretty likely, sadly, so I’ve no idea when I’ll be able to go to the States.

(As an aside, I feel like we’re only going to get out of this COVID situation with mandatory vaccinations to ensure herd immunity. I’m triple vaxxed, but I’m wary of giving any government that much control over people’s bodies. But the alternative seems to be endless lockdowns. COVID feels more and more like one of those horror film franchises that goes on until everyone’s sick of it (literally)).

Going back to Friday, I dozed after dinner, which was probably a mistake, as I had insomnia when I went to bed later. I had finished reading Gaudy Night and started People Love Dead Jews by Dara Horn. It’s a well-written, but depressing book about Jews and non-Jews. It’s about antisemitism, but also other ways people look at Jews. For example, the first chapter sees Anne Frank as being presented by the world as an innocent uniquely empowered to grant absolution to the non-Jewish world (Horn explicitly draws the parallel with Jesus) rather than engaging with her story and the complexities of her life and what she would have experienced in the death camps (the diary stops before then). She compares Anne Frank’s diary with diaries and memoirs written inside the death camps or afterwards by survivors which are more brutal in their lack of redemption, but which are not as well-known.

This essay reminded me of something I’ve thought of myself. As Horn says, most people have never met a Jew. This is pretty much inevitable given the small Jewish global population and the fact that it’s concentrated in just a few places. People think about Jews using the images in the wider culture, and with Jews I feel the religious imagery of Jesus and Judas as the most prominent Jews in the Christian story is very powerful, even in post-Christian Europe. The expectation is that Jews should be morally perfect and all-forgiving (again, see Anne Frank). If not, we must be the worst of all possible people. It’s very black and white. This turns up in the media a lot, news media and fiction (it appears several times in the works of John le Carre, for example).

I did feel some envy for Dara Horn, who seems to have the life as an academic and writer that I would have liked. It’s a futile thing to think about, but it’s there. I wonder what I would want more, the kudos of being an acclaimed writer, or simply the financial security it would bring E and me? Anyway, I try not to think like this, but it’s hard not to sometimes.

When Dara Horn got too depressing, I switched to Batman (Batman: The Dark Knight Detective Volume 5). I go in and out of Batman phases. I think relatively few Batman stories conform to what I want from a Batman story, which is primarily deduction, rather than endless fight scenes. These stories were woke, or the nineties equivalent thereof. I don’t really see a problem with being anti-pollution or in favour of helping disadvantaged schoolchildren, but a Batman story is a pretty blunt instrument to use to get that moral across, particularly when you only have twenty-two pages to do that and tell a story.

I did eventually fall asleep last night. Today I was drained. I skipped shul (synagogue) and shiur (religious class). I just didn’t feel up to it. I dozed in the afternoon, which was probably a bad move. Since then I’ve been doing the usual post-Shabbat tidying chores and other chores, as well as some Torah study. I Skyped E briefly, to check in with her and just to connect, really.

***

I still feel overwhelmed by everything that is going on in my life. I feel like I’ve been falling between two stools, sometimes trying to do too much and staying up late to do it, other times trying to get up early and get an earlier start on my days, but not really managing either of these consistently, and being burnt out too much of the time. I want to set myself a challenge of getting to bed earlier and getting up earlier, or at least trying to do so, but it’s hard to go to bed with so many things to do. I feel desperate to start work on my novel in earnest, and my Torah study seems to have dropped from about an hour a day to half an hour. Not for the first time, I feel like my religious life is bedieved, Hebrew for ‘after the event’ meaning, you shouldn’t do this in the first instance, but if you did it accidentally, it’s OK after the event. I would like to be living a more ideal religious life, but it doesn’t seem to be possible.

***

My therapist suggested trying some affirmations to stay focused on the here and now and avoid drifting into anxiety. I have had mixed results with these in the past. Years ago I had an occupational therapist (through a Jewish mental health charity) who printed and laminated some cards with affirmations for me. I tried to find them, but the only ones I found were “People have learnt from me” and “I am a well-respected person.” I’m not sure whether the second one is even true, and the first seems oddly specific, but maybe I need to have something specific rather than a general “I am worth it” statement that feels empty and meaningless.

Put Your ******* iPhone Down and Listen to Me

I overslept today. I think my clock radio alarms (plural) didn’t go off. Luckily, I set another alarm, on my phone on the other side of the room (in case I turn off the clock radio alarms in my sleep as often happens). I rushed to get ready, but was slightly late leaving, although I got to work at a reasonable time. I’m slightly concerned that this may change if Transport for London goes into administration soon, as may happen. I think there’s currently a game of chicken going on between the Mayor of London and central government, particularly the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is refusing to give any more money after having already given a lot. The computerised destination boards at the station weren’t working today and haven’t been for some weeks now and I wonder if they have been deliberately left unfixed as ‘leverage.’ The staff don’t announce which trains are leaving from which platform; you really have to take a train, hope it’s the next one leaving and then check when you get to the next station to see if it’s going on the right branch (the station is the end of the line, so all the trains are going south, but the line splits into two branches further down).

***

At work I was phoned by the autism hospital who said I’m on the list to be screened to see if I can have autism-approved CBT. The person who phoned me reassured me that, for people diagnosed by the hospital (as I was), screening is usually just a formality. Less reassuring was the next bit: being approved would lead to my case being sent to the CCG to get funding. If I get that, then I get on the waiting list — which is currently running with a thirty to thirty-six month wait! I’m sure this has been worsened by COVID, but it’s pretty horrific. I’m not 100% sure that the three years (or whatever) only starts at that late point. It’s possible that I misunderstood and have already started the three year wait. However, with the NHS it’s usually best to assume the worst-possible outcome (and lower expectations from there).

Between the NHS and the Tube, it’s tempting to say something about underfunded public corporations, and whether they could be fixed by spending sprees or privatisation or re-nationalisation of the already-privatised bits… I no longer know or care what the solution is, I just wish someone could SORT THINGS OUT.

***

I used my SAD light box at work. I felt a bit self-conscious with it, but I don’t really get time to use it at home on work days, and on non-work days I wake up late and am wary of using it late in case it stops me sleeping later. I’m still not sure it does much when I do use it. I didn’t feel depressed after using it today, but by evening I was utterly exhausted, the type of exhaustion I get from being autistically overloaded, and I struggled to really focus on things. I wanted to get away from the computer because computer stimulation doesn’t help when I feel like this, but also wanted to Skype E and to write this, both of which involve being on the computer.

I did skype E in the end, and it was good, despite some depressing topics of conversation (the likelihood of another COVID lockdown and the difficulty of raising children in an era of social media and online bullying). Speaking to E revives me rather than depleting me, which is good.

***

I’ve had a bit of reversal of my thoughts about the United Synagogue and potentially rejoining a US shul (synagogue) at some point in the future. I have nearly finished Rabbi Sacks and the Community We Built Together, which reprints some chapters from an (I think) out-of-print book by Rabbi Lord Sacks, where, to my surprise, the former head of the United Synagogue says that he never liked it growing up and only became a regular participant at a US shul when he became the rabbi of one. There are plenty of Haredi rabbis with communities in the US that would clearly never daven there if it wasn’t their job to do so, but I saw Rabbi Sacks as a solid US man. His reasons for disliking the US are similar to mine: US shuls are too large, too anonymous and too focused on the rabbi and the chazan (cantor) doing things and everyone else spectating. I’d add a lack of commitment to meaningful prayer and Torah study on behalf of many of the congregants and also chazanim who rush through the silent prayers and then drag out the prayers that they get to sing, even though the silent prayers are more important.

Rabbi Sacks’ change of mind came about when he realised that the US is essentially the only place in the whole world where shomer mitzvot Jews (Jews who keep the commandments) and non-shomer mitzvot Jews meet as equals in a religious context. He sees it as a fundamentally inclusive organisation (in a passage written long before “inclusive” became an over-used buzzword) that allows for growth through example as well as overt preaching.

So that made me wonder if maybe I have things to offer in such a situation, whereas I feel I don’t in an shomer mitzvot-Jews-only type of shul. A couple of blogs I follow have been writing about whether it’s better to be a small fish in a big pond or a big fish in a small pond. I tried to be a small fish in a big pond in many situations from university onwards, and I’m not sure where it got me. My biggest triumphs were mostly when I was a big fish in a small pond. I know Pirkei Avot says to be the tail of a lion rather than the head of a fox, but Pirkei Avot is unique in Talmudic literature in that it is seen as good advice rather than strict law; it’s not such a problem to decide it doesn’t apply to a particular situation (and it has various internal contradictions that we don’t try to iron out the way we do with other volumes of Talmud).

***

The Jewish website I applied to write for has clarified that they do want to publish the article I sent them (the one that has already been published elsewhere), but that they won’t pay me for it as they don’t pay for reprints. This does not encourage me to exert myself to investigate the copyright/reprint situation, bearing in mind I felt burnt out this evening, even though they want to post it next week. They did say I could pitch articles to them in the future and that they pay for articles, all of which is positive, although I’m not quite sure why they didn’t pay for my first article. Was it simply because I didn’t ask?

***

I should say something about COVID, but I don’t have anything to say except that I think we’re headed for another lockdown, I worry that we’re going to vaccinate enough people to get herd immunity without mandatory vaccinations (which make me uncomfortable even though I’m pro-vaccine) and that, unless we have a frank and taboo-busting discussion about exactly how many additional deaths we’re willing to accept per year in return for not living like prisoners and not letting our children grow up traumatised and uneducated, we’re going to be stuck here forever. Deaths per day in the UK are much lower than in the early days of the pandemic and in the peak earlier this year (after the bungled lockdowns around last Christmas). I feel there is a point where the costs of further lockdowns outweigh the benefits, but I’m not an epidemiologist or a medical statistician and feel inadequate to having an informed discussion without some help from government and media figures who don’t seem to want to have the conversation. At some point COVID is going to have to be treated like flu or pneumonia, a hazard of life that we take some precautions against, treat and take seriously, but don’t bend our society out of shape to avoid. I’m not sure what that point is, but we need to start discussing it rationally without people saying that one COVID death is too many or alternatively that the pandemic is a hoax.

***

Listening to A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip, an album by Sparks from 2020 that I got for Chanukah the other day. It’s very good. I’m not sure what it means that the song that resonated most with me so far is iPhone with its refrain, “Put your ******* iPhone down and listen to me.” So true, sadly. Although maybe I’m just fixated on iPhones to avoid thinking about all the various awful things I’ve mentioned in this post that I can do nothing about.

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.”

Blood Test Manoeuvres in the Dark

I had a blood test today at 11.20am. I booked it for earlier than usual (I would normally go for the afternoon) to force myself to get up earlier and get more out of the day. I did struggle to get up on time, and went back to bed for a while after I got home.

The blood test was in a room where the lights were off and the blinds half-drawn. I’m guessing the phlebotamist had a headache rather than there being some problem with the lights, but this is the NHS, so who knows? I was a little nervous of someone sticking needles in me in poor light. At least I didn’t seem to shake much, or maybe the phlebotamist didn’t notice in the dark.

More NHS fun: I phoned the autism hospital in the afternoon to try to find out what my GP needs to do to refer me for autism-adapted CBT, but there was no answer. I left a message, but am not hopeful of getting a response.

Other than that, my main task for today was to fill in registration forms for a job agency. I’ve been with them for a number of years, but apparently it’s been so long that I need to register again. This probably reflects badly on my ability to find permanent work, although I suppose it reflects equally badly on their ability to find permanent work for me.

That was very boring and I got sidetracked into reading politics stuff online, which initially reinforced the curmudgeonly feelings I had woken up with, but eventually turned into guilt and self-disgust for bothering to read this stuff. Honestly, I’d rather avoid politics. Sometimes I feel like I’m overwhelmed by political opinions and unable to process them rationally in the time available, so I swing into sudden anger or impulsive policy decisions that I disagree with later. Structural changes in journalism due to technological and social change, including the advent of social media, seem to have had a negative affect on the mainstream media, making it less researched and more clickbaity, less focused on telling us what happened and more focused on telling us what to think (or rather, feel) about what happened. I’m aware that this is not an original perspective by any means, and that it might even be a product of the situation it describes, which is a scary thought.

Even so, the banality of politics continues to annoy me. The local Labour Party sent a flier through the door the other day promising a “Stronger Future Together”. I’m not sure how the future can be stronger (or weaker, for that matter). Not that the Conservatives are any better, somehow winning a landslide with the vapid “Build Back Better” slogan in the last general election. You can take alliteration too far. Still, someone must have liked it, as Joe Biden stole it for his presidential campaign the next year. (Not the first time Biden has borrowed from British politicians. He withdrew from the Democratic primary race in 1987 partly for having plagiarised a famous speech by then Labour leader Neil Kinnock.)

(Don’t take the above paragraph too seriously, I’m just feeling cynical today.)

My mood did pick up after a while, although I wish I had not wasted so much time today as there was more I wanted to do.

I did work on my devar Torah for the week, but I struggled to find the source I wanted. I have a book called The Encyclopedia of Biblical Personalities. The name is somewhat misleading, as it mostly lists Midrashic (rabbinic) material on biblical characters rather than summarising the biblical narrative. It is a useful way of finding rabbinic perspectives on particular figures or locating specific Midrashim (rabbinic expansions of the biblical story), but I like to try and check the sources in full, as sometimes the passages are highly edited. However, I could not find the source even in Hebrew on online Jewish library Sefaria. This may be because the referencing in the book wasn’t accurate. I can use the source as quoted in the Encyclopedia, but I do feel vaguely guilty about doing so.

I think the devar Torah was OK though. This is a part of it:

There are a number of Hasidic tales that have a similar structure whereby a Hasid wants God to grant him wealth or health, not for its own sake, but so that he can study and pray more. However, the Rebbe tells him that God does not want his prayer, study or service, but rather He wants the struggle the Hasid has to endure, and the sighs that he makes, in his effort to serve God while still living as a human being with a need for sustenance and health.

I’ve written things along these lines, about God wanting effort rather than achievement, a number of times in my divrei Torah. I really hope I can start believing it!

“O my prophetic soul”

Shabbat (the Sabbath) in the winter feels very different to Shabbat in the summer. It’s more of a struggle to get to shul in the winter, for one thing, although I somehow made it yesterday afternoon despite feeling exhausted. It was very crowded as we had a guest speaker. The singing and clapping felt like a wall of sound falling on me, but I coped. The drasha (religious talk) with a guest speaker was OK, but not amazing. I was worried there would be dancing, but there wasn’t, perhaps because the hall was full.

My parents were out for dinner so I ate alone and read my recently-purchased Doctor Who Magazine back-issue. I did some Torah study and recreational reading, probably too much of the former considering what E said. I have to shamefully admit I internalised her suggestion that I try to read more for fun instead of Torah study as another “Should” and promptly ignored it anyway. That said, I went to bed late because I was reading for fun, a story that turned out to be a ghost story with a dark ending (The Muldoon), probably not the best thing to read late at night. It was very well-written though and probably the best story so far in People of the Book (I only have one story left). There was one character, a young boy, who seemed to be high functioning autistic, although he wasn’t explicitly identified as such. The passage that resonated the most said, “‘Your brother’s only going to love a few people,’ my mother had told me once, after he’d slammed the door to his room in my face for the thousandth time so he could work on his chemistry set or read Ovid aloud to himself without me bothering him. ‘You’ll be one of them.‘” I feel like I owe my family an apology…

I slept late again today, got through lunch, then felt tired and went back to bed for a bit. Talmud shiur (religious class) restarted today and I could have finished lunch, rushed through Minchah (Afternoon Prayers) and seudah (the third Shabbat meal) and gone to it, but I just felt too drained. Instead I lay in bed (awake), davened Minchah, ate seudah and went back to bed again (again not sleeping). I did some Torah study after Shabbat finished and skyped my rabbi mentor.

***

The twenty-five year old back-issue of Doctor Who Magazine I’m reading is from July 1996, the month of my bar mitzvah. It is much better-preserved than most of my DWMs from that period or later. I suppose on some level I’ve always seen books and magazines as things to live with and wear to pieces from love, or maybe I’m just careless for a librarian.

1996 seems a lifetime ago, and also yesterday. The issue is the tribute issue for Jon Pertwee, the third Doctor (1970-74), who had died earlier in the year. It also had the first lot of letters about the 1996 Doctor Who TV Movie, which was broadcast in May. I haven’t read them properly yet, but I think they’re mostly positive. I’m not sure if there was censorship. I hated the TV Movie, which set a precedent for hating a lot of new Doctor Who in subsequent years, but in recent years I’ve gown more fond of it as a weird experiment and costly folly, and I was a bit annoyed that I couldn’t find the time to watch it with E when she was here as I had wanted.

***

Suzanne wrote about her modest dreams of a quiet autistic life seeming unachievable. I commented, “I feel similarly. I don’t have very ambitious fantasies (not quite the same as yours, but similar), but the cost of housing in the UK makes it hard. I’m thinking a lot about this as E and I try to work out a possible future together, but it’s hard, particularly not being able to hold down a full-time job. And then we would want to live in a reasonably large Jewish community which, in the UK at any rate, means living in very specific (not cheap) parts of London or possibly Manchester. It is difficult.”

It is hard. I’m not really anti-capitalist, although I am opposed to both monopoly capitalism and consumerism, but I think there is some kind of major socio-political upheaval starting, partly from technological change (social media), but also from a cost of living crisis for many people, particularly in terms of affordable housing. Not that I think the woke or populist figures have a better solution than the existing neo-liberal ones; I feel that if there is a solution, it’s not one anyone’s found until now.

***

I’m slightly in two minds about posting this, but here goes. I’ve been thinking, on and off, for some time now about writing about my afterlife beliefs here. I think they’re pretty Orthodox Jewish, but it’s hard to be sure as, even in the frum world, we don’t really talk about the afterlife much, particularly compared with Christianity and Islam, especially the fundamentalist varieties of both. It’s not a superstitious thing, Judaism is just a very present-centred religion. Contrary to Karl Marx (“the opium of the masses”), Judaism sees a divine mandate to focus on ending suffering in this world rather than seeing the next world as a consolation (although it is one).

I’ve been reading the essays at the back of Divrei Hayamim II: II Chronicles: A New Translation with a Commentary Anthologized from Talmudic, Midrashic and Rabbinic Sources, translation and commentary by Rabbi Moshe Eisemann. It’s an Artscroll book. Artscroll are a US Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) publishers noted these days for toeing the Haredi party line and avoiding anything remotely controversial, but I’ve found this book to be a bit more sophisticated than the stereotype, a bit more willing to push the boundaries a bit further than I expected Artscroll to do.

On page 361, I came across the following:

In the thought-world of the Sages, the World to Come is not a location, nor is it a time-frame. It is within every man. It is the deepest essence of his being, the spark of the Divine which defines him as an image of God, and which in normal circumstances remains inviolate and therefore indestructible in the face of sin. It is the locus of the ultimate mystery of life, where transience touches immortality. It is axiomatic in Rabbinic thought that sin my sully but never destroy that essential inner core of immortality; excepting only in the dreadful state which the Sages give the name of losing one’s portion in the World to Come.

This didn’t tell me much I didn’t already believe, but I think it sums up what I feel quite pithily and beautifully. That said, I’ve never really been sure of the boundaries of “losing one’s portion in the World to Come.” At school we were told it’s pretty much impossible to do that these days, although I’ve never been sure of how this was known and what the boundaries of “these days” is, nor whether it is only Jews who can’t lose their portion in the World to Come; I’m pretty sure none of my Jewish Studies teachers would have claimed that Saddam Hussein (to pick a prominent antisemite of my teenage years) has a portion in the World to Come. I am a little surprised to note that the Artscroll passage does at least speaks of the World to Come being within “every man” (read person; the book was published before sensitivity to gender in writing); I find frum Jews often seem to think on some level (possibly not entirely consciously) that the World to Come is primarily for Jews, even though the rabbinic sources say otherwise.

Stress, and Political Narratives

I haven’t posted for a couple of days as not much happened. I’m trying to reduce my blogging. I started this blog as a mental health blog, and it became an autism blog. I feel that, as my mental health has improved (although it’s not perfect) and I’m getting more used to my autism diagnosis and what autistic life means for me, there is less to say, albeit with the caveat that whenever I’ve spoken about blogging less in the past, something has happened to push me back towards it.

Certainly today was a bit of a mental health-straining day. I woke up just before 7.00am. I lay in bed wondering whether I should get up, as I’m trying to force myself to get up if I wake up early (not with much success so far). Then I started thinking about E’s trip to the UK and got into a complete panic about whether we had booked the right COVID tests for her. It took me half an hour of searching online to confirm that we had booked the right tests. By that stage, I thought I should stay up. I had breakfast, but went back to bed afterwards, probably because I was still overwhelmed with anxiety that I had not discharged. Inevitably, I fell asleep again and woke up late. Then when I was davening (praying), I had intrusive OCD-type thoughts, albeit not with OCD levels of anxiety, but still some anxiety. I hope I’ll feel better once E is actually here safely.

At lunch time one of the circuit breakers went and kept switching off whenever we reset it, but we couldn’t see why. Then, a few hours later, we found a leak in the garage, which has probably got into the electrics somewhere. As a result, we’re going to have a plumber and an electrician here later in the week, which is not ideal consider E is staying with us, but there isn’t much we can do about it.

Other than that, things were pretty good. I gave my bedroom a thorough dust before E comes to stay, I did some Torah study and went for a run. I got an exercise headache again, but I did have the best pace I’d measured since May.

***

I’ve nearly finished The Righteous Mind. Jonathan Haidt argues that, “The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor. Everyone loves a good story; every culture bathes its children in stories.” He quotes the psychologist Dan McAdams that people create “life narratives” to understand their lives. The narratives may not be objectively true, or at least not entirely, but that isn’t really the point. The point is to shape an understanding of the self and the world. Haidt brings this to explain why people who are predisposed to one sort of political worldview by genes or upbringing (yes, our political views are partly genetic, he argues) can end up with a very different worldview in the end, influenced by the narrative they create to explain their world.

This made a lot of sense to me, and helped me to understand the way my political views have evolved over time, particularly the way I started somewhat left-of-centre (probably in part because of my family and friends), but increasingly felt that “people like me” were not welcome on the left and drifted rightwards, even though I don’t strongly identify with all conservative ideas and especially conservative attitudes and parties, including on Haidt’s multi-polar six ‘flavour’ model of morality.

On a non-political level, it underlined to me that my improved mood in the last eight months or so is at least partly from having my autism diagnosis, which enabled me to create a new narrative about myself, one where I no longer perceive myself as a person repeatedly failing at simple tasks for no obvious reason, but as an autistic person doing my best with tasks that are not always suited for me. I think that more than anything has stopped me drifting back into depression (well, that and E).

That said, I think Haidt perhaps focuses a little too much on politics as ideology or values rather than pragmatic factors. I feel strongly about caring for other people (which Haidt sees as something liberals feel more than conservatives, although he says conservatives do feel it), it’s just that my experience of the NHS and the benefits system led me to believe that the state is often inefficient and even counter-productive when it tries to help people.

***

Ashley was asking how people chose their blog names and I thought some people here might like to see what I responded (slightly amended from what I posted there):

“Vision of the Night” is a quote from Job. I wanted to write a Jewish mental health blog (having blogged about mental health in a not very Jewish way previously) and was looking for something biblical and somewhat depressed-sounding, but not taken by other people. This was what I ended up with.

I find thinking of titles generally hard and titles for blogs more so (I mean the title of the blog, not the particular post). My most obscure blog title was one of my Doctor Who blogs, which was called “From Lime Grove to Beyond the Sun” which is a very obscure Doctor Who reference, Lime Grove Studios being where the earliest episodes of Doctor Who were filmed, and Beyond the Sun being an abandoned title for the story fans refer to as The Daleks. I think it sounds quite good as a title.

In case that wasn’t crazy enough, it had a subtitle for a while, “The blog for fans of Cliff, Lola, Biddy and the older man with a character twist” (the idea was I would change the subtitle periodically to something funny). Doctor Who doesn’t feature anyone called Cliff, Lola or Biddy. They were suggestions for characters in the early proposals and story guides from before the series was filmed; by the time of transmission, they had become Ian, Barbara, Susan as well as the Doctor (older man with character twist). I think I was trying to reach out to the cognoscenti, but it didn’t really work. I see it as very much part of my mindset of trying to write stuff that could have been in Doctor Who Magazine in the late nineties rather than what was actually going on in fandom at the time when the series had been revived and had suddenly become popular with people who were only vaguely aware that it had a history before 2005, let alone shown the obsessive background knowledge developed by fans who were around for the wilderness years when it wasn’t on TV.

Spiritual Experiences, Conformity, and Autism in the Workplace

I couldn’t sleep last night, which perhaps was inevitable after sleeping so much during the day (even if it was Yom Kippur) and having an evening that was not-brilliant from a sleep hygiene point of view. I just have to deal with it now. I lay in bed resting for a while and got up around 5.45am to eat breakfast. I had therapy at 10.30am, so trying to sleep through the morning wasn’t an option. I napped for an hour and a half before therapy, which was probably a good thing even if it meant I wasn’t fully present in therapy.

Therapy was good. We spoke a bit about my frustration at not having intense religious experiences on festivals. I mentioned that my rabbi mentor said that probably most people were not having them, whatever the Jewish websites say. I also reflected that I do have some religious experiences, sometimes, as I think happened on Wednesday evening at shul (synagogue) and I shouldn’t discount them just because they are fleeting and/or inchoate and hard to put into words afterwards. I also feel that Shabbat is a time when I’m less distracted by social anxiety in shul and anxiety over ritual than on festivals and that I do have spiritual experiences on Shabbat more frequently as a result, and that I could be more accepting of them, but also unconsciously discounting them. One of the things I want to work on about myself this Jewish year is being more “present in the moment” and not worrying about the future or focusing on abstract thoughts. I think this openness to fleeting, inchoate spiritual experiences is something I can work on in this area too.

***

When I couldn’t sleep, I finished skim-reading the autism memoir I’ve been reading. The main thing I take away from it is that it’s important to ask for adjustments if you want to get them, as people aren’t psychic and often don’t know much about autism. I can see that it will be hard for me to learn this lesson, as I was diagnosed relatively late in life (thirty-seven) and have spent most of my life being told to “force myself” to do things that I don’t feel I can’t do because “everyone else can do them.” My mentality (probably for psychological and religious reasons as well as experiential ones) is indeed to try to force myself to do things and hope they will become easier with practice. Some of the things the author got adjustments to avoid doing (such as making phone calls) are things I struggle with, but “force myself” to do with a lot of anxiety and internal resistance.

Also, in my current office set-up it’s just me and J, so if I can’t do something, I’m putting it all on him, which is uncomfortable. I’m mostly OK with what I have to do (my occasional absent-minded incompetence aside), aside from the Very Scary Task and one or two other things. J usually handles the Very Scary Task that unless he really can’t. It’s basically our core task, and it has to be dealt with quickly for halakhic (Jewish law) and other reasons and it is basically a mitzvah (religious commandment), all of which make it hard for me to back out of it. On which note, I may have to do it next Thursday, when J will be at a theme park with his family on Chol HaMoed (the semi-festive middle days of the festival of Sukkot, when the work restrictions are looser than on the other days). The unpredictability of when I have to do the VST is another issue, and, again, unchangeable given the nature of the task (which I don’t want to go into here).

The author of the book is also a lot more obviously autistic and in many ways less functional than me, although sometimes I feel that I’ve spent so long masking, I’m not sure I can do it much longer. It makes me feel that I “should” be able to cope better. If she can hold down a full-time job, I should be able to too, if I’m not so autistic. But it doesn’t really work that way, especially if you don’t have the fortunate autistic ‘good at numbers’ gift as she does.

***

I helped Dad put up more of the sukkah. Dad and I putting up the sukkah, or doing any DIY really, is worryingly like Laurel and Hardy (or the Chuckle Brothers, depending on what your comedy frame of reference is). I worry how I could put up a sukkah by myself, even a (supposedly) easy-to-assemble one like ours. More worries for the future.

Aside from that, I spent forty-five minutes or so finishing the first draft of the short story I was writing. I’m glad to have made progress on it.

***

Reading Ashley’s post on conformity, I commented:

I find it hard to tell how influenced by conformity I am. I pretty much always feel ‘different’ in a social group, but I’m not sure how much I am different or how much it’s just my perception. Maybe on some level I want to feel like a non-conformist.

I certainly have beliefs and practices that are different to my religious community, but I’m not sure whether there’s any pluralistic ignorance going on (thanks for the term!).

Politically, I’ve shifted quite a bit from where I was brought up. I have friends across the political spectrum, but my more political friends are the ones most different to me. But mostly I keep quiet about politics, even more so than religion, to avoid that kind of trouble.
I do feel that in politics, like religion, I don’t really fit in one ‘box’, but, again, that could be more my self-perception.

I do find it very hard to disagree with people to their face, though, even if I disagree strongly in my head, even on trivial things like whether I enjoyed a particular film or book. I don’t often leave disagreeing blog comments; I would more likely walk away from a situation like that unless I felt extremely strongly or felt very secure in my relationship with that person.

Thinking about this after posting, I can see that not being authentic in my social interactions and fearing rejection would be stressful, particularly as authenticity is an important value for me that I am often not observing. However, I also feel that hiding my opinions has let me have a wider friendship network than many people have, in the era of social media echo chambers, not in terms of absolute numbers, but in terms of the diversity of the views they hold.

The Moments of Labouring are the Moments of Finding

I spent a lot of the day feeling down and vaguely depressed (not really in the clinical sense). Out walking, I gave way to depressive thoughts about politics and the state of the world, COVID and Afghanistan. On the one hand, who would have thought two years ago that the most divisive political question of the age would be, not Trump or Brexit, but vaccinations? And who would have thought the ending of the perpetual war in Afghanistan would be the source of so much misery? The latter bringing back comparisons with Vietnam.

I had a whole tirade in my head about Vietnam, Robert McNamara and technocratic government (the RAND Corporation etc.) and mission creep arguing against technocracy and big government versus COVID and vaccines arguing for it. I won’t go into the whole thing, as I suspect it’s not that coherent now I can set it out in black and white.

Suffice to say that I feel we’re in a double bind, morally bound to try to intervene in the world to improve it, but intellectually unable to do so in a safe and successful way (Hayek’s “Fatal Conceit,” the mistake belief that limited human intelligence and knowledge can change the world for the better). I am cursed to have the ethics of a moderate liberal and the intellect of a Burkean conservative: I think we should make the world better, but I don’t believe we have the ability to do so, except in incremental ways.

Anyway, I can’t work out if I’m vaguely depressed because the world is depressing, or I feel the world is depressing because I’m vaguely depressed. If the latter, why am I depressed (again, not in the clinical sense)? Am I just stressed after a difficult fortnight at work and looming religious festivals?

***

Other than that, I emailed the Maudsley Hospital to try to find out about my referral for autism-adapted CBT. (If anything is an argument in favour of Hayek and against technocracy, it’s NHS bureaucracy.) I wrote my devar Torah (Torah thought) for the week, unusually before reading the sedra (Torah portion), as the idea for what to write hit me suddenly on Friday night. I’d like to write one for next week this week too, as next Tuesday and Wednesday, when I usually write, will be Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year). However, I’m now working over the next two days (which is a whole story in itself, but I’m too tired now), so I’m not sure how I’ll fit it in.

I tried to go to an online discussion on Sefaria’s YouTube channel, where Dr Erica Brown was talking about her book for this time of the Jewish year, Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe, which I recently purchased. The discussion was marred by connection problems (at the speakers’ end) and after a quarter of an hour, it suddenly stopped, apparently abandoned by Sefaria, which was disappointing. They have apparently now recorded the interview and posted it as an ordinary YouTube video, so I’ll have to try to watch that at some point.

In the evening I Skyped E and had a discussion with my parents about some family stuff that is not for here. I feel vaguely anxious again, not quite as bad as I used to feel on Sunday evenings when I was at school, when I was dreading the week ahead, but was not sufficiently in touch with my emotions to realise that I felt like that, but still apprehensive of the week ahead.

***

I had been looking for a particular quote recently and suddenly came across it last week and wanted to blog it, but hadn’t had the chance. The quote is from the nineteenth century Hasidic rebbe Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (the Kotzker Rebbe), but he is elucidating a passage in the Talmud. The Talmud (Megillah 6b) says, “Rabbi Yitzḥak said in the style of a previous passage: If a person says to you: I have labored and not found success, do not believe him. Similarly, if he says to you: I have not labored but nevertheless I have found success, do not believe him. If, however, he says to you: I have labored and I have found success, believe him.” (Translation from sefaria.org; bold indicates words literally in the original, ordinary font indicates words added in translation to elucidate). This passage raises a question, assuming we are talking about success in religious life (faith and Torah knowledge), as some people do genuinely search for God and Torah and not find them, and the Talmud seems to blame them for not trying hard enough.

The Kotzker says, “If you have laboured, even if you have not found, do not believe that you have not found. For the moments of labouring, they are the moments of finding. The search for knowledge, it itself is knowledge.” (The Sayings of Menahem Mendel of Kotsk edited Simcha Raz p.119) This opens the door to the concept of those who are ‘unconsciously religious,’ who live meaningful lives outside of organised religion or belief, yet touching on the transcendent and the kind. Moreover, it sees the religious life as an ongoing search or quest throughout life, not a matter that is easily settled one way or another, forever.

I find this attitude helpful because it moves the focus on the religious life from the end itself to the process towards that end, from actually being close to God constantly to the desire and attempt to be close to God. It moves it from the rare and ephemeral moments of connection to the attempt to achieve those moments in the midst of mundane events and activities. Likewise it can be read as being about religious study, about trying to understand rather than attaining understanding. In short, it means that Jewish achievement is about the effort to be Jewish rather than assuming that only perfect faith or superficial religious observance are the only signs of religious achievement.

It is a proto-existentialist attitude. Attitudes like this in his teachings mark the Kotzker as perhaps the first modern, Orthodox (not “Modern Orthodox”!) Jewish thinker, not in the sense of more Westernised nineteenth century figures like Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and Rabbi David Zvi Hoffmann who combined Torah knowledge with secular university studies and awareness of wider trends in Western theology and Bible criticism, but rather “modern” in the sense of wrestling with existential doubt and a sense of human insignificance and the search for individuality and authenticity. (The key text here is A Passion for Truth, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s comparative study of the Kotzker and his contemporary Soren Kierkegaard, the first Christian existentialist.)

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).

(Not) Bad Day

My day got off to a bad start. I overslept and felt burnt out and struggled to get going. I just missed my train, then got on the wrong train (going on the wrong branch of the Northern Line), but didn’t realise until two stops after the lines diverged. Then I got lost in Euston Station trying to find the right branch and get to work. I was fifteen minutes late for work in the end, although fortunately J didn’t object (or say I was an idiot when I told him why I was late). Then I made a mistake writing a receipt.

At this stage I was ready to label today as a Bad Day, but I remembered something I heard a few days ago from Kayla Levin on the Normal Frum Women podcast (which I listen to sometimes despite not being a woman and possibly not being normal) about being wary of creating narratives that have no objective measure. In this case, I can’t objectively see a “Bad Day,” it’s just a label I put on a series of events that I could understand and narrate differently.

So I tried to see it just as an ordinary day with some bad things, and I think I did OK with that. It wasn’t a great day, it was a dull and boring day at work followed by a Doctor Who episode I’ve never liked (New Earth) and distractingly noisy neighbours when I Skyped E in the evening, but not necessarily a universally Bad Day. And I enjoyed Skyping E.

***

On my blog and other people’s blogs, I shy away from controversy, particularly politics. I keep quiet rather than voice opinions that I feel others may disagree with. Yet, when I think about the type of fiction I want to write, I think I’m increasingly drawn to things that might arouse controversy and even “cancellation.” I can’t work out if I’m actually a secret controversy-hound, or if everything nowadays is politicised and there are no “neutral” subjects any more. I guess I want to write about things that interest me, things that make me feel emotional (positive or negative emotions), and to deal with topics where I’m trying to work towards some kind of understanding of a complex situation. Often those things lead to things that are controversial.

Then this evening I read an article about diversity readers (people who read a manuscript to critique its portrayal of some kind of minority identity). I had already heard about this, but I can’t make up my mind if they’re positive or not. I can see the advantage of weeding out egregious errors and pointing out if someone has written something grossly offensive, but I worry about a drift towards banning writers from imagining what it’s like to be someone else, someone very different, which I think is an important part of being a writer, not to mention a reader of fiction. As Lionel Shriver said, this will end in the banning of all writing that isn’t autobiography, because we can never really know what other people think.

Looking at my own writing about a high-functioning autistic character, an autistic diversity reader might see my novel as not reflecting their experience… but it’s based on my unique experience of autism, mixed in with artistic licence and plot necessity. I haven’t captured all of my experiences, partly because I’m not a perfect writer, partly because it’s impossible to capture a complex life in 80,000 words. I’m sure my other characters are open to criticism from an identity politics point of view, and up to a point I would work with criticism, but beyond a certain point it’s my novel, my characters and my plot, not the diversity reader’s.

Just to show how difficult it is to present an “authorised” version of someone’s identity, when the film of Naomi Alderman’s Disobedience came out, set in the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community in the UK, a lot of online American Jewish commenters complained that the characters were constantly wishing mourners a “long life.” “Jews don’t do that,” they said. Except that wishing mourners a long life is a very established custom across the Anglo-Jewish community, from the frum (religious) to the very non-religious. It just wasn’t a Jewish custom they were aware of, because they were so focused on Judaism in America and maybe Israel representing the Jewish experience everywhere. An American Jewish diversity reader might have criticised Alderman for writing something that was true to her experience of Jewish life in the UK. I think this shows how difficult it is to judge whether a depiction of an individual or community is “acceptable.”

Busy Weekend

The last few days have been busy. I went to shul (synagogue). I felt thrown, and I don’t know why. Our rabbi was away, which I knew, although had forgotten, but another rabbi was there, a rather prestigious one who I thought had moved out of the area. I don’t know if it was an autistic thing, being thrown by a small change in plan, or my usual self-esteem issues, feeling that he could sense that I wasn’t frum (religious) “enough” somehow (from my non-white shirt?), even though he had his back to me for most of the service, but I felt awkward the whole time I was there. When I got home, I found myself sniping at my parents over dinner even though there was no good reason for that. Plus, I found myself overly-focused on an ongoing argument in the Anglo-Jewish community and wanting to write an angry letter to the Jewish Chronicle (which so far I have not done).

I woke up about 7.30am on Saturday morning. I should really have got up so I could go to shul, even though it was a little early, but I stayed in bed and wanted to fall asleep again and miss shul, which is what happened. I’m not sure why I felt like that, if it was a reaction to the previous evening. I did go to shul later, for Minchah (Afternoon Service) and Talmud shiur (religious class), which I followed a bit better than usual.

Today I overslept a bit and had to rush to get ready for dinner at my sister and brother-in-law’s house with them, my parents, my brother-in-law’s parents and his sister. It was inside, and technically an illegal number of people, which I felt bad about, but I also felt that I really had to go, particularly as they had got vegetarian food for me. I enjoyed it, but by 4.00pm, I was completely peopled out and spent the last hour or so catching up with blogs on my phone (I hadn’t really been online since Friday afternoon), even though I would normally consider it rude to sit at the table engrossed in my phone when everyone else is talking.

Other than that, I’ve just been depressed by reading about the Batley and Spen by-election, which seems to have had a lot of anti-Israel sentiment, alongside anti-Indian and anti-LGBT sentiment. Any election with George Galloway’s name on the ballot is going to involve a lot of excrement-throwing, but this seems particularly bad. Lots of traditional Labour voters were abstaining and I can’t say I blame them. Politics is too depressing for words at the moment.

I did manage to read most (although not quite all) of this week’s super-long double Torah portion today and still went for a run (I had a slight headache afterwards), so I guess it’s been a reasonably good and certainly very busy weekend. It’s not surprising I’m a little exhausted and in need of Doctor Who!

“Je suis Marxiste, tendence Groucho”

I had a feeling today of not fitting in anywhere. It’s a feeling I often get, but today I was pulled in a lot of different directions: by the high street (increasingly woke, but still consumerist, somehow), by blogs, by The Jewish Review of Books. Pulled in different directions by different visions of politics and lifestyles and Judaisms most of which I am unable to assent to. Experiencing so many so rapidly was uncomfortable.

I distinctly remember years ago a discussion on Hevria.com where a former ba’al teshuva (person raised secular who became religious — in this case before returning to secularism) argued that ba’alei teshuva (plural of ba’al teshuva) are “sold a bill of goods” by kiruv rabbis (“outreach” rabbis who try to get secular Jews to become religious). If I understand the American idiom correctly, this may well be true, at least in some cases, but it avoids looking at the bill of goods sold to all of us by mainstream society — and, indeed, by its more usual counter-cultures (Orthodox Judaism is a counter-culture, just not a very popular or highly regarded one).

I try not to get upset by people’s political, religious and “lifestyle” choices. We all have blind spots and biases in our worldviews and we all have to get along together somehow. I was a bit shocked today to see someone I regard as level-headed and a critical thinker acting in a less than critical way to assent to a political proposition I regarded as question-begging (not necessarily untrue, just in need of more serious examination). I didn’t say anything, and I don’t know if that was the right decision. I doubtless have my own biases and blind spots, and I worry sometimes about the things I’m unaware that I’m wrong about, as well as my “unknown unknowns.” Ultimately, the mystics and rationalists agree that the only thing that we know is that we do not know.

Possibly, like Groucho Marx, I refuse to belong to a club that will have me as a member. At least with E I can be a misfit club of two now instead of one. It is strange and surprisingly comfortable to find someone who agrees with me on a lot of stuff, big as well as small.

***

My sister and brother-in-law came for dinner in the garden with me and my parents. It was good, but I tend to drift in and out of the conversation, and also to feel inadequate that my sister and BIL have their own careers and house and other things I work part-time and live with my parents. I think about this every time I see them, which isn’t healthy. I realised after everyone had gone that I forgot to share my news, such as it is, that things are still looking hopeful (although not certain) for my job being made permanent and my friend reviewing my Doctor Who book in a fanzine that may lead to a few more sales.

I also had one of my occasional “can not get filled up” evenings and ended up eating kosher pot noodle in addition to real food, and then eating too much Ben & Jerry’s ice cream with dessert.

***

I feel pretty shattered now after work and socialising (plus shopping and Torah study), and possibly coming down from an ice cream sugar high (curse you “Ben and Jerry” (OK, Unilever) with your facile politics and your addictive flavours!). I’m going to watch Babylon 5 and then Doctor Who “with” E. To be honest, if “fitting in to a community” means watching Doctor Who with E, then for the first time in my life, I think I can manage it.

Knots

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

Fear of Living, Fear of Dying

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Someone is WRONG on the Internet!

I was worried my burnout would continue to today, as sometimes happens, but I had one of those days after a very burnt out day where it’s as if the storm has exhausted itself and I feel fine.

The hospital phoned me back early in the morning about the issues I had with my autism diagnosis report. Hopefully, they will sort things soon. I do have to go back to my GP if I want to be referred for autism-adapted CBT. I’m a bit nervous about doing that, as my experience with CBT has not been great, but hopefully it will be better if I have autism-adapted CBT.

I sat down to finish the job application I was filling out yesterday, only to discover that I have none of the desirable, but not essential, criteria. Not one! As that was the main thing left to do, it was easy. I made a coffee for no reason! (Hot drinks help me think.) I don’t think I’ll get called to interview, but if I do, I asked to have the questions in advance because of my autism processing issues with spoken conversations. In my experience, potential employers refuse to do this, saying it is not fair on the other candidates. I can sort of see their point, but it does make things hard for me, because of difficulty processing verbal information, in addition to the problems I mentioned yesterday about autistic people struggling with open questions. I sit there trying to think of something to say. Sometimes I realise the question didn’t actually register in my brain and I have no idea what they just asked me. I have to ask them to repeat it or just bluff my way through. The only potential employer that let me see the questions in advance was, tellingly, an institute for the study of child psychology. One could get involved in a lengthy legal argument about what constitutes a “reasonable” disability adjustment here.

***

It’s funny how I different I am when I’m doing something I enjoy compared to when I’m doing something I don’t enjoy. I spent over two hours working on my devar Torah (Torah thought) with no breaks more than two or three minutes. I didn’t even notice the time going. I wasn’t happy with my initial idea for the devar Torah, so I thought I would look at Ramban’s (Hebrew acronym for Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, thirteenth century biblical commentator) first comment on parashat Kedoshim, which was the starting point for my original idea. The comment turned out to be much longer and wider-ranging than I realised, taking me to a Midrash which led to a better idea for the devar Torah, but one that took a while to get on paper, picking up some stray comments from Rashi (Hebrew acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, eleventh century biblical commentator) along the way. I didn’t even feel tired by the time I finished. It was one of the longest divrei Torah that I’ve written too. I don’t like to count my devar Torah as the entirety of my Torah study for a day, but I did here, because of how long I spent on it and because a lot of it was new to me.

Afterwards I postponed the chores I was supposed to do (I had thought the devar Torah would only take an hour, which it probably would have done if I stuck to my original idea) and went for a run, which was pretty good once I got going. No exercise migraine afterwards either, thankfully.

***

I have always been conflict-averse, but I find myself less willing than ever to contradict people or get into arguments online. Any arguments, even about trivial things, but certainly not about politics and religion. I would rather let them think that there are no counter-arguments to their views than to get into a debate with them. It doesn’t help that I can’t really distinguish between disagreement and personal dislike. I tend to assume that anyone who disagrees with me, dislikes me, although I know the reverse (which would be that I dislike people I disagree with) is untrue.

It doesn’t help that I no longer think that most people make up their minds on major topics based purely or perhaps even largely on data and logic. I think emotions, tribalism, peer pressure and habit are a big part of that (that’s not even necessarily a bad thing in and off itself, although I think in the current political climate, it’s been carried to a dangerous extreme). I don’t think I rate particularly highly as a polemicist either.

I suppose it’s rooted in my childhood, as things usually are. Being bullied for being different, but also certain childhood experiences that made me feel that disagreement would lead to people storming out of my life forever. Autistic issues distinguishing criticism from anger are probably also relevant. Paradoxically, it all may be related to my belief that it’s my fault if people don’t like me — I don’t want it to be my fault that someone doesn’t like me, so I minimise the likely points of contention (and also avoid people, because they can’t hate me if they can’t see me).

In a way it’s wrong of me, because someone might want to hear what I have to say and benefit from it, unlikely though that seems to me. And I suppose one would traditionally add something here about the need to fight for justice and progress and truth, and that all that is needed for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing, and so on, but these days I feel pretty disenchanted about party politics generally.

I was thinking about what might happen if I do autism-adjusted CBT and look at my social anxiety (I did ordinary CBT for it two years ago, but it was not a great success for me). I could potentially have to push myself into situations where I contradicted people deliberately to see what happened. Maybe deliberately express my opinions online even if that seems likely to lead to arguments. It seems a terrifying idea, to be honest. I’d much rather not say anything and let others believe things that I think are factually wrong.

(The title of the post comes from this famous cartoon. It’s not how I feel at all. I just brood on things for days.)

The Long Twilight Struggle

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

***

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

No Screens

My vaccination this morning went OK. I got there on time and the long queue moved quite quickly, probably because a socially distanced queue looks a lot longer than it actually is. I was a bit overwhelmed on walking into the surgery, which was very busy, but my usual GP happened to be doing vaccinations today, saw me come in and said he would vaccinate me, which was helpful. I did shake a bit, which I know is a mixture or anxiety and olanzapine side effects, but which still upsets me a bit, although I’ve got a bit used to it after so many years. The jab itself was painless and only took a couple of seconds; in fact the whole process, from joining the queue to being outside the surgery again took only ten minutes. I’ve been critical of the NHS in the past, but they do seem to be managing this well.

Unfortunately, an hour later I was on the phone to the surgery again. I had tried to pick up my repeat prescription on the way home, but it had not arrived at the pharmacist. Having spoken to the pharmacist and the GP’s secretary, I’m not sure where the problem was, but I was going to run out of olanzapine tomorrow night and, because of Shabbat (the Sabbath), I needed the repeat prescription today. The GP’s secretary said she would pass the prescription request back to the doctors and I was able to collect the prescription from the pharmacist this afternoon before Shabbat started. I had been thinking about going to shul (synagogue) this evening, but held back for various reasons, which turned out reasonably well, as it would have been stressful getting the medication in time to go out again.

***

Reading this interesting article on online culture and the erosion of the difference between public and private space prompted a few thoughts:

  1. It’s weird to see two secular thinkers repeating something that a very Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) rabbi said about twenty years ago about the internet: that its chief danger is that it brings the outside in. When I first heard that (from the person the Haredi rabbi said it to in the early days of the internet), I thought it was ridiculously reactionary, but reading the article, I wonder if he had a point after all.
  2. The article made me thankful for Shabbat and reminded me of David’s recent post on the subject. As I commented over there, I regard the outlawing of electricity use on Shabbat as nothing short of providential. Even though electricity use does not intuitively violate any of the forbidden labours, as far as I’m aware, no major posek (decisor of Jewish law) permitted its use on Shabbat, albeit for different reasons, sometimes simply because it was not held to be fitting for the atmosphere of the day, or because it had become customary to avoid it. Although it may seem impossible to those who have never tried it, Shabbat without internet, TV, computers and phones creates an island of peace and reflection in the midst of the week, a time for building relationships with family and friends (pre-COVID, anyway), reading, thinking and generally living at a slow and gentle pace, not constantly stimulated and provoked in different ways. Inasmuch as I have any profound ideas about anything, I’m pretty sure that most of them come on Shabbat.
  3. In terms of online echo chambers, I’m glad that blogging about autism and mental health has brought me into contact with a group of people who cut across borders of politics, nationality, religion and gender. It can be discomfiting to meet people who think differently, but the alternative is a world made of hostile cliques. I recently deleted my barely-used Twitter account because I worried I was only interacting with people I thought I would agree with. Twitter as a whole seems to be designed for performative anger and self-righteous virtue signalling rather than open-minded discussion.

And now it’s nearly Shabbat so I’m going to shut down for twenty-five hours!

Misfits

I’m back in “I hate the NHS” mode. I realised that the reason the doctor only prescribed half the only olanzapine I need is because he (or she – prescriptions can be done by anyone in the practice) misread the letter from the psychiatrist and thought I was on one tablet a day, not two. I know, there’s a global pandemic, doctors are super-busy and stressed. Even so, it’s annoying, and makes me wonder how many other, more serious, mistakes have been made by over-stretched medical staff during the pandemic – there must be a number of indirect COVID casualties as well as those actually killed by the virus.

***

I got my new glasses (and walked back in the cold and snow after getting them). I tried them on in Specsavers, including tilting my head to see if they slipped, and they seemed to be OK, but they seem to be slipping now, so I may have to go back at some point and get them adjusted. I’m just glad to have them for now.

I spent a bit over an hour on my novel and finished the third draft. It ended up at 79,766 words, slightly under the 80,000 I was aiming for. Now I need to find some people willing to read it and give me feedback. I’m not quite sure how to do this; I don’t have other writer friends where we can exchange work, and I don’t want to go to a writers’ group at the moment. I’m also terrified of negative feedback.

Given the snow this morning, I thought my walk back home from Specsavers would be my exercise for the day, but mid-afternoon I started feeling anxious and depressed for no obvious reason and, as it wasn’t snowing, and the earlier snow hadn’t settled, I went for a run, despite the fact that it was fast getting dark. I did 5K again and I had a better pace than I’ve had for a while too. I don’t mind running in the cold (it can be bracing) although I worry about pulling muscles despite doing a longer warm up and cool down than usual.

I did some Torah study too, although not quite up to the hour I was aiming for as I ran out of time and energy.

***

I came across an interview today, a religious Jew interviewing someone raised in the Orthodox world, but now outside it. The non-religious Jew says he warns religious Jews thinking of leaving because they don’t fit into the frum (religious) community that they may not fit into the secular world either; they may, in fact, be misfits who won’t fit in anywhere.

I have long suspected that this would be true of me. For all my struggles to fit in to the frum world, I can’t really see myself fitting in to the wider Western world easily either. I guess I’m a bit of a misfit, or even that not fitting in is a part of my psyche; I’ve begun to suspect that when I fit in somewhere, I self-sabotage to find a way to feel like a misfit.

***

On a related note, a while back I wrote about feeling myself to be a “Tory anarchist.” Lately the anarchist part is stronger. I have limited patience for big business or big government and just want to be left alone. Sometimes it’s easy to want to pull society to pieces and start again. I feel a lot of anger and resentment at the ruling class and I’m not sure where it’s coming from, from politics or from my inner self as it’s the class so many of my peers from Oxford now belong to, people in politics, academia, law, and other places I might have been had depression and autism not intervened. I feel like a class traitor sometimes.

Special Interests and American Pessimism

Shabbat (the Sabbath) was OK. As I mentioned on Friday, I didn’t go to shul (synagogue), as I thought the COVID risk was too high to be worth it. I spent quite a bit of time on Friday evening and Saturday afternoon in bed, not from tiredness, but anxiety and an autistic desire to wrap up in my duvet to self-soothe. I’ve never got around to buying a weighted blanket, but I did wonder what it would be like to have one. Maybe it would just encourage me to stay in bed…

I did some Torah study and I read a bit more of America During the Cold War, but not much. I confess my recreational reading was mostly Mistress of Chaos, the latest compilation of comic strips from Doctor Who Magazine. The comic strip is arguably better (more imaginative, better-written), and more in tune with what I think Doctor Who should be like, than the TV version is at the moment. This has happened in the past, when David Tennant was the Doctor. Scott Gray, currently the main writer and editor on the strip, is one of my favourite Doctor Who writers, even though he’s never worked on the TV version.

I tried to accept that I was going to end up doing self-soothing things like reading comic strips and curling up in bed given that I’m struggling with my mood as a result of coming off olanzapine at the same time as some very stressful stuff in my personal life and in the wider world. Even so, I feel I wish I had done things differently.

A friend emailed after Shabbat to say that she now has an official high-functioning autism diagnosis. She has also gone through quite a long process to get diagnosed, so hopefully I’ll get my diagnosis soon.

My sister phoned after Shabbat and we had a long chat, mostly me talking about all the stresses I’m under at the moment. We hadn’t really spoken for a while. Later I watched the film Mr Holmes with my parents, about an ailing, nonagenarian Sherlock Holmes, losing his memory and revisiting his last case to try to remember why he retired. It was a character drama rather than a crime story, a little slow, and dark near the end, but it was OK. Sir Ian McKellan was very good as the elderly Holmes, nicely distinguished from his sixty year old self in flashback. I’m pretty sure it contradicted the original stories in several places (Sherlock Holmes is another autistic special interest for me), but not too violently.

I feel a bit agitated now. I don’t think it was the film, just anxiety about major things in my life right now. I feel like I have a lot going on. Aside from being in the middle of the autism diagnosis process, I’m a bit more settled into my new job, but still learning the ropes and conscious that it might end soon. I don’t think I’ve fully adapted to losing two days a week to work; I’m still struggling to fit everything in. Then I’m working on my novel and trying to move on my relationship in difficult circumstances (lockdown), while, like everyone, my ability to cope with COVID is getting less and less. I still get annoyed with people who don’t wear masks properly, but I feel less judgmental of people who are not social distancing or isolating properly. It’s hard. If even a shy, autistic introvert like me is struggling now, I guess almost everyone must be.

There’s not a lot else to say. I impulse-bought a lot of second-hand CDs on sale a couple of weeks ago, which I’ve been listening to recently. One CD was scratched and unplayable and I’m waiting for a replacement, but the others were good. I’ve been listening a lot to ABBA lately. I never liked ABBA, but in the last month or two, I’ve become an enthusiastic convert. I use music mostly to cheer myself up or to motivate myself, so I like fast and upbeat music, and much of ABBA’s output fits here. I bought ABBA Gold (greatest hits), which was the broken CD, and More ABBA Gold (greatest hits volume 2), which wasn’t quite as good as the first one, but surprised me by still being very good.

***

I just commented on a friends’ blog to say, “The riots in the Capitol were pretty shocking. I used to wish I had been born in the USA, where the Modern Orthodox Jewish community is so much stronger than the UK. I wondered if I would marry someone from there and emigrate [I nearly did, as E was from the US]. Now I’m grateful that I’m nowhere near. I worry what will happen to a country where the political class is divided into two groups that each think the other is irredeemably evil, where the President can’t accept he lost the election and where there are more guns than people.” I really can’t see this ending well. Maybe not immediately, but a decade or two down the line. People say Trump is like Hitler, but my worry is more that Trump is someone like Karl Lueger and that someone much worse is waiting twenty years down the line.

On that cheery note — bed!

More Anxiety

Wow, I feared that when the American Empire started to go, it wouldn’t go peacefully, but I didn’t expect a mob bearing the Confederate Flag storming Capitol Hill just yet. Crazy. Mind you, I was reading about the protests of the 1960s on my lunch break (civil rights, anti-war) and I think the scale and perhaps also the intensity of unrest greater then than now. It’s just that Twitter and 24 hour news coverage make it more visible now. Compare Capitol Hill with rioters storming the Pentagon in 1967. On the other hand, civil rights and Vietnam bubbled away for years, so who knows how things will look in 2030? The culture of the sixties was definitely better though.

Back here in London…

I had a lot of anxiety again today. I am going through an anxious time, but it occurred to me that I’m coming off olanzapine, which is probably making the anxiety worse. This morning on the Tube in to work, I was too anxious to do much Torah study as I usually do. I tried to practise mindful acceptance of my anxiety and guilt feelings. It helped a bit. The anxiety went away a bit during the morning as I was busy at work, but came back in the afternoon as there wasn’t much for me to do. Sometimes it felt like borderline religious OCD (anxiety that I’ve done/will do something religiously wrong). This leads to a feeling that everything I do to try and move my life on (careers, relationships) just provokes guilt for not being perfect. I try to tell myself it’s irrational guilt, but the slightest mishap (and mishaps are inevitable) just sets me to thinking that I’m being punished by God and that worse is in store for me. I am not sure how to cure myself of this dynamic.

I think I tend to see life very much in black and white terms (which is a classic autistic perspective), but specifically in black and white moral terms. It’s a kind of scrupulosity (religious OCD) whereby I want to be morally perfect and see any moral imperfection as heinous. This leads to things like me applying for jobs that are not right for me because I feel “ought” to do so. My moral integrity and honesty is a big part of my self-esteem (insofar as I have much self-esteem), so it’s hard to challenge it.

Similarly, in terms of dating, I’ve partly internalised a frum (religious Jewish) model of dating which sees the dating process in extremely moralised and black and white terms (e.g. avoiding platonic friendships with the opposite sex; no dating before being ready to marry, in terms of having a settled career and mental health; pre-screening dates to only date people with shared values; avoiding long-term relationships before marriage). I do this even though this model has not worked for me. This leads me to feel that everything I do in dating is wrong and that my dating difficulties are a punishment from God. However, I am not sufficiently integrated into the frum community to really be able to date that way even if I wanted to do so.

Both PIMOJ and my therapist struggled to understand yesterday how I can feel that I’ve never fitted into or been accepted by the Orthodox world and yet still want to be a part of it. I’m not sure that I have the answer to this question myself. I believe in Orthodox Judaism, even if I’m not really able to live the right sort of life, practically, that would enable me to function in the community. That’s the best answer I have. I know that many people would, if not consciously then at least unconsciously, change their beliefs for ones that fitted better with a possible or desirable lifestyle. That has just never happened with me, for whatever reason.

***

As a side-note on black and white morality, I’ve encountered quite a number of rabbis over the years who claimed to be very badly behaved in their youth. I’m not quite sure what to make of this. Are they exaggerating to try to connect with young people? Does a disobedient, questioning, cast of mind lend itself well to Talmudic study? Probably. Can the uncontrollable energy of the boisterous child be focused into the superhuman amounts of emotional energy needed by the congregational rabbi? Possibly. Sometimes I feel weirdly that if only I had been worse-behaved at school, I might be in a much better situation today. It will be weird if I go to Heaven and they tell me that I was too well-behaved to earn much reward.

***

Speaking of which, PIMOJ and I streamed (separately) Soul, the latest Pixar film, about a musician who dies, but wants to come back to Earth, and is set to mentor a soul that is resisting being born. It was amusing enough, but I found it hard to concentrate on and triggered a lot of uncomfortable thoughts about my not enjoying life or having a clear purpose (I want to be a writer, but worry I won’t make it). I couldn’t really explain to PIMOJ that I want to enjoy the small moments of life, but all too often I can’t, and I can’t will that enjoyment into being, particularly not if it’s still an element of depression.