It’s All Here Tonight: Wedding, Baby, Work, Social Interactions, Judaism

Today was busy, so busy that it feels more like a couple of days than just one.

I went to volunteering in the morning. I tried to make myself speak to people a bit more. I’m not sure how well I did, but I did try to sit with them when we had coffee. Initially I had ended up at the other end of the table to everyone else, but after a while I moved to sit with the others. I also asked to be put on the WhatsApp group. And we were given nice thick, warm fleeces with the organisation’s logo on it. They’re bright purple (the organisation’s colour) which is a bit more vibrant than my usual taste, but they look nice and were very warm.

Afterwards, I went with my parents to a potential wedding venue nearby. It was more or less ideal.  Nothing is ever perfect, but this was 99% perfect. As well as having the features we want, it’s relatively local, in an area I’m familiar with (I used to work down the road) which is probably good from an autistic point of view (dislike of the unknown), plus Sister and Brother-in-law live nearby, which will make it easier for them to bring Nephew. There are other venues that may be as good, but as E and I want to get married quickly, there doesn’t seem to be much point in looking at them, particularly as they would probably be not quite as good overall. So now the next step is to find a caterer that can do one of the dates we would like, then confirm with the rabbi and book the wedding!

A few emotional/autistic things that came out of this: I felt Mum and Dad drowned me out a bit when we were talking the site manager (I don’t know what her real title is, but that will do for here). I don’t mean that in a critical way, but they are quite loud personalities and I struggled to be heard, both literally and metaphorically. I needed their moral support there or I would have just frozen up, but it is my wedding and I felt that I wasn’t saying much. It doesn’t help that I notice they have a way of switching from “serious” to “joking” and back again in conversations of this kind that I just can’t do. I can do that with people I know well and trust, but not with a total stranger I only met ten minutes previously. I get stuck in “serious” then feel awkward when everyone else starts joking.

I am excited about the wedding, but I don’t think it shows much. When I was with my parents, I did feel a little excited, but it was only when I discussed it over Skype with E that I really felt it, although it probably still didn’t show much. I don’t know how much of that is just my personality and how much is alexithymia (difficulty feeling and understanding my own emotions). When we had the civil wedding last August, E’s mother filmed us when we were pronounced married. E starts bouncing up and down with a big smile on her face, whereas I look a bit confused and then hug her. When my cousin saw the video, she said I looked like I was happy, but didn’t know what to do, which is basically true. I don’t really know what to do with my emotions sometimes and it’s mostly the positive ones I struggle with, perhaps because I experience them less frequently or maybe because I feel there’s more social expectation around them.

After that we went to Sister and Brother-in-law’s house nearby. BIL was at work. We ate lunch and chatted to Sister for a bit, then she went to do work elsewhere in the house while we looked after Nephew. I held him a couple of times and helped feed and wind him (E thought it was funny when I said I winded him, so I guess it’s not an American usage. I mean to I tried to get him to burp). I ducked out of changing him this time. I am still a somewhat nervous uncle not used to babies, but I am becoming a bit more confident with him. I shook slightly while holding him, but not much, which is probably a sign of growing confidence. Nephew often has a somewhat startled expression, like he’s surprised to see the world’s still there, and is not entirely happy about it. Sister says at his age (not yet two months), he can’t focus on things that aren’t near his face. He did seem to make intense eye contact with me for a while, though.

Sister showed us the book she bought him. It’s made of fabric and is about farm animals. It reads, “Dog. Sheep. Cow,” with relevant pictures. I said I was impressed by the unexpected twist ending…

As if that wasn’t enough for one day, I have some paid proofreading work! It’s not much, and my rate is artificially low at the moment (well below minimum wage), but I hope that will generate reviews. It’s a slightly strange request for reasons that I don’t want to go into here, but it seems to be legitimate, but it’s left me with vague unease. I hope it really is legitimate.

***

A few days ago I emailed a rabbinic email helpline for people in the Orthodox Jewish community who have mental health issues. You can email a rabbi for advice on halakhah (Jewish law) as it pertains to mental health. The rabbis on the helpline have mental health training, unlike most communal rabbis. I asked about the way my autism leads to frequent exhaustion and difficulty in religious situations that are also social situations, and also how to cope with any religious obligations when feeling autistically exhausted. Autism isn’t a mental illness, but I felt out of other options for the kind of halakhic support I wanted.

I heard back from the helpline yesterday. The rabbi said that as autism is a spectrum and manifests in different people in different ways, so too halakhic adjustments can vary. From what I described, he felt I should not push myself to go to shul (synagogue) when exhausted or push myself to any social interaction related to a mitzvah (commandment) when I feel incapable and not to feel pressure regarding mitzvot generally. He said I could email him with more details of my situation for a more specific response. He also suggested davening (praying) at the same time as my shul even if I don’t feel able to go there, which is an idea I have heard before and tried to do during the first COVID lockdown, but drifted out of the habit of doing. I might try to go back to it, at least some times. The idea is that if you pray at the same time as the community, your prayer is still with them, even if you aren’t in the same building.

I’m not sure what I think of reply. It’s good that the rabbi told me that I shouldn’t force myself to do things that are just making me exhausted or burnt out. It’s not very specific, but I don’t really have very specific questions at the moment, just a general feeling of overwhelm at everything that’s expected of me religiously. I guess I feel that there’s a lot of grey area there inasmuch as it boils down to “Do what you feel able to do and don’t worry about the rest.” That’s probably my fault (“fault” isn’t the right word, but you know what I mean) because I didn’t ask very specific questions, but I worry it will just shift my worries from “Do I need to do more religiously?” to “Am I exhausted enough that I don’t need to do more religiously?” which might not be much of an improvement. I’m going to think about what they wrote and maybe write back if I can think of a more specific question.

Halfway There Day

Yesterday was my half-birthday, for those of you who take note of such things. I don’t really see any significance, but my oldest friend was born on 19 January and another friend on 20 January, so the date leaps out at me. I am now closer to my fortieth birthday than my thirty-ninth, which vaguely troubles me, although it shouldn’t.

I also worked out that if E and I get one of the two wedding dates we’re currently aiming at, both in the second half of May, we’re more or less halfway now between the civil wedding last August and the chuppah (religious wedding). We should have more of an idea this week if that’s a realistic date.

***

This week was the baby blessing week for Nephew. I couldn’t go in the end because of difficulty finding somewhere suitable to stay. I was OK home alone. I didn’t go to shul (synagogue) on Friday night because I felt too tired, which was a shame and vaguely troubling in terms of how frequently it seems to be happening. The house was cold and I have chapped hands again, but otherwise things were fine.

I did some Torah study: Talmud and The Guide to the Perplexed, which is currently full of stuff about the Aristotlean view of the universe as a series of living spheres, one inside the other, definitely not made of atoms and definitely not containing any vacuum. It’s interesting from a historical point of view, but this bit is not really relevant to modern day theology. Hopefully it will get back to more relevant stuff (from a contemporary perspective) soon.

I finished reading Dune yesterday. I intend to go on to the second book, Dune Messiah. It was a good book, but hard to get into, and weirdly structured.

I slept too long as usual, about twelve or thirteen hours at night. I still went back to bed after lunch today, more because I was cold than tired. I think I drifted into that state of mind between sleeping and wakefulness and was late for seudah (the third Shabbat meal).

It was a struggle to do things after Shabbat. It always is, as I feel lethargic, even at 5.30pm. I did manage to tidy up and do a bit of Torah study. I did a little novel planning too. I would have done more, but I had a headache for a while.

***

I tried to friend someone on the autism forum a while back. We have some things in common (librarians, Doctor Who fans). He didn’t respond to the friending and accompanying message, but has chatted with me on threads since then. He’s got other friends. Friending doesn’t really do anything other than allow direct messaging, but I do feel weirdly unliked from only having two friends, both people who are not there any more and who didn’t stay on the forum long. But I’m nervous about friending people (in general and after this). I wonder if the friend request didn’t go through properly to this person and if I should send it again, or if that would make things worse if he was deliberately not responding to me.

I also wonder if it’s worth friending other people. I would be open to making friends on the site, which would realistically only happen if I friended people, but I don’t see it as essential. Still, I wonder what to do. I feel really self-conscious about being the only (open) Jew on the site, but can’t stop mentioning it. I don’t think anyone is antisemitic, but a lot of people have funny ideas about Jews, particularly if they haven’t met any (which is feasible as Jews make up about a half of per cent of the UK population, largely concentrated in just a couple of cities).

Same Old Scene

I struggled a bit with Shabbat (the Sabbath) again. I got to shul (synagogue) on Friday night despite feeling very tired. I found dinner with my parents exhausting. I know “selective mutism” is something a lot of autistics suffer from. I don’t really experience it, but I have noticed that when autistically exhausted from peopling (rather than just tired), I can become monosyllabic. By the end of dinner, I was communicating in gestures more than speech. It wasn’t conscious. It’s a bit frightening.

I fell asleep for an hour after dinner and then was too tired to move for an hour after that, so I didn’t do as much reading as I would have liked. I spent an hour reading The Guide for the Perplexed, but only managed a few pages as it was based on Medieval neo-Aristotlean philosophy which I didn’t really understand so I made slow progress. I’m not sure how much relevance those passages really have for contemporary Jewish thought. I also wonder how they were understood in Early Modern and Modern Eastern Europe, although not many people would have been reading it there – not many rabbis, let alone laymen. The Kotzker Rebbe is supposed to have said of the Guide that “If you are wise, it is a guide; if not, you will be perplexed,” which is probably true. I read a few pages of A Fire Burns in Kotsk and a couple of chapters of Dune, but not much else.

I slept late again this morning. Mum and Dad were out for lunch, so I ate by myself, reading the latest Doctor Who Magazine. I’m not at all optimistic about the return of Russell T Davies, David Tennant, Catherine Tate and others, or the deal with Disney. I worry it’s just a return to the worst aspects of Davies and Tennant’s first run, with added Big Business. As when Davies was showrunner previously, DWM is now full of coy preview articles that tease the new episodes without giving anything away, which I just find irritating. I don’t like spoilers, but just being told endlessly that the next series is going to be amazing when I’m not going to see it for a year or more is annoying, even if I wasn’t convinced that it won’t be amazing. I skim DWM more and more.

I dozed off for a bit after Minchah and ate seudah (the third Shabbat meal) after sunset, which is not ideal. I was too tired to do very much at all in the afternoon, although I did some Torah study (Shoftim/Judges in Hebrew and with a modern commentary) after Shabbat and also some work on the plan for my novel, but I mostly got distracted and procrastinated online. I think the beginning of my book is quite good, but after about chapter five, when the plot really kicks in, I run out of incident and jokes, which is not good for a satirical thriller. I’m not totally out of ideas, but there are definitely fewer as it goes on. I sort of want to just start writing (I feel like an athlete with muscles tensed to run, but unable to go yet), but I want to do more research to generate more ideas, both external research (reading relevant books) and internal research (thinking about my characters and how their world works). I’m feeling pessimistic about this actually resulting in a readable full-length novel, but I’m trying to tell myself I’m working for my own amusement. Then I read stuff online, as I did tonight, where people are saying, “We want more positive frum characters in books and TV” and I want to do something towards that, even though I think setting out to produce a “positive” image of the frum community would backfire badly (and this book is much lower than previous ones in frum content). I think/hope once I actually start that will generate more ideas. As I’ve said before, I’m a bit of a “pantser” in that some of my best ideas come up once I’ve begun writing, but it’s uncomfortable to bet on that.

***

I thought quite a bit about that post on the autism forum about connecting with people (where a lot of people said they connect with animals and soft toys more easily than they connect with neurotypicals) and also the lukewarm response to my post on the Facebook group about being autistic in the frum (religious Jewish) community. I feel it’s not really an option from me to cut myself off from other Jews or other people in general. I feel a specific religious commandment to try to love other Jews and people in general. Plus, I do feel connected to other Jews, whether I like it or not. I’ve been angry for days at the new Israeli government and I know that’s because I identify as an Orthodox Jew, and if other Orthodox Jews are corrupt, self-serving, racist or homophobic, I feel that my identity is attacked. If nothing else, people will assume I’m the same. So there is a connection there whether I like it or not.

I do wish I knew how to move forward with my life, whether that involves the frum community, the autistic community or both, or whether it involves my writing or proofreading or something else. I do know that, realistically, I should wait until I’m married before really doing anything new, but it’s so hard waiting without knowing when that will be or even when E’s visa will arrive. It feels SO HARD waiting and being separated.

I watched an episode of The Simpsons tonight where Homer complains he hasn’t done anything with his life at the grand old age of thirty-nine. That’s how old I am! At least he has a full-time job, three kids and a wife who he actually gets to live with! I am nowhere near as fat and I’m not bald (not even thinning) so that’s something.

Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There!

I have heard that we have a fixed amount of self-control. You can practise self-control to increase the amount you have over time, but at any moment there are limits to how much is open to you (I wonder if this is still considered valid or if it’s one of those social psychology findings that’s been found to be unrepeatable).

I feel like I’ve been struggling with self-control for the last few months, in terms of eating more junk (not a huge amount, but I really would like to lose some weight, even if my weight gain was from medication) and going to bed later. Probably buying books too. I think I’m using up all my self-control waiting for E’s visa to arrive and lose control on other areas. Have I mentioned that I miss E?

***

I’ve been in my job for over two years and I still can’t use the phones properly. When someone calls, the call automatically goes through to the phone on J’s desk. Only if he’s using that does the phone on my desk ring. This means that if the phone rings while he’s out, I have to hurry over to his desk, answer the phone and then often transfer it back to my phone so I can do stuff on my computer for the caller. Except, as happened today, I still can’t get the hang of how to transfer calls. I cut someone off twice; the third time, she gave me her number and asked me to call her back, which was embarrassing.

My phone doesn’t work properly anyway and we were going to experiment with moving the phones around. I’m in without J next Tuesday, so I might play around with them, but I’m worried we’ll end up with my phone as the default and I’ll have to take all the calls. I guess it will be good exposure therapy for my phone anxiety, but most of the calls are for J and I worry I would cut them off transferring to him.

***

I led Ma’ariv (Evening Prayers) in shul (synagogue) today. I didn’t really shake, but I was glad we were in the small Beit HaMidrash and not the larger main shul so I didn’t have to project my voice.

***

I feel that I’m being drawn slowly towards autism activism in the frum (religious Jewish) community without knowing what to do or how to do it and without feeling that I have the time, energy or skill-set to do it. I also feel the word “activist” is overused. Every journalist, writer, artist, musician and academic claims to be an “activist” these days. As they said on the Deep Meaningful Conversations podcast I listened to the other day about Sarah Schinerer, sharing something on social media does not make you an activist!

Dare I say it, I think the world might be in a better shape if there were fewer people being active and more being still and thinking. Don’t just do something, stand there.

***

I was thinking a bit about spirituality and alexithymia (inability to recognise or understand one’s own emotions, which I have). I struggle to define, understand or experience spirituality. Maybe it’s a nebulous, abstract concept that many autistics would struggle with. Maybe it’s because I didn’t go to yeshivah (rabbinical seminary) and meet super-spiritual religious leaders who could give me experiential proof of it. Or maybe alexithymia stops me recognising when I experience spirituality or simchah (joy) e.g. simchah shel mitzvah (the joy of performing a religious commandment) or simchah shel Yom Tov (the joy of a festival). I feel my religious life is performed without joy, yet it doesn’t exactly feel “joyless” in a painful way, so maybe I’m feeling something I can’t recognise.

It doesn’t help that the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) world sees spirituality in withdrawal from the wider world, while Modern Orthodoxy sees spirituality in bringing Jewish values to the wider world. I prefer the latter, but perhaps this is harder to notice and feel; it’s certainly in many ways harder to do. (This is the fundamental internal conflict of the Jewish people, the conflict between Leah and Rachel, which is later the conflict between Yosef and Yehudah (Joseph and Judah) and then between the Southern Kingdom of Yehudah and Northern Kingdom of Yisrael (Israel), but I don’t have time to elaborate.)

***

On the autism forum, someone asked who or what we identify with. Almost everyone who responded put animals or nature, then the marginalised and disadvantaged. Most people responding felt that they struggled to connect with most other human beings.

I think my response will not be popular:

The short answer is “Almost no one.” The longer answer:

As Franz Kafka said, “I have hardly anything in common with myself”.

  1. My wife. She is genuinely the only person who really “gets” me and is on the same wavelength, so I can unmask with her.
  2. Intellectuals, particularly ones who are dead, eccentric and/or Jewish, most especially those who were probably neurodiverse or mentally ill.
  3. Lonely people. I would say “marginalised” etc., but it sounds awkward.
  4. Children (but only quiet, well-behaved ones).
  5. I do genuinely try to care about everyone and feel obligation to care for them.

I don’t feel any connection with animals. They often frighten me. I find them unpredictable, especially dogs. I didn’t have any pets (except fish) as a child, plus I’ve been attacked by dogs and by a duck and twice had apples stolen from my hands from goats, so maybe that’s it.

I should really have put “Other Jews” in there before “everyone,” but I didn’t want to get into an argument about whether it’s OK to care about some people more than others (Judaism says it’s human nature to extend compassion outwards from the family to the community to the nation to the world, but lots of people would disagree).

I suspect there is a part of me that wants not to fit in, that looks for difference and existential incomprehension instead of finding common ground. I never feel more Jewish than when with non-Jews or less autistic than when with other autistics. I need to find a way to move past this if I want to make close friends.

***

Ugh, I’ve been online too long and now it’s midnight and I’m exhausted (QED regarding staying up late due to poor self-control). It will be good when E comes to the UK and at least some of my life can move offline.

Leadership

I spent most of my time at work today stuffing about 300 invoices into envelopes, sealing them, putting stamps on them and posting them. I also processed six credit card payments over the phone and dealt calmly with a phone call from someone who was angry over some stuff that she really should not have been angry about. I did at least get to listen to some podcasts while stuffing envelopes. I had forgotten I would be stuffing envelopes, so hadn’t saved up podcasts, which meant I listened to some that had been sitting on my iPod for a while, unloved.

One podcast that was more interesting than I thought it would be was about Sarah Schenerer, who founded the Bais Yaakov network of Jewish girls’ schools in twentieth century Poland (it’s now a global network). I didn’t realise that she had so little support for her school initially or that she was a divorcee. It was mentioned in the podcast that Jewish men define themselves by the yeshivah they went to. This was not exactly news to me, but did make me feel an outcast again.

The podcast also said that we should all be trying to be leaders. Rabbi Sacks z”tzl used to say this a lot too. I’ve never felt like a leader and wouldn’t know how to be one. The podcast said that, if nothing else, we should be leaders in our families. I am not sure I know how to do that either, although if ‘leadership’ in this context means ‘encouraging others to have more of a Jewish identity and/or religious observance,’ then I suppose I’ve done that without really knowing how.

Interestingly, my rabbi mentor said something similar on Sunday, not about leadership, but about my writing being a “gift” and part of my mission in the world (I can’t remember if he used the word “mission,” but that was the idea). As I think I said the other day, he explicitly said I should take time from Torah study and other religious requirements to devote to my writing, although I’m not sure how much exactly to take. It is reassuring, and flattering to know that he feels that way about my writing, although naturally I feel that I’m not all that gifted and that my current writing is far from anything that might be considered Jewishly relevant.

I’m still thinking about what I can do for frum (religious Jewish autistics/neurodivergents/misfits in general). I’m still struggling to find anything that is both practical and within my capabilities. I also wonder if, beyond a certain age, these people either find a way of settling in the community or they leave (or get forced out) and that’s why I can’t find them.

***

Today was a fast day (the fast of Tevet). As I was at work, I went to shul (synagogue) for Minchah and Ma’ariv (Afternoon and Evening Services). I had not been to a fast day Minchah for so long, from general shul avoidance and specific fast day avoidance (I’m not allowed to fast on the minor fasts for medical reasons, but I don’t want that to become obvious if they try to call me to the Torah and I have to turn it down), that I could not remember what extra prayers we say. This is not good.

***

When I got to the Tube station on the way home, the down escalator was broken, but I didn’t realise this until I was on it and there was a crowd behind me, so I had to walk down on it. The staircase might have been easier, especially as I got stuck behind someone walking slowly with a stick and someone else carrying a bulky case. About five years ago I nearly had a panic attack/meltdown on a very long staircase at Kings Cross Tube Station and ever since I’ve been nervous of walking down the long stairs on the Tube. I get fear of heights-type feelings if I look too far down or over-think things. I just try to look at my feet and keep going at a steady speed, neither too fast nor too slow, but it’s hard when stuck in a slow moving queue of descending people. I did manage it, but I’m wondering if I should start walking down the stairs even when the escalator is working as a kind of exposure therapy.

***

I didn’t have such a stressful day, but foolishly went into the charity shop on the way home, ostensibly because it would get me out of the rain for a few minutes. The result was buying one of Dominic Sandbrook’s history books, State of Emergency: The Way We Were: Britain, 1970-1974. It was only £2 for a hardback that looks very interesting! The money is not an issue; time (to read) and space (to store it) are. Sigh. And this, when I’m intending to buy a load of books for novel research soon. I think I need to find some books to donate to the charity shop in return; I already have a couple of ideas.

***

I had some more ideas for my novel today. It’s strange that I can spend an hour trying to think up ideas and getting nowhere and then, when I’m working and not trying to think about writing, they just keep coming.

Last Shabbat of 2022

I didn’t blog on Thursday night. I was tired and didn’t have much to say. Work was OK, but I ended up staying late, partly working, but mostly because we couldn’t get a minyan (prayer quorum) for Minchah (Afternoon Service) in the shul (synagogue), so after waiting quarter of an hour, the rabbi said we should daven (pray) privately, which we did, but then someone else turned up to complete the minyan and the rabbi made us do Minchah again, plus Ma’ariv (Evening Prayers). I’m not sure what the ratio of time spent hanging around to time spent davening was.

On Friday I was exhausted again and missed shul. I felt bad about that, but I’m not really sure what else I could have done. My parents were out for dinner and I enjoyed the time by myself, but felt a bit lonely. I also realised I had forgotten to take my medication on Thursday night and Friday morning. My parents assumed that’s why I was so tired, but I think it’s just autistic exhaustion.

I did forty-five minutes of Talmud study and read a bit of Dune. I couldn’t stop thinking about the post I want to write on the Orthodox Conundrum group about being autistic in the frum world. It was not appropriate to think about writing on Shabbat (the Sabbath), but I couldn’t stop, which I guess is the autistic “monotropic focus” at work. I thought I had something worth writing by the end of the evening, but I either forgot some of it or I was overly optimistic about it, as when I tried to write it this evening, after Shabbat, it was just waffle. It doesn’t help that I don’t know what I want to say, beyond feeling a need to make excuses for my poor community involvement (which I should not do) or to express vague anger and resentment at the way my religious life has gone (again, not a good idea). And my comment discussion here with JYP a few days ago has shown that I have absolutely no idea of what practical steps anyone could take to make the community more welcoming to me, let alone anyone else, and I suspect different autistics would react in different ways anyway.

Today I did some more reading of The Guide to the Perplexed, but not much else. I only managed about half an hour of the Guide as I’m still tired and trying to do other things. I’m not sure how sensible it is for me to read the Guide with no formal training in philosophy or Medieval intellectual history. I’m not sure how much I understand, and I’m not sure how much of what I understand is still considered philosophically valid. However, I am enjoying it, but I feel I shouldn’t be spending Torah study time on something I enjoy, but don’t really understand. On the other hand, I persevered with Talmud study and now understand more of it, and enjoy it more too.

I was still tired and didn’t go with Dad to shul for Ma’ariv. He went as he has yortzeit (death anniversary) for his mother tonight and tomorrow, so he wanted to say Kaddish.

I spent an hour working on my novel plan this evening. It still feels like doing a jigsaw puzzle blindfolded in the dark, but I feel like I’m making slow progress. I do still worry about my proposed satirical science fiction thriller not being funny, original or thrilling, but I guess I won’t know until I actually start writing in earnest. It will be hard to keep it relevant if it takes years to write. I still have planning issues and I want to try to use some flow diagrams to map out how the novel should unfold. I’ve got the beginning and the end, it’s getting from one to the other that is the hard bit. I need to keep reminding myself that I’m doing this for fun and that I should enjoy it, as it’s not that likely that it will ever get published.

I probably shouldn’t write too much about my novel, but I have been meaning for a while to clarify what I’ve said about it being an anti-woke satire. When I say ‘woke,’ I don’t mean it as a synonym for ‘progressive.’ I don’t have a problem with progressives and even share some of the same worries albeit not always the same solutions. When I say ‘woke,’ I mean a type of progressivism combined with anger, self-righteousness and often hypocrisy of one kind or another. To me, that’s something else entirely from progressive politics, more a kind of virtue signalling ego trip, particularly when carried out by faceless corporations that try to appear woke while behaving appallingly (Amazon, Ben and Jerry’s). And, yes, I intend to satirise the similar tendency at the opposite end of the political spectrum, right-wing populism (which recently has been worrying me more, although I find it less funny). I want to satirise trends and maybe institutions, but not people. Even before writing, one character has gone from someone I wanted to satirise to someone I feel empathy for.

After that, I was going to watch Ghostbusters: Answer the Call, the all-female Ghostbusters reboot from 2016, but decided I’d rather read Dune. I finished the first part of the novel, but I’m not sure I want to read more tonight, but I’m not sure what I’d rather do instead either.

***

Carol Anne commented on an old post where the rabbi of my shul (the one I’ve now stopped going to) offered to share the article I wrote on being autistic in the frum (religious Jewish) community on the shul WhatsApp group. I said I would think about it, but I actually forgot to get back to him. It was probably for the best, as I left that shul, but it does make me think what I could/should do about this (this = finding a place for me in the Orthodox Jewish world, but I suppose it could also be trying to make the frum community more accepting of autistics).

The post I posted on the autism forum about masking and code-switching didn’t get much of a response, and what it did get, I found confusing and hard to understand. Possibly I shouldn’t assume I can really let people see the world the way I do.

***

It’s been a difficult year in many ways. I spent so much of it waiting to get married to E and we’re still not fully married. However, we are at least civilly married, even if we’re still separated by the Atlantic. Also, Nephew was born. That makes two new family members for clan Luftmentsch! On the downside, Mum and Sister both spent time in hospital, Mum with her heart attack and Sister with pregnancy issues in the spring (as well as when she actually gave birth this December) and I’m still a bit worried that Mum will have another heart attack. Pesach time was very stressful, with Sister in hospital immediately beforehand and Mum in hospital soon afterwards. Even more tragically, my parents’ friends’ son died, as did Ashley. It’s probably not sensible to divide years into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ years, as if every day was the same, but this does seem to have been a particularly varied one, so many good and bad things.

First Drafts

I had a dull day at work without J, who is on annual leave (I’d say holiday, but he’s at home, using up unused holiday days before they expire on 31 January). I had to make a phone call which I handled badly, or at least not as well as I would have liked. Other than that, it was mostly sorting old papers again, but at least I’m making some progress with it, however slight. Tomorrow I need to go to the bank before the end of the month, which is usually the highlight of my working month, except in January when I usually go multiple times as people send so many membership fee cheques in (some people still write cheques, particularly as our members tend towards the elderly and technophobe).

After waiting fifteen minutes and having the rabbi make some phone calls, we got a minyan (prayer quorum) for Minchah (Afternoon Prayers), but someone had to leave at the end so we couldn’t daven Ma’ariv (say Evening Prayers) and had to do that at home instead. It’s hardly the worst problem ever, but it was frustrating. The minyan is usually made up of people who work in offices locally, as there isn’t much of a local Jewish population, and at the moment many people are on holiday.

***

As usual, I read a Torah study book on the Tube in to work, but I skimmed How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy by science fiction author Orson Scott Card at lunch and on the way home. A lot of it is intuitive, or related to types of science fiction I have no intention of writing (at the moment), and much of the rest I suspect I picked up from another book he wrote about writing technique. I’ve never been sure how much you can teach writing, or any art. I guess there’s a part which is technique, which can probably be taught as a craft, and another part that is raw talent that has to be honed by actually writing, if you’re lucky enough to have it.

One thing that did interest me was the idea that you might need to do a first draft to try out ideas and then rewrite it into something completely different. This was shocking to me, as my English teacher at school used to insist that a first draft was 99% of the final product. Talking of a “rough draft” was even worse, and anyone saying that to him would be told, “Rough is what the doggie says.” Similarly, Steven Moffat, the greatest of the Doctor Who new series writers and showrunners (in my humble, but controversial, opinion) says that a first draft is most of the work; the subsequent drafts are just polish. And who am I to argue with the author of Blink and Heaven Sent?

It’s a strange concept for me to get my head around: a draft that I go into knowing very little of it will survive into later drafts is just not how I have written up until now (although part of me wants to perform a drastic re-write on my first novel one day). I can see that it makes sense for science fiction or fantasy in a way that it might not with more realistic fiction. With these genres, as well as the usual plot and characterisation common to all fiction, there’s a lot of literal world-building to test, finding rules for an environment and for pseudo-science or magic that are consistent and don’t cheat the reader or make things too easy for the hero. I can see it might be easier doing that on paper than in your head, but it is a paradigm shift for me, even if I was already tentatively going down that path.

A related question is research. I want my book to involve virtual reality (like Meta), but realise I know very little about actual contemporary virtual reality to extrapolate from. My instinct is to search bookshops for non-fiction about it as well as famous science fiction books like Neuromancer and other classics from the cyberpunk sub-genre (I’ve read the seminar cyberpunk short story Johnny Mnemonic. But don’t mention The Matrix or I’ll scream. It’s an over-rated pile of Philip K. Dick fanfic). But maybe it’s better to just write at this stage and look at other people’s thoughts (real-world and fiction) after I’ve got something down on paper. That will also save my bank balance and give me more time to read the BIG PILE OF OTHER BOOKS I’ve acquired lately.

***

The baby blessing has come up again. This is the family event Sister and Brother-in-Law are planning for next month, with attendance at their shul (synagogue), at the communal refreshments afterwards and two big family meals, a week before another family/social event my parents are planning for Dad’s seventieth birthday. This has made me anxious on multiple levels, some religious, some autism- and mental health-related.

The latest issue is that the hotel where we would have to stay has electronic locks, which would be problematic on Shabbat (the Sabbath) when electricity can’t be used. When I was in New York, the staff at the hotel I stayed at were used to religious Jews asking (or more usually hinting, as it’s not really permitted to ask non-Jews to perform work on Shabbat) to have doors opened for them, but this might not be the case here and they might see it as suspicious behaviour.

Even beside that, I still feel deeply negative and anxious about the whole thing, doubly so as I feel I have no right to express my discomfort, whether from religious or autistic/socially anxious reasons, even though I worry what kind of state I will be in by the end of January if I go through all this, which I feel is a legitimate worry and not me being difficult.

Then there is the fact that, at the moment, it looks like I would have to go through these events without E, which just feels so painful now and I don’t know how much anyone in my family understands that.

***

I was thinking today about not achieving the level of halakhic (Jewish law)observance that I wanted or expected I would have by now. This is partly because E and I are now growing together and religious growth needs to be at a pace that both of us can bear, and I’m OK with that, but, even beyond that, I have been relying on leniencies in some areas or relaxing my standards for a while now, as I’ve mentioned before. As I said the other day, I think it’s hard being frum (Jewishly observant) with mental health issues, neurodiversity, less frum relatives and without feeling integrated into a supportive community, let alone juggling all of these. I hate to use ‘privilege’ language, but I increasingly feel that being fully halakhically observant is a privilege. It’s not something all Jews can attain, even if they want to, but as a community we are not accepting of that.

As I thought about it, I realised that I am disabled, but for twenty years I was trying to be frum without knowing I was disabled, not knowing that there were legitimate leniencies I could rely on (sometimes I knew I could rely on things because of depression or living with less frum parents, but I did not know about autism). It’s a strange situation to be in, to become retroactively aware that you were disabled all your life. I doubt it happens to many people; I would think usually disability announces itself very clearly! It’s something I haven’t really come to terms with.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this, beyond my reiterated desire to say something to other frum people about this, but not knowing what I want to say or who I want to say it to or how I want to say it and being afraid of the reaction I would get for essentially justifying my non-observance of halakhah.

Post-Shabbat Slump

I was really exhausted on Friday and felt very burnt out again, a bit ill and incapable of doing much. I did my usual pre-Shabbat (Sabbath) chores, but then lay down on my bed for an hour instead of going to shul (synagogue). I guess it’s a kind of “autistic shutdown,” where I get overloaded and have to lie still in quiet for a while. I’m not sure why they seem to be more common than they used to be, or why I don’t remember getting them as a child.

I did some Torah study last night and read a bit more of Dune, although I’m going slowly with it. I guess it’s the kind of book that demands to be read slowly: little plot (I’m 100 pages in, about a quarter of the way, and very little has actually happened), but lots of description and science fictional detail. I’m enjoying it, but I don’t think it will be a favourite story as it seems to be for many people. It is frustrating that the volume, The Great Dune Trilogy, is too heavy and bulky to take to work, as I do a lot of my reading during lunch and on the Tube. I’m always in a hurry to read books and it’s frustrating me that, because of size and complexity (among other things), it’s going to take me ages to read The Great Dune Trilogy and also The Guide to the Perplexed (see below). There isn’t a lot I can do about it, though. Some books are just slow reads, because of size, content and style.

I think I woke up a couple of times in the night. About 6.30am I woke up and contemplated getting up, but I decided that even if I did get up, I wouldn’t go to shul. This is where I’ve got to with my social anxiety post-COVID, sadly. In the end I fell asleep again and slept through the morning.

I lay down for two twenty minute periods this afternoon too, although I’m not sure whether they were mini-shutdowns. Other than that, I haven’t done much else other than Torah study (about fifty minutes reading The Guide of the Perplexed) and watching Ghostbusters II, the neglected first sequel, although I did send a couple of overdue emails. I’m feeling a post-Shabbat slump. I had a slight headache earlier, which didn’t help much.

I don’t celebrate Christmas or New Years and when I initially planned to watch Ghostbusters II, I’d forgotten that it’s a seasonal film, although it’s only slightly seasonal (the climax of the film takes place on New Years’ Eve, which necessitates Christmas decorations being visible in some earlier scenes, but no one really says much about it). Unlike the first film, it’s not really a comedy being more of a family fantasy/mild horror film with occasional funny lines, although I appreciated the line about spoilt middle class children being “Ungrateful yuppie larvae.” There’s also a lot less smoking than the first film, which may be another sign of aiming more for a family audience. Incidentally, nowadays the river of evil slime that feeds off anger and hate is called Twitter.

One Autistic and a Baby

I went to bed late again last night with little downtime. This is a problem at Chanukah, as a key part of relaxation for me is watching TV in my room while eating dinner, but during Chanukah I tend to eat with my family at the dining room table where we can see the Chanukah candles. This is not religiously required, but somehow it seems wrong not to do it, even though it’s not an old tradition for us, just something we’ve started doing in the last few years. To make matters worse, I find eating with my parents extra draining. So I feel like I haven’t had much downtime for the last few days.

I did go to volunteering. I feel comfortable enough there now to make a slightly teasing joke to one of the other volunteers; he responded in kind a while later. I felt a bit awkward, though. Perhaps because of my history of being bullied as a child, I feel uncomfortable when people tease me, even when I know it’s meant in a friendly way, or perhaps it was just that it took me a minute for me to understand the joke (it hinged on my having red hair, but I feel that my hair is brown with bits of red in it, which isn’t the same). We had jam donuts with our coffee as it’s Chanukah. I ate one, even though I usually avoid the biscuits during the coffee break (to lose weight) and even though I knew I would have another one in the evening. Chanukah is not really a time for dieting.

Afterwards I went to Golders Green for lunch. Years ago, I used to periodically find myself needing to eat lunch in Golders Green and I used to go to a particular cafe where they served a tuna melt that I really liked. I hadn’t had it for years, not least because nowadays I’m semi-vegetarian and only eat fish and meat on Shabbat and Yom Tov (Sabbaths and festivals). As these are mostly days when one can’t eat in restaurants, I don’t eat the tuna melt. However, I do eat fish on Chanukah, when work is permitted (as it’s a minor festival – yes, even though it’s perhaps the best-known Jewish festival, Chanukah ranks low in the official pecking order), so I decided to make a special trip to eat it.

I was rather stunned when I got there by how crowded and noisy it was, but I decided to go in nonetheless. I certainly wonder how I coped with such noise and overload in the past. I really think that, before lockdown and before my autism diagnosis, I didn’t notice how much things like this stressed me out, or, if I noticed, I suppressed my feelings as silly or childish. I did very much notice my feelings today, but I really wanted the tuna melt and coming back wasn’t really an option, so I braved it. It was worth it. I’d forgotten how big the slices of bread are that they use for the sandwich. Very filling.

On the bus, I listened to the latest Orthodox Conundrum podcast on The REAL History of ChanukahAnd Why It Matters Today, which I would definitely recommend to all religious Jews (regardless of denomination) and anyone who thinks they know the Chanukah story. It was really good, so good that I immediately recommended it to E, who texted me later to agree how good it was. If you only listen to one podcast this Chanukah

I came home exhausted, but not for very long, as we (me and my parents) went out to see my sister, brother-in-law and nephew. Nephew was asleep when we got there, so we lit Chanukah candles or at least Sister and BIL did – I was prepared to compromise on this occasion and light there and blow them out when it came time to go (which I think you can do if they’ve burnt for half an hour), but my Dad for once was the machmir (strict) one who wanted to light and home and let the lights burn themselves out.

More donuts were consumed, this time chocolate-filled.

After a while, Sister and BIL decided to wake Nephew as he needed to feed. I got to hold him for longer this time. I sat on the sofa, where I was more comfortable and supported. I shook a little, but my parents didn’t notice, and I felt more comfortable with him. I did struggle to know what to say to him, but my Mum said I was fine and the photos people took of me holding him show me looking relaxed. He is still a very little thing, and very sleepy. I did feel good holding him, though.

My sister is suddenly very maternal, which is not a side to her that I’d seen before. She’s already got a unique term of endearment for Nephew, although maybe that’s not surprising, because as a child she was always making up words.

When my Mum was holding Nephew, she said to him that she was going to come on Tuesdays to help Sister and that she would see him too. Nephew reacted to this news with what can only be described as a look of sheer horror, or it would have been, if a three week old baby could understand what someone is saying to him. It was very funny.

One thing we did speak about was the baby blessing for my nephew, which is back on the agenda. Sister and BIL want to do it at the end of January, as a combined baby blessing/Kiddush (refreshments) in shul to thank the community for their help/family birthday celebration for Sister. This would be a week or so before another party, this time for my Dad’s seventieth birthday. I am not entirely happy about all this, although I have agreed to at least to try to go to all these things. Even aside from my discomfort about davening (praying)at a non-Orthodox shul (synagogue) (nothing against non-Orthodox shuls, it’s just not right for me), which I can get around (daven at home on Friday night, daven early on Shabbat morning and then go to shul afterwards), it’s a LOT of peopling in a week and especially over that Shabbat, doubtless with little recovery time. It can be hard doing things with Sister and BIL, as I’m very conscious that they are further on in life than me (married, child, much more financially secure than E and I are likely to be in the foreseeable future, accepted and given a role in their shul community) and at the moment it’s even harder, as doing family things without E just seems so painfully wrong, and there’s nothing I can do about it. And I find family events can be hard anyway, as I can’t always work out how to join in the conversation.

I do feel a bit nervous about all this, although I realise that I really just have to do it somehow, that I shouldn’t try to make it about me, and that there are many worse things in life. But these things are stressful to me, much more so than for an allistic (non-autistic) person.

Speaking of nervous, I’m a bit nervous of tomorrow, when I feel I have a lot to do: Torah study, novel stuff (I know I’m on hold with it, but I have a few ideas I want to type up anyway), go for a walk (much neglected lately), renew my library ticket, try to move forward with setting myself up as a freelance proof-reader (which I’ve been procrastinating about too much)… All this coming from not having relaxed properly tonight (and instead having procrastinated online…).

Plus, I have to be alone in the house with the cleaner for a couple of hours. I really don’t like doing this, as it’s against Jewish law for two unrelated people of opposite sexes to be alone together (yichud), but having flagrantly broken this with E, I feel I can’t protest, even though I intended my breaking of the halakhah to be specifically because of our relationship and not a general abandonment of yichud.

I have now woken up and feel I ought to try to do a little more Torah study now I have the energy, even though it’s 11.15pm (there’s a lot of guilt here for internet procrastination instead of Torah or real relaxation).

“There’s definitely a very slim chance we’ll survive.”

I don’t have much to say, but feel the urge to write something…

I had an OK Shabbat. I decided it was too icy to risk going to shul (synagogue). It was probably the right decision, but I feel bad. I’ve been completely out of the shul-going habit since COVID, and I’m very far from where I was seven or eight years ago, when I was going to shul two or three times every day. Days like this don’t help. I did some Torah study, including getting back into The Guide for the Perplexed and (after Shabbat) Shoftim (The Book of Judges). I did OK with the quite difficult Hebrew vocabulary of Devorah’s (Deborah’s) song. I did spend too long asleep and then spent another hour after lunch in bed with my eyes shut. I don’t know why I do this, except that I seem to need to, on some level. I suspect it’s an autistic recovery thing, although the only thing I can be recovering from is eating with my parents, unless it’s the week in general.

I’ve been thinking a lot about politics lately and feeling I don’t fit anywhere on the political spectrum. That wouldn’t bother me so much, except that I’m trying to write a satirical novel and can’t work out if it’s an advantage or disadvantage to be able to see both sides of an issue. Nowadays it seems that if you want to be taken seriously as a writer on anything political, you have to be totally unable to see anyone else’s viewpoint and, ideally, to insist that anyone who disagrees with you is a Fascist. Also to insist that everything is everyone’s fault, but your own. Well, maybe it really is someone else’s fault, but at some point you have to take responsibility for your own life regardless of your circumstances and try to make a difference by engaging constructively with other people. Or maybe I’m too self-critical to blame Society for everything wrong in my life.

I’m still struggling to know what to do with my writing. E says that she can see improvements in my fiction from my first novel to my second (the one on hold because it was upsetting me). It’s also hard to stop thinking about writing, even though I’m trying to pause for a fortnight or so until the end of the year as my thoughts were getting to intense. I guess I feel that if I’m going to be able to make money from writing (a very, very big if), I need to do it soon, so I can help support the family when E and I are fully married or at least by the time we have children. That’s pretty unlikely to happen at this stage. It looks like we’re going to be dependent on parent money for quite a while, which saddens me, not least because of my comments about taking responsibility.

I’ve only been on Facebook for a month or two, and I have few friends or groups I’ve joined, but my feed is already full of junk, mostly adverts and other groups FB is trying to get me to join. I’m beginning to wonder if I’ve made a mistake. I am enjoying being on the Orthodox Conundrum group, but I’ve had no real interactions with people, so it seems unlikely I will make friends and I worry I’m just voicing my “issues” the way I did at Hevria.

I watched Ghostbusters again this evening. It’s my favourite film. I am actually revisiting the first two films because I’m hoping to watch the recent Ghostbusters: Afterlife soon (which I missed in the cinema as I’ve been too scared to go since COVID), but it was probably a good choice as I was feeling down. I always find funny lines I’ve forgotten since my last viewing, although I could probably recite chunks of the film more or less off by heart. I enjoyed it, but seeing something written, acted, directed and even scored so perfectly made me despair of ever producing any good art. Aren’t films supposed to get worse when you’ve seen them ten times? Neil Gaiman says that we read so much more than we write that we’re super-critical of our own writing, which is probably true, and applies to all stories, not just books.

I should probably go to bed now. This post is short, but I kept procrastinating online, so I spent over an hour or so writing it. Unfortunately, I’ve now discovered that every Dilbert cartoon since it started in 1989 is online…

Excursions, No Alarms

I started reading Dune a few days ago and read it to relax before bed yesterday evening rather than watching Doctor Who. It’s good, but not an easy read. There is a glossary of fictional words at the back, but I don’t like to keep turning to it and disrupting the flow of the novel, instead using it just for what seem like key words and working out the rest from context or just letting them go. The world-building is extremely complex, more so than anything I could write. This is positive, but intimidating. The fact that the book (the first three Dune novels in one volume) is too big to take to read on public transport means that it will take twice as long to read as the average novel even without the complexity, as I usually do a lot of my reading on public transport.

I got up later than I intended this morning and was tired. I miss sleeping on E’s sofa, where my sleep seemed more refreshing than in my bed in London, although it was probably more proximity to E and the absence of work in New York that made the difference. On which note, I’m still waiting for my sleep study results.

This morning, instead of going to volunteering, I went for my appointment with the psychiatrist to speak about reducing my medications. Except when I got there, I was told there was no record of my parents changing the appointment date (from 9 January) while I was away. They said something about a doctor having left and I wondered if someone was going to see me out of hours from kindness. The receptionist said appointments for new referrals (which I am, having been discharged years ago) are at 9.30am and 1.00pm and never at 12.00pm which was when mine was supposed to be. It’s yet another awful NHS incident. I hope I never have to see a proctologist on the NHS, as I don’t think an NHS employee could find their backside with both hands. I do at least still have my 9 January appointment, but I’m annoyed to miss volunteering, especially as I will be missing two or three consecutive sessions in a few weeks as I’ll have to rearrange my work days around the winter bank holidays and then so that I can go to the 9 January appointment.

I came home for lunch and went out again as I had a blood test in the afternoon. That at least went OK, except that when the needle went in, I suddenly got a stabbing pain in my forearm, a couple of inches below where the needle was, which continued until after the blood had been taken. I’m not sure what caused this (psychosomatic?). By this stage, the snow had largely turned to ice and I slipped twice on the way to and from the hospital, but didn’t fall over. I went into some charity shops. I bought the complete BBC Chronicles of Narnia on DVD for £4 as I knew that E wants to watch it. I also picked up the DVD of Donnie Darko, as it’s a film I vaguely feel I should watch and there seems to be a copy in every single charity shop in the country, like the universe wants me to buy it. I nearly bought Vasily Grossman’s novel Life and Fate, which I sort of want to read, but I decided my reading list is long enough, and my mood low enough, as it is right now without adding a thousand page book about the Battle of Stalingrad.

My Torah study today was mostly listening to the latest Orthodox Conundrum podcast while walking to and from different appointments. It was on Rabbi Sacks’ Jewish philosophy, with Dr Tanya White and Rabbi Dr Samuel Lebens, two of my favourite contemporary Jewish educators. They spoke about Rabbi Sacks’ communitarianism. This appeals to me, but I struggle to be community-minded with social anxiety and autism, which impair socialising. Then again, I do volunteer, and I do a job that is inherently socially worthwhile, even though my role is mostly paperwork. Is this enough? I don’t know. I do feel disconnected from shul (synagogue) and real world contact with other religious Jews, especially since COVID. Am I wholly or partially exempt because of my “issues”? I don’t know. Maybe there isn’t an easy answer. It did occur to me that I study Torah from a Jewish perspective, through Jewish texts and commentaries rather than just from my own thoughts, so that’s a kind of communal connection, albeit more with dead people than living ones.

I worked on plotting my novel. However, I feel frustrated by having to do so much planning, and that so much of it is so difficult. I do feel that my satirical dystopian thriller is likely to be a failure as a satire, as science fiction and as a thriller, but I do want to persevere with it for myself, if only to see how it turns out. I do feel at the moment that I will probably never be a published fiction writer, but I’m trying to accept that. It’s frustrating as I feel the things I want to say exceed my ability to say them. I’ve been told I’m a good writer on more than one occasion, but there’s good writers and there’s good writers. My sister used to be a talented amateur artist, and my parents have three of her paintings on the wall, but I don’t know if she could sell any of them, certainly not for enough to justify the time spent on them, which was probably a lot less than the time I would spend writing a novel. I do feel a little envious that my parents’ friends can see and admire the paintings whereas my writing is harder to casually show off (although one of my parents’ friends did buy and apparently read and enjoy my non-fiction Doctor Who book).

That said, I do feel a sort of general pessimism at the moment, some worry and frustration about when E’s visa will come and general feelings of inadequacy. A couple of conversations, in blogs and the real world, lately have hinged on the idea of how one copes with feeling inadequate compared with other people’s achievements, which in my sake would include people with children, successful careers and comfort and respect in where they stand in the Jewish community. I try not to be bitter or envious, but it is hard sometimes knowing that to some extent I’ve been set up to fail by my autistic genes and my childhood and adolescent experiences. However, there really is very little I can do about it at the moment, so I try not to think about it too much. I also wish I knew why I was here on Earth so I could get some sense of whether I’m doing what I’m supposed to do or not, but there’s no real way of knowing.

I also feel vaguely nervous about chatan (marriage) class tomorrow without really being sure why except for it being a late night before a work day, and the embarrassment if the teacher offers me a lift home again – not driving is another thing to feel inadequate about. I suppose a lot of it comes from feeling I know a lot of what I’m being taught, but I’m too shy to make that clear, and also that I struggle to contribute to the class, in both cases because of social anxiety and autistic communication issues.

Exhaustion and Leaving Home

On Thursday evening E was out for Thanksgiving, so we Skyped early, as soon as I got home from work, and for less time than usual. This did at least allow me more time for writing in the evening. I had a fairly unhurried evening and finished reading Accidental Presidents.

This didn’t stop me being completely exhausted again on Friday. I dreamt I was running late for Shabbat (the Sabbath), and when I woke up, I was. Tintin was in the dream too for some reason.

I dealt with an annoying NHS issue (yet another one). I had to phone to confirm that I would take the psychiatrist appointment they offered me, which would mean changing work days and probably missing volunteering that week, all because I was worried that if I didn’t take it, I would have to wait until February or later for another appointment. I also told them that I had noticed that both the letters they sent me recently had a letter for someone else at the bottom. It was actually another letter on another sheet, but I assume it was at the bottom of the file if it ended up on two different letters. At first they thought I was saying the letter was addressed to the wrong person and asked how I ended up with it, but I hope I clarified that my address was correct, they just added someone else’s details at the bottom, a breach of data protection. It’s like they haven’t got enough ways to mess stuff up in the natural order of things, so they have to invite new things to mess up. (They also spelt my very common first name wrong on both letters too, but I’ll graciously let that slide.) Now I’m worried they’re going to hold on to the words “mistake” and “address” and assume my address is wrong and send the letters somewhere else, probably to the person whose letter was sent with mine. That letter was about an appointment over a year ago, so goodness knows if that person heard in time. I’m imagining that letter and confidential information being sent out to random people for over a year now.

I did my pre-Shabbat chores in time and went to shul (synagogue). I was pretty exhausted by the time shul ended, but I waited for Dad and then walked home slowly with him and his friend, when I should have just gone home immediately. I was exhausted enough when I got home that I lay down for half an hour before dinner, which wasn’t particularly good. I did about an hour of heavy Torah study (Talmud and The Guide for the Perplexed), but it took more than an hour to do it, as I kept having to stop for breaks. Because of this, I had little time for recreational reading.

I started reading Science Fiction: The Best of 2001, an anthology I picked up in a second-hand bookshop last time I was in New York (that’s 2001 the year, not the Stanley Kubrick film/Arthur C. Clarke novel), but the first story was one of those stories that starts in mitten drinnen (that’s Yiddish for in medias res) with no indication of where or when the story is set, what all the technology mentioned does, who the protagonist is and so on. That’s not a problem per se, but I was too tired to cope with it, so I stopped after a couple of pages and had an earlyish night (with disturbing dreams).

Recent events have made me feel that I am (finally) ready to leave home. It’s just too much masking and coping with my parents’ conversation being so different to mine as some other things I won’t go into here. It occurred to me that some of my thoughts about being different and no one being interested in what I have to say come from growing up with my family as much as from school experiences. I seem to be able to talk to E and my friends OK.

I nearly fell asleep after lunch as I lay down for forty minutes or so. I probably would have fallen asleep had I not known that I had limited time to daven Minchah (say Afternoon Prayers) and eat seudah shlishit (the third Sabbath meal, which is very much a token thing at this time of year as it’s so soon after lunch). I did a little Torah study, but tried not to push myself too hard. That said, after Shabbat was over, I spent hours doing various chores, so I didn’t get time to relax again (or to write), although I do have less to worry about doing tomorrow now other than packing. I probably do prioritise doing chores and important-seeming things over relaxing, which is probably bad for autistic exhaustion. I do wonder what will happen if I can’t improve my energy levels after marriage.

I was going to write some reflections here on the medical and social models of disability and why I think they break down with autism, but I’m too tired now. It’s pretty much midnight, so I ought to go to bed.

Demons

I feel rather down today. Shabbat (the Sabbath) started OK. The good news I had yesterday was a job agency wanting to put my name forward for a librarian job. I need to update my CV and say yes. So that put me in a good mindset. I coped with shul (synagogue) despite the SHOUTING chazzan (cantor). I did some Torah study, including Talmud study after dinner, but ran out of time to do much recreational reading.

Today was much worse. Mum and Dad were out for lunch, which inevitably meant my getting up and getting dressed even later than usual. I spent a lot of time today in bed with the duvet and weighted blanket wrapped around me, trying to feel calm and comforted. I had lunch by myself, which was fine (I read about the last days of Franklin Roosevelt and the surprising unpreparedness of Harry Truman in Accidental Presidents), but across the day as a whole, my mood went down, with some loneliness, low mood (depression-low, although hopefully not lasting long enough to be depression) and missing E and fear that I’m not going to get that good new job as I haven’t worked in the library sector properly for years and have all kinds of gaps on my CV. I didn’t do much Torah study, and then Shabbat was over just after 5pm. And I have a headache that is resisting medication.

***

After Shabbat, I checked email and worried I’d upset someone with my political views. I would much rather hide my thoughts than express myself and risk upsetting people with different views. I suspect this is not considered acceptable these days of extreme individualism and self-expression, but maybe it would be better if more people did it. However, I see things that are wrong in the world, and I want to protest. I don’t really think most people can actually change the world (another unacceptable view), so I’d rather keep my friends, but there is a “demon” inside me (metaphorically; I’m neither a kabbalist nor a psychotic) that makes me want to write “edgy” or “provocative” things in whichever community I find myself, whether sexual material in the Orthodox world or anti-woke material in the wider UK mediascape where the Left does indeed have a monopoly on satire. Not that I really think of myself as “right-wing” (ugh) or even “conservative” in the way most people use the term. Maybe I just want to be sui generis. Either way, if I write anything I feel I’ll offend people. But I desperately need to write and am suffering from not being able to do so right now!

(As an aside, I had a friend at secondary school who was very clever, but also very lazy and badly behaved. He loved to mock or joke around. In retrospect, he may have been neurodiverse himself. I suddenly find myself wondering if this is how he felt, wanting to say stuff just because “Everyone” says you shouldn’t say it?)

There is a further problem that my satirical novel is not really ready to start writing yet. It probably needs a whole new plot (I haven’t had either time or courage to look at my notes). I may need to do research, although I’m in two minds about that. It’s not going to be detailed, realistic satire like Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister, but dystopian-science fiction-black comedy, inspired by things like Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World, Gulliver’s Travels, lots of Philip K. Dick novels, maybe the Blade Runner films, Brazil (the Terry Gilliam film), V for Vendetta (the style, but not the content), The Prisoner and Doctor Who stories like The Macra Terror, The Happiness Patrol and The Beast Below.

***

My biggest negative thought recently (going on for some weeks now, but particularly the last two days), is feeling that my autism has stopped me from being socialised into the frum (religious Jewish) community. There’s a LOT I could say here, but I’ll mention that autism, and related social anxiety stemming from autism-related bullying, made me skip all the experiences that socialise teenagers in the Anglo-Jewish community into the Jewish and frum worlds:  shul youth services, youth movements, Israel tour and yeshivah (not going to yeshivah was because of a whole bunch of reasons mostly unrelated to autism, but I think autism would have made it damaging for me if I had gone). I then had a weird relationship with the Jewish Society at university, until my breakdown/burnout when I moved away from it. I then struggled to find a way into the community as a young adult (twenties and thirties) dealing with depression, social anxiety and undiagnosed autism, feeling that I wasn’t able to talk to people at social events and increasingly reluctant to try.

I’ve never had many frum friends, although I have a couple. I find it hard to socialise at Kiddush and other community social events, because there’s too much background noise so I can’t hear words properly. I used to leave kiddush after five minutes or so; then someone criticised me for that, and for not going to shul much in the morning (which is due to social anxiety and possibly a sleep disorder). Then COVID hit, and I got my autism diagnosis. Whether it’s an effect of COVID and being isolated for so long, or of being diagnosed and more conscious of my needs, or just of getting older (there is anecdotal evidence undiagnosed autistics’ tolerance for noise and people declines with age), I now find being in big rooms with lots of people (or even just a few people) being noisy very difficult and am less inclined to put myself into those situations. But it’s hard to be part of the frum world without going to shul regularly, particularly for a man.

Lately, I find it harder and harder to go to shul, because of the noise and people. I think this fuels my social anxiety. There have been times during my burnout when I’ve stopped going to shul completely, which I suspect was autism-influenced, although it was before my diagnosis. Of course, there was a period of several years when I went to shul daily, or several times a day, led services and gave drashot (Torah classes) and I would like to move back towards being in that place, but I think it was the result of a number of circumstances that are hard to replicate now. I wish I could make lightning strike twice in this area, but I’m not sure how.

I honestly don’t know what I could do to make things better for me, though. I spoke to a rabbi about it over a year ago and I think he was frustrated that I didn’t have any practical suggestions for change, but I find it hard to think what would make things easier for me, let alone how to make them materialise.

I would like to post this somewhere, but I don’t know where. I think the autism forum would not understand it, and might use it to make anti-religious points. I don’t know if it’s appropriate to post it to the Orthodox Conundrum group. The Jewish autism groups I belong to are small and don’t post much, and I haven’t really introduced myself on them, so I’m scared what the result would be of posting out of the blue.

***

This doesn’t really fit anywhere in this post, but Virgin Atlantic got back to me and I don’t think they can offer me any help at the airport beyond the sunflower “invisible disabilities” lanyard and their own invisible disabilities sign. Again, I want things to be different, and maybe they could be, but if I can’t articulate them, they won’t happen.

***

I feel like I wasted the whole evening writing this post, and I still didn’t really express what I want to say. It’s horrible not really knowing what I feel half the time, let alone being able to put it into words (when I’m supposedly hyper-literate and good with words).

Sigh. Politics is a bore, autism is a bore, writing is not a bore, but feeling impelled to write things that I am more than a little suspicious of myself is a bore. And headaches are a bore.

Going to watch Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life for a bit, then interrupt and try to do some of the chores I set for myself to do tonight and which I haven’t started yet, if I can, then finish the film and try not to go to bed too late.

Wedding Fair

I went to shul (synagogue) on Friday night. I’m trying to get there early, as I got fed up of always being late, and am trying to ‘centre’ and calm myself before services these days (this generally doesn’t work if I’m in a shul, as everyone is talking loudly until right up to the start of the service). On the way in, I saw Rabbi L, the rabbi of the shul, and the rabbi E and I have asked to marry us. He said he would like to catch up with me, then said something else I didn’t hear as he was walking away from me. This left me with mild anxiety throughout the service that he would want to talk to me afterwards. He dashed off after the service, so I emailed him today with details of where we are with the visa and wedding situation. Hopefully this was all he wanted.

I had some anxiety in general over Shabbat because of things going on at home. I am really ready to move out and live with E, scary though that sounds when I’ve spent most of my life either living at home or in the sheltered environment of Oxford. The exception was about two years where I lived by myself, but I used to go home for Shabbat (Sabbath) most weeks, so it wasn’t entirely independent.

I slept too much again and had a slight headache after Shabbat, so I didn’t do as much stuff as I’d wanted to do on Saturday night.

Today I went to a Jewish wedding and bar/bat mitzvah fair with my parents. When we got into the hotel where it was being held, I was immediately hit by the loud music.  A DJ or singer was advertising himself very loudly. I wish someone had told him to turn it down. My whole experience there was overload, from the music, the people, the expectation to speak and my lack of knowledge of organising or even going to parties. My parents did most of the talking, not least because I could barely hear anything or think of even basic stuff to say. This was good, because I don’t know what would have happened if I’d gone by myself (I would probably have just picked up some business cards and left without talking to anyone), but bad because I think people wondered why I wasn’t much/anything. I was wearing my invisible disability sunflower lanyard, so maybe people thought I was deaf or had some other issue (I mean, I did have another issue). My parents are organising an anniversary party for themselves, so they did have a reason to be there independently of me.

It was worth going overall, but it made me wonder how I went so many years without being diagnosed autistic. I guess I used to think that I didn’t like loud music because I didn’t like the genre of music or music in general, or that I didn’t like busy places because of social anxiety rather because of sensory overload. My parents and I spoke about my uncle’s wedding, when I was six. I really hated the party and for decades afterwards everyone assumed I was in a foul mood and determined to make everyone’s life miserable. Now of course we know that I was probably suffering social and sensory overload, as well as confusion about what happens at parties and frustration from not knowing when it would end. At my sister’s wedding in 2017, we were prepared and made sure there was a quiet room for me to go to when it got too much.

Someone at the fair thought that I was still at university! This was because of my Oxford-related email address (not an actual university one, but it looks like it). I guess I was flattered that I look twenty years younger than I am. It’s thought that autistic people often look young; it’s speculated that we show our emotions on our faces much less than allistics (non-autistics), so we don’t wrinkle as much.

I went for a run when I got home and got an exercise headache again. Between the headache and the fair, I didn’t do much else, although I did have a longer-than-usual Skype call with E, talking largely about wedding plans. I only managed a little over ten minutes of Torah study, which is disappointing. I did no work on my novel aside from a few minutes of research reading, and few of the long list of chores I wanted to get through today.

I tried to see if I could get help at the airport when I go to New York because of my autism, but I couldn’t find anything for autism, only for physical disabilities. I was looking for help navigating the airport with sensory overload, sometimes leading to difficulties hearing what staff are saying, as someone on the autism forum says he manages to get help (of course, he may have a physical disability too for all I know).

It’s got very late, but I feel I need to watch some TV to unwind after an overloading day, otherwise I won’t sleep and/or will be in a bad state tomorrow.

Cause Without a Rebel

There’s been some anxiety hanging around over the last few days, partly around social media use and whether I should try to make friends on it, if I just make a fool of myself trying to connect with people, if we’ll argue about politics and so on. When I went back on Facebook, I intended to use it mainly for groups to avoid this kind of drama, but I guess inevitably as I get to know people in groups, I will want to connect with them outside the groups.

Another worry is that I feel I want to get to a place where my life is ‘sorted’ and stable, at least for a while, but that may never happen. At least I have E, even if she is on another continent at the moment, but I want my life to be stable so our life together will be stable and easier for her, but I think we both have too many ‘issues’ for that. I just feel that E is having to sacrifice so much for me that I just want to make things easier for her.

Shabbat (the Sabbath) was OK, but not great. I got to shul on Friday night for the first time in a couple of weeks. I was feeling somewhat down, not literally clinical depression, but colloquially depressed. I spent a lot of time in bed, as usual, not just at night/morning, but after shul (synagogue) on Friday night and again after breakfast this morning and twice in the afternoon. Going to bed was more seeking autistic sensory comfort than from tiredness; I wrap myself in my duvet and/or weighted blanket and/or curl up in the foetal position and it calms me down.

I spent a lot of time (in bed and outside it) thinking about autism, disability, autistic superpowers and whether I would be better off without being autistic and this probably contributed to the depressed feeling. I know I’ve written about this before, but I just can’t share the view that autism is merely a difference or even a strength and that the only struggles from being autistic come from the supposed “ableism” of society. In the end, I concluded there were too many variables to meaningfully describe what my life would be like without autism, and that God clearly wants me to be autistic. Even so, without knowing what my mission in life is, what He wants me to accomplish by being autistic, it is hard to work out if my focus should be on paid work, writing or religious obligations.

I really missed E a lot too.

Other than that, I ate far too many pretzels (the little kind) and probably too many biscuits (although not nearly as many as the pretzels) and had a very mild, but persistent headache intermittently from Friday night until an hour or so ago.

After Shabbat, I discovered I had a begging letter from the University of Oxford again, this time from the History Faculty (my BA was in History). I get them every so often, because even Oxford, the oldest university in the English-speaking world and one of the most prestigious and highly-rated, has money trouble (within reason. A lot of the colleges are vast landowners and completely loaded). To be fair, the cause they wanted to raise money for is worthwhile (to increase access for students from poor backgrounds), but I had a miserable time at Oxford and prefer to send my money (a) elsewhere and (b) to causes that are more ‘life and death’ e.g. food for refugees or those on the breadline. But getting these begging letters just reminds me that I went to Oxford and I should therefore now be a super-successful, super-rich hot-shot lawyer, politician or high-ranking civil servant and not a poor, part-time office administrator. It’s sad that, so many years after making me more miserable than I have ever been in my life (I very nearly attempted suicide), Oxford is still making me miserable.

Other than that, I’ve spent too long this evening writing this post and reading autistic forum and autistic relationship FB group posts, and I’m not entirely sure why. Something about trying to connect with people and understand myself as well as deal with fears that being autistic means not being able to manage relationships. I don’t think this is the case, but it’s disturbing to read, on two different forums (fora!), two different people talking about essentially being verbally and emotionally abused by their autistic partner, who says everything they do wrong is down to autism and therefore (they argue) beyond reproach.

On one forum someone wrote about getting meltdowns from, “seeing everything in great details, hearing every minute sound at the same level, pretending to be happy when inside they are dying and not liking the fake people surrounding them, smelling everything that each person has used in bodycare/fragrance/hair products etc, feeling exhausted from the pointless chat about weekends to a point where disassociation happens, feeling like people training you are talking but you can’t hear it because you feel so stressed and in shock that your mind cannot connect” and more. I’ve experienced some of this, but I don’t really get meltdowns. Very rarely I get panic attacks that probably verge on meltdowns, but I haven’t had one since knowing more about autism to be sure.

I wonder why I don’t get meltdowns when so many autistic people do. Not that I want them, but not getting them reinforces the feelings I still occasionally get that I’m not “really” autistic, or that I’m not autistic “enough” to justify the work and social problems I have. Maybe I’m just good at masking and then end up burnt out. I do get shutdowns, but, again, not as bad as some people get.

***

A couple of thoughts from things I’ve been reading/listening to lately:

Both a devar Torah (Torah thought) I read from Rabbi Lord Sacks z”tzl and an Orthodox Conundrum podcast about Rav Shagar z”tzl spoke about parents and the need to differentiate from them, and then later to realise how much you have in common with them and how much you are indebted to them.

As a teenager, I never really tried to rebel. I just spent all my time in my room, working and driving myself to a breakdown/burnout. But I didn’t have much in common with my parents either. Now I find it can be hard to find common ground with them. Some of this is living at home into my late thirties, some is being autistic with allistic (non-autistic) parents and some is me having classic “first generation to go to university” differences from them. Some is probably my being more religious and more Jewishly-educated, which often creates a dynamic where my parents look to me for Jewish education and halakhic (Jewish law) guidance. There’s a Jewish saying that when a parent teaches a child, both laugh, but when a child teaches a parent, both cry, and I feel that a bit sometimes. I’m not sure how to explain it to anyone who hasn’t experienced it. I had a psychiatrist who said that I never really bonded with my parents as a child and therefore could not rebel as a teenager, and now I can’t separate properly from them which is probably true. It’s only with marrying E that I’m really trying to move away from home. I did live in my own flat for two years when my OCD was bad, but I deliberately lived within walking distance of my parents’ house and I used to come home for Shabbat. I don’t know what I can do about this at this stage.

***

On the same Orthodox Conundrum podcast, R’ Zachary Truboff spoke about Rav Shagar thinking that the problem with Orthodoxy is that it’s Orthodox: i.e. that, as a society, it’s driven by what other Orthodox people think is appropriate, not by what God wants. He said there are things that are against halakhah and ethics that do not lead to people getting thrown out of the Orthodox community (he didn’t say what, but tax and benefits fraud spring to mind). He didn’t mention, but could have, that there are things that aren’t violations of halakhah or ethics, but which can get you thrown out of the community all the same (this varies from one community to another, but in some communities for a teenager to talk to someone of the opposite might fall in this category, or even refusing to marry a particular person in some communities). I think this is my biggest struggle with the Orthodox community. Aside from the moral aspects of this, being on the autism spectrum means I’m OK with clear rules (halakhah), but bad at intuiting, let alone following, unspoken social conventions.

***

Anyway, my parents are noisily watching No Time to Die, the latest James Bond film, in the room below me, which is a bit distracting as I can hear incidental music and bangs. I wasn’t tempted to re-watch it with them, as, while technically accomplished, I found the film overlong, confusing and too sad. James Bond isn’t supposed to be sad! I much prefer the supposedly “silly” Roger Moore films. I could probably find ten reasons why the much-maligned Moonraker is a great film, not in “so bad it’s good,” but actually good.

Grief and Autistic Halakhah

Being away from E seems to be getting harder and harder. It feels just as bad as when my loneliness was at it’s worst, except focused on one person rather than an abstract desire for a relationship. Hopefully her visa will come soon…

***

I’m still thinking about Ashley, but not quite so much, although I don’t know how much of that was being distracted by other stressors. I’m reluctant to say much here, as it feels vaguely like I’m appropriating pain that should really belong to her family. I felt some other guilt too. I’m not sure I can remember all of it, but some of it was feeling guilty that I’ve been more affected by Ashley’s death than those of my grandparents. I feel that that’s wrong, that the death of my grandparents should have affected me more. The two aren’t exactly comparable, though. My grandparents were quite old, mostly in their eighties. It was sad when they died, but it didn’t have the tragic aspect of young death, or suicide.

Another factor is that, in a strange way, I feel I didn’t know all my grandparents in an adult way, in the way I knew Ashley, even though I was sixteen when the first of my grandparents to die passed away and had known them all my life. They were just there, like my parents.

My paternal grandmother died when I was sixteen and about the same time my maternal grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s (the symptoms had been there for quite a while, but from this point on it became very noticeable). I feel like I didn’t know them as an adult, only as a child. I remember my paternal grandmother as very anxious and I didn’t really understand why (or is that an adult interpretation? Did I just accept it at the time?). I think I would better understand her depression, anxiety and agoraphobia (all unspoken of at the time) now.

I felt that I was only beginning to get to know my maternal grandfather when he died when I was nineteen, a few months after my maternal grandmother. I felt like he had begun to talk to me more as an adult in the last few years and suddenly that stopped. I did know my paternal grandfather rather better as he died when I was nearly twenty-seven. But I think in retrospect it’s my maternal grandfather I think of more often. Since my autism diagnosis, my parents have speculated that he was on the spectrum too, so maybe that explains why he felt more comfortable talking to me than his children about his past.

Episodes of depression/burnout followed in the months after the deaths of my grandparents, but in retrospect, I’m not sure that there was a causal link, except perhaps the death of my maternal grandfather, as the depression really did follow in just a few weeks. The others were more spaced out.

Another factor is that, when most of my grandparents died, I was still very emotionally immature. I know I write about my feelings most days now, but in my teens and twenties, I really didn’t understand what I felt and couldn’t put it into words, even more so than nowadays. It’s taken years of therapy and, I suppose, blogging, to get to a point where I can begin to understand what’s going on in my head.

Anyway, I managed to get an appointment with my therapist for this week, so hopefully it will help to be able to talk about these feelings.

***

Away from this, further guilt came when J said that I asked for three days off later this year to go to New York to see E, but I only had two days of holiday left. I felt bad about this, although I think the confusion came because he’s rounded down my number of holiday days, given that my contract didn’t start until February whereas the holiday year started in January. Even so, I felt vaguely bad for not realising. I made loads of these terms of work mistakes at my job in further education and still feel embarrassed. I think HR must have hated me. Taking one day less holiday doesn’t affect my plans, I will just have to work the day before I fly instead of packing.

***

J sent me to Selfridges to try to get some duplicate keys cut. Selfridges seemed more crowded than I was comfortable with (although probably less crowded than it should have been, less than two months before Christmas; I guess people are not spending on luxuries). I had one of those moments when I think that everyone I see is a human being with their own thoughts and emotions and I freak out a bit. I don’t know why this happens. Aside from the crowd, the muzak drove me crazy. Different parts of the store were playing different music and I could hear bits of different songs at once in painful aural mush. I don’t think this is an autism thing so much as a ‘having taste’ thing. When I finally found the key-cutting stall, I struggled to hear the assistant over the shoe repair machinery, but they didn’t have the right size blank keys to cut the new ones. I will probably have to go elsewhere on Thursday

The whole experience left me feeling overwhelmed and near to tears. I feel like I used to be able to cope with experiences like this (I used to commute into town on the Tube and buses every school day at rush hour!), but no longer can. Some of it may be getting older (it is a recognised phenomenon that autistic people become less able to cope with sensory overload and less able to mask their autistic symptoms as they get older), but I wonder if COVID lockdown has eroded my tolerance for these things, along with boosting my social anxiety? Or if I recognise the overwhelm more since my diagnosis.

Similarly, when I stayed after work for Minchah and Ma’ariv at the shul (Afternoon and Evening Prayers at the synagogue), I felt overwhelmed even though there were only fifteen or so people in the Beit Midrash (not a huge room, but not tiny either). Is this social anxiety or autistic overwhelm?

I was still feeling overwhelmed when I got home, but not light-headed, perhaps because I ate an apple in the office mid-afternoon and a cereal bar after Ma’ariv. I used to eat on the way home from work, but COVID has scared me off eating on the Tube.

***

Between Minchah and Ma’ariv, the rabbi quickly taught a halakhah (Jewish law). What it was isn’t relevant, but he took the mundane nature of the halakhah in question as an example for halakhah (in the wider sense of the Jewish legal system) being all-encompassing and supportive no matter what happens, that it “has our back” in his words.

I did not feel 100% comfortable with this. I do not feel that halakhah always has my back. I feel that there’s a lot I should be doing, according to halakhah, that I can’t cope with right now or perhaps ever because of my social anxiety and autism. I feel I would need an “autistic halakkah” to help me.

A while back I heard that Rabbi Yoni Rosensweig has set up an institute to try to train more rabbis in mental health awareness so that they will be able to respond to people with mental illness more effectively. He has also published a book of answers to halakhic questions regarding mental illness. I feel that someone needs to do the same thing for neurodiversity.

***

The other day Suzanne said that my life is interesting. My immediate thought was that my life isn’t interesting, so it must just be the way I write about it. Then I realised that I was in a low self-esteem double bind: either my life is interesting or my writing is interesting! I’m not sure what I think about this (just kidding).

More Disrupted Sleep, LinkedIn, and Ashley

Shabbat (the Sabbath) was OK. I felt ill on Friday evening and didn’t go to shul (synagogue). I was light-headed again and had a bit of a headache, but I think it was side-effects from the flu jab I had on Thursday rather than work stress.

Mum and Dad’s conversation at dinner exhausted me again. Their conversation is usually small talk, generally about work, shul, their friends or football. I don’t have much to say about most of that, but Dad was trying to bring me into the conversation again. I’m not sure why he’s started doing that recently. He doesn’t really get that I struggle to engage with this conversation and I don’t like being asked questions to which he already knows the answers to just to bring me in. I prefer just to tune out, but I probably shouldn’t say that. I don’t know why I’m struggling with this more now than in the past. It’s probably partly Dad trying to engage me, but also because I’m impatient to live with E and have conversations about things that interest both of us.

I guess dinner at the moment reminds me on some level of my childhood, when I was called an “intellectual elitist” for trying to have deeper conversations and using words no one else understood (I didn’t know they didn’t understand). It’s partly the familiar syndrome of university-educated children from families that have not had access to higher education ending up on a different level to their parents and struggling to communicate, but also the issue of children with autism communicating differently to their neurotypical families and also being intensely interested in certain subjects and boring people with constant talk about them as well as being less interested in, and able to engage in, small talk.

After this I was tired, but did some Torah study. I managed some Talmud study, which I was pleased with, especially as it was a new page (I study each page three times: the first is really to get myself familiar with the subject and vocabulary, on the second I begin to understand better and by the third I usually have a reasonable understanding, at least on a basic level). I re-read bits of Jewish Meditation by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, but it didn’t elaborate on the things I had heard about on a podcast last week.

After this, about 11pm, I fell asleep, fully dressed and on top of the bed. I slept until about 3.30am. This is a bad habit I seem to be getting into, as if my sleep wasn’t disrupted enough as it is. I got into my pyjamas, but decided I needed some relaxation time and read more of Flowers for Algernon before going to sleep again.

I slept through most of the morning, then fell asleep again after lunch. I got up in time for Minchah (Afternoon prayers) (at home, I didn’t go to shul). I probably won’t be able to sleep on Shabbat afternoons after the clocks go back tonight. I read The Guide for the Perplexed for a bit – the translator’s introduction; I still haven’t got to the actual text. After half an hour, this got too heavy-going, and the print was too small, so I switched to Judges: The Perils of Possession by Rabbi Michael Hattin, from the Maggid Koren Tanakh series.

After dinner I checked my blog list and heard that Ashley Peterson, frequent commenter here, had died (see below). This brought my mood down. When I had dinner, I tried to finish reading Flowers for Algernon, which was a bad choice for my mood, but I just wanted to finish it; I was saving some comedy for later in the evening which I will definitely watch before bed, as I feel very depressed now. Unfortunately, Mum had the TV on, which made it hard to read (alternating between Strictly Come Dancing and The Chase, which were about the most distracting things it could have been, but anything would have distracted me really). I did finish the book after dinner.

I saw a post on the autism forum this evening from someone who says he’s suicidal because he’s lonely and still a virgin and has (in his opinion) no chance of changing any of this. I don’t think he gave his age, but I guessed twenties from a few things he wrote. I wanted to write something sympathetic, because I’ve been there, but also I’m nearly forty and kind of married and still a virgin, so it was hard to be fully sympathetic, especially as I’ve been missing E a lot recently, and I really wanted to say that thinking you have no hope for anything good in your life because you’re a twenty-something virgin is not clear thinking. In the end, I didn’t write anything; I decided the post was just triggering me because of missing E and thinking about Ashley’s death. I don’t think I can really help; not tonight, anyway. Then I found another post on the same forum by a twenty-five year old threatening suicide because he’s still a virgin. I feel I should be able to say something, but anything I say would be coming from a particular religious context and personal history context and probably won’t be helpful. I do think Western society places too much emphasis on sex and being sexually attractive. I’m glad the forum is moderated and the moderator posted links to crisis lines and the like.

***

LinkedIn keeps sending me emails to “connect” (equivalent of friend, follow, etc.) with my first girlfriend. Apparently we have a mutual connection, although I’m not sure who. I have no desire to connect with her. She does not work in any field that I am likely to work in. We parted on reasonably good terms, but I have not seen or heard from her for nine years and have no desire to do so. But there is no button for “Do not ask me again,” or “Block,” just one for “Connect.”

Seeing her photo or even her name sparks a load of strange and difficult feelings whenever LinkedIn sends me an email trying to connect me with her. It reminds me that she trampled over my boundaries about physical contact in our relationship and refused to support me with my mental health struggles the way I supported her in hers. There is more to say, but don’t think I should in public.

I don’t use LinkedIn much (at all, really – I only have twenty-three contacts, which is why I’m surprised I can’t work out who is the link with first girlfriend), but will probably have to if I try to set up as a freelance proof-reader, so I want to get it sorted.

***

This evening, I’ve been thinking a lot about Ashley Peterson. I knew her online for several years; I’m not sure how many, exactly, but quite a long time. She was one of the most frequent commenters on my blog.

I noticed recently that she hadn’t commented on my blog for a while, or anywhere else that I had seen, and certainly she hadn’t posted on her own blog for a while. I thought about emailing her, but she had said in the past that she gets got annoyed when people chase up on her when she’s depressed, as she doesn’t didn’t like the attention. So I didn’t do anything. Then a few days ago, two other bloggers emailed me in the space of about half-an-hour to ask if I’d heard from her. I said I hadn’t. We were all worried by that stage, and I think we guessed what happened (she’d been open about her depression worsening and having suicidal ideation), but didn’t want to say what we were thinking. None of us knew what to do.

Then after Shabbat, I saw that her family had posted on her blog that she had died. I wasn’t surprised, but I wasn’t sure what I did feel. Sad. Maybe numb. Then, quite a lot later, anger, not at her, but at other things, particularly those commenters on the autism forum.

I haven’t told my parents, I’m not sure why. They don’t know Ashley, but I should tell them I’ll be sad for a while. I should tell them before I go to bed. I can’t tell E for a bit, as it’s still Shabbat in New York. I feel like I want to cry writing this, and part of my brain says that’s crazy, as I didn’t know her that well (she was very private and I wouldn’t claim to be one of her closest blogging friends), but I feel I miss her already.

I don’t think a friend of mine has died before. I’ve lost friends to arguments or (more usually) drifting apart, but not through death.

I was thinking about what Ashley meant to me and I remembered a quote from the theologian and civil rights and anti-war protestor Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, that “Spiritual freedom means: flattering no one, neither oneself nor the world; not being subservient to anyone, neither to the self nor to society.”

I had actually posted that on my blog once, and she liked it. That’s how I think of her: independent, honest and vocal in speaking her mind, especially in the cause of justice.

Black Box

I did not have a good Shabbat (Sabbath). I felt too exhausted and ill to go to shul (synagogue). I feel exhausted from the Jewish festivals and that I’ve been on the go for months without a break (wedding, visa application, festivals and work disruption). Having dinner with my parents when drained can be difficult, as they make small talk the whole time and I often find it overwhelming, particularly if Dad starts asking me questions to try to “bring me into the conversation.” I haven’t really been able to explain to him that my brain is wired in a way that small talk is difficult and uninteresting for me.

After dinner I read the Chofetz Chaim on Pirkei Avot (Torah study) book for fifteen minutes and finished it, but then I fell asleep. I woke up around 2am. I was too tired to quickly get ready for bed and go back to sleep, which paradoxically meant that I began to wake up before I could get back to bed and I couldn’t sleep. I spent the next couple of hours reading, then fell asleep around 4am. Then I fell asleep again this afternoon, after lunch with my parents. Last Monday (Shmini Atzeret), they were out for lunch and I ate on my own, and I didn’t fall asleep afterwards, although I felt tired. I wonder if this is connected. I didn’t used to react like this. I feel like I’m becoming more autistic, which is impossible; more likely, I find it harder to mask and pass as allistic (non-autistic).

I felt very overwhelmed both when I woke up in the night and during the day today. I still felt tired and had loads of thoughts in my head about what I wanted to do, needed to do and so on. I managed very little Torah study and was glad that I managed to pray at all, although my kavannah (mindfulness in prayer) was rubbish.

After Shabbat, I looked at my existing To Do list, and the list of things that needed to go on the To Do list. Quite a lot of the existing tasks are long-term things related to the wedding that we can’t move forwards with until E gets her visa, so at least I don’t have to worry about them right now. There is still a lot to do, though, including sorting the whole tax situation from last week; booking at trip to New York; setting myself up as a proof-reader; and trying to get back into a regular pattern of exercising, novel researching and novel writing.

I miss E a lot too. Long-distance is hard.

***

I just posted the following on the autism forum, about the ‘Black Box’ that is the emotional part of my brain:

Does anyone else have alexithymia (difficulty understanding and describing their own emotions)? I do have emotions, but I often struggle to understand or describe them, especially if they’re subtle or conflicted. This has arguably been a problem when trying to access mental health services or even being aware of my slides into depression.

Some emotions are powerful enough to make their presence felt, particularly the terrible trio of depression, anxiety and despair, but others can be harder to feel. Even strong positive emotions can be hard to find; sometimes I have to look for practical evidence to prove that I really do love my family, because I’m not sure what I feel. A lot of the time I feel rather numb and blank, sometimes with a faint undertone of mild depression or mild anxiety.

My main way of processing emotions is through writing. I’ve written a journal-type blog most days since 2006 (excluding an eighteen month period where I stopped) and that helps me process the events of the day, as well as get feedback from my small, but supportive readership. This probably sounds strange, but sometimes I don’t really know how I feel about things until I write them down. I’ve tried private journaling, but somehow I need a sense of an audience, even a very small one, to give me the impetus to communicate. If I can’t write on one day for some reason, I tend to carry around all the thoughts of that day with me and feel a need to offload.

I write fiction to try to understand bigger emotions, including ones that I haven’t personally experienced. I’ve always read a lot too and I think that’s probably an attempt to learn about emotions, on some level. I guess I get that from TV and film too, although I find modern TV and film overwhelming in its amplified display of emotions sometimes, at least what I see of it (which isn’t much).

I would be interested to hear of anyone else who struggles with this, as it feels quite isolating sometimes, something that even other autistic people don’t experience. I would also like to know if anyone has tips or coping mechanisms.

***

Another thing I’ve been thinking about lately is how much my identity has become located at the intersection (to use an over-used and over-politicised, but useful, word) of autism and Orthodox Judaism. I feel like being autistic gives me struggles that allistic (non-autistic) Orthodox Jews don’t have, but being an Orthodox Jew gives me struggles that other autistic people don’t necessarily have, in terms of things I’ve described here about Judaism being such a social religion. I don’t know which I would consider my primary identity; I think both are pretty integral to who I am. I probably need to think about this some more to find practical solutions.

Precedented Times

I had a guilt dream last night about missing shul (synagogue) on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). As I had a migraine this year, I feel it was unjustified, although previous years are more ambiguous. Although arguably I shouldn’t be beating myself up for autistic exhaustion and social anxiety.

I got up early, but procrastinated, ran late and had to cut my curtailed Shacharit davening (Morning Prayers) even shorter. I woke up in a thunderstorm and was not happy about having to walk to the station in it. The thunder had stopped by the time I set out, but it was still raining heavily and the commute to work was uncomfortably wet.

It was a boring day without much going on. I sorted a lot of papers and wondered why I’m not better at this, given that I’m a librarian and should know how to organise data. On reflection, I thought that I’m not an archivist and what I’m doing is more like archival work than librarianship, even if both do involve organising bits of paper. Although I’m not sure it’s really archival work either. To be honest, I would really need to be a solicitor to know what to do with lots of legal documents and copies of documents. I worry about throwing away something important, then I worry that I’m just shuffling bits of paper from one box or shelf to another without getting rid of anything or really producing an ordered set of papers.

I keep coming home from work feeling physically ill. I was worried about walking home as I was feeling quite light-headed, but decided to be independent and try, which turned out OK, but might not have done. I think part of the problem is being unwilling to eat on the Tube on the way home post-COVID.

To try to deal with the anxious thoughts in my head, I started drawing up a long To Do list. This is in addition to the long one I already had, most of which is marginally less urgent at the moment. Sigh.

***

At work, there’s a room with inspirational quotes on the wall from Rabbi Lord Sacks z”tzl. One I saw today says that Judaism is not a religion of private communion of the soul with God, but of the life we build together. This is similar to something I said the other week (I may have been quoting unconsciously). It does make me wonder what happens, in a social-based religion, if you have a neurological disability that stops you connecting and communicating socially. I mean what happens from God’s point of view – does He give some kind of dispensation? How much stuff would a person be excused from? A number of famous rabbis are supposed to have stood up respectfully for people with severe intellectual disabilities, saying that they are serving God better, on their level, than those famous rabbis were. Likewise, blind people are exempt from many mitzvot (commandments) as it was traditionally hard for them to fulfil them with their disability. But where would you draw the line? I have social deficits, but I’m not the equivalent of blind or severely impaired, so how much leeway would I get? I know what happens from a practical point of view: all too often you end up getting left behind by the community.

***

Speaking of Rabbi Sacks, I reflected that if you look at my divrei Torah, and possibly my blog, the two biggest influences on my hashkafah (religious philosophy) are Rabbi Sacks and the Kotzker Rebbe  (Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk). They’re the thinkers I quote most often. I feel like Rabbi Sacks is the Maimonidean philosopher: calm, balanced, focused on moderation and building society. Whereas the Kotzker is the Romantic, the individualist and anti-establishment rebel, the radical pushing himself to the brink in his quest for truth and the authentic self. Possibly they don’t go together very well. Emotionally, I’m closer to the Kotzker, who may have had bipolar disorder and/or social phobia (undiagnosed as he died in 1859) and certainly spent the last nineteen years of his life not leaving his study, although current research suggests he wasn’t as self-isolated as was once thought.

The Kotzker is someone many people quote, but few people are interested in emulating. I wonder sometimes what he would have made of me, really what either of them would have made of me. I was in the same room as Rabbi Sacks on a couple of occasions, but never spoke to him, which I now regret, although I have no idea what I would have said or what kind of conversation might have resulted. I do feel a kind of inner tension represented by these two different religious guiding lights. I think there’s a similar dissonance in my political views too. I think I probably am someone torn apart by different intellectual currents and competing ideas and approaches to life.

***

I started reading Flowers for Algernon. I’ve known about it for years, but I didn’t want to read it, as I thought it sounded too sad. Then I thought that, as a famous science fiction novel, I “Should” read it, if I want to think of myself as a science fiction fan (I’m honestly not sure that I do, but that’s a subject for another time) so bought a second-hand copy for £1 in a charity shop, but it has sat on my shelf for many years, as I couldn’t bring myself to start it. Then I thought that, as I’m thinking a lot about my childhood and teenage years and my struggles to fit in with undiagnosed high-functioning autism/Asperger’s, maybe it would help. It might help with my feeling of having a much higher level of intellectual maturity than emotional maturity (which admittedly is probably less pronounced now than at any time since adolescence – after all, I’m managing a long-distance marriage at the moment). So, I started it the other day.

I have some qualms about the presentation of learning disabilities and the usual problem in fiction like this where intelligence is confused with knowledge, so someone whose intelligence is augmented suddenly becomes more literate, knowledgeable and worldly, which would not necessarily happen. Charlie is supposedly reading a lot of serious books very quickly, but even setting aside the time factor, to be reading Dostoyevski and the like so soon after being functionally illiterate would require a lot of mental scaffolding. I could also question whether the “illiterate” language of the early sections is how an actual functionally illiterate person would write (admittedly I’m only aware of this because it was a plot point in an Inspector Morse novel). I admit most of these flaws are necessary to get the plot moving and produce something readable; ultimately, it’s a novel, not a documentary.

So far, it’s made me think about bullying. It turns out that being bullied for not being clever feels pretty much the same as being bullied for being too clever by half; the taunts are different, but the feeling is the same. I’m glad I had some friends as a child, and I was probably lucky that my naivety wasn’t abused as much as it might have been.

The book makes me worry a bit about having children, though. I’ve been worrying about this lately anyway, as Adventuresofagradgirl commented on one of my recent posts asking what I thought about the likelihood of E and I having a child with autism, either moderate like myself or severe, which is a possibility at least, given that I’m on the spectrum and E has a number of autistic traits. We have discussed it a bit, as we do both want children (although this further assumes a lot of things we don’t know yet about our fertility and ability to cope with life). We are fairly positive about our chances of having high-functioning children, certainly with early intervention. I have met (online) a number of autistic parents, and most of them don’t have severely autistic children, but then, as I’ve said here before, “high-functioning” is a fluid and unhelpful term; people can function in some situations, or in some mindsets, and not in others. So it’s been lurking in the background as something I’d like to ignore, but shouldn’t.

Other than that, the book makes me feel sorry for myself, although I find it hard to say why exactly. While I haven’t suddenly gained intelligence, I have gained insight into myself in the last eighteen months and, like Charlie, I’m still applying that to my personal history and current social interactions.

***

I didn’t really want to talk politics, but I feel I have to say something. In September 2019, which seems like a lifetime ago, but was only about three years ago, The Daily Telegraph’s pocket cartoonist, Matt Pritchard, drew a cartoon of a man saying that “Sometimes I wish we could go back to living in precedented times.” And that was just during Brexit and Trump’s impeachment! We didn’t know how lucky we were! That was before the COVID, the Capitol Riot, Partygate, Ukraine, the death of the Queen and Liz Truss’ forty-four day premiership![1] And the possible return of Boris — it’s like a zombie film![2] I definitely want to go back to precedented times. Is Sir Keir Starmer the dull, charisma-free, nonentity Britain needs to drift aimlessly back to normality?

[1] The brief Truss administration also saw a situation where, for an “unprecedented” first time, none the four great offices of state (Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary) were held by a white man (white woman, black man, another black man, Asian woman). Strangely, the press is not terribly interested in this. Diversity doesn’t count when Tories do it.

[2] Boris, Trump, Netanyahu – why do none of these leaders know how to make a graceful exit?

No Man’s Land

The last two days were the end of the Jewish autumn festival season. I went to shul (synagogue) for Shmini Atzeret evening, but not subsequently. I felt stuck in No Man’s Land. I wasn’t doing weekday things, but I wasn’t going to shul, so it didn’t feel fully like Yom Tov (festival). I didn’t feel great, emotionally. I had some anxiety and guilt, not to a huge extent, but some. I missed E a lot and had a lot of thoughts and feelings that I guess are related to loneliness, about wanting to be part of a friendship group and not really knowing how to do it. I had a headache last night which didn’t help; I went to bed late, but then the headache started and got worse lying down, so I stayed up even later reading until the paracetamol I took kicked in.

Since Yom Tov finished a couple of hours ago my mood has got worse. There may be some anxiety about work tomorrow. I helped Dad started to take down the sukkah (although there’s still a lot to do). I had a lot of self-critical thoughts doing that and I’m not really sure where they came from, although I have a few ideas.

Because I wasn’t doing much else, I read a lot over the last two days, both religious and secular. I started The Guide for the Perplexed by Rambam (Maimonides), but haven’t finished the translator’s introduction yet. The translation is by Michael Friedländer and was made in 1881. The introduction is more critical of Rambam than a contemporary Orthodox translation would be, which is interesting (Friedländer was the Principal of Jews’ College, the Orthodox rabbinical college in the UK that eventually became the London School of Jewish Studies), but the print is tiny! I don’t think I could read it for long periods without a break. I also started the new annual Torah cycle, which always seems more exciting than when we’re stuck in the middle of Vayikra (Leviticus). Reading Bereshit (the first reading of the Torah, from the start of Genesis), I had an idea that is potentially worth expanding into a devar Torah (Torah thought), but I doubt I’ll get the time or energy this week. In terms of secular reading, I finished You Only Live Twice and read a lot of the latest Doctor Who Magazine.

Going back to religious reading, I also read more of the book of thoughts from the Chofetz Chaim (Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan) on Pirkei Avot (the volume of Talmud dealing with ethics). This book and its companion volume on the festivals are very “fire and brimstone,” which surprised me a bit. The Chofetz Chaim died less than a hundred years ago and it seems a little strange for his writing to seem so dated. To be fair he was very old when he died and was born in the 1838, which must have influenced his worldview. Even so, it feels like somewhere in the last generation or two there’s been a big change in the focus of “inspirational” religious material in the Orthodox world from, “You’re going to die and be punished, or even be punished before you die, so make sure you do what God wants” to “God loves you and just wants to do good things for you, so just make an effort to build a connection with Him so He can reward you.” It’s strange.

E and I have discussed it a lot. Is it the effect of the Holocaust, of the ba’al teshuvah (return to Orthodoxy) movement, of pop psychology and self-help culture, of the mainstreaming of 60s counter-culture? I don’t know. But when we do our parashah (weekly Torah reading) discussion each week, we often feel that the Torah is a “hard sell” to modern audiences. Obviously the Torah is 3,000 years old and we probably shouldn’t expect a text originally understood by Bronze Age tribes to resonate in a straightforward way with Millennials (not that either E or I are Millenials…), but for someone who lived just about within living memory to seem so dated is more surprising. For comparison, other authors who published in the year the Chofetz Chaim died include George Orwell, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, C.S. Lewis, W. B. Yeats, James Thurber, P. G. Wodehouse and H.P. Lovecraft. To be fair, the Chofetz Chaim lived in pre-Holocaust Eastern Europe, which was a world which doesn’t really exist any more, and which was not directly comparable to the Western Europe or American East Coast of the same era, but it’s a mistake to think that that world was so different to ours. There were plenty of non-religious Jews there too.

Simchat Torah Mini-Post

I feel just about OK coping with another two days of Yom Tov (festival), but overwhelmed when thinking about another work week disrupted by Yom Tov, with consecutive days working (and, yes,I know most people work consecutive days, but it makes me ill).

Someone posted on the Orthodox Conundrum about women being reduced to spectators in many Orthodox shuls (synagogues) on Simchat Torah. I agreed with the post, but also feel marginalised for different reasons, so I commented:

I agree. I’ve been to Orthodox shuls where women dance behind a mechitza, with a sefer Torah, and would like to see it as the norm.

If we’re going down the inclusivity route, as an autistic man with social anxiety, I find Simchat Torah a total nightmare. Generally I’m too paralysed with sensory overload and social anxiety to participate in any meaningful way and either stand watching, beating myself up about my inability to overcome my own disabilities, or I go home before the hakafot start. There was only really one year in my adult life when I really managed to participate in Simchat Torah. In recent years, I just don’t go to shul at all on that day as it’s too difficult for me. Definitely my least-favourite chag (along with Purim).

I was quite nervous about commenting, as I hadn’t commented in the group before. The comment got a like from Rabbi Kahn, who runs the group, and “hugging heart emoji” from the original poster, plus another one from someone else. I don’t know what that emoji means, exactly, but I guess it’s something like empathy/hugs. E thinks it’s a ‘care’ emoji.

Guilt, and Being

Shabbat (the Sabbath) was a bit of a battle with exhaustion and guilt. I was too exhausted for shul (synagogue) last night. I felt a bit better after dinner and did some Torah study, but went to bed late as a result (juggling pros and cons of doing things vs. relaxing is hard). I woke up about 7.40am, decided I wasn’t going to shul, felt guilty for not going to shul because I felt it was basically social anxiety keeping me away, decided to say a few of the morning prayers (Birkat HaShachar and the Shema), then felt totally exhausted by that five minutes of praying and wondered if it was exhaustion keeping me away from shul after all. Slept for a while longer, hurried to get dressed and eat breakfast in the sukkah (the hut in the garden that we eat in during the festival of Sukkot) before my parents’ friends came for Kiddush. Alternated praying and stopping to recuperate, because I was that exhausted. Felt guilty for not answering the door while praying when one of my parents’ friends was late. I really was praying, but if I hadn’t had social anxiety, I probably would have interrupted one of the less important prayers. I was just scared of having to speak to someone I didn’t know well. No one heard her and by the time I got the courage to go downstairs, she had gone. We had lunch in the sukkah, but it started raining, so we went in after the soup. Then it stopped raining and we stayed inside and I felt slightly guilty, although halakhically there is no need to go back out. I did have seudah (the third Shabbat meal, more of a snack at this time of year) in the sukkah, and dinner after Shabbat. I dozed in the afternoon, which is bad because (a) it will mess up my sleep further, (b) it reduced the Torah study and recreational reading I could do and (c) arguably I should have slept in the sukkah, but I think it was too cold even at 3.30 in the afternoon. So, more guilt.

I know that wasn’t terribly readable, but I wrote it as it seems to me, just one thing after another, most of them bringing guilt with them. Not relaxing at all. Although the nap in the afternoon was quite refreshing.

***

Lately, when I’ve been experiencing (what I think is) autistic exhaustion, I feel light-headed. It seems to have been getting worse, or maybe I just notice it more. I am not sure if this is a normal symptom, or if it is related to low blood pressure (which I think I also have). So little is known about autistic exhaustion. There is also the feeling that my brain is being squished, which I’m pretty sure is autistic exhaustion, although goodness knows what actually causes it (I’m assuming my brain isn’t actually being squished, and I’m doubtful that there are nerves inside it that would experience a sensation if it was being squished).

***

In other news, I miss E and winter is approaching with all that entails, and there are still another three days of Chol HaMoed and Yom Tov (semi-festival and festival days)!!!!!! And then straight into two consecutive days of work again afterwards. I don’t want to sound sacrilegious, but I am ready for a return to normal weeks with normal schedules I can cope with and where I know what to expect.

 ***

On Friday night, I read a short devar Torah from a blog that I had printed out before Shabbat. Written by Tanya White, an English Orthodox Jewish educator living in Israel, it presents Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) through the lens of the story of Kayin and Hevel (Cain and Abel), via a wordplay that doesn’t really work in translation (Hevel is the same word-root as “Hevel hahevelim” “Vanity of vanities” at the start of Kohelet).

The devar Torah drew on Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchiks’ The Lonely Man of Faith. This looks at the different creation narratives in the first and second chapters of Bereshit (Genesis) and posits two different modes of human nature, the “Majestic” (creating, controlling, dominating) and the “Covenantal” (contemplative, spiritual, being). White’s argument is that Kayin was Majestic and Hevel Covenantal. To Kayin, focused on having things, the experience of not-having (not having God’s approval for his sacrifice) was too much to bear and he killed his brother to destroy the feelings of finitude, inadequacy and “nothingness” provoked inside him by Hevel’s sacrifice being accepted while his was not.

Reading Kohelet and living in the sukkah is, according to White, a chance to contemplate and accept the “nothingness” in our lives. By this, I think she means that Sukkot reminds us that we really own nothing, that our lives are fragile and transient, even our houses and possessions are really shacks that could blow down and this is OK because God is in control, not us.

The reason I thought about this so much over Shabbat was it resonated with a discussion I’d been having with Angela (Best/Worst of Times blog and Letting Go of Me podcast)  about disability and not being able to do things we once could do or want to do (although we have different disabilities) and about living a life of meaning rather than doing. The devar Torah reminded me of the concept of covenantal living, just experiencing being, and the importance of living life in this way (although Rabbi Soloveitchik’s point was that we need to live both majestically and covenantally, not one or the other).

This in turn made me think of Eichah (Lamentations) 3.28: “Let him sit alone and be silent, for He has laid it upon him.” The Mishnah (Pirkei Avot 3.2) sees this as proof that, although Torah is ideally studied in pairs, even if a person studies alone, God will reward him. In a religion focused on doing, this is a support for just being and contemplating.

***

From another blog: “The Torah has no commandment ‘Be normal.’”

Yom Tov Burnout

The last two days were the first two days of Sukkot, the Jewish festival where we live in temporary huts in the garden to experience the transient nature of life and the security of trust in God. In theory, anyway; in the UK it can be a struggle with the elements to stay out there. I find it hilarious when I see Israelis, and some Americans, complaining that their sukkot are too hot to stay in. Cold and wet is more normal here.

On the plus side, we ate dinner and lunch out in the sukkah every day and this afternoon it was warm enough that I sat out there for a while studying Torah (although it was getting a bit on the cold side). I also got to shul (synagogue) for two sets of Minchah and Ma’ariv (Afternoon and Evening Prayers).

Unfortunately, there were some downsides too. The biggest is Yom Tov (festival) burnout, about two thirds of the way through the autumn festival season. The next few days are semi-festival (although I have to work) and then next Monday and Tuesday are full festivals again, although I will be deliberately avoiding shul during Simchat Torah on Monday night and Tuesday (only Purim rivals it as the most autism-unfriendly festival). I feel exhausted, and spending so much time with my parents hasn’t helped (no offence intended to them, but I need more downtime alone). Not only do I have to do this again next week (plus Shabbat (the Sabbath) in between, when my parents have invited people for Kiddush after the morning service), but I have to work for the next two days (and risk doing the Very Scary Task without J being around to hand-hold), and get up extra-early for extra prayers and to eat breakfast in the sukkah, and I will probably have to eat dinner with my parents and their friends on Thursday. This is not going to be a fun, stress-free few days.

I also have been eating very unhealthily, from the point of view of sugar as well as cholesterol. So far, so Yom Tov. I have chapped hands again from sitting out in the cold, I think I struggled breathing while asleep again, and I’ve had a lot of, probably irrational, guilt feelings the last few days over all sorts of things, particularly not going to shul in the mornings and not going to a Kiddush in my parents’ friends’ sukkah even though I knew a friend I haven’t seen for years (pre-COVID) would be there. Also irrational things like guilt over the content of dreams I’ve been having (no, not sexual, but weird and upsetting). I can’t work out if the guilt is religious OCD, low self-esteem, both or neither. It’s hard to tell.

I do think I need to work on my social anxiety, which has got worse because of the COVID lockdowns, as a matter of urgency, but I’m not sure how. CBT, the main treatment for social anxiety, tends not to work for autistics. I’m technically on the waiting list for autism-adjusted CBT on the NHS, but who knows if that will ever materialise? I think it’s pretty much impossible to get autism-adjusted CBT privately, although I haven’t looked. CBT did work for me for OCD, where it was mostly exposure therapy and it didn’t matter whether I believed the cognitions, so maybe it would work again. I did have CBT for social anxiety a few months before COVID, and it didn’t help much, but I think that was partly due to the short number of sessions and my failure to really push myself hard enough and keep pushing myself with the exposures to social situations. But it just joins the huge amount of things going on in my life right now or soon: the wedding and flat-hunting, trying to write one novel and sell another or possibly re-write it, setting myself up in business as a proof-reader, learning to drive… I feel overwhelmed just writing the list!

***

I feel pretty anxious about tomorrow. I’m likely to be somewhat sleep-deprived, as I don’t know if I’ll sleep well tonight (I often don’t after Shabbat or Yom Tov) and, as I said, I have to be up extra early for extra prayers tomorrow, then off to the office where I need to speak to the security guard (who I worry doesn’t like me) about using the shul sukkah for my lunch and where I may have to do the Very Scary Task without J being around and where I certainly will be in the office by myself , which gets lonely. The office also has little in the way of natural light and that alone sets me in a bad mood for six months of the year. And then I have to do it all over again the next day. J has already told me what my first task tomorrow is and mentioned I should do it straight away, so now I’m worried about messing that up, forgetting to do it or getting in late and not doing it in time…

***

On top of all this, I miss E a lot. I thought that it would be easier being celibate in a relationship than being single, and just as easy being engaged as in a relationship, especially long-distance, which shows what I know. Even regardless of sex, I just want to spend time with her. Pretty much everything I’ve written about in this post, good and bad, would be better in a context of us living together.

***

A weird thought I had in a shiur (religious class) yesterday: being autistic, I can’t understand other people easily, what they’re thinking and feeling, especially about me (cf. the security who worry doesn’t like me). How can I even hope to understand what God thinks or feels about me? Where “thinks” and “feels” are metaphors at best for something beyond my comprehension.

Yom Ki-Migraine

Yom Kippur was a mixture of good and bad. I had a very moving Kol Nidrei service at shul (synagogue) last night. I was on the brink of tears a lot. It took me a while to realise that there were a lot of different emotions inside of me, some good, some bad, or rather, some positive, some negative (I don’t think negative emotions are ‘bad’ as such). I worked out what some of them were and just sat with the other ones. It’s strange having emotions and not knowing what they are (alexithymia), but I’m trying at least to become attuned to when I’m having the emotions, even if I can’t understand them.

When I got home, I wanted to do some Torah study, but after a little over ten minutes, I felt too tired. I switched to reading A Wrinkle in Time (one of those books I should have read as a child, but didn’t), but soon was too tired to read that and went to bed.

I woke up in the middle of the night with a headache. I think it was a migraine. In the past, my migraine headaches tended to be incredibly painful over a wide area, like someone had hit me on forehead or crown with a metal bar or axe, a really all-consuming form of pain to the extent that I can’t focus on anything else. Lately, I’ve been getting headaches in a small point, about an inch or two above my right eyeball, like someone was drilling into that point. The pain is very strong there, but not anywhere else. Sometimes after a while the pain spreads to the eye itself, which I don’t usually get. I wasn’t going to take medication for a non-life-threatening condition on Yom Kippur and tried to sleep it off. I drifted in and out of sleep for the rest of the night, but the headache/migraine stayed. Once we got to morning, I wanted to try to get up, thinking that, with localised pain, I could make it back to shul, but I didn’t manage it. It hurt too much, and soon I was feeling the exhaustion I can get with or after migraines.

The migraine went of its own accord around 3pm, but I was still exhausted and by this stage, I was beginning to feel faint and light-headed from fasting, as happens to me every year. I usually spend more of the afternoon of Yom Kippur outside the shul, trying to get some fresh air and feel less headachey and nauseous than in shul davening (praying). I went for a walk for a few minutes to see if that would clear my head, but I just felt dizzy and worried about going back to shul in that state. Even then, I might have made it, but I couldn’t catch up to where they were, so I just davened at home at my own pace.

I feel a bit bad about spending yet another year when I wasn’t in shul much for Yom Kippur. Between migraine (not to mention fasting headaches), COVID, sleep disruption (whatever causes it) and social anxiety and/or depression, I’ve rarely been in shul much on the holiest day of the Jewish year for many years.

When not catching up on davening at home, I read some of a book of the Chofetz Chaim’s (pseudonym for Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan) teachings on Pirkei Avot, the volume of Talmud dealing with ethics. It seemed appropriate reading matter. But I was only really awake, up and even vaguely functional for about four hours today (excluding last night).

I still found myself thinking a lot while davening about child abuse in the Jewish community and wondering how we (collectively) can be forgiven if so many people are still abusing or covering up abuse. I’m not sure what I can do about this. I also don’t know why this has become such a big obsession for me.

I drank three energy drinks yesterday, to try to boost my sodium level before the fast and avoid getting a headache. Despite the migraine, it might have worked: I think the migraine was triggered by stress, or was just one of those things (I have had a couple of migraines like this (the ‘drilling above my eye’ type) in recent months, always after I’ve gone to bed, if not to sleep). I did feel light-headed and faint in the afternoon, but I don’t think I got a dehydration headache. On the other hand, as when I tried drinking the energy drinks last year, I didn’t actually do very much during the day. So it’s unclear whether they helped.

Rosh Hashanah

I should really get to bed soon, but I wanted to quickly write a few things about Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year).

I got to shul (synagogue) multiple times, including for the shofar both mornings, although I got to shul long after the start of the very long Rosh Hashanah morning service. I felt a bit overwhelmed by the large numbers in shul on the first evening, but was OK with the number of people, although I suspect to some extent I just focused on myself, my machzor (prayerbook) and the chazan (cantor) and tried not to think about the other people. I was mostly OK with the choir and the chazanut (cantorial singing), preferring to sit with Dad in the known quantity of the main shul despite these things (choir and chazan) rather than go by myself into unknown the parallel service, even though they finished a lot earlier without them. I mostly think I made the right decision, but I was annoyed by the amount of talking, which I’m not used to from my shul. Still, overall I felt comfortable at being back in the United Synagogue. I do wish people wouldn’t talk during the service, though.

I felt too tired to go back this evening for Minchah and Ma’ariv (Afternoon and Evening Services), which means my machzor and, more importantly, my tallit (prayershawl) is still in shul, so I’ll have to borrow Dad’s tomorrow morning (Dad has two talletot, one in shul and one at home).

I didn’t do much Torah study, although I went to the shiur (religious class) between Minchah and Ma’ariv yesterday. I did finish the ‘Chofetz Chaim on the festivals’ book.

I remembered there’s one type of therapy system (I can’t remember which) that talks about moving towards or away from values instead of abstract goals. For some reason that I’m not entirely sure about, I feel vaguely uncomfortable with moving towards values, but wondered if it would work to feel I’m moving towards God. I’ll have to see how that goes.

The main difficulty over Yom Tov, aside from missing E, was that my lips and especially hands have got quite chapped. I’m not quite sure how this happened, as it feels like it was summer five minutes ago, but apparently it’s not any more. Anyway, that was/is a bit uncomfortable. My left hand in particular has quite a lot of little cuts on it, which are surprisingly painful.

EDIT: I finally set up my new Facebook account. I haven’t set up a profile or found friends (or “friends”) or anything yet, as I don’t have time, but I wanted to do something towards setting up the group for people on the margins of the frum community. I did try to set my relationship status to married to E, but couldn’t work out how (isn’t FB supposed to be intuitive?) and ran out of time as I have to be up early for work tomorrow.

A Shulchan Aruch for the Mentally Ill and Neurodivergent

I was very exhausted yesterday, and had suddenly realised it was closer to Shabbat than I thought, but I managed to speak to E briefly before Shabbat started in the UK. We’re hoping to have a longer conversation tomorrow, but I’m worried about how I’ll manage it if there’s a lot to do for Yom Tov (festival). But if I can’t, we’ll have barely spoken for a week, from our last long call on Wednesday evening until this coming Wednesday evening, because of Yom Tov. And this pattern will repeat for three out of the next four weeks. Being long-distance is hard, at Yom Tov doubly so, and that’s not even counting the stress of doing Yom Tov without each other.

I didn’t go to shul (synagogue) after this. I was just too wiped out and feeling physically ill from exhaustion. I did daven (pray) at home, without much energy or enthusiasm. I did some Torah study after dinner, which may have been a mistake, I’m not sure. I just want to finish some of the books I’m reading (see below).

I had weird dreams last night, including my least-favourite ex-boss (the one who basically told me that I wasn’t as good at my job as she expected and that she didn’t really have confidence in me) refusing to acknowledge my existence. Also something I can’t really remember about crocodiles. I ended up sleeping after lunch, too. I didn’t really want to, as I knew it would just mess my sleep pattern up even more, but I struggled through lunch with my parents and then basically went to autistic shutdown mode, curled up in the foetal position in bed with my eyes shut. Inevitably, I eventually fell asleep, but I think it was more about trying to reboot myself after a couple of hours of listening to my parents talk than actually needing sleep. Then I went back to bed briefly in the early evening, but didn’t sleep. I didn’t go to the shiva (house of mourning) for my parents’ friends’ son. I felt too burnt out. It was probably just as well, as it was very busy. I will try to email them tomorrow.

It’s hard to unpick the autism, social anxiety and sleep disorder from each other to work out what is really keeping me away from shul. There may also be an element of SAD now to make things even more difficult, which hopefully won’t turn into full depression. It’s hard to know where to start. So many people on the autism forum also struggle with exhaustion and fatigue. None of us really know how to cope. The medical community seems baffled or perhaps uninterested.

(By coincidence, someone just shared this story about autistic fatigue on the autism group.)

I worry what it will be like when E and I are married. Will it be easier living with someone more on my wavelength and autism-friendly? Will I be able to work more? Will that make me more tired? (I assume so.) Will we be able to have kids? How will I cope with that? Kids are not autism-friendly, even/especially autistic kids (autistic kids are a possibility given how much neurodiversity (diagnosed and undiagnosed) that there seems to be in both E and my families).

Somewhat related, I feel that this Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur, I should work on forgiving myself. It just feels wrong even writing this, but I have beaten myself up so much over the years for things that were not within my control to change completely, or at all: depression, social anxiety, OCD, autism, alexithymia, exhaustion and sleep-disruption. (Also: being a heterosexual male with a normal sex drive, trying to be celibate, but that’s a whole other post.)

I don’t know how much I’m going to get to shul over the coming Yom Tovim (festivals), if I’m going to hear the shofar (ram’s horn trumpet) on Rosh Hashanah, and it’s tempting to beat myself up about it in advance. I don’t think that will achieve much, but it’s easy to feel I don’t deserve forgiveness, that if I just pressure myself harder to have more energy, better sleep, a more positive mindset (etc.) that I need to study more Torah and fulfil more mitzvot (commandments), that will somehow happen. Even though it hasn’t worked for decades.

I feel someone should write a Shulchan Aruch for the Mentally Ill and Neurodivergent, to try to set out ways of living Jewishly with these issues and how they affect halakhic (Jewish legal) observance (the Shulchan Aruch is the primary Jewish code of law). In Israel, a rabbi has set up some kind of institute to teach more rabbis how to handle halakhic questions regarding people with mental illness. This is positive, but I would like someone to do it for the neurodivergent too. Unfortunately, Orthodox Judaism tends to lag ten years or so behind the secular West regarding social issues and we are only just beginning to deal with mental health, so we probably won’t catch up to neurodivergence for another ten years.

***

On the subject of beating myself up, I felt recently that I hadn’t finished any books for a while and was upset about that. Actually, it’s not that long since I finished A Guide for the Perplexed and Faith Without Fear (is it really less than a month since I was in New York and getting married?), but even setting them aside, I realised that I’ve been reading really big books lately. I’m on page 623 (of 712 pages of main text) of The Third Reich in Power 1933-1939, page 427 (of 712 or so pages) of The Television Companion: The Unofficial and Unauthorised Guide to Doctor Who and page 491 (of 528) of Lamentations: Faith in a Turbulent World. These are mostly heavy-going books (not the Doctor Who one, except inasmuch as I get annoyed with some of the views expressed in it, particularly hatred for late seventies Who) and I’m finally getting near the end of most of them. It’s been a long journey through them, but I would have read several novels or shorter religious works in the same time (I did read some, actually), so I should probably beat myself up less about that. I do definitely want to tear through some light novels soon, though.

***

Shana tova tikatev vetichatem! May you be written and sealed for a good new year!

Yours Exhaustedly

I feel totally wiped out today, physically and emotionally exhausted, even bordering on physically ill (light-headed and faint and that feeling of my brain being squashed). I got up late, had to eat not just breakfast, but also lunch, before I had the energy and concentration to put on my tefillin, and found it difficult to daven (pray), just struggling to concentrate and feeling physically ill when I tried. I did my usual pre-Shabbat (Sabbath) chores and finished the dusting, but I currently feel too exhausted and ill to go to shul (synagogue). It worries and upsets me that lately I miss Friday night davening as I feel too physically and emotionally exhausted. It’s my favourite service and it’s a long time since I’ve been regularly too ill to go, so missing it so often feels like a backwards step.

It’s hard struggling with this exhaustion and sleep disruption, particularly when I don’t know what causes it: autistic exhaustion or burnout (which are not understood well at all), some kind of sleep disorder or returning depression (a fear around this time of year in particular, as the lengthening nights have signalled most of my previous episodes). It’s also difficult that high-functioning autism in adults is not understood well at all, as most of the research money goes on children. (People on the autism forum also complain that most of the money goes on research to see how autistic children can be made to behave more like neurotypical children, rather than how can we make autistic children/adults happier and more comfortable. I have no idea if this is true, but it sounds worryingly believable.)

My therapist has offered me a slot on Friday 7 October. This is because I haven’t seen her for weeks because my New York trip was followed by her holiday, and now the next month is disrupted by Yom Tov (the Jewish festivals) and my working on different days to accommodate them, meaning that I don’t have a free Wednesday (my usual therapy day) until 26 October. She doesn’t always work on Fridays, but offered to fit me in, which I’m very pleased about, as I really do feel the need to speak about a few things at the moment, and waiting another month was going to be painful.

“…an almost Proustian display of modern Existentialist football…”

(Title quote from one of the Monty Python sketches I think about periodically, which happened to be in the episode I watched earlier, about a pretentious football commentator interviewing a monosyllabic footballer. It’s not really relevant, I just think it’s funny.)

There’s a lot I want to say, but I am totally exhausted, and overwhelmed with things to do. However, as I’m too exhausted to do much now, I’ll try to blog at least some of the things on my mind.

I flippantly remarked on Angela’s blog the other day that I’ve been tired for decades. I felt somewhat bad about it afterwards, as that was a post about tiredness through serious physical illness, but I’m not sure that tiredness from depression, autistic exhaustion and a sleep disorder is really less “real” or worthy of note. At any rate, I struggled to sleep again last night, although not so badly as some nights, and then struggled to get going in the morning, only to discover that while I was asleep, E had asked me to send her a particular document needed for the visa again, as I had forgotten to sign it. To be honest, I hadn’t forgotten, so much as not realised I need to do it (yes, classic autistic, “If you don’t explicitly ask for it, he won’t realise he needs to do it”). This delayed me a little, but I cut my usual truncated Shacharit (Morning Prayers) even shorter and got to work on time.

Work was exceedingly dull and I found some mistakes I had made weeks ago that at least went unnoticed by my boss. I listened to podcasts while sorting through papers then felt guilty that I had decreased my efficiency, although I’m not at all sure that that was the case, as the task is dull, but also difficult, as most of the papers I’m dealing with at the moment are legal or financial, but also twenty years or more old. They should be ripe for throwing away, but I worry that my legal and financial ignorance will lead me to throw away something we need. At the moment, I’m just trying to produce a general list of what everything is.

***

I have a tendency to take the world’s troubles on my shoulders, at least sometimes. Lately I’ve been feeling concern for lonely people on the autism forum, abuse survivors and current victims in the Jewish community, as well as continuing sadness and perhaps anger at God for my parents’ friends’ late son. I do worry sometimes that abusers and gett refusers (men who refuse to give their wives the religious divorce they want) in the frum (religious Jewish) community will find a loophole to the Next World via their Torah study and communal involvement and somehow evade punishment. This is irrational, as I don’t believe God is as easily deceived, or has His values as warped, as the frum community sometimes is and, in any case, I believe spiritual punishment is inherent in the action in ways that are too complicated for me to explain now; you can’t avoid Divine punishment any more than you can avoid being in your own body. But I do think about it a lot.

***

I came across the idea a number of years ago that lots of frum people want to fast-forward through this time of year, the Jewish autumn festival season. For them it’s a time of painful self-examination and guilt. It is that for me too, with added autistic exhaustion and peopling, social anxiety, low self-esteem and disordered sleep issues, not to mention autistic issues with work routine changes and overload from working more intensively. I could also say that their guilt over sins is excessive and misplaced, whereas mine is logical and deserved, but I’m not going to go there (which is probably a good sign in and of itself). I feel like that now, with all the extra overwhelm of my life at the moment too, but today for the first time I felt frustrated that I haven’t worked on my novel for weeks because I’ve been focused on my wedding and E’s visa application. I’m glad, as I wondered if I had given up on writing. However, I still doubt I will have time to put pen to paper (or word processor) for another month.

One extra thing that is hard at this time of year is having alexithymia, difficulty noticing and understanding my own emotions. It’s hard to be sure I love and am in awe of God and that I love Torah, or that I have joy in the festivals and in being Jewish when I struggle to notice love for my family, let alone a being I can’t see and Who is the source of everything bad that ever happened to me as well as everything good. Mostly I try to “deduce” my emotions by my actions, which I guess must mean I feel something positive about God if I do all this religious stuff.

Related to this is my feelings about the frum community. On an Orthodox Conundrum podcast I listened to today, they spoke about the importance of being part of a community for spiritual growth. I’ve never really had this, at least not in the way they meant. Someone on the autism forum the other day suggested that while I say I want to be part of a community, I also seem to have negative feelings about it (I said making friends in the community seemed “terrifying and impossible”). I don’t really have an answer this.

***

I suspect the answer to all of the above is to “Let go and let God,” as the 12 Step movement says, but I’ve never been very good at that. It’s hard to “Let go and let God” when you can’t work out how much you trust God.

***

Good things that happened today:

E sent the visa application off, despite consistent issues with the third-party website.

I was told I can keep paying reduced shul (synagogue) membership fees because I’m on a low salary. I feel vaguely guilty about this and don’t know why, although as I have been paying money to a shul I haven’t been attending, and as I will continue doing this for some months more, I feel the shul is still getting a good deal.

My birthday present from E, The Hidden Order of Intimacy: Reflections on the Book of Leviticus by Aviva Gottleib Zornberg finally arrived. The delay, I should say, was on the part of Foyles Bookshop, not E. Zornberg has written several deep books on Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), mixing traditional commentary with ideas from Western philosophy and literature and psychology. She’s very good, but no one expected her to write about the almost entirely legal and purity-focused Vayikra (Leviticus). So I am curious to read it, but will wait until it comes around on the annual Torah cycle next spring.

Also arriving today was the latest Jewish Review of Books (finally) and Doctor Who: The Dis-Continuity Guide. Actually, the latter came yesterday, but it seemed inappropriate to write about it on such a sad day. Then today I went into the charity shop and found a load of interesting-looking books. I already owned a couple of them, perhaps fortunately, but I did buy a copy of Yehudah HaLevi’s Medieval Jewish anti-philosophical philosophical work, The Kuzari for £2, which goes nicely with the Guide for the Perplexed I got for free a few months ago.

Yes, my plan to avoid getting new books until I work my way down the To Read pile is going well. Wait a minute…

Shabbat and Lying-in-State

Shabbat (the Sabbath) was a normal Shabbat. In other words, I’m still struggling with sleep and social anxiety around shul (synagogue). I did go to shul on Friday night. I’ve decided the chazzan (cantor), who is notorious for SHOUTING when he sings during the service, is not terribly autism-friendly. I don’t like being shouted out, particularly not in what is supposed to be music. It’s unlikely that I will be going to this shul after E and I get married, except when we stay with my parents, so it’s not a huge problem, but it’s irritating for now.

On the way home, one of my father’s acquaintances (I’ll call him Fred) saw us and waited for us to catch up with him. He wished me mazal tov on my civil wedding and said his daughter lives in New York. After we got home, Dad said to me, “Did you not want to talk to Fred?” I had no idea what he meant. Apparently, Fred had been standing on my Dad’s right and after he spoke to me, I moved away from him and walked on my Dad’s left. I should also have known that his comment about his daughter was an opening conversational gambit inviting discussion of New York. I realised none of this until it was pointed out to me, and I doubt I would really notice in the future. This is what happens operating on a mixture of autism and social anxiety. I hope Fred was not offended.

Otherwise Shabbat was the usual mix of eating, davening (praying) and Torah study. Because Mum and Dad were away this week and didn’t want to cook on Friday, we ordered food from a kosher restaurant. It was delivered on Friday morning and we just heated it on our hot plate for Shabbat. It was very nice, but the portions were incredibly large. We had intended to eat it on Friday night only, but it lasted for Shabbat lunch too.

Despite being ‘leftovers,’ lunch was large enough that I didn’t even try not to sleep it off afterwards. I slept for about three hours, with disturbing dreams (I had different disturbing dreams last night too). Part of the problem was waking with bright light in my eyes from the window as I didn’t draw the curtains, which just makes me scrunch up my eyes and eventually fall asleep again. (It also gives me dreams where I experience uncomfortably bright light in my eyes.) But when I finally woke up properly, it felt like I had been buried alive and was climbing out of a grave, soil in my throat choking me and felt like I was panting for breath when I finally awoke, which I suppose may be more evidence of sleep/breathing issues.

***

I read more of Lamentations: Faith in a Turbulent World, the commentary on Eichah (Lamentations), which I’ve been reading since around the Fast of Av nearly two months ago. For a short book of Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), it’s a very long commentary. I just passed page 400, but I still have more than a hundred pages to go. To be honest, part of me is tempted to stop for a break, and I probably will a bit this week, as I will want to listen to the shiurim (religious classes) at the London School of Jewish Studies’ study day tomorrow, listening to some live tomorrow and to the recording of others during the next week or two.  However, I worry that if I stop for too long, it will be impossible to start again, as it’s pretty bleak and heavy-going, although thorough and enlightening. I know Eichah better than many books of Nakh (the post-Mosaic Bible books) because it’s read every year on the  Fast of Av, but the book has made me appreciate it as a much more complex and literary text than I thought.

***

Other book-related news: after my post here the other week about the book Doctor Who: The Dis-Continuity Guide from the 1990s, I found a copy going for £1.99 on eBay. On a whim, I bid for it, not really expecting to get it, as I don’t think I’ve ever won an eBay auction before, or, if I have, only once. However, no one else even bid, so I got it for £5.34 including postage, which was pretty good when other copies on the site seem to be asking for something in the region of £40 (although this may be why those copies aren’t selling). Of course, it will probably disappoint my memories, but it’s good nostalgia. I really must stop buying books though, even ones I want that are going cheap.

***

I watched some of the Queen’s lying-in-state on TV on BBC Parliament after Shabbat. My parents put it on after Shabbat. I think they’ve been watching it for days. I haven’t, and I only really watched because I was in the room, but I did stick around for the changing of the guard, which was interesting to watch. My Dad is right that no one does this kind of ceremonial better than the British. Even though I’m not a terribly enthusiastic royalist, I kind of wish I could go there, but I’m not spending twenty-four hours queuing.

A lot of people were crossing themselves in front of the Queen’s coffin too. I know I got negative commentary about this when I said it before, but I find that religion has been routed from the public sphere so completely in this country that any kind of display of religion [1] seems counter-cultural, and reassuring to members of other religious minorities too small even to gain this level of recognition (e.g. Orthodox Jews like me). I remember Rabbi Lord Sacks discussing this on a podcast with Anglican priest Giles Fraser, that as a Jew he was grateful for the Church of England for keeping some kind of religion vaguely on the public radar in an otherwise very secular country. (I suspect some of my American readers, even the non-religious ones, don’t realise just how secular the UK generally is, established church notwithstanding.)

There probably is a lot to say about the intersection of religion and culture in ceremonial like this, the way this would feel inherently religious even without the large crucifix at the Queen’s head and other religious iconography, the way that the secular world simply does not seem to be able to handle something as weighty as the finality of death in this way. This is paradoxical, as atheists and agnostics ought to see death as more final than religious believers who believe in an afterlife, but somehow that belief adds to the finality for the religious, while the atheists avoid it with “celebrations of life.” But celebrating inherently subverts the seriousness of death, which is not celebratory.

Even beyond death, religion has a sense of the serious that is lacking in our constantly-moving, consumerist world. In Westminster Hall, people stand still or move slowly, which seems bizarre. I think of Philip Larkin’s poem Church Going (Larkin was not at all religious), “A serious house on serious earth it is”.

Moreover, the guards in uniforms with faces averted display the kind of selfless (or self-less) absorption in ritual, process and community that the Western world has abandoned in its constant quest for individual self-expression and independence. It’s a kind of selflessness and communal identification that I want so much to attain in my own religious practise and life, but which I self-sabotage and pull away from at the same time, too independent, too afraid of losing myself, to fully throw myself in, or perhaps just too autistic, socially inept and socially anxious to actually achieve it.

[1] Actual religion not quasi-religious secular displays of emotion like clapping for the NHS during the lockdown or kneeling during the national anthem at sports matches to express inchoate anti-racism.

Not Functioning

I feel completely burnt out today. I had some not very restful sleep with a strange and slightly disturbing dream. I’m struggling to do anything, although I’m trying to do my pre-Shabbat chores and some visa document scanning/printing. I feel almost physically ill with exhaustion. I lay down in a dim room for half an hour just now which helped, although I’m still not sure if I’ll go to shul (synagogue) tonight.

I discovered that the guy I spoke to yesterday from the building society, who supposedly told me how to print an official PDF statement from my online account, was wrong, or the site isn’t working properly. Either way, I can’t get what I need for the visa, so I’ll have to phone the local branch next week and collect it in person, if I can explain myself adequately, which I worry about after the difficult phone calls yesterday. I hate doing stuff over the phone and in person. I feel like I really can’t cope with those when I’m burnt out and at the end of my tether. (Awareness of my autism has definitely sapped my self-confidence.)

I’m also worried about E’s visa application being rejected for some trivial reason or other. This fear has been worsened by the realisation that I have to declare the benefit money I was mistakenly paid by the Department of Work and Pensions (they continued paying me benefits after I repeatedly told them I was now earning too much to qualify) as it will be visible on the bank statements requested, so I can’t deny it or even just omit it. Incompetent bureaucrats.

I worry how E and I would cope with having children, given our low energy levels (for different reasons). Hopefully E’s energy will return soon, but I worry that she has long COVID. As for myself, I am wondering if I should pay for a private sleep study to get some idea of whether I really do have a sleep disorder, but private medical care is so rare here that I’m not entirely sure how I would do it. I did google and found somewhere that looks possible, but I have not had time yet to investigate how reliable it is. To be honest, I feel that, if nothing else, I need to know I have a real issue to stop feeling guilty for having missed so much shul (synagogue) over the years, although, as I can get up for work, realistically social anxiety is probably a factor there too, combined with my feelings of not fitting in to the frum (religious Jewish) community. That feeling of guilt is always bad at this time of year, both because of the emphasis on growth and repentance and the many long shul services over the festivals with much greater than usual attendance, including the special mitzvah (commandment) of hearing the shofar (ram’s horn trumpet) on Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year).