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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

Achievement

I don’t have much to say about this Shabbat (Sabbath), but I thought that I ought to note here that, as well as going to shul (synagogue) on Friday night, I also went for Minchah, Talmud shiur and Ma’ariv (Afternoon Prayers, religious class and Evening Prayers) today. Which is good, as I hadn’t been for ages. (And people had noticed and were surprised that I came this week, which made me feel a bit bad.) Shiur was in the main room, as usual, but the ‘fathers and children’ learning groups were going on in the same room. I guess it doesn’t bother anyone because this is what a Beit Midrash (study hall, including in a yeshiva/rabbinical seminary) is like, with lots of people learning in pairs or small groups, but I find it very autistically-unfriendly and struggled to concentrate.

***

I just watched the two-part Doctor Who story The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky as part of my new Doctor Who watching with E. There are a few things I could say about it, but most of them aren’t nice (and I’ve said them before elsewhere on the web) and I’m trying not to say not nice things about books and TV now I’m hoping/praying that my own scribblings will be reviewed somewhere some day.

That said, I do wonder why the Sontarans (militaristic potatoes) have been brought back so many times whereas their arch-enemies the Rutans (shape-shifting green jellyfish) have only been seen once, at least on TV Doctor Who. I find the Rutans much more interesting, to be honest. I guess the Sontarans are easier to do on a budget (masks and space armour) than giant jellyfish. I would like to see another Rutan story, or one in which we actually see the much-discussed Sontaran-Rutan War, said to have been waging for millennia.

I will also say that Luke Rattigan is a really annoying character, and not in a good way. And that Mark Zuckerberg is blatantly in league with evil space aliens (sorry, went a bit Meta there).

On and On and On

Today I’ve been up and down. I’m fine, I’m low, I’m fine, I want to cry, I’m fine… It’s hard to tell what triggered this, or maybe there are too many possible causes. Possible causes:

1) I haven’t had any response for my pitches to the Jewish newspaper, Jewish website or from the last couple of novel agents I submitted to. I haven’t had any time to submit to more agents. I don’t know what other websites or publications I might pitch to at the moment. This probably isn’t unusual and might not even mean that those publications/agents aren’t interested at this stage, but I’m finding the total radio silence unnerving. I’d like to hear something, even if it’s to say that I’m pitching the wrong way or to the wrong people.

2) I’m a bit upset that social anxiety seems to be winning in my life, at least at shul (see yesterday’s post) and a bit at work, inasmuch as I hope to avoid the Very Scary Task, although to be fair I’m not actively avoiding it. I would like to do autism-adapted CBT to work on this, but who knows when I will be able to do so?

3) I’m frustrated at not having much time for writing either, although I did spend some time on novel research last night. To be fair, part of my frustration is about being stuck in research and not writing mode.

Not everything is in limbo: I have E, and I have a job, even if it’s only two days a week. Being long-distance with E is hard now we’ve been in person, but it’s better than nothing. I also feel like I only get things when I’m at my wits’ end about them, and I’m not there yet with work and writing (or writing for work). I’m somewhat nervous about meeting E’s parents on Zoom later this week, but I have to do it sooner or later, and it’s better to do it sooner.

Otherwise it was a dull day: I got up a little earlier than usual, did some Torah study, went for a run, and Mum cut my hair. C’est tout.

***

Doctor Who was good (Village of the Angels), surprisingly so, although perhaps not so surprising given that it basically rehashed tried and tested set-pieces from other Weeping Angels stories. I feel there is only so much you can do with the Weeping Angels. I suspect it will turn out to be the best episode of the six part season story, as I’m expecting the concluding episodes to drift into technobabble and incoherence; already I feel I’m vague on anything to do with the ongoing storyline about the Flux and the villainous Swarm and Azure (good costumes, though) and more focused on the plotlines of individual episodes like the Sontarans in the Crimean War in episode two or the Village of the Angels tonight.

Post-Shabbat Blues

Shabbat (the Sabbath) was tranquil on the surface, but I think it pointed out hidden tensions in my mind and I feel quite drained and low now.

I went to shul (synagogue) on Friday night. When I got home, I had quite a long talk with my parents about the cremation they had been to for my Mum’s cousin. I hadn’t really been able to speak to them about it before, as they only got back from it an hour or so before Shabbat and I was busy showering and getting ready for Shabbat. There was something Mum said that I won’t talk about here that I think I need to spend some time internalising, maybe in therapy.

***

Mum told me that my oldest friend was in one of the Jewish newspapers. I had emailed him last week as I hadn’t heard from him for ages. He hasn’t got back to me yet. I struggled with some thoughts again. I’m pleased that he’s doing well with his life, but sometimes it seems like our lives were so similar in primary school and the early years of secondary school and then we grew apart as we got older, although we never fell out or lost touch, just went in different directions. The fact that I’m not on social media probably doesn’t help us stay in touch, as I think he uses Facebook quite a bit for life announcements.

I try really hard these days not to feel jealous of other people’s lives, when they seem to be doing much better than me, and a lot of the time I succeed, but my oldest friend is ultra-hard given how parallel our lives once were. We even looked alike, except that he was a lot taller – people assumed he was my older brother. I kept thinking of the two identical goats for Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement) in ancient times, the one for God and the other thrown off the cliff (the origin of the word ‘scapegoat’). I think I was the one who got thrown off the cliff.

After a bit of time on Friday night I got to a point of relative equanimity about this, but then I dreamt about my friend last night, so it’s obviously still bothering me unconsciously.

***

The other dream I had last night was about Rabbi Sacks. I feel like I’m still grieving him, and grieving the guidance I feel he could have given me about my life if I’d been able to engineer a situation where I met him. If I could have had the confidence to go to some events where he was, or if I had been in a Jewish youth movement especially as a youth leaders, or a leader at the university Jewish Society, as so many prominent people in the Modern Orthodox community were. But I was terrified of most people my own age as a teenager because of being bullied at school and perhaps also because autism meant I simply couldn’t communicate easily with them and understand unspoken communication. The result was that I avoided most group social stuff until it was too late. By the time I was in my late twenties or thirties and wanted to meet people, they were all married and settling down.

I should probably stop going on about this. I’m not sure how I can grieve someone I never met and only knew through his writing, which I still have.

***

After lunch I could have had seudah (the Third Sabbath meal) and gone to shul for Minchah (Afternoon Prayers), Talmud shiur (religious class) and Ma’ariv (Evening Prayers), but I went to bed for a bit and then davened (prayed) at home, and did Talmud study at home after Shabbat. I’m not sure why I did this, but it’s definitely an anxiety thing, probably fear of being asked to lead Minchah in shul as the second Minchah has few people and fewer who are willing/able to lead the service. I struggle to keep up in shiur and I feel uncomfortable helping to tidy up after Ma’ariv; I always feel I just get in everyone’s way and I don’t know how to help (I’ve mentioned before Amanda Harrington’s idea about people on the spectrum wanting to help, but just getting in the way). There’s probably some common or garden social anxiety too. It’s also hard to go out on Shabbat when it’s cold and overcast; it’s harder when the event I’m going to inspires so many negative feelings.

I feel like I’ve gone backwards over COVID time and the social anxiety that used to be around Shabbat morning prayers has spread to the afternoon too. Lately I’ve given up even trying to go in the mornings.

***

I finished reading The Quest for Authenticity: The Thought of Reb Simhah Bunim by Rabbi Michael Rosen, about the rabbis of Przysucha (pronounced Peshischa) and Kotzk. It’s a book that clearly resonates with me as this was the third or fourth time I’ve read it in thirteen years.

In the closing pages of the appendices (p. 355-356), Rabbi Rosen writes:

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

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

I think I’ve been very reluctant to make real or apparent compromises over the years, hence my resistance to so many groups where perhaps I might have made friends and been accepted if I’d just let my guard down and gone. I also feel that nowadays most of the Jewish community is closer to the “feeling heimish” end of the Jewish spectrum than the “quest for authenticity” end. Maybe, post-Enlightenment and post-Holocaust, heimish is the most we can hope for from the community as a whole. Or maybe it was ever thus. Or maybe organised yeshiva (rabbinical seminary) and sem (women’s seminary) study for young people provides a mechanism for some people to grow and develop, although I’m not convinced that this is always the case from what I’ve heard. Ironically, it is the sense of authenticity and fear of dropping my guard that contributed to my not going to yeshiva (as well as my not being a youth/Jewish Society leader), although there were other reasons too.

***

There’s a lot of negativity in this post. I don’t really feel negative, just a bit down. I mostly feel cautiously positive these days, but I guess there’s a lot of anxiety and fear below the surface about the fact that I’m still trying to get my life together. I can see the next step or two, but not beyond that, and that’s scary when you’re nearly forty, only working part-time and, in some sense, disabled, and want to settle down and try to start a family.

Autistic Regression, A Tail to Foxes, and More

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

***

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

The Fire Sermon

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

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

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

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

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

“O my prophetic soul”

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

On page 361, I came across the following:

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

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

Opportunities, Missed and Otherwise

I am OK today. I am quite a bit down, but I’ve been used to that over the years. It’s a rush today because Shabbat starts at 4.10pm, but I wanted to note a few things briefly.

I’m hoping for a restful Shabbat (the Sabbath). My parents are out for dinner tonight, so I should have some time for recreational reading. E says I should read more for fun on Shabbat even if that means doing less Torah study and she may be right. Tomorrow Talmud shiur (religious class) at shul (synagogue) returns and I’d like to go, even though that means staying on for Ma’ariv (Evening Prayers) and then staying afterwards to help, where I feel I usually just get in the way, however hard I try to be helpful. But I’ll see how I feel tomorrow afternoon. It’s eighteen months since we’ve had this format for the shiur, because of COVID and because the timetable is different in the summer when Shabbat afternoons are very long compared with the winter when they’re very short.

There is an oneg being hosted by someone from my shul tonight. An oneg is a kind of Shabbat party where you sit around a table and there are snacks and soft drinks and alcohol, and people talk and sing religious songs and share divrei Torah. I used to try to force myself to these things to make friends. Usually I just sat there terrified, not speaking. Sometimes I stood outside crying at my social anxiety and social impairments and my inability to face my fears. I can’t really be bothered with that now, but I do wonder how else to make friends.

***

I found, lurking in my email inbox, an email from over a year ago from a job agency that helps people on the autism spectrum into work. I think I didn’t go down that path a year ago because I wasn’t diagnosed then, and because my current job appeared soon afterward. I might contact them again soon.

***

There’s a woman who keeps writing for Chabad.org about her fertility issues and the fact that she might never have children, and I want to read her articles, but I can’t, perhaps because they’re too close to home. Not that I have fertility issues per se, but that E and I worry that with all the mental health, neurological and financial issues that we have between us that we’ll never be able to support children, practically and financially. I guess that’s my main worry at the moment. I think E and I will be together, but I worry how we’ll cope, even without children.

***

I keep being drawn back to this interview with the late Rabbi Lord Sacks z”tl where the interviewer lists Rabbi Sacks’ achievements and asks if he ever failed anything and Rabbi Sacks bursts into laughter and says, “I nearly failed my first year in university. I nearly failed my second year in university. I was turned down for virtually every job that I applied for. Since I was a kid, I wanted to write a book. I started when I was 20 and I gave it every minute of spare time that I had. Even when Elaine and I went to a concert I would be writing notes during intervals or between movements during a symphony. Yet, I failed for 20 years! From 20 to 40 I had a whole huge file cabinet of books I started and never finished.” I heard another interview where he said that being a rabbi was his fourth career choice, after he failed at becoming an economist, an academic philosopher and a barrister (lawyer). So that gives me a little hope, because I’m nearly forty and I haven’t done anything with my life.

He also says, “I think all that goes with the affective dimension of Judaism, the emotional life, is being neglected…  I think we haven’t done enough with the affective dimension, and music is probably the most important… Cinema, too, isn’t used enough in this regard. I think we haven’t done enough with that to tell people what the life of faith does for you. I have so many stories that I think ought to be made into film. Stories of ordinary people I know who have done extraordinary things.”

He doesn’t talk about prose fiction, but I think it applies there too, particularly in terms of telling stories. Although the stories I want to tell are not necessarily ones he would want to tell. But I think/hope there is an audience out there, although not necessarily or purely a frum one or even Jewish one. I just hope I can convince the gatekeepers (agents, publishers, reviewers) of that.

I know I say things like this a lot, but, honestly, I have to keep saying it or otherwise I stop believing in it myself.

***

The reason the interview was posted is that it’s just over a year since Rabbi Sacks died. I still feel his loss acutely, even though I never really met him (although I was in the same room as him a few times). I wish I had had the opportunity, or made the opportunity, to speak to him — really to speak to him about my Jewish life, my creative life and my aspirations to unite them both. I struggle to understand my place in the world in general and Jewish world in particular. I don’t understand why God made me autistic, or what He wants from me. I feel he would have understood, and would have had good advice. It’s too late now.

Falls the Shadow

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

Twice Exceptional

Yesterday was fairly ordinary. I submitted my manuscript to another agent, went for a run and Skyped E. I got an exercise headache again. I didn’t blog because there didn’t seem much need for it.

Today was more difficult. I had some OCD-type anxiety in the morning and again this evening. I had vague anxiety and intermittent vaguely low mood across the day. It’s hard for me to understand my feelings sometimes (often), but I felt some gloom and lethargy, albeit that that’s probably usual for me when I’m at work. Work was OK, though, not too many mistakes.

I came home determined to work on my novel(s). I did manage about half an hour of work on them, doing some research for my second novel and also trying to track down the publisher and agent of someone who has written an award-winning Young Adult novel that is Jewish-themed (frum), but aimed at a general audience. I am tempted to submit my first novel to the agency, and maybe the publisher, although I’ve been warned to be wary of approaching publishers directly even when they permit it.

I would have liked to have done more, but it wasn’t really possible for reasons I can’t go into here. I did some Torah study too and ate dinner with my parents (we try to eat together on Mondays) so it was pretty productive. I’m too tired to read now, so will probably vegetate in front of the TV. I guess there is always a price (although I did read quite a bit on my commute and during my lunch break).

***

There was Minchah and Ma’ariv (Afternoon and Evening Prayers) in the shul (synagogue) where my workplace is housed this afternoon and I went, my first weekday prayer service in quite a while. The rabbi asked if I wanted to lead Minchah and I turned him down pretty much instinctively from social anxiety. I wish I had had the confidence to lead the service, as I’d like to find that talent again. Also, the people who did lead the service were too fast. I like Goldilocks davening (praying): not too fast and not too slow. Unfortunately, davening at this shul is, as J says, “Nusach Einstein: davening at the speed of light.”

***

I’m in the middle of a Norman Frum Women podcast episode where they are talking to a psychiatrist about parenting neurodivergent children. I’m finding it interesting, not least from hearing the parents’ perspective, although my neurodivergence was undiagnosed when I was a child, so my parents didn’t deal with it in the same way. (I was walking while listening to this and so could not take detailed notes, so any mistakes are mine not theirs.)

There was an interesting functional definition of neurodivergence as being about having a brain that accumulates excess stress in everyday situations. There was a stress on the idea of neurodivergent disability being environmental (I think ‘situational’ might be a slightly better word), in that it manifests in a particular set of circumstances, but not others. I can cope with noise and people being in my space sometimes, but then throw in a day of work stress or my HALT triggers (being Hungry, Anxious, Lonely or Tired) and suddenly I’m not coping (that’s my example, not theirs, again in case of errors).

I was particularly interested to hear about “twice exceptional” children: children who are exceptional in being neurodivergent, but also exceptional in terms of being clever and often also well-behaved (which sounded like it could be a bad thing if they’re avoiding testing boundaries for the wrong reasons). These twice exceptional children can find it hard to get support in school, because everyone assumes they’re doing well. This definitely resonated with my school experiences, although realistically I’m not sure what help was actually available for me twenty-plus years ago when high-functioning autism was even less well-understood than it is now.

There was a positive note about adult neurodivergents often finding a “better fit” for their lives once they no longer have the artificial and stressful environment of school. I think there is some survivorship bias here, as the psychiatrist seemed to be judging based on some of her academic mentors/supervisors who she thinks are on the spectrum. I would suggest there are a lot more people on the spectrum who aren’t in high-powered academic jobs. Certainly I feel that the kind of life that would work for me is not one that is really on the table at the moment, if ever. I’m really only functioning with any kind of independence because a lot of people (my parents, E, J) are not making the demands of me at home or in the workplace that would perhaps normally be expected of a thirty-something with two degrees. I would like to build some kind of career of a writer, either full-time or with a small amount of part-time office work, but I have no idea if I’m going to be able to do so; my steps so far have been extremely faltering and rarely successful. I don’t mean this as a criticism, just my viewpoint.

I would be interested in a follow-up episode on adult neurodivergence in the frum (religious Jewish) community. Although maybe Normal Frum Women isn’t the best place for that, as there is a lot to say about men. The frum community makes considerable demands on both men and women. Men are more forced to do particular things at particular times (especially communal prayer) and are forced into noisy, crowded communal spaces like shuls and batei midrash (study halls). Women are encouraged/expected to support large and often noisy and messy families, so I can see there would be problems for neurodivergent women too. It would be interesting to hear how other autistic or otherwise neurodivergent people, male or female, manage it. I’ve struggled to find a place for myself communally, in shul and “learning” (adult education) and lately I feel as if I’m detaching myself from my current community. If anything, COVID has only accelerated this trend, by adding health anxiety to already existent social anxiety and showing me that I can survive well enough without communal prayer or Torah study. I’m not sure if our shul has got louder in recent since we got a more Hasidish rabbi about a year before COVID, but I am definitely struggling with the noise more since lockdown. By noise I mean clapping and thumping tables during Kabbalat Shabbat, rather than talking (there is very little of that at least). There is also occasional dancing, which I can’t cope with at all.

***

Yesterday saw the start of the new series of Doctor Who, structured as one big, six episode story. It was vaguely diverting, but I think twenty-first century Doctor Who isn’t really for me. I used to think it was due to things like pop cultural references, sexualising the Doctor/companion relationship, and hyper-sexual characters like Captain Jack and River Song, but even without all these things, I struggled to get involved. I just find it fast, loud, melodramatic, self-important and portentous in a way the twentieth century version was not (OK, the twentieth century version was melodramatic, I’ll give you that). I think it’s a charge you can level at a lot of popular culture e.g. superhero films, the Daniel Craig Bond films and so on.

I wouldn’t say it’s bad, just that it’s not for me. But I watch, perhaps out of loyalty or nostalgia, and I’ll probably give it a second viewing at some point, because re-watching when I know where the bad bits are helps me to find more good bits. Possibly I’m the epitome of the obsessive self-hating (or insane) fan. Even so, I’m glad the second-hand back-issue of Doctor Who Magazine from 1996 that I ordered arrived today. The issue is a tribute to third Doctor actor Jon Pertwee, tying in with the fact that I’m about to introduce E to him via one of his most memorable stories, The Green Death.

Help, I’m Trapped in a Blog Post Factory

(Again, I don’t have much to say, but feel the need to reach out.)

I decided not to go to shul (synagogue) last night as I was too exhausted, so instead of putting on my suit after my pre-Shabbat (Sabbath) shower, I wore casual trousers. There was still quite a bit of time before Shabbat, so I watched an episode of The Simpsons, after which I felt less exhausted, so I hurriedly changed into my suit and went to shul. I got pretty tired there, but I was glad I went.

Shabbat was pretty good with my uncle staying with us, although there’s a certain family dynamic that I feel increasingly uncomfortable with and don’t know what to do about it. I’ve spoken to my therapist a bit about it, but I feel I should discuss it again with her and/or with my rabbi mentor. It has to be said, though, that our Shabbat meals, which are prolonged at the best of times, become even longer when my uncle is around due to certain family members going into talking overdrive. The result was that by the time we finished dinner and I did some Torah study and my hitbodedut and a little bit of recreational reading, I went to bed very late, then overslept in the morning (as usual). Then after lunch I wanted to stay awake and do some Torah study in the short gap before Minchah, but, perhaps from too much peopling, I was exhausted and lay in bed for a while, albeit awake, just tired.

It occurred to me over Shabbat that I have, or at least am developing, my own personal religious worldview. By which I mean, not that I’m abandoning Orthodox Judaism, but that I feel there is space within Orthodox Judaism to develop a personal view of God, Torah, Jewish identity and the world as a whole, based on teachings that appeal to me as an individual, and that I am doing that. I wonder if this is an achievement that many people in Jewish world (Orthodox or otherwise) do not manage, inasmuch as it seems to require a high degree of textual literacy combined with serious thought about oneself, the Jewish tradition, the wider world, and the interactions between all of the above as well as a willingness to think independently and not just parrot other people’s ideas.

After Shabbat my Mum logged checked her phone and discovered that her cousin had died this morning. This has shaken me a little. The cousin was about twenty years older than her, but it’s still an intimation of my parents’ mortality.

My Dad took some photos of E and I on the last night she was here and I just downloaded them. They’re pretty good, but I feel I look awkward and wooden in most of them, except for one where E blinked as the photo was taken.

My father, and to a lesser extent my mother, were in a bad mood as their football team lost. This caused me to wonder why they would put themselves through the stress of following a football team who lose a lot, especially as the ‘down’ of losing seems to be bigger than the ‘up’ of winning. Then I remembered that Doctor Who is back tomorrow, and I’m not hopeful of it being good, given the standards of the last two seasons, and given that I have rarely fully connected with the new series. I hope my twenty-five year old Doctor Who Magazine back-issue arrives soon…

Mental Hangover

I really just wanted to check in. I am OK today, just really drained. I am a bit down, but it will pass, but my mind feels scattered as sometimes happens to me when drained, where it’s hard to focus on anything or get energy to do anything. I wish I had more downtime, though. My uncle is coming to stay for the weekend, as he’s working in the UK. I like spending time with him, but he’s quite a personality and I’m not sure I want that right now. I’ve already ducked Sunday night dinner with him, my parents, my sister and brother-in-law at my sister’s and BIL’s house. It was just too much. I need alone time to process the last two weeks. I’m not sure if I’ll make it to shul (synagogue) tonight, I just feel too drained.

I wrote a To Do list, as I felt I have a lot of stuff to do in coming weeks and lists help me get a grip on things without anxiety. It’s a relatively short list, which is reassuring, but many of the tasks are repetitive and are going to be ongoing for a long time, particularly finding an agent for my novel and researching my next novel Some of the one-off tasks are scary too, like trying to sort out the situation with the autism-adapted CBT referral.

Post-Trip Blues

E is somewhere over the Atlantic. She will be landing soon. I was OK before she left and even in the car on the way to the airport (Dad gave her a lift and I came with), but my mood plunged on the way home and I’ve been low and irritable all afternoon and evening. My parents have borne the brunt of the irritability, but the low mood is mostly in my own head. I forced myself to keep occupied: write my devar Torah (on an idea I’ve shared here, about changing the narratives we have for our lives), go for a forty minute walk (longer than my usual walks) and do some ironing. I watched Twin Peaks, ate ice cream and bought a back issue of Doctor Who Magazine for retail therapy. I feel I should be able to regulate my emotions better without external aids.

The trip was definitely a success. E and I got on really well in person (we were vaguely worried that somehow we wouldn’t), even better than over Skype. E got on well with my parents, sister and brother-in-law and vice versa. E and I had some Serious Conversations about moving our relationship on and we seem to be on the same page as each other about that. We are both really happy about the way things are going, while nervous about subsidiary issues like immigration and finances. But we are very into each other, and I have to say we engaged in Public Displays of Affection, something that usually irritates me when I see other people do it.

I do feel vaguely bad that I got exhausted so easily and had to ask for time out quite a bit. This was probably exacerbated by wearing a mask on so many dates as I find even mild activity while wearing a mask leaves me uncomfortably short of breath. E was really understanding about my fatigue, though. I feel that if I had an obvious physical disability, I would be more understanding of it, but as I have an invisible and non-physical disability (autism and autistic fatigue), I blame myself and feel ashamed. It doesn’t help that autistic fatigue is so poorly understood. But it’s good that E understands, even more than I do.

***

I listened to a Normal Frum Women podcast about increasing a connection to Yiddishkeit (Jewishness). It was pretty down to earth, which was good, as it could have been either very preachy or very abstract. Listening, it occurred to me that while most people becoming frum (religious Jewish) are encouraged to live in a strongly Jewish community, my Jewish engagement was at its strongest when I was in a small and declining community where I was one of the most Jewishly-engaged and knowledgeable people there. I led services and gave drashot (religious talks) because there were so few people there who could do things like that. Once I moved to my current community, I stopped, because I felt intimidated by how religiously knowledgeable and competent everyone seemed to be. I suppose the ideal for me would be a small and mixed shul (synagogue), mixed in terms of religious knowledge and practice, in a vibrant wider community that provided the shops, restaurants and other facilities for everyday Jewish life.

***

I mentioned I bought a Doctor Who Magazine back issue on eBay for retail therapy. It was the tribute issue to Jon Pertwee after he died. Pertwee played the third Doctor in the early seventies and is probably the second most well-remembered original series Doctor among non-fans, after Tom Baker. In the fan community, his reputation has ebbed and flowed. Those fans who grew up with him loved him (fan wisdom has it that your favourite Doctor is the one you grew up with), but a later generation saw him as rude and even reactionary. Then, after Pertwee’s death, fandom seemed to make its peace with him and accept him.

He is certainly sharp with those he disagrees with and is the only Doctor to have a day job, with the military (even if it is a UN-run outfit dealing with the unknown rather than the conventional military). He is also one of the more straight-laced Doctors, with fewer eccentricities than others. You tend to know what you’re going to get with him. My own opinion has gone back and forth, but in stories like Carnival of Monsters and The Time Warrior he is very loveable in a ‘weird uncle’ way. The series encourages us to laugh at him sometimes, not something the new series tends to do, and the character’s flaws are probably more intentional than some fans credit, creating a more rounded character, something emphasised in Pertwee’s final story, Planet of the Spiders, which tries to deconstruct his character a bit.

I bring this up because E wanted to watch another old series story before we watch David Tennant’s final season and I decided to go for a Pertwee story, as E hasn’t seen one yet and I’m curious as to how she will react. I haven’t chosen the story, and we’re limited by what she can borrow from her local library, but I’ve got it down to The Daemons, The Green Death or The Time Warrior. I’m inching towards The Green Death, giant maggots (yuk) and all. It’s an original series story with the emotional clout associated with more modern stories, and also the slight environmentalist preachiness. It has some seventies groovy-ness too, and has a decent plot, and it showcases the ‘classic’ early seventies regular cast line-up.

Opening Up

Today was a dull day at work. I went to the bank, which was about the most exciting bit. On the Tube, I finished reading both The Righteous Mind and Faith Shattered and Restored. I probably won’t read much over the next week and a half, with E here, so I was glad to finish them. I re-read the essay My Faith: Faith in a Postmodern World in Faith Shattered and Restored and I struggled to see why it had made such an impression on me when I first read it a month or so ago, as it left me more with questions than answers about how to live a life of self-acceptance and moral creativity. Strange. Maybe it just chimed with things I was thinking when I first read it about trying to live more in the moment, especially religiously.

J ask what I’m going to be doing on my week and a half off work, so I told him about E. He asked some questions including about where she will be staying (with us, which is not something I really wanted to advertise to frum people even if she will be in the spare bedroom), how long we’ve been going out (either three years or six months, depending on how you count the on/off nature) and whether we met online (yes, but not on a dating site, but via my blog). It was the first time I’ve told someone from my shul (synagogue) community about E. It went reasonably well. J is probably towards the more modern end of the shul spectrum (even if he doesn’t have a TV). People do date long-distance in the frum community, but I think they try to move to marriage faster than E and I are likely to be able to do. The whole idea of being in a ‘relationship’ is a bit un-frum (unreligious). People in the frum world date. If they connect, they get married pretty quickly; if they don’t, they break up quickly.

It only hit me later that it’s the first time I’ve really told a work colleague anything very personal about my private life, aside from stuff about depression, anxiety and autism that I felt I had to tell them to explain my behaviour and struggles. It felt a bit weird, but OK, better than I expected.

I’m going to get an early night as I have to be up early to meet E at the airport! I’m not sure that I’m going to blog much over the next week and a half.

Shabbat with Rav Shagar and Rav Kook

Friday felt like the first “early Friday” of the winter, when sunset, and the start of Shabbat (the Sabbath), are early and Friday is just a rush to get things done. I woke up late, at 10.40am, and jumped out of bed as I was Skyping my rabbi mentor at 11.00am. I don’t usually oversleep that badly if I’ve got an actual commitment (rather than just wanting to get up to get an early start or to daven (pray)). I felt awkward at talking to him before having davened, but I didn’t have time. The conversation was good. He reminded me that we have only just had one ‘normal’ week after all the autumn festivals and that it’s normal to still feel overwhelmed at this time of year, even without the nervous excitement of E visiting soon. He also suggested that I should talk to J about my work mistakes and see if he has any suggestions. Even being able to take a five minute break every hour might help with concentration. J sometimes talks to other people who work in the same building (including his father) who come into our office on pretexts or just to chat, but I generally stay out of the conversations because of autism and social anxiety, as well as feeling I should work, but, as my parents said, I probably do need breaks. I am pretty nervous about the conversation, although it’s unlikely that he hasn’t noticed the number of mistakes I’m making, even if he hasn’t made a big thing out of it.

I decided I would go to shul (synagogue) early after all, contrary to what I said in my last post, as I felt guilty about not helping to set up. However, E had a last minute problem and I prioritised helping her and so didn’t make it to shul early after all. I still felt overwhelmed by all the table thumping and clapping during Kabbalat Shabbat (part of Friday evening prayers). I wondered if it has got louder in the last year or if I just can’t cope at the moment. Autistic tolerance for noise can vary a lot based on factors like tiredness and general well-being. My parents pointed out that the layout of the room has changed twice in the last year and a bit, first when it was rearranged to socially distance everyone after the first lockdown and then when a third of the room was walled off by the school who own the building, so that may have changed the acoustics somewhat and made them more overwhelming.

I struggled to sleep again. I’m not sure why, and on Fridays it certainly isn’t screen time before bed. I wonder if I do need a new mattress. I read more of The Righteous Mind, and, when non-fiction got too heavy for me, half a Doctor Who graphic novel. I did eventually fall asleep, I think around 3.00am.

I didn’t go to shul today, morning or afternoon. I do feel that I’m drifting away from it and I don’t know what to do about it. I have so much to focus on at the moment and I’m trying just to narrow it down to a couple of things, otherwise it’s not achievable, and shul doesn’t seem urgent or important enough right now. I slept late in the morning and napped in the afternoon, so I’ll probably struggle to sleep tonight too.

***

I was reading Faith Shattered and Restored: Judaism in the Postmodern Age by Rabbi Shagar (Shimon Gershon Rosenberg) over Shabbat and found a couple of interesting quotes.

One was in the essay Love, Romance and Covenant:

The romantic metaphor for intimacy is one of self-discovery. But the self cannot be grasped, and neither can the Other, the object of love. At best, the self will briefly flicker into view, always through its attributes, which may bear the imprint of the other’s uniqueness. Like the hidden God who reveals Himself only through His actions — “You cannot see My face, for man shall not see Me and live” (Ex. 33:20) — so too the self. The very attempt to grasp something obstructs intimacy. Paradoxically, only through distraction can the self be discovered. (p. 141)

This made me think less about romantic relationships and more about my search for a sense of self, and for a sense of God. It suggests I can’t find either directly, only grasp them briefly, while doing something else, and probably through things I say or do or God says or does rather than from seeing myself or God directly. This connects with other thoughts I’ve been having recently based on my reading of Rabbi Shagar that I’m not ready to share here yet, but connected with the idea of finding God ‘in passing.’

The other is a passage, actually a quotation from Rav Kook, in the essay Mysticism, Postmodernism and the New Age which needs some introduction. The “Shattering of the Vessels” is the kabbalistic (Jewish mystical) creation myth. It differs somewhat from that in Bereshit (Genesis) (I think the Shattering of the Vessels is thought to have occurred before creation as described in Bereshit). According to this, God poured His “light” into “vessels” that were not strong enough to contain it, shattering and sending sparks across the now-created universe. The myth functions in part as an explanation of the problem of evil: how can evil exist in a universe created by a benevolent God? In answer, it suggests that evil was a by-product of the shattering of the vessels. The universe is broken and in need of repair. However, this provokes another question: why did God not make the vessels stronger to begin with? This is where Rav Kook begins:

Why does the shattering of the vessels occur? For, as the Godhead provides according to Its capacity, while the recipient is limited, the benefit would be limited as well. That is why He provides influence without limit, according to His aspect… even thought the created recipient cannot receive it without shattering completely, and then rebuilding himself through his desire to return to his unbounded source… And thus the created can make himself and attain the perfection of a creator, and transcend the limitations of the created. (Orot HaKodesh, quoted in Rabbi Shagar p. 127)

Rav Kook takes this in a mystical way and Rav Shagar uses it as part of an argument about postmodernism, but I want to use it in a psychological way.

We (those of us with mental health issues or trauma) are like the broken vessels. Previously, we were formed (in childhood) by nature and nurture, our DNA and childhood experiences. As we grew, we were overwhelmed by something we could not contain (trauma or mental illness triggers), like vessels shattering from the Infinite Light. However, the breakage is not irreparable. The process of therapy and recovery allows us to actively rebuild ourselves, instead of passively accepting our identities. In this way, we become (self-)creators and not passive creations.

“It’s all about telling stories. Nothing else matters.”

“Move fast and break things” was Mark Zuckerberg’s motto. Today I tried to move slowly and not mess stuff up. I went slowly over my work and checked it all slowly when I finished it. Even so, I made mistakes. One might have been because J didn’t tell me what to do properly, or I didn’t take it all in. The other was just absent-mindedness. Or perhaps concentrating too hard: I was so focused on getting one thing right, that I got something else wrong. I find there is so much to keep in mind at once when flipping between different spreadsheets and databases. It didn’t help that I struggled to sleep again last night. I can’t get by on four hours and several cups of coffee. I don’t have that ability to survive on low sleep the way some people do. It doesn’t help that I don’t know why I can’t sleep, although my Mum has been saying for a while that I should switch my mattress with one that, while as old as mine, hasn’t been used nearly as much. (My mattress is something like twenty years old.)

Sometimes I feel like I’m in the wrong job, although I don’t know what the right one would look like and I don’t want to give up the working hours that allow me time to write and the supportive, easy-going boss. J hasn’t said much in the way of rebuke for my mistakes, but he hasn’t made my contract permanent either, so I feel stuck in limbo.

Recently there has also been some office politics of the “X hates Y and comes to Z to complain about her”-type, which brings me down further. I don’t thrive on conflict.

I had a recruitment agent contact me to ask if I’m looking for a job. I am, inasmuch as I still glance at adverts every day. And I’m not, inasmuch as I have totally lost confidence in my ability to successfully do things in return for money. I feel that I mess stuff up so much that I have to do things for free, either because they’re voluntary or because they’re not monetary transactions (being a son and a boyfriend).

Reading The Righteous Mind made me feel I’m not “autistic enough” today too. Apparently if I like reading fiction over non-fiction, that makes me empathetic and less likely to be autistic. I just like the stories. I don’t think Jonathan Haidt meant it as an either/or thing, just to show tendencies on the spectrum, but reading it probably didn’t help my mood today. Haidt seems to be basing himself on Simon Baron-Cohen’s research, and Baron-Cohen is somewhat notorious in the autistic community for having a view of autism that many autistic people feel is limited and overly-focused on the idea of autistic people having “extreme male brains.” Many high functioning autistic people feel that they are more able to feel empathy than is presumed. We can feel emotional empathy, sharing other people’s moods; we struggle with cognitive empathy, predicting other people’s thoughts.

Looking back over the last paragraph, “I just like the stories” reminds me of something late 1970s Doctor Who producer Graham Williams said in an interview about, “It’s all about telling stories. Nothing else matters.” That’s really what is keeping me going (in terms of work thoughts, rather than knowing that E and my family care about me), the thought that I might one day write stories professionally. As to whether I have the skill to do it, or the skill to get published [1] — I go back and forth on that. It seems so daunting, just thinking about sending out more query letters, and somehow it drifts down the priority list.

***

My shul (synagogue) wants people to volunteer to help set up before Shabbat (the Sabbath) and tidy up afterwards. The teenage boys who usually do it can’t do it this week. I feel torn. I used to help with things like this, but on days like today I feel like I’m struggling just to keep my head above water. I also feel like I have ‘autistic help disorder’ — with the best will in the world, unless someone gives me a specific task, I just sort of mill around not being sure what to do and getting in the way (Amanda Harrington described this as typical Asperger’s behaviour, although the name is my own). I don’t feel comfortable enough in shul to say, “Please give me a specific task.” I wouldn’t even know who to ask.

***

Looking at birthday cards on the Card Factory website, it astonishes me how unfunny most of the “funny” ones are. The best ones are feeble puns; the worst just insult the recipient. And that’s without the sexual “humour” cards available in their high street shops. There’s a lot of cards about getting blind drunk, as if that’s the only way people celebrate. Who buys these things? No wonder the trend seems to be to make your own card from photos pasted onto a template.

***

[1] The skill to get published is definitely different to the skill to write. I suspect some good writers do not know how to get published, while some mediocre ones do. At the moment, I’m not sure if I have either skill.

Alexander the Great and Me

I’m still feeling overwhelmed. I had hoped for a quiet Shabbat (Sabbath) and one where I wouldn’t need/want to blog much afterwards, so I could use the Saturday evening for chores, writing or relaxation. I did have a fairly quiet Shabbat, but it brought up a lot of thoughts, not all of which I’m recording here.

I went to shul (synagogue) on Friday night, but not today. I felt in shul that I’m drifting away from the community. I stopped going to shul so much when I moved from my old community in 2016, partly because of social anxiety about attending a new shul and then because I changed jobs in 2017 and was working longer hours. By the time that job finished in 2018, I was back in depression for a while. COVID has pushed me further from regular attendance. I’m out of the habit, and I no longer feel the connection to my community that I once felt.

In a way this is good, as I can’t see E feeling comfortable in my current community. I think E would prefer a United Synagogue community. The problem is, I would not feel fully comfortable. Nothing like the US (United Synagogue) really exists in the USA or Israel. It’s a type of community where the official hashkafah (worldview) is Modern Orthodox, but many of the rabbis are Haredi (ultra-Orthodox), while most congregants are not particularly religious and don’t keep Shabbat or kashrut (the dietary laws), to the extent that I would not feel comfortable eating at their houses. It leads to a weird type of community where a core of congregants can be very religiously knowledgeable and involved, while most aren’t interested at all and see shul as a social or traditional thing more than a religious one. In the past, I’ve been one of those very knowledgeable and involved people. I guess it gave me a role, but I didn’t have many friends, although that was at least partly because there were so few people my age in that community. I wanted to be in a frummer (more religious) community, one where people cared about davening (prayer) and Torah study as my previous shul struggled to get a weekday minyan (prayer quorum) and had few shiurim (religious classes). In reality I feel (perhaps not accurately) that I’ve struggled to be accepted in a frummer community, so maybe I would be better in a US shul. However, the local US shul (my parents’ one) is not right for me, too large and impersonal and too many people who know my parents and think of me as my parents’ son rather than a person in my own right.

After shul was dinner. I spent some time after dinner doing Torah study (quite a lot, about an hour and a half, I think) and also reading Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion — very interesting so far, with the caveat that social psychology as a discipline has a replication problem (i.e. famous experiments have not yielded the same results when repeated by other researchers).

I went to bed late, but couldn’t sleep. Eventually I read a Doctor Who graphic novel for a bit as I didn’t have a head for more Righteous Mind. While I was lying in bed, I had the following thought. I only recently heard the term “rainbow baby” for a child born after a miscarriage or stillbirth. I don’t know if it’s a new term or American English or if I just hadn’t heard it. It occurred to me that my Dad is a “rainbow baby.” His mother had five miscarriages before he was born, which is a lot. Then he was three weeks late and a breech birth; he had to be delivered by emergency caesarean at a time when this was still somewhat dangerous. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that he was basically a miracle child, his parents doted on him. They were kind and gentle people anyway, but I think that made it impossible for him to do wrong in their eyes. He was very close to both his parents, but especially his father. It occurred to me that I am wary of having positive self-regard in case I become “narcissistic” or “selfish.” Yet my father has a strong positive self-regard from his stable and loving childhood, but he’s a very generous and caring person and not at all narcissistic. I’m not sure what conclusion to draw from this, exactly, but it made me think.

Today was a pretty normal Shabbat. It feels like an autumn/winter Shabbat both with bad weather and Shabbat finishing earlier. I did some Torah study and reading. I wanted to stay awake after lunch and drank coffee to help, but I still dozed for a while. Eating a heavy lunch just makes me tired these days and maybe I have to accept that. I just hope I don’t have insomnia again tonight.

I struggled all day with wanting to work on my novel, which obviously I could not do on Shabbat, but even after Shabbat, I’m not sure where to make my first move, so to speak. I really want to start writing it, for reasons that are probably wrong. I think it’s a story worth telling, but I think I also want to use it to help understand and process my emotions and personal history, which may or may not be a good idea. I think I have a lot of research and planning to do before I write, but I’m burning up inside; just the idea of this novel has triggered so many thoughts connected with parts of my life that I’ve repressed as well as childhood — I don’t want to say “trauma,” as it wasn’t the type of trauma other people I’ve met have carried, but therapists have presented it to me as traumatic, at least in the colloquial sense. Maybe I need to take this to therapy first, before I do anything with it.

With my previous novel (which I have to keep reminding myself is not yet published and I need to make sure I don’t forget to keep looking for an agent and a publisher just because that bit involves too much rejection), I had some support in building on my own experiences, which I have a bit here, but nowhere near as much. I guess I feel excited and nervous about this project at the same time, like Alexander the Great when he woke up one morning and said to himself, “You know what might be a good idea? Conquering THE ENTIRE KNOWN WORLD!”[1] And then I think what that will entail, and how long it will take, and that no one will pay me until after it’s all finished, and that writing about sex and porn addiction in the frum community might lead to people making all kinds of assumptions about me, and I think, “Do I really want to do this?” Yes, I do, but it’s still scary.

I bought some books I want for research tonight. One was for research, but also touches on the area of “trauma,” or pseudo-trauma, in my own history that I wanted to confront. I also cleared out my email inbox, which wasn’t directly relevant to my writing project, but was something I needed to do, and I set some goals for this week, which may need refining, but hopefully will get me doing chores AND looking for agents AND doing research without overloading me. I won’t be going to volunteering this week, though, as I need time to focus on myself after Yom Tov. So I think I’ve made a good start on things, but it’s gone midnight now and I ought to be thinking about winding down for the night.

[1] Or, if you prefer The Pinky and the Brain: “What are we going to do tonight, Brain?” “The same thing we do every night, Pinky: try to take over the world!!!!!”

The World is Not Enough

Not much happened over Yom Tov (Jewish festival), but I need to write quickly to clear my head before getting into work mode for tomorrow (yikes!). I went to shul on Monday night, but not subsequently. The last two days were a mixture of praying at home, Torah study, recreational reading, and sleeping, sometimes too much and at the wrong times (oversleeping, insomnia etc.). I had a headache last night, just as I did on Simchat Torah night last year. I hope this isn’t turning into a regular thing. (The headache last year was worse, a full-blown migraine that made me throw up.)

There is a pervasive sound of sukkahs being taken down tonight. I’m not quite sure how to get into the mindset for work tomorrow. I feel like I need neutral time between holy time and work time. Not for the first time, I wonder how frum Israelis cope without Sundays. It feels strange, not having another Yom Tov in sight after a month of them, although it’s Shabbat again in two days. It will feel stranger having a full week next week, and I’m sure it will take some time to get up to full-strength. I would like to make some progress on finding an agent for my novel and starting work (at least research if not writing) on my second novel, but it will probably take a couple of weeks to get to that point.

I came back to the blogosphere to find not much had changed. There was a post from the Oxford University Doctor Who Society about the news that Russell T Davies is returning as showrunner. I skimmed it, but felt too disheartened to read properly. On the one hand, lots of enthusiastic comments from younger members, particularly those who apparently judge the quality of a story primarily by how many LGBT/non-white characters there are and how loudly the programme signals its virtue (but who have zero interest in the show finally having an explicitly Jewish character after fifty-eight years, presumably because “Jews are white”). On the other, older members who just seem generally reactionary and pining for the 1970s. I don’t fit in to either category — I’m happy to have minority representation, if it’s part of a good story and not an end in itself (but, yes, it would be nice to see a Jew, a real, full-blooded one) — but it’s things like this that make me feel that I could never get back into fandom, which is sad. The culture shock, or culture shocks plural are too great. This saddens me somewhat, but I guess it’s life. Nothing stands still; everything moves on. When I was a teenager, Doctor Who was this weird, half-forgotten thing that only appealed to a very select type of person, but now it has a much broader base and the people like me have been subsumed by a new generation, or generations. Which is as it should be, but sometimes I wish there was a way to find people like me again. I might console myself by buying an old issue of mid-90s Doctor Who Magazine that I don’t have to relive the time when fandom was for people like me.

I guess I feel down, mostly regarding Yom Tov, but also a bit Doctor Who fandom, a feeling that the party is over, but also that I wasn’t enjoying it all that much anyway, feeling I didn’t quite connect with Yom Tov and shul as I should and that I haven’t really connected with Doctor Who fandom for a long time.

Oh, well, I should get something to eat, watch Twin Peaks, and try to read the last five pages of Goldfinger before bed. Back to work in twelve hours…

“Well, I tell them there’s no problems/Only solutions”

I’m still haunted by the Very Scary Task. Although my work on it was already completed, the actual event I was organising happened today. My Dad woke me up early (not very early, but early for me), thinking I still had work to do on it. Then I got a call less than an hour before the VST was due to start which scared me into thinking something had gone wrong until I saw it was Mum. She couldn’t get to work because of traffic caused by people panic-buying petrol at all the petrol stations. (Panic-buying seems to be a persistent issue of recent years and I’m not sure how to stop it. Ministers going on TV saying, “Stop panic-buying” does very little and might even make it worse.) Anyway, that Very Scary Task must be over by now and no one phoned me up to complain, so hopefully it went OK.

***

The good Sukkot weather we’ve been having came to an end with heavy rain this morning, although the skies are clearer now. At least I got out there for lunch and dinner every day. Tomorrow we start praying for rain, which always feels like the ‘official’ start of autumn.

I think I’ve coped OK with the Yom Tovim (Jewish festivals). I coped with ‘peopling’ and general religious stress better than I expected, if anything, although I got to shul (synagogue) less than I would have liked. I plan to go to shul for Minchah and Ma’ariv (Afternoon and Evening Prayers) tonight and maybe for Minchah tomorrow, but not at all over Simchat Torah. I’ll just pray at home. It saddens me to have to just completely give up on a Jewish festival, but the alternative is to end up thoroughly overloaded and miserable.

Simchat Torah is just too stressful for me as someone with social anxiety and autism, with the raucous singing and dancing, not to mention the auctioning of honours in return for commitment to Talmud study, which just drives home to me how little Talmud study I do in comparison to some people, and my unwillingness to commit to much for fear that a mental health relapse will stop me meeting that commitment. The shul community tries to study the whole of the Mishnah, the oldest stratum of the Talmud, every year, with different people committing to study different chapters in return for different honours in the shul over Simchat Torah. The biggest honours are reserved for people who will study hundreds of pages of Talmud (Mishnah and Gemarah) over the coming year. While I prefer this system to those shuls that auction Simchat Torah honours in return for donations to the shul or to charity, it still makes me feel uncomfortable on multiple levels. It seems prideful and lacking in humility, as well as creating (or maintaining) a de facto hierarchy based on intelligence and study skills. Actually, the three very biggest honours are awarded to three people who have done things for the community, which I find preferable, although usually one of them is someone my age and I realise I will never get an honour like this, as I don’t have the ability or headspace to do community work. Although I think I would freak out if I was the centre of attention like that.

There was one year I did really get into Simchat Torah, and I’m not sure how I did it. I think my depression was in remission at the time and I was in a community where I felt more comfortable, the one I had grown up in, and there probably weren’t that many people there, as it was a declining community.

***

I finally got through to the Maudsley Hospital to try to find out where I am with autism-adjusted CBT. Apparently my GP should have referred me and applied for funding, instead of handing it back to the psychiatrist who assessed me, so I’ve just lost a couple of months and am still not on the waiting list. I don’t blame the GP, as NHS bureaucracy seems so convoluted that it doesn’t surprise me that even NHS doctors don’t know how to navigate it. I am so past surprised that this has happened. But now I have another reason to try to see my GP next week, if the NHS gatekeepers will deign to allow me an appointment (none were available online today).

***

I feel like I need a holiday. I’ve found the Yom Tovim draining and I didn’t get a real break over Chol HaMoed because of the VST. I haven’t had a proper holiday since the end of 2019, and, while I often find holidays stressful, at least on some level, COVID and a job that sometimes stresses me out more than I would like have left me longing for some kind of break, especially after such a disruptive month. I’ve got to get through the next month before E comes over. That’s probably the best kind of break for me, in that I don’t have to go anywhere, pack, travel, and do all the things that stress me as an autistic person going on holiday. Also the best kind of break in that it’s with E!

“Deep in my heart/There’s a house/That can hold/Just about all of you”

Just a quick note on Shabbat Chol HaMoed. It was mostly OK. Friday night was fine. I went to shul as usual. I realised that the really loud clapping was coming from just three people. I’m not sure if that’s good, bad or indifferent. After dinner, I read the essay My Faith: Faith in a Postmodern World by Rabbi Shagar (Hebrew acronym for Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg) in the collection Faith Shattered and Restored: Judaism in the Postmodern Age. It affected me quite powerfully. It suggested that my approach to issues like religion, inspiration and living in the moment wasn’t as unusual or inadequate as I thought. I don’t really want to discuss the specifics of the essay yet. I need more time to think and process. It affected me so much that I thought I would re-read it a couple of times, maybe about a month apart, until I feel I’ve learnt what I can from it (it’s not a very long essay, I read it in about an hour).

My parents had friends here for lunch, not people I really know. I sat in the sukkah with them, the portable hut/home we eat in during the festival of Sukkot, the festival which is ongoing. I coped with the social interactions and even joined in the conversation a little, but crashed afterwards and slept for a couple of hours, which I didn’t want to do. This was partly because I’m trying to improve my sleep pattern, or at least not mess it up further, but also because I’m trying not to sleep in the afternoon during Sukkot. During Sukkot, one should ideally sleep in the sukkah. This far north, that’s not really feasible as it’s too cold and there is an exemption, but I felt that at least I shouldn’t sleep outside the sukkah during the day, when it’s somewhat warmer and I could theoretically sleep in there. However, my parents and their friends were in the sukkah and, in any case, there is no bed out there and I can’t sleep sitting, so I slept in my room.

By the time I woke up, there wasn’t really time for much more than davening Minchah (saying Afternoon Prayers), which I did at home as I couldn’t really face more peopling, and eating seudah shlishit (the third Sabbath meal).

I had a headache by the evening and watched The Twilight Zone in my room, hoping it wouldn’t turn into a migraine. I was mostly OK there; it seems to have gone now, although I’ll probably try to go to bed soon.

***

This was supposed to be a quick note on today, but as I don’t have a Doctor Who blog any more, I can’t resist a quick reflection on today’s Doctor Who news. Feel free to skip the rest of the post if you aren’t interested.

It was announced today that Russell T Davies would be returning to Doctor Who as showrunner, the position he held from 2005 to 2009 (or 1 January 2010, if you want to be pedantic). It’s probably a sign that the BBC see the show as being in crisis with falling ratings and popularity, whereas Davies’ period had high ratings and critical acclaim. The BBC want to turn the clock back.

I’ve never really connected with Davies’ work on the show (something driven home to me by re-watching his stories with E — we just finished Evolution of the Daleks). There were stories I enjoyed, but a lot that I didn’t enjoy, and even in the ones I did enjoy, there would be things that annoyed me. Then again, I didn’t really connected with current showrunner Chris Chibnall’s last season either (I preferred his first one (2018), flawed though it was). I did mostly enjoy Steven Moffat’s time as showrunner (2010-2017), but even then odd things would annoy me. I had been hoping for Toby Whithouse as the new showrunner, most of whose scripts for the series I enjoyed, but I did not think it likely that he would get it.

It’s true that I don’t really connect with twenty-first century Doctor Who on the whole for many reasons, except in comic strip format in Doctor Who Magazine, strangely (seriously, the comic is amazing, probably because it doesn’t have space for the stuff that annoys me in the current TV episodes). The problem is probably that I don’t connect with contemporary culture in general, and Doctor Who is now very of-its-time. I hate being the stereotypical reactionary fan who jumps onto the computer as soon as an episode is finished to declare it the “Worst episode ever,” but I can’t like something that doesn’t connect with me emotionally. Possibly I would be happier if I stopped watching, but I can’t see myself doing that somehow, certainly not while it’s available for free (free-ish — my Dad pays the TV licence).

There’s a monograph to be written on fandom as a form of addiction or masochism, not being able to let go even when you don’t like it. I’ve been there before and I’ve seen other people there too, and it isn’t pretty. I kind of admire people who can say, “This isn’t for me any more, I’ll just stick with the old episodes,” rather than constantly hoping for it to be something it isn’t. To be fair, I think last year’s season was the first since the series returned where I hardly liked any of the stories on any level. But I don’t feel hopeful for the future.

Work Anxiety and Reading

Sukkot (the Jewish festival that started on Monday night and goes on until — well, that’s actually hard to say, but basically until next Wednesday evening (nine days)) is supposed to be the most joyous of festivals. So far my Sukkot has not been bad as such, but it has been stressful, and doesn’t look set to let up for a while yet.

On Monday morning I woke feeling depressed and self-critical. Reading JYP’s anti-self-deprecation post just made me feel worse, as I couldn’t think of five things I am good at. Perhaps fortunately, I didn’t get a chance to post about it, as J texted to me to get me to do the Very Scary Task for work. As it was technically a work day for me, I didn’t think I could get out of it. It did at least distract me from my incipient depression with some anxiety instead.

I spent the day doing what I could on the VST (it will have to be continued tomorrow and maybe on Friday). It involved a lot of phone calls and texts back and forward, as it usually does. We (my father and I) also had to dash out to replace the willows in our arbah minim (branches waved during prayer on Sukkot) as they had sold us dead willows, and inevitably someone I was trying to get hold of decided to phone me back when I was about to go into the shop. The day was a rush to get everything done in time for Yom Tov (the festival). I did not go into Yom Tov in a very positive state of mind. I won’t say I spent the whole of Yom Tov worrying, but I did worry a bit.

I went to shul (synagogue) and afterwards we (my parents and I) ate in the sukkah (temporary home in the garden) as we are supposed to and I felt a bit better. I stayed up late reading The Sisters of the Winter Wood to try to relax, as I didn’t expect to make it to shul in the morning anyway.

Day one of Sukkot (Tuesday) was mostly spent reading. In terms of religious books, I read bits of Divrei HaYamim/The Book of Chronicles in Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), The Quest for Authenticity: The Thought of Reb Simhah Bunim by Rabbi Michael Rosen and Faith Shattered and Restored: Judaism in the Postmodern Age by Rav Shagar. In terms of secular reading, I finished The Sisters of the Winter Wood. I didn’t really connect with it and stayed up late to finish it as I wanted to get it over with. Rena Rossner, who wrote it, was the literary agent who turned down my novel, so I can see why we don’t connect. I think her writing is ethereal and mythic whereas mine is somehow concrete and grounded. Or maybe that’s just over-rationalising it.

I went to shul for Minchah and Ma’ariv (Afternoon and Evening Prayers). There was a shiur (religious class) in between. It was about halakhah (Jewish law). I didn’t understand much of it and what I did understand made me worry about whether our sukkah was kosher. It probably is, as this is not the first time a Sukkot shiur has made me worry about such things, but I worry about triggering my OCD. I think some speakers can be irresponsible in the way they present topics, or maybe I’m just vulnerable to self-doubt.

Today I got up very late as my parents went out for lunch. I ate my own lunch by myself in the sukkah and started reading the James Bond novel Goldfinger. I hadn’t planned to read it yet, but I wanted to read something that was as unlike The Sisters of the Winter Wood as possible and I couldn’t think of anything further from it. I did a load of religious reading as well, as I knew I wouldn’t go to shul for the shiur in case it did trigger my OCD. I made a last-minute decision to at least go to shul for Minchah, as I feared I was giving in to social anxiety and laziness in skipping shul, especially as I know I won’t be going much next week, as Simchat Torah is a nightmare with autism and social anxiety and I have no intention of putting myself through that whole experience any more (unless E and I are able to have children, I guess).

I need to be up early tomorrow, as I could start getting calls about the VST at 9.00am – hopefully not earlier, although J has been known to text earlier (I think he assumes I get up at 6.00am for Shacharit). As well as work, I would like to write a devar Torah as I didn’t write one last week, but I’m not sure I will have the time or energy. I’d like to work on my short story too, but the same applies. Just in case things weren’t difficult enough, my father’s best friend (a man I have always found hugely intimidating even before he got sent to prison for four years for smuggling drugs) is coming for lunch and my parents have some other friends coming in the evening. This is all in order to eat in the sukkah and do festival socialising. Unfortunately, as I will need to eat in the sukkah too, I will more or less have to see them, make small talk with them and be prevented from sticking my head in a book or watching TV as I would normally do at mealtimes, particularly if stressed from VSTing. The only alternative is to eat at weird times, which wouldn’t really work for practical reasons.

I don’t feel particularly tired (I haven’t done much for the last two days), but I should be trying to unwind and sleep before VSTing tomorrow. I feel the urge to avoid going to bed, as if that will avoid finishing the VST. I’m nervous about tomorrow, so many social anxiety-triggering things. I should watch TV or something and try not to think about things.

Scary Monsters and Super Creeps

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

A Serious Day on Serious Earth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

Writing About Writing

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

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

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

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

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

Success but Hollow Inside

I’ve only got a short time to write, but I wanted to write something and try to process my feelings about Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year).

The background to Rosh Hashanah was a mini-heatwave that hit us unexpectedly. I was expecting it to be pleasant, but it was uncomfortably hot, which had an impact on my mood throughout. The other background is that I had asked to sit in the covered area outdoors, by the window of the shul (synagogue), intended for people who were unwilling or unable to sit indoors because of COVID anxiety or reduced immunity. The acoustics at the window were bad and I spent a lot of my time at shul round the corner by the door, where I could hear and see what was going on rather better.

I don’t really remember much special about the first night in shul. I think I did feel pretty positive, despite the poor acoustics. At home we ate the simanim, special symbolic foods eaten to symbolise a good new year. We have only been doing this for a couple of years and it still has novelty value. Even though it was late, I did some Torah study after dinner, as I hadn’t done much during the day and felt that I wanted to connect to God. I struggled to sleep that night, whether from the heat or the mixed feelings I had being at shul, feeling I was missing out by being outside, but also feeling that I would have a lot of COVID anxiety inside.

I woke up early the next morning, but struggled to get up, I think because of social anxiety rather than burnout, although maybe a bit of both. I find it hard to accept social anxiety as a legitimate excuse for missing shul, even though it happens a lot. I got to shul in time for the sermon and the blowing of the shofar, the ram’s horn trumpet. Even though I was very late, I still stayed for another three hours until the end of the service; Rosh Hashanah services are very long. I slipped into the shul standing just inside the doorway to hear the shofar, otherwise staying outside except when I was asked to open the Ark for Alenu. I felt I couldn’t really turn it down as I had come in for the shofar, and I think it was an hour to be asked for that particular prayer (where we bow on the floor, something we only do here and on Yom Kippur).

I napped after lunch, then went to shul for Minchah (Afternoon Prayers) and then on to the brook for Tashlich, then came home. I was getting a headache, which I managed to stop turning into a massive migraine with early intervention, but I felt drained and justified in my decision not to go back for Ma’ariv (Evening Prayers).

I didn’t sleep well again and I struggled to get up in the morning. I had the “flat battery” feeling where I just don’t have the energy to sit up, let alone get dressed and go to shul. I eventually managed to get up around lunchtime. I was upset to have missed shul, but not surprised to be so burnt out. I was too burnt out to catch up on prayers and I didn’t want to delay my parents’ lunch.

After lunch I was still tired, so I napped again before saying the Mussaf prayers. I read the Jewish Review of Books for a bit, then went to shul for Minchah. I somehow found the confidence to tell the rabbi I had missed the morning prayers and the shofar blowing and he arranged for someone to blow it for me before Minchah started. I was pleased, and surprised that I found the confidence to do it, but I felt so socially anxious about drawing attention to myself asking for this that I struggled to focus on the shofar, and later on the prayers for Minchah. I decided I did not have the energy left for the shiur (religious class) and Ma’ariv, so I went home.

J left the same time as I did and said he didn’t see me in the morning and asked if I was OK. I said I’d been unwell, but was OK now; I didn’t want to go into a big thing about autistic burnout in the street. He said if I’m unwell tomorrow not to force myself to come into work, which was nice.

On the whole Rosh Hashanah must be a success, as I got to shul quite a bit and heard the shofar both days. However, I feel kind of hollow and down now and I don’t know why. Some of it is lack of passive relaxation time or alone time. I’ve spent most of my waking hours the last two days with other people, at shul or at home. Beyond this, I suppose I just wonder if I’ll ever get back to being the person who can go to every single service and shiur during the festival.

I suppose I also always focus on the next goal rather than the one just completed. There’s a story about a Hasidic rabbi (I think the Maggid of Mezeritch; I don’t have time to check) who was asked by a Hasid why, whenever he tried to move closer to God, God seemed as far away as ever. The Maggid said that it’s like a father with a toddler. The father calls the child to him, who takes a few faltering steps towards him, but as he gets near, the father moves a few steps away and calls him again, and so on. This is frustrating for the child, but is how he learns to walk. Similarly, God moves further and further away to call us towards Him, but I don’t know how to deal with the lack of self-esteem that results from feeling I have not reached God and am as far away as ever.

I actually spent a lot of time over Rosh Hashanah thinking about what it would mean to accept that God loves me. I’m not sure I came to any great conclusions. I find it easier to see God as punitive than loving, at least towards me, and I’m not sure why or how to change that. I don’t see God as punitive in an abstract, theological sense, or towards other people, but I find it hard to believe He could love me unconditionally.

The other thing I thought about a bit over Yom Tov was abuse (child abuse, get withholding etc.) in the Jewish community. It’s been in the news again lately. I wonder how God can forgive us while it goes on. There isn’t really anything I can do about it, except write about it, which makes me want to get my novel published. On which note, a book I’d ordered, a guide to publishers, editors and literary agents, arrived today, which may help me to plan my next step.

OK, I’m off to get ready for tomorrow, and to see if I can have something to eat and fit in Midweek Twin Peaks before bed.

Last Day of the Year

I couldn’t sleep last night, possibly the result of eating ice cream late at night (it can give me a sugar rush, I think). It was a bad decision, but I felt that, after several difficult days, with several more to come, I needed a treat. About 3.00am, I decided to get up and do some work in the hope it would bore me to sleep. At the very least, I would wake up to less work in the morning. I did just under an hour of work at night and another hour today. All the bits I’ve done since Friday work out at roughly a full day for me, and I’ve also conveniently finished all the work I had to do at home, which I guess is a good way to finish the Jewish year.

I filled in the form for the Department of Work and Pensions about my benefits. I didn’t have the payslips they wanted as I’m freelance and invoice J every month. I hadn’t kept all the invoices either, which I should have done, because the taxman may want them. I found the last two. I wish I wasn’t so vague and clumsy about practical and financial things. I don’t know what I’d do without my Dad here, really. There are courses in personal finance and the like for people on the spectrum. I’ve always resisted going on them, because I felt I’m too high-functional, but maybe I’m not really.

In a few hours it will be the start of a new Jewish year, 5782. I like that Jewish year numbers are so big, even though the count was only started (retroactively) in the Middle Ages and I don’t believe that Adam and Chava (Eve) were created literally 5782 years ago tomorrow. Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) is about crowning God as our King. This entails accepting that He knows what He’s doing with everything He does. To this end, I’m going to try not to worry about stuff over the next two days and accept everything He has planned for me for the next year, regardless of whether it’s what I want or expect. This includes trying not to worry about getting to shul, hearing the shofar, about talking to people or about walking in hours after the service has started and the like.

Shana tova – happy new year! May we all be signed and sealed for life, and a good life at that!

Muddling Through

I overslept dramatically again, as I basically do every day when I don’t go out to work. Sigh. Anyway, I managed to put in two hours of very dull work from home work (data entry and sorting my predecessor’s emails – I think he never deleted an email, even spam, and had something like 2,500 emails from a five or so year period when I started). It was boring, but hopefully will take some pressure off tomorrow.

I’m still pretty stressed. As well as the two hours of work, I did a couple of small chores and I went to a virtual shiur (religious class), but I still need to do an hour and a half or two hours work tomorrow and I have a load of paperwork about benefits and bank accounts that have suddenly been thrown at me at this busy time of year. It’s like everyone decided, “Hey, Luftmentsch is stressed! Let’s throw him some pointless busywork too!” Then I had to change some plans at the last minute and I’m not sure how I avoided a meltdown. I went for a walk and tried to be mindful which helped a bit and then I had a Skype call with E and felt a lot better after that.

Even so, I feel pretty overstretched, which is not the best way to go into the busiest month of the year, especially when I want to get to shul (synagogue) so much, but am aware that shul attendance is the first thing to become impossible (because of burnout and social anxiety) when I’m stressed. I guess remembering what I discussed with the rabbi last week about being strategic in my shul attendance is important here, and my general attempts not to beat myself up about everything. To remember that God loves me and knows my struggles.

On the plus side, I feel this year that for the first time, as well as goals for the coming year, I can set long-term goals for the next five years, which is exciting and scary. The long-term goals are more life stages to try to move to, while the short-term goals are more to improve aspects of my character.

***

The virtual shiur was interesting. It was about teshuvah (repentance/returning to God/returning to ourselves) being as much an inner psychological process for mental health as an external one. Rabbi Dweck was wary of the approach to teshuvah that says, “Take on another mitzvah (commandment)” instead of looking inside at our inner drives. This is a realisation I’ve come to myself over the years, at least for my (not always mentally healthy) self, but it was good to have external validation. I felt the shiur could have been a bit deeper, maybe with more practical suggestions. Rabbi Dweck did suggest journaling and just being aware of oneself during day to day life, which is part of why I write here, to process and understand myself.

The shiur reinforced the feeling I’ve had for a while that the novel I want to write about a frum pornography addict isn’t actually primarily a story about sex or addiction, but one about teshuvah, although I can see that many people will not be able to look past the surface to that. There is a quote I came across from Rav Kook recently about teshuvah being a subject for poets and artists, which is similar to what I want my novel to be.

***

I did a COVID test for the first time. My shul (synagogue) wants everyone to do one before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the upcoming Jewish festivals. The first time I tried, I spilt some of the liquid, so I had to redo it. Then I’m not sure I got my tonsils properly with the swab. I just stuck the swab in until I wanted to gag, then repeated on the other side. I don’t like the way COVID is triggering OCD-type thoughts in me, less contamination thoughts than scrupulosity: “Am I doing it right?”-type thoughts. I still have guilt about hugging my ex-girlfriend (just hugging!) although it won’t stop me hugging E when she comes to visit. One site I found said that if you’re infected, swapping the uvula and perhaps even the cheeks will show up enough virus for a positive result, so hopefully I’m OK. I feel like this could turn into the COVID equivalent of kashering my sink for Pesach if I’m not careful, something I repeat and obsess about endlessly.

Prejudice

I’m not sure what I feel about dinner with the rabbi yesterday. It was basically OK. I didn’t say much, but I did say a bit and mostly felt comfortable except when I spilt some water and then worried that I had tried to mop it up in a way that was not permitted on Shabbat, although I don’t know why I got this impression. On the downside, I felt some people were talking about non-Jews in a less-than-respectful way. This kind of casual racism in the frum (religious Jewish) world bothers a lot of people, including me, but it’s hard to know how to challenge it. A lot of Jews seem to have an attitude that Jews have been the victims of prejudice so often that we can’t perpetuate it, which is illogical (as illogical as the parallel view in the woke world that Jews can’t be the victims of real prejudice because many of them are pale-skinned).

It would annoy me in the abstract, but having had a lot of non-Jewish friends over the years, through Doctor Who fandom and the blogosphere, I take it somewhat personally. Plus, the Torah says that all human beings are made in the image of God, and human dignity is a fundamental Jewish value.

There was also some discussion at dinner over whether the mission in life of a Jew is just to study Torah or whether there is room for political engagement (or artistic endeavour, which wasn’t explicitly stated, but was hinted at). I said that it’s impossible to know what an individual’s mission in life is; for one person it might indeed be significant Torah study, but for another it might be something else. Fortunately, the rabbi agreed with me. I did not think to mention an idea I once heard that the descendants of Leah have the role of engaging in pure spirituality, whereas the descendants of Rachel have the role of bringing the spiritual into the physical world, although as I heard this from a Modern Orthodox Rosh Yeshivah, maybe it’s as well I didn’t.

It’s things like this (racism and narrow viewpoints) that make me feel that I will never fully fit into this community, even though it has many aspects I like and appreciate, such as good decorum (Orthodox shuls (synagogues) are notorious for talking during prayers and even Torah reading and for young children running in and out the whole time) and a davening (praying) pace that is neither too fast nor too slow for me, as well as an attitude to davening and Torah study that is serious and committed, but with humour and self-awareness as well as not supposing that everyone is at the same place religiously or working at improving the same practices and character traits. I wish I could find a shul with these positives, but a slightly more modern social attitude. It does seem that a strong sense of “us” can only be inculcated by demonising “them.” I feel that Torah wants us to disprove this, but most Jews are unable to meet the challenge, either with too weak a sense of Jewish identity or negative feelings about outsiders.

One thing I noticed was that when the rabbi blessed his children, as is the norm in the frum world on Shabbat, the rebbetzin (rabbi’s wife) blessed them too. I don’t think I’ve seen that in an Orthodox household before.

I got home very late. I spent a little time in Torah study, as I hadn’t done much in the day, concentrating on work. Then I read for a bit, as I was drained and needed some relaxation time before bed, but I was too tired to read for long. I couldn’t sleep when I got to bed, but I was too tired to get up and read and just lay there.

Inevitably, I struggled to get up this morning. I also napped after lunch and had to rush to get to shul for Talmud shiur (religious class). I hurried out of the house with no tie to save time and felt under-dressed in shul. Talmud shiur was OK, but I began to get a headache during Minchah (Afternoon Prayers). It wasn’t a bad one by any means and has mostly gone by now, but it’s left me feeling tired and, bizarrely, craving carbohydrates. I should do more Torah study and do my hitbodedut meditation/unstructured prayer before bed, but I don’t really feel I have the energy, although I don’t feel that I would fall asleep if I went to bed, so I’m uncertain what to do for the next hour or so.

Talk with the Rabbi

Today was one of those days that got away from me. I had therapy in the morning, which was good. Then I went to speak to my shul (synagogue) rabbi about my Asperger’s in the afternoon. The meeting went well. He was very understanding and supportive. We spoke a bit about being strategic in my shul attendance to handle burnout, maybe trying to go less often but more focused or to more inspiring services. I need to think about what that would mean in practical terms. We spoke a bit about social anxiety too, and wanting to challenge that, but in a safe way, and about COVID making that harder by adding a new layer of anxiety to social situations. He said I looked more animated than he had ever seen me before (we hadn’t really had a one-on-one conversation before).

When I got back from that I spent a while speaking to my parents about the meeting and some other things and then, unfortunately, wasting time. I wanted to do things, but couldn’t get down to anything. In the end I did some Torah study and spent half an hour on my short story, writing about 500 words, which was good. But other than that I haven’t done much, and I need to be up early for work tomorrow. I’ll watch the rest of the pilot episode of Twin Peaks before bed, which I started at dinner, but I don’t feel particularly sleepy. I probably should have taken time to relax after speaking to the rabbi instead of just procrastinating.

Answering

It’s the last day of August, which seems unbelievable. The year has dragged with regard to COVID, but in other ways it has sped past. It is also Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) next week, which also seem unbelievable. Rosh Hashanah is very rarely this early in the solar year (the Jewish lunar calendar moves about with regard to the solar calendar).

The Jewish year has been good for me on the whole. I feel a bit bad about that, when COVID has made it so terrible for so many people. But it’s good that I’m back together with E, that I’m working, albeit part-time (all I can cope with), and that I finished my novel. I just feel a lot of gratitude at where my life is, albeit coupled with a desire for help in moving it on to the next level (which would be marrying E and monetising my writing at least by getting my novel published).

Despite this, my mood today has been up and down, largely because of more boring data entry work and nervousness about speaking to my shul (synagogue) rabbi about my autism/Asperger’s (yes, that’s happening). I have tried to hold on to the good things, like Skyping E.

***

I listened to the Jewish educator Erica Brown speak about her book on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe. She spoke about the difficulty of translating ‘teshuva,’ which means ‘penitence,’ which sounds rather heavy. It can also mean ‘returning’ and that’s a common translation in frum (religious) circles, but she prefers ‘recovery,’ having worked with addicts.

It occurred to me when listening to this that teshuva also means ‘answer’ in Hebrew. Perhaps our teshuva is an answer to God. What is the question? Perhaps the primordial question that God asked Adam and Chava (Eve) in the Garden of Eden: “Where are you?” (Bereshit/Genesis 3.9) The Midrash sees this as a question designed to tease out a repenting/returning/recovering/answering response from Adam and Chava, but instead they blamed other people and refused to take responsibility for their actions. At this time of year we can ‘answer’ God realistically about our lives.

Erica Brown talked about the importance of not focusing solely on the negatives in our lives, but also on the positives, asking ourselves what we are doing right morally and religiously. I think I have grown and improved in some ways over the year, although I won’t go into that here. I have also come to feel confident that my life should be with E, and that I should also be trying to write fiction professionally, tough though it will probably be to get published. This was reinforced by listening to the latest Intimate Judaism podcast, where they were talking about the way sex is spoken about at yeshiva (rabbinical seminary) and sem (women’s seminary) and whether there is a rape culture, a hookup culture or a generally unhealthy sexual culture in these places, and how the frum (religious) community should be encouraging young adults to view their burgeoning sexuality.

The podcast made me desperate to write my idea for a novel about a pornography-addicted rabbi. This is probably not what Talli Rosenbaum and Rabbi Scott Kahn intended as a response to their podcast, nor what Erica Brown intended as a positive to focus for the coming year, but that’s where I am at the moment. I need to get some books on pornography addiction as background reading before I can go any further with planning (I know Joshua Shea sometimes reads this so – yes, your books are on the top of my list!) which I probably won’t do until after all the Yom Tovim (Jewish festivals). I have a short story to work on until then, but I hope I can find the time to write between work, therapy, Yom Tov and general religious practice (Torah study, prayer). It’s a busy time of the year for religious Jews.

At any rate, I feel that writing is my current ‘answer’ to God, that I want to move on with my relationship and my writing, but that I need a lot of divine help.