Autistic Day

Today seems to have been an autism-focused day. I guess they all are, on some level, but this more than most.

In the morning, at work, the rabbi from my parents’ shul (synagogue) phoned the office and I answered. He didn’t recognise me, and in the past I might have pretended not to recognise him, but I identified myself to him, which I guess was a victory over social anxiety. However, afterwards I couldn’t stop thinking about this interaction, which probably took all of two minutes and had no negative aspects. It sort of “echoed” around in my head. I’ve heard other people on the spectrum describe similar experiences of mental perseveration.

In the afternoon, I mostly corrected other people’s mistakes for a change, instead of making my own. This was when I was searching for missing data on our database. A lot of it was there, just entered wrongly (typos or names from one column on the spreadsheet transposed with those in another when entered on the database). I was a bit relieved to see it’s not just me who makes mistakes. The errors date from about five years ago, so I have no idea who made them.

J was on a video call while I was doing this and I could not concentrate at all. I had to listen to music to blot out the talking. I didn’t really want to listen to music, as it was a somewhat complicated task and I only really listen to music when doing mindless tasks, but I needed to blot it out.

Then I went to Primark to return the clothes I bought last week, because I am not a size medium any more (thank you, psych meds). I was overwhelmed with the number of people in the shop, which I still can’t get used to. It took two years of lockdown and not seeing people for me to realise how difficult I find these environments. Now I wonder how I ever coped with them. It’s strange how I just coped with things, not realising how difficult I found it. The silly thing is that I feel somehow less entitled to call myself “autistic” or “struggling” than the autistic people who would have a meltdown in the shop, or just refuse to go in.

It wasn’t just the noise and crowds that was an issue. Like lots of people on the spectrum, I seem to have some proprioception issues i.e. difficulty being aware of where my body is at times and finding it hard to get out of other people’s way. I think this is partly behind the autistic phenomenon I have written here before about autistic people wanting to help with tasks, but just getting in the way of other people.

There was something on the autism forum too today about autistic brains working fast, faster than we can follow. I do feel like that at times, although not all the time. It seems to happen most when I hyperfocus on a train of thought that I like (often about Judaism or perhaps Doctor Who) or when I’m anxious and depressed about something. Certainly when autistically fatigued/exhausted/burnt out/whatever it’s called my thoughts become slow and almost physically painful.

***

In terms of consumerism, I’ve had mixed success the last few days. The Simpsons: The Complete Seventh Season DVD box set I bought second-hand on Music Magpie (second-hand DVD/CD website) turned out to be region 1, which means it won’t play on UK DVD players. I’m not sure why they were selling it, but I didn’t think to look at what region it was for when I ordered, so I can’t swear that it was advertised wrongly. I am trying to return it.

I’ve found some real bargains on Music Magpie, but also had some problems with damaged or incorrectly-sent goods. I feel I should stop using them, but the alternative is eBay, which I have used, but don’t really like, I’m not sure why. I don’t like bidding for stuff at auction, but you can get items to buy immediately. Nevertheless, I just somehow find the site awkward to use and the items often expensive. The other alternative is Amazon, but E and I are both boycotting them over their poor employee treatment and for driving small booksellers out of business as well as underpaying authors. We were boycotting them independently, before we met — a meet-boycott-cute.

The items I’ve been buying on Music Magpie are cheap (a few pounds for a CD or DVD box set), so I’m not at risk of losing much money, but complaining and returning items is a hassle, and I worry that after I’ve made a certain number of complaints they’ll assume I’m lying. They refund damaged goods priced under £5 without asking for the item to be returned, so technically someone could steal a lot of free stuff by buying cheap items and then complaining that they were damaged and asking for a refund without it ever being checked.

On the plus side, I found a copy of A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle in the free book box, one of those books I’ve always meant to read, but never have.

***

E and I have been watching the Doctor Who story The Robots of Death (1977). E was not impressed; I didn’t tell her fan wisdom sees it as a Classic, whatever that means. I see it as somewhere between Classic and E’s “ok”. It has one of my favourite Doctor Who put-downs: “You’re a classic example of the inverse ratio between the size of the mouth and the size of the brain.” I should warn you that I tried to use it on the bullies at school and it did not work as well as it did for Tom Baker. I don’t have that air of Bohemian cool.

Rumination and Peopling

I tried to relax a bit before going to bed last night. I watched some Doctor Who and broke my diet to eat a couple of Quality Street chocolates. Even so, I struggled to sleep. I just feel too stressed at the moment. I’m not sure what time I finally fell asleep, but I did somehow manage to get up for work in the morning.

Work was dull today, and left too much time for rumination. I still feel like a dry drunk, full of uncured neuroses and poor coping strategies, just waiting to plunge into another episode of depression. I hope I’m wrong, but I’m not convinced. I’m not sure how I move on from this. I mean, some people do move on from worse issues than mine. But lots don’t. As I’ve said, psychodynamic-type therapy definitely helps me to understand myself (and write novels about thinly-veiled Mary Sues) and often brings about short-term clarity, but I have not had any catharsis. My problems did not magically solve themselves by my transferring them onto my therapist and working through them in therapy. As for CBT, I’ve said before that it doesn’t really work on people on the spectrum. For every reason I can give why I’m not worthless and a failure, I can give another ten reasons why I am exactly those things. It’s scary thinking that I’m coming into a marriage with all this hanging in the background.

Maybe I can cope better than I think I can. Maybe I have dealt with some of my issues in therapy. It just feels like I haven’t and I don’t know what to do.

I was wondering if E and I hadn’t broken up in 2018, and I had kept my job in further education (my last job that felt like part of a career, not a time-filler), maybe my life would have been better. But E and I needed the separate growth time, that job wasn’t right for me, and Mum and Dad needed my help when Mum had cancer in the first lockdown. You can go mad thinking like that. It seems that God has a plan, difficult though it is for us to comprehend it.

***

I had dinner with my sister and brother-in-law. It was a mistake on several levels. I was exhausted from work and not able to ‘people’ well. We had takeaway from a kosher restaurant (actually two, due to an order mix up), but a regular delivery company and it wasn’t double-sealed as it should be to stop contamination if they are carrying non-kosher food too. Then we brought some back for my parents because we had too much raising issues about our crockery and microwave. Having conferred with my rabbi mentor, I think it’s OK, but I hate the struggle between my “wise mind” and my OCD mind, with my halakhic (Jewish law) mind caught in-between trying to figure it all out correctly. To be fair to me, a couple of years ago I’d have gone into a terrible, non-functional, anxious state, and this time I did not do that and kept some proportion. I thought that it would probably be OK, and it was. But I did still get somewhat anxious and concerned.

On the other hand, I feel like a terrible goody-goody caring about this (the delivery packaging) and talking about it here. I know lots of people think God doesn’t care about the details, only the bigger picture. I could write a whole essay on why the details are the big picture, but I doubt it would change anyone’s mind, so I’ll just say that I wouldn’t want my brain surgeon or airline pilot to do roughly the right thing, not worrying about the details, and I don’t see why God’s Law is less important or fine-tuned than brain surgery or flying a 747.

On the plus side, my sister and BIL gave me a lot of help regarding booking travel and COVID tests (they’re also going to the US in January) and my sister lent me a stack of driving instruction books, although that just reminds me that that’s another terrifying thing I have to confront at some point, probably sooner rather than later. It was good to see them, but in future I will try to schedule some relaxation time between work and socialising.

I’m pretty exhausted now. I will watch some Doctor Who and go to bed, I think.

Energy Accounting and God’s (Lack of) Emotions

I struggled to sleep last night, and then massively overslept today (again). Then I felt wiped out in the afternoon, although I managed to go mattress shopping with my parents. (I was astounded as usual at the ease with which my parents can chat to the shop assistant. I can’t do this at all!)

I still feel like I’m struggling with all the stuff I’m supposed to do (generally, not just today), even without my near-permanent exhaustion. And I know that no one makes me do regular prayer and Torah study, or write a weekly devar Torah, or write novels and try to get them published and I could cut all these things from my life easily, except that it would be even smaller and less meaningful than it already is. I can accept that some of these things might have to be cut down or put on hold for a year or two as E and I move towards marriage. It doesn’t make it easier to decide what gets cut, and how much.

In terms of keeping up with writing while struggling to do other things, I’ve heard of “microwriting,” writing in tiny bursts of just a couple of minutes. I can see they would add up, but I feel that I need a longer period to really get in to some writing, so I’m not planning on microwriting my next novel.

I would like to do some “energy accounting” to balance my energy output and intake to try to stop the burnout. The hardest part of energy accounting is having no real knowledge of how much energy tasks require, or how much I get back from different types of relaxation, which makes it all seem like guesswork. Ashley suggested that factoring in more relaxation time might improve energy levels overall, and it might, but I feel I already have some relaxation and I’m wary of factoring too much. It’s hard to work out how much is “correct.” If I could swap procrastination time for relaxation time, that might work, but reducing procrastination time is difficult, as it creeps in when trying to do other things rather than being scheduled. I have been trying to turn to blogs and sites online that I want to read for novel research rather than the Jewish and news sites I usually turn to when looking to procrastinate, but spending ages reading about addiction probably isn’t the best thing to do for other reasons. (It’s also constantly expanding. I just discovered that Chabad.org has a whole section of their site, which I think is still the largest Jewish website in the world, for Jewish addicts of all descriptions.)

Aside from the mattress, I tried to write my devar Torah for the week, but was really stumped. It’s not even a ‘difficult’ sedra (Torah reading). I just couldn’t think what to say. I found a sermon in the Sacred Fire: Torah from the Years of Fury 1939-1942, the Holocaust sermons of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira, the Piasczno Rebbe that I will try to summarise and, if I feel up to it, add to. But I’m not sure if I’ll be able to add much, or when exactly I’m going to get the time or energy to do this.

I basically spent much of the day feeling exhausted and depressed (like clinical depression in intensity) and I don’t know why. Actually, I wonder if it’s because I’ve been off work for a few days. I think I do need the structure, even if it exhausts me.

I will try to relax tonight and tomorrow and again at the start of next week when I have another bank holiday-induced break. I think going to work on the Thursdays will probably be for the best.

***

I had a thought today. I mentioned I’ve been spending time recently reading things by frum (religious Jewish) addicts as novel research. An idea that comes up a bit and is supposed to be inspirational is: “If I avoid acting out, it will give HaShem (God) nachas.” Nachas ruach or nachat ruach is the Hebrew term for contentment; in Yiddish, nachas refers more to the reflected glory from your children or grandchildren doing something successful. The idea is that God is emotionally pleased when an addict chooses not to act out or that He is generally pleased when people overcome the temptation to sin, like a parent who is pleased when their child does something significant.

I feel uncomfortable with all of this. Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon aka Moses Maimonides) says that God has no emotions, because if God had emotions, we could divide God into ‘God’ and ‘God’s emotion(s)’. This would disrupt God’s unity and is a big no-no from the point of view of Rambam’s Medieval rationalism. The most we can say is that the Torah anthropomorphises God, saying He is angry, joyful etc. because it’s the only way to understand something that is beyond human understanding (the nature of God). But God Himself is never angry, joyful etc.

I wonder if this is why I struggle with the idea that God loves me. Because I view it as a metaphor for something I can’t understand and not something literally true, as the addicts were suggesting. I would agree with Rambam that the mitzvot (commandments) were given for our benefit; keeping or not keeping them makes no difference to God, Who is eternal and unchanging no matter what we do.

I do feel that Rambam and other Medieval rationalists only appeal to a very limited number of people, I suppose very intellectual people who don’t need much emotional connection to Judaism, or at least can separate the emotional connection from the intellectual. My feeling, having mostly studied Rambam second-hand, is that he neglected the affective side of Judaism and wanted everything to come through the intellect. So he wants Jews not to believe, but to know via logical proof that God exists and, while he is very open to the idea that mitzvot teach us behaviour and positive character traits, he sees this teaching as happening in a very intellectual way, making us think about something, not through the mitzvah making us have a particular emotion (this is the source of my disagreement with him about animal sacrifice which he struggled with, whereas I see it as building on fairly straightforward emotions even if it’s not exactly to modern tastes). I feel that the Medieval rationalists were right, or more right than the kabbalists (mystics) (from my limited knowledge of Medieval rationalism and kabbalah). But I find it hard to live my religious life like that. It’s too dry and unemotional.

(Aside: I just ordered this book. Even with a 30% discount code, it cost A LOT, for a book that I’m worried I won’t understand. I spent eighteen months procrastinating over whether to get it. But I feel that some of the things I struggle with intellectually in Judaism could be eased a little by serious academic Jewish philosophy. I am, generally speaking, be willing to pay a lot of money to learn things that I think are true and meaningful.)

(Actually, while the credit card was processed, it really looks like something went wrong with the order, as I haven’t had a confirmation email, and my order history on the publisher’s site is empty. Something else to worry about and deal with…)

***

I am nervous about buying plane tickets to go to New York to visit E tomorrow (buy the tickets tomorrow, not go to New York tomorrow, obviously), which is super scary, but I will try to do it. It would be scary even without COVID and the need for PCR tests, but with COVID it’s even worse. But I’m going to do it!

Long Division

I don’t have much to say, but I feel I need to offload a bit. Work was OK. I went to the bank, which I always like as it’s good to get out of the office (which I’m finding increasingly dark and claustrophobic as we head further into winter), even if it was cold outside. Coming home wasn’t fun though. I had my first proper Tube ‘packed like sardines’ crush since COVID started, and it wasn’t even rush hour. I don’t know how I managed to cope with this regularly for so much of my life despite my autism. No wonder I kept burning out! And now I have COVID fears about being stuck with a crowded carriage of people breathing on me. Mask compliance was perhaps a bit better than it has been for a while, but not like it was last winter. Everyone was wearing a mask in shul (synagogue) tonight, but it’s hard to feel confident about that when it feels such a retrograde step.

I have been pretty burnt out this evening. I had a good time with my family last night, but I had to ‘people’ all evening and then go to bed without much downtime. Then I had work today, the Tube crush and then eating dinner with my parents again, which is still ‘peopling.’ I desperately need some TV time. I did half an hour of Torah study on the train to work; I would have liked to have done some more, but I just don’t feel up to it.

Also, E and I are facing some big decisions, but we’re facing them together, which is good. We both feel anxious, though, and frustrated at being so far apart. I’m not saying more about this for now.

***

I laughed out loud a couple of times when I was listening to Hancock’s Half-Hour on my headphones while walking home from the station (despite it being a very dated episode in multiple ways). I’m glad it was dark and people couldn’t really see me as it would look pretty odd.

***

I watched yesterday’s Doctor Who. It was mostly quite good and I wasn’t going to comment here, but then there were some bits, small and, unfortunately, very big, that were very, very bad. So feel free to skip the rest of this post, unless you’re a fan, or you just want to see me angry.

I liked the Yaz/Dan/Professor Jericho stuff. It felt like proper Doctor Who, exciting, funny, mysterious and different. More please.

The Grand Serpent was nasty. Somehow he seemed to do more than Swarm and Azure, who look good, but, in my mind at least haven’t done much (they killed some abstract people in a somewhat abstract way), a big ‘show don’t tell’ violation. And I find myself guiltily thinking the programme is better without the Doctor being engaged in the main storyline — no slight on Jodie Whittaker, just on the general level of bombast that new series Doctors are supposed to exhibit in comparison with the original series (Yaz and Professor Jericho arguably both seemed more Doctorish in their plotline).

The mildly irritating stuff: the Ood mask was rubbish (eyes too big, tentacles too rubbery and the whole thing screaming ‘fake’). The story as a whole is sort of beginning to make sense, but some stuff just isn’t explained properly. And no upper class British general in the 1950s would use ‘task’ as a verb.

The small, but annoyingly awful bit: the in-joke vocal appearance by Lethbridge-Stewart. No one of his class and accent and paternal background (see Twice Upon a Time) rose through the ranks. He’d have gone to Sandhurst and trained as an officer from the start. And even if you take the latest dating for the UNIT stories of (our) 1970s, he must have risen through the ranks superfast to get from corporal to colonel in time for the dates to work. It’s even worse if you assume the scene takes place after The Web of Fear (as is also a possible reading) and he somehow got demoted from colonel and re-promoted. Sometimes one badly-thought through in-joke is not just unfunny, but actively annoying and undermines any good feeling the in-joke might have generated.

The very big and very awful bit (MASSIVE SPOILERS with spoiler space, although WordPress blocks might mess that up EDIT: it did mess it up, sorry):

We really didn’t need to meet the Doctor’s mother, even if she is her adopted mother. It was bad enough seeing this much of her past in The Timeless Children. Even Russell T Davies held back from overtly doing this (the woman in The End of Time is supposed to be his mother, but it isn’t actually stated on screen). It’s just a silly soap opera thing, particularly if it isn’t done for any reason other than the cliched ‘villain says the Doctor is “Just like me”; Doctor says, “No I’m not!”-parallelism.

There is an argument that the Doctor hasn’t had any real mystery since The War Games revealed his/her/their background back in 1969 (real world chronology), but this is taking it to a ridiculously self-obsessed extreme. Doctor Who isn’t fundamentally about the Doctor, it’s a show that takes the Doctor as a character and uses him/her/them to explore different environments and story styles. The problem is that the programme goes through cyclical periods of thinking that the show is absolutely about the Doctor and the Time Lords and now Division and obsessing over them until the programme can’t breathe under the weight of its own mythology. Then someone else comes along and hacks the whole thing back to basics, which is what needs to happen right now. I hope maybe the Flux will provide some way of resetting the whole universe, because I can’t see where we can go from here.

Now I feel like I need to watch some other TV to recover from the TV which upset me instead of calming me down.

The Ever-Expanding ‘To Read’ Shelf

I went to bed late last night because I suddenly got a headache late at night, probably because my room had been too cold and I overcompensated in heating it (although it wasn’t that hot). I didn’t go to bed, as I was worried I would be sick if I did, so I sat up watching an episode of The Twilight Zone (In His Image — a little corny, but well-executed). Regardless, when I woke up at 9am today, I forced myself to get up rather than letting myself fall asleep again as usual, which was good.

I didn’t do much today. Chanukah started this evening and my sister and brother-in-law came over to light candles with us (I say candles, but I use olive oil lights, as does my Dad). I didn’t go for a run as I didn’t want to risk getting an exercise migraine on the first night of Chanukah, especially with guests. I did some Torah study and went for a walk, did a bit of shopping (or tried to; the nearby shops turned out to be too small for the large bottles of vegetable oil that Mum wanted to cook with).

Chanukah candle lighting with family was good, but I got very peopled out by the end, and then went to Skype E, which was also good. I’m quite tired now, but I feel I will need some time to unwind before bed if I’m to get to sleep and to be in a reasonable state for work tomorrow. I’d like to watch tonight’s new Doctor Who episode (despite being underwhelmed by this season, and really by most episodes since late 2017), but it’s nearly an hour long and I should really go to bed soon, so I’ll probably just read for fifteen minutes or so. I just started the Lord Peter Wimsey mystery Gaudy Night.

***

Tonight’s Chanukah presents: from Mum and Dad, The God Book by Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, a modernised and (I admit it) simplified rendering of sections from various classic Medieval and Early Modern philosophical and pietistic theological works dealing with the nature of God

From my sister and BIL, Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life by Peter Godfrey-Smith, a book on the evolution of intelligence in cephalopods and whether their intelligence is radically different to our own. The back cover blurb says, “How did the octopus, a solitary creature with little social life, become so smart?” — that sounds awfully close to home to me! They also gave me a big slab of chocolate halva, which was a surprise, unlike most of my presents

From rom E, People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present, Dara Horn’s latest collection of essays on Jewish life, Jewish death and antisemitism. “Sounds cheery” was everyone else’s view when they saw the title, but it was the title that attracted me. I’ve thought for a while that the non-Jewish world is sadly often more comfortable with dead Jewish martyrs than with live Jews and their “difficult” religious or political views, but I didn’t think of such a pithy way of phrasing it.

Of course, as I had to admit to my sister, I haven’t quite finished the books I got for my birthday in July yet. My excuse is that Chanukah is very early this year…

Tonight’s donut: jam. I resisted the lure of a second donut, or the rogelach (chocolate pastries) that Mum was eating.

Useful Phrases and Toxic Positivity (and Doctor Who)

Work today was mostly OK, except for a bit when I was on the phone to someone I often struggle to understand and then J started talking to me. I could not listen to both people and once and I heard nothing. At the time, I thought this was an autistic sensory or processing thing, but it’s probably something lots of people would struggle with it.

***

I’ve been thinking today about a couple of useful phrases for mental wellbeing. One was something I heard on an NHS group therapy thing I went to a few years ago. “I’m not responsible for the first thought, I am responsible for the second.” I can’t remember the exact context where I first heard this. I think it was mostly directed at self-esteem, as in I’m not responsible if a self-critical thought comes into my head, but I don’t have to follow it up with more. It’s good for dealing with those kinds of thoughts, but I use it with a lot of other difficult thoughts, particularly the type which, if dwelt upon, can push me towards pure O OCD (idolatrous thoughts, violent thoughts, sexual thoughts). I can just say that I’m not responsible for random thoughts that come into my head, so no guilt and catastrophising about being a terrible person for having such a thought, but also that I have the power not to dwell on them so I can move on, which is empowering.

The other phrase was something I learnt on a confidence and self-esteem course I did many years ago. I think some of the course veered towards toxic positivity, but one thing that was useful was the mantra, “It’s none of my business what other people think of me.” That’s actually quite powerful and I focused on it today after the telephone awkwardness. I do tend to think that a lot of people have negative thoughts about me (people who don’t know my issues/struggles, but who witness my social awkwardness), but I can at least try not to care about it.

***

Speaking of toxic positivity, I listened to a Normal Frum Women podcast on the subject yesterday. It was good, but I felt that they didn’t really get into the issue of toxic positivity in a Jewish religious setting. They spoke a bit about the sociological side of things, like mourning rituals creating time and space for sadness, but they didn’t really get into the theology. A lot of people would argue that Jews are supposed to be grateful and joyous all the time. This is an idea that is identified most strongly with Hasidism (particularly Breslov Hasidism), but can be found in other places too. This can be hard to accept or follow.

Part of the problem is that most of the sources dealing with joy and sadness date from before the development of modern psychology, so they don’t really distinguish sadness from clinical depression. Even accepting that, I think it is OK to say that sometimes the emphasis on joy and happiness isn’t always healthy or achievable, and that there is a place for sadness (they said this on the podcast, just not with religious sources). I used to know a Yeshivish rabbi who used to say that he was very glad that he isn’t a Breslov Hasid as he couldn’t be happy all the time. (It is also worth noting that Rebbe Nachman of Breslov was also far from being joyous all the time and quite possibly had bipolar disorder, so we shouldn’t feel bad about not living up to a standard even he didn’t reach.)

Beyond that, I think there is a sense that joy is not the same as happiness or positivity. Rabbi Lord Sacks z”tl wrote an essay on Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) in his Sukkot machzor (Tabernacles prayerbook). It’s a while since I read it, but I think he says that Kohelet is a book permeated with death and the sense of the shortness and futility of life, but it also has the word ‘joy’ more than any other book in Tanakh (The Hebrew Bible). The paradox is resolved because joy is not about always being happy and more about living in the moment and being grateful for what you do have, something that is compatible with feeling sadness from time to time.

***

Doctor Who thoughts, feel free to skip: I watched The Fires of Pompeii with E (long-distance). It’s a strange story, full of postmodern comedy, then it ends with the city being destroyed and loads of people dying. Doctor Who has done this before (the original series story The Myth Makers, about the fall of Troy, is very similar, tonally, although it’s hard to compare them directly as the older story no longer survives), but it seems weirdly awkward.

It seems like when Doctor Who, original or modern, does a historical story set within living memory, the writers and designers bust a gut to get every detail right and it’s all taken very seriously. No one is going to suggest the Montgomery Bus Boycott (Rosa) or the partition of India (Demons of the Punjab) were anything other than serious, tragic episodes, and while there is humour (e.g. the Doctor claiming to be Banksy in Rosa), it’s low-key and it doesn’t send up the period. Nothing like the Cockney Roman stallholder in The Fires of Pompeii.

If it’s set beyond living memory, however, suddenly the most outrageous errors (beyond artistic licence), anachronisms and silliness are permissible, even if it ends badly. The Witchfinders in particular sticks in my craw, for many reasons. Hence The Fires of Pompeii, an episode that mostly feels like Asterix… right up until the city gets destroyed. Weird.

There is a sense that, if no one in the audience can remember it, it’s ripe for comedy, which is a bit shocking for a programme that was originally supposed to teach children about history and to present the past on its own terms, as being as valid as the perspective of the present. Admittedly it wandered from this attitude very quickly, also in a story set in the ancient Roman Empire ending in catastrophe (the Fire of Rome in The Romans, a story very much in the same vein as The Fires of Pompeii). The Fires of Pompeii is far from being unique here, but the tragic nature of the climax, combined with the broadness of the comedy beforehand, make it particularly noticeable. I would like it if we could go back to really well-researched historical stories, but I suspect I’m in a minority here.

(Actually, I’ve just remembered Let’s Kill Hitler, a story that isn’t actually about killing Hitler, but does not exactly get to grips with the brutal reality of the Third Reich. It’s more about River Song trying to kill the Doctor, but I guess if I were inclined I could see it as more evidence of Jews not being considered a real oppressed minority in the eyes of the woke/BBC, although 2011 is a bit early for true wokeness. Anyway, as a general rule, my point still stands: recent tragedy: serious; further back: mockery.)

(Trivia point I noticed a while back: The War Games (1969) is closer in time to World War One (1914-1918) than Rosa (2018) is to the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955-1956), yet it doesn’t feel that way.)

Meet the Parents

***

I felt so drained today. It was hard to get up or do anything. I did eventually cook dinner (vegetarian red bean chilli). By the time I finished that, I had only a little over an hour until my Zoom call with E’s parents. The call was nerve wracking, and longer than I expected (nearly an hour and a half), but it went well, I think. I didn’t get much else done today, between being drained and then anxious about meeting E’s parents. I guess that’s understandable. I wish I didn’t have work tomorrow, but I do, unfortunately (J has a meeting so rearranged his in-office days and I had to follow suit).

***

A job I was vaguely thinking of applying for, even though it was full-time, has closed. I’m not sure if they found someone early or if I’ve been so busy with other things that I ran out of time. I’m not greatly upset, as I think my parents’ idea of applying for full-time jobs and then asking to do it as a job share is not the most realistic. Nevertheless, I would be happier if I heard from the places I’ve written or pitched to recently about articles and my novel. I wish I could feel I was moving forward a little with my career(s).

***

I feel like I wasn’t expressing myself clearly in my post yesterday. I was trying to say that I should not argue back with culture warriors, but to write the truth of my own personal life instead, what I know experientially to be true, rather than what I think is true on a political, economic, cultural or religious level. I don’t think arguing on a political (etc.) level really works. I think that didn’t come across (despite the title), maybe because I was too tired. So I just want to clarify that.

***

I dreamt about turkeys last night. I’m obviously hanging around with too many Americans, or reading American-Jewish websites.

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.

Kafkaesque

I woke up again at 7am after only having had about six hours of sleep. I thought about getting up, but six hours sleep didn’t seem enough, so I went back to sleep and, inevitably, slept through most of the morning. I think it’s weird that this keeps happening. Maybe my body is trying to tell me I really don’t need so much sleep, but I do find it hard to get by on six hours, so I wonder why I keep waking up after that amount, and why I sleep for so long afterwards if I don’t need it. I think I need to bite the bullet and get up at 7am or whenever I wake up and see what happens, but it’s hard to think like that when I’ve only just woken up and I only get a few seconds to decide what to do before I fall asleep again.

After I fell asleep again, I was having some weird bad dream when my Dad knocked on the door. I think I gasped audibly or even screamed, but I’m not sure.

***

When I filled in the job agency registration form yesterday, they asked for references. I gave two, but I thought I ticked (or tried to tick — it’s hard on a Word document) the box for not asking them for references yet. However, J texted me today to say he’s been asked for a reference. There isn’t much I can do about it now, and it’s probably not a bad thing that J knows that I’m looking for supplementary work especially as I’m still hoping he’ll make my current role permanent (technically I’m a freelance contractor even though I’ve been there for a year now). Still, it was a conversation I was hoping to push off for a bit.

***

More fun with bureaucracy: the autism hospital phoned me back, which surprised me a bit. The person I spoke to said that they need a referral form from the GP rather than a letter, which may be what the problem was. She said that she doesn’t deal with the autism-adapted CBT any more, but that she thought the people who do would have sent the form to the GP. I’m not sure that this has been done, although it’s hard to tell, because there is apparently a huge backlog of referrals that they are working through (I assume because of COVID). I didn’t think to ask for contact details for those people when I was on the phone (because I’m autistic and have issues with dealing with conversations, especially on the phone!). I phoned back afterwards to do so, but it went straight to voicemail. So I may be on the waiting list already, or I may not be, but I’m not sure how I find out for sure. Honestly, it’s like something out of Kafka.

***

I emailed my oldest friend. We haven’t Skyped for a while and I wondered how he was getting on. More selfishly (not exactly selfish, but focused on the self), as my relationship with E gets more serious, I feel I need to mention her to my friends, so it won’t be a shock (or too much of a shock) when we get engaged.

***

I had a positive therapy session, but in many ways my biggest breakthrough was outside therapy. It was in realising that, while I do not have good Talmud studying skills, I do have some good Midrash study skills. The Midrash is the rabbinic expansion of the biblical narrative, like fan fiction that explores the characters and themes of the original text. Midrash can be hard to understand, as it can be intensely symbolic, even surreal, but the meaning of the symbolism may be unique to the individual passage, so there isn’t a set of universally-applicable ‘keys’ to learn. There is a tendency in the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) world to take Midrash very literally and to see the text as revealed by God in a straightforward way (similar to the Haredi understanding of Tanakh (Hebrew Bible)), but in the Modern Orthodox world, it is seen as more literary and authored by individual rabbis rather than an objective description of factual events.

I find this a lot easier to understand that legal arguments. Yesterday I went from being curious about a passage in the Torah to looking up some Midrashim (in translation), finding a relevant Midrash, being baffled about the meaning, figuring out what seemed a likely symbolic reading and linking that symbolic reading to an understanding of the wider narrative in the Torah that it related to and writing a devar Torah about this with a homiletic conclusion all in the space of an hour or so. I think not many people would have been able to do that, even if they could understand halakhic (legal) passages of Talmud easily. It’s really a creative process not a rational/logical one. You stare at it for a bit and either the meaning of the passage suddenly hits you or it doesn’t and you go to the next one. Certainly having experience in reading serious literature helps here. (In fairness, there were other Midrashim I looked at that I couldn’t understand.)

I would like to build wider Midrash study skills further, but that would require investing time on improving my rabbinic Hebrew and also investing money on buying some volumes of Midrash rather than relying on Sefaria.org (there isn’t much Midrash easily available in parallel Hebrew-English translation). It is something to keep in mind for the future.

***

My sister and brother-in-law came for dinner. I had warned my parents that I would probably be drained after therapy (I feel like I’m just expected to fall in with everyone else’s plans). I definitely got ‘peopled out’ partway through the evening, around the time I had to listen to the story of my parents’ recent holiday for the second time (the first was the Shabbat after they got home, but sister and BIL weren’t here then). Perhaps because I was drained, my inner filter switched off and I was — not rude exactly, but cheeky. I have to admit they are still here, and I just slipped away from the meal because I needed a break. Even though my sister, BIL and I have early starts tomorrow, the meal is still ongoing. It is getting rather late and I really want it to be over, not because it’s bad, but because I just need some downtime before bed. I should probably go back downstairs and rejoin everyone as I’ve been up here for quarter of an hour…

Then and Now

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

First World Problems

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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.

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…

The Hive Switch

I’m still reading The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt. I had a bit of a paradigm shift reading it, which I think ties in to one I had a while back reading Rabbi Shagar. Haidt talks about people being 90% chimpanzee, 10% bee — not in a literal, biological sense, but that most of the time we are individuals who compete against each other (chimpanzee), but occasionally we can form a group that cooperates to compete against other groups (a bee hive). The competition doesn’t have to be violent, just in the evolutionary sense that we compete for resources.

Haidt talks about “The Hive Switch,” a metaphorical switch in our brains that can shift us rapidly from individual mode to group mode. Examples of things that can flick that switch include: ecstatic religious dancing (once common in every society except the individualist West); raves (the contemporary Western substitute); being in nature (I think similar what Freud termed the Oceanic Emotion, the awe on seeing nature); group singing; marching in formation with others; going to a political rally or protest; and taking hallucinogenic drugs. These things promote group identification, enhanced empathy for group insiders[1], improved morale, improved cooperation and increased willingness to die for comrades [2]. They are also connected with a religious sense of connection to the Infinite and intense love for everything.

(Incidentally, you can see here that the only contemporary Jewish movement really plugging into this is Hasidism, which has very much been about group singing, ecstatic dancing and alcohol (no hallucinogenic mushrooms in Poland or the Ukraine) since its origins in the eighteenth century, very much the return of the Jewish repressed, although even Yeshivish or Modern Orthodox weddings can get a bit like this.)

Reading this argument, I was struck by seeing two of my major struggles, as recorded in this blog, connected: my struggles to connect emotionally with God and my struggles to connect with other people. You can even locate the two at once in the ecstatic dancing in shul (synagogue) on Simchat Torah. I assumed that both problems were unrelated. My social struggles and anxiety often occur within the Jewish community, but I assumed that was simply because that is my main social environment. But Haidt suggests (although he doesn’t explicitly state it, so I could be wrong) that having experiential encounters with God/the Divine/the Infinite/whatever you want to call it is the same sort of thing as feeling accepted as part a group of people.

Now, I have had that Hive Switch flipped at times, but generally in ways that are hard to replicate. Paradoxically, I had it sometimes when in a period of suicidal depression, where I sort of got overwhelmed with how awful the world seemed and emotionally exhausted by my thoughts and feelings (and sometimes physically exhausted by anxious pacing or walking) then felt an intense feeling of God’s presence. One year I managed to get into Simchat Torah and really enjoyed the dancing (I’ve never worked out how I did that or how to replicate it). I have had it a bit with being in nature and maybe a tiny bit at pro-Israel rallies, although I usually feel out of place at any kind of political event, even if I agree with the platform. So it is possible to flip my Hive Switch, just very difficult. Incidentally, Haidt says the switch is an analogue slide switch rather than a binary on/off switch, meaning it’s possible to be a bit groupish and a bit individual; it’s not one or the other at a given time.

So this makes me wonder if autistic people, the mentally ill or maybe even all introverts have difficulty moving this switch along. I know that when my switch gets pushed, it sometimes encounters resistance. When I’m somewhere where people are bonding over shared political, religious or cultural views, a voice starts up in my head with opposing views (an extreme version of Rabbi Lord Sacks’ idea that the Jews are the question mark in the margin of the record of the conversation of mankind). I probably have some resistance to God too, which is probably a strange thing for a religious person to say, inasmuch as I’m resistant to miracle stories and proofs of God’s existence; for me, God has to exist alongside the Abyss, at least in this world.

The focus on awe in nature and very ‘real’ emotions reminded me of the essay My Faith: Faith in a Postmodern World by Rabbi Shagar (Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg), which I read over Sukkot and which had a powerful affect on me. I want to re-read it before I feel I fully understand it, but the main thing I took away from it was the idea of faith being experienced in what Rabbi Shagar terms ‘the Real.’ This is a term from Lacanian psychology, referring to the early stages of infancy, where the baby can not distinguish between different people and objects, but experiences the world as a sense of wholeness, not as separate objects. Not only that, but he doesn’t experience himself as a body or identity, but as “an amalgam of organs, energies, and urges.” Faith is rooted in experiencing the world as the Real and is about acceptance of the self, which is not narcissistic if accompanied by unity with God; or, alternatively, a creative search for meaning of one’s own. (I would have liked greater detail here.)[3]

I had been trying to live more in the moment, without really knowing how to do it. Then, when I read Rabbi Shagar’s essay, I started trying to note down if I felt myself to be living in the moment and experiencing absorption in the Real when doing anything, or if I feel any connection to God (my hypothesis being that if I experience God, then I’m in the Real even if I don’t know it). This is obviously hard to notice, because as soon as I notice it, I am coming out of it. I find it hard to experience it for more than a few moments and it is impossible for me to go into it deliberately. It’s also hard to tell if I’m really in the Real, so to speak, or if I feel I should be in there, or I want to be there, or I expect to be there. The easiest way to get there seems to be prayer or hitbodedut spontaneous prayer/meditation, but the connection only comes intermittently, maybe every few days, and often for no more than a few seconds. It doesn’t come so often with formal Torah study, but does happen sometimes (often on Shabbat evenings), when a creative interpretation of a passage of Torah, Midrash or Talmud suddenly comes to me even without formally studying the texts.

Being in the Real and flipping the Hive Switch seem to go together, although I’m not sure what is cause and what is effect yet. I would like to know how to trigger them both in myself, and whether I’m always going to struggle with that from autism, introversion, mental illness, personality or anything else.

[1] I think Haidt thinks that, contrary to what is often stated, groupishness doesn’t automatically lead to reduced empathy for outsiders, but I haven’t checked.

[2] Haidt’s argument is that soldiers in battle are willing to die primarily for the fellow soldiers in their unit, rather than nebulous ideas about nationalism or political ideology.

[3] Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz said something similar about the Talmudic statement about babies in the womb learning the whole Torah, which he understands as referring to experiencing God as a nurturing, undifferentiated whole.

***

Other than that, it’s been a fairly quiet couple of days. I somehow got up early yesterday and today. I went to bed early yesterday too, but I was very tired at work this morning. I submitted my manuscript (or the first ten pages of it) to another literary agent. It took me two hours to fill in the online submission form, but I guess it’s good experience even if I don’t get accepted. I do worry that the early parts of my novel (the bits agents ask to see) aren’t interesting enough to capture the attention of anyone not predisposed to like it.

I did various bits of chores and Torah study yesterday and today and I had work today. We had an audit of various valuables the organisation owns. If ever I wanted to see a demonstration that autism is not the same as introversion, it was this. J is typically quiet and introverted like me, but he had a long ‘small talk’ conversation with the external auditor, while I hardly said anything to her that wasn’t an answer to a direct question.

Peopled Out

I felt I had lots to do today. Actually, I probably didn’t, although I did want to get a run in before my sister, brother-in-law and BIL’s sister came for dinner in our sukkah. In the end, I didn’t do that much. I didn’t get for a run. I wrote my devar Torah, one of those where I’m talking to myself as much as anyone else about changing our perspectives on our lives (how the “failure” of God’s first attempt at making humanity teaches us that it’s OK to fail). I did a little extra Torah study and also posted the short story I wrote recently.

I emailed J to ask how much I should invoice him for last week’s work. I said I did half a day to a whole day of work over three days, but, honestly, I’m not sure how much I did. I’m still unsure whether I can count time spent thinking about the task or waiting for people to phone me back or just the moments when I’m actually phoning someone. I don’t know how to bring this up with him. I’m very scrupulous about financial honesty and this can trigger some OCD-type fears in me; should I have said “half a day to a whole day of work” when it is probably three or four hours, closer to half a day than a whole one? At any rate, he said just treat it as a whole day.

My sister, brother-in-law and BIL’s sister came to have dinner in the sukkah with my parents and me. I struggled to get into the socialising zone. Maybe I’m peopled out after the last few days. Fortunately, I won’t have to ‘people’ much more over the next few days. I did get a bit more into the evening as it went on, but then I had to leave early to Skype E. E and I are getting excited about her trip to the UK, but also nervous in case C*V*D nixes it, one way or another. Sigh.

I feel frustrated at being so far from E. I’m glad she is (hopefully, COVID-permitting) coming to the UK soon, but it’s frustrating to live so far from each other, and to have so many factors preventing moving our relationship on (from being long-distance to neither of us really being financially secure). All that said, it is exciting to think we could get engaged in 2022. At this stage, we both want to move things on.

***

I’ve had a muffled feeling in my ears for a while now, along with some ringing. I don’t really have a problem hearing anything, everything just sounds a bit muffled. I actually notice it more when it’s quiet, because then I can hear the ringing.

Consulting Dr Internet, it seems it’s most likely to be a build up of wax, but could be an infection. I know I should see the GP, but it’s been difficult to find time with work and Yom Tov, plus the surgery makes it hard enough to get an appointment at the best of times (you have to phone at exactly 8.30am, really good for those of us with sleep issues). It’s been almost impossible to get an appointment since COVID started and I just feel too intimidated to even try. Maybe I’ll try next week, after all the Yom Tovim are over.

***

At the end of last week, my computer wouldn’t open iTunes. It kept telling me to reinstall it. I guessed that some updates had somehow messed it up, but I didn’t have time to reinstall because of work and Shabbat. Today it’s working fine. I guess procrastination does have some advantages.

“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.

Tomorrow Never Knows

I’m wondering if the Very Scary Task should be renamed the Very Stressful Task, as that’s how it seems today. I wanted to get up at 7.30am to be dressed and have davened (prayed) the long Chol HaMoed prayers before I had to deal with it, but I was too tired and didn’t get up until after 9.00am. At 9.30am I did some work phone calls, still in my pyjamas, and discovered that things were a little bit better than yesterday evening. Apparently computer problems among the bureaucrats delayed the paperwork yesterday.

I had to try to set a time for something where everyone involved wanted different times. Actually, most people wanted one time, but one person was being difficult, so I tried to move it half an hour later to help them, but that annoyed someone else who swore at me, which was unprofessional, especially as he was just trying to leave early. It’s hard juggling these people and knowing what to say or do sometimes. I want to please everyone, which is probably a bad trait in some ways, and I don’t know the job well enough yet to tell when people really can’t do something or are just being difficult. As ever with social things, I need a guide to the unwritten rules of human interaction, like so many autistic people do. Then someone had to have a COVID test and I had to find a potential replacement in case he tests positive and can’t do what he needs to do. It seemed a nightmare.

I got it finished in the end, although I’m worried that something will go wrong. In particular, the person who wanted it later has not confirmed that he had my confirmation text. I told him about the new time on the phone, but I felt he wasn’t really listening and worry that he’s going to suddenly say he wants it even later. I guess the blame is on him if that happens, for not listening to me, but I’m still nervous about it.

I should feel good about what I achieved, but I just feel drained and exhausted, as well as anxious that something will still go wrong. Possibly I’m mentally taking responsibility for things that aren’t under my control. I don’t know if this is just a really hard task generally, or if I’ve been unlucky in having things go wrong when I’ve had to do it, or if I struggle because of autism or social anxiety or all of the above. Not knowing what the problem is makes troubleshooting difficult. Obviously there would be little point in asking for adjustments for autism if the problem is that the job is inherently stressful and draining.

After I got everything sorted, the anxiety turned into a sort of lethargy and it was hard to do anything. I wanted to write, to work on my new novel, but I didn’t want to do writing for money on Chol HaMoed. For the same reason, I didn’t want to send out query emails for my written novel. Instead I went out for a walk and to do some shopping. The nearest kosher supermarket unfortunately has for poor COVID compliance, with all staff members and most customers not wearing masks. I was only in there for two or three minutes, but I felt uncomfortable. Then I watched my weekly Twin Peaks episode, delayed by Yom Tov (Jewish festival). Now it’s nearly time to get ready for shul (synagogue) for Shabbat (the Sabbath).

***

I was wondering recently if my life would have been different if I had been born into a frum (religious Jewish) household. I wouldn’t have had to have struggled so much to become frum. On the other hand, I may have found it stifling and stopped being frum, the opposite trajectory of my real life. I might have gone to yeshiva (rabbinical seminary) and fitted in to frum society better as a result, or I might have had fallen into depression (as I did at university) and dropped out. I might have got married to someone who was willing to settle for me (or even really wanted me) or I might have been a weird reject in the shidduch (arranged dating) scene. I don’t think about this much now that I’m with E, but I used to wonder a lot if I could have been married and happy (and I don’t think I thought much about being one without the other) if I had just been born into a different, more religious, family. The whole train of thought assumes there’s a ‘me’ that is somehow separate to my experiences and I guess the only really worthwhile thing about it is that it shows how uncomfortable I feel with my current place in the frum community and how unlikely I feel it is that I could be more comfortable in it or find somewhere else that’s a better fit.

Overthinking

I struggled with insomnia again last night. I still managed to get up reasonably early to do the Very Scary Task for work. At first it seemed to be becoming a bit more manageable with experience, although it still is quite scary as I have to balance the needs of lots of stakeholders alongside important halakhot (Jewish laws), as well as making phone calls, which socially anxious and/or autistic people tend to see as one of the hardest social tasks. I feel that I’m not good at reading people, particularly on the phone, and I lack the experience of doing the task to make judgement calls and see how things are going, especially judging timescales, which is important. I feel J can judge these things, but I can’t, and he was not checking his texts all the time today. Hopefully I will gain experience with time, but reading people is hard, although it’s an issue in any work situation. It’s still a struggle to do something involving so many people, so little time, and which is a very serious and important thing in itself.

As time went on, the task became harder. As is often the case when I have the VST, I found myself hanging around waiting for phone calls, not willing to start anything in case I suddenly have to stop. I wish I understood this process and the time it takes better, but I guess I will only learn by doing it. I had time to think and overthink what I had done, which was not good, especially as there was no one around to talk it over with. Mum was at work, Dad with his friend, E asleep and J out with his family. This left me too much time to overthink and catastrophise. I wrote essentially the same work ‘to do’ list twice in the space of a few minutes without realising what I was doing, trying to get my thoughts out of my head. I don’t like being left by myself to brood on things, as well as feeling as if I’ve dropped off the planet when people don’t answer phones or texts. I shouldn’t be so insecure in my work and emotional needs to require constant reassurance that I’m doing the right thing, but given that I do feel like that I don’t know what to do about it, especially as the consequences of making a mistake are potentially quite serious.

I feel like I spent all day working on this and it’s still not completed, so I need to get up early to work on it tomorrow too. I actually only spent an hour or two in terms of actual activity, but I’ve been on edge all day waiting for phone calls, and planning phone calls, and I haven’t been able to do anything else. By the mid-afternoon, I felt really tense and uncomfortable. I also don’t know many hours I can justifiably bill J for. In the end I texted some people instead of phoning, as it was 7pm and I was totally out of energy spoons. I think if this becomes a regular part of my job, I need to think seriously about how I manage the stress and if I can claim any adjustments. And I’ve still got to deal with it again tomorrow, because we’re waiting on some bureaucrat to get off their backside and send the paperwork so people can do their actual jobs. I would be quite worried about what will happen tomorrow and how I will cope, except that I’m now too tired to care, which I guess is good. Isn’t it?

“Let go and let God” is a term from addiction treatment. I’d seen it before, but today I saw it right when I was struggling with things. It seems to apply to me. Unfortunately, I’m not good at letting go, particularly when I feel I’m letting other people or God down, or both, in the case of the VST.

***

In terms of other scary things, I survived a prolonged social interaction with my Dad’s best friend (despite having eaten lunch quickly to avoid him). He seemed a lot older than when I last saw him and more subdued than he used to be. I think he’s been through a lot. I shouldn’t have mentioned his criminal conviction yesterday, as it makes him sound like a career criminal, rather than someone who made some bad decisions. I’d also forgotten that he has mental health issues that influenced those bad decisions. So, I feel a bit guilty. He asked me a lot of questions about work, which is good in that it makes me seem normal, but bad in that sometimes I’m unsure of the answers. Despite having been there for ten months, I feel there’s a lot I don’t know.

Then I had to have dinner with my parents’ other friends in the sukkah, with no spoons (of the energy kind, but it was pizza so no literal spoons either). I didn’t want to “people,” I just wanted to watch TV, but it’s Sukkot, so I had to eat in the sukkah, which meant people and no TV (and no spoons). It wasn’t as bad as I feared, mostly because I tuned out of the conversation and just ate my food and went. Then I skyped E, which is strange for me, as it seems to be a social interaction that doesn’t drain me and maybe even restores me, which obviously bodes well for our future.

***

I decided I didn’t have the wherewithal to write a devar Torah (Torah thought) this week, especially as there is no regular Torah reading because of Sukkot. I missed last week too, which makes me feel a bit bad. Next week is back to the beginning of the Torah, so hopefully I’ll be able to write one there. I tried to do some Torah study, but first was too on edge waiting for phone calls, then too tired and stressed, and worried about tomorrow. Sigh. I did a little, but not much.

I did at least spend a little time on my short story. I got it to a point where I was happy enough with it to be able to let E see it (she liked it). I’ll probably post the short story in a day or two in a locked post. Please let me know if you want me to email you the password so you can read it.

I did realise recently that the novel I’ve written is about the demons and mistakes of my adolescence and early adulthood, whereas the one I want to write next is about the demons of my childhood and also the present day, at least in some sense. I’m not a rabbi who is secretly a porn addict, but in other ways it is about me. I’m very drawn to the idea that a novel about addiction is really a novel about teshuvah (repentance/return to God/return to the true self/soul), at least in a Jewish context, an idea that is hard to explore in the secular Western setting, which has become a lot more about public shame than private guilt.

***

I went for a walk to try to destress (it didn’t entirely work, I got two work-related calls). I went to the book box and re-donated IT, along with Religion and the Decline of Magic by Keith Thomas, a big history book that I bought at a charity shop years ago and instantly regretted because the cover was such a mess (coffee stains) that I could never bring myself to read it. It is now easily the most intellectual thing in the box. I hope someone else can see past its cover.

***

E booked her tickets to the UK for later this year, which is exciting, although because of COVID there is a layer of uncertainty and the worrying feeling that everything could get called off at the last minute because of a bad test or an escalation of infection in the US or UK. It seems strange to think there was a time when you could book a plane ticket and, aside from extreme unforeseen incidents, you would know that you would definitely be in that country on that date. We seem to have drifted back to a pre-twentieth century idea of travel.

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.

Spiritual Experiences, Conformity, and Autism in the Workplace

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

Reading Ashley’s post on conformity, I commented:

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Behind-the-Sofa Scary

(There’s a cliche in the UK about children watching Doctor Who from behind the sofa because it’s so scary, at least for a family programme. For Doctor Who fans, that’s kind of the litmus test of genuine terror.)

I didn’t blog yesterday as not much happened. Today I had weird dreams, overslept and went into a panic about Shabbat (the Sabbath) and the Yom Tovim (Jewish festivals) in the next few weeks. I did some work today. I’m working from home on Monday, but I worried about oversleeping and not working enough, so I thought I would do some work today and tomorrow, but it’s been a bit of a rush. I’m about to do a little bit more, although I won’t do much Torah study today. I might have to leave writing next week’s devar Torah (Torah thought) until Thursday evening. I usually like to have it almost finished by then, so I can just proof-read it and send it, as I’m usually tired from work, but I can’t see how I’m going to get the time. I do at least know what I’m going to say (unlike the week after).

I am going to the rabbi’s house tonight for dinner. I’m a bit nervous about this, although I surprised E by saying that I’m usually OK talking to rabbis without additional social anxiety from their position, just ordinary social anxiety of talking to anyone. I’m not sure why that is, probably because I’ve been talking to rabbis from a young age and I know they’re just people, usually with a corny sense of humour. Usually quite laidback too. I know some people who leave the frum (religious Jewish) community complain of strict upbringings (or abusive upbringings, which is something else entirely), but most frum people I know are laidback, often surprisingly so. I find it’s hard to get frum people to commit to things because they often have a “Whatever, we’ll work it out eventually” attitude. This always seems at odds with how I think religious people should behave, which is precise and even a little anxious. Maybe this is something to do with trusting in God that everything will work out. Or maybe it’s just my Yekkish background. Yekkes (German Jews) are stereotypically precise, punctilious, and the only Jews who are remotely punctual. I’m actually only one-eighth Yekkish, but I feel a strong affinity for the stereotype.

***

E found me an article on autistic burnout! It doesn’t say much I didn’t already know, but it’s useful to show family and it’s reassuring to be told that it’s “a thing.” It’s unclear on the thing I’m unclear on, which is the extent to which autistic burnout is a short-term thing triggered by a few hours of that can be alleviated by a few hours of rest and sleep or a long-term thing somewhat like depression that sets in after weeks or months of stress and can last indefinitely. My feeling is that it can be both, but I don’t think everyone agrees.

***

After I saw my rabbi and told him about my autism, I sent him the article I wrote about being autistic in the frum community. He really liked it and asked if I would like him to circulate it in the community. I’m not sure what I feel about that. I can see pros and cons. I don’t have time to list them in detail (maybe next week), but I can see big pros in starting a conversation about autism and neurodiversity in the local community and maybe finding some more understanding and support at shul (synagogue). On the other hand, telling literally everyone in shul seems scary and awkward, and I could end up defined as “that autistic guy,” at least for a few years until I become defined as “that frum author who writes a lot about sex.”

“I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams”

Shabbat (the Sabbath) was a mixed bag, and, again, I find I need to break my rule, or at least aspiration, about not going online after Shabbat in the summer as I need to blog to get some of my thoughts out of my head.

On Friday night we davened (prayer) outside again. This seemed at odds with the shul‘s (synagogue’s) policy of no longer keeping COVID protocols in place, now that it is legal not to do so (unlike my parents’ shul, which still has a lot of safeguards in place, and is even apparently adding more). This was pleasant for me, as I would wear a mask inside, but felt no need to do so outside. The reason may have been that we do not own the building where we daven, which is usually a school. The hall where we daven is currently being significantly remodelled, which is going to make services difficult, particularly the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur festival services next month. I am not sure what the shul will do. We raised funds to buy our own premises earlier this year, but I think we do not have planning permission to build yet, and even when we do, the building project is estimated to take eighteen months.

I did not sleep particularly well last night and had some strange dreams, partly focused on some silly thing I did when I was ten. I don’t know why I carry around guilt from two decades ago, when I wasn’t even an adult. It did leave me in a negative state of mind, and I stayed in bed because I felt anxious and self-critical. When I did finally get up, I was carrying other guilt, which I don’t want to go into here, for various reasons, but which was equally irrational.

I slept for three hours after lunch, which was not sensible, as I will probably struggle to sleep tonight. Even then, I only woke up because I set an alarm before Shabbat. I’m not sure how long I would have slept if I had awakened naturally.

I nearly didn’t get back to shul, as I had a lot of social anxiety. I more or less forced myself out of the house and down to shul. The hall, now I saw it properly, looked very different as a result of the ongoing building works. About a third of the hall has already been partitioned off, and even in the area still accessible to us, some tables were missing. This was somewhat upsetting to my autistic mind.

After Minchah (Afternoon Prayers), the seudah shlishit (third Sabbath meal) was held in a classroom. I didn’t want to go and eat, but I did want to attend the Talmud shiur (religious class) that would be held partway through the seudah. I stayed in the hall and read for a bit, but then thought that they were about to start the shiur, so went and found the classroom. I felt awkward sitting there and not eating, but I did get to hear the shiur. I’m not sure how well I followed it, but I would have followed it even less had I not prepared in advance yesterday.

One thing I noticed was a couple of people addressing me by name and trying to make small talk with me. It always surprises me when people know me or want to talk to me. I suppose I’ve had so many bad social interactions, so many communities of one kind or another (shul, school, scouts, university, workplace) where I’ve felt I haven’t been accepted or didn’t fit in (or was even bullied) and just stood around “being autistic” and not really being able to talk to people that I’m still amazed when people know my name and want to talk to me. I don’t know how to progress this to make friends though.

I don’t know how rational my COVID fears are. I travel on public transport (with a mask) to get to work or volunteering, and shul is probably no less safe than that. Is it safe enough not to wear a mask, or to eat? I don’t know. According to the government, it’s fine, but I don’t feel safe. Is this sensible caution or the beginnings of health anxiety/OCD?

I feel a bit down now, and vaguely headachey. I probably need something to eat, and to shower (it’s got hot again) relax a bit before bed.

I Lost My Heart to a Starship Trooper

I struggled to sleep again last night, although the temperature has dropped a bit. I’m not sure why I’m having trouble sleeping at the moment (trouble falling asleep; I have no trouble staying asleep, unfortunately!); maybe it’s connected with the slight uptick of anxiety and irrational (I think irrational) guilt I’ve had lately. Drinking hot chocolate seemed to help, and it’s far fewer calories than eating porridge, which I had been doing when insomniac. I think I’m adjusting to the sweetness, which may not be a good thing.

Work was pretty dull and I felt I was clock-watching even more than usual. I don’t know how people do dull office jobs 9.00am-5.00pm and five days a week. Part of the day was spent looking for invoices that we didn’t have, and which probably don’t exist, which is irrationally more frustrating than if I’d spent an identical amount of time and energy searching for invoices we do have.

I was surprisingly busy when I got home, doing some late research for my novel (see below), cooking dinner (plain pasta, I didn’t have that much energy) and trying to do more Torah study (I do some on the Tube into work), but being too tired to do much, and then feeling vaguely guilty about prioritising novel research over Torah, although I honestly thought there would be a period after dinner where I would feel more alert and less distracted for having eaten before the tiredness set in.

I told E yesterday that I’m vaguely anxious lately, and vaguely anxious about why I’m getting anxious, which I suppose is meta-anxiety (anxiety about anxiety).

***

I’m currently reading Yeshiva Days: Learning on the Lower East Side, an ethnographic study of a yeshiva (“rabbinical seminary” although many of the students are not intending to become rabbis, and certainly not communal rabbis) in New York by Jonathan Boyarin. It was supposed to plant ideas of incidents or anecdotes for my novel, but it’s not really the same type of institution my protagonist (I can’t really think of him as a ‘hero’ despite/because he’s based on me) attended. It is interesting to read, though.

It did make me wonder whether I misunderstood what yeshiva study involves somewhere along the line, although the institution in the book isn’t the type of yeshiva that I could have studied at, not least because it isn’t residential (the thought of communal living and shared dorms is hugely off-putting). Boyarin spends some time looking at the intersection between the yeshiva and popular culture. He says there are more references to popular culture than would have been the case at a more “right-wing” (=fundamentalist) yeshiva, but at the same time I think references are mainly to popular culture that people grew up with (either before becoming religious or when a child and allowed more freedom), rather than contemporary popular culture they might experience as an adult. In other words, it’s OK to have had access to popular culture, but not necessarily to have access to it now. I’ve noticed this in my shul (synagogue) too (the rabbi referenced Space 1999 this week!). I saw something similar on a blog years ago, where the blogger said that even in very fundamentalist communities where university was forbidden, it was OK, even celebrated, to have gone to university in the past, particularly if you got a prestigious qualification like medicine, just as long as you weren’t currently at or planning to go to university.

Watching Boyarin navigate the multiple levels of meaning and depth (religious, political, social, humorous) in the conversations at the yeshiva, I realise that maybe it’s not surprising that I struggle in similar situations. After all, Boyarin struggles at times, and he isn’t (I assume) on the autism spectrum. And when I say conversations, I don’t just mean the study conversations; even the casual bantering can work on multiple levels and require effort to keep up with it. (I have seen this at shul too.)

Reading the book, I’m brought back to what I think I’ve wanted since university, even if I haven’t always been able to articulate it: a chevra, a group of friends who I really connect with and can feel comfortable talking to and joking around with, like I used to have at school, where there were only about five people I could talk to (out of a school of 1,500), but I was completely unselfconscious with them. This is possibly not something I should be looking to replicate (even aside from Asperger’s/autism).

***

At least E knows what to say to me. Her verdict on Doctor Who: Rise of the Cybermen (new series, 2006): “that episode just sort of seemed like an inferior reworking of Genesis of the Daleks” (original series, 1975).😍

Shabbat Hazon and Tisha B’Av (Mood Diary, Not Another Religious Post)

Shabbat (the Sabbath) was OK, except that I did not manage to fall asleep until 3am on Friday night, possibly because of the heatwave, so I overslept and missed shul in the morning again.

I went to shul (synagogue) for Minchah (Afternoon Prayers) and Talmud shiur (religious class), then went again after seudah for a pre-Tisha B’Av drasha. It was good, but I felt self-conscious not just in a blue shirt, but no jacket or tie. I think I could have got away with no tie, but I should have worn a jacket. My parents said I would be too hot and I agreed, but deep down I knew that everyone in my shul would be wearing a jacket even if they took it off on reaching shul. Also, the rabbi had said something about my wearing a blue shirt during the Talmud shiur — not critical, but it made me feel self-conscious.

I didn’t have a low chair for Tisha B’Av and was planning on just sitting on the floor (Tisha B’Av is a day of mourning for the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem; in Judaism, sitting low down or on the floor is a sign of mourning). Someone lent me a low chair, but I didn’t want to use it. I’m not sure why. I was a little worried it was higher than permitted, but I think mainly I just felt too self-conscious by that stage: was he being friendly or did he think I was a total am ha’aretz? And my non-leather trainers (not wearing leather shoes is another mourning custom) weren’t particularly comfortable either, although that could have been from sitting on the floor. I also got confused too about when to wear a COVID mask, and realised that I gave my mother mistaken instructions regarding end of Shabbat ceremonies when Tisha B’Av starts immediately afterwards.

Along with this, I couldn’t really follow Eichah (The Book of Lamentations, read on Tisha B’Av). I don’t know why I’ve found it so hard to engage with it the last few years. I just can’t follow or connect. To be fair, I find the Hebrew quite hard to translate in my head, but even following along seems to be hard. I just can’t concentrate that much at 10pm, especially in a heatwave and while sitting on the floor (and feeling socially awkward). Then in my shul we do kinot (laments) to ourselves, really quickly rather than slowly and communally as in my old shul. I read some kinot in Hebrew without really connecting with the poetic Hebrew, so I switched to English (really the only time of the year where I say set prayers in English), but still ran out of time. I did the last kinah at home, in Hebrew, but looking at some of the English, which felt a bit better.

As usual after Shabbat when I’m in shul I helped to fold up the tablecloths, but I’m so bad at that that I feel I would be better off not helping, except that it feels wrong to just walk out without helping. I was reminded of something I said on Ashley’s blog last week about autistic people wanting to help, but actually just getting in the way.

I struggled to sleep again last night, because of the heatwave, because of creative thoughts I kept having that I kept getting up to write down, and perhaps because shul had left me feeling disquieted. Perhaps consequently I overslept today, and when I woke up, I was not able to get up for a long time. I felt utterly drained again, and perhaps somewhat depressed, and aware that I didn’t want to break my fast until halakhic midday, a little after 1pm. I missed Shacharit (Morning Prayers. I think I finally got up about 2.30pm, made havdalah (on tea) and had something to eat. I felt a bit better after that, but I did feel that I wasn’t quite in the right mindset for Tisha B’Av, but also that I was scared to get into that dark mindset. I read Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust for a bit (a book I’ve been reading only on Tisha B’Av; in about five years, I have not finished it yet, although I might try to finish the few remaining pages before next year) and listened to a Zoom talk on antisemitism via my shul. I also went to a Zoom shiur (religious class), again through my shul, but the organiser hit “Mute all” and forgot to unmute the speaker’s computer, so it was inaudible. Someone posted in the chat to say there was no sound, but it took a while for someone present at the shiur to notice and unmute it.

I feel like I don’t find Tisha B’Av as meaningful as I used to, and I don’t know why. Not fasting (because of the danger of fasting while taking lithium tablets) is probably a big part of it. Fasting used to make me ill (headache, nausea, sometimes vomiting), but not fasting feels like not really participating. I tended to avoid shul during the day even pre-COVID, because I don’t want to have to turn down a mitzvah because I’m not fasting. Plus, I often experience burnout after the night of Tisha B’Av from the shul experience (as much social anxiety as religious devotion this year, as I said above) and then crash on the morning and struggle to get up, especially as I try to fast until halakhic midday. Or maybe not being depressed means that Tisha B’Av is not the day that I most connect with emotionally any more, the one where I can easily get into the right state of mind. To be honest, I feel like as a general rule I’m not as connected to the festivals and fasts as I’d like to be, and I don’t know how to change that. I spend so much of holy days either worried about social interactions or sleeping and trying not to oversleep that religion struggles to get in there.

I did write a Tisha B’Av thought, on the suggestion of my rabbi mentor that it would make the day more meaningful for me. I wasn’t sure what to do with it, though. In the end I posted it here, although it’s not really a good match for my blog, but I don’t want to send it to my devar Torah mailing list as it doesn’t seem right for there either — maybe not quite frum (religious) enough and a bit too daring.

Fear of Normality

I had a stressful day at work today, but mostly tied up in the difficult task that I sometimes have to do that I don’t really want to talk about here for confidentiality reasons. So I’m a bit stuck with my usual strategy of blogging to offload stress. I told E and my parents, which seemed to help. The other problem at work was the water cooler leaking, which was quite a big thing, but isn’t really worth relating here.

***

I just emailed a friend and, without really thinking about it, said that I’m a bit nervous about elements of coming out of lockdown. That surprised me a bit, but when I thought about it, I realised that I am nervous, although I hadn’t really considered it before, and although part of me wants to be out of lockdown. I hate wearing a mask, but I think I’m now scared to be in crowded settings without one, and with other people not wearing one. Already people on the Tube are not wearing masks, even though Transport for London has made it clear that masks will be required for the indefinite future. And from next week I will (probably) be travelling home on the Tube at rush hour. Sooner or later I’ll have to start coming in during morning rush hour too.

I am also nervous of the return to socialising – or not socialising, in my case. The feeling of being left out when everyone else socialises and I’m too anxious (or friendless), and also the discomfort I feel generally in social situations that I might try to join in, like shul kiddush (refreshments after synagogue services). Then there’s the fear that COVID will return, or something like it, or something worse (there are viruses more infectious and deadly than COVID).

The good thing about coming out of lockdown is that it brings nearer the time when E will be able to come over here to visit! But that’s still not looking like it’s going to happen soon, given the restrictions on US-UK travel. So it feels a bit like all the scary social stuff I’ve avoided for nearly eighteen months is coming back, but the one thing I really want to happen seems as far away as ever, which doesn’t really seem fair.

Prayer Mindsets

I went to bed late last night, as I didn’t think I would sleep, having forgotten to take my meds when I got home from the restaurant, plus I needed passive unwinding time in front of the TV. I watched Doctor Who (Bad Wolf and The Parting of the Ways), and felt myself frustrated by Russell T Davies’ writing style again. To be fair to him, some of it is just contemporary TV in general rather than him in particular, but I can put up with other writers more easily.

When I did get to bed, I remembered something I need to do today, but I was too tired to get up and write a note, which was a very bad idea, as if it’s not written down, I don’t remember it and now I can’t work out what it is. I think I figured it out in the end, but frustrated and worried me for much of the day.

I woke up very late and after breakfast was so tired I went back to bed (or laid on the bed, as it was hot). I’m not sure if I dozed; I think just lying in a cool (ish), quiet, dark room helped restore me after all the social interactions, social anxiety and sensory overload of yesterday. I felt a bit fatigued afterwards, but not burnt out. Unfortunately, it was 3.30pm by that stage and I was still in pyjamas.

I spent a while trying to track down the complete Hebrew original of a Midrash (rabbinic expansion of the biblical story) that I had only read in part for my devar Torah; when I finally found it, I couldn’t make much of the bits that I didn’t have the translation for, which was frustrating. Aside from that, I spent about half an hour starting to write my devar Torah. I’m glad to have got the bones of it down, although I need to work on it some more tomorrow. I am conscious that I could have done more if I hadn’t been burnt out, which is frustrating, but there isn’t a lot I can do about it.

I didn’t really have time to exercise today, and I thought it was too hot even for a walk.

After dinner it was cooler outdoors than in. I sat in the garden and worked on my novel. Making amendments after having finished a couple of drafts turns out to be like remodelling the bottom layers of a house of cards after I’ve finished it; one false move and everything collapses. That’s how it feels, anyway. I’m terrified of accidentally repeating myself or introducing a continuity error or just introducing a very obviously interpolated and out-of-place passage. When writing a new passage, I “merely” have to think up something interesting, original and true and write it down, but rewriting requires revisiting written (and half-forgotten) passages and restructuring them, keeping them doing what they were doing, but also fitting with my new writing.

***

One of my religious targets for this Jewish year was improving my kavannah, my concentration, or, better, mindfulness, in prayer, although I wasn’t really sure how to do this.

There is a kind of paradox in Jewish prayer, that if God is omniscient, omnipotent and benevolent, He knows what we need and supplies it, so what is the point of praying? There are many approaches to this. I once gave a shiur (religious talk) about just three of them. To summarise very briefly:

  1. Prayer is a process of building a relationship with God by asking Him for everything we need and telling Him all our thoughts. The content is less important than the interaction, which builds relationship. (Rebbe Nachman of Breslov)
  2. Prayer is a means of establishing a “covenantal community” which happens to include God as a member. Asking for things isn’t the point as much as establishing the community. (Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith)
  3. Prayer is a self-reflexive process of examining ourselves and whether we truly need the things we want and whether we will use them well. If we undergo the process correctly, we can become worthy of things that we did not deserve previously. (Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, Horeb)

(1 and 2 are quite similar, except 1 is personal and 2 is communal, including other Jews. I’m not sure if Rav Soloveitchik views the covenantal community as being the local community or the entire Jewish people.)

The last week or two I have been trying to focus on one of these mindsets of prayer while saying the Amidah, the most important prayer and the centrepiece of every prayer service. It’s been an interesting experiment and it has definitely helped with kavannah. I’ve mostly been focusing on numbers 1 and 2, as 3 is more self-reflexive than I’ve felt up to lately and doesn’t really apply on Shabbat (when I have most time and energy for prayer) as Shabbat prayers are not petitionary, at least not to the same extent as weekday prayers.

Noise Pollution

Well, I made it to shul (synagogue) over Shabbat (the Sabbath), for Friday evening, Saturday morning and Saturday afternoon. I was there for the start of Shacharit (Morning Prayers) on Saturday morning and even helped set up (we were praying outside as the weather was good so that we didn’t have to wear masks). In the afternoon I followed parts of the shiur (Talmud class), although we covered more ground than I expected and went on to material I hadn’t prepared for, not that preparation always helps me follow any better. Also, even though I haven’t made many close friends at shul, I feel that quite a lot of people there know my name and will say “Good Shabbos” (typical Shabbat greeting) to me and seem pleased to see me, so I think on some level I’m accepted there.

I also went for a walk, did some extra Torah study, played (and lost) two games of Rummikub with my parents and did a little bit of recreational reading (still the James Bond novel Moonraker). I’ve kind of accepted that the way I live my Shabbatot, there isn’t much time for recreational reading. I don’t seem to have much time for recreational reading in general at the moment, because I’m prioritising Torah study, because I don’t travel home from work on the Tube (which used to be a reading time) and because I find I’m often exhausted in the evening and watch TV instead of reading. I grab brief moments to read a few pages over lunch or before bed.

I got to bed at 1.00am, which is late, but not so surprising when Shabbat didn’t finish until about 10.30pm. I avoided turning on my computer after Shabbat, which is what can keep me up until stupid o’clock in the morning, that and watching TV (I watched an episode of The Simpsons, but nothing longer).

I woke up late today (11.00am), but didn’t feel fatigued or burnt out, so I’m counting this as a success.

***

Today was good. I did some Torah study, went for a run (not brilliant stamina, but it was hot), did a little over half an hour of work on my novel despite an exercise headache and the distraction of loud music from outside (see below). Then I had a virtual lecture/tour about the Medieval Bible/Talmud commentator Rashi. It was interesting, but I had to shut all the windows to shut out the noise so that I could hear, which made me feel ill from the heat (or more ill, as I already had an exercise headache). Afterwards I wrote some emails. I worry that frustration from the noise made me somewhat abrupt in the emails. That and the fact that I felt I was running out of time this evening and just needed to stop procrastinating and write the emails. In particular, there was one to a friend who seems to be drifting towards divorce judging from her recent emails and I don’t really know what to say to her, or how serious her concerns are — is she just telling me to let off steam or is it a “near the end of her tether” situation? I’m not good at reading these things.

I did a lot, but felt like I was running out of time, and felt ill from the exercise headache and noise. I’m pretty exhausted now, and frustrated and ill from various factors (including the continuing noise) and in a weird way, I feel I did both too much and too little today, being hampered by the noise and the virtual tour being at a slightly awkward time, as well as my propensity for getting exercise headaches. I had a Skype call with E too, but felt that I wasn’t fully engaged, partly from the late hour and the noise outside.

***

I realised that a disproportionate amount of my divrei Torah (Torah thoughts) deal with the question of individuality and the relationship between the individual and society. It seems a fundamental question to me in a religion which believes in the sanctity of the individual as the image of God, but also in the collective as the source of religious authority and locus of religious life. I had an idea over Shabbat of a triangular map of Jewish (or general?) religious life with God at the top and the individual and the community in the bottom corners. Sometimes the community tries to absorb the individual, or the individual tries to leave the community, or to leave God, resulting in the triangle getting bent out of shape. But I’m not sure where I’m going with this.

***

We had a neighbour who was playing really loud music today, either in the garden or with the windows open. They had some kind of party going on, with a lot of crowd noise too by the late afternoon. I could hear it with the windows shut (through double glazing), and I don’t want to shut the windows in this weather. During the afternoon I had to have the windows shut, fan going and still could hear the bass loud enough to stop me thinking clearly. It’s not an immediate neighbour, but someone down the street and in the street behind us, so it’s hard to work out who it is to complain, not that I would have the confidence to complain (just as we never complained about our Haredi neighbours’ illegal minyan in the lockdown). I tend to be sensitive to noise at the best of times. In our old house, we had a neighbour who would hold a charity concert in his garden once a year and would always warn us in advance, so I’m a bit annoyed. Things seem to have stopped now, but I worry it will happen again. I think we’ve had excessive noise in the past. We say we’ll complain, but we never do. I guess that’s very English.