Honest Jewish Experience and Novel Submission

I’ve mentioned before that I read therapist Elisheva Liss’ weekly “schmoozeletter,” which combines thoughts on the weekly sedra (Torah reading) with insights from modern psychology and psychotherapy. This week she spoke about people in struggling (but not abusive or clearly not working) marriages. She tries to get them to label their interactions and other aspects of the marriage with marks out of ten, with one for the worst possible experience and ten for the best. Then she tries to get people to accept that a set of perfect tens is unrealistic and that a wider range of values can result in a marriage that, while imperfect, is still rewarding and enjoyable. “Maybe getting to a range of 5-7 would be transformative and beautiful in its own imperfect way, if we stopped fixating on the elusive, unrealistic 10?”

I wondered if I should apply this to my religious life. Maybe I’m looking for perfect tens for my davening (prayer), Torah study, mitzvah (commandment) performance, middot (character traits), emunah (faith) and so on. Perhaps I can accept a religious life that is good enough rather than perfect. I haven’t, as yet, assessed the different parts of my religious life and I’m not sure that giving them an exact score is a good idea, but instead I should try to feel that I don’t have to have perfect concentration and connection when davening, I don’t have to have amazing insights every time I study Torah and so on in order to have a meaningful religious life. I just have to be having a better than average experience regularly.

Part of the problem is knowing what I actually FEEL when davening/studying Torah/etc.? I don’t have an official diagnosis of alexithymia (difficulty recognising and distinguishing my own emotions), but one therapist was very sure that I have that difficulty and that is my own experience too. When I feel that my davening or my Torah study lacks a feeling of connection or joy, perhaps the issue is recognising and distinguishing the emotions rather than actually feeling them. This is supported by the fact that I continued with davening and Torah study during the years when I was severely depressed, often at a reduced level, but it was important for me to do something and that probably indicates more than fear and certainly more than just habit.

Likewise, I believe that God exists, and I can tell that I hold this belief much more strongly than I have in the past, so the fact that I don’t feel a strong connection to Him may be a product of unrecognised emotions rather than absent emotions. That said, thinking about connection with God is an inherently subjective and emotional subject, so maybe I shouldn’t see that as the be all and end all of my religious life.

***

Another thought was prompted by an Orthodox Conundrum podcast featuring Rabbi Pesach Sommer talking about whether it is possible to educate for faith (not indoctrinate). He spoke about Orthodox thinkers that teenagers should be introduced to (I had read most of them, pleasingly) and one was Hillel Zeitlin. Zeitlin is a fairly obscure figure who was raised in a strict Hasidic family in late nineteenth century Poland, stopped being frum as a teenager, getting into secular philosophy and Russian literature, then later became frum again, but combined his passion for philosophy and literature with Judaism, writing about religion in Dostoyevski and Tolstoy from a Jewish perspective alongside articles on Jewish figures like Rebbe Nachman of Breslov and Rav Kook and, if I remember correctly, trying to compare Judaism with Eastern religions. He was eventually murdered in the Holocaust.

I was familiar with Zeitlin from a volume of his writings that Jewish Renewal rabbi Arthur Green published a number of years ago and he did inspire me, albeit more by his example than by the writings themselves (as with Franz Rosenzweig). The relevance of this here is that Rabbi Sommer saw Zeitlin as a useful writer because he was not a rabbi and was therefore freer to write about his religious doubts and growth than ordained rabbis. He can therefore be a model of the religious quest, rather than a static view of Judaism and Jewish belief and practice.

The point of all this is that it made me wonder if there is benefit to my recording my thoughts about Judaism and my religious growth, including false starts and wrong turns, after all, precisely because I’m not a rabbi and I don’t need to pretend to be living a perfect religious life. I can be honest and authentic without needing to pretend I have all the answers. I can, in fact, try out different answers without having to be sure that they are “correct.”

***

I struggled to sleep again last night. I got four or five hours sleep and I got up alright this morning, but I made a lot of mistakes at work, perhaps due to tiredness, or to sensory overload from the noise of the air conditioner — or autistic executive function issues, or incompetence, or, or, or…

A small victory: doing mundane tasks while listening to podcasts at work, I listened to a therapist critique the shidduch system of arranged dates in the Orthodox world. She said single young people should enjoy the best years of their lives and not worry about being on the shelf in their early twenties. The “best years of their lives” bit would have depressed me in the past as my teens and twenties were mostly spent unemployed, clinically depressed and very lonely, not doing very much at all, and desperately needing the autism/Asperger’s diagnosis I wouldn’t get for years. I did wince a bit, but I just went on with what I was doing. Yes, I had a miserable time. Yes, lots of people had more fun. Probably the net amount of fun they have over their lifetimes will be greater than mine. But there isn’t much point in going over that all over again. I guess things can only get better? (And, yes, we’ve discussed here before whether teens and twenties really are the best years of your life.)

I got the marriage paperwork I was trying to get hold of yesterday, so we’ve got that to look forward to…

***

I submitted my novel to another agent. I wanted to submit to two, but this one wanted so much stuff that I had didn’t have to hand (elevator pitch, one page synopsis) that I ran out of time. It took well over an hour to submit. It’s frustrating that agents all want different things. One wants a one page synopsis, another wants a two page synopsis and it’s harder than you might think to turn one into the other. When what they want is straightforward, I can submit in twenty minutes or so, but this took nearly four times as long.

The agent that I submitted to was the one who found Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. I can’t pretend that this didn’t leap out to me because I’m currently reading it, but I guess there are some similarities, although I didn’t list it as a published novel similar to my own (I thought that would be gauche; if there are similarities, she can spot them for herself). I broke my informal rule of not submitting to the CEO of an agency (unless it’s a very small one) because she genuinely seemed like the best fit at this agency. I just hope she has the time to deal with the books she represents.

To be honest, I feel my first novel is a mess, an attempt at writing autobiographical fiction that mutated into more imaginative fiction, but not enough. Some of the autobiographical bits are OK, but the strongest part is the non-autobiographical plot thread about a frum woman being abused by abused by her husband. If I wasn’t involved in other writing (and wasn’t afraid of charges of appropriation?), I’d be tempted to try to expand that to a whole novel on its own. Of the three people (other than me) who have read it, two liked it (and the third arguably was not the target audience), which I guess counts for something. I feel that my current novel is better, but also significantly flawed (I just realised a major flaw in it so far). I guess it’s a learning process.

As is often the case when I submit my manuscript, I was left feeling that I am a bad writer and reader for not reading modern fiction. In a weird way, this is probably due to autism/Asperger’s. Like many people on the spectrum, I like to stick with things I know I will like and can understand deeply rather than trying to understand something new. I read the same authors and sometimes I re-read the same books multiple times, although I’m trying to do that less. I’ve read all the short stories of Jorge Luis Borges (most of them multiple times), all the surviving fiction of Franz Kafka (ditto), all of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse novels, much of the prodigious outputs of Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, H. G. Wells, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (all the Professor Challenger stories as well as the more famous Sherlock Holmes ones), Agatha Christie, John le Carre and various other writers. I haven’t read anything from contemporary writers who have only written one or two books. Reading broadly is more of a problem than reading deeply, and reading modern is more of a problem than reading classics.

I Come from Barcelona

Work is very slow at the moment, which possibly gives me too much time to think, or to overthink things. I thought more about trying to find my religious place and about trying to find some kind of purpose in life beyond doing boring work, badly, for inadequate pay (my pay is very generous compared to what I do, but inadequate to live on unsupplemented).

I woke up feeling a failure, I’m not sure why. The exception, the non-failure, is my relationship with E, which is a big exception, but still, I feel that I’m not achieving enough (what is “enough”? Enough to help support a family or enough to stroke my ego?). I sometimes feel like I interpret any error on my part or anyone with difference of opinion to me as a sign of failure on my part, that I should have spotted the error or predicted the difference of opinion and accounted for it in advance.

On the way to work, I listened to an Orthodox Conundrum discussing whether Modern Orthodox schools [1] teach too much Talmud. This was interesting, but also (for want of a better word) triggering. The argument in favour of as much, or more, Talmud included the need for immersion in the language (Aramaic and rabbinical Hebrew) and thought-system of the Talmud and Medieval commentators to really make progress in understanding, which I probably agree with, in a way, but I was left with the feeling that, having not gone to yeshivah and not studied/studying Talmud in depth or at length, my Torah study is at best “dilettante” (as the “pro-more-Talmud opinion said) or even that I am a “second class Jew.” I’m not sure what the context for this remark was, and I’m pretty sure it was being said along the lines of, “We mustn’t let people who don’t study/understand Talmud feel like second-class Jews…” but I still felt uncomfortable. On the other hand, Rabbi Kahn did argue that some students are simply not going to understand or enjoy Talmud study, particularly at age fourteen, and that they should study other Jewish topics (like Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) or philosophy) and more creative ways of studying and engaging with Jewish tradition. I agree with this, and it is part of why I didn’t go to yeshivah, but it did prime me to spend the day introspecting about where I fit in the Jewish world (again).

If Torah study is the most important mitzvah (at least for men), and Talmud study is the most important form of Torah study (again, for men), then where does that leave me? Again, reading When Rabbis Abuse, it sometimes seems like being learned is more important than being good in the frum (religious Jewish) community. Certainly being able to study Talmud and lead prayer services seems to lead to status in the frum world in a way that just being a good person does not, or not necessarily. I am still haunted by the image of serial child abuser Todros Grynhaus leading Yamim Noraim (High Holy Day) services even after serious allegations of abuse had been made against him. This was in a Federation shul (synagogue), so moderate Haredi rather than extreme Haredi.

Less melodramatically, I worry that the people I admire would find little to admire in me (except E). I do have a need for approval.

I began to wonder if I need a clearer purpose in life than other people. I need to do more than work to earn money to buy food and pay rent/mortgage so I can live to work to earn money to buy food… I feel this should be important to everyone, but apparently it is not. For many people, work, family and conventional religious behaviour seems to be enough for them[2] and I wonder why it doesn’t seem to be the case for me. Is it just because my family is still hypothetical and my religious behaviour is fraught with difficulty because of autism, social anxiety and disrupted sleep? Or is it because I feel myself to have a weak sense of self and my own opinions, bouncing off other people’s ideas, so I look for a clear mission or guiding principle in life to manifest my life around? I feel that, even without all my “issues,” I would want more from my religious life than going to shul three times a day and studying Talmud (or even something else) for an hour or so a day. I need something more, but I don’t know what.

To some extent, I probably want something conventional Orthodox Judaism just isn’t offering. I went to the little shul (really a Beit Midrash) upstairs to daven Minchah (say Afternoon Prayers) after work this afternoon. There wasn’t a service, I just wanted to pray in a shul and I knew I wouldn’t go this evening. Before I davened, I just sat in the quiet and calm of the empty room and it was very peaceful and comfortable, but that’s not really a Jewish way to respond to sacred spaces. There are kabbalists and Hasidim who meditate (I’ve done it in the past), hitbodedut, mantra meditation, other types of meditation, but it’s not considered mainstream. It’s not something most frum people would associate with Judaism.

Then again, maybe once I get married, I really won’t need anything else, particularly if we have children. Maybe being with someone I love and who loves me, in a genuinely reciprocal relationship (unlike previous relationships, which were always one-sided, despite my efforts) will be enough for me, and I won’t care any more about where I fit in the religious world beyond where we happen to be, or about getting published or being taken seriously or anything else (OK, I would probably still worry about money and boredom if I was in the same job). I hope so, because sometimes hoping for more than that seems foolish.

[1] I’m not sure how the American school system works and what grades correspond to what ages, but I think this was mostly about secondary schools.

[2] Admittedly not the scores of people who are all over the internet describing themselves as “activists,” but, then again, I’m not sure what these people do other than repost stuff on social media.

***

I tried to submit my first novel to another agent. The first agency I looked at didn’t want religious fiction. I’m not sure that my novel is “religious fiction,” exactly, but it’s probably near enough to make it not worth my time submitting. The second agency said something along the lines of, “Fiction doesn’t need to be Christian, but it should not conflict with a Christian worldview.” Talk about betwixt and between. The next agent is apparently autistic, and wants the usual standard marginalised voices, but doesn’t want “inspirational works including religious overtones.” What does that mean? (Please don’t tell me that religious people can’t be marginalised, or aren’t marginalised if they’re Jewish or Christian rather than Muslim or Hindu.) They only wanted the first five pages, which I don’t think is really enough to sell the story (what next, the first five words?), but I was just desperate to submit to someone so I hadn’t wasted the evening. In the end I sent to a different agent at the same agency. The agency wanted me to follow them on Twitter, which did lead me wonder just how desperate they think I am. I am desperate to get published, but not that desperate. I wanted to submit to another agency, but it was hard finding one that was suitable and I ran out of time.

Anyway, I have applied to twenty-five agencies in a year, which is NOT good going. Admittedly, there have been times when I stopped submitting for months on end, for various reasons (applying for jobs, waiting for the emerging writers’ programme to get back to me, E here or me going to the US, Pesach preparation…), but it’s still disappointing. I’m up to ‘J’ in the alphabetical agency list I’m using. Also, some of these agents sound really annoying, super-privileged middle class people super-proud of themselves for being on the side of a carefully-curated and approved set of Little People.

***

E read, and told me about, the recently-published novel Shmutz, about a Haredi woman who is addicted to pornography. I was worried about it stealing the thunder from the novel I’m working on about a pornography-addicted Haredi rabbi. She doesn’t know where my novel is going, but she has seen the first draft of the first couple of chapters. She says it didn’t seem like there was a huge overlap. Shmutz has apparently some very graphic descriptions of violent pornography, which there definitely won’t be in my novel.

After we spoke, I took the plunge and skimmed the first few pages on Amazon look inside, although I don’t want to read the whole thing until I’ve finished my first draft. It left me somewhat despondent. Shmutz gets off to a much quicker start than my novel, opening with the main character telling her doctor she doesn’t want to marry as that would involve giving up pornography on the first page. My first chapter tries to build up slowly to the reveal of the apparently too-good-to-be-true protagonist’s secret, but I worry it will bore people, and agents only seem to want to look at the first ten or even five pages, not the first twenty-five. Shmutz seems much more open about its subject matter than I’m able to be, much more fitting with the contemporary idiom. I struggle with things like slang and think my prose is probably ponderous (in general, including here, not just in the novel). In terms of explicitness, I want to balance between writing something vaguely suitable for religious Jews, pornography addicts and partners of pornography addicts to read without being triggered, while still trying not to be as coy as most Orthodox writing about sex.

I suspect Shmutz doesn’t have my pretentions to Serious Literature either; I want my novel to be deeply about things like the Jewish idea of repentance and redemption as much as about sex. I probably want to be taken seriously too much (again, in life as well as in writing). E thinks I’m wasting my talents writing serious fiction when she thinks I’m better at writing science fiction satire (based on a squib I showed her a while back), but I have to really be in the right mindset to write that, and I worry I can’t put myself in that zone, I just occasionally get pushed into it by things around me. Plus writing satire would involve being more aware of current events and the idiocies of the age (Big Tech, Trump, woke, etc.) than I want to be right now.

***

I’ve been re-watching some Fawlty Towers lately. Sometimes, at work or volunteering or occasionally in other places, someone says something to me and I just have no idea what they’re saying, whether through executive dysfunction, sensory overload, difficulty processing spoken instructions or something else. Whoever I’m talking to has to say the same thing multiple times and I stare blankly until it eventually sinks in on the fifth attempt. The reasons are different, but I think from the outside it looks exactly like Basil Fawlty trying to communicate with Manuel, only without the casual sadism. “Please try to understand before one of us dies!”

The Elevator Pitch

The important bit: E booked an appointment for us to get a wedding licence when I’m in New York.  We can’t book the civil wedding itself until next week, as they only release the slots three weeks in advance.  But we’re another step closer to marriage!

***

I couldn’t sleep last night.  I don’t know why.  I often find it hard to sleep after a headache and it was hot again too.  I got about two hours sleep in the end and somehow got up in time for work.  I drank a lot of coffee…  I’m not sure if that’s the reason I made some mistakes at work.  To be honest, I don’t really need sleep deprivation as an excuse.  Some of it is executive function issues.  Some of it might be incompetence.  Or maybe not.  I don’t really know any more.

I had to do a rotten job at work too which I won’t go into here, but it involved the phone, asking people for money they owed and some other stressful stuff, but it left me feeling lousy and still not getting the money we were owed.

When I got home I did some small chores, thinking I would submit my novel to an agent after dinner, but by the time dinner came (my parents eat late), I was burnt out and light-headed from lack of food and still felt bad after eating.

I feel like eating junk (rogelach or cake), but really shouldn’t as I had too much over the last couple of days.  I might use the autistic exhaustion heter (dispensation) to listen to music despite the Three Weeks of mourning, as I feel pretty bad, but don’t think I should go to bed just yet.

***

I was thinking again last night, when I couldn’t sleep, about people I know/knew who get paid to write, or who write for a wide audience (paid or free).  I felt despairing that I would ever get there, although the number of people I could think of being paid to write wasn’t that great, and I think they’re mainly making money from their substack email newsletters.  Feeling a failure at work and even wondering today if I would get fired didn’t help.  J is pretty easygoing, but I imagine he doesn’t have infinite patience.  There is definitely a trend on the autism forum for people to fail to hold jobs down for long, although they tend to blame the social aspects of work rather than executive function issues.

Instead of feeling like an inadequate, failed writer, I tried to focus on my life and what I have, especially E.  I remember when I was single and lonely for so many years and now have someone who loves me more than I ever thought possible.  But I would like to be able to contribute more to the family.  I am sufficiently ‘modern’ to be OK being the lower earning partner and being a house husband, but I would like our life not to involve money being very tight, or relying on our parents.

***

I went to the free book box on the way home, partly because it was such a stressful day, and I ended up over-compensating.  I took three books: Doctor Who: The Time Lord Victorious: The Knight, The Fool and the Dead by Steve Cole; The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale; and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman.

I don’t really read Doctor Who books any more, but I couldn’t not take a free one.  Eleanor Oliphant is one of those books I’ve been meaning to read, but never got around to, and is probably the sort of literary/commercial novel that I should be reading to understand the field.  That probably applies to The Suspicions of Mr Whicher too, although it’s more of a stretch in terms of genre (historical fiction, murder mystery, fiction-based-on-fact).

***

I’m still on the front page of the Jewish website with my autism/Asperger’s story.  I noticed today that they put a note on it about winning the award, which I guess is why it’s still up there.  It did occur to me to wonder if I should email Rabbi Kahn from the Orthodox Conundrum podcast to suggest he does a neurodiversity episode or a high-functioning autism/Asperger’s episode.  But I’m a bit scared in case he asks me to be on it.  Then again, it’s not likely that he would ask some random stranger onto his podcast.  Usually the people he interviews are experts or activists of some kind, often rabbis.  Anyway, I wrote a sort of fan letter, saying I like the podcast and asking him to do an episode on Asperger’s/high functioning autism, but I think it came across as “LET ME BE ON YOUR PODCAST!!!!”

I suppose I would like to be able to talk in a more honest way than I was in the article I wrote.  Not that I was dishonest, but I had to omit and compress a lot to get it down to a thousand words, and I did the thing I complained about yesterday of making my life seem linear and positive when it isn’t always those things.  Podcasts – conversation – are not going to be great for any autistic people, though.  We tend to freeze when forced to answer quickly, and are not always good at social niceties (my old friend executive function issues again).  Anyway, it probably won’t happen.

***

It is very hot again and I don’t like it.

Emotional Vampire

Sorry, WordPress has eaten this post again, and I don’t have time to fix the probable formatting problems of salvaging it. Yesterday I overslept, the beginning of a day marked with incipient signs of autistic exhaustion. I skipped even more of Shacharit (Morning Prayers) than I usually do and wondered when I would get to see someone about my sleep issues. Work was pretty dull. In the morning I was mostly locating and copying dividend statements for the auditors without really understanding the financial reports I was searching through. I hope I found everything I needed. The afternoon was spent sorting through old papers to see what could be thrown away. I found letters from the then Chief Rabbi and his successor, and two letters from fathers of schoolfriends of mine (both Reform rabbis). On way home I felt burnt out. I had the “brain being squashed” feeling again. Apparently volunteering + headache + work + peopling + work again + heatwave = autistic exhaustion very quickly. I was exhausted at home. I spent half an hour or so doing non-screen time reading, which helped a bit even if the subject matter was heavy (The Third Reich in Power). After dinner, I submitted my novel to two agents in the space of twenty or thirty minutes. I’m getting quicker as I’m getting more experienced, although that hasn’t led to more interest, just more rejections. I spoke to E afterwards, but eventually I crashed. I can’t remember when I went to bed exactly, but I must have slept for over twelve hours, despite setting alarms and Dad trying to get me up. I feel tired and numb now, but more functional, and my brain doesn’t feel like it’s being squeezed. It is hard to do anything, though. I went for a walk, even though that meant I couldn’t work on my novel today (and I probably won’t on Sunday either, as I’m busy). I wanted to be out in nature, which is impossible where I live, but there’s a little strip of wasteland and woodland at the edge of the local park, so I went walking there. I listened to an Intimate Judaism podcast about sex and guilt, which did make me feel like I was, on some level, thinking about my novel, doing Torah study and getting out to look after my physical and emotional health, at least on some level. Aside from writing this post, the only other thing I’ve done today is my usual pre-Shabbat chores. I feel a need to move on with my life, particularly with marrying E and with my writing. Marrying E is moving on OK at the moment, even if it’s frustrating that bureaucracy is going to make it a prolonged process, but I want to move faster with my novel. It’s partly feeling I have something to say, and that my subject matter is going to be taken by other writers if I don’t write quickly. But some of it is feeling “I need to earn money as a writer to help support the family when E and I marry.” Days like today, when I just feel overwhelmed and unable to do much, are a reminder that I have a disability and that my life is not where I want it to be, will not be there for a while longer, and it may never be there, which is frustrating and scary. That said, I have kind of reached a point lately where, at least some of the time, I feel less resentful of having lost half my life to depression/autistic burnout/whatever it was. I don’t look positively at those times, but I feel I needed to go through something like that if I want to write about people on the margins of the frum (religious Jewish) world, and I feel I wasn’t ready to get married then, despite being painfully lonely and not having any real legitimate option in the frum world for dealing with loneliness and sexual frustration. I have a lot more maturity, understanding of myself, and ability to give in a relationship than I had even a couple of years ago. I feel less resentful of God for putting me through all this. Of course, if I believe in an omnipotent God, then I have to believe He could have achieved all this a less painful way, and I do struggle to consciously accept that this was the best way to achieve these goals, especially when so many other people reach this stage without similar levels of pain. Ultimately, I think everyone suffers, sooner or later (except perhaps some exceptionally wicked people who God lets enjoy this world so they won’t experience the next one), and it’s pointless to complain who suffers more or less. It’s hard sometimes, but the alternative is basically self-defeating. *** I had another couple of books arrive over the last two days. They were ostensibly bought for research for my novel, but I’m not sure how helpful they will actually be. Really, I was curious about them, but needed to justify reading them to myself. The books are The Pornography Industry: What Everyone Needs to Know by Shira Tarrant and When Rabbis Abuse: Power, Gender and Status in the Dynamics of Sexual Abuse by Elana Sztokman. For some time now I’ve been reading On Repentance, a collection of shiurim (religious lectures) given by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (New Year and Day of Atonement), and reconstructed from notes by Rabbi Pinchas Peli. I’ve been struggling in places, not because of the text, but because it’s hard to know what to do with the optimistic view of a forgiving God when I’m aware that there are people, often very prominent people, in the frum community who are abusive and others who defend and protect them, and I don’t feel these people should be forgiven. I worry how the community as a whole will achieve forgiveness for allowing this situation to exist. I think about this sometimes when davening (praying), but it really crystallised around the idea of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, after listening to Haredi activist Yehudis Fletcher describe her abuse by Todros Grynhaus, a rabbi and schoolteacher, and how, at a time when she was trying to make the community aware of the danger he posed, she was marginalised while he was asked to lead the prayer services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in a shul (synagogue) despite the allegations she had made against him. I do worry why I’ve got so interested in abuse, and writing about abuse. I was never abused (I was bullied a lot at school, but it was largely name-calling and not anything physical. I don’t know if it would be considered emotional abuse). I have known survivors, and abusers, but I think it’s more the experience of marginalisation that I empathise with, albeit for different reasons (autism and mental illness) and want to do something about. But I worry that I become a kind of emotional vampire, sucking up other people’s sorrow for benefit.

Otherstide[1]

Well, it’s cooler than it was, but I still came home really sweaty, even though I had the air conditioner on at work. Work was dullish. It was a bit weird being in the office without J. I was the only person in our office, although there were a couple of other people in the building. I would normally be worried the phone would ring and I would have to deal with it, but J still had the office phone diverting to his mobile, as he does when he’s working from home, so there wasn’t any risk of that happening. I don’t know how many mistakes I made; I printed a couple of pages by accident, but that’s a fairly minor thing, and I caught someone else’s mistake (sending us paperwork intended for someone else), albeit not before I’d wasted some time trying to deal with it.

I came home to discover that the NHS psychiatrist has decided that because of “previous complexity in [my] presentation”, I should stay on my psychiatric medication at the current levels, presumably for the foreseeable future. I don’t want to come off my meds completely and I accept I will be taking meds for a long time, but I would like to try to reduce the clomipramine given it has some unpleasant side-effects and that I’m on quite a high dose still (I think). There was no indication that the psychiatrist (who has never met me and is basing this on my notes) realised that my depression seems to have been strongly linked to the problems of being an undiagnosed, and frequently burnt out, autistic and that things are much better now I have a diagnosis. I know my mood dipped when I tried to stop my olanzapine, but even given that, I managed to significantly reduce the amount of olanzapine I was taking.

E was furious about this and my parents weren’t much more pleased. I just greeted it with a resigned “typical NHS” shrug, but they have all convinced me that I should at least try to speak to one of the two GPs I have seen before from our practice, although it’s hard to get an appointment and technically we aren’t supposed to ask for a particular GP. E asked about seeing a psychiatrist privately. I’ve done that before when I’ve run into problems with the NHS, and it costs £££. E thinks it would be worth it if I could end up healthier in body and perhaps mind, which I guess is true, although I’m not sure I agree that we should divert money from our wedding to pay for it (we haven’t had the talk with my parents yet about who is paying for what and how much — contrary to what you might think, my parents are willing to pay a lot and it’s E who is sceptical).

I wanted to do some writing when I got home, but after I’d showered, I had the “brain squashed” feeling I associate with autistic exhaustion. I watched an episode of The Simpsons instead (The Joy of Sect, where the Simpsons join a cult that isn’t at all based on Scientology, no). Pleasingly, it had a reference to one of my favourite James Bond stunts (from Live and Let Die, where Roger Moore’s stuntman really did run over the backs of a bunch of live crocodiles[2], in a sequence that would doubtless be unfilmable that way today, due to animal welfare concerns, and perhaps also insurance issues for the stuntman) followed immediately by a The Prisoner spoof sequence. Geek heaven!

***

Well, today is my thirty-ninth birthday. It will be a special year, as (barring acts of God) E and I will get married. That makes me feel more positive than on many other birthdays for the last decade or so. Other than that, I can’t find any great significance in the number thirty-nine. There are thirty-nine forbidden primary labours on Shabbat (the Sabbath), but I’ve seen it argued that that should really be seen as forty (thirty-nine forbidden actions plus the one command to remember Shabbat).

My sister and brother-in-law came for dinner and we (me and my parents) had dinner with them in the garden. It was getting cooler, and by the end of the evening we were feeling a little bit cold for the first time in ages. We had takeaway, a mixture of pizza and fish. I had pizza. I wanted to try something new and had a pizza with vegetarian sausage, real meat sausage not being eaten with cheese according to the Jewish dietary laws, but the taste was a little disappointing and I’m not sure why real sausage is a popular topping. So much for trying new things (says the Aspie). The chocolate cake was nice though. My parents lit candles in the shape of the letters of my name on it. Unfortunately, they’ve been using the same candles for some years now and the wax is half burnt down and misshapen, which made the whole thing seem a bit silly.

My BIL arrived when my parents were picking up my sister from the Tube station (she had been working in town) as well as the food so I had to make small talk with him for some time. I think I did OK. He appreciated my likening the Conservative Party leadership election process to reality TV (reality TV is more believable, though[3]).

I did get some nice books as presents: Yael Ziegler’s Lamentations: Faith in a Turbulent World (commentary on Eichah/Lamentations for the Koren Maggid Tanakh series), which I am glad to get in time for Tisha B’Av; Faith Without Fear: Unresolved Issues in Modern Orthodoxy by Rabbi Michael J. Harris; and The Great Dune Trilogy by Frank Herbert. The latter is one of those famous science fiction books (or series of books) that I’ve never read. I was intimidated by the length, even before I saw the telephone directory-sized volume my sister and BIL gave me (and this is just the first trilogy; there’s a second one!). Still, my future in-laws insisted I ought to read it, so hopefully this will give me something to talk to them about in the future. Probably not when I go for the civil marriage in August, though, as I’m not going to read this while still reading The Third Reich in Power, and that will keep me going for quite a while longer. One doorstop at a time is enough.

Faith Without Fear is a book of essays on Modern Orthodoxy. One of them is titled Modern Orthodoxy and Haredi Orthodoxy: Heirs to Historical Jewish Tradition or New Departures? Coincidentally (if you believe in coincidences), this has been on my mind over the last few days, as Haredi commenters on the Rationalist Judaism blog tend to insist that Haredi Judaism is the only “Torah-true” form of Judaism and that Modern Orthodoxy is a disingenuous cop-out. I think this is nonsense, but don’t have the time to marshal a serious counter-argument, so it’s good that this will do it for me. I wouldn’t make the argument to the Haredi commenters, though, as if you quote a secular historical source, it will be dismissed as biased, whereas if you quote an actual Haredi rabbi, you’ll be told he “Isn’t really Haredi” or even that “There is no such thing as Haredi Judaism, it exists only in the mind of its enemies.” You can’t argue with people like that.

I did think of writing an essay called Why I am not Haredi today, but don’t really have the time for that, or anyone to try to sell it too. It wouldn’t be accepted on the kiruv (outreach) site I’ve written for in the past. It probably would have gone on Hevria, although they wouldn’t have paid me.

Anyway, I had a good time with my family, but I wish E could have been here too, and I feel like I need alone time now (or possibly I’m crashing from the sugar in the cake), but it’s really time for bed as I have work tomorrow.

[1] This is possibly my most esoteric Doctor Who reference. It’s to The New Adventures novel Lungbarrow, a novel I’ve always loved despite its flaws, and despite not being the biggest New Adventures fan.

[2] The crocodiles were somewhat sedated, but very real and conscious.

[3] Let’s not forget that Boris Johnson became famous as a panellist on Have I Got News for You when he was just a journalist. Incidentally, I always felt that they should have done a special edition of HIGNFY during the Labour antisemitism scandal with Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell as guest panellists called Have I Got Jews for You.

Pitch Imperfect

I stayed up late last night blogging, which was probably a mistake, although I thought I wouldn’t fall asleep easily as I slept so much during the day, finally getting to bed about 2.00am, just before the fast of Tammuz (see below) started. This was probably a mistake, as at 5.30am I woke up with a headache and even after it went, I couldn’t get back to sleep. I did eventually fall asleep midmorning and sleep for another three hours or so.

This week is set to be a disrupted week. Today is 17 Tammuz, a Jewish fast day and the start of the Three Weeks of mourning (no haircuts, shaving, music, weddings, parties, etc.). Fast days always feel strange and disrupted to me, even though I haven’t been able to fast on the minor fasts for fifteen years or more because being on lithium makes the risk of serious dehydration too great. This year, my family aren’t fasting either; both the United Synagogue and the Federation of Synagogues put out warnings that people in various categories of vulnerability should not fast because of the heatwave and dehydration risk. So it feels a strange day.

J said I could work at home tomorrow because of the heatwave that we currently have in the UK, but there isn’t really any work I can meaningfully do at home right now and I didn’t want to do pointless make-work, so I suggested going in on Wednesday instead, when it should be cooler, as I don’t have therapy this week. I’m probably going to see a friend sit shiva (mourn) for his mother tomorrow. And it’s my birthday on Wednesday and my sister and brother-in-law are coming round. I’ve moved some other parts of my routine around to accommodate these changes. I hope I cope OK with everything, as disruption to my routine can be difficult. And the heat makes everything extra-hard.

***

I thought I had an idea for an article that I could sell to a Jewish website. I spent an hour procrastinating and not starting it, which was a bad sign (admittedly I did about fifteen minutes of novel research in the procrastination). I spent half an hour or so writing it, but only managed 400 words and don’t think it’s going anywhere. I could try to expand and improve it, but it’s a news-related story (Jewish websites like to be topical for some reason) so it has a limited shelf-life and I’d need to finish it soon.

Admittedly it is very hot today and hard to work, and there was also a lot of noise from children playing outdoors and people playing music with the windows open. Still, I don’t feel confident in the idea any more. Possibly I am too much of a perfectionist to be able to write for websites, magazines and newspapers, which seem to need a lot of copy to be produced very quickly to generate enough income to live off. I was discussing monetising blogs, and writing in general, on Ashley’s blog today and I gloomily concluded that I’m not good enough at selling myself to make writing a really good career for me, but as I don’t seem to be good enough at anything else, I feel I have to try it anyway.

I feel I should be able to pitch articles to various Jewish sites, but somehow I don’t know how to generate ideas, and, as I said, Jewish kiruv (outreach) sites tend to like a ‘hook’ linking the topic to the news (which means writing very quickly) or to popular culture (which means writing quickly and also having more pop cultural awareness than I’ve ever had). They generally aren’t interested in a straightforward devar Torah or textual/philosophical insight, as they’re aiming at people who aren’t frum, trying to show the relevance of Judaism to their own world of politics and pop culture. Some people I knew from Hevria write for the Haredi press, but I don’t think I have the right understanding of frum culture for that, and I don’t want to work for papers that won’t print photos of women (which is all of the Haredi papers now, sadly — despite this, the people I know who write for them are women. I don’t think they like the situation, but they seem to have accepted it, on some level). I tried pitching to less religious Jewish newspapers in the UK a number of years ago, but didn’t get anywhere.

***

Other than that, I didn’t do a lot today. I Skyped E for a while and went for a walk at dusk, when it was cooler and did a tiny bit of Torah study, but I didn’t get to write more of my novel, which was a shame.

The fast is over now, and I should think about heading for bed, but it’s too hot to sleep and despite/because my disrupted sleep last night/this morning, I don’t feel at all tired.

Wedding Plans

Work today wasn’t very good. I think I slept badly again because of the heat and yawned away like crazy on the Tube and struggled to stay awake. There was a fair amount of work to do in the morning, but in the afternoon I was sorting old papers again, mostly minutes of meetings from circa 2002-2006. There were minutes from a number of similarly-named committees mixed up together, which was confusing. I spent a lot of time feeling anxious about E and my wedding ceremony and got into a bad state. E and I were texting about it too, and that probably made things worse, as we both got into a negative mindset where each thought that the other deserved a better partner than we could be. I probably texted too much for a work day, but there wasn’t really much work to do.

I got quite down and self-critical, so E and I had a long conversation this evening when we looked at wedding plans systematically and said how we envisioned our wedding, as well as listing our top three wedding priorities. E let me count “religious stuff” as one thing, which was generous of her (I’ve already told her that having Minchah and Ma’ariv (Afternoon and Evening Prayers) is lower down my list and might get cut). I think we both felt better after that as we have a clearer idea of what we want, and I have a clearer idea of why she wants to keep the costs down.

It’s scary that tiredness + boredom and maybe + heat can quickly = extreme self-criticism and pessimism about the future, as well as cynicism about my ability to make good life choices. I should remember that I can get quite down at work, particularly when there isn’t much to do or I’ve made mistakes (both of which happened today). It is good that E and I have talked this through now.

Unfortunately, I am no closer to determining how many people I would feel comfortable with at the wedding, or how to narrow down my list if I decide thirty people (plus E’s guests) would be too many.

***

When I was self-critical and beating myself up about life decisions that weren’t entirely within my control, I had a thought about autism spectrum disorder, namely that it seems to be entirely random whether you get a version that turns you into someone severely disabled, a version that turns you into a super-successful Elon Musk-type visionary, or something in between. I’m not sure of any other condition that can be either disabling or enabling except perhaps ADHD (which has some links to autism). There isn’t really a clear way of causing one or the other outcome (that we know of currently).

Unfortunately, these days I feel that I’m moderately disabled. I have a reasonable degree of functionality compared with someone who is non-verbal or even compared with someone who essentially lives at home and does no paid work and has no friends (which is somewhere I’ve been in the past, or close to), but I’m clearly not functional enough to fully support myself financially at present or to have the kind of lifestyle many of my neurotypical peers have attained, and I don’t know how I go about changing that. My book learning has not really helped me in a work environment that values “soft skills” and networking ability so much more than academic skills, and my inability to function in noisy environments or under pressure do not make things easier for me.

Novel Stuff and More

Yesterday was a wedding preparation day. I discussed some apprehensions with my rabbi mentor and felt better afterwards. I booked plane tickets to get to New York in late August for my civil wedding. I still need to book a hotel and get insurance. I had some difficulties booking, so that took a lot of time and meant I couldn’t do much else. I think that Torah study and exercise are going to go down the priority list for a while.

Today at work, J sent me out to get some keys cut (special keys that can’t be cut quickly). He said I should drop them off and he would collect them later, but when I got there, I was told they would be ready in forty-five minutes and so texted J to ask if he wanted me to wait. He said yes, so I went to a nearby park that was somewhat sheltered. Unfortunately, after forty-five minutes, the keys were not ready. I was told to come back in another fifteen minutes. I thought if I went back to the park, I would get there in time to come back, so I just hung around near the shop, which was a big mistake, as I had no hat and got a headache. I took solpadeine when I got back to the office, but the headache came and went all afternoon and then got worse on the way home (the Tube is hot, loud and jolts). I did eventually feel better (no headache) around dinner time, but I feel pretty exhausted.

Incidentally, when I went to get the keys cut, I saw Howard Jacobson. I was too shy to speak to him though. What do you say, anyway? “Aren’t you Booker Prize winning novelist Howard Jacobson? I read two of your books. I quite liked them.” Eh.

In the evening, I submitted my novel to two more agents. I’m trying to do this faster, so I can reach more agents, as I only reached agent number twenty today, which is not very good (admittedly I’ve paused the agent quest a number of times for various reasons, most recently to see if I was going to be accepted onto the emerging writers’ programme). The problem is that every agent has different requirements (first chapter, first ten pages, first three chapters, first fifty pages, synopsis, no synopsis…) so it’s hard to do a standardised query letter and just fire it out rapidly. Plus with larger agencies you could have to read half a dozen or more agent profiles trying to work out which would be the best fit. The profiles are full of unhelpful statements like, “I would like to see a horror novel that breaks new ground” or “I would like to see the next Harry Potter” — it’s easier to say that than to do it, or even to work out what doing it would actually mean. They all want POC and LGBT, but say nothing about frum (religious Jewish) Jews (are we not “other” enough?). Anyway, I’m aiming to submit to two a week from now on until I finish going through the big directory of agencies that I’m using. I also sorted out a big folder of receipts and invoices going back to 2018, so I guess it was a fairly productive evening, considering I didn’t feel great.

***

I’m worried I’m going to end up going back on Facebook, despite drama, politics and comparing myself to others. There are a few reasons. E is encouraging me to start some kind of social and/or support group for adult Jews with autism when we get married, and that would probably start with some kind of FB page. Lately I’ve been listening to the Orthodox Conundrum podcast and am curious about the discussions on their FB page that they plug on the podcasts, which might be interesting and a way of making contact with more Modern Orthodox Jews, which might help me feel more integrated into the community and less self-conscious about all the reasons I think frum people might reject me. Then yesterday I realised that the vague plans I have for doing freelance proofreading to supplement my income might be enhanced if I also offered proofreading services specifically for Jewish-themed documents with relevant non-English words. But this would mean networking, which nowadays means FB. I am not hugely happy about this, although I do wonder if it will have a positive side. (Also, bad though networking on FB is, it beats networking in a room full of scary, real-life people.)

***

I spent £55 on books for research for my novel. It was probably somewhat extravagant, given that I’ve already started writing and so perhaps should be thought to have done my research. I was beginning to wonder if there were things I didn’t know that I didn’t know, if that makes sense, and when I was doing my MA dissertation, we were told to start writing while researching, because research informs writing, but writing informs research too. I guess the purchase is probably also motivated a bit by the desire to indulge my curiosity on certain matters that may be relevant, but will probably be interesting either way.

***

I’ve been reading On Repentance on the way to work. It’s a sort of transcription of various shiurim (religious lectures) on repentance given by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, as reconstructed from notes by Rabbi Pinchas Peli. I struggled with it today, though. A while back, I listened to Haredi activist Yehudis Fletcher’s account of how she was abused by Todros Grynhaus, a respected Haredi (ultra-Orthodox Jewish) rabbi and school teacher. Part of her account is that, after a police investigation into Grynhaus was started, he was still allowed to lead Rosh Hashanah services in an Orthodox shul (synagogue).

On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the person leading the prayers is supposed to be representing the community before God in praying for forgiveness and life, so this was the ultimate hypocrisy. This image is somehow stuck in my head and I kept thinking about it while reading Rav Soloveitchik’s writing on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and repentance. I’m not sure I can really put it into words, but I guess it (Grynhaus being allowed to lead the services) seems to encapsulate the discomfort I sometimes feel about the contemporary Orthodox world, that there are people who are accepted and there are people on the margins, often through no fault of their own, and somehow Rav Soloveitchik’s words about repentance and forgiveness won’t apply until we root out abuse and victimisation and integrate those on the margins.

Unfortunately, I don’t really know what I can do about it. Is it even my fight? I think it’s everyone’s fight… but also it’s not a fight I know from the inside. Part of me feels I should stick to autism and mental illness. The same part thinks that writing about abuse in both my unpublished novel and my work in progress is an act of appropriation[1], and my interest in abuse in the frum community generally is mere ghoulishness and sensation-seeking. I don’t know.

I can’t remember how I started becoming interested in abuse, but I suspect it was partly from my OCD, that I was worried I could become an abuser, so I engaged in OCD ‘checking’ behaviours, reading about the lives and characteristics of abusers to check that I was different. This was probably not the best way to approach the subject. Somewhere along the line, I felt that I was on the margins of Orthodox life because of my mental health and neurodiversity, and that that somehow made me responsible for others who might not be able to speak out. This may be arrogance.

(There is also the issue that as a self-proclaimed “Tory anarchist” (if that even means anything) who thinks identity politics has gone too far and whose response to political news these days is mostly quietism, I would make an unlikely Social Justice Warrior.)

Among the books I ordered for my work in progress yesterday (in fact, making up about half of the £55 price tag) was When Rabbis Abuse by Elana Maryles Sztokman. To be honest, I’m not sure how relevant it is to my novel. My work in progress was supposed to be about addiction, rather than abuse, but somehow the idea of abuse got into it, and has grown and grown, and now I’m not sure where to take it, if anywhere. I hope the book might help me decide what to do. But I do vaguely wonder if I know what I’m doing, and why.

[1] I have issues about the whole concept of appropriation, which would potentially limit authors to autobiography if taken to its logical solution, but this isn’t the time to go into them. Suffice to say here that I’m worried of using someone else’s pain to sell my books.

Boundaries, and Going to Dark Places

I probably drank too much coffee and especially tea at work today, as on the way home I became somewhat anxious, which may have been fuelled by caffeine. I did use some coping strategies my therapist suggested, and they seemed to help. There is still some “something will go wrong and stop E and I marrying,” fear that I’m trying to keep under control.

I do think at some point I need to have a conversation with my rabbi mentor and/or therapist about boundaries in marriage. I mean this in a slightly atypical way. It’s not about setting boundaries for myself in terms of actions, but boundaries of responsibility where I can say, “This is E’s decision, I don’t need to act as if I’m morally responsible for it.” I think I usually take on too much moral responsibility for the decisions of those around me (e.g. with my parents or at work) and this has led to a lot of anxiety in the past, including today. I need to find a way to deal with this once I get married or I’ll drive E and myself mad.

***

I listened to another Orthodox Conundrum podcast while doing a mindless data-entry task at work, this time journalist and rebbetzin (rabbi’s wife — in the Orthodox world, that’s a job title) Avital Chizik-Goldschmidt speaking about being a rabbi’s wife and also an investigative journalist. It made me think again about whether my mission in life is to be some kind of frum writer. I hope it is, and I have expressed that hope here many times, but I can’t know it until I get more things published, and paid for them (so far I’ve been published in a fairly respectable number of professional and semi-professional places, but paid for almost none of them).

When I looked at my life a number of years ago, when my depression (or autistic burnout, whatever it was) was at it’s height, I could not see any positive kind of future or role for myself anywhere in the world. I was just marking time until I died, aware that might not be for many decades. Then I had my diversion into academic librarianship, which was promising, but eventually turned out to be a wrong turn. Now I’m contemplating a new career (as opposed to job, which I already have), as a writer, and I wonder if this will be a wrong turn too. I hope not, or at least that it leads somewhere good even if it’s not where I expect.

A while back, I would have answered the feeling of being called with, “Ah, Lord God! I don’t know how to speak, for I am still a boy!” (Yirmiyahu/Jeremiah 1.6) Now, I’m saying, “Here I am! Send me!” (Yishayah/Isaiah 6.8) But I don’t know if that’s the right thing to say, if I want to go from ego rather than mission, or if this is really my mission at all. Maybe I’m supposed to do something else. Maybe I’m just a spear-carrier in the drama of life, watching other people having speaking parts, my mission being trying not to be envious of the stars, and not bumping into the scenery on my way out.

In the podcast, Chizik-Goldschmidt spoke of the need for more frum investigative journalists. She didn’t say this, but I think the number of genuine investigative journalists in the frum world is basically one: her, and she mostly writes for non-frum periodicals because the frum ones would never publish an article on, for example, frum women who have had abortions or fraudulent frum charities.

I couldn’t be, and don’t want to be, a journalist. I struggle to imagine any autistic person being an investigative journalist like that; too much speaking to people and reading people, reading between the lines and so on. But I would like to write books that get under the skin of the type of people that a journalist like Chizik-Goldschmidt would write about, in a more dramatic and psychological way than a journalist can do.[1] That’s what I did in my (unpublished) first novel, about a frum high-functioning autistic and a frum woman in an abusive relationship. That’s what I’m trying to do in my current novel, about a rabbi with a pornography addiction. And lately I find myself wanting to write about child abuse in the frum community and the way it’s covered up by the powers that be. I even find myself wondering if I could write from the point of view of an abuser (to be honest, probably not, I think it would upset me too much and be tricky to do, but it’s worth playing with ideas).

I want to go to the dark places, and to the marginal people, to people who (like me) don’t quite fit into the frum world, to people who are ignored or squashed down to fit into a box. People who can’t quite be what they’re “supposed” to be, however hard they try. I guess I could defend this by saying I want to “elevate the fallen sparks” that have fallen into the dark places, but I think it’s curiosity, imagination and empathy as much as anything else, the part of me that thinks, “What would I do in that situation?” or “How could such a person live with themselves?” when I read the news. I just hope writing turns into something meaningful, to me and to others, and isn’t another dead end. I would consider myself successful if a few people struggling in the frum community write to me to say I really “get” them, even if some important people criticise my books. But first I just want to get my novel published!

[1] It occurred to me after writing this that fiction-writing perhaps isn’t an obvious autistic career either. Writers need empathy. Contrary to popular belief, autistic people do have emotional empathy (feeling what others feel). We just don’t have cognitive empathy (the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and imagine what they would do). I suspect I get around this by thinking out my characters’ motivations and actions in a very conscious, step-by-step way, the same way I function in social situations, and by doing a fair amount of research into how real people have behaved in similar situations, both of which may be beneficial for the novel after all.

***

Speaking of which, now that I know I didn’t get on the emerging writer’s programme, I’m going back to submitting my first novel to agents. I want to submit to two a week.

In one of the Jewish newspapers, there was an interview today with a Jewish agent. It focused on a book he wrote himself, but I searched for him and found his contact details. I submitted my novel to him, although in the interview he said he receives about 5,000 submissions a year or which he takes on three or four, which is not a great ratio for me.

Re-reading the synopsis I wrote of the novel for submission, there is a lot of mental illness and suicide in there. I guess that’s where I was when I was writing it, or rather beforehand, as a lot of it was based on my life until then. It does feel kind of depressing, though, and I’m not surprised no one has really picked it up until now. The plot strand that isn’t based on my life, about an abusive marriage, seems a lot more interesting to me now. I vaguely feel I should ditch the autism/mental illness/suicide plot and rewrite the novel expanding the abusive marriage storyline, but (a) I’m writing another novel now and (b) I’m not sure I have enough to say to expand it to a full novel without it being worth starting from scratch. Still, if I hadn’t written the semi-autobiographical stuff, I would never have had the confidence to start a novel and to learn that I can actually create characters and plots from scratch, so it served a purpose.

Impostor!

I struggled to get up for volunteering, even though I had slept for nearly eight hours. In a weird way, I hope I do have an issue like sleep apnoea, because it feels like it might be easier to deal with than assuming this is a medication side-effect (I probably can’t come of my meds completely) or autistic exhaustion (which is more or less incurable). Although E might not want me to have sleep apnoea as sufferers tend to snore. If I ever shared a bed with someone, that might have made it easier to have an objective view of my sleep patterns and behaviour.

Volunteering was good, although I felt socially awkward again at times. Sometimes I feel I would like to know what other people really think of me, to see if it really is as bad as I sometimes fear when I feel I’m being very autistic and am not doing the right thing in a group situation. I also wasn’t always sure if people were teasing me or genuinely annoyed with me. I’m really not great at reading middle-aged women. For what it’s worth, I think they were teasing me. Someone said I looked young for my age, which is nice, although weirdly it’s common for people to think this about people on the spectrum. It’s been suggested we don’t show emotions on our faces so we wrinkle less than neurotypicals. Who knows? The same woman asked me what I do for a living, which is never a question I like to have to field; lately I’ve been telling people “I work in an office and am building a career as a writer and proof-reader,” although the proof-reading is really an aspiration for after E and my wedding and when we’re settled in together. It’s funny that Ashley posted something today on Impostor Syndrome and used the example of an author as something which has a social role beyond the literal meaning of the term. I struggle to see myself as a writer as I have written so little that has been professionally published, let alone that I have received money for.

I struggled to get down to some novel writing in the afternoon, being distracted by outside events and also procrastinating, but I did eventually manage at least an hour of writing, which was good. The procrastination did mean that I didn’t have time to submit my first novel to more agents (I stopped when I applied for the emerging writer’s programme as I was supposed to be unpublished), especially as I cooked dinner, went to online shiur (religious class) and skyped E. I might submit my manuscript on workday evenings rather than working on my new novel, so that I don’t burn out the next day.

***

I got an official rejection from the emerging writers’ programme. I’m trying not to take it too personally, or to see it as a sign that I will never be published or am wasting my time writing. I guess that would be Impostor Syndrome again.

***

More on Impostor Syndrome. A number of years ago, I was assistant librarian at a non-Orthodox Jewish educational institution. One day I overheard one of the library users, a Reform rabbi and academic, describe herself as suffering from “Impostor Syndrome.” I didn’t think anything of it at the time. A number of years later, I read a newspaper article she wrote about doing Daf Yomi (the daily Talmud study cycle) and how she felt uncomfortable that (male) Orthodox rabbis might not want her to study it. She said this not in a “they’re so sexist” way and more in a “wanting to be accepted” way. It is doubtful that the Impostor Syndrome comment referred to this, but it linked the two concepts in my head.

A while later, another female rabbi and academic passed away and donated her books to the library. I spent a long time searching through them and cataloguing them. I feel that I can get to learn a person more through looking at their books than anything else (not literally anything else, but than a lot of things). I was interested and surprised that she had a lot of books on Orthodox sub-groups, the Hasidism and the Mitnagedim (originally, the opponents of the Hasidim, although these days to an outsider they would doubtless seem very similar, and the rivalry no longer exists in the same way). Later, I came across a journal article by her where she said that she worried that the Hasidic rabbis she read about and admired would reject her because of her gender and that she wanted to be accepted by them.

These anecdotes surprised me because I thought the women involved, both very successful in multiple spheres (rabbinate, academia) and at least one very feminist and with a reputation for, as the cliche goes, “not suffering fools gladly”[1], would have no interest in what Orthodox rabbis, and especially Orthodox rabbis from centuries ago, would have to say about their lives. I would have thought that if they thought about being rejected by these men, they would simply tell them to “**** off.” And yet they clearly were conscious of the fear of rejection, and conscious enough to share that vulnerability in print. I have to say it endeared them to me enormously because of my own feelings of inadequacy. I was pleased to see two people who I saw as successful and psychologically balanced in a way that I was not suffering from similar doubts to me. I also feel I am not fully accepted in the Orthodox world, and unlike them, it is where I focus most of my spiritual life.

I’m not quite sure where I’m going with this, except to say that Impostor Syndrome is probably a lot more widespread than most people are willing to admit.

[1] I’ve never been entirely sure who is glad to suffer a fool.

***

I finished reading the James Bond novel On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (SPOILERS). I’ve read about half the Bond books now and I think this might have been my favourite, which surprised me as I don’t rate the film that highly (the second half of the film is good, but I find the first half slow). Blofeld’s plan is bizarre though: set up a super-expensive Alpine resort for the treatment of allergies, then use it to hypnotise “nice” but somewhat naive young women, all of whom work in agriculture (but come somehow afford treatment at this exclusive resort), into spreading biological warfare agents back home to destroy British agriculture. This is apparently funded by the KGB, and Blofeld will profit by selling sterling at a profit before the economy tanks. A lot of Doctor Who stories have the problem of the villain’s plans being far too crazy, convoluted and impractical to work in the real world (particularly when the Master is around) and this is in the same category.

(If I’m talking about Blofeld and the Master in the same breath, I should probably note that The Mind of Evil is Thunderball in a prison and Frontier in Space retells You Only Live Twice on an interstellar scale.)

I think Ian Fleming missed a trick by killing off James Bond’s wife shortly after their wedding. Tracy would have been an interesting recurring character and the series could have done with a strong female character, although it would have killed off the bed-hopping aspect of the novels (which doesn’t interest me anyway). Even though I don’t like sad endings, I thought the ending of the novel did work, which I don’t feel about the film, perhaps because there is more foreshadowing in the novel.

Materialism, Ego and Spirituality

I listened to an Orthodox Conundrum podcast about materialism today. I had mixed feelings about it. The guest, Rabbi Jeremy Wieder, spoke about contemporary America being defined by four ‘isms’: narcissism, hedonism, consumerism and exhibitionism (the UK is probably not so bad, but still affected by all four). This is probably true, on some level, but I felt Rabbi Wieder and host Rabbi Scott Kahn struggled to define their terms, particularly as they felt this is an area where something may be within the letter of the law, but not the spirit. As they said, it’s very subjective; person X may say that person Y is being hedonistic and consumerist, but person Z may say the same about person X.

Historically, there have been people in the Jewish community who have been very wealthy and lived extravagantly, and they were often great philanthropists and ambassadors for the community to the non-Jewish world e.g. Sir Moses Montefiore and the Rothschilds. In modern days, maybe someone like Lord Levy. If they hadn’t been blessed with great wealth, and used some of it not just for philanthropy, but to enter high society and provide a Jewish voice there, the Jewish community as a whole would have suffered. Maybe this is less obvious in the less aristocratic USA. I feel someone lucky enough to be rich and influential needs to do some serious soul-searching about what their role in life and the Jewish community is and why God wants them to have that wealth and what the best thing for them to do with it is (I have never had this problem myself!).

Incidentally, I worry a bit about being exhibitionist myself on my blog, but I think I tend to talk most about my failures and gloss over my successes (like the Kotzker Hasidim who were said to sin publicly and perform mitzvot (commandments) in secret to avoid pride in their behaviour).

The podcast did at least make me realise how E and I would have struggled to raise a frum (religious Jewish) family in the USA, given the astronomical price of private Jewish school fees (in the UK there are Jewish state schools), on top of needing to find me a job with health insurance.

By coincidence (or not), while having these thoughts about materialism, part of my work today involved inventorying someone’s flat. (It’s a long story how this was relevant to my job.) If you want to test how much envy you have, try inventorying someone’s furniture, complete with price tags! And they weren’t even paying for it as it was being provided by their employer. It did make me worry how E and I will survive on about the equivalent of one salary between us, even without kids. And we’re limited to staying in Jewish communities, which tend not to be the cheapest. People we try to befriend will probably be earning a lot more than us too. It’s kind of depressing.

Also depressing was discovering that I didn’t get on the emerging writers’ programme. I tried not to get my hopes up, but part of me was hoping that this would be the big turning point in my life, or at least in my writing career. But it was not to be. Maybe it’s for the best, as it allows me to pause writing my novel when I need to, to focus on my wedding. I can also go back to submitting my first novel to agents, something I stopped doing because I thought the project I submitted for the emerging writers’ programme was supposed to end up as my first novel.

It does all make me wonder what my role in life is, whether writing is a part of that, and whether E and I will ever be living above subsistence level (or, more realistically, living without parental support). In this context, Rabbis Kahn and Wieder spoke about focusing on spirituality rather than materialism, which is a word I’ve always struggled with. It seems very nebulous and ill-defined. As I’ve said before, I see the quest for God and for meaning as more a part of my life than finding God or and meaning. I suspect some people would see this as spirituality, while others would wonder why I can’t just find God and then I would be spiritual. Likewise, I try to focus on spiritual growth, rather than attainment, but I am very bad at maintaining this perspective without slipping into self-criticism.

I saw an article recently that said that spirituality is about trying to adopt God’s perspective on the world. I did not like this, at least not in the way it was presented. I feel God’s perspective is decentred and plural (God can see things from literally everyone’s point of view). Hence, the Talmud is a pluralistic text, with multiple answers to any question, and it’s more concerned with presenting all those answers in the internally strongest way than with seeing which answer is better than the others (part of the reason Talmud study is so difficult is that it’s often unclear which side actually ‘wins’ the argument). And scholars like Rav Kook z”tzl, Rabbi Lord Sacks z”tzl and Rabbi Steinsaltz z”tzl saw many religions as being legitimate paths to God.

Perhaps related to all this I had another, “Oh, there’s someone I used to know; they’re a lot more successful than me” moment today. The fact that this person was the one who left me with a life-long feeling that I am inferior in the frum community for never having gone to yeshivah did not help, particularly as I feel that, on some level, that is precisely why I’ve never really fitted in (well, that and being a socially anxious autistic).

To be honest, a lot depends on how you define ‘successful’ here, but I hope — hope! — that one day I will earn enough money to help support E and hopefully some children or at least a child. And I would like to think that people are interested in my ideas, at least by publishing and reading my books and maybe by sharing them in other ways (I’ve always had a weird desire for a monthly column in the Jewish Chronicle, I’m not entirely sure why). This is ego, I admit. After a childhood of receiving no attention, or only negative attention (bullying etc.), I would like to be taken seriously as a writer for the sake of my own ego, but as I intimated with regard to the super-rich community machers (people who are very involved in the community), sometimes spirituality is about trying to harness your gifts to help others, not supress them or give them away.

Yes, I’m aware there are a dozen or so people who take my writing here seriously enough to regularly read. I’m grateful, although I’m a bit bemused as to why anyone would read these rambles, mostly about my autistic struggles, as I don’t consider them anything like my ‘real’ writing.

Speaking of which, when I got home from work, I managed to work on my novel for quite a while. I sat at the computer for an hour and a half. Not all of that time was spent writing, but quite a lot was, so that at least was positive.

The Rain It Raineth Every Day

It’s not actually raining. It might rain later, but it might not. The title is a quote from Shakespeare (Twelfth Night. I was props manager on a production when I was in the sixth form, in one of the few non-academic things I ever did as a teenager). It just sums up how I feel when I get sucked back into exhaustion and burnout, like I can never escape from feelings of exhaustion, low mood and general non-functionality.

I had a busy week and a very busy day yesterday. Yesterday I had work. The morning was spent on the usual paperwork and similar jobs, I spent my lunch break looking at pictures of wedding venues and spent much of the afternoon doing a boring cut-and-paste task, but was able to listen to podcasts while doing it. Surprisingly, I felt OK after work so I did Torah study on the commute home (usually I just do it on the commute to work in the morning), went shopping, went for a slightly longer walk home from the station, listened to Mum’s description of her awful day at length, and did some novel writing when I got home. Then I had dinner with my Mum and sister (Dad and brother-in-law being at cricket together), heard about Mum’s awful day at length again, and skyped E. Realistically, this was far too much for one day. In my defence, no one actually told me my sister was coming for dinner until I got home, otherwise I might have not done all these things. I could still have skipped writing, but by that stage, I had my mind set on it and it’s hard for autistic people to change plans.

(I also broke my diet by eating ice cream last night, as I needed some kind of treat.)

The result was massive exhaustion today. I slept too long, couldn’t get up, couldn’t get dressed once I did get up, missed the time for Shacharit (Morning Prayers) entirely and basically couldn’t start my day until the early afternoon. My main task for the day was to phone the United Synagogue again about E and my wedding issues, to find out if Rabbi B is away or how to get hold of him, but by the time I did it, I just got the answer phone. They probably leave early on Fridays. I intend to email Rabbi B again on Sunday so that, if he’s been away, my email is on the top of his pile on Monday morning. I think I need to be the squeaky wheel on this, which is not something that comes easily to me.

After lunch (and Doctor Who) I had a little more energy, so I did some of my usual Shabbat chores, then tried to write, as I had by this time brainpower, but not much physical energy for hoovering, the main task left to do for Shabbat. I figured that being drained, fed up and frustrated probably wasn’t a bad mood to be in for the book I’m writing. Even so, it was very difficult. I did manage to write for nearly an hour, and to write about 700 words, but it was difficult and I suspect many of those words will vanish in the editing.

I’m struggling with the idea of the “male gaze”. The novel is very “male gaze-y” — which is rather the point, as the protagonist is a pornography addict, and one of the themes of the book is the way pornography can rewire a person’s brain in that way, and another theme is the way religious sexual restrictions can make people more aware of sex rather than less [1], but I worry readers will see it as reflecting my viewpoint and not the character’s and mark me down accordingly. E says you can’t write a book without offending some people, which is probably true, and I probably underestimate readers, but I just worry about not getting published or read.

It’s weird to write it though. It’s getting in touch with a part of myself that I have always repressed and been ashamed of, the part that notices women, and it’s been strange to try to channel that deliberately. I would never normally write (of a man in a supermarket queue) that he was “trying to avoid staring at the slim hips and wider backside of the attractive twenty-something in a tight miniskirt in front of him.” So it feels strange and more than a little wrong (from a feminist point of view as much as a religious one) to write it.

After writing, I hoovered, but ended up feeling rather ill, faint, headachey and generally bad. I may have done too much. The weather, hot and humid, doesn’t help. I do feel somewhat better now, but not really ready for Shabbat: no writing or blogging or DVDs and lots of peopling albeit probably just with Mum and Dad (that can still be draining, though, especially when I feel like this). I do have to go now, though.

[1] I understand that there is indeed evidence from psychological studies that people from religious backgrounds that forbid or restrict sexual thoughts have noticeably more sexual thoughts than other people, probably from the same effect that makes it impossible not to think of a pink elephant as soon as someone tells you not to think of one.

Failures (Griping)

I just posted this on the autism forum. I probably shouldn’t; it’s like I slipped back to my Hevria commenting days.

I feel like I can’t take my own advice.  Lately I said to a couple of people here that they shouldn’t see themselves as “failures” because of their lives and careers (or lack thereof), that people on the spectrum have extra challenges in life and need to celebrate their successes.  Yet today, and most work days recently, I feel like a failure myself.

I’m not in a great job.  It’s an admin job, two days a week (I can’t really manage much more).  It requires me to do things I find hard, such as using short-term memory to use multiple windows at once, as well as periodically having to make difficult phone calls.  There are times when it’s very quiet and I have to do a lot of dull sorting through boxes of old papers.  My boss is supportive, but I worry that he thinks I’m an idiot.  I frequently find myself feeling both bored and stupid, as well as useless for even being in this job.

I did really well at school and went to a very good university, then crashed with years of depression (or more likely autistic burnout, but I wasn’t diagnosed then).  I slowly pulled myself out of that and towards an MA that would lead to a career in the library sector, then crashed again and struggled through the MA.  Then struggled through a couple of jobs in librarianship before finally running out of job offers in that sector and taking the admin job when a friend offered it to me out of desperation.  I feel I’m pretty much out of librarianship, that my skills are rusty and that there are far fewer part-time jobs in the sector than I expected, especially as I won’t work on Saturdays.

I worry about my finances when I get married (hopefully soon, but dependent on immigration bureaucracy).  I want to build a second career as a writer and proofreader, but am nervous about my chances of success.  I tried to work as a freelance proofreader once before, and couldn’t get any clients.  I’ve been writing for years and had pieces published in various places, and people say I write well, but I struggle to get anyone to actually pay me for anything I’ve written.  I wrote and self-published a non-fiction book about Doctor Who (special interest!), available through Amazon, but only bought by people I know in person because I don’t know anything about design or marketing, and didn’t know I could easily get people to help me with them until it was too late.  I wrote a novel (about a young man struggling with Asperger’s and mental illness at university and in the Jewish community, because write about what you know), but haven’t found an agent for it yet.  I’m working on a second novel, which I think will be better, but I’m scared I’m doomed to write and never get published.  People praise my writing, but I can’t live off praise.  I’m up for a Jewish journalism award soon for a non-fiction piece I wrote online about being on the spectrum in the Jewish community (again, write about what you know).  I hope that might lead to other, better, things, but who knows?

I try not to compare myself to other people.  I’ve mostly lost track of peers from school and university, but periodically I run into people working as lawyers, academics, rabbis, senior staff in NGOs.  Good jobs.  And I just dropped off the radar.

In art and literature, at least, I prefer interesting failures to slick, predictable successes, but feeling like an interesting failure isn’t noticeably different from feeling like any other kind of failure.

Meaning, Headaches, Yeshivish, and Woke Librarians

On Thursday I received a text from the NHS saying I had an appointment with the respiratory clinic. Attached was a letter that was supposed to explain about it. It was totally blank, not even a letterhead. I thought it hadn’t sent, so I checked the app on my computer and it was blank there too. Some running around on my part later, I discovered the appointment is something to do with my referral to the sleep clinic. Why did it say respiratory? Presumably because otherwise it would be too easy for me to know what was going on. It’s a phone or video appointment, and beyond that I don’t know anything about it, because I’m a mere patient and why do I need to know anything? I hope to receive more information before then, like details of what to do to keep the appointment, but who knows?

I also have abnormal blood test results that no one has contacted me about. I’m assuming the GP saw them and thought they were not serious enough to contact me about, but it would be nice to be told that I don’t need to worry. What’s the point of giving me access to my results if you don’t explain them? Now I need to phone the surgery to check there’s nothing serious wrong, but I keep putting it off because phoning the surgery is a nightmare. I wonder if that’s intentional, and how many people die because of it?

Honestly, dealing with the NHS is like being a character in a Kafka novel, yet somehow most people in this country think that the NHS is an national treasure.

***

I went to shul (synagogue) on Friday night and again on Saturday afternoon. The latter was because I felt that I didn’t want to go for social anxiety reasons and I wanted to challenge that, so I was pleased I went.

On Friday night I had a headache, perhaps because of the heat. I did some Torah study and a small amount of recreational reading, but I spent a lot of time standing in the doorway to the garden, trying to cool off and stop my head hurting. I had another headache today, from running. I’m not sure if exercising is such a good idea if I just end up eating crisps to get rid of possibly lack of salt-induced headaches afterwards.

***

I don’t know if I should go into this, but when my head hurt too much to read, I thought a lot about meaning. Lots of frum (religious Jewish) people cite ‘meaning’ as one reason for being frum. I know I’ve done it before. But I saw something the other day where a frum person was talking about her life being full of meaning and I wondered what it really meant. Does it mean that every time I do a religious-related action (e.g. saying a blessing) I feel connected to God? Or that I feel a great sense of purpose in my life in general? Or that I accept why bad things happen to me and to other people? None of these things really seem true for me (I can’t speak for other frum people).

In the end the point I got to is that, for me at least, meaning is about the search for meaning as an end in itself. As one of my religious heroes, the Kotzker Rebbe said, “The searching is the finding.” It is the pursuit of meaning that gives my life meaning, even if I don’t ultimately find it, or not more than brief moments of insight. It’s about pushing through apparent moments of religious certainty to say, “Is this real? Have I connected with God or is it ego or delusion?” and to keep looking even after that.

For me, meaning is about trying to deepen my understanding of three groups of people: God, other humans, and myself. You could say that the first corresponds to Torah study, the second to acts of kindness (empathy and listening) and the third perhaps to prayer, meditation and introspection (cf. Pirkei Avot 1.2). I struggle with more abstract forms of meaning and I don’t have the level of clarity and connection other religious people (of various religions) seem to have, or claim to have. I’m not sure if that’s a fault in me or not.

***

I’m making progress with my novel. I’m uncertain what to do about Hebrew and Yiddish language usage. I started writing something at least vaguely like the “Yeshivish” dialect the characters would speak in real life, but the amount of untranslated words has mounted up and I feel it’s become excessive. But where do I draw the line? For example, should the children call their parents Abba and Imma or Dad and Mum? And that’s an easier example, as in real life some people from that milieu would go for the latter even if most would use the former. A sentence like “I went to the synagogue on the Sabbath and was called to read from the Bible” just seems ridiculous when the character would clearly say, “I went to shul on Shabbos and had an aliyah.” But the latter requires explanation somehow, whether in the text, footnotes or glossary.

I’m not even getting into Yeshivish syntax, because that’s where my own knowledge falls down; I don’t feel able to write sentences like “Where are you holding?” (“How are you? What are you up to?”), “Would you like to eat by us?” (“Would you like to come to us for dinner?”) or “You have what to rely on” (“You have a religious source that supports your view”).

***

I cancelled my membership of CILIP, the librarians’ professional body. I did it mostly because it was costing me nearly £100 a year and I wasn’t getting anything in return except a monthly magazine I barely read and a weekly job email that I haven’t used to apply for a job in ages. Beyond that, there’s a lot in CILIP publications about inclusion and diversity, but nothing about Jews, which annoys me. We are a minority! Jews were the most visible (not to mention persecuted) minority in the West for centuries, and now everyone’s decided we’re super-privileged. This just underlines how woke CILIP has become and how uncomfortable and unwanted I felt as someone who is sceptical of a lot of wokeness as performative and taking sensible ideas (like diversity and inclusion) to an extreme where they become ridiculous. Still, I feel sad, as it’s yet another step in my moving away from being a librarian and into an uncertain future, career-wise.

***

I ordered some high-strength vitamin D tablets from Boots. When they arrived, there was a bottle of hand sanitiser with them. I can’t work out if Boots made a mistake, or if hand sanitiser is considered a suitable free gift post-COVID.

(Not) Make or Break

I didn’t blog much this week. There was stuff I wanted to write about, but didn’t have the time, or decided I didn’t want to make a big thing about it (to myself as much as to anyone else) by writing on the blog, particularly if I could vent by speaking to E. I got angry and confused with someone who used to be a friend, but decided life is too short to focus on things like that.

I didn’t really stop all week between Yom Tov (Jewish festival), work, an ECG at the hospital (it was fine), novel-writing and work again. I’m back to making a lot of mistakes at work, which makes me feel bad. E thinks I’m bored there, which may be right. I stayed up late last night writing my first devar Torah (Torah thought) in two months or more. Then, when I was about to go to bed, E texted me with an update about how we can prove her Jewish status so we can get married. It’s left us feeling a bit worried and uncertain; I’m glad we’re speaking to Rabbi L on Sunday so we can discuss what we have to do about it, but the next forty-eight hours or so will be anxious. I texted my rabbi mentor about it today and he feels confident it will work out, which is positive.

(I should probably explain that in the Orthodox Jewish world, Jewish identity is passed on matrilineally, or through conversion through a recognised Orthodox Beth Din (rabbinical court), so to get married in an Orthodox shul, you need to prove that you are Jewish by showing an Orthodox conversion certificate for yourself or an Orthodox marriage certificate for your parents. E, like many American Jews, has gone several generations without an Orthodox marriage among her direct ancestors, so it’s going to be a bit harder to prove, but hopefully not impossible. I’m sure this is something that Rabbi L, and certainly the London Beth Din, has come across before.)

I slept badly because of the marriage issue, having nightmares about trying to write some kind of Twitter (?) messages to my blog friends and rabbi mentor about the situation and having all kinds of technical problems (it was weirder than that, but I can’t remember all the details). It’s pretty clear that my unconscious was worried about getting stuck in limbo with this too. Inevitably, after all of this (this week as much as last night), I slept very late and woke up feeling very drained. My parents got a bit annoyed with me too.

I did write a little of my novel this week, including today. Because of my late start, lack of energy and extra pre-Shabbat chores (because we didn’t have a cleaner this week), I had to choose between going for a walk or working on my novel. Really I needed to do both, for both my physical and mental health, but I chose to write for an hour or (with a little procrastination time), writing 600 words, which was pretty good considering I was struggling a bit.

***

The next six weeks or so have a bit of a “make or break” feeling that I mustn’t let get to me: E and I will get a clearer idea if there are any significant legal or religious obstacles to our marriage, I’m up for a Jewish journalism award for an article I wrote, and I’ll find out if I’m accepted on a new writers’ programme I applied to. My parents are away for a few days next week too. I need to make sure I don’t let the pressure get to me and to assume that any setbacks in these few weeks will determine the rest of my (with E or as a writer, or anything else) and that there can be second (and third, and fourth, etc.) chances to sort things out.

The other thing I’m trying to do at the moment is to feel that it’s OK to be me. That it’s OK that I’m not a super-successful writer, lawyer, doctor, rabbi or anything else like so many of my peers seem to be. It would be easier if I felt I knew more about what I should be doing with my life and could feel that I was doing that correctly even if I wasn’t managing other things, but I am trying. I guess this ties to the previous paragraph, as winning awards or getting on writing programmes is how I hope I can further (read: start) my writing career, but I have to try to tell myself I’m good enough as a person even if I don’t get those things.

***

I finished The Odyssey. About to start Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, because I need a light read instead!

Bomb Scares, Jubilees and Other Interruptions

I haven’t written for a few days. I feel my life has become rather boring to write down (for me as much as for you) and I want to spend more time offline, so I’m trying to get out of the habit of blogging every day, and in such detail.

I was at work on Monday and Tuesday this week. I had to do the Very Scary Task on Monday, or at least to start it. I found it somewhat less scary, although I was conscious that J was there in case I got stuck. I don’t know how I would feel if I had to do it by myself.

On Tuesday I woke up late, feeling drained. Apparently I struggle to work two consecutive days. I was at work alone for the first time in this job. It was mostly OK, except for when I whacked my head really hard on an awkwardly-placed shelf. I finished the database printing job and handled some phone calls OK (I think). I was very bored and only briefly saw other people, which was surprisingly difficult. I tried to be positive, but sounded negative to E when I texted her.

I went to an online shiur (religious class) on Monday night and was booked on one for Tuesday night, but I decided that, as it was recorded, I would watch the recording the next day. That turned out to be not so involving. It was on Mishlei (The Book of Proverbs). I think I know Tanakh too well to get much out of the LSJS Tanakh lectures. The Monday night shiur, on the meaning and relevance of revelation, was more interesting.

I went to bed earlyish on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, but slept for ten or twelve hours. The suggestions people have made to me lately to help me get up earlier have not really helped. I set alarms, but I don’t wake up for long enough to think seriously about getting up. I just turn the alarms off and fall asleep again immediately, if I was really awake at all. The only thing that has helped me get up earlier recently, aside from work, has been forgetting to take my tablets the night before. I’m still waiting to get an appointment with the psychiatrist to talk about reducing medication in a safer way. I am not sure if the doctor has referred me yet, or how I can find out.

Wednesday was a busy day when I did a number of things, including some novel-writing and therapy, but it was mostly enlivened by a bomb scare. I went for a walk, turned around the corner and saw a shopping trolley abandoned on the pavement, not the type from the supermarket, but the kind old women (stereotypically) use to carry shopping home, like this (I’m not sure if they have these in the USA where everyone, even old women, drives). People dump all kinds of rubbish in the street these days, but I noticed this was chained to the lamppost with a bicycle lock, which seemed suspicious — why would you worry about someone stealing the junk you are dumping in the street? I didn’t like to open it in case it was booby-trapped, but I could see through the top that there was a large cardboard box inside.

It seemed unlikely that someone would want to blow up a quiet residential area like this, still less a small access road between residential roads, but with no houses actually on it, which is where it was. However, I was worried enough to phone the police. I didn’t think it was enough of an emergency to justify phoning 999, so I looked online for the phone number of the nearest police station, but couldn’t find it. It seems they prefer crime reported by email nowadays.🙄 In desperation, I phoned the anti-terrorism hotline and they did at least say I’d done the right thing. They said they would send someone to investigate. I didn’t see them, but an hour or two later the trolley was gone, so I guess they took it away.

In retrospect, it seems likely that it was not a bomb. My Dad’s theory, which seems sound to me, is that we regularly get glossy advertising pamphlets for local businesses through our door, and we’ve seen young children distributing them. Sometimes I’ve seen boxes of the leaflets left in the road. My guess is one kid was distributing them, went home for dinner, got lazy about carrying the trolley full of leaflets home and then out again later/tomorrow and chained it to the lamppost so that it wouldn’t get stolen. Hopefully he has learnt his lesson now.

Today’s big challenge was trying to change my mobile provider. After four attempts online, constantly getting error messages, I phoned and got it sorted in about twenty minutes, although I’m waiting for the new SIM card, which will take a while because of the extended bank holiday weekend. I tried to write, procrastinated, and eventually rewrote what I wrote yesterday (marginally) better rather than adding anything new. I tried to get my Dad a personalised Father’s Day card from Card Factory, but that didn’t work either, so it’s a bad day for online shopping. (I wonder if I’ve turned off cookies or something?)

I’ve had several busy days despite oversleeping on some of them, which is good, but I feel pretty drained and exhausted now. I’m ready for Shabbat, but not for a three day chag (three day festival i.e. one day of Shabbat combined with two days of festival (Shavuot)), the third day of which coincides with a street party in my street for the Queen’s Jubilee, and then back to work the next day with no non-religious relaxation time.

I won’t be doing tikkun leil, staying up all night on the first night of Shavuot studying Torah. My shul (synagogue) tends to have rather dull topics for shiurim, and my parents’ shul doesn’t have enough people I feel comfortable spending the night with — not like that, but being comfortable to sit and talk to them during the breaks between shiurim, nor am I particularly keen on disrupting my sleep pattern further. I might pop down to see the street party for the Queen’s Jubilee at the other end of our road on Sunday, although I doubt I will stay for longer than is necessary just to feel that I’ve seen it. I’m only really doing it because I deliberately avoided everything for previous Jubilees as well as the London Olympics and I feel I should have at least paid them a little attention, if only to tell any future progeny E and I might have.

The Desperate Housewives, Husbands and Teenagers of Orthodoxy

This morning at work I reflected that I make far fewer mistakes now than when I started. Then I made a whole shedload of mistakes today which made me wonder if I was too hasty. I spent much of the time doing database-printing again (and there’s a lot still to do) and I struggled with transitions whenever J interrupted me with a more important task that had just come up to do immediately (autism).

While printing I listened to some Jewish podcasts (I feel uncomfortable about listening to pop/rock music in a shul (synagogue), even on headphones). I tried the Orthodox Conundrum podcast. I don’t know why I hadn’t tried it before, as it is hosted by Rabbi Scott Kahn, who is the rabbi on the Intimate Judaism sex podcast, which I get a lot out of, and Orthodox Conundrum deals with equally controversial topics, just not regarding sex.

The first one I listened to was on art and music in the Orthodox world. It was OK. It reassured me a little that it’s OK to be creative and frum (religious Jewish) and that you shouldn’t stifle your creativity, even if that means doing less Torah study, but it also stated that it’s hard to make a living from your art. Much of this applies to writing, but I think it’s easier to be a hobby artist or musician than novelist. If you are quite good at painting, you might have something to put on the wall (my sister has a painting of hers on her wall and my parents have three of hers). If you are quite good at singing or playing an instrument, you can probably find opportunities to play for people. If you are an unpublished novelist, it’s hard to get people to read your work, given the extensive investment of time in reading and the difficulty of just leaving it “around” casually to be noticed. In other words, unless you can get published, or are very good at marketing on Amazon, your audience is probably going to be in single figures.

The podcast made me feel a bit better about the bittul Torah (neglecting time that could be used for Torah study) aspect, although I wasn’t convinced writing would improve my Torah study as was suggested. I wonder if there is an element of “moral luck,” a concept I was coincidentally thinking about this morning before listening to this podcast (if you believe in coincidences). I think it was coined by the philosopher Bernard Williams (Rabbi Lord Sacks’ PhD supervisor although that’s not relevant) to suggest some gambles are only justified retroactively, if they pay off. One example he gave is Gaugain abandoning his family to paint in Tahiti and becoming a great artist; if he had failed to become a great artist, would his abandonment of his family be less morally justifiable? Similarly, if I neglect Torah study to write unpublished novels, is my writing less justifiable?

What intrigues/worries me more is the question of what I want to create. The podcast guests were musicians and an artists and I guess this is less important to them, unless they go down the My Name is Asher Lev route and paint nudes or crucifixions. And the lyrics in frum songs are often quotes from religious texts or inspirational lines; frum song-writers are generally not, to my knowledge, writing love songs as I think some of the paytanim (Medieval liturgical poets, often rabbis) did.

I once had an exchange in the comments section of the Jew in the City website with the site’s founder, Allison Josephs, about writers in the Orthodox community. I felt that she was saying that frum writers should write at least in part to celebrate the positive aspects of the frum community. Needless to say, I feel uncomfortable with this outlook, which smacks of propaganda to me, and I think people would see through it.

As regular readers know, I am drawn to less pretty topics in my writing: mental illness, addiction, abuse. If there is one theme that unites my novel writing and my blog writing, it’s probably the feeling of not fitting in, of being on the edge of a community and not safely inside it, wanting to fit in, but not knowing how. I write about what I know about, so thus far the community has been the frum community, although if I ever write my satirical science fiction novel, I hope to broaden the scope. I’m interested in the not fitting in, the trying, but failing to fit in, the apparently fitting in, where people can’t meet the community’s standards for some reason or where they seem to meet those standards, but very different things are happening behind closed doors. I’m interested in this not least because that’s where I usually am and, rightly or wrongly, I sometimes find myself wondering about what other people’s lives are really like, whether they are also struggling. Statistically, out of X many people in a shul, some are going to be in failing marriages, struggling with mental illness or addiction, close to the breadline, struggling with questions of faith and so on. Doubtless some are dealing with abuse of one kind or another, or have done so (I’ve met, in person and online, abuse survivors and abuse perpetrators, in the frum community and outside it). This interests me a lot more than the “nice, frum, high achieving, well to-do community where everyone helps out” narrative, even though that is also based in reality.

Coincidentally (again), this actually fitted in with the second Orthodox Conundrum podcast I listened too, which I found much more interesting, about the drinking and especially binge-drinking problem that apparently exists among Modern Orthodox teenagers in the US (I should say that they thought that this might exist in other Jewish communities too, but they only had data for the Modern Orthodox ones).

I went to a Zoom shiur (religious class) in the evening on Mishlei (The Book of Proverbs). Afterwards E and I skyped. It was only supposed to be a quick call, as she had a headache and I was tired and it was late, but we ended up speaking for an hour. There aren’t many people I can speak to like that, without running out of things to say or the ability to “people.”

Mission and Identity

I haven’t blogged publicly much recently. I’ve had some issues that I didn’t feel comfortable sharing openly. Hopefully these are resolving now and I can go back to more regular public posts.

***

Work was hard today. I realised I made a mistake that could have cost us £80, throwing out the office shredder that might have been working because I thought it was broken when it may have been that it just wasn’t plugged in. On testing it again, I think it really was broken, but I felt stupid and feel like I made myself look stupid in front of J again. This may be low self-esteem. Then I had to make some difficult phone calls dealing with someone who owes us a substantial sum of money, but who has cancer. I want to be sympathetic, but, as J said, being ill does not mean being poor, especially in the UK where the NHS does at least mean people don’t usually impoverish themselves seeking treatment. Moreover, this person’s son was supposed to be dealing the matter, but has let it drag on for a year. He said he would pay in two months’ time once J authorised me to waive 50% of the money owed. Again, I want to be sympathetic, but if we just write off large debts it’s not fair on those who do pay. Then I spent most of the day printing off a database again. I did at least listen to music some of the time.

***

On the train to work I was reading The Thinking Jewish Teenager’s Guide to Life by Rabbi Akiva Tatz. Yes, I know, I’m nearly forty, but I feel I haven’t got the “sorting your life’s mission out” aspect of my life down right yet. I have mixed feelings about the book. I’ve heard Rabbi Tatz speak a couple of times. He’s an engaging speaker, and writer, but I don’t always share his outlook on Judaism and life, not least because he’s a Haredi kabbalist (mystic) and I’m not either of those things.

Rabbi Tatz said to draw a circle and write inside it all your character traits, interests and so on and to write outside it all the traits and interests you admire. The stuff in the circle is you. Your mission will involve all those things and only those things. The idea is that you can concentrate on those aspects of your life. Your supposed to be able to do this by the time you are twenty or so, an idea I’ve also heard from another Haredi rabbi.

I have mixed feelings about this. I don’t know what my mission is at thirty-eight! Granted, I’m probably unusual as I have a disability that impacts social functioning (autism) that I didn’t know about until last year; until then I was pushing myself to do things that I just can’t do and feeling guilty or embarrassed about some things that are normal (for me). To be honest, I’m still struggling with this. It has certainly affected what I think my mission in life is and what I can reasonably expect myself to do.

Nevertheless, I’m aware I’ve moved from one career idea to another over the years with no consistency or success. I wanted to be an academic (actually, it was more that I thought I would stay in academia by default because I had no idea what else to do and wasn’t good at anything other than studying), then an academic librarian, then a writer. I have achieved none of these things and currently work in a non-career-advancing low status job. I don’t think your career and your mission are necessarily the same thing (although they are for some people), but Rabbi Tatz implies a strong correlation. I hope my mission is writing, but who knows if it is? And what if my mission is to bear suffering with dignity? It could be. It’s not an optimistic thought. At least Rabbi Lord Sacks said that the rabbinate (let alone the Chief Rabbinate) was his fourth choice career after failing to become an academic (philosopher), economist or barrister. I find those odds more reassuring.

***

On a related note, I’ve been thinking about identity a bit lately, partly the result of reading an article that complained that millennials use medical diagnoses, particularly mental health or neurological conditions, and particularly self-diagnosed from the internet, as their identity. I’m not at all sure that this is true, but it did make me wonder if autism is part of my identity, and what I would consider my identity to be.

I feel like my autism affects my identity, while not being my identity. I don’t feel being a Doctor Who fan is my identity either, although it apparently is for some people. I do feel being Jewish is part of my identity, a key part as it shapes so much of what I do and think, how I see the world and engage with it, but it isn’t the whole of my identity.

In the end I concluded that my identity, inasmuch as I can identify it, is a sort of zone where “What I am” meets “What I do” and “What I think and feel” even though none of those things by themselves would consist of my identity. It’s a dynamic process rather than an objective “thing.” But I’m still thinking about this and am open to suggestions.

***

You may have detected an undertone of self-criticism in much of this post. I have been struggling a bit with negative self-thought today, sometimes apparently justified, like with the shredder, sometimes perhaps not. I’m not sure how justified it is. I guess it’s good that I’m noticing it and being mindful of it.

Other Planets

E and I went to Hampton Court Palace yesterday. We saw the palace and the gardens. I had been to the palace before, but nearly thirty years ago, and I don’t think I saw all of it then. I was surprised that the palace was still a royal residence in the eighteenth century; I was also annoyed that a famous TV historian who was once rude to a friend of mine (also a historian) featured prominently on the audio guide. The gardens were pleasant too, and full of tulips for the tulip festival, although not many other flowers were blooming yet. It was cold, as E and I had dressed for warmer weather.

After seeing the palace, we had time to kill before meeting a couple of my friends for dinner. We could either go home for about an hour or spend two hours in Golders Green. We couldn’t agree, so I went home to read a bit and E visited ethnic grocery shops in Golders Green, which would have bored me stiff. E and I have a lot in common, but I’m glad we don’t feel the need to be joined at the hip and do everything together.

We had dinner with a couple of friends of mine from university days. E liked them and I think they liked her, which was something of a relief overall.

Today I was not as burnt out as I feared I might be, but I overslept by more than half an hour and had to rush to work, although I wasn’t late. I was very tired all morning and drank a lot of coffee. It was a rather boring day, despite a trip to the bank, which I always enjoy. E met me at Sainsbury’s on the way home, which was nice. During the walk home and afterwards I felt less than 100% and was unsure why. I was exhausted from work and possibly also too hot, slightly dehydrated, hungry, lacking salt, or generally out of shape, or all of the above, and maybe something else. I do feel less fit and healthy lately and don’t really know why, beyond the general point that I’m slightly overweight and don’t exercise enough, although I walk quite a bit. I ought to get an app that records footsteps per day the way so many other people do. It’s hard to unpick medication weight-gain from eating too much weight gain, especially when medication seems to lead to eating too much.

***

E and I spoke a bit about autistic exhaustion. I think she is trying really hard to understand it, at least as much as anyone understands this mysterious and under-researched subject. I was really touched that she wants to understand this negative, but significant aspect of my life better.

***

How many years does it take for me to stop hating a Doctor Who episode and enjoy it? E and I watched The End of Time recently, which I hated on first transmission over Christmas/New Year 2009 and 2010. On re-viewing, I sort of grudgingly found parts of it somewhat amusing, although I still got annoyed at how silly and unplotted it seemed. Then tonight we watched the Paul McGann TV Movie from 1996 (the story with no name). I hated that on transmission, for the Doctor kissing Grace and for him being half-human. Now I can enjoy it. This isn’t new. Since the new series came along, the TV Movie has seemed less a desecration of Doctor Who and more a step towards the new series, albeit sometimes by showing what not to do. The Doctor-companion romance has become a semi-regular part of the format, to my continued annoyance. The half-human thing was quietly ignored, although Steven Moffat hinted that it might be true in Hell Bent.

One thing I noticed is that Grace is really a woman. Most female Doctor Who companions, old or new, are essentially written/presented as teenage girls, even if the character is supposed to be older (e.g. Jo, Sarah). I guess the other exceptions are Barbara (1963-1965), Liz (1970) and sort-of Romana (1978-1981), who was a 125 year old Time Lord, but was played somewhat girlishly by Mary Tamm and Lalla Ward (and, of course, for a Time Lord, 125 is just out of university). It’s probably not coincidence that Barbara’s time coincided with Verity Lambert’s time as producer, the only female producer on the original series. The absence of a really mature female companion in the new series is a pretty damning example of the way it’s not always more ‘modern’ and diverse, or necessarily more interested in telling stories about real characters than the original series.

I wonder if E thinks, “I finally meet the right guy and he’s from another planet” about me, as Grace said? “Another planet” being the UK, autism or the frum (religious Jewish) world, take your pick. (I am writing this mainly because I know she’ll read it!)

Exhaustion and Resilience

I had a long and boring day at work yesterday, then in the evening went to a customer-facing work thing for E’s job, as her plus one. It was OK, but I didn’t really say anything at all, even when I might reasonably have had something useful to say (explaining about Jewish religious customs to non-frum (non-religious) Jews). I did it because it seemed important to her that I went, even if I was not entirely sure what my role there was supposed to be.

I think it was the first time E has really seen how autism and social anxiety can shut me down in social settings. By the time we got home, I was struggling not to be in a bad mood (I think I probably snapped at my Mum a bit). E and I ate dinner and watched Doctor Who, and even though it was not a great episode (The End of Time part 2, David Tennant’s final episode in the title role), I felt a little better, but not much (dinner probably helped more than Doctor Who).

Then today I crashed, and although E tried to get me to wake up at 9am, I actually fell asleep afterwards, on and off until 1pm, feeling really burnt out and exhausted. After breakfast, I went back to bed for twenty minutes, cocooning myself in my duvet and weighted blanket until I realised I was just upsetting myself, thinking about antisemitism. Eventually I played the, “I can listen to music in the omer if I have autistic exhaustion” card to try to get dressed. I ate lunch before davening (praying), which I hate doing, but I had no choice, I just needed energy. I ate cheese on toast, which was probably a mistake given that I ate a lot of cheese over Pesach, have (marginally) high cholesterol and probably eat too much generally (although it was only an issue once I went on clomipramine), but I felt I needed a treat. I didn’t even like it that much, which made it all seem pointless.

I just feel tired and withdrawn, although I’m aware that to other people this probably looks like laziness and bad temper. I’m vaguely worried that this will just have added to E’s fears about my autistic dysfunctionality. Even if E is on the spectrum, she is a lot more functional in social settings and after draining days than I am. She was a bit surprised that I did nothing while she was out all day other than cook dinner.

***

I’ve been catching up with the Deep Meaningful Conversations podcast (formerly Normal Frum Women). They did an episode on resilience, where the guest was someone I do actually know in person, who is a frum research psychologist and has written a self-help book on resilience as a psychologist, but also from a Jewish perspective.

One thing she said was that venting is counter-productive; it can make us feel better in the short-term, but worse in the long-term. However, reframing the situation is a positive thing. I feel I mostly vent here, although the comments do help me to reframe things sometimes. It did make me wonder if I should blog less or try to complain less or something. She did also talk about the need to normalise experiences like mental illness, which does make me feel there may be a point to writing even a very negative post like this one. For what it’s worth, I am aware that my mood and energy will probably be better tomorrow, which is positive reframing, but I do worry that the burnout days will always be there, which will be bad for me and might scare off E. I’m also aware I’m likely to have some more burnout days before E goes back to the US.

I actually knew about the book and I had vaguely thought of buying it. I guess I held off because I feel I’ve read a lot of self-help books and I struggle to act on them and integrate their teachings without some kind of therapist to guide me. But I do actually have the email address of the author of this one! Not that I would bombard her with questions, but maybe it’s worth getting the book. Particularly as it seems there isn’t much “wrong” with me that can be diagnosed or “fixed” medically/therapeutically at the moment, just a propensity for autistic exhaustion, which perhaps greater resilience could help with, if only to keep me going on the down days. It does seem to be difficult to get hold, possibly already out of print even though it was only published last autumn. It was published in hardback, so maybe a paperback will come out one day.

Less Anxious

I went to bed earlyish (for me), but woke at 4.20am. It took me a while to work out that it was actually still night and I didn’t have to get up for work. Then I realised that I had a headache. I got up and took some tablets, tried to go back to bed, realised lying down was making the headache worse and got up to read. I had some Pesach OCD thoughts and inadvertently woke Mum up, which turned out to be good (she said), because she realised that the soup she had left cooking overnight in the slow cooker was evaporating. When the headache had gone an hour later, I tried to go to sleep, but it was almost time to get up.

Work was dull. There isn’t a lot more to say about it than that. The task I’m doing is tedious and I’m not sure how necessary. It would be OK if I was doing an hour or so on that as well as other tasks, but there wasn’t a lot else to do today.

Despite the slight OCD thoughts, my Pesach OCD/anxiety was mostly under control until I got home. To be fair, it wasn’t hugely out of control. I really needed some time to relax, and I did stop to snack for a bit, but I couldn’t really unwind as I was too conscious of everything I need to do this evening. Tonight heralds the start of what I think of as the busiest twenty-four hours of the Jewish year, starting with my least-favourite Pesach task, kashering the kitchen sink.

In the end, the kashering actually went OK. Kashering involves cleaning the sink, leaving it for twenty-four hours, then pouring boiling water over it, then cold water. The pouring has to be within a few seconds of the kettle boiling, and the sink has to get covered from an area within a radius of an inch or to of where the spout of water hits the metal. In the past, this was a huge trigger of OCD anxiety. I don’t have the time to look for past posts; trust me, it was awful. But I did it well this year, quite quickly, with relatively little spillage over countertops and floor, fairly confident that I was doing OK in terms of getting enough of the sink and within the time limits. I did worry a bit when I had finished if I had missed one side of the sink, but I decided not to give in to OCD anxiety by redoing, especially as Dad was pretty sure I’d done it and my rabbi mentor says that technically, you only need to hit 51% of the sink for it to be kashered. I’m not sure how much I was doing it better and how much was that, with less anxiety around, I was not seeing non-existent problems. Using only 1 litre of water in the kettle each time is definitely better than a full kettle (it can take 2 litres): it boils faster and is easier to manipulate.

In terms of relaxing, the novel I’m reading, Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon, while interesting, is uninvolving. A history of the human race over two billion years, it doesn’t really have a plot or characters, as I think I’ve mentioned before. It’s interesting, and I want to finish it, but once I’ve put it down, it’s hard to get in the mindset to pick it up again. I may read something more engaging alongside it.

On the plus side, my iPod has apparently survived its ordeal in the washing machine with nothing more than a slightly damaged screen, so things are definitely looking positive overall as we enter the final, and most hectic, stretch of Pesach preparations.