Fred Karno’s Army

We are Fred Karno’s Army, the ragtime infantry./We can not fight, we can not shoot;/No bleedin’ use are we./And when we get to Berlin, the Kaiser he will say:/Hoch! Hoch! Mein Gott! What a bloody awful lot/Are the British infantryBritish World War I trench song

***

Today felt pretty bad. In retrospect, it probably wasn’t. I only got about four hours of sleep, which was partly my fault and partly not, but it probably didn’t set me up for a good day. I experienced some anxiety on waking. There’s an idea I came across a few years ago about the acronym HALT: don’t do anything you might regret if you’re Hungry, Anxious, Lonely or Tired. When my religious OCD was bad around that time, I found that the times when my OCD anxiety felt worst were also the times when I was HALTed. So, I guess that lies underneath everything that happened today.

On the way to work, I decided it was probably a mistake to catalogue my every work mistake here, as it makes me focus on the negatives too much. I resolved not to do it today. But then at work I thought I’d made a couple of big mistakes. In the event, they probably weren’t such a big mistakes, and I possibly over-compensated. Still, I feel frustrated that I keep making mistakes, including repeating some mistakes multiple times, which indicates I’m not learning properly. My Dad is worried about this although my Mum thinks I’m just overwhelmed. I guess the problem is I find the work environment inherently overwhelming at the moment. I try to make lists of what to do when doing different tasks, but then I don’t consult them as I think it looks unprofessional. In any case, when I’m dealing with many cells in multiple spreadsheets at once, it can be easy to miss something.

I was pretty exhausted when I got home. I haven’t done much other than write this, watch TV, daven (pray) and eat dinner (with my parents, so I guess I get points for peopling while exhausted). I wanted to do more Torah study, but my brain is just switched off. After I’ve posted this I’ll probably give up for the evening and watch TV until bedtime. I don’t feel able to do anything else.

***

At lunch I started reading a memoir about autism in the workplace that I thought might give me some ideas for ways I can function better in my own workplace. I rapidly switched from reading to scanning, as it’s not very well-written. This surprised me a bit. It is self-published, but I read the author’s blog and she can write well-enough there. Maybe she struggled to move from focused blog posts to carrying narrative over a long period. Or maybe she wrote the memoir before she started blogging in earnest. The book is also lacking in explicit advice or suggestions about coping in the workplace, which is what I really wanted, although so far it’s mostly been dealing with the author’s university experience.

The other thing that annoyed me is that repeatedly the author thinks she’s going to be thrown off her college or university course due to some requirement for group work or group presentation that she doesn’t think she can cope with because of her autism and anxiety. Then the situation resolves because she gets adjustments from staff that allow her to stay on the course and she is relieved, but she never seems particularly grateful. She could have been grateful and just not recorded it in the memoir, but it rankled with me. Yes, disabled people are entitled to reasonable adjustments by law, but I feel that if someone goes out of their way to help you, you should be grateful, even if they were obliged to do it by law or institutional policy.

I skim-read it on the way home and I’m about a third of the way through now. I probably will stick with it, at least skimming it, just in case it’s helpful. It’s not terribly long or heavy-going, I just hoped it could help me more.

***

The other thing that annoyed me today was mask compliance. On the Tube, where mask wearing is compulsory, a majority wore masks, but a substantial minority, perhaps a third of passengers, did not. For comparison, in the shopping centre I went into on the way home, mask compliance was almost as good even though it was entirely voluntary there. When I got on the train this morning, one man was berating the woman opposite him for not wearing a mask (“This is my choice,” she insisted, although technically it wasn’t), but there were so many maskless people in the carriage, it seemed pointless to protest.

I wish that COVID would just go away or at least drop to an ‘acceptable’ level, like flu, but it won’t, and I take it too seriously to disregard precautions. Already the government is talking about possible future restrictions in case of a (likely) winter surge. Based on my experience today, I think if there’s another lockdown, people just won’t obey, American-style.

It can’t go on forever, can it? The Black Death, the Great Plague, Spanish Flu, all ended eventually, right? Right?

***

I’m thinking about purpose again, and writing, and whether my purpose is writing… I’m feeling vaguely more positive about my novel (my first one, the one I’m currently trying to find an agent for). I think it could benefit from a few changes and additions, but not another full redraft. It probably won’t take long, but only once I get down to it, which will probably not be until after all the Yom Tovim (Jewish festivals).

I came across this video clip today. I think I’ve seen it before. Certainly I’d heard Rabbi Sacks z”tl say similar things previously and had been thinking about them recently. It makes me hopeful that I can find a place in the world with my writing, but I still worry that it’s illusory and that I have nothing to offer the world and I won’t ever find my place in it (combined with worries about what type of Jewish community E and I could end up in, which is a whole other type of place to worry about finding).

Writing About Writing

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

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

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

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

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

Nature and Nurture Vs. Me

Another dull day at work, which I don’t mind so much, but it’s another day when I made what seemed to me like foolish mistakes and generally handled myself badly. I don’t know what to do about that. Whenever this happens, I start to self-blame and pretty soon I’m comparing myself to school or Oxford peers who are doing better than I am (or who I assume are doing better than I am). To be fair, I mostly kept that in check today, but it’s there in the background. I would like to be doing a job that I felt good at, doubly so if it was one that seemed socially-acceptable given my level of academic success and/or allowed me to support a family, or at least to support myself. Contrary to what your parents and teachers told you, success at school or even at university does not correlate exactly with financial, social or cultural success later in life.

It didn’t help that I only had about four hours of sleep last night as Yom Tov finished late and then I felt I needed to blog to process my thoughts about it and then watch TV to try to unwind a bit. Then I just couldn’t sleep. At least it’s not so hot today.

***

Ashley and Margaret commented on my previous post, about God moving away as I try to move closer to Him. Margaret’s comment reminded me of the comment I posted recently from the Kotzker Rebbe, that “the moments of labouring are the finding.” It’s strange how it’s easy to say that in the abstract, but not when confronted by my actual feelings of hollowness or even failure. I think I was happy after the first day of Yom Tov, despite my failure to get to shul (synagogue) for Shacharit (Morning Prayers) or even to pray at home at the correct time. However, I was upset more by the second day, when I was too burnt out to do much and missed shul in the morning completely. Perhaps I expect too much of myself. I wonder what other frum people manage, those without autistic burnout or social anxiety. From the outside, it looks like they mostly make it to shul early in the morning on Shabbat and Yom Tov (at the very least).

I guess related to this is the difference, as I said yesterday, between a punitive God and a loving God. This is, in part, the difference between God in the Written Torah (Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible) and God as presented in the Oral Torah (Midrash and Talmud). You can get into this very deeply, about the Written Torah coming from the side of din (strictness and justice) and the Oral Torah coming from the side of hesed (lovingkindness) and the fact that I generally tend to line up with din in numerous ways. I don’t really want to get so kabbalistic. But obviously there are these two different sides to God which we believe is a difference more apparent than real, because obviously we’re monotheists and not dualists (like the Gnostics or the Manicheans).

I can believe that a loving God exists, but it’s hard to feel that a loving God could love me. I know this is rooted in childhood experiences and my lack of self-love, but I don’t know how to move on from that. No one has given me practical steps I could do to love myself, let alone to believe that God loves me. Even so, I’m not sure how my inability to love myself corresponds to my inability to find meaning on festivals. Unless I expect too much from them. Similarly, why do I struggle to feel the kind of spiritual joy I feel I am ‘supposed’ to feel or that others seem to feel — is it my old friends anhedonia (inability to feel pleasure) and alexithymia (inability to recognise emotions) again? Or something else?

It’s uncomfortable to feel that I’m still held hostage by my autism (nature), as shown by my experiences at work today, and also by my formative years (nurture). I’m not sure what the solution is.

***

I feel torn between trying to find an agent for my novel, working on the short story I started recently or planning my next novel, but it’s too late to work on any of them (too late at night, not too late to ever work on them). I doubt I will have much time in the next couple of weeks given Yom Tov. Which is a shame, as I feel somewhat creatively-stifled at the moment. I also feel like a bad writer, and the only real cure for that is to write. But, it’s probably on hold for a while.

Answering

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

Dirges in the Dark

I wrote most of this during the day, when I was feeling quite down. I’m posting it just as a record of my emotions, and that I can come out of slumps better than I used to be able to do.

I feel down today, even somewhat depressed. I’ve been a bit self-critical and I’ve been catastrophising a lot. I don’t know why I feel like this suddenly. I guess there are reasons. There’s family members struggling with things; COVID is getting to me, and making me worry when E and I will be able to meet again; I’m stressed about the coming Yom Tovim (Jewish festivals); and I’m probably a bit hurt still from my novel rejection and wondering what my next step is, trying to process that now my intense two weeks covering for J at work is over. So I guess there is over-causation, if anything. Still, I thought I was getting better at emotional regulation and dealing with the down days. I still struggle to understand my own emotions a lot of the time, which doesn’t make dealing with them any easier.

As there has often been a seasonal element to my depression, it could be that as the days get shorter and the weather colder and more inclement (not that we had a particularly hot or dry summer!) I am still going to get more down/mildly depressed, despite no longer suffering general depression. Or maybe it’s my worries about getting through the next few weeks.

I missed E a lot and worried about how we can move our relationship on. There are so many obstacles: COVID, long-distance, finances, dealing with our separate ‘issues’… I worry that more will appear as we progress and can already catastrophise some into existence if I’m not careful. In terms of COVID, it’s not at all clear that the UK will still be allowing visitors from the US over the next couple of months. I worry that the US will become some kind of permanent plague zone that Europeans avoid contact with, like something out of a zombie film, and the type of Americans that refuse to get vaccinated won’t care because they have zero interest in the outside world anyway.

Another possibility is envy, sadly. I’m just feeling the “Will I ever make anything of my life? Will I become a successful writer? (Will I actually get the energy/headspace to write anything else?) How did I become such a professional failure when I did so well at school?” feeling again looking at more successful peers or even younger contemporaries. To quote Crusade, the abortive spin-off from Babylon 5, “When Mozart was my age, he was dead.” I don’t want to be Mozart, or the literary equivalent, but I do want to be able to at least help support E and myself and hopefully even children one day. I’d also like to write something that I can be proud of, something clever, idiosyncratic and unique like the stories I love like The Prisoner, Twin Peaks, The Third Policeman or Ubik. But at the moment I’m too focused on getting through the next couple of weeks to write much, and today everything feels such an effort.

A while back E sent me the link to this Instagram post, saying that there’s a need for my writing in the Jewish community. I look at it periodically when I need encouragement about my writing, but I guess today it just makes me think, “There are already Jewish creatives, why would anyone want to read my writing? I can’t write nearly well enough to capture the conflict between tradition and modernity. My writing’s too humdrum for the secular market and too negative for the religious market. And I don’t know how to get an agent.” And so on, back into catastrophisation.

I managed about three hours of work today, which is probably a minor miracle and I shouldn’t be surprised I can’t write too. Today is a bank holiday (public holiday), but I agreed with J to do a day’s work, split over today and tomorrow. I didn’t really want to do it, but I wanted to show willing, given that I want J to make my job permanent, and I’m aware I won’t work much in September because of Yom Tov (Jewish festivals) and hopefully I’ll want time off in October if E comes here.

I went for a run. It wasn’t very good, but I was just glad to get out, as I felt like going back to bed. I think it did help shift my mood, as did speaking to E in the evening. I feel OK now.

***

It doesn’t look like I’m going to be able to speak to the rabbi about my autism before Yom Tov, which is vaguely annoying, but he’s been away and then I had that not good time when I was covering for J and now it’s nearly Yom Tov. Maybe I can try to speak to him before Sukkot at least.

***

Last night I had a dream that seems somewhat relevant. I was watching some Hasidic men dance. They tried to drag me into the dance, but I didn’t want to join in; however, I didn’t want to go away either, I wanted to watch.

When I awoke, it made me think of Otto Rank, Freud’s pupil who postulated that life divides into the fear of life (fear of individuation) and fear of death (fear of absorption and losing individuality). I want to watch the dance (connect), but I am afraid to join in the mass of dancers (lose individuality). It’s probably about me and the Orthodox Jewish community, my inability to find my place in it and my uncertainty about where E and I will feel comfortable.

***

There seems to be a lot of drunken partying/arguing/fighting going on in someone’s back garden with a lot of noise reaching us despite the lateness of the hour (gone 11pm). It might be a long night…

Fifteen Minute Blog Post

I wasn’t planning on writing today as I didn’t think I had anything to say, but I find I need to set pen to paper, metaphorically, before I can go to bed. I will try to write and post in fifteen minutes or less.

I was working from home again today. I didn’t have to do the Very Scary Task again, it was just paperwork and data entry today. I’m still hoping the VST doesn’t appear tomorrow. I had done an hour of work in advance on Tuesday because I knew it would be so hard (because it’s boring rather than difficult), but somehow I still ended up working longer than I intended. One reason, although not the whole explanation, is that I did work a bit extra because I had a strange phone call, which I won’t go into here, which left me puzzling over whether I said the right thing. I talked it through with my parents and I didn’t count this as work time, although it probably was. In terms of the phone call, this is probably another instance where I can say that I may not have acted perfectly, but I acted with integrity according to the best of my ability.

I haven’t written much fiction lately, concentrating on getting my novel ready to find an agent and then on work. I had a story idea and developed it when I went for a walk, then spent half an hour writing a plan (this, for a story that I initially thought I would try to improvise, without planning. I’m not a meticulous advance planner-type writer, but I’m not an improvising “pantser” either). I’m not sure when I will write it; the next few weeks will be hectic with the Yom Tovim (Jewish festival). The original idea was to write a story with something of the atmosphere of Twin Peaks, but a Jewish setting. Even before I wrote the plan down, it had moved a long way from that, which I guess is good.

I Skyped E. We had a fairly serious talk. At least we can talk about serious things rather than just ignoring it like some couples. Nevertheless, I feel pretty drained after doing so much ‘serious’ stuff today though, and also watching an episode of The Simpsons that was about Homer thinking he was a failure because of his inability to hold down a job to support his family. The Simpsons aside it was a good day, perhaps the best work from home one I’ve had, and probably the last for a while.

Written in sixteen minutes!

Einstein’s Theory of Working From Home Relativity

I was somewhere on the borderland between sleep and wakefulness a little before 10am today when my phone rang (realistically, I was probably mostly in sleep). As I guessed before answering, it was J asking me to do the Very Scary Task (VST) again. I did not (could not) know when I would be asked to do it, but I guessed it probably would happen once more (at least) before J gets back from holiday and goes back to covering the out of hours calls (although this technically was not out of hours; J had given me flexibility to start and finish work later this week, but 10am on a Monday is usually work time for me).

I spent much of the day dealing with the VST. It possibly got a little easier, but I was still given to anxiety, self-criticism and feelings of being overwhelmed, particularly when someone was checking the details of an email address with me over the phone and I got flustered (as I had two different email addresses on different sheets) and he ended up shouting at me. Without going into too many details, the people we’re working for with the VST are going through a major negative life event, so it isn’t surprising if they shout sometimes. I’ve seen J take a lot worse over the phone in the office. Even so, it was upsetting.

About the same time I checked my personal email and got my first novel rejection email from a literary agent. I know that pitching a novel is like looking for a job or a spouse: almost no one gets it right on the first go and some people spend years looking in vain. Nevertheless, I experienced a feeling of shock and numbness like loss.

In the aftermath of both these things (the shouting and the rejection), I felt numb and unable do things. I crashed. I didn’t stop working, but for a while I was not able to do much. I wasn’t sure whether to phone anyone about the VST, or who to phone. I wanted to go into autistic shutdown mode, but I couldn’t, as I had hours of work left to do, but I didn’t know what to do or if I had done anything wrong. I kept going. I’m not sure how. I guess I just had to. I kept making phone calls, albeit somewhat slowly, and everything sort of slotted into place. I do still need to get up early tomorrow to work on the VST.

I’m not going to volunteering on Wednesday, so hopefully I can sleep a bit later, unless I have to do this all over again. I told J I couldn’t help on Wednesday (because I have therapy), but I’m a bit nervous that somehow I’ll have to anyway.

I wonder if I am too eager to please people in this role (or generally). I fear I try to hard to be nice to everyone, which sometimes makes me duck difficult conversations or confrontations. I feel that people can manipulate me into doing things for them easily — in today’s case, getting me to confirm a provisional time for something when it’s not 100% confirmed, even though J advised to leave it to later. I didn’t even consciously intend to do it, I just ended up in a situation where I said I would phone for options and then phone back, even though I should have phoned for options and left it until tomorrow. Sigh. At least I did stress it was a provisional time so if someone makes arrangements based on it, it’s not my fault. Not entirely my fault anyway.

Einstein says time flows differently on work from home. I got up before 10am, I seemed to spend all day working, yet work seemed to extend indefinitely… but by 6pm I still had an hour to do, which I’m leaving for tomorrow as I’ll need it for finishing the Very Scary Task. I am probably over-generous to the company when it comes to counting time spent working, leaving out time spent thinking about what to say on phone calls (which I think of as procrastination) or having short breaks.

***

I didn’t have much time or energy for other things. I went for a walk after work which helped destress a little, although I still feel pretty stressed. I didn’t have time or energy to write, not even to type up some ideas I had for the plan of my next novel. I only managed fifteen minutes of Torah study too, and didn’t touch the cheshbon nafesh (inner self-analysis) I wanted to do as part of my Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) preparation. I wanted to finish the short story I was reading at lunch before I go to bed, but I feel too tired to read. I feel pretty much completely done in and just want to crawl into bed, although I know from experience that if I don’t do something relaxing for a little while, I will just lie in bed feeling anxious.

***

Given that I’ve had a stressful week with work, I was glad to be able to buy this book. I read the author’s blog and I’ve wanted to read the book for a while, but it’s only published through Amazon, and Amazon are evil and I don’t use them. But I found a second-hand copy on World of Books. Hopefully it will give me some ideas about coping with autism in the workplace, as I feel like I’m struggling with that right now. Although now I feel bad that the author won’t get any money because I bought it second-hand, whereas if I bought new through Amazon, she would (admittedly she would not get very much as Evil Amazon would take most of it).

***

Looking at lists of Victorian names at work, I came across Trespoles Myers. Myers I understand, but Trespoles looks like random letters thrown together. You get a lot of duplicated names too, like Moses Moses, Nathan Nathan or Abraham Abrahams. The Victorians had a different sense of humour to us. I can imagine some of these people reading Catch-22 and thinking, “Major Major? What’s funny about that?”

Work, Music, Friends

Work from home is making me exhausted and depressed.

I slept badly last night. I woke up about 5.30am after disturbing dreams, full of anxiety about work and the Very Scary Task (I should probably think of a better name for that here). I realised I had forgotten to tell someone something and that was worrying me. I got up and drank hot chocolate and read Philip K. Dick (We Can Remember It for You Wholesale) for a while, which calmed me down a bit. I went back to bed, but as I was trying to fall asleep, J texted me at 6.30am to check some details. I guess he assumed I get up early for Shacharit (Morning Prayers). I went back to sleep, but didn’t sleep well, with more disturbing dreams. My alarm went at 9.20am and I probably would have fallen asleep again were it not for more work texts (not from J this time). I had breakfast and sent a text to resolve the problem of forgetting to tell someone something, but then J messaged me with another query. It wasn’t hard to resolve, but the whole process of this task is all quite nerve-wracking. I hope I don’t have to do this again next week — or for some time longer, really. Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing in advance, and the odds are I will have to do it again next week.

I was very nervous of something going wrong with the Very Scary Task, but no one phoned me with a problem, so I guess it went OK. The main work for today, the data entry, was more tedious than ever. I found it hard to concentrate and I could not work out if that was related to Very Scary Task anxiety; being tired from yesterday and not sleeping well; or just the cumulative effect of doing this boring task for days on end.

I wanted to listen to music while doing the data entry, but I wasn’t sure what. Not the loud rock I usually listen to, because I needed to concentrate. I found some chazanut (Jewish liturgical music) CDs that belong to my parents and thought listening to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur music might get me in the appropriate mindset for those coming festivals, but I discovered that I dislike traditional chazanut as much when listened to as music as I do when listening to it in shul (synagogue). It’s all very emotional and wailing and loud and dragged out… I know some people feel the music and chazanut helps them to pray more intently, but I always get the feeling that the chazan just wants to show off and I would rather spend my time and energy focused on my private personal prayers. Maybe that’s why I struggle with going to shul; it’s certainly why I go to a shul where the focus is very much on personal prayers without much chazanut.

In the end I listened to incidental music from Twin Peaks. Similarly, on Monday I listened to incidental music from Blade Runner while I did the data entry. Incidental music isn’t as intrusive as other music, and evokes the atmosphere of enjoyable TV or film while I’m doing a boring task.

***

Towards the end of work, I started feeling very negative about myself, wondering why I’m doing basic data entry tasks of the kind that would normally be done by an intern when I’m in my late thirties and not being able to work full-time. It got mixed in with thoughts about the Jewish cultural website I wrote about yesterday, some resentment that many of the writers there have gone on to write professionally, or were already professional writers and got a boost, whereas for a long time I wanted to write for them, but wasn’t able to. (I did write a couple of guest posts eventually.) I also felt that a lot of the writers seemed to have mental health issues, but also managed to have families, careers, religious lives, community involvement and creative outlets and I never worked out how they did all of it. In the end, I became a sort of self-loathing troll, posting comments that attacked not others, but myself and wallowed in the misery of so much of my adult life.

I thought I had put the site behind me (it’s pretty much defunct now), but I realise I have such a mixture of thoughts about it. I thought, or at least hoped, I could make real friends there, I had a kind of “friendship crush” on so many of the writers, wanted to be noticed by them and converse with them in the comments. I made a couple of online friends I still sometimes connect with, including one who has been a bit of a writing mentor to me, but those were other commenters, not the writers. But then I remember that once I wrote a comment about being pretty suicidal and a bunch of the writers wrote messages to support me, so I guess they were friendly. I never quite worked out if they wrote it because they like me as an individual or if they just saw “A person is in trouble, we should help!” and it didn’t really matter who I was. Maybe it doesn’t matter.

E found my blog through my comments there, I think, so I guess that’s one tangible positive that came out of it for me.

Thinking about this also makes me realise that I’ve been so focused lately on getting my manuscript ready to try to find an agent, and brainstorming ideas for future projects, that I haven’t actually done any creative writing in ages, even though I have an idea for a short story. I would like to write it, but with the possibility of another week of crazy work next week and then the autumn Yom Tovim (Jewish religious festivals), I’m not sure when I’ll have the time.

***

Aside from work, I went for a walk and did some shopping, which was where the negative thoughts got worse. I finished my devar Torah and skyped E and did a few minutes of Torah study, but that was about it. E is still the biggest positive in my life, even on stressful days.

***

The results from my recent blood test show my lithium level is slightly down. The results say it’s OK, but I thought 0.68 was sub-therapeutic. It might explain why my mood has been down a bit lately. My cholesterol is still a little high, but I don’t seem to be able to shift that much. I know, I should cut cheese, butter and eggs out of my life completely, but I can’t face it. I don’t eat much butter or eggs as it is, and I slashed my cheese consumption and, at the moment, can’t face cutting it further. I hope this doesn’t come back to haunt me one day.

Busier Than I Think

I woke up earlyish (9.00am), probably because I slept so much yesterday. I actually managed to get up, albeit partly because I worried that if I stayed in bed, I would just feel anxious. I spent some time writing some notes about the way autism affects me at shul (synagogue) and in my religious community so that I can speak to my communal rabbi when he gets back from holiday later this week. I’m not really happy with what I’ve written, but it’s a start and I still have time to talk about it with my parents (I already spoke to E), although probably not with my therapist, who is on holiday until next week.

I also spent some time typing up my notes on my “pornography-addicted rabbi” novel idea. Notebooks are good for jotting ideas down, but Word documents are better for moving things around and ordering them. At the moment I have some characters and vague story ideas, but no real plot. Well, I have an idea of where I want to go, but not how I get there. I’m already scared of what publishing such a story would mean for me as a member of the frum (religious Jewish) community, whether there would be any backlash like the backlash around Unorthodox and My Unorthodox Life. I don’t intend the book to be anti-religious (if anything the reverse, but I can see that some people might not see that). However, this seems the best way (well, a way, maybe not the best way) to talk about issues around sex and gender, and around addiction and mental health, in the frum community.

I guess this has become an ‘aspiring writer’ blog, now that it’s not exactly a ‘mental illness blog’ or a ‘fighting for an autism diagnosis’ blog. I probably shouldn’t say much about ongoing projects, but I find it hard to keep total radio silence. If I speak about my projects, I feel I have to follow through with them. I can’t chicken out of writing a novel I’ve ‘trailed’ here. I probably also should call myself a ‘writer’ rather than an ‘aspiring writer,’ but I still feel that I’m not there yet.

***

Despite this, and having also gone for a run, done over an hour of Torah study and Skyped E, I have a vague feeling of not having done enough, and of having procrastinated online (despite my attempt to limit my internet use at the moment) instead of actually relaxing. I really do need to talk to my therapist about this.

“This is what we’ve waited for! This is it boys! This is war!”

(Title quote from 99 Red Balloons by Nena. This post isn’t really about war, but it is about something new, exciting and scary.)

***

What I experienced last night reinforced my feelings that I experience something that isn’t straightforward fatigue in certain situations and which is probably linked to autism/Asperger’s even if I don’t have a proper name for it. It could be burnout or it could be a shutdown, both of which are commonly used terms for different autistic experiences and neither of which seem particularly well-understood or clearly defined, but it is something more than just fatigue.

Part of it is physical sensations that are hard to describe, but feeling like my brain is contracting in on itself is part of it. There can be more typical fatigued physical sensations too. I become rather monosyllabic in conversation with my parents and even gesture rather than speak on occasion. Even when texting E, I am used monosyllables. Yesterday, I browsed online a bit which I think is about wanting connection rather than boredom (and possibly about lacking the executive function to do something else), but I would not really be able to respond to anyone online or offline unless it was a loved one offering hugs. I wanted to watch TV yesterday, but had strong executive function issues picking what to watch. I really struggled to decide even though my choices were not that great. Eventually watching TV did help and I felt better after watching for an hour and a half or so — another indication that it isn’t tiredness or fatigue per se as I felt less burnt out/shutdown even though it was later in the evening when I would naturally feel more tired.

After yesterday I probably could have done with a mental health day, but I had a blood test booked for today, and as my Dad was playing golf, that entailed two long walks to and from the hospital, with some shopping added in. I went to the big Sainsbury’s for the first time in sixteen or seventeen months, having previously relied on deliveries or quick visits to smaller supermarkets. Tuesday is my day for cooking, so I had to do that too, as well as one other big, scary task (see the final section), and as I woke up late, that ate up much of the day. I didn’t do much Torah study as a result, which was frustrating.

***

I had a blood test today. It was OK, but I shook a bit again. I had tremor sometimes with blood tests even before COVID, but something about wearing a mask while having my blood taken seems to make it impossible not to shake, possibly because I can’t breathe easily.

***

I got an email asking me to a job interview. The interview is for a library job, the one where the application window was so narrow that we thought they wanted to give the job to an internal candidate already. I have reservations about the job, partly because I’ve lost confidence in my ability to work longer hours (three full days a week for this job) or to do a library job, partly because I’ve never worked in a library in this sector and am not sure what it would involve. I have to give a presentation, maximum ten minutes. I assume the minimum is seven or eight minutes. I tend to give short presentations that are made shorter by social anxiety making me gabble. The presentation is on something somewhat sector-specific and I think it will show up my ignorance.

When I applied for the job, I checked the commute on the Transport for London journey planner, and it was an hour and a half each way, which is difficult, but I’ve had longer commutes. But I just checked the route again, in more detail, and it involves a twenty minute and a twenty-five minute walk in both commutes! Even if my parents pick me up from the station on the way home, cutting twenty minutes off, that’s still well over an hour of walking a day which is tiring before I actually consider how tiring the work would be. My parents are at least understanding of my concerns about the travel, even though they don’t really share my worries about being able to do the job. So to say that I am cool about this is a bit of an understatement.

***

Saving the biggest news for last: I sent a query letter about my novel to an agent, along with the first three chapters of the novel (what they requested). I feel very nervous. I got an automatic response email saying the agent was just back from holiday and might take a while to get to me. This agent seemed a good fit in terms of genre and knowing about Jewish stuff, but I appreciate that, statistically, I probably will not get accepted by the first (or second, or third…) agent I apply to and that this may be a long haul. I am open to applying to several agents at once, which is what I have seen advised online, but it was so nerve-wracking to apply to the first one that I’ll probably wait until I hear back, one way or the other.

I don’t think I can quite believe that I took this step. I keep sending E texts saying “I WROTE A QUERY LETTER TO MY AGENT ABOUT MY NOVEL!!!!!!!”

Did Too Much (Fragment)

I did too much today. Got up early for work. Torah study on the train. The usual spreadsheets in the morning. Most of the afternoon walking upstairs, standing up photocopying, walking back downstairs multiple times. I had ideas for my next writing project while I was doing this. More Torah study on the train home until I was too tired to continue. Postponed my shopping as it was pouring with rain and phoned Dad for a lift from the station instead. The real mistake was working on my novel query letter (to an agent) after work. I was home early and didn’t want to waste the time, but I really should have taken proper time out. Or maybe being on my computer at all was the mistake.

Now I feel utterly burnt out and unable to do anything. I want to vegetate in front of the TV, but in shutdown mode my brain can’t decide what to watch. Executive function is not functioning. The Twilight Zone, The Simpsons, The Avengers… overload, overload, overload… Going to turn the computer off belatedly and try not to use the phone.

We Need to Talk About We Need to Talk About Kevin

Work was dull, painfully dull, but I guess that’s OK. I’m still sorting through my predecessor’s 2,000+ emails in his inbox to weed out the obviously irrelevant and spammy. Then in the afternoon I had a lot of trouble trying to make changes to our new database, probably a result of bugs rather than anything I’m doing, but I’m not 100% sure. Anyway, it was dull, but dull is OK. I practically counted the minutes until leaving, but ideas for my next writing project percolated up while I was in dull. There was one brief interlude of non-dull, going to inspect the building’s basement, owned by the organisation I work for, but leased to the business next door. It hasn’t been used since COVID started and J wanted to check it was OK and took me along too, which was good as (aside giving me a break from dull), it shows that he’s planning on having me around for the foreseeable future, although I’m still technically freelance and employed on a day-to-day basis.

***

I’m not sure whether to continue reading We Need to Talk About Kevin. I’m not quite a third of the way through. I knew it would be dark; it’s narrated by the mother of a school shooter. But it’s also written with a lot of metaphor and simile. It’s made me feel self-conscious about how little I use metaphorical language in my writing. My Dad says I “don’t waste a word,” which I guess is the positive way of looking at it. The language and the subject matter combined are making it very heavy-going, even if I can see that it’s objectively well-written and more daring than most novels that deal with tired tropes. “School shooters and the mothers who couldn’t love them even as babies” isn’t exactly up there with “Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl again” in the familiar plot stakes. It’s also hard to see where this is going. On page 130 Kevin is still a baby, but we know what he’s going to do, and that his mother doesn’t think he has any reason for doing it other than nihilistic rage at the universe, so I’m wondering what reading the next 345 pages will add.

The other thing is that reading Eva Khatchadourian’s second thoughts about having children is raising currently unanswerable questions about having children myself. E and I both want to have children, but we worry that it won’t be possible, or at least not responsible. We’re two people with the combined salary of about one well-off person, so it’s going to be hard to live together (probably impossible without parental assistance, which is uncomfortable to acknowledge) even without having extra mouths to feed. We each come with a shedload of pre-existing “issues” of our own as well as almost permanent fatigue for reasons we don’t really understand — again, not a great situation to mix in a baby or a toddler (or teenager). The sad thing is, we would both probably make good parents if we can only find a way through all of this before the biological clock chimes.

***

I finished the first season of The Twilight Zone. It was pretty good, although I was surprised by how many comedy episodes there were, most of which weren’t that funny. I preferred the eerie stories to the more overtly science fictional, which surprises me a little. I think I like ghost stories, but have mostly avoided them until now from a dislike to sudden shocks and gore, which are really more horror than ghost stories.

I think my favourite episodes were The Hitch-Hiker (about a woman haunted by a hitch-hiker who always appears ahead of her) and Mirror Image (about a woman encountering her double at a bus station). Judgment Night and Third from the Sun were also very good.

It turned out cheaper to buy the box set of seasons one to five new than to buy seasons two to five second-hand, even taking into account that I had bought season one already, so I’ll probably be staying in The Twilight Zone for a while, especially as the episodes are short so I can fit one in alongside an episode of Doctor Who with E and still not watch too much more than an hour of TV.

Books, Sacred and Secular

I wrote a draft query letter for an agent about my novel. The process was pretty terrifying. I asked E for some advice as writing a query letter seems to be a very different skill to actually writing a novel, more like marketing and (self-)promotion than creative writing. I feel a bit like I’m writing a job application, and those have not always gone well for me, although I feel more confident submitting sample chapters than having an interview. E suggested a few changes and additions, which I hope to add later in the week, as I’m pretty exhausted now (see below).

I also made a couple of very small changes to my manuscript, rewriting a few of mentions of real-world things that could get me into copyright/product placement trouble of one kind or another.

That all took about an hour and a half, including some procrastination time. This was unfortunate, as today was another slow day with lack of energy and low mood, particularly on waking. I hope I am not drifting back into burnout or depression, although there’s really no way to tell at this stage. I went for a walk, but it left me more drained than reinvigorated. To be honest, I was more invigorated by spending an hour working on my (rather long) devar Torah (Torah thought) for the week, which was longer than I really predicted or intended. It’s on a topic that fascinates me, but which hardly ever gets asked in the frum (religious Jewish) world, namely, why was it so hard to stop the Israelites worshipping other gods?

I also read another chapter of the biblical book of Nehemiah; I have an idea why so many of the chapters of this book and that of Ezra are just long lists of names, but they are frustrating to read. I think people who haven’t read Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) assume it’s all like that, but mostly it isn’t, it’s mainly Bereshit (Genesis) and the last few books that are full of name-lists. Somehow takes longer to read the name-lists than ordinary narrative too, which seems counter-intuitive; I suspect my brain takes longer to process unfamiliar words like names, particularly as relatively few names in Tanakh are ever repeated. Apparently the idea of naming a child after an ancestor hadn’t taken root at that stage.

Odd Thoughts of an Odd Fellow

I didn’t have a great day today. I overslept, although I rushed and wasn’t particularly late for work. At work I made mistakes, or had mistakes from last week pointed out to me. Work was dull and I was glad that I don’t have to work full 9am – 5pm days in this job. I do about 9.15am – 3.45pm, and I wonder how I would cope if I had to do full days. I drank a lot of caffeine to keep going, although, perhaps worryingly, I’m not sure it was that much more than usual: three coffees, a few teas and some coke zero that J had leftover from his lunchtime meeting. I don’t normally drink fizzy drinks during the week, but I felt I needed something to try to lift my mood a little.

***

It’s weird that I am reluctant to call myself a writer. I’ve written a self-published non-fiction book, an as-yet-unpublished novel, about thirteen years’ worth of blog posts (which I conservatively estimate at around three million words, probably rather more), a few short stories, a bunch of poems and various reviews and articles (not to mention divrei Torah). Yet I feel that because I haven’t been paid more than a few pounds (£25 for an article and probably about £50 in book sales, mostly to people I know in real life) that I’m not “really” a writer.

***

I thought today that I’m impossible to satisfy. I find secular Western society too individualistic, but frum (religious Jewish) society stiflingly conformist. Is there a middle ground? In the Talmud, Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am just for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” (Avot 1.15) It’s surprisingly hard to put into practice.

***

I watched a mostly humorous episode of The Twilight Zone yesterday. Mr Bevis is, according to the narration, an “oddball” (he may be on the spectrum, but let’s not go there). He dresses a bit like Matt Smith as the Doctor, with a bow tie and jacket. He likes weird things like zither music, crafting model ships, driving a clapped-out thirty year old car, correcting other people’s grammar, and stuffed animals (I couldn’t work out if this meant soft toys or dead animals stuffed by taxidermists. I think the latter). He likes to play with children, but not in a creepy way, because this is 1960. He also has a racist clock, but we’ll set that aside for now.

Mr Bevis loses his job, and indeed has failed to stay in any job for more than six months since he was demobbed at the end of World War II. Not only did he lose his job, he also lost his apartment and his car on the same day. Fortunately, his guardian angel intervened to rectify this — but at a cost of making Mr Bevis lose all his personality quirks and special interests. Because this is television, Mr Bevis decides that he would rather be himself and unemployed, homeless and motor-less, than be someone else with a job, apartment and car.

I thought that this was relevant to me. I also like odd things, or things that other people seem to think are odd, or at least things that don’t fit together properly. Lots of people like Bible study, old TV science fiction or glam rock, but not usually all of them at the same time. But they matter to me. And maybe that’s OK, even if I don’t have a guardian angel.

(I also couldn’t work out why Mr Bevis is trying to get office work he’s clearly unsuited for when he should be a primary school teacher – likes children, corrects grammar, good at crafts. And this is the sixties, so he won’t be forced to do endless paperwork and continual assessment. He really needs to see a good careers advisor.)

“It’s a lot like playing the violin/You cannot start off to be Yehudi Menuhin”

I guess I’m having a day when I feel overwhelmed by the world and unable to cope. I’ve got a lot to do, although realistically not much of it needs to be done today, but I still feel overwhelmed.

I woke up very late feeling depressed again, or pseudo-depressed, as I’m not “supposed” to be clinically depressed at the moment. I wasn’t sure whether to be glad I don’t have work today (J wanted me to come in tomorrow instead of today) or if I would have felt better if I’d had to force myself to go into work, which would at least have provided distraction. I think a lot of it is nervousness about submitting my manuscript, and also about getting through a pile of other chores I need to do.

Strangely, I think positive changes can make me depressed. Change is scary for anyone, doubly so on the spectrum, so even things like finishing my novel can trigger depression. It’s even possible that E’s plans to come to the UK in October (the “exciting thing” I hinted at last week) could push me downwards in the short-term, even though I’m very excited about it. It’s just that anything out of the ordinary can be difficult for me.

I looked at some websites I’d been recommended to see which ones would help with looking for a literary agent. It seems particularly scary. I do actually know which agent I would like to submit my novel to first, but one site suggested sending submissions to ten to twenty agents at a time! That is, frankly, terrifying. Just the thought of contacting twenty strangers in one go, even without them judging my writing! It said I should also find similar novels to compare mine to in my cover letter, but I’m not sure that there are any, depending on how you define what my novel is “about,” and I’m not really sure how to find them. Also “Read my novel because it’s a bit like another novel” seems really shallow to me, although I can see why an agent might be more willing to look at “A book that’s a twenty-first century Chaim Potok novel, that would appeal to people who watched Unorthodox and Shtisel” than some random novel that turned up in their inbox unannounced. I do think my tendency to read eclectically and not particularly modern books, will probably hamper me here, as I’m not sure what parallels to draw. The Chaim Potok parallel is probably stronger than anything more recent (Potok died in 2002). My novel is definitely closer in style to Potok than Unorthodox.

The problem is compounded by my novel being thematically rich/unfocused (depending how generous you want to be), inasmuch as it has themes of Jewish identity, autistic identity and domestic abuse. I’m not sure how to promote all angles (anyone who knows books about domestic abuse in particular would be a help here!).

I did manage a few tasks: went for a walk, did a few minutes of Talmud study (reviewing material from Saturday’s class) and cooked dinner (and ate with my parents, so peopling). I did some online clothes shopping too. So I guess that was all good. On the other hand, I can’t face doing substantial Torah study or going to depression group online or really doing anything this evening other than watching TV, so things seem a bit negative.

The Nightmare

I feel bad today, what I would term “depressed” if it continued for a period of days. At the moment I’m just thinking/hoping it’s a one-off bad day, perhaps a result of a somewhat negative Shabbat. I have felt a bit overstretched recently, particularly at work, even though I’m not really doing that much. I feel like the famous Fuseli picture of The Nightmare, with the horrible imp thing squatting on the woman’s chest. I feel as if there’s something heavy sitting on my shoulders, and I have the old feeling that someone replaced my brain with cotton wool while I was sleeping. I hope this isn’t the start of another episode of depression.

My parents went to a lechaim (drinks) for the son of friends who just got engaged. He’s about ten years younger than me. I’m glad I have E so I won’t fixate on this as I would have in the past.

Because of all of this, I’ve postponed reducing my olanzapine for a few days, just in case.

E is being supportive, but it’s hard for us to be so far apart when one or other of us has our periodic ‘downs.’ It makes me worry how we would cope if we had children to deal with too, or how we are going to get to a work/financial situation where we can afford to have children when neither of us can work full-time. I wish we could just have a chill out day together, although I’m very bad at chilling out. Even today, feeling bad, I spent an hour on Torah study, half an hour sorting out bank statements and emails and went for a run. The run was, perhaps unsurprisingly, not very good, with poor stamina and a lot of walking, but at least I was running for the first time in month (thanks to family get-togethers and Jewish fasts, as well as bad weather).

I spoke to E in the evening. I had a bit of an exercise headache and she was really tired, but we had an interesting and fun chat regardless and my mood was rather better afterwards, which is very positive.

***

Why do I fixate on antisemitism when I feel depressed? I don’t know, but I have done so for years. I still can’t get over the fact that “#HitlerWasRight” was trending on Twitter earlier this year, during the conflict between Israel and Hamas. I assume it’s defended as, “Not antisemitic, just critical of Israel,” which is how antisemitism is usually normalised these days. How is supporting the Holocaust not antisemitic? Or the convoy of cars that toured Jewish parts of London with the drivers shouting “Fuck the Jews and rape their daughters!”

I suppose that I feel that I should be able to “fix” things somehow, but, of course, I can’t. It’s pointless to complain. The people who need to hear it won’t listen.

***

I’m reading We Need to Talk About Kevin, which probably isn’t the best thing to be reading right now, in terms of being down, as it’s about a high school shooter, told from the point of view of his mother. It’s well-written and involving, but also dark and heavy. Although the thing I’ve really noticed is how many metaphors and similes author Lionel Shriver uses. I hardly use any in my writing, I know, something which I put down to somewhat autistic language use. I also don’t write long descriptions. My Dad said the other day that I don’t waste a word in my writing, which is the positive way of looking at it, although I’m vaguely worried about publishers equating interesting metaphors with good writing, even in prose.

***

Otherwise I guess things are OK. I’m not into the Olympics, but my parents have been fascinated by dressage, BMX biking and skateboarding; I joked that Dad should take up the latter. I didn’t even know that skateboarding is a sport, let alone that it is Olympic-standard.

The Purpose of Life

Today was not really a good day. I did remember, belatedly, the advice not to give a label which contains a narrative to something abstract, because it creates the thing it describes. In other words, a bad day is just a series of events until you label them “A Bad Day.” You can’t point to a “Bad Day” and see an object sitting there, rather you conceptualise it as a bad day. Still, a lot of stuff seemed to go wrong.

I thought I overslept. I hadn’t, but it meant I felt that I was on the back foot from the start of the day. I woke up out of what was probably on some level an anxiety dream about my shul (synagogue) and possibly about what would happen if I wanted to get married there (although the actual dream was about someone stealing the rabbi’s hat).

Much of the day at work was just boring, sorting through my predecessor’s emails and deleting those which are spammy or trivial. J told me that I had been consistently doing one task wrong, forgetting to record details on spreadsheets. I was recording on one or two, but there were another two to complete. There are so many spreadsheets in this job! It is hard to remember all of them even without autistic multitasking issues. Then I went to the bank, got a quarter of the way there and realised I’d filled in the paying-in slip wrongly as J had given me another cheque after I’d filled it in and I’d changed the spreadsheet, but not the physical slip (multitasking and spreadsheets again). I thought I would correct it in the bank and carried on, but when I got halfway there I realised they have taken all the pens away because of COVID. So I had to go back to the office and tell J what happened, correct the slip and then go out again. I felt like an idiot.

After that, the day went into terminal decline. J wanted some papers that I’d given him and wouldn’t believe that he didn’t already have them. Then he needed some other papers and I couldn’t find them. Eventually we discovered I’d filed them in the wrong folder. Then I photocopied them instead of scanning them, then scanned them as one document instead of two. Then it was leaving time, but I realised I’d forgotten to give J my invoice for July and I’d forgotten that he wants me to work on Tuesday next week instead of Monday (although at least I found out now and not on Monday).

***

Good things-wise, I wrote to my writer friend the other day about tips for finding an agent and she sent me some resources (and a warning to beware of fraudulent agents, which apparently are A Thing). That said, I think my first stop will be one agent E suggested who works with literary fiction, science fiction and fantasy with Jewish themes, so who might be sympathetic both to my desire to write specifically Jewish books and my desire to write literary fiction as well as science fiction and fantasy novels. I had been concerned an agent might want to force me down one path or the other.

The other good thing today was talking to E and hearing some good news, which I will not mention now as it’s still very up in the air. (Before you get too excited, no, we’re not engaged.)

Things did get better and I feel vaguely embarrassed about getting so upset about my work mishaps. I guess it shows that there isn’t such a thing as a Bad Day, merely a narrative about certain incidents in close temporal proximity to each other.

***

I’ve been thinking a lot today about The Black Iron Prison, Philip K. Dick’s gnostic/psychotic (in the literal, psychiatric sense) vision of the world and its politics as supernatural dungeon. And I was going to write about it, but after speaking to my parents and E I recovered from having a bad day and decided I didn’t want to write a melodramatic political post, so The Black Iron Prison will have to wait for another day when I’m feeling down and grumpy.

***

Reading an old blog post elsewhere on the internet, I came across this quote about Rabbi Chaim of Volozyn, nineteenth century Talmud scholar and mystic and founder of the first modern yeshiva (rabbinical seminary). The quote is from his son, Rabbi Itzele Volozyner: “He would routinely rebuke me because he saw that I do not share in the pain of others. This is what he would constantly tell me: that the entire person was not created for himself, but to be of assistance to others, whatever he finds to be in his ability to do.”

This is interesting because, more than almost anyone else (except his teacher, the Vilna Gaon), Reb Chaim embodies the attitude of total focus on Talmudic study as the primary religious practice (or primary practice full stop) of the religious Jewish man. Yet here the focus is on being good to others, in whatever way you can, or even just empathising with them. I suppose it makes me feel that my Jewish life can be worthwhile even if I am bad at Talmud study, if I can help others somehow. Admittedly I’m not great at helping others either, but it’s more achievable, and I do hope that writing and even blogging (and commenting on other people’s blogs) can help.

Normalising Religious Struggle

Yesterday and today I listened to an episode of the Normal Frum Women podcast on Normalizing Religious Struggle. I thought it was a brave episode for opening up the whole idea of religious struggle, whereas usually in the Orthodox world people suppress any religious struggles they are having and don’t talk about them with others.

I did find it interesting that the podcast focused mainly on halakhic and sociological struggles, that is, practical struggles rooted in Jewish law or the Jewish community, rather than theological struggle. Maybe it’s because I’ve had a lot of theological struggles over the years (a while back I listed about a dozen different potential philosophical or textual arguments against God and Judaism, and I’ve wrestled with most of them in my time) or maybe it’s because when I joined the blogosphere around 2005/2006, there was a lot of fierce discussion of theological challenges, particularly evolutionary science (the fallout from the Slifkin Affair[1] was still, well, falling out) and Biblical Criticism (Higher Criticism; Lower Criticism didn’t seem to bother people as much).

Either way, it did make me wonder if people were too scared to voice doubts about the existence of God or the divine origin of the Torah in public or if people simply care more about a practical issue (how women should dress or how to clean vegetables of insects) than anything more abstract. Certainly the “how should women dress?” issue is probably on some level a proxy for deeper, and perhaps partially philosophical, discontent about women’s role in the Orthodox world. This was actually voiced by one woman on the podcast, a lawyer, who felt more respected for her intelligence and professionalism in her non-Jewish workplace than in the Orthodox community.

Despite this, it was a very brave topic to broach, so I thought I would talk about some of my own struggles.

My big halakhic struggle was around 2016-17 (I think… to be honest, that period of my life is a mess of anxiety and despair when I look back it). At this time, my religious OCD was at its height and the whole issue of kashrut, the dietary laws, particularly regarding separating dairy and meat, and the special Pesach (Passover) dietary laws became almost unmanageable to me in the volume and intensity of anxiety they threw at me. It wasn’t until I did exposure therapy that I began to realise that most of the conflicts were imaginary, inasmuch as the halakhic (Jewish law) issues I saw simply weren’t there. Until then, I was consumed almost constantly with anxiety that we (my parents and I) had treifed up (made religiously inedible) our kitchen. I asked almost daily questions of rabbis and the London Bet Din Kashrut Division question service (which was probably not intended to be used that way). Almost everything was OK, but I was terrified of having done the wrong thing, particularly with regard to Pesach (where, to be fair, we had done some things wrong in the past).

I felt that God would punish me for doing wrong, but I was also terrified of having some major fall-out with my parents where I wouldn’t eat in their home. The fear of argument with my parents is telling, as it seems likely that the OCD was largely triggered by our moving house when I didn’t want to move, as well as the fact that I was conscious of still living with my parents in my thirties due to my history mental of illness. (I did in fact move out at one point to try to get things under control.) The OCD made my already existent depression worse and for a while I was deeply depressed and struggling to have any kind of joy in my religious life (or any other aspect of my life, for that matter) and I viewed kashrut and Pesach with a mixture of dread and anger. For a while I became very angry and resentful of God and the calmer religious lives other people seemed to lead. Fortunately, I’m a lot better these days, although I have to be vigilant against falling back into bad habits of checking and questioning; even this week I’ve felt myself slipping slightly and needing to be strong.

My main problem nowadays is sociological rather than halakhic. I still struggle desperately to fit in to an Orthodox world that seems geared up for neurotypical, confident, healthy married couples, not an autistic, socially anxious and sometimes depressed older unmarried person. I would of course suffer in any neurotypical social environment, but the Orthodox world has a lot of specific stressors, from an approach to prayer and religious study that is often louder and more vocal than in other religions to a culture of intricate ritual even in interpersonal interactions. This is compounded by consciousness of being a ba’al teshuva (someone not raised religious who became religious later in life) and my regret at not having gone to yeshiva (rabbinical seminary), even though I doubt I would have been happy there.

Related to the last point is my consciousness of not being able to study Talmudic texts independently or even really to keep up in group discussion, even when I prepare in advance (which I do at least try to do). I do feel like there is something lacking almost in my masculinity, in Jewish terms, from my not being able to study Talmud, something which is only compounded by my failure (so far) to marry and procreate. The fact that I am (I think) reasonably good at understanding aggadic (non-legal) Jewish religious texts is a strange kind of consolation prize, as this skill is not rated highly in the Orthodox community, particularly among men. I used to be able to daven from the amud (lead services), but since moving communities, my social anxiety has kicked in there too and I try to avoid it, so that’s another area where I could have felt that I was fitting in, but don’t and instead seem passive and ‘useless’ (by the community’s standards).

The reality I have come to lately is that my problems are as much due to my faulty autistic brain wiring than the community itself. I struggled to feel accepted in online Doctor Who fandom too, a much more open and less rule-bound environment, so maybe it is too much to ask to feel accepted in the Orthodox Jewish world. As with my religious OCD, my fears are probably more imagined than real. I don’t know how other people at my shul (synagogue) view me, but lately I’ve become more open to the idea that they don’t hate me and think I’m an idiot, which I guess is progress.

A side-light on this comes from Yeshiva Days: Learning on the Lower East Side, Jonathan Boyarin’s ethnographic study of yeshiva study (“learning”) in a New York yeshiva, which I’ve been reading the last few days. Part of the interest for me is the way Boyarin negotiates his situation being, on the one hand, an ethnographer doing a study project and, on the other, being a Jew wanting to study Torah for its own sake (albeit by his own admission a Jew less Orthodox and strictly observant than the other people he meets at the yeshiva). It’s a kind of hokey cokey of being an insider and an outsider successively or even at the same time. I find it interesting that I understand and relate to my own community better through the eyes of ethnographers like Boyarin or Sarah Bunin Benor (Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language and Culture of Orthodox Judaism) than I do in person. Maybe that’s the autism/Asperger’s again.

Ultimately, as the podcast stated, Judaism is ultimately a relationship, involving trade-offs and compromises. I’ve never got to the point with Judaism where I’ve walked out — not a trial separation and certainly not a divorce. I suppose that must count for something. Past theological issues notwithstanding, I think I have a deep level of faith in God and Torah that transcends any particular doubts or social awkwardness. The thought of not being Jewish in an Orthodox sense seems barely imaginable, even as I acknowledge that the vast majority of Jews, let alone non-Jews, are happy with living their lives that way. This is my identity in a very deep-seated and secure way, even if I can’t articulate it to others. In some ways, the inarticulacy is the proof of how embedded it is in my psyche; it’s deeper than words.

I feel uncomfortable with much of the discussion around intersectionality, but I feel that the last five months, since my autism/Asperger’s diagnosis, have led me to a re-examination of the “intersection” of my Jewish and autistic identities and a sense that, even if my behaviour and socialisation doesn’t meet the required standards of the community, it is at least the best I could do. Perhaps a better, if darker, image than ‘intersectionality’ is drawn from Kafka’s unfinished novel The Castle, which he said would end with the main character, K, being told on his deathbed, that his legal claim to live in the village was not recognised, yet he was permitted to live and work there, an image that combines acceptance and isolation at once.

[1] Rabbi Nosson Slifkin, as he then was, wrote three books on Torah/science controversies, including, but not limited to, creationism and apparent scientific errors in the Talmud. He only quoted accepted mainstream rabbinical sources. He largely accepted modern science and reinterpreted problematic statements in the Torah as metaphorical, and saw those in the Talmud as simply errors coming from the rabbis relying on the science of day rather than being based on a religious tradition that had to be accepted as revelation. This approach is based on major Jewish thinkers like Rambam (Moses Maimonides) and Rabbi S. R. Hirsch and initially gained cautious acceptance even in parts of the Haredi world (ultra-Orthodox), but eventually the books were banned by a number of prominent Haredi rabbis, causing a huge ruckus about both science and Torah and about the limits of rabbinic power that still thunders on in parts of the internet. In the early days of the Jewish blogosphere, where someone stood on the Slifkin controversy became an indicator of how Haredi or ‘modern’ they were.

***

As for today, the morning was taken up with volunteering for the food bank. We were short-staffed again (I guess some of the younger people are still leading summer camps and maybe others are on holiday), so I was glad I went. It was cooler this week and I didn’t get a migraine. I did have to shleppe a lot of stuff, especially as we didn’t seem to have the trolleys we usually use. The afternoon was mostly taken with writing this post, which may not have been the most productive use of my time, but helped me unwind a bit. I also spent an hour or so writing a glossary for the (nearly 100) Hebrew and Yiddish words and phrases used in my novel. I’m not sure how consistent and thorough I was. It’s really intended as a quick reference and not a detailed philological guide! Also, the word ‘Yiddishkeit‘ is really hard to define. But this means that my novel is pretty much ready to go out into the world and try to find an agent and a publisher!

I watched another episode of The Blue Planet and was struck by the penguins: ungainly and even comical on land; graceful and elegant in the water. There is probably a lesson in there about fitting in to your environment, although I’m not sure how it applies to me and shul.

Writing from the Margins

I felt mildly down late last night. I’m not sure why, possibly because I wanted to waste a few minutes on Jewish websites, and they all seem full at the moment with two things: My Unorthodox Life (reality TV series about a formerly religious, now very not religious, woman) and Ben and Jerry’s boycotting the West Bank. It annoys me that I’m supposed to care about either of these things just because I’m Jewish. I’m not responsible for every Jew who stops being religious (or stays being non-religious) and I’m not responsible for the actions of the Israeli government or other people responding to the Israeli government, but somehow there is a sense that I should be, and that if I can’t do anything else, I should at least be OUTRAGED.

There is even a Talmudic term for this: kol Yisrael averim ze ba’ze: all Israel are responsible for one another. That really means that Jews should look after each other, and can pray on behalf of one another; I don’t think the rabbis of the Talmud meant that every time you see someone criticising Judaism or Israel on Twitter you need to be OUTRAGED in case someone believes them and thinks Jewish life is imperfect.

The problem is, on some level I do feel responsible. Perhaps it’s just me, or perhaps it’s Judaism’s self-critical culture. Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, is a relentlessly self-critical work (this became a problem when non-Jews got hold of it) and Jewish media outlets are hugely self-critical. Part of me feels I should do something, not about these specific things, but when Jews are outraged about something that is worth being outraged about. But, as I’ve said before, I don’t want to write polemic.

Twitter is probably also responsible, shortening every serious debate to a few hundred characters and encouraging instant response instead of reflection. Whoever even pauses to make a cup of tea before hitting “reply,” let alone waits to sleep on a matter. By the time you’ve slept on something, Twitter will have moved on to being OUTRAGED about something else. E thinks that, if I get a publisher, they may make me go on Twitter, a thought which terrifies me, because I don’t know how to avoid getting sucked in to the OUTRAGE. There is also the time-wasting aspect too. No wonder journalists seem to find all their stories on Twitter these days; they simply aren’t out in the real world any more (this was obviously worse when Donald Trump was President and American government policy was actually being made on the fly on Twitter, but it’s still pretty bad).

What do I want to do, then? I want to write, not polemic, but description. It is hard, as I am probably a better observer of negatives than positives, which makes my writing seem opposed to the things I write about, which are actually the things I care about.

Writing about Rudyard Kipling (in the essay of the same name), George Orwell says that Kipling was able to write about British India because he existed on the fringes of Imperial society, “just coarse enough to be able to exist and keep his mouth shut in clubs and regimental messes.” Kipling’s unusual position on the boundary of two very different worlds, “coarse enough” to mix with soldiers and Imperial administrators, but highbrow enough to write well, gave him a unique position to write about British Imperial life, something that no true soldier or administrator would have done, but which no other writer of the period would have the experience or desire to do and which, Orwell argues, is pretty much unique in nineteenth and early twentieth century Britain.

I feel that if I have any future as a writer, it is on the fringe of the Orthodox world, trying at least to produce a real record of it for posterity, and perhaps for those among the non-Jewish (or non-frum) world who are willing to listen. Not to do kiruv (proselytise among non-religious Jews) or hasbarah (make pro-Israel arguments), but simply to describe.

Interestingly, Orwell says of Kipling that he “he did not greatly resemble the people he admired.” I think this is true of me as well. I don’t greatly resemble the Kotzker Rebbe or Rebbe Nachman, but then neither do I really resemble my secular literary heroes, Kafka, Borges, Philip K. Dick and Orwell himself.

***

Other than writing this, today wasn’t great. I slept too long again. I rushed to get dressed in five minutes so that I would be just barely able to daven a bit of Shacharit (say a bit of Morning Prayers). I was glad I rushed, as I really still felt tired and didn’t want to do it. I cooked dinner (vegetarian chilli), went for a walk and drafted my devar Torah for the week, and I Skyped E, but I didn’t manage much else. I wanted to read more of Yeshiva Days and start to write the Hebrew/Yiddish glossary for my novel, but I didn’t manage to do either.

I feel a bit stressed at the moment and I can’t work out why. I’m frustrated that E can’t visit and I’m nervous about trying to find an agent for my novel, but neither of those seems big enough to cause much stress. Maybe I’m underestimating them or perhaps I just need a break. There’s no volunteering for the first two weeks of August and J is away the second two weeks, so I may get some kind of break. I’d rather save work holiday for when E comes, but I’m not sure how much of my job I can actually do without J being around, so I may have to take the time off.

***

I’ve nearly finished The Master and Margarita. I just have the epilogue left. It got better, but I still feel I didn’t really “get” it. I am not engaged enough to want to read the enormous, thirty page “About the Author” section. I think my favourite novel about black magic in the Soviet Union is still Monday Starts on Saturday by the Strugatsky brothers (imagine Terry Pratchett’s Unseen University in the USSR).

My Name is Luftmentsch

Today was mostly dull, except for a time-consuming bit that made me realise my family history may be even murkier than I thought. That story also involves the awful way mental illness was treated by society in the not-too-distant past (things now are often also bad, but we tend to be somewhat more wary of institutionalising people for decades and just forgetting about them). I don’t really want to go into that story at this juncture, though. Otherwise it involved sitting in a car for about three hours in total, which is something I don’t like much at the moment, and losing work because of misunderstanding what I was cancelling. I am pretty tired now and didn’t do a lot of the things I wanted to do. What I did do was Skype E, which was good.

***

My non-Jewish readers will have been spared the many, many, many articles on Jewish social media and websites this week talking about My Unorthodox Life. I haven’t seen the programme. E told me that it was like The Kardashians, but with formerly-religious-but-now-very-not-religious Jews. I’m only vaguely aware of who the Kardashians are, but I have no real desire to find out more. I didn’t really intend to write about this, not least because writing about what you hate is a surefire way to tell people to watch/read it (Ayatollah Khomeni boosted The Satanic Verses‘ sales more than the publisher’s PR department did) and mostly because the discussion is really repetitive and tedious. However, this article is somewhat wider-ranging than most, looking beyond specific TV programmes or specific laws and attitudes to compare individualist-secular Western society with communitarian-religious Orthodox society, which is something I’ve often touched on here.

The author’s conclusion is similar to the one I have come to after years of feeling on the fringes of both societies: the strengths of each society are also its weaknesses. Orthodox society has a massive social support network that left-wing political parties can only dream of, but it functions by ensuring members signal their acceptance of the society’s values through a degree of social conformity that the secular West would never accept (Moshe Koppel (Judaism Straight Up) writes about this too). Conversely, the secular West offers more individual choice than any society in human history, but a society of extreme individuals is likely to be dysfunctional and uncaring. Without external communal bonds, many people feel little kinship with the needy and at best delegate their care to the impersonal state, and too many people find themselves socially isolated, free to do whatever they want, but without anyone to do it with or with any way of finding bonds of commonality with whoever they might happen to meet.

I feel a bit like a free-rider on both societies (Koppel talks about that too), not really conforming to either ideal, but trying to find the best of both worlds. I am quite individualistic, or at least idiosyncratic (high-functioning autistic people often are), but also I keep halakhah (Jewish law) and I desperately want to find an Orthodox Jewish community that will accept me for who I am, and which I can accept in return. If not a free rider, then I’m trying to find a Lagrange Point where I can be free to do (a lot of) what I want and still be (reasonably) accepted. That’s a bit of a simplification, as I do want to keep Jewish law, I just struggle to keep the social mores, as well as sometimes following minority opinions, particularly doctrinally.

It’s not really an abstract issue, but a practical one that appears time and time again as I navigate things like Yom Ha’atzma’ut observance, dating, or creationism vs. evolution. Above all, I want the intellectual freedom to write books dealing with Jewish subjects without feeling obliged to “prove” the “correctness” of Orthodoxy, and to be able to deal with difficult, shocking subjects, like pornography addiction in the frum (religious Jewish) community in my most recent writing idea. Although, forget my rabbi, I’m worried enough about my parents finding out about that one.

I guess the parallel for me isn’t My Unorthodox Life, but Chaim Potok’s novel My Name is Asher Lev, about a young Hasidic boy who is driven to be a serious artist in the Western tradition, including painting nudes and crucifixion scenes, and gets rejected by his community as a result (the sequel novel The Gift of Asher Lev sees him somewhat re-accepted into his community).

Creativity in the Frum Community

I went to bed late, unsurprisingly when the fast didn’t go out until after 10pm. I don’t know if it was the heat or the fact that I slept so much during the day or the fast disrupting my body’s natural rhythms or the fact that I hardly did anything all day or all of the above, but I did not sleep. Not one wink! About 4.00am, the neighbourhood dogs started a barking contest and I had to shut all the windows despite the heat (although I never leave my main windows open for fear of burglars). At 4.40am I finally decided that I might as well get up and start the day in the hope that I might get an early night this evening.

This was not the best start to my Hebrew birthday! My Hebrew birthday falls on the nineteenth of July this year. My secular/Gregorian birthday is the twentieth, although we’re really celebrating on Wednesday as I have shiur (religious class) tomorrow evening.

I managed to stay awake at work; coffee was drunk, more than usual. I stayed awake even though the tasks today were very boring: copying and pasting from a spreadsheet to a Word mail merge and deleting old emails from my predecessor. I was glad that in the afternoon I could listen to music again, as the Three Weeks of mourning are over, as I needed help getting through it.

I went home on the Tube today as J isn’t driving to work now lockdown is officially over. I was glad to be able to read on the journey home, which I couldn’t do in the car, and not to have to listen to talk radio. Mask compliance was very bad on the Tube today, unsurprising as there are no signs up saying that masks are actually still mandatory on it.

I shaved my Three Weeks beard off this afternoon, so I no longer look like a bohemian and/or religious extremist. I Skyped E and had dinner with my parents, watched Doctor Who and will shortly go to bed as I feel very tired and ill (headache, nausea).

***

E sent me a link to something on Instagram the other day. I could read the post, but not the comments, as I’m not on Instagram. It said something I’ve thought for a long time, that rather than complain about the misrepresentation of Orthodox Jews in the media (I mean in fiction here (novels, TV, films), not the news media, which is a whole other problem), the Orthodox community should produce writers, directors, producers and so on who can create stories of their own set in the frum (religious) world — but that these stories should be real i.e. show the frum world in its complexity and with its faults, not just the positives in “soft focus.” E said the comments showed a lot of support for this.

As I say, I’ve thought this for years, and I’ve thought it long enough and hard enough to try to become one of those writers (we’ll see how that goes…). I worry whether the Orthodox world puts enough value on fiction and creativity generally for a whole wave of Orthodox creators to take off. There has been some movement in this direction, but there’s a long way still to go.

I do feel that I want to move on with my novel. I feel I’ve done as much as I can do to it without outside help from an editor. I do really just want to get it published so I can see if writing for a living, or at least a meaningful addition to my income, is going to work. This then ties into wanting to earn more money so I can marry E (partly to pull my weight in the household, but also because immigration is going to be really hard on our combined income level).

I think I also finally feel in a state of ‘flow’ first time in a long time, perhaps in my whole life. Writing is hard work, but I feel that I’m thinking of ideas and finding the words to say them. Dating long-distance is hard, but our Skype dates and texts flow very naturally. Things feel “right” at the moment in a way that I’m not used to.

Carry That Weight

I went to bed ridiculously late last night. I’m not sure why; I don’t really have an excuse except bad time management and the fact that I generally prefer to go to bed late and get up late unless I have a good external reason not to do so. Still, I felt shockingly drained and burnt out when I woke up today, low mood and zero energy, and I’m not really sure why. I didn’t think I did that much yesterday, but maybe I did, or maybe I’ve just been pushing myself too hard cumulatively lately, to try to finish the latest draft of my novel so that E can read it and so that I can start looking for an agent and a publisher; trying to keep up with my shiurim (religious classes) and divrei Torah (Torah thoughts) as well as prayer and other Torah study; trying to exercise (which has almost dropped off the radar totally), to help around the house a bit and so on.

I listened to music to try to lift my mood a little and get energy. I feel bad about doing that in the Three Weeks of mourning when religious Jews are not supposed to listen to music. I know my rabbi mentor said it was OK, but part of me at least feels too functional to take advantage of that, and I have a lot of uncertainty about whether what I feel is “really” autistic burnout or what. Autistic burnout is a poorly-understood phenomenon, only recognised as a real thing by the psychiatric world about five years ago. But what I really want is to shave my itchy Three Weeks beard off, which is driving me crazy. But I will wait until Monday afternoon for that, as I’m supposed to.

E is really supportive, but we both feel frustrated about being on different continents and not knowing when that will end.

After lunch, I felt a little better. I drafted my devar Torah. It ended up not being what I intended, as the introduction grew too long and became the bulk of the piece, with an also longer-than-intended unrelated Tisha B’Av thought at the end. In fact, the whole thing took longer to write than I’d hoped, about an hour and a half. I spent half an hour or more working on my novel too, which wasn’t much, but I was reasonably pleased with what I had done. I Skyped E in the evening too, so it ended up being a better day than I expected when I woke up. I do usually manage to get to a point where I can do some things regardless of how tired/depressed/burnt out/whatever you want to call it that I feel when I wake up, I just wish I could move that point earlier in the day.

King David’s Anxious, Depressed Army

Today was a slowish day. I tried to recover a bit from the last week or so, which suddenly seemed very stressful and overwhelming, even though there was no obvious cause. I cooked dinner (vegetable curry), worked on my novel for an hour, went for a half-hour walk and went to online shiur (religious class). That was probably still doing a lot, but I feel a little better, although I’m still not going to volunteering tomorrow as I feel I need to rest a bit more. It’s too late to change my mind anyway, as they need to know who is coming in advance for security reasons.

The work on my novel was particularly frustrating as I changed a lengthy section into the present tense in the hope it would make it more immediate, but ended up changing it back to the past tense as I was worried it was off-putting and confusing. But I guess sometimes you get days like that, and at least I’m prepared to countenance radical rewrites if necessary.

While I was walking I started listening to a Normal Frum Women podcast* about ba’alei teshuva (Jews raised non-religious who became religious later in life). I haven’t heard the second half of the podcast yet, but there was some talk about the difficulties of navigating frum (religious) social settings where people can work out your religious, or non-religious, background by asking about what school you went to, what summer camp you went to (or youth movement in the UK) or which other Jews you know. I am familiar with these feelings. I did actually go to Jewish schools, but the secondary school I went to is not particularly religious (which I know sounds bizarre from an American point of view, but our religious school system is very different to theirs) and certainly I avoided the usual Jewish youth movements.

I feel that as a person on the autism spectrum, I have an additional problems with this even for the period after I became religious. I don’t know so many people in the communities that I have lived in or at school or university because I tend not to socialise so much or even talk to people. I know J has tried to play “Jewish Geography” with me, asking about people I might know from school or the community I grew up in, and usually I only knew those people as people I would recognise in the street, not people I talked to at all, and sometimes I don’t know them at all.

I also feel that religious life is supposed to go in life stages, or at least it does for most people: childhood, yeshiva/seminary, marriage, parenthood, grandparenthood and, increasingly, great-grandparenthood. Somehow I missed a number of those stages that I should have reached by now. If being a ba’al teshuva means not having the same childhood or yeshiva experiences, being on the spectrum means that I haven’t married or become a parent yet, even though I’m nearly thirty-eight. I do feel that I don’t fully fit into my shul community because of this. I tend not to go to communal social events because I feel out of place without a spouse and children at events that tend to be geared around families rather than individuals; I’ve noticed the small number of other “older singles” (I hate that phrase) and divorcees in the community also seem to avoid them too.

Incidentally, there isn’t really any communal support for high functioning autism in the Anglo-Jewish community, so far as I can tell. If you’re independently functional, you’re really left to find your own way in the community, difficult though it is to do that when you don’t have a brain built to handle interpersonal communication and relationships easily. Dating is an issue for me and doubtless for others, but also feeling that it’s OK not to want to marry and have children is not something that is really allowed for those who don’t want to go down that route. (There is an obvious halakhic issue in that Orthodox Jewish law requires men (at least) to try to get married and procreate, but I’m not going to address that now.)

I feel there are probably a lot of other people in a similar situation to me, even if they aren’t on the spectrum. I mean people who don’t quite fit into the community, who have missed the lifecycle stages and so on. I would like to reach out to some of them with my writing. I have noticed that the people I tend to connect with best online and often in person are those who are “broken” (I don’t mean this in a bad way — I apply it to myself too). The type of people where society might say that they aren’t quite normal. There’s a line about David (before he became king) that I’ve always found attractive, in 1 Shmuel 22.2 (I Samuel 22.2) about, “They gathered to him, every man who was in distress, every man who had a creditor and every man who was embittered of spirit, and he became their leader; there were about four hundred men with him.” I don’t think David’s band of warriors was literally made up of people with clinical anxiety and depression, but I don’t think it’s too extreme to see it as an army of outcasts. That is what it would have been, it’s just that different things make someone an outcast in the contemporary Jewish community as opposed to the iron age community of David’s era.

A flipside of this that I was also thinking about today is that I tend to idealise the frum community somewhat and assume that only I’m struggling with certain things. It’s easy to think that I’m the only person struggling with (for example) struggling to have kavannah in prayer (kavannah is literally ‘direction,’ is usually translated idiomatically as ‘concentration,’ but is perhaps best translated as ‘mindfulness’) or the only person struggling with understanding passages in the Talmud.

Obviously the more shameful something is, the less it is spoken about, which makes it harder to believe that lots of people struggle with it. It’s only really through listening to the Intimate Judaism podcast that I’ve learnt that lots of Orthodox Jewish teenage boys and men struggle with issues around masturbation and pornography, something that probably should have been obvious to me before (call me naive). Some things are not spoken about, hence my perhaps somewhat perverse desire to write books about these topics. I think fiction has an advantage of addressing a controversial topic at one remove which can be easier than writing non-fiction about it.

*Yes, I know I fail to meet one if not two of the qualifications for this podcast.

Stuck in The Twilight Zone

I feel burnt out today. Really burnt out, not just tired. I did a lot this week (as E reminded me… she’s a good girlfriend that way), possibly too much. I need a “battery life” indicator for my body! And brain, actually, as the burnout is mental as much as physical.

The easiest way to change this is probably to stop volunteering on therapy days, despite the fact that I do get something from volunteering — as much to do with social contact in a “safe” environment, and the satisfaction of seeing a task through to its conclusion as with the actual chessed (kindness) element, although that is there. But it is exhausting on the weeks when I have therapy afterwards in the afternoon. My therapist is away for six weeks, though, and soon after that everything will be disrupted by a month of Yom Tov (Jewish festivals), and by that stage they are hoping to move volunteering to a place that I probably can’t get to easily as I don’t drive, so it’s probably academic now anyway.

Whatever the reason, I got up after noon, missed even the late time for davening Shacharit (praying Morning Prayers), struggled to get dressed and do my pre-Shabbat (Sabbath) chores. I worked on redrafting my novel for about half an hour. I didn’t really have the energy or time to do more than that today. I got through another chapter, but I didn’t change much, and I can’t work out if that’s good or bad. Good that it’s in a reasonable state or bad that it’s not in a good state, but I can’t work out how to change it. I don’t really have much objectivity about it any more.

I did about half an hour of Torah study too, less than I wanted, but I was running out of time before Shabbat (in the summer, Friday night dinner is so late that there isn’t time for Torah study afterwards, especially if I want to try to get up early in the morning for shul (synagogue)). I finished reading Ezra, which isn’t really a whole book. Originally it and Nehemiah formed a single book, but it was divided by Christian publishers. They also split Shmuel (Samuel), Melakhim (Kings) and Divrei HaYamim (Chronicles) in two. I can understand splitting those books, as they’re all very long, but Ezra/Nehemiah together still isn’t particularly long, much shorter than books like Yeshayah (Isaiah) and Yechezkel (Ezekiel). I feel my Tanakh study is a bit cursory when I’m reading without some kind of commentary, so I’m glad the Koren Maggid book on Nehemiah arrived yesterday.

***

I watched more Twilight Zone. I like it, but it suffers from telling stories in twenty-two minutes, to allow for adverts. The stories have a beginning and an end, but not always a middle. In Escape Clause, a narcissistic hypochondriac sells his soul to the Devil in return for eternal life and youth, unless he chooses to die, which he assumes he never will. The Devil, of course, knows that sooner or later he will bore of eternal life and especially the absence of risk, and ask to die. But we don’t see him get bored, we just jump from him signing away his soul to throwing himself under a train to see if it will kill him (it doesn’t). It was a bit jarring. That was the most extreme case, but there are other stories it affected too. (The other problem with Escape Clause, of course, was that censorship in the 50s meant that they couldn’t talk about Hell, which made the decisions seem rather less significant than they should have done.)

(Not) Bad Day

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

Writer’s Thoughts and Religious Styles

I mentioned yesterday that I’ve had the idea for a while that someone should write a novel about pornography addiction in the frum (religious Jewish) community, but that I didn’t think I was the person to do it. Except that the idea has roosted in my head overnight and now I find myself thinking up supporting characters and details, like, “What if he has a feminist teenage daughter who is struggling with Orthodox gender boundaries and her father’s addiction tips her over the edge into stopping being religious?” So I wrote some notes in my ideas notebook to one day come back to when I’m looking for a project. It’s a scary topic to even think about writing about, though, far more so than my thoughts about a Jewish fantasy/time-travel series of novels.

One of the reasons I was always reluctant to go down the route of writing fiction (for publication or for fun) was the fear that I would eventually (and probably quite quickly) run out of inspiration. Related to this was a belief that a “real” writer would intuit a story in its entirety from the start without really needing to work on it. I realise now that ideas are regularly floating through my head ripe for development and in the past I’ve quite deliberately pushed them away for fear of where they would lead, in terms of feeling the need to write them and the potential for failure inherent in that. I also realise that even “real” writers have to work on their stories and sometimes significant things need to be changed quite late in the writing process.

Of course, that doesn’t make writing less scary, particularly when the ideas that find me sometimes seem to have to do with difficult, rarely-discussed subjects like abuse or addiction, but I suppose it’s the “not being discussed” element that makes me want to write them, because I want to read those books, but they don’t exist (yet).

Just to note why this might be important, I just looked on Aish.com, a popular Orthodox Jewish inspirational site, and found five articles on pornography addition in the frum community, three from the point of view of the addict and two from the point of view of the spouse. So, it is out there, whether we want to admit in the frum community or not.

***

I spent nearly an hour working on redrafting my novel (my current one). Initially, I tried to work for an hour as usual, without much success, as I procrastinated online. I switched to intense twenty minute blocs of writing interspersed with online breaks. It seemed to work better that way. I did about fifty-five minutes of work. I would have liked to have made it to a round hour, but I was at a chapter break before a long passage that would take more than five minutes to read and redraft and too tired to keep going beyond that.

Redrafting seems to be going quite quickly. I’m not sure if that’s good or not. It’s good that I don’t seem to need to change much, but maybe I should be changing more and I just can’t see the flaws in my writing because I’ve spent so long working on it (getting on for two years by this stage).

***

I wrote the following in my devar Torah (Torah thought) for this week (for those of you on my mailing list, consider this a sneak preview):

In a lecture entitled Religious Styles,[1] Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik describes Torah transmission as being two-fold.  There is the aspect of learning halakhah, the details of the various Jewish laws.  This can be learnt from any scholar or from a book.  However, there is also the aspect of learning how to develop “a Torah style of living,” to find the unique way that God wants you, and you alone, to live a Torah-based life, and this can only be learnt “by osmosis” from attendance on a personal teacher.  Even then, because style is ultimately unique and individualistic, the real creation of a religious style has to be done alone, through the experience of living a Jewish way of life.  In particular, it is only by developing a unique religious style that one can develop happiness, meaningfulness and satisfaction with Judaism, even ecstasy, and it is these that allow a person to transmit a Jewish way of life to his or her children – who can then develop their own unique style based on what they receive.[2]


[1] In Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Halakhic Morality: Essays on Ethics and Masorah

[2] Rabbi Soloveitchik, Halakhic Morality pp. 196-201

This passage helped me to understand my own feelings about Judaism, the way I feel that I do what is required of me, at least as far as I can, given my “issues,” but somehow feel a lack of something “more.” I think what I lack is the sense of having my own religious style, what Judaism means to me, and the distinctive way I live it. Maybe I’m so allergic to contemporaries who talk about “MY Judaism” (as if there were no objective content to Judaism) that I’ve over-compensated, or maybe I haven’t had a close enough relationship with rabbis and mentors. Certainly for a long time now I have felt that it is this, the close contact with great scholars and righteous people, that I feel that I missed out on by not going to yeshiva (rabbinical seminary), as much as the actual content I would have learnt there. Or maybe I’m a work in progress. Although he doesn’t say it explicitly, Rav Soloveitchik could be read as implying that developing a religious style is a work in progress across a lifetime as personality develops.

I am trying to convince myself that it is OK to have my own unique relationship with Judaism, which sometimes means doing things differently to my community and can mean doing things like writing fiction that aren’t traditionally seen as religious. Including potentially writing about Jewish pornography addicts.

Inappropriate

I was slow to get going again this morning, although not surprised as I did quite a bit yesterday. As I messaged to E, I was probably feeling a little down and looking for a reason to justify feeling like that, as nothing that I felt vaguely upset about was really enough to make me feel down. They were just explanations after the event. I think I was probably just exhausted. I don’t always find it easy to tell the difference between depression and exhaustion (alexithymia), which is something I need to bear in mind in the future.

***

Shiur (religious class) was very good, except that right near the end someone asked a broad question about academic Biblical criticism that was only tangentially related to the topic of the shiur. It took the teacher five minutes to deal with the topic even in a brief way, as it was such a massive question and so unrelated to what she had been talking about, and it ate up the end of the shiur. I was left feeling that I hadn’t really heard or understood her final point, even though what I did process was fascinating and I would have liked to have heard more, or understood better.

Being on the spectrum, I’m not always good at sudden changes of topic and don’t like it when people ask irrelevant questions, which seems to happen a lot in shiurim. I’m not sure if Jews are particularly bad at sticking to the topic or if lots of people do this and I’m just around groups of Jews more than I’m around other groups of people.

I was also left with a feeling of perhaps inappropriate responsibility again (as happened last week), as the teacher suggested one (very good) book on biblical criticism that I have read, but I wasn’t sure whether it was appropriate to recommend one that I’m reading at the moment that also deals with biblical criticism from an Orthodox viewpoint. I wrote the name of the book in the chat section on Skype, but then felt that it wasn’t appropriate and didn’t send it. In retrospect, that might not have been the best thing to do.

***

I spent some time working on my novel, about an hour of redrafting, excluding procrastination. There wasn’t much procrastination compared with the past, which is especially good as redrafting is tiring and the chapter I was redrafting brings back a lot of negative memories, almost triggers.

I actually dreamt about one of my stories last night, not the novel I’m currently working on, but the one I’m jotting down ideas for as they percolate into my brain. I guess it shows I’m thinking about my writing a lot and taking it seriously.

I also feel a bit more reassured about being able to write about sensitive topics while remaining in the frum (religious) community from something I heard today. Ashley Blaker is a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) comedian (I actually see him in real life sometimes as he lives in the same area as me) who has a comedy series coming up on BBC Radio 4. I heard a trailer for it today and it had a joke which was… surprising to hear from someone the Haredi community (about his teenage son trying to use the satnav to access PornHub). It occurred to me that Blaker gets away with a lot of stuff lightly making fun of Judaism, whereas I would not go that far. As far as I can tell, he doesn’t consider the Haredi community his audience, although he has performed in Modern Orthodox settings, so he can get away with a lot. I don’t really see the Haredi community as my audience either (people in the community tend not to read books written by outsiders or not approved by their rabbis), so I should be OK. Although I wouldn’t write about PornHub. Actually, there probably is a novel to be written about a frum man struggling with pornography addiction, having read several articles about this exact issue from the point of view of both the addict and his wife. I’ve felt that for some time. However, I don’t think I would have the knowledge, ability or guts to write it. I think it would take a lot of courage to write about that even from a secular point of view, let alone an Orthodox Jewish one. There are so many mines you could step on there…

Busy and Fast Day

Shabbat (the Sabbath) was pretty good. I went to shul (synagogue) on Shabbat morning as well as Friday afternoon and Saturday afternoon, which was good. People were shaking hands. This seems to be permitted now, although I didn’t think it was and shied away from it. I mostly didn’t get too upset about someone I was at school with having his daughter’s bat mitzvah on Shabbat. It’s hard to get my head around someone my age having a twelve year old daughter. In the past this would have made me very envious and depressed, but I was mostly (if not quite completely) OK about it this time. I skipped the kiddush (refreshments) after the service. The shul had been doing this in a socially-distanced way, but, perhaps because of the hand shaking, I got it in my head that they didn’t need to do that any more and I didn’t feel comfortable going back to a less distanced form of kiddush. In retrospect I may have got that wrong, perhaps influenced by general social anxiety and repressed negative feelings about my peer’s daughter’s bat mitzvah.

I followed quite a bit of the Talmud shiur (religious class) in the afternoon, which was good. I was pretty exhausted by the evening, though, and read instead of playing a game with my parents after seudah shlishit (the third Shabbat meal).

I still feel “crashed” today. After having “only” slept nine hours over Shabbat (less than usual, seven at night and a two hour doze in the afternoon), I slept for twelve hours last night and got up in the afternoon. Even that was a struggle, as I felt so drained I think I could have happily slept for a few more hours.

Today is a Jewish fast day. I’m not allowed to fast on the minor fasts for health reasons, as fasting is dangerous while taking lithium, which makes fast days feel a bit weird to me. I guess they’re weird anyway. With this fast (17 Tammuz), there’s the knowledge that we’re three weeks away from a much more serious fast (albeit not a lot longer). In between is a period of mourning, with no weddings, celebrations, music, haircuts or shaving. I find it an awkward time. I use music a lot to motivate myself, and while there are exemptions for workouts, depression and autistic burnout, I find it hard to work out when I “qualify” for these things, and sometimes clearly do not qualify, particularly now I’m mostly not depressed. And not shaving for three weeks itches like crazy.

I worked on my novel for an hour or so. It was OK. I didn’t procrastinate as much as usual, but I definitely lost momentum after my sister interrupted by phoning me, after I’d been working for twenty minutes. It doesn’t help that I’m in the most difficult part of the novel for me, drawing on painful experiences from years ago.

I somehow managed to fit in about half an hour of work on my devar Torah for this week, my usual Torah study pattern being somewhat disrupted by the fast and adding in some extra shiurim (two today for the fast; one an ongoing thing for the next few Tuesdays that I haven’t adapted to yet). By the afternoon I was feeling subdued and vaguely blood-sugar deprived and not sure why, given that I had been eating. I think some of this might be psychosomatic; I seem to feel weak and even ill on fast days even though I don’t fast. But I think some might be from cutting down a bit on snacking during the day, even though I only snack on fruit and nuts. Caffeine deprivation might be another issue, even though I go without caffeine fine on Shabbat.

As it was a fast day, my shul was running some Zoom shiurim (religious classes). One was a mixture of religious and historical ideas about Jerusalem, the other was purely religious. I went to both in the end, which was quite a lot, with all the other things I did today.

The other thing in a very busy day (or afternoon) was Skyping E. I think we’re both frustrated at the way we can’t move our relationship on because of COVID and being long-distance, especially knowing that even after COVID we’re going to face problems with finances and immigration and who knows what in trying to be together. And we’re both aware that we want to have children, but that that’s something that will depend on a lot of practical issues currently outside of our control. However, by this stage in my life I feel ready to tentatively accept that God has some kind of plan for us, having got this far in our very complicated relationship history, not to mention my life as a whole. I know that’s kind of a puny declaration of faith for someone who is supposedly frum (religious), but it’s taken me nearly thirty-eight years to get to a point where I can accept that maybe things in my life happen for a reason and might turn out OK in the end.

Adventures in Time and Space

I didn’t write yesterday. I was going to, but I realised I didn’t have much to say. I have less to say now my mental health situation is better and I’ve got my autism/Asperger’s diagnosis, plus I want to try to carve out some more time for recreational reading (which is also “learning how to be a writer of popular fiction” reading).

I’ve done some redrafting of my novel over the last two days (I was working this week on Wednesday rather than Thursday), completing three chapters, about fifty pages. If I keep up that pace, I’ll be finished by Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year, in September), although I don’t really want to make that a formal target in case I can’t keep up with it.

Other than that, things have been the normal mix of stuff. I feel a bit overwhelmed some of the time, mostly when I stop to think, but I’m doing some things, even if not always everything I want to do. I do still feel that I only have half a life though — working two or two and a half days a week (if you count voluntary work), but somehow still struggling to fit in the other things that I want to do that other people working full-time seem to manage. It’s also hard to have a long-distance relationship when we have literally no idea when we can even be in the same country. On the other hand, it is scary to think that E and I could be married in a couple of years — not scary in itself (OK a bit scary as it is a big decision and at least one of us will have to emigrate), but scary to wonder how we could cope with about one average income between the two of us. It does give me another reason to want to get my novel finished and to start to try to get it published, to see if I really can make writing a career, or at least a serious career-supplement, or not.

Watching Babylon 5 the other night, there was a line about, “There is no normal life, Michael. There’s just life,” and I guess that’s true. There isn’t a standard or normal form of life that everyone has that I’m diverging from, and I guess blogging shows me that lots of people are struggling with their lives and feeling that they aren’t coping well, even if they aren’t necessarily struggling with the same things as I am. It’s a little strange how some social media prompts people to “filter” (literally and metaphorically) and present a “perfect” view of their lives while blogging often seems to encourage people to tell the truth “warts and all.” I guess people who want to write usually have something to write about, often something negative that they want to get off their chest or find help and support for, whereas Facebook and Instagram allow to post photos of a fantasy “perfect” live.

***

In other E news, we’ve been continuing watching Doctor Who together (at the same time rather than in the same room), following the 2005 season with a couple of original series stories (first City of Death and now we’re halfway through Genesis of the Daleks), mostly because I was curious about how E would react to the original series, and I couldn’t really face watching the whole of the new series uninterrupted. E is getting really into it, which amuses me a lot. City of Death seemed to me a story with a similar atmosphere to the 2005 episodes, but, while E liked it, so far she prefers Genesis of the Daleks, which I was worried would seem overly-serious and cheap compared with more recent episodes.

In the past, I’ve been wary of sharing Doctor Who with non-fans, and tend to turn the conversation away from it if it comes up, being too jaded by years of mockery at school, when Doctor Who was off the air and distinctly unpopular, but I’m curious to see how E responds to more stories, both original and new. The current plan is to finish Genesis of the Daleks, watch The Mind Robber (another favourite of mine, but distinctly different to anything we’ve seen so far, both in content and production values) and then rejoin the new series with David Tennant’s first episodes.

***

I did get up earlier today, I’m not sure how, but I’d like to do it again, to get to shul (synagogue) tomorrow and to get a bit more time out of my non-work days in the future. I certainly got more done today than I expected.

***

I feel sufficiently jaded by politics not to react to this story (and picture) with anything more than curiosity as to why the Health Secretary has apparently adopted Tintin as his hairstyling guru. Next he’ll be turning up to the House of Commons in plus-fours and a small white dog.

“Je suis Marxiste, tendence Groucho”

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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