Before March, these were the old certainties: Michael Jackson was just a big, weird kid (only a little bit suss!), your son could be left with the archbishop in the sacristy after mass, and New Zealand was the last safe place on Earth.
The terrorist attack in Christchurch, the release of the documentary exploring in extensive detail the paedophilia of pop idol Jackson and the jailing of Cardinal George Pell have all occurred this month and the result has been a collective trauma, and a sense of fresh chaos.
An old order has tumbled and people are still reeling, trying to work through the big things that these three stories have provoked. These things are macro and micro, intensely personal yet also collective. Can I still enjoy the records of a man who I worshipped as a child but who has done evil things? How can I express or even continue my religious faith after the most senior member of the church in Australia is a convicted child sex offender? And what is it about Australian culture that may have influenced and fuelled a white nationalist terrorist?
All three events involve extensive trauma to the immediate victims – but they are also things that have had profound aftershocks, currents that have rippled out across the country. And these aftershocks have been felt deeply on a collective level.
Often news events are passively received. We watch or read and mutter “how terrible” but they pass, are fleeting and the blows are not ours to absorb. But other blows land hard.
My neighbour cut down my trees and I've killed everything in my yardBrigid Delaney
Read moreAt the start of March, I was in Adelaide for the festival. At the town hall, Paul Kelly was performing music set to poems about birds.
He introduced one song this way: “This rapturous poem is by a Catholic priest.”
And I swear in the half beat before Kelly introduced the poem by the great Jesuit poet Gerard Manly Hopkins, the charge felt thought the hall was palpable. There had been an audible intake of breath, the energy had shifted.
Pell’s conviction for historic child sex offences had just been made public. To even utter the word “priest” in Australia in early March was to enter a new sort of conversation where the word held all sorts of poisoned and fraught associations.
Then came the Jackson revelations. That was a different kind of blow. There was in that story the sense that we were being told something we had known all along, but in some act of global wilful blindness had decided to suspend belief in the obvious. Last week, walking with a friend past a bar that was blaring Jackson, he winced and said, “Perhaps they shouldn’t be playing that music any more.”
And then Christchurch. Some journalist friends – people I thought had seen it all – told me they couldn’t engage with the story at all, either because they had seen the live Facebook video in their newsrooms and it left them traumatised or it just made feel them too sad.
It’s not just people in the media. Last Wednesday I went on a foodie tour around some farms in central Victoria. The Christchurch mosque massacres had happened six days before but what was apparent with this group of strangers was that they couldn’t read or watch too much about it because they got too upset.
As we sat outside in a forest clearing for a picnic lunch, two of the women were talking about it – sort of.
“I can’t watch the funerals or that footage any more …”
“I know …”
“I just can’t ...”
And that was it. The conversation ended.
A big part of modern life – it’s unspoken but it’s there – is the ability to absorb the blows.
But bludgeon something long enough (say a piece of meat) and what happens? It becomes tenderised – for the most part – not calloused or hard.
That afternoon on the food tour, I met an Indigenous elder called Aunty Julie. She told me later that day that people in a nearby town had asked her to come to a local park and do a smoking ceremony. People in the town were deeply affected by the Christchurch massacres and had sought solace in coming together and partaking in an ancient ritual that would act as a sort of communal cleansing mechanism.
At dusk I went to the town and caught the end of it. People were walking around with paint on their faces. There were still gum leaves burning in the fire. People were sitting quietly in small groups.
In times of trauma we reach for ritual; we want to be around others who are feeling the same. There is some comfort to be found in each other.
In the wisps of smoke I felt a pang – it was, weirdly enough, for the Catholic church I had grown up in. But they, the old providers of ritual and solace, were now part of the pain, part of the problem.
March is drawing to a close. It’s usually my favourite month: warm days, cool nights, music festivals and long weekends. It’s still early enough in the year for things to feel fresh and full of promise.
Instead, as March turns into April, there is a feeling of confusion, depletion. It’s been a challenging month, without much relief.
• Brigid Delaney is a Guardian Australia columnist