Crowning Thought

When I peeked in briefly on the coronation coverage, I didn’t expect to break down in laughter.

Not at King Charles or the ceremony, I promise. I’m enough of a theatre person to love a bit of pomp and circumstance. And His Majesty’s ears will never get a joke from me – after all, I have enough funny-looking facial features of my own.

No, the part that made me laugh came during the chit-chat by the journalists (of course). An English commentator was trying to explain the benefit of a king to his American colleagues.  “There’s value,” he said, “in having a leader who is not political, who can bring the country together.”

Sorry. I can’t even write that with a straight face. And like any good laugh, it works on several levels.

First, if you’ve seen social media at all, you know that we’re perfectly capable of dividing ourselves on anything, political or otherwise. The color of a dress. The use of an apostrophe. The need for a 27th Star Wars movie.

Second, there’s a minor history of English kings who … how do I put this? … didn’t exactly unite the country. (We even remember one of them briefly each year on July 4.) Even leaving aside civil wars and revolutions, being unelected doesn’t mean you’re non-controversial. Just ask a certain group of nine Americans in black robes.

What he really meant, of course, is a leader who’s powerless. And I mean that in the nicest possible way.

These days, unless you’re a member of the royal staff or the Archbishop of Canterbury, there’s not a lot a King or Queen of England can do to affect your daily life. They’re a presence. A face. A walking sense of continuity that gives some speeches and attracts a lot of tourists.

For decades, that’s had some people debating about whether the United Kingdom needs a king at all. That’s a fair question – strictly speaking, nobody needs a king, after all. But as with many things in Britain, utility is only part of the question.

Since a British monarch lacks official power – practically, if not legally – it isn’t their accomplishments that will get them remembered. It’s themselves. Those of us who loved Elizabeth, and there were many, did so not because of what she did but because of who she was or seemed to be.

She earned respect. Not just because of a crown or a loyalty oath, but from her own character. And that meant her words lingered a little longer than they otherwise might have.

Nobody needs a monarch – but everybody needs someone who can speak to them frankly, without any ability to coerce. That’s the sign of a good neighbor, whether they wear a crown or a Broncos hat. (And if you just tried to picture QE2 in a Broncos hat, I’m terribly, terribly sorry.)

In that regard, we could all stand to give each other the royal treatment.

So I wish the best to Charles Philip Arthur George Paddington Skywalker. (Hey, I only promised not to joke about his ears.) At best, he’s in a position to be a considerate voice in often-difficult times. At worst, there’s not a lot he can do to hurt anything.

Either way, here’s to all the other considerate voices that crown our own lives. American or Briton, royalist or egalitarian, we all need that.

And that’s no laughing matter.

Always Elizabeth

Every so often, we like to joke about famous figures who seem eternal. It used to be George Burns. Then Betty White. And of course, there’s Keith Richards, who looks about 3,000 years old despite an actual age that’s closer to 750.

And then there’s the Queen. Or there was.

After her recent passing, a friend pointed out that most of us had never known a world that didn’t have Queen Elizabeth II in it. Granted, that could be said about almost anyone from the ever-smaller World War II generation. But with a presence as well-known as hers, it was a little like learning that the Big Ben clock tower had suddenly vanished. Distant and faraway, with no real impact on my day-to-day life, and yet somehow … one more constant that was gone.

I wonder what Grandma Elsie and Granddad Bill would have said.

My grandparents, like my wife’s grandmother, were English. Elsie and Bill came to this country in 1957, when QE2 was still very new indeed. Granddad had even seen her close up as a young girl in the 1930s during his brief tenure in the Grenadier Guards – yes, the guys with those wonderful hats. The Guards liked little Elizabeth,  Grandma once told me, but her little sister Margaret was much more mischievous, dashing past soldiers she had already walked by to make them jump back to attention. Kids will be kids, even when they’re royalty.

It’s probably Grandma’s occasional royal-watching that sparked my own here-and-there awareness of the Windsors. And through all the family drama – and my, was there a lot of it – the familiar face aged and endured. Always with that familiar stern dignity and a Corgi close to hand.

In that regard, losing her was a little like losing Grandma all over again.  

The stoicism was easy to tease, of course. “The Naked Gun” portrayed Queen Elizabeth at a ballgame, passing refreshments and doing The Wave with aplomb. The Olympics depicted her skydiving with James Bond, while her own jubilee put her at tea with a well-meaning Paddington Bear. But the joke always had a bit of respect in it, maybe even some envy at the ability to stay unruffled in the most unexpected situations.

None of us have the wealth or the staff or the seemingly endless hat collection of an English queen, of course. But the patience … that’s something more achievable. And something we seem to need more of every day.

Elizabeth took her throne in a nation still recovering from the strains of war. Our own time seems to be forever in the midst of it. I won’t run the roll call of disasters; it’s too familiar and too depressing.  But as each new crisis arrives – whether personal or international – the pressure on each of us pulls just a little tighter.

But we continue. We have to. Perhaps looking back at what we’ve survived, perhaps looking forward to what may come. But always looking to each other as we meet the moment now, with whatever hope we can find to push back the night.

That, too, has remained changeless over 70 years.

“Today we need a special kind of courage,” the queen said early in her reign. “Not the kind needed in battle, but a kind which makes us stand up for everything that we know is right, everything that is true and honest. We need the kind of courage that can withstand the subtle corruption of the cynics, so that we can show the world that we are not afraid of the future.”

That spirit, more than any crown or monument, is a legacy to be treasured. And shared.

Farewell, Your Majesty. And thank you.

And don’t worry. We’ll keep an eye on Keith.

Anybody, Everybody

Alone in a pew, all in black, she could have been anybody.

Granted, in all her long life, Queen Elizabeth II has never gotten to be just “anybody.” That’s part of the package of being British royalty: people may adore you, detest you, gossip about you, or even accuse you of being shape-shifting aliens from another planet … but they will never, ever completely ignore you.

But for that one moment at Prince Philip’s funeral, in that one image circulated around the world, none of it seemed to matter. For that brief moment, the pomp and circumstance subsided into a figure anyone could know. A small woman, long married, newly widowed, the social distancing around her echoing the empty place in her heart and her life.

It could have been any of us. It has been some of us. Painfully familiar, in a world where so much has changed.

I’m not a close royal-watcher. (That was my English grandma Elsie.) I didn’t sit to watch every moment. But I did notice how even online, where the brash and the inappropriate can so easily intrude, the feel at that moment was overwhelmingly … well, kind.

I was relieved to see it.

Every once in a while, I wonder if we’ve forgotten how.

I’m not the only one. A friend sent me a message this week, dismayed at what her adult daughter had been seeing in the not-quite-post-pandemic world. As most of you know, it’s been a little like Rip Van Winkle as more and more people come out of their isolated state and back into a more engaged world. But like sleepy ol’ Rip, some of them didn’t seem to recognize immediately that the world had changed from what they knew, or were too impatient to care.

Maybe you’ve seen what she saw. The folks that expect restaurant service to be just as seamless as before, despite the crowds and precautions. Or perhaps the ones that cut in the self-service grocery lines, outflanking the ones waiting on their “distance dots.” Or other bits where the social gears are sticking instead of clicking.

I know. It’s not easy. Especially in the transition period we’re in, where the light keeps getting closer but at the speed of an inchworm. Many of us have had our shots, many more are on the verge, and we want to be D-O-N-E with this whole business. Back to business as usual.

And as we emerge, it feels more like a report from Mr. Spock instead: “It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it.” Each day, we get small reminders that it’s not going to be completely as it was. Maybe it never truly is … “normal,” after all, is a thing of today, always in motion, redefined by each generation.

But as so much changes, it’s vital that kindness remains.

if any lesson comes out of the pandemic, it has to be that. We’ve seen pain and disruption, adjustment and transformation. We’ve experienced brutal ugliness, heart-stirring courage, and even beauty finding its way out of isolation and into the light. And where we’ve made our best moments, we’ve made them for each other.  

Friends. Neighbors. Strangers united by nothing but a desire to help. That hasn’t been all of us, but it hasn’t been none of us, either. At the darkest, there have been hearts finding ways to help, even  when the hands had to stay six feet apart.

That’s the old truth that our new world has to remember. That it starts with kindness. With caring. With seeing other people as humans that matter, that we need and are needed by.

Like that little old lady in the pew, no one is just “anybody.”

 And that has a certain majesty all its own.