Originally Published in the LA Times on June 28, 2023
Photos and Story by Mark Gozonsky
Loafing is the most popular lesson of my 20-year teaching career. I got the idea from Walt Whitman, who writes in “Song of Myself”
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
This made me think students might enjoy loafing — especially when I realized that they didn’t know what loafing means.
So one day we learned by doing. I took my English class at Grand Arts High School in downtown out to a vast lawn on campus perfect for loafing, which I told the teens meant doing anything they enjoyed so long as it was low-key. They loved having the freedom to sit or lie on the grass, looking up at the sky or down at bugs and tiny flowers, having heartfelt conversations, freeing their minds. For the rest of the school year, students asked if we could go loafing again.
My answer was yes. We loafed by flying kites, blowing bubbles, tossing seed balls. The academic justification was twofold: (1) learning the habit of mind of being open to the sheer pleasure of being alive; and (2) writing about it, zestfully.
Now that I’m retired from teaching, I think about loafing even more, especially about doing nothing as an antidote for loneliness. When I first started working on this guide, I would go to parks to loaf alone, and that would be great except that it got to be a lot of me sitting in a park by myself.
So then I started inviting friends to do nothing with me. These invitations took loafing to a new level. Inviting people to do nothing is a winning invitation. They don’t have to share your taste in anything, and they also don’t have to give up their day because how long does it take to do nothing?
Eleven minutes. That’s for the classic: getting outdoors and noticing your surroundings while not talking or taking pictures or looking stuff up on your phone. Do nothing for 11 minutes with an old or new pal, then take turns sharing what you noticed.
You could just do 10 minutes or even one minute, but I like 11 minutes because it’s a little bit beyond. The important thing is not how long you do nothing. The important thing is the connection that comes from sharing the experience. This will lead to deep and enriching conversations, the kind you had in your favorite high school English class.
Speaking of books: In his eminently practical meditation guide “How to Sit,”Thich Nhat Hanh had this to say about location: “Anywhere is fine.”
While being mindful of that, I want to share with you the best parks I’ve come across in L.A. County for loafing, a.k.a. chilling or doing nothing. These parks are especially fine because they feel safe and give you good choices of where to sit. I personally like sprawling out on top of a picnic table so that a ray of sun can land in the middle of my forehead and spark a third eye. But that’s just me. There are a million different ways to do nothing, and all of them are good.
Wattles Garden Park
1850 N. Curson Ave., Los Angeles, California 90046
Kings Road Park
1000 N. Kings Road, West Hollywood, California 90069
This compact neighborhood park is perfect for loafing with lively conversation or total silence. I tried both with poet Kim Dower, the first person other than my students whom I ever invited to go do nothing. I had met her at a writing conference the previous month and was struck by her magenta jacket and matching attitude. She was all in on loafing. She said, “Doing nothing with someone shows mutual trust and understanding.” Even though Kings Road is a small park, we could put an appropriate distance between us and the playground. We talked for a while about what it means to invite your soul and then noticed what we noticed for 11 minutes without talking. During our silence, I felt mutual trust while also observing the different shades of green in the overhanging leaves. Kim remembered that she once wrote a poem titled “Doing Nothing.”
Rio de Los Angeles State Park
1900 N. San Fernando Road, Los Angeles, California 90065
The prettiest place to sit at this riverside sports-and-strolling park is a bench embedded with a blue and green tiled mosaic depicting the butterflies and railroad cars of local history. My old friend and alt-weekly editor Tommy Tompkins and I sat on more utilitarian surfaces — the bleachers of one softball field, the dugout bench of another. Tommy, currently convalescing from a brush with mortality, introduced me to the how-to-meditate writings of Thich Nhat Hahn back in the 1990s. I hadn’t seen him in a while, but sure enough, he was down to do nothing with me.
He suggested we do a walking meditation, which is like silently noticing things when you’re sitting, except you’re walking. I noticed a kid in the outfield trying and failing to toss up a ball and hit it. Tommy focused on wishing he personally could get one more at-bat. He didn’t seem too downhearted about it, and I can envision a future where we meet again to play whiffle ball. Not waiting for that future, we actually did get together again for birdwatching from the park’s exuberantly orange Taylor Yard Bridge. Tommy says it looks like an abandoned exit ramp from the Long Island Expressway; I love how it makes Mets colors when paired with blue sky. We watched geese honking and long-legged waterfowl strutting, and we laughed together unto snorting.
601 Club View Drive, Los Angeles, California 90024
Consider tailgating at the Hammer Museum’s free mindful awareness meditation at 12:30 p.m. on Thursdays, then taking your refreshed perspective on a walk to Holmby Park. When I sat in, Diana Winston, co-author of “Fully Present,”shared a loafing game-changer. First, imagine your mind as a snow globe in which too-busy thoughts are like snow obscuring your peace of mind. To settle the snow flurries, just say in your mind the word “thinking.” I practically glided on over to Holmby Park, where massive sycamores with trunks bent low to the ground are like friendly giants offering to lift you up to the sky.
As if to encourage doing nothing, signs posted all over this tony park tell you what not to do: no roller skating, no skateboarding, even no loitering after 10:30 p.m. In the daytime, you’re free to loaf in the manicured surroundings. After 11 minutes of observing the tight cut of the not one but two bowling lawns, I felt attuned enough to invite not only my own soul but also the souls summoned by poignant memorials inscribed on the benches. One read, “In memory of my beloved husband … I carry you with me in my heart.”
Dockweiler State Beach Park
Wilson Canyon Park
I loved being in the presence of nightingales and mockingbirds while sharing the sandy Saddleback Trail with gold-and-green lizards pulsing in the sun. I found two rocks to sprawl on and pulsed in the sun myself for 11 minutes per rock. Then I remembered the website mentioned a creek, so I took another mini-hike, this time turning left from the parking lot facing the terracotta and olive mountainsides. A solitary green picnic table greeted me in the shade of oak trees, and I would have sprawled on it too except I heard the beckoning burble of running water. Soon I was squatting at a confluence of creeks, “Watching the River Flow” twanging away in my mind until it simmered down. Then it was just me and the flow until a vaquero on horseback crossed the creek leading a riderless horse, followed a few minutes later by a grown-up carrying a spear of grass alongside a young girl carrying a machete. Eventually I crossed the creek on some sturdy-enough logs and found a solitary bench where, surrounded by shrubs and birdsong, I read more of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.”
“Clear and sweet is my soul, and clear and sweet is all that is not my soul.”
Chinese elms offer elegant leaf-gazing as they waft back and forth in the breeze on the east side of this one-block park. Papyrus wafts on the west side. In between, I recommend the blue, yellow, red and white pennants wafting at the top of the chain-link fence around the bowling lawn. Little ponds are stocked with turtles, ducks and adorable ducklings: all great for connecting with nature even if it’s been a while, as in, not since you were a child.
I visited here with my multitalented friend Murray Smith, who not long ago fashioned a gown out of masking tape. When Murray arrived at a dinner party recently, she immediately announced, “The thing to remember when you’re taking a deep breath is, take two quick breaths in through your nose, and hold them.” Nabbing that second in-breath turns out to be great for establishing a good loafing mindset. Murray and I got together again to play my new favorite birdwatching game, “Raven or Crow,” in which you guess if that black bird hopping or cawing nearby is a raven or a crow.
Sitting on the front lawn facing the groaning parade of traffic on Ventura Boulevard makes you extra-appreciate having already arrived. A cast-iron sculpture of a globe reinforces the feeling that you are in the right place, doing the right nothing. Deodar cedar, coast live oak and sycamore thrive, making this a great spot for tree-bathing. When I asked my friend and teaching mentor Lynn Akers what she noticed after we chatted on a picnic blanket and then silently squirrel-watched, she said, “Everything … feels … so … nice!”
Then, as will happen after doing nothing, we talked about things that really matter: our cats. It was great to be with Lynn, whom I hadn’t seen since she started working at Starbucks. She likes getting to chat with people all day but says it’s challenging to keep having to brew more and more coffee. “I should do this more often,” she said about doing nothing. “This breeze is perfection.” You can feel the perfect breeze in other parts of this bench- and tree-filled park, but the front lawn gives you the best vantage point for easing out of the grind.
Vista Hermosa Park
Jalapa Park features a magnificent Olmec head, a 5-foot-tall stone statue of a big, round head. The head has a human statue friend sitting nearby underneath an oak tree canopy, both of them doing nothing together. I loafed here with my teacher friend Ai Ikuma and her white husky, Omi, walking silently around the shady, loopy trails of this lovely small park right off the 10 at East Garvey Street and South Village Oaks Drive.
The many little bridges here let you feel like you are crossing into a more relaxed and open state of mind that lets you notice emergent thistle blossom and bristly wild cucumber. When I asked Ai what she noticed after doing nothing, she said it reminded her of this book she just got called “Art in the World” and how it encourages her to see the world in different ways. “You can’t just do it through books, though,” she said. “You have to do it with other people.”