Christmas Sewing Projects

I found this awesome pattern on CraftApple.  It was SO fun.  These kids "artists case" are sure to be a hit with my three.  And the reason I know is that I made them for our neighbor friends and Stephen said "wow, mom, Kate and Sarah are SO lucky."  :)  Can't wait till they open them tomorrow.

It's a little hard to see, but I monogramed Clara's initial the lower right corner.

Abbie's has her initial in the top, middle.
And Stephen, my baseball fan, was a little tricky.  I wanted his to look like a guys so I made a patch with a TC (for the MN twins) and put it in the middle.  That was a TON of work, but really fun to learn how to do.  I also used suede shoelaces for the closure rather than the grossgrain ribbon I used on the girls.  

Homemade Christmas Gifts

It's been a while.

Here's what I've been up to.


the merry old land of Oz

It's one of those 'full bowl of macaroni and cheese followed by a raid of my kids halloween bags during nap' kind of days.  My kids probably feel like Dorothy, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion (and the little dog, too!) chased by you know who. 

You guessed it.  It's chore day.  

But what about those fantastic chore charts you ask?  Yeah.  Those are great - when I consistently enforce them.  And I haven't.  Clara can drag her feet like nobody's business, and Abbie can make this sound... it's indescribable, really.  Stephen was actually pretty great at it until he realized that the girls are VERY effective at avoiding chores.  Then he jumped on the 'it's not fair' wagon and deftly mimicked his sisters actions - adding some of his own noises of agony.  

It's enough to make a mom want to sic flying monkeys on her kids.

So the perfect storm has occurred here in Oz.  Whiney kids, fairness police, deflated and inconsistent mom, and a busy morning schedule.  And here I am - silently thinking "I'll get you, my pretties!" 

As one of my friends recently confirmed - what goes on in my head is ALWAYS written on my face.  This is probably the reason that my kids are avoiding me.  I should check the mirror and see if my face is green and my nose pointy.  

The cure?  You guessed it.  Pray.  It's so simple and so effective - why do I fight it?  How can I forget it?  

You might have noticed that I added a little link on my side bar - it's a picture of a little girl with a 7x7 on it.  One of the blogs I check regularly (and have blogged about before) has written up 7 prayers of scripture that she prays for her kids 7 times a day.  I'm pretty sure 7x per day will be way out of my reach, but it's worth a shot, right?  Right?

Last weekend I went to a conference called 'Hearts at Home.'  It was an amazing time.  What an encouragement!  One of the break out sessions was called 'Living the Promised Life' - by Susie Larson (also on my sidebar).  Wow.  The challenge to live a life of promise.  

Hopefully praying over my kids - saying a blessing and a promise out loud to them daily (yes, even during these perfect storms of life) will help them embrace what God has in store for them.  

And maybe, just maybe, it might keep me from melting every time a little rain falls.  :)  


Say Uncle

Stephen and I were sharing our special Monday together today.  The girls go to preschool in the morning so we do errands and something fun.  

While at Target, Stephen was particularly interested in the bagging process while we were checking out.  

Stephen:  Mom - I think I've changed my mind.  I want to be a bagger when I grow up.
Me:  Oh.  That's a pretty complicated job.  
Stephen (surprised):  Really?  How?
Me:  Well, you have to figure out which groceries go on the bottom, which ones might get squished - so you put those on the top... you have to be careful about where the meats go in case they leak ...
Stephen (with new respect):  Wow.
Me:  You know, your uncle David used to be a bagger.
Stephen:  NO WAY.  
Me:  Yup.  At the HEB in Texas.  
Stephen:  Wow.

Then, while at lunch at his favorite stop (Arbys, people.  Arbys.) something brought Christopher to mind.

Stephen:  You know, I can find a cul-de-sac in our neighborhood.  
Me:  Really?  (I am pretty sure there aren't any on the streets we take)
Stephen:  Yup.  Christopher knows.  He found it when he got lost one day.

When driving home from Arbys, he was looking at the new toy he got.  It's a book on the pyramids in Egypt.

Stephen:  Hey mom, they've got egypt writing on this!
Me:  Cool!  Your uncle Scott likes to read languages like that.  
Stephen:  Like the egypt letters?  What do they call that?
Me:  I'm not sure.  
Stephen:  Maybe Scott knows.
Me:  Yeah.  He likes to play detective with the languages that no one talks anymore.  That way he can figure out what other people noticed about God's people.  Like maybe the Egyptians wrote something about Moses that would give us clues about how Moses was used by God.
Stephen:  Wow.

A few minutes later after a bit of silence...

Stephen:  Mom, my uncles are pretty great.  


Chore Charts

What a drag, right?  Seems like the chore chart becomes a chore for mom - and I don't need any more of those!

I was looking for something that was more work for the kids than for me.  Something that they would have to be in charge of themselves.  Teach a little responsibility, but keep it tactile enough for them to be successful.  Am I the only mom that shudders at the thought of my 3 year old with a marker checking off her chores?  Stickers?  Much more than the chart would be decorated!  

So here's what I came up with after scrolling through the internet FOREVER.  It's a compilation of ideas - and as yet untested since it went on the wall yesterday.  And - my 4 year old is testing her limits with said chores.  But she's testing everything so why should this be any different?  :)

First I thought of the jobs that they already do, but that I have to remind them of (remember, the goal is to help me get off their cases - I will add more responsibilities if this thing works.).  On my computer I made a template for the "chore card," then, I found cute icons of the chores for my non-readers, and then added a character for each kid.  Stephen has the Millenium falcon, Clara has Belle, and Abbie has Cinderella.  My goal here was two-fold - 1.  Get them a little excited about their little card, 2.  Eliminate some creative job sharing.  Mama's no fool.  

Then each chore was taped to either yellow or green cardstock.  Yellow for morning chores, Green for afternoon/evening.  Each card was laminated, then I used the free tools at Archivers to punch holes in the cards and cut them to the right size.  

I purchased these simple wood hangers with 4 knobs from Ikea for $2.  Painted each with leftover paint from around the house, and bought letters for 1/2 off at Michaels.  

On a side note, I also purchased these wood hangers for two of our bathrooms.  I put button-holes in 4 kid washcloths and hung them on each knob.  The kids use the washcloths like hand towels.  They each have one and it has really cut down on the viruses that we share!

My absolute favorite chore was a little surprise to me.  As I was working at Archivers, I had a little light-bulb moment.  I made Stephen and Clara both a card called "Ask".  When they get to that card, they come find me, tell me what they've done for the morning/afternoon, and ask if there's anything else I need help with.  Oh yeah, this is definitely my favorite card.  

I'm pretty happy with how it looks and hopefully it works.  Stephen had his done by 7:30 this morning.  I doubt the enthusiasm will last, but it was worth one stress free morning!  


Catching Up

I unloaded the photo card the other day and realized how behind I am!  Here's some of the last month (or two!)

Stephen's Birthday Party
Fun at the Twins Game!

Fun at Lebanon Hills
with friends and dad.

Trying out the two-wheelers
Stephen was successful ...
the girls will try again next year!

Our State Fair is a great State Fair!

Last summer Hurrah
at Lake Harriet!


Mr. Bob

A very dear man from our church passed away early Friday morning.  His struggle with cancer was a long and difficult one.  He had lost almost complete function of his arms and legs, and gained excruciating pain.  

Their family has 5 children, the youngest is just about Stephen's age.  Mr. Bob would volunteer during the Wednesday night program in his daughters class - which is how Stephen came to know Mr. Bob.  Bob came as long as he was physically able and loved the kids.  Even when he was in his motorized wheelchair, he was there.  And Stephen grew to love Mr. Bob.

When I heard Friday morning about Bob's death, I knew that God would have to guide Brian and I in our conversation with Stephen.  This is a kid who cried when a character in "Adventures in Odyssey" died.  It was going to rock his little world.

Friday night I prayed.  I begged for guidance, and fell asleep knowing that the God who loves my kids more than I do would provide.  Around 4 am on Saturday I woke up to Abbie crying.  As I covered her up and checked on the other two, I suddenly just knew how I was going to talk to Stephen.  God is so good to me, and so sweet to my kids.  I love that.

As Brian flipped pancakes Saturday morning and we sat around the table, I pulled out 5 big rectangular pieces of paper and a box of crayons.  I wrote Stephen's name on the top of the first one (in the requested green crayon), and drew a large oval.  In the circle we wrote words that described Stephen as a person.  "Kind."  "Fun."  "Smart."  "Loves to be first."  We did this for each of the family members.  There was a slight skirmish over the purple crayon - but other than that the kids loved the exercise.  

At the end, I held up my circle.  
"Who is this circle?"  I asked.  
"Mom!"  They replied.  
"That's right!  This is called my soul.  It's who I am."  

 ~ insert conversation on which letter soul starts with, how it's spelled, what their sheets of paper say, and how Abbie possibly has the most syrup ever. ~

"Souls live in bodies.  Sometimes bodies die, and if that person loves Jesus, they get to go to heaven and get a new body!"
As I spoke, I held the picture in front of me, then moved it up into the air.
"I love Jesus!"  Stephen exclaims - with thoughts of a new super baseball player body, I'm sure. 

Now to the hard part ...

"Mr. Bob went to heaven to get his new body on Friday.  He might even be running around in heaven right now without his wheelchair!"
"Really?"  Stephen asked.
"His body here is empty now.  And that's kind of sad because we won't get to see him again until we get to heaven,"  Brian said.

At this, Stephen seemed to understand the finality of Bob's death.  His face got so sad.  It truly breaks a parents heart to see their child mourn.  I opened my arms, and with big sobs Stephen poured out his heart, first to me, then to Brian.  We held him and cried with him.  

On Wednesday morning we'll go to the memorial service for Bob.  I'm sure we'll have to get there early as it will be packed.  Bob truly was an amazing man who touched many.  His service is planned to be a celebration of the gifts he received in his life and of the God he loved so much.  I'd like to ask for your prayers as we show Stephen his first memorial service and will surely have more questions to answer.  

You don't have a soul.  You are a soul.  You have a body.
                   - C.S. Lewis


First Day of Kindergarten!

I am so not ready for this.  Maybe I'm just not ready for the line up of kids heading off to school.  A friend recently told me that the days are long but the years are short.  It's a sad thing to know in my heart.

Me (to Stephen):  Wow.  I don't know, Stephen.  All this is happening so fast.  Are you really ready for kindergarten?
Stephen:  Maaahhoommm.  You know I'm ready.
Brian:  Sure he's ready.  Stephen do you know how to sit in the right spot at school?
Stephen:  Oh yeah, and I can even find my name at a table.  I can also find my locker.
Brian:  Good!  What would you do if you need to go to the bathroom?
Stephen:  Oh, that's easy.  I'll just raise my hand, and say 'can I go to the bathroom, please?'
Brian:  Great!  See mom, I think he's ready for Kindergarten.
Me:  OK.  I guess HE's ready - but there's no way I'm ready.  Who will be my buddy in the afternoon?  I'm going to miss you so much, Stephen, when you're gone.
Stephen:  Oh, mom.  It's just 3 hours.  I'll be home every night - and I'll even stay home all day for two days.  
He stopped to think a minute.  Somehow he wanted to ensure that I would be alright.
Stephen (looking at his sisters):  Girls, you'll just have to be as much fun as I am when I'm gone.  
Clara was doubtful, Abbie began to internally scheme, and I'm realizing that my baby isn't a baby.  Gosh, I love that boy.


Olympic Confussion

Abbie watching olympic  basketball:

"Umm, mom.  Those guys are NOT sharing."

In the car, explaining to Stephen where India is:

"Oh yeah, I know those guys.  They're in Cleveland.  The Cleveland Indians."
Then later, after more explaining ...
Stephen:  "So... is it where dad was last weekend?"
Me:  "No honey, that's Indiana."

The other day we were convicted that we aren't telling the girls how smart they are.  A conversation with Clara ...

Me:  "Clara, you are so - "
Clara:  " - cute."
Me:  "Well yes, but I was going to say smart.  I think you're really a smart girl."
Clara:  "Oh.  Well.  I know that I'm smart."
Me:  "How's that?"
Clara:  "Well, when Abbie is mad at me, I can figure out why."



At our church annual meeting, the worship pastor asked about songs that are meaningful to us. He said he noticed that the church seemed especially responsive to the song "Blessed be the Name of the Lord."

Am I that transparent when singing?

Clara's birth and infancy was a stressful time for our family. Her labor was 3 days (no, I'm not exaggerating), Stephen was still a baby himself at 21 months, and Brian was in a dead sprint towards the finish of his Masters project. Clara was a great nurser, yet wasn't gaining any weight. At her 4 week appointment she was still less that 6 lbs - nearly the same as her birth weight. Looking back I also was probably facing some post-partum issues and directing most of my hormonal energy at poor Brian. Our house was messy, smelly, loud, and tension charged.

Enter - positive pregnancy test. Two babies in one year.

Brian heard my sobs from the kitchen and came around the corner. He lifted me from the floor, comforted me through his own shock, and left for work.

After a few deep breaths, I turned on the radio for a distraction. At that same moment, Brian turned on his in his car.

"He gives and takes away,
He gives and takes away,
My heart will choose to say,
Lord, blessed be your name."
It became my mantra. "He gives and takes away... my heart will choose to say." With one hand He was giving us an unexpected baby, with the other He was taking away our plans.

Then came the request to move to the other side of the world. Only 6 months, but 6 very big months in the lives of our little family. We would have a 2 year old, a 4 month old, and eventually give birth in Tokyo. Brian was given warnings of an intense work schedule.

"Blessed be your name
On the road marked with suffering
Though there's pain in the offering
Blessed be your name."

We accepted in faith - and even excitement. (What can I say - we're a little nuts.) And He provided. And provided. And provided. We were allowed a nanny. For the first time ever, we didn't have any money worries and were able to save enough to purchase a van outright when we came home. Everyone was healthy. Brian's job was even strangely quiet during our 6 months.

"Blessed be your name
when the sun's shining down on me
when the worlds all as it should be
Blessed be your name."

I wish I was a quick learner. I wish I could say that I learned some great lessons while we were in Tokyo. That I had the perspective to see (as Sarah Groves says) that God was recycling my trials to bring me gain. That He was providing us abundantly to show that He can. That He is reliable. Dependable. Loving. Protective.

No. I didn't really get it. I had a glimpse. An inkling. To be honest, I was mostly just surviving through that time and working hard to make it through the day without a cultural disaster.

But now - when I hear that song. When I sing over and over...

"Every blessing you pour out
I'll turn back to praise.
When the darkness closes in Lord
still I'm gonna say -
Blessed be the name of the Lord."
I learn something new. Each and every time, He shows me something new. Photos flash through my mind. Things that I didn't - couldn't - see. Perspective.

What a wonderful gracious God to continuously remind me of His love. To let me remember that he is My Rock and My Redeemer.

And I praise, and praise, and praise.

"Blessed be the name of the Lord
Blessed be your name, Jesus.
Blessed be the name of the Lord
Blessed be your glorious name."


Thinking ...

A book I like to pick up every now and then is "A Man Called Peter", by Catherine Marshall (who also wrote Christy and Julie).  Anyway, it's a wonderful story of a Scottish preacher whose style and personality reformed the way many thought a church service should look in the 30's and 40's.  I love his perspective and his sense of humor.  It's a great biography of his life in ministry as well as with his family.

Anyway, at the end of the book are a few of his sermons.  Yesterday I picked up the book and skimmed one - and just can't stop thinking about a concept he talked about in a sermon called "Go Down Death".  (it's a long quote - but he writes beautifully.  I only wish I could hear it in his Scottish brough!)

Life begins at conception.
When that happens, two microscopic germs of life unite and become one - and a new man has begun the first stages of his existence.

In that living atom, there is in miniature every quality and capacity of the grown man - 
his sex and size
the color of his hair and eyes
his temperament and intellectual ability
his own individual talent
and, in large measure, his character and destiny.  

Now this first stage of life is purely physical.
It is a life lived in darkness, devoted wholly to the business of growing and preparing for the life to come.

The fact that these qualities are present and not used in this first stage of life is evidence that another kind of life will follow.

In due time, the child dies to the first stage of his life and is born into the second.  
There is little immediate change in him.
He is born into the second form of life, but he makes a great gain.
He sees the light - is fascinated by it
follows it
blinks at it ...
His senses awaken and he can feel.
He can hear.
He can smell.
He is conscious of existence.  

Soon he can move about and begins to discover and understand and enjoy the wonder world of his second life.

Now this second life is physical like the first - but it gives him a new capacity.
He can think.

For many years, he can enjoy an intellectual life
using knowledge to build up wisdom
making deductions
arriving at conclusions.
What then?
Does he wear out, and die, and live not more?

In this second form of life, as in the first, he develops capacities not required by his present existence.

In this present life, he needs no more than other animals.  Are his highter qualities developed simply for the grave?

He dreams beyond his reach.
There is planted within him a deep longing for a golden tomorow when there shall be no more pain
nor crying
nor sorrow
nor death
nor parting any more

Something within us aspires to another life.
There is an intuitive longing - why?
Where did it come from?
Who planted it there?

Why do we doubt that we shall be born into a third form of life when we die to this one?

And why do we doubt that a kindly Nature, 
or shall I not rather say a loving Father in Heaven,
will make that second birth as easy and as gainful as the first?

Wow.  I'm really struck by this and am chewing on it.  

Somehow I've always had the thought that heaven would be ... well, boring.  But if a baby in utero thought that life would perhaps be boring - how terribly mistaken!  I'll have to keep mulling over this one.  


5 Stitches

Last night Brian took Stephen to the ER to get 5 stitches in his eyebrow.  My dad told him to say he got in a sword fight, but the truth is he ran smack into a table while playing a competitive game of tag/chase.  Fortunately no concusion.  He will probably have a good black eye, though.  

Just in time for his Kindergarten screening - it will match the scabbed up knees and sunburned neck.  They'll know right away that this kid isn't afraid to have a good time!


Say "oh yeah"

Abbie got her hearing aid the other day.  Her expression when they turned on the "microphone" was priceless.  She's adapting remarkably well to the change and will go get her aid if there's something she really wants to hear - like the TV or a story.  

Check out a video of her hearing here.


4th of July fun

We had a great fourth of July celebrating with family.  Scott, Anna, and Evan came into town - and Brian's parents and brother were in town too.  The kids had a blast at a parade, the zoo, and just playing with cousin Evan around the house.  Here are some fun pics.


Say what?

Most of you know that Abbie has some ear issues. She was born with a birth defect that falls somewhere between Canal Stenosis and Aural Atresia. Her left ear is tiny, the ear canal even tinier, and her ear bones are malformed. The good news is that somehow her left ear can still conduct sound, and that her right ear is completely normal. The bad news is that she has about a unilateral 40 db hearing loss.

We've been working with a specialist, her pediatrician, and the school district to find the best solution for Abbie. We've decided that for now we will try a hearing aid. Yesterday was her first fitting. Since she's still only 3 and they expect her ear to grow, she will have a BTE (behind the ear) aid fitted with an ear mold. We've decided to go with the Eleva, made by Phonak. As a special treat it comes in pink! If you know Abbie, you know she's got the spunk to pull off a pink hearing aid. :)

Stephen and Clara know that Abbie is getting a special microphone for her ear since her ear has the volume turned down. So far, Abbie feels pretty special about it all as she's the one who gets to play the games at the doctors office. Sometimes, though, it's tough for her to have to drop off Stephen and Clara at fun playdates. She's had many tests done by the school district to make sure that her hearing loss hasn't affected her vocabulary, speech, social skills, motor skills, etc. So far she's still head and shoulders above average and a spit-fire to boot. Lots of kids with unilateral hearing loss develop problems later in school once the background noise gets louder. Hopefully Abbie can avoid that heartache and be used to her aid by the time she gets to school.

Her ear form and aid should be in within the next 2 to 3 weeks - assuming that everything goes well with insurance and the fittings. Then we'll start a new era as a family - one where we can ALL hear! I can't wait!


Other peoples pain

A friend recently told me to check out a bloggers website.  I read it out last night and spent a good hour engrossed by her entries.  She journeled about carrying and loosing her 4th  baby.  It's an incredible testimony and I'd urge the few of you who read this to check it out.  

It amazes me that my soul can feel so connected to people I've never met.  Maybe it's just the shared experience of being a mommy ... but I think it might be more than that.  I think that it's the knowledge of the same truth, the life of the same Savior within us.  She wrote that when the doctor told her that her baby would not survive, her response was ... "Jesus is the same as he was before I walked in here."  My gut - my very soul acknowledged that truth with her.  Even as tears of great sadness welled up in my eyes.  

It's almost a guilty feeling to have my faith bolstered by someone else's tragedy.  Who am I to take a piece of insight from someone's deep and devastating pain?  But the hope lies within that shared faith.  Within that observation of truth.  How amazing my great God is to let me have a tiny piece ... to let this dear family share, be a light.  

Her site is called "bring the rain".  It's from a Mercy Me song.  They lyrics are powerful and beautiful - especially when quoted by someone experiencing deep tragedy.

"Bring me joy, bring me peace,
Bring the chance to be free
Bring me anything that brings you glory
And I know that there'll be days
When this life brings me pain
But if that's what it takes to praise you,
Jesus, bring the rain."


Austin - land of warm weather and Resort Booth

Stephen and I just got back from Austin, TX where we celebrated David's HS graduation.  

David won a really nice camera at his senior party - and since he had gotten an even nicer camera as a gift from my parents, he let me buy the party gift off of him.  The result is that I get to show you all some of the photos from our trip!  


Traveling with a 6 year old

The following quotes were all said by Stephen this morning to various travelers or airport employees as we were traveling to Austin, TX.

Did you know my mom got her toes painted yesterday?

I think I have a pretty good brain.

Did you know that Joe Mauer has the best batting average even though he hasn't hit a homerun?

(Playing a game with headphones on where he has to get various jewels for points)
Shouting: Hey! I got such a high score! And I didn't even get any red boobies! (he meant red rubbies)

Mom - I can sing like a computer would sing. Meeeeep, beep, meeeeeeep, etc.


Girls with Scissors

It's too bad our camera broke.  

I caught Clara giving Abbie a haircut this morning.  It was in exchange for the cut Abbie had already given her.  I think they were going for the inverted bob look.  

Fortunately, it's not bad enough to need a corrective haircut.  


Memorial Day Weekend

This past weekend was a blur of fun activities.  We had a neighborhood party — where we got to meet many in the neighborhood.  An open house for my cousin — am I really that old?  And friends over for a chilly grill out.  

Unfortunately our camera broke this week so we don't have any fun photos of the events — so you'll have to use your imagination.  One of the really fun things that spring is bringing with its occasionally warm temps is the blooming of our many gardens.  It's a new surprise every day!  My very favorite so far are the red/pink blooms on our rhododendron by the front porch.  

I've been praying for HOT weather.  This spring seems especially cool.  Seems that God's answer is to send Stephen and I to Texas!  We found some crazy cheap tickets yesterday and will be able to get down for David's HS graduation on Friday.  I'm looking forward to the weather, the family, and especially some one-on-one time with my buddy Stephen.  


HUGE blessings

The other day Brian asked me "hey - what happened to your blog?"  Good question.  The short answer is "I've been dealing with my blessings."  The following is the long answer ...

When we began the process of moving last year I started a sort of 'request list' of the things I was asking God for.  At first, it was the things I wanted - and mostly the reasons we were moving.  A room for each of the kids, a house where we could have friends and neighbors, a family-centered neighborhood, something that we could move right into, something close to a major road for Brian's commute.  Then, I decided to really send in the requests.  All those things I wanted in my heart but dare not ask.  I felt like God said "Go ahead - try me."  So with a little trembling, I did.  I asked for an automatic fireplace, for a bar for my kids to have breakfast at, for a front porch, for a master bathroom, and maybe, if it's not too much, for a nice mud room (MN code for a place to take off all your snow gear when you walk in the house)?  As we were prepping our house to move - mostly painting and staging, I prayed that someone would be doing the same in the house we'd be going to.  

Sheesh.  Be careful what you pray for!  God granted my prayers in such a huge way.  We were prepared to purchase a house that was within my 'wish list' and be very happy.  God squashed that and provided us the one we have now.  He answered EVERY prayer request - and then some.  You honestly wouldn't believe the size of my mud room - it's part of an addition the previous owners did.  And the front porch is a dream come true.  Even Brian's commute was taken care of - we live within 2 lights of 35E, no light to 77 - AND our backyard neighbor has asked to carpool!  Every detail about our wonderful house is a blessing - and it's so obviously a gift that we're often just giddy - like kids in a candy store. 
So what does this have to do with my blog getting the shaft?  Well, it seems the previous owners liked to be outside because this yard is FILLED with stuff.  The backyard we actually don't have to mow because it's all landscaped - including - get this - a putting green.  Yes, a putting green.   It has me wondering - does God know we don't golf?  :)

Since it's been SO nice out the kids and I are loving being outside and weeding, weeding, weeding.  We've worked for days and days and are still only 1/3 of the way there.  We're putting weed-stop down, planting some annuals, pulling out leaves, putting out woodchips, and did I mention the weeding?  

So here are some photos of our wonderful gifts and some of the work we have done and some yet to do.  
This is one we've weeded ... and since this photo we've put down 3 layers of newspaper and weed-stop.  We just have woodchips left!  (Which our city gives out for free, btw!)
Here's one of the backyard gardens.  You can see we haven't weeded it yet.  Brian's gotten almost all of the nasty leaves out, though!