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UPDATED Christmas “Do Good” Gift Guide

A couple of years ago, I published my first Christmas “Do Good” Shopping Guide (check it out here), which aimed to provide a comprehensive, wide-ranging list of gift ideas, to not only satisfy the recipient, but also give a little extra to a community or charity in need.

This year, it is updated and improved with ten all-new ideas for Christmas gifts and shops to help you not only provide the perfect gift, but also do a little good at the same time!

All of the stores and items on this list are either charitable by design, or come from small, hard-working shops, which naturally help support local communities.

Take a break from browsing all the Black Friday deal previews, and check out this list, so you can not only do well this Holiday season, but also do good.

1. Cuddle + Kind

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This company proudly hopes to donate 1 million meals to children in need every year through its sales model, via clearly disclosed and well-respected local organizations. Their stuffed animals and dolls are hand-knit by artisans in Peru, and the sale of each doll serves to provide 10 meals to a child in need. Sales of their gorgeous, original prints provide 5 meals to a child in need. These unique dolls are sure to delight any young child, and promote a very worthy cause, as well!

2. Sevenly

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This is one of the most well-recognized “give back” brands out there. Sevenly makes a pledge of $7 per purchase in its 7-Day Campaigns and 7% for its cause-themed Collections to selected non-profits. Their selection has grown over the years to include not just t-shirts and sweatshirts, but also blankets, bags, and baby onesies! On the website, you can shop by cause, so you can find something for the recipient of your gift that will be near and dear to his heart.

3. Out of Print

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I challenge you to find an online store stocked with more fun and nerdy products for bibliophiles. You can’t. They have everything from an “East Egg-West Egg” Great Gatsby necklace to “The Pokey Little Puppy” onesies. They even list their products by author, genre, or title of book. On top of getting great products, Out of Print donates a portion of their sales to provide books to communities in need and promote literacy programs around the world.

4. Discovery Maps

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Whenever you travel to an unfamiliar part of the country, you probably pick up one of these Discovery Maps to help you find local restaurants, sites, and shops. But have you ever looked at the Discovery Map for your own area? The Discovery Maps website offers a list of all the states and locations for which there are maps, and provides an interactive method of hunting down unique gift shops and locally-made goods. Take a look at the map for your own area and you may stumble upon the perfect gift, all while supporting local businesses!

5. Luke’s Toy Factory

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These are some of the most innovative toys I have seen in a long time. They are incredibly simple, but do so much good! Each truck comes in pieces, so the child gets to assemble their toy (think 3D puzzle). Plus, the pieces can be used together to create new, unique designs (think Lego). They are even good for the environment because they use wood shavings from furniture makers to reduce their plastic by 30%. AND they are 100% sourced and manufactured in the USA. Luke’s Toy Factory isheadquartered in Connecticut.

6. Uncle Goose Blocks

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I know you have seen wooden blocks before (arguably a must-have for every child). But have you seen wooden blocks made in the good old U. S. of A.? Have you seen wooden blocks which can be used to build the periodic table of elements? I am enraptured by the vast variety of blocks Uncle Goose offers: American Sign Language, nursery rhymes, planets, constellations, Hebrew, and it goes on and on! If there is a wooden block set that you have never seen, you will find it here!

7. Congolese Home Decor for Mwana Villages

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Mwana Villages is my favorite thing. Mwana Villages takes in orphaned and vulnerable children to their loving refuge, and provides resources, tuition, and priceless education to parents to help them keep and regain their children. Their goal is to end the orphan crisis, preserve families, and provide loving homes to children in need. You can find beautiful home decor items straight from Congo on their Etsy shop, in which 100% of proceeds will go directly to their valuable work there. You can also purchase jewelry from Holland&Birch, which is donating 20% of the line’s proceeds to Mwana Villages.

8. Yoobi

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Yoobi offers a wide range of brightly-colored stationary sets, backpacks, and arts and crafts supplies for the budding writer and DIY-er in your life. The best part is, Yoobi is a committed partner of the Kids in Need Foundation, which provides precious school supplies to underprivileged communities throughout the country. For every product sold, Yoobi donates a product through the program, building their “classroom packs,” which contain enough supplies for 30 precious students!

9. Your Friendly Local Brand Ambassador

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Most of us know a friendly face who hustles, maybe even a few jobs, to provide for herself and her family. One of these good women is Jocelyn Brown, who works hard selling beautiful jewelry from Premier Designs. It used to be that you had to attend a house party to support your friends’ independent businesses as local brand ambassadors. Now, though, things are a lot easier; you can usually purchase from them 24/7 online! Do yourself a favor and review the wide range of products Jocelyn is selling and you will LOVE the designs! When you purchase from her, you will not only get personal service and great products, you will also help support a young boss lady who happens to be killing it.

10. AmazonSmile

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If you have never heard of AmazonSmile. allow me to tell you about the EASIEST way to donate money to your favorite charity. When you sign up for AmazonSmile (free), and shop through the AmazonSmile website (looks exactly the same as regular Amazon, but has “Smile” at the top), Amazon will donate 0.5% of your qualified purchases to a charity of your choice. It is all free. All simple. And 100% your choice about where Amazon sends its donation. It is a small portion, but with all the shopping I do at Christmas, it can certainly make a difference! I have set my current charity to His Mansion Ministries, a free Christian residential program offering hope and redemption to recovering addicts.

Happy Holiday Shopping! I hope this list helps you feel inspired, knowing that your gifts can please even more than the person opening the package this season!

-D. E. Barbi Bee

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Why We Follow a 3 Gift Rule at Christmas

For years, as husband and wife with no kids, we simply budgeted for Christmas. A small portion for each person on our list, and slightly more for each other.

We greatly enjoyed our quiet Christmas mornings alone, before heading off to spend time with both of our families. We made the small number of gifts stretch by wrapping all our stocking stuffers and opening them one at a time. Even if they were just the required ornament (sometimes handmade), candy, and lip balm.

And somehow, no matter the budget, we always seemed to get about the same number of gifts for each other. Last year it was exactly the same – three – and they even fit in similar “categories:” a book, something to keep us warm, etc.

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Before too long, our family became threeAnd, although just four months at his first Christmas, we had to decide what we would do for our son’s Christmas gift traditions. It did not seem logical to spend the same amount of money on him as we did on each other. We could get him a box of tissues and he would be elated! At the same time, we did not want to overwhelm him with a vast number of gifts. I don’t care if he gets more gifts than us, but opening presents for hours is incredibly overwhelming for a child, and years from now, could make him spoiled with entitlement.

In my considering these things, we came across the four gift rule for Christmas presents. You may have heard of it as a way to get unique, useful gifts for your children without going overboard. It doesn’t focus so much on money, as it does on the number of gifts. Certainly, you don’t need to spend the same amount on your toddler as you do for your teenager.

The idea is that each child gets four gifts only, one from each category:

  1. Something they want.
  2. Something they need.
  3. Something to wear.
  4. Something to read.

(You can think of it like the “Something old, something new,” many brides still recite as a fun tradition.)

In pondering this framework in our own family, two ideas struck us. First, we wouldn’t want to wait until Christmas to get our son something he needed. Certainly, many examples would be either small (i.e. socks), such that he wound hardly call it a “gift,” or be very big (i.e. a laptop), which would be so exciting they hardly even feel like a boring old “need,” so much as a great big “want!” Thus, if there was one thing I wouldn’t mind dropping from this list, it would be the “need” item.

Second, if we do drop one item, that would leave just three gifts on the list: what could be better!? We already happen to get each other three things for Christmas, so it seemed like a very reasonable number of gifts. Plus, the fewer gifts, the nicer all of them (or at least one of them) could be.

So we made our own three gift rule for Christmas Presents:

  1. Something they want.
  2. Something to wear.
  3. Something to read.

Last year, although he was completely unaware of the ceremony of it all, it was fun practice to get him three gifts. Since he was just an infant, he was fully stocked on things to wear, so we gave extra books instead. We got Theodore bath toys (want), and three small board books (read). In his stocking, he got baby paper, teething toys, and an ornament.

This year, we have not quite nailed down his list, but this is a good sampling of what could be:

  1. Something they want: a toddler-size table and chairs
  2. Something to wear: slippers
  3. Something to read: My First 100 Words Lift-the-Flap20171225_133324

In his stocking, Theodore will probably get getting a few of his favorite things, such as: play-doh, crayons, bubbles, animal figurines, play food, and an ornament. (If you are looking for shopping ideas, check out the Dollar Tree, which is probably where I will get all of these things.)

By keeping ourselves under control in the number of gifts we can give him, it forces us, naturally, to be more thoughtful in the type of gifts we give him. So, instead of just adding in “one more” small toy (“But it was on SALE!”), I am forced to consider carefully which toys will go the longest, in terms of his interest, and thus be the most useful. Open-ended and high-quality toys will, by default, be the picks most often.

Plus, Theo is less likely to be overwhelmed on Christmas, and every other day of the year! Research shows kids do a lot better with fewer toys around. It allows them to be more creative and actually play more. Not only do I have less toys to clean up and store, but Theodore will get more use out of the toys he has. A win-win!

With Christmas coming up at lighting-fast pace (it gets faster every year, doesn’t it?), consider whether your family should adopt a “number” rule when it comes to toys and gifts. This applies not only to parents (who have just as difficult a time not spoiling their kids as anyone), but grandparents and aunts and uncles, too! And these principals can also easily be followed at birthdays and in Easter baskets, as well. When we have the choice, we will choose quality over quantity, every time.

How do you decide how much or how many gifts to get your child at Christmas? What about your spouse or significant other?

-D. E. Barbi Bee

What’s in our Shoe Box: Operation Christmas Child 2018

I have not packed a shoe box in probably a decade or more, but when I was in high school I spent several seasons helping collect shoe boxes, packaging them into shipping containers, and transferring the precious cargo to the next collection station.

For those of you that have no idea what I am talking about, I am describing an annual missions project called Operation Christmas Child. It is an outreach program of the Christian mission organization Samaritan’s Purse, which collects thousands of shoe boxes full of small gifts and necessities, and provides them to children in need around the world, as a tool to help local missionaries and churches share the gospel with children at Christmas.

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Despite my being absent from the project for many years, this year I felt nearly uncontrollably compelled to build a box. Perhaps it was out of honor for my late Grandma and Grandpa, who were certainly big fans of Samaritan’s Purse and the shoe box gifts. Perhaps it was thinking that there was a little boy somewhere in the world who may not know that he is loved and wanted, and, as a mother, I would do anything to make sure he knew. Perhaps it was thinking of my late brother-in-law, Johnny, and realizing I would not be buying him a Christmas present this year, the shoe box serving as a worthy surrogate.

Whatever the reason, I eagerly collected my supplies and got to work. Below is a list of what we packed and why.

Listen up! Operation Christmas Child happens every year, so if you are reading this after collection week in 2018, no worries, you can gather supplies as you see them all year for next time. But if it is 2018, collection week ends this year on November 19. You can check out the Operation Christmas Child website to find a drop-off location.

We built a box for a boy, aged 10 to 14 years. I picked this age group because many people pack boxes with their kids, building boxes for a child his or her own age. I figured there may be fewer 14 year old boys willing to participate, so there may be a shortage for this demographic.

First, I asked Massimo what he would want. He was, after all, a 10 to 14 year old boy at one point. “A digital watch,” he said. “To tell time, and use as a stop watch for running. I would have loved that.” Perfect! One child’s digital watch was ordered from Amazon. This was the most expensive item for the box, intended to be the “wow” item.

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Next, of course, some school supplies. A trip to Dollar General and the Dollar Tree are prefect stops for this category. I picked up a pencil case, a pencil sharpener, a small pack of crayons, and two notebooks. From my own stash, I collected (all brand-new) two pens, and six of my favorite pencils: Ticonderoga. I also had a ruler that was the perfect size for the pouch, so I threw that in as well. This little boy will be well-prepared for school, drawing, or playing games.

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We can’t not put in some more fun items. I found a blue recorder I was able to take apart to fit in the standard box. I printed off a few fingering charts and song sheets so he could get started on his own musical instrument. Then, a package of sports felt stickers and a zebra figurine for some extra excitement.

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Finally, a few personal care items. I threw in a three-pack of socks, a Superman “magic towel,” and a multi-pack of toothbrushes. Samaritan’s Purse has some important rules about not including food, medicine, or liquid items, so these are safe options.

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And of course, a personal noteI used my happiest stationary to write a short note, conveying our love and hopes for this little boy. Merry Christmas, child of God!

When we make our $9.00 donation (to cover shipping costs) online, we will be able to track our shoe box around the world to its recipient!

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I am humbled at the opportunity to give a gift to a child in need somewhere in the world, and hope and pray that this small gift helps demonstrate to that same child the real reason for Christmas: the gift of salvation through Jesus Christ.

“Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” 2 Corinthians 9:7

What about you? Have you ever packed a shoe box for Operation Christmas Child? What went in your box this year?

-D. E. Barbi Bee

Review: Hits and Misses in Hearth & Hand with Magnolia Holiday 2018 Collection

Like most twenty-something middle-class American females, I am a Chip & Joanna fan, and, naturally, was thrilled when they teamed up to offer an exclusive Target line. Now heading into its second year, we have seen the collection grow and form into its “sweet spot,” develop its signature look, and already pour it’s style onto other Target collections.

The new Hearth & Hand with Magnolia Holiday 2018 Collection has arrived and, having spent enough hours in-store and online, I will now grace you with my favorites and not so favorites from the speckled and evergreen-silhouetted styles of (obviously) Joanna Gaines.

By the way, if you want more unique – albeit slightly pricier – gift and decor selections for the holiday season, you can buy directly from the Magnolia Market online. 

THE FAVORITES

There are many things to ooh and ahh over in the Gaines’ simple, classic designs, but the five below are, in my opinion, stand-outs as practical, and generally crowd-pleasing. These would make great gifts or additions to your own holiday decor.

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You can’t go wrong with their soy candles. With some products, quality is irrelevant. But candles are one item in which you cannot simply go the cheapest route. These candles burn beautifully, so there is no fussing with the wick, nor wasting wax. Their smells are heavenly, and they come in charming re-usable containers. On top of that, the price is highly competitive, especially for a soy candle. They have tons of designs, mostly priced comfortably at $12.99. Feel free to give one of these to every one on your gift list.
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Hearth & Hand finally released toys everyone will want. They have always had a few toy offerings, but this year, their new kitchen line is going to be a hit. Their play kitchens are simply and stylish – to the extent you will not mind if they are out in the open, adjacent to your real kitchen. You can certainly get cheaper play kitchens elsewhere, but there is nothing upsetting about their prices. Their slicing play food and pot and pan set look practical and durable – in other words, made to make both parents and kids happy.

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This advent calendar is nearly perfect. This is a stand-out piece among the collection, in my opinion. It is a precious re-usable advent calendar with sliding bobs to help your family count down to Christmas. It has clean lines to blend easily in your decor, but bright color to add a festive touch. The design is reminiscent of an old washboard, which suits the collections’ farmhouse roots. I much prefer this unique design to their canvas advent calendar, and it is probably my favorite iteration of the new pine-silhouette motif. If this was sold wood, it would be 100% perfect. As-is, the wood-composite material is my only complaint. Adorable.

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These stunning ornaments are unbelievably detailed. When I saw these being un-boxed and placed on the shelves (I happen to be at Target on October 31, one day before the collection launched), I literally did a double-take. What are those? They looked as though the doors would open and tiny fairies would exit through them any moment. They are just too perfect. 100% wood, gorgeously decorated, and $17.99? Can it get any better? Skip the farm house and barn play sets, and get the mini versions for your tree or mantle instead.

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Cute, festive, and useful. These bowls stay true to the heart of Magnolia style: simple, understated, and with that flea-market-find touch of quirk. While I would not set a whole table with Hearth & Hand malformed dinner plates, I think a touch of the hand-made style here and there is a perfect application. They remind me of the measuring cups many people love (though I find, for actual measuring, they are impractical), but with a holiday season spin. These would make great candy dishes, appetizer bowls, prep bowls, or containers for sauces and toppings. I can see these mini bowls being used over and over, year after year, and they would make a great gift for anyone on your list (or for yourself).

THE LESS FAVORITES

I do hate to be negative, especially when someone attaches their name, face, and family all over a brand. But not everything is perfect art, and the following are a few items I would say you do not need to put in your Target shopping cart.

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I don’t understand the plumbobs. This is a recurring theme in the holiday collection, and I simply don’t understand. Cute? Sure. Is the quality there? Probably. But there is nothing “Christmas” about an old carpenter’s tool. This reminds me of a sea-side cottage more than a ski resort. It’s a pass for me.

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I can’t get over how unnecessary this toy barn play set is. This, along with the doll farm house, are some of the most expensive items in the collection. This one offends me even more than the $150.00 farm house because this one comes with wooden animal figurines which are not only choking hazards, but they look about as animal-like as animal crackers. They should have skipped the animals altogether and knocked $20.00 off the price. I just find this toy entirely unnecessary. There are thousands of toy barns on the market, including some all-wood models for half the price, which actually come with painted, recognizable animals.

GUEST_c9f14475-295a-454e-af5a-5c6e8c594986.jpgSome short-cuts were taken with this serving kettle. I generally like most of the serve ware in the Hearth & Hand line, so I was surprised by the lack of finishing touches on this beverage server. The ivory, lidded stoneware kettle seems like the perfect addition to a holiday collection, but the printed plaid design is disappointing. It is prone to chips and flakes, as you will see if you pick one up in the store. If this was a textured, sweater-like design, or even the signature “X” pattern, it would be adorable. But the simple print looks and feels cheap. The vessel is also, overall, small.
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Nothing wrong in particular, but this set is too much. This is an intentionally slightly misshapen stoneware plate and mug. It is white and has two words stamped on it. That’s it. It comes in an enormous gift-set box, which I am sure will impress when someone opens it, but it is too big and costs too much. It is a cute idea, if your family has a tradition of setting out milk and cookies for Santa. But both items should be smaller (the plate is the big enough for a dozen cookies) and the whole set should be $12-$15. Period.

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Maybe if you are into creepy Christmas decor? This canvas wall tapestry is supposed to be a centerpiece in your entryway, I suppose. But it is both too abstract and foreboding. The enormous piece of “natural” fabric measures three feet by two feet, and slightly resembles Slender Man’s fat sister emerging from the fog. There are no pictures to inspire how to style this piece, and it is not hard to imagine why. What do you do with this movie poster? Do yourself and your guests a favor, and hang your kid’s drawings instead.

What did you like from the Magnolia line for Target? What are your favorites?

Sample Gender-Neutral Capsule Wardrobe for IUGR/Preemie Babies

I am fascinated by the idea of a capsule wardrobe for babies and kids. It seems like the perfect plan for a person who is constantly growing out of his or her clothes: it reduces the number of overall pieces, and, if the various wardrobes for each size coordinate, you can maximize use of every item during transitional sizes.

A capsule wardrobe is the minimalist concept of having a “core” set of items that can generally all coordinate together and are thoughtfully suited to your particular daily needs. The neutral basics can be made unique with a few accessories or stand-out statement pieces. Some of its proponents have an ideal number of pieces (seven, thirty-three, thirty-seven). But, for babies, the number is not as significant as the efficiency. Baby clothes are small, so thirty-five pieces will take up hardly any more space than twenty-five pieces. Additionally, babies grow quickly, their needs change quickly in different environments and moods, and they tend to make messes and need multiple outfit changes per day.

This wardrobe I designed to meet the following criteria:

  1. Gender-Neutral: When I was pregnant with Theodore, we chose not to find out our baby’s gender until he was born. We felt it was a fun surprise, and we liked the challenge of finding unisex clothes that could work for this baby, and any subsequent babies, no matter the gender. Neutral wardrobes help maximize efficiency of your baby clothes, especially since your baby will grow out of these tiny ones very quickly! You can always supplement with more feminine or masculine accessories and statement pieces, but this capsule wardrobe on its own can work for a boy or a girl.
  2. Designed for premature and/or IUGR babies: When I was 31 weeks pregnant, we found out our baby was not growing properly, and later discovered it was because his placenta was not growing properly. We ended up having him at 37 weeks gestation, and he weighed 4 pounds, 10 ounces. He spent 6 days in the NICU, and wore preemie sized clothes until he was about one month old. It is surprisingly difficult to find preemie clothes that look cute, and if your baby is in the NICU, you need to keep in mind accommodations for wires, tubes, and sensors. This wardrobe is not for 8-pound, overdue babies; it was made from my experience in the NICU, and with a very tiny, generally cold newborn at home.
  3. Made for mild/transitional weather: Our son was born at the end of summer/beginning of fall. His first few months of life, the weather continued to get increasingly cold. These clothes are exactly the type of things we needed, and anyone would need, during those transitional seasons. They allow for easy layering, and are not heavy-weight or bulky.
  4. Cost-conscious: There are some AMAZINGLY cute brands out there that produce ADORABLE clothes (I’m looking at you, Rylee + Cru, and anything on Spearmint Love). BUT, I personally can’t go out and spend that kind of money of something my baby will wear for a few weeks maximum. Plus, these boutique brands generally don’t include preemie sizes in their collections. I tried to keep these prices in the $10.00-$20.00 range, and only a few of them are outside (some more and some less). Plus, a lot of these brands tend to have coupons or sales. There is one boutique line on here, and it is very cost-efficient and designs specifically for preemies.

With those guidelines in mind, let’s jump into the wardrobe!

Here is a list of everything included in this gender-neutral capsule wardrobe for preemie/IUGR newborn babies (click this link to see the whole wardrobe on Pinterest):

Body Suits: 12 short-sleeve, 1 long-sleeve
Shirts: 5 long-sleeve
Pants: 3 footed, 3 regular
10 one-piece sleep ‘n’ plays
1 cardigan
1 sweatshirt (zip-up)
6 hats
2 pairs crib shoes
1 Cotton sleep sack
12 pairs socks

Body Suits: There are many more short-sleeve than long-sleeve because the short-sleeve ones are really great for layering. You can pretty much put a short-sleeve onesie/bodysuit under any of these outfits to additional warmth and comfort. There are two side-snap onesies, which are great for the NICU (lines and wires can poke through the snaps), and allow you to avoid pulling anything over your newborn’s head, which they hate and can be very difficult with a floppy newborn.

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a420ba7d4d8470fbe4196d105f87b54f.jpge41e9c4cf546f38b084bde49739c3e73.jpgShirts: These are excellent for layering, and are light cotton, so there is no extra bulk getting in the way. My baby loved to be swaddled in the those early weeks, so putting him in a bulky sweater and then swaddling him was not really practical. These side-snap shirts are what the nurses put on him in the NICU whenever his body temperature was a little low. You can even roll up the sleeves if they are too big. These shirts also have little pockets that flip over your baby’s hands if they are prone to getting cold or scratching themselves.

**Random note on swaddling: my son was too small for the specialized “swaddle” blankets that come with snaps and velcro and all sorts of gadgets. They could never get tight enough for our little warrior. We used plain old receiving blankets and muslin swaddles to keep him bundled up and they worked great for us.**

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Pants: I loved pants with feet attached because there were no socks to worry about, and the pants never rolled up and exposed Theo’s legs to the cold air. I also included footless pants for those warmer days, or to accommodate foot sensors in the NICU. These are all light-weight cotton as well. Remember, in those early days, your child isn’t crawling or walking, so light pants won’t get stained with dirt at that point. If he has a leaky diaper and makes a mess, castile soap, applied directly and rubbed in when it was still wet, always removed the stains for us.

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10 Sleep ‘n’ plays: These are essentially the most comfortable / only thing a baby wants to wear. They can work as pajamas, they can work as a day-time outfit. Layer them with a body suit and they are extra cozy. One of these is made of thermal material, the others are regular cotton. Some of these are zip-up, and some are snaps. Some have feet and others don’t. A word on sizing: my son was the weight of a preemie, but was 18 inches long. Most preemie clothes fit 17-inch babies. Accordingly, while he was swimming in newborn size outfits, his legs were too long for preemie outfits. We cut the feet off his outfits to allow him to wear them, but that explains why the footless outfits may be better, depending on your baby’s measurements.

**Note re: baby gowns. We loved the idea of a simple, no-fasteners’ article that could just be slipped up to change a diaper. The problem was, the gowns were no good for car rides (you can’t fasten the car seat between it’s legs), so you could only use them in the house. Also, they offered very little in thermal protection, and the ones we got were too big for our itty newborn. We did use them when he was in 0-3 month sizes, but when was very little, they just slid off his shoulders.

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00accbcda15106308e40a2f97b51f7fb.jpg52cc7dc8abdd65d1395272d787ee0f411-e1538578254761.jpg5925fac3eeea57d8c3bec82ca192e6fc1.jpg1 Cardigan: There is not really much in the realm of “cute” or “dressy” preemie sized clothes. But if there is a nice occasion (baptism, dedication, wedding) and you think your baby maybe should wear something other than essentially pajamas, here is a sweet, warm, neutral outfit that could work. Plus, the quilted style can layer nicely with other items in cold weather.

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1 Zip-up Sweatshirt: Enough, with the layers, already! No, I won’t. A light-weight cotton sweatshirt helps add that all-important warmth without too much bulk, again. And the zipper makes it easy to come on and off. I had one very similar to this for Theodore and I think he wore it for about four months. A very useful item for us!5e1d77dbd2aeb8836065319d09d71695.jpg
6 Hats: My dear little one was totally bald for the first 10 months or so, and was very cold on top of it. He wore a hat almost every day in the winter, and even to bed, to help him stay warm. Some of the sets above come with hats, and here are a couple of others. Hat sizes are really weird, so you will need several to switch between as his or her head size changes.

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2 Pairs Crib Shoes: These fleece booties are the best! I was so, so sad when my baby grew out of them. Shoes at this age are not for protecting feet from the ground or providing stability: they are to help keep socks on and keep the baby’s feet warm. These velcro shoes are incredibly warm and stay on like glue! The smaller cotton booties are for less chilly weather and are basically slippers for your baby. So sweet!

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1 Cotton Sleep Sack: As I said above, our baby was too small for the specialized velcro “swaddles,” so we wrapped him tightly him with regular swaddle blankets. If your baby doesn’t like being swaddled, or gets too hot, I recommend sleep sacks. They are safe and when your baby starts moving around, she won’t kick them off!

83598c10180fad3ad293fd0562296c05.jpg12 Pairs Socks: Colored and patterned socks are super cute, but do you know the only thing worse than sitting around pairing grown-up socks? Sitting around pairing up tiny, doll-size socks! And if you are missing one, you might as well throw away the other one! That’s why I love having a multi-pack of all white socks. These are a great, low-cost option that, in my experience, actually stay on the baby’s feet. They are thin and stretchy.

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There you have it! 56 total items, at an average price of $8.20 per item, creating literally dozens of outfits! And by no means does everyone need all of these things to have a highly-functional newborn capsule wardrobe! To further extend the use of this wardrobe, and depending on your particular circumstances, it may be prudent to purchase some things in preemie size, and some in newborn size. Also, Burt’s Bees clothes tend to run a little smaller than Carter’s. I hope this helps you get excited about getting tiny clothes for your tiny miracle! Having or expecting a premature baby can be very stressful, but having a few cute clothes on your little warrior to look forward to can help, even if it’s just a little.

– D. E. Barbi Bee

 

P.S. Eventually your preemie will grow up, so I also made a Pinterest Board Capsule Wardrobe for a 12-month old boy in the fall/winter months. Check it out here!

How to Build Your Emergency Kit Without Breaking the Bank

In March of 2018, we experienced our first emergency situation in our new home: an enormous snow storm rapidly and dramatically took down trees and covered our town in heavy, white fluff. At the end of it all, our house came out unscathed, and we only lost power for about three days. We were also able to evacuate to my parents’ home to keep warm and utilize their generators. But it was a wake-up call: we were not at all prepared for when the next emergency inevitably arrives.

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Our initial brainstorming session for our budget-friendly emergency kit.

While I would love to believe we will have plenty of time to gather necessary supplies before the next big event, the fact is we may not. Despite having literally the best weather prediction and communication technology since the dawn of human history, we can’t always predict an emergency. Storms can change course at the last minute, stall over us, or otherwise become much more severe than anticipated. Furthermore, not all emergencies are slow-moving storms we can see on radar; there could be human-caused disasters without warning at any time, such as fires and explosions. Finally, if there is a storm coming, and we all know how bad it is going to be, I don’t want to be the one driving to dozens of grocery stores gathering supplies, only to be met with empty shelves.

With our purpose in mind, and our budget a reality, we knew we just couldn’t settle for a pre-made emergency kit from the store. These emergency preparedness kits are built for a single purpose: to list as many items on the tag as possible. Just like first aid kits from the store, they often contain less-than-practical, low-cost articles just to impress you. I even saw one that included a deck of playing cards! Plus, they are expensive, and usually only contain a few days’ worth of supplies for one or two people. Finally, anything labeled “for emergencies” tends to have a hefty mark-up. We needed something bigger and more specialized to suit our family.

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Below are the steps we followed to execute our mission of building our own emergency kit on a budget, along with the items we eventually included!

1. First, we determined what our most likely emergencies would be.

In the last couple of years, our town has been hit with post-hurricane tropical storms, blizzards, near-tornado wind storms, and flash floods. These events resulted in trees breaking and falling, power outages, significant cold, roads being washed out, and us sheltering in the basement. For these scenarios, we decided we needed to prepare something waterproof, portable, and which contains enough supplies for several days. Not an easy task.

2. How are we going to hold this thing?

After browsing list upon list of suggested emergency kit supplies, it started to look like we would need a whole trailer to contain everything they said we needed! But that wasn’t an option, both because we don’t have a trailer, and because our kit needed to be portable. We decided to split our kit into a few pieces. First, we would build our first aid kit. This element would be essential not only for injuries during an emergency but also in the event anyone in the house experienced a significant injury at any time. The first aid supplies simply took up too much space in our emergency kit. Plus, we wanted to store them in different places (more on this later). We chose to use a basic, inexpensive tool box for our first aid kit. We painted a red cross on it as a label, and we were off.

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Our first aid kit is not just for big weather events: it could be necessary even on a sunny day with clear streets.

Next, we have the main emergency kit. The vessel for this part had to be inexpensive and portable as well. We wanted to start with a “bare bones” kit, and as our needs and means increased, we figured we could add on with more vessels. What we chose was a 5-gallon “Homer” bucket and lid from Home Depot. With a handle for carrying and a price of less than $5, it was a no-brainer. Backpacks are comfortable for carry, but they are not water proof. Also, a bucket would be extremely useful in a myriad of emergencies, such as to carry water or sand, or even to convert to a makeshift washing bucket or toilet. This bucket also won’t get so full that a single person couldn’t carry it at least a short distance. We wrote on it with a sharpie “EMERGENCY KIT,” and moved on to filling it.

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This bucket is not very easy to open and close, but it makes a tight seal and is easily transported.

Finally, we chose to assemble mini emergency kits for our cars, as well. It is highly unlikely we would have an evacuation and not be able to go home for our main kit, but there could be road-side emergencies that call for having a car version of this kit as well. We went with something we already had: small “first aid kit” carriers from Wal-Mart. The contents in these kits are exactly what I was talking about above: a whole lot of fluff, including valuable coupons! But we had them already for each car, and we figured there were compact enough to do the job.

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These pre-made kits came in handy for once: we emptied them out and filled them with our own supplies!

3. What am I supposed to put in this thing?

Before we get into the actual list of the contents, let me tell you to keep a few things in mind when building these kits:

  • Shop at home first: Many items for your kit you may already have, so there is no point in going out and spending more money for a special “emergency” version. A lot of this process is about realizing your resources, gathering them in one place, and creating a goal of filling in the gaps over time (when an item goes on sale, becomes available for free, or your get the extra money to make a purchase).
  • Then shop at the dollar store: LOTS of these elements were purchased at the Dollar Tree. You can pretty much fill your entire first aid kit from the Dollar Tree.
  • Finally, set goals for how to build your kit over time. You do NOT need to get a full emergency kit all at once. Maybe you just got a tax refund or bonus, and you want to dedicate it to this project. But this is not an all-or-nothing thing: any amount of emergency preparedness is better than none. So don’t get overwhelmed with the cost and put it off. Start small, and build it up later. Every time you go to the grocery store, buy one more item for the kit.
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Now, on to contents. Let’s start with the first aid kit. This kit should just contain the things we would need in an EMERGENCY. This is not for colds and headaches. This is for lacerations and sudden allergic reactions. We wouldn’t take up precious space with items that should be in our medicine cabinet. We also considered items that could play multiple roles. For example, instead of getting braces for each hand, using an ace bandage, combined with a stick, any brace could be assembled. What we ended up with is this:

  • latex gloves
  • bandaids (numerous sizes/shapes)
  • antibiotic ointment
  • gauze pads
  • alcohol prep pads
  • hand sanitizer
  • instant ice pack
  • ace bandages
  • medical tape
  • hydrogen peroxide
  • spray alcohol
  • benadry/allergy medicine
  • butterfly bandages
  • aspirin
  • gauze tape
  • thermometer

Most of these items are focused on cuts or broken bones. Keep in mind, even if there were clear roads and no snow, we still live about 30 minutes from a hospital emergency room. Accordingly, some injuries could be life-threatening if we didn’t have supplies such as these on hand.

Next, our emergency kit. Remember, we have a very small carrier, so we had to keep this list basic as well. We realized we could not keep several days’ worth of water and food in this bucket, so we committed to storing water in the basement beside it and relying on our pantry items for the bulk of our food in a true emergency. We tend to keep our pantry well-stocked with canned and dry goods, so that shouldn’t be an issue. Just in case, we included a few food items in the bucket, as well. Here is what we are keeping in the bucket:

  • emergency radio – to receive information and charge devices
  • flashlight – to see dangers, signal rescuers, and find supplies
  • phone charging chord – to charge our phones from the emergency radio or at a shelter
  • two cans of food (pork beans and soup) – protein, filling (pull-tab cans so we don’t need a can opener)
  • five-pack ramen noodles – good filler, cooks quickly
  • trail mix – high-energy snack
  • dried banana chips – high calorie snack, high in potassium
  • peanut butter – good for protein, calories, fat, vegetarian
  • $60.00 cash – to buy supplies when credit card machines are down
  • strike anywhere matches – to start warming/cooking fires
  • emergency blankets – to keep warm, use as ground cover, rain protection, etc.
  • garbage bags – to wear as rain ponchos, carry supplies, cover items and windows in the event of a leak or structural damage, etc.
  • zip-ties – to secure items in the event of heavy rain or the need to construct an emergency structure
  • duct tape – to secure items for transport, tie-down objects from flying around in wind, floods, etc., to cover windows in plastic (from garbage bags)
  • baby wipes – for cleaning people and cooking utensils
  • hand sanitizer – for cleaning people

In addition to these items, we have a few things in our house beside our bucket to use as well. We have a propane camp stove, extra fuel, and 2 camp mess kits. Many things you already have to go camping can be stored as emergency kit stock. Remember: you may already have a lot of these items at home!

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The list inside the lid helps you re-check the stock periodically and know what to expect when you open your car kit.

In our two car mini emergency kits, our space is even more precious. So we kept it very basic:

  • $20.00 cash
  • emergency blanket (if you get the set link above, you can break up the multi-pack and put one in each car)
  • road flare (this multi-pack can also be split up between two cars and/or the main emergency kit)
  • Gauze pads
  • Ace bandage
  • medical tape
  • antibiotic ointment
  • aspirin
  • benadryl
  • window breaker/seatbelt cutter (not to be stored in kit, to be stored in center console/easy access near driver)
  • granola bars
  • juice boxes
  • pocket knife/Leatherman

We also always have flashlights, because I have one on my keychain and Massimo carries one in his pocket at all times. Mini flashlights are SO GOOD and everyone should have one. This kit is for the basic basics, but certain needs only arise in the car (i.e. seat belt cutter) and should be left there. Also, keep in mind, in most emergency evacuations, you will have your car with you, so I mentally combined my car emergency kits and regular kit when I am considering what supplies I would have. For example, with the cash, if there are two of you, and you each have $20.00 in your cars, plus $60.00 in the house kit, you have a total of $100.00.

4. Okay, but what didn’t you put in there?

All of these kits have been thought-out and the contents carefully chosen for our specific needs. We have no pets, so we don’t need extra food and water for our pet. We do have a child, but he is at the point where he can eat what we eat. When he was a baby, we had to consider formula and bottles for our emergency kit. Diapers are obviously a need, but we didn’t have space to fill up with diapers, and his size changes frequently. Therefore, I always keep extra diapers in my car and we would grab extras if we needed to leave, just like we would grab extra clothes, etc.

We also didn’t include any personal hygiene items or prescription medications. Other than hand sanitizer, we didn’t want to waste the space. In a sudden evacuation, we figured we would not care if our teeth were brushed and if I had contact solution. If we had the time to care about it, we would have the time to grab it.

4. Finally, on to packing and storing our kits!
Save space and weight: When you have gathered all your supplies, take as many out of their packages as possible; it will save a lot of space. Putting them in order from largest/heaviest items on the bottom and lighter/smaller items on top will save space, protect the contents, and make the bucket more balanced and easier to carry.

Prevent moisture damage: In our first aid kit, we took everything out of their boxes and grouped similar objects, securing them with rubber bands. After a few months, we opened the kit and everything was covered in mold and mildew! We got rid of the worst offenders, bleached the rest, and ordered a fifty-pack of silica gel packets. (These are very cheap, but you can also save them from your medications, purses, etc.) Then, we grouped similar items in ziploc baggies, and put silica gel packets in each one.

Decide where it will live: We considered that it was unlikely we would face a total structural collapse, as in an earthquake. At first we kept the main kit high in the attic, figuring that would be dry. Well, it was dry, but it was also high up. When we were subject to a tornado warning and I was huddled in the basement with my son, the kit in the attic was no good to us. We realized it could get wet (it is waterproof!) but we needed it down in the basement to be most accessible.

I believe it is important to be prepared, not only for the sake of you and your household, but also for your neighbors and friends around you. Even if we have the time and means to go buy extra food and shelter in place, the low-income and sick or elderly people around us may not. That is why we need to make sure we check on our neighbors and lend a hand; to be a help, rather than a burden.

Even though I can’t keep every single possible need in my kit, I can bring a few essentials to the table. And if we can each have a few essentials, we can pool our resources and help each other to get through whatever event we are going through.

I hope this helps you and your household feel a little more prepared for an emergency situation, and gives you ideas for how to build your own emergency kit on a budget!

– D. E. Barbi Bee

To Know

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When I was a freshman in college, I sat in that big lecture hall in Jenks at Gordon College and walked through the Old Testament with Professor Hildebrandt. I have not thought of his name – or even remembered it – since graduation until this very moment.

Professor Hildebrandt introduced me to the idea that there are different types of “knowledge.” There is the knowledge that is based on simple information: as in, the knowledge of facts in an trivial sense. I know the world is round. I know there is a big rain forest in South America that is vital to our planet’s health and survival. It is facts, theories, testing. It is all cerebral.

Then there is experiential knowledge – also called a posteriori or empirical knowledge. This is knowledge that can only come from first-hand experience; via interaction with the fact. I have empirical knowledge of what it is like to be a woman, a mother, a lawyer. I have empirical knowledge of things lately I never wanted to know.

One night last month, I felt under attack. It was three months to the day Johnny left this earth. Other issues and conflicts and bad things I couldn’t control were swirling around in our world, attacking us from every angle. At 10:30 in the evening, the wet air filled with darkness, I sat on the front steps to my house with my husband beside me. My eyes swollen with tears.

I said to him, “I didn’t want to know.”

What I meant was, “I didn’t want to experience. I didn’t want to have this first-hand information and interaction with this stuff that is so dark. I didn’t want to have undeniable information about the sin around this world. In my own neighborhood. In my own town.

I thought back to before he died. There was so much I didn’t know. I didn’t know what went into planning a funeral when the person made no arrangements beforehand. I didn’t know how much a funeral cost. I didn’t know the feeling of grief in your stomach that prevents you from wanting any food for days. I didn’t know how long it took to do an autopsy. I didn’t know how all this would happen. I didn’t know how it was supposed to happen. I didn’t know how to find a burial site. I didn’t know how much they cost. I didn’t know how to tell people and who to tell and the order of things.

Over his years of addiction, there were so many things I didn’t know that I know now. I sometimes look back and feel downright stupid for the things about which I was naive. Simultaneously, I long for that naive girl once again. I didn’t know you can overdose and not die. I didn’t know the signs of drug use. I didn’t the progression of the disease. I didn’t know you can’t believe or trust an addict. I didn’t know addicts lie to themselves as much as they lie to us. I didn’t know they would blame us when we didn’t believe or trust them. I didn’t know I would buy it. I didn’t know it was a disease. I didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t know that prison wouldn’t be the worst thing. I didn’t know I would wish he was in prison. I didn’t know how he would disappear when the drugs were in his life. I didn’t know how much some people lie.

I hate lying.

I wish I didn’t know. But now this knowledge is knit into me. Over the last several months, countless people have told me, “I don’t know, I can’t imagine what this must be like.” I immediately respond, “Good. I wish I didn’t know, either.”

But too many of us do know. We know now and replay and retrace the steps every day, thinking, “What could we do differently? How could we stop this? How did I miss this?’ And we will never get a chance to find the answer. The one thing we would give our very lives to know, we never will.

 

Today is International Overdose Awareness Day.

Top Five Baby Products for the First Year

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When I was pregnant, I looked at a ton of baby product lists. “Top 10 Baby Products You Didn’t Think To Put On Your Registry,” “The 5 Baby Products You Don’t Actually Need,” “The Bare Essentials Minimalist Baby List.” I saw them all.

After my son arrived, I watched YouTube Videos particular to each developmental age. “Baby Favorites for 3-6 Months,” “Baby Essentials for 9-12 Months.” And it was all really helpful, but a little overwhelming. What do I reallly need?

Now that my son is almost a whole year old (sob, weep, cry), I have a twelve full months’ experience under my belt in the products he actually used all the time. These are the baby products that pulled their weight during every developmental age, every time. Some times, their purpose changed, but they were still extremely useful.

So, if you are about to have your first baby and wondering, What the heck will this kid love for a whole year? This list is for you: the top five bare essential, ride-or-die, useful for 365 days baby products for your son or daughter’s first year.

 

1.  These two books: My First Busy Book and Goodnight Moon.

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These are the first books my son loved. As for My First Busy Book, where do I begin? This book is amazing. First of all, it has Eric Carle illustrations, which are perfect – colorful, whimsical – perfect. It is the first book Theodore actually looked at when he was just a few weeks old (that is because there is a mirror on the first page, but hey, whatever). Every page is so simple, but opens up the possibility for him to enjoy it and engage with it in new ways all through kindergarten. There are questions on each page prompting you (the parent) to ask questions and dialogue. It has textures and flaps. It is just the kind of book my tactile little boy needs. Get this book. (Shout-out to Aunt Rebekah for hooking us up with this.)

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Goodnight Moon, in the board book edition, is soothing and simple. Every other page is a color image of the whole room, and then a black-and-white picture of a single object in the room. When we get to the colored pictures, Theodore slaps his hands on the page and stares at every detail. Now that he’s a little older, I think he is starting to piece together the fact that those little black-and-white objects are in the colored pictures. He is looking for them! This book is a classic for a reason, and in my opinion it is a must-have in your collection.

2.  Muslin Swaddles

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You can get these from tons of brands, the most common one is Aden + Anais, but as long as they are 100% cotton muslin, you are going to get the same effect. They come in tons of prints and patterns, too.

Why are they so useful? In the beginning, you can use these as swaddle blankets, covers on your car seat and stroller, nursing covers, and spit-up wipes. Later, you can also use them as impromptu pack-n-play sheets, a ground cover for a play area, a security blanket, a light summer blanket, and so much more. The bottom line is that these blankets are super light-weight and soft, and also BIG. They are crazy easy to clean (so you don’t mind using them as a burp cloth) and actually get softer the more you clean them. They roll up really small to easily toss in your diaper bag to do the work of about seven other products. They are just one of those strange things you think, Why do I need a piece of muslin? And then suddenly you don’t know why you wouldn’t.

3.  Wooden blocks/My First Blocks by Fisher Price

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These are two versions of a similar toy. We have both and use both, but I think they serve similar purposes.

Wooden blocks are a great toy for toddles, too, but Theodore loved to play with them since an early age. He chews on them, and slobbers them up. I stack them up, and he knocks them down. I pile them in a small basket, he dumps them out. And soon, he’ll start stacking them up for even more ways to play. The blocks I have were from my father’s childhood, but you can find them every where these days. I also love teaching him the letters and pointing to the pictures on the side. What makes these toys so great: versatility.

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The first blocks toy is another classic for the same reason: versatility. I tried packing this toy away, thinking he would get tired of it, but no other toy engages him like this one time after time. He lifts off the lid and pulls out every single block. he bangs them together to make noises. We pass them back and forth. And now, I’m teaching him how to put them through the unique holes. We got this on sale for five dollars, and it has provided far more than the price tag required!

4.  Fruit Silicone Teethers

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Babies start teething at all different ages, but their discomfort from teething can start long before that first tooth breaks through. Plus, around four months, babies start putting everything in their mouths (taste is one of the five senses they are using the explore their world).

Theodore has had a few teething toys, but the one that he loved most at first, and still loves today, are these “fruit-on-a-stick” style silicone teething toys. The stick is very easy to hold, even for young babies, which gives them the independence you both love. They can be frozen for even more relief, as well. Every different fruit has interesting textures and colors, and the bottom even has a few more textures to ease sore gums. Finally, they can easily be attached with a pacifier clip to keep them from dropping to the ground. These have been a go-to for eight months in our house, and I don’t see him losing interest in them any time soon.

These are a version (the only ones I can find) that are made in the USA.

5.  A ball

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One of Theodore’s first favorite toys (which he still loves now), was a rattle O-Ball. It is a gift I like to give most new moms, because it is really easy for a baby even a month old to hold, and basically it feels really cool to see your newborn “play” with their first toy.

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After that, I found a set of three soft balls at Marshalls for less than ten dollars, and they have been a hit with this kid! Not only do they help encourage him to move and work on his gross motor skills, he just finds them really funny. He literally laughs picking them up and flinging them around, and he can’t do any damage with them (yet) because they are so soft. These ones are small enough for him to hold, and have slightly textured grips on them to make it even easier. Every time he finds these in his toy basket, he loves throwing them around and chasing them all around the living room.

These are the kind of toys he will love even when he’s a toddler or preschooler, so they are well worth the few dollar investment!

What were your child’s most-loved and most-used products from the first year?

– D. E. Barbi Bee

Blueberry Mania

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We bought our house in December of last year.  At the time, the landscaping was nothing to be thrilled about. The backyard was grey and wet, and trees were being scaled by vines. There was a row of blueberry bushes that did not look alive, let alone fruit-producing. We more or less ignored them, so as to not get our hopes up.

When spring came around, you can imagine our surprise when the blueberry bushes (all five of them) sprouted leaves, then blossoms, and then tiny berries! Every week – like magic, as nature always seems – since the beginning of July, we have been drowning in plump, sweet, sun-warmed blueberries!

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Right now, I have about 3 pounds frozen in vacuum bags. I have another 5 pounds in the fridge as I write this. We have given away just as much as we have kept. And still more are coming! I estimate we have gotten at least 25 pounds so far this year.

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Theodore is thrilled, as he suddenly has his favorite food in endless supply. He often lunges out of our arms to grasp as the blue pops in the bushes as we walk past.

After freezing, eating fresh, topping yogurt, filling pancakes, and everything else we could imagine, I finally admitted it was time to face my fear and settle into the reality: I had to make jam.

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I love the idea of making jam: it is a cost-efficient way of storing the extra harvest for future months and years. But notwithstanding my desire to connect with the New Englanders and farmers of ages gone by, I was scared to death of this process and refused to bite the bullet.

I don’t know what scared me most. I had visions of exploding jars and molding sauces for some reason. It was built up in my head as an extremely delicate science experiment I was bound to foul up.

But this Sunday, with seven or so pounds of blueberries sitting on my counter and no idea of how else to make use of them, I spontaneously dove in.

My father-in-law Tony and sister-in-law Katie happened to be over our house that afternoon. Tony/Dad lent me all the expertise and confidence I needed. Katie wrestled Theodore so I could concentrate. Massimo cleared the counters.

I decided to start small – just a few jars – in case this went all wrong. I looked at this extremely un-intimidating recipe for guidance: a two-ingredient refrigerator jam. What could be easier simpler than that?

But my dear father-in-law, Tony, wouldn’t settle for refrigerator jam. It could go bad! Okay, so, a word on Tony: Tony hails from a little-known culinary hot spot called Italy, and happens to be a professional chef. He grew up with farmers and women who cooked bread every week and stoked a fire all day. His favorite things in the world are his family and talking about the food of his childhood: grape leaves dripping in natural syrup from the raisins stuffed inside; barrels of fresh fruit sunk in the rivers and lakes to keep fresh; stealing salami hanging from the rafters; rare treats of ice cream cones and sodas; and the “lazy summer meals” made of buffalo mozzarella and prosciutto. He has a wealth of knowledge that I am only beginning to absorb. As often as we can, Massimo and I love to cook with him or hear recipes from his childhood, to maintain the heritage and keep the memories alive for all of us.

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Antonio Barbi and his first grandson, Theodore Antonio.

So on this particular day, in his passionate, fantastical way, Dad/Father-in-Law/Nonno/Tony made canning sound so easy. After all, his mother and Nonna would do it all the time, out of pure necessity. He stood there in the kitchen and told me, mouth slightly frowned, hand gesturing along, and bottom lip pushed forward, “Just put it in the pan, add some water, and sugar, and let it cook down. You put it in the jars, put on the lids, and heat them again. That’s it.”

Easy!

[You have to hear this story with his hand acting out all the steps as he speaks. Sprinkle the sugar = delicately but decisively rubbing his fingers together and gesticulating them in a circle over the imaginary “pot.” Also he has a thick accent. For example, that afternoon we saw a small toad in the garden and I swore he was telling me the animal looked like he should be named “Todd.” (“It’s a Todd! It’s a Todd!”)]

Off I went. Recipe thrown out the window. Just following my gut and my father-in-law’s ancestral knowledge. Just a quick Google search to make sure I sanitize the jars long enough and that was all.

I dunked the small mason jars and lids (three, because I was advised by Dad the product will go down to about half it’s original volume), in a large pot of water and boiled them for five minutes. They were removed. “Lay them on a clean towel.” – Dad. Ok.

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I poured two pounds of blueberries in the pot. I added one and a half cups of sugar in. (Haha, at this point I was still considering the recipe.)

Then – a moment. My instinct told me to improvise and I had to listen. Almost without thinking, my hand grabbed the cinnamon and sprinkled a light cover over the contents of the pot. What are you doing? I wanted to smell it together, that was all. I had to do it.

I cooked it on medium. I mashed it a little with a potato masher to help break the skins, and basically stirred constantly. Eventually I pulled up a stool to sit while I stirred my precious concoction. Easy!

After probably 45 minutes, the blueberries having completely broken down and unrecognizable from their original state, I gave up on it ever becoming “thick” and resolved at least I would have blueberry sauce.

(Dad would have given me the advice I needed,and told me it will thicken once it cools, but he had run down to the restaurant to get something. So I was flying blind now.)

I poured the sauce into the clean jars (over a plate, so as to not stain my towel too much). It turns out I should have done four small mason jars; that would have been perfect. But the last bit I simply put in a pyrex dish and said we would use it right away.

I filled the jars as high as I could. I was following my gut and it felt scary but exciting. There is something about not using a recipe. It makes cooking more of an act of creativity, rather than following instructions and procedure. It uses a different part of your brain and I thrive on it.

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I secured the lids tightly and brought the pot of water back up to a boil. This was a perfect moment to taste some of this sweet delight. I let tiny drops cool and tasted – it was amazing! The spicy cinnamon balanced the sweet sugar and tart berries. It was summery and autumnal at the same time. Theodore licked the wooden spoon, as all children should do when their parent is baking. He was obsessed.

The portion in the pyrex dish was a really good “control”, because it allowed me to watch the texture change as it cooled. Much to my surprise and delight, over the next hour the jam cooled to an actual jelly-like consistency! I couldn’t believe it worked! My instinct, yet again, was right.

I cooked the jars, submerged in water, for about ten minutes (I forgot to start the timer, so I went long on this part), and removed them. Sure enough, POP! went the lids. My experiment continued to work out.

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Dad came back and was extremely proud of my results. I was now disappointed I only made three jars, but it just means I get to make more again soon!

In a matter of a few hours I went from too many blueberries and an unnecessary fear of exploding glass in my kitchen, to three jars of jam and the specific brand of confidence that only comes from believing in your creativity.

– D. E. Barbi Bee

P.S. Shout-out to Michaela Pesce for suggesting this post! Readers, send me any suggestion you have for posts, I love it!

 

What is the music like in Heaven?

36759298_2138347296178730_4116625569376894976_n.jpgI took this picture on Monday, when I couldn’t stop thinking about Johnny for no apparent reason.

I left work early, and I almost didn’t stop. But then I did. I got out and walked around and yelled at the dirt and the sky.

I took these pictures to remember what this place looked like at this particular moment. We are working on finalizing his headstone, so this wooden cross won’t be here forever.

I looked at this picture over and over since, and that tree, to the left: it is so overwhelming. It is incredible to stand under, breathing in its sap. Johnny would have loved this tree, no doubt. That massive pine.

But then I looked at it again, and suddenly the third verse of “In Christ Alone” came to my mind:

There in the ground His body lay,
Light of the world by darkness slain:
Then bursting forth in glorious day
Up from the grave He rose again.

How the disciples – how Mary – must have felt when Jesus’ body was in that grave for three days. They thought it was over. It was sealed. It was done. Cut down in his prime, at the height of his ministry. I now understand how they felt.

I love that song, “In Christ Alone.” It has the weight and subject matter of an old hymn. In fact, I often look for it when flipping through my antique hymnals. But it was written in 2001, though timeless as it already is.

That got me thinking about the music in Heaven. Do you think there are songs they sing in Heaven that we don’t know yet? Were they singing “In Christ Alone” in the presence of God before it was shared with us here on earth?

What is the music like in Heaven, anyway? I often pictured numerous languages and styles being played over each other, but are there even lyrics? Or melodies? Or is it so overwhelming, the love, that it just bursts out, incomprehensible? Or is it silent, with the sound of future, endless, eternal glory and magnificence ever-approaching, humming in the distance, but barely audible at all.

I have never had to consider Heaven the way I have in the last three months. I have never considered with this depth what happens to those who die and didn’t profess and believe in the name of Jesus; that was unspeakable.

But I think about it now. I think about how everything I think about Heaven is probably wrong. I think about what pop culture says of heaven: a field of puppies and endless ice cream without gaining weight. I think about how pathetic our versions of eternal Glory are.

To be honest, I’m frustrated by Heaven. I’m frustrated at how idolatrous humans are that we conceive the notion of paradise as completely revolving around ourselves. And every time I think I’ve figured something out, and feel a little connected to Johnny because of it, I instantly rebuke myself, knowing I am wrong.

Deborah, your mind is so small compared to God’s wonder. You can’t even imagine it.

I think I’m wrong right now. I think this is a huge stumbling block for me at the moment and the Deceiver is exploiting my curiosity. I know the Lord wants to draw us close to Himself, but my demand and desire for perfection first is getting in the way.

I know all of this, and yet, I still can’t stop thinking what the music is like in Heaven.

– D. E. Barbi Bee