The crowd of aroused campaigners and supporters that packed Sharon Pratt Dixon's election-night headquarters at the Park Hyatt Hotel two weeks ago today cheered wildly at almost anything the candidate proclaimed. Although vote tallies on the television monitors showed promise, final results weren't in.

"We're not claiming anything until it's counted," the candidate told supporters who chanted for a victory statement prematurely. "And that's what we're going to do in the new government."

To most of us, such a bold pledge while in the thrill of victory may sound like so much political rhetoric. To Harrison Owen, it sounded more like the makings of a new mythology in the District of Columbia.

But then Owen, a self-described "midwife of change" in corporations and communities, a mythos-practitioner who helped "reseed the stories" for nine disenchanted towns in Virginia, and for a distressed Internal Revenue Service division, generally sees things differently. Very differently.

When most observers examine the tragic events and conditions in this city over the past year or two -- the drug crisis, skyrocketing murder rate, growing poverty, racial tension, political corruption, the perjury and drug trial of Mayor Marion Barry -- they see a downward spiral of urban ills. Owen doesn't discount those troubles. But, in the fashion of some modern-day shaman of organizational culture, he recognizes them as symptomatic of a system in transformation. He says they are signposts along a predictable path toward renewal. "Rebirth" is the metaphor he prefers.

"Typically what you find at a point like this is that people will start putting out the front edges of a new story," Owen says of how Dixon's allusion to a new financial responsibility fits into his "organizational spirit transformation" theories. "The issue is, will it strike a resonant response in the community? Will it become in some way the outline of a new vision?"

If all this sounds a bit esoteric, it is. Sitting in his screened back porch under tall shade trees in Potomac, interrupted only by the staccato roar of jets approaching National Airport, Owen discourses on modern myths, transformation and the city of Washington. His reasoning tends to fly on elevated planes and he knows it. He stops often to ask, "Does this make any sense?" Oddly it does.

"People essentially live by the stories they tell," he says, laying groundwork. "By and large, they're not actually aware of what these stories are. But what the stories do basically is create meaning."

About to make a quantum leap in thought, Owen pauses. "The proper name for this is mythology," he says, stressing that none of this has to do at this point in history with Zeus or Athena. The definition, however, does borrow from the Greek, the literal translation of mythos being the primal story that creates meaning for people. In contemporary language, a myth often is taken for a lie; Owen says it isn't. Philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote that myth was the sacred word from out of the abyss; Owen smiles and says he doesn't know what that means.

Today, "the typical form of the mythology of any system -- a corporation, a town, a district, a region or a country -- is what usually gets passed over as 'the war stories,' or 'the real story,' or 'the whole story,' " Owen explains. "I move into Washington and I ask you, 'What's the story?' Or 'What's happening?' And you give me, by way of examples, things that set the boundary of what it means to be Washington. The facts don't make that much difference."

These myths, says Owen, "end up being those funny little tales that people tell one another ... the five or six dominant stories that interrelate to create a field of meaning which is that particular community."

Take, for instance, New York City. Owen says its mythic field of meaning is "The Big Apple." Different people tell different stories to create that, but the myth probably includes, among other stories, the skyline, theater, Wall Street, "if I can make it here, I can make it anywhere," "the town that doesn't sleep at night," the images depicted in the "I Love New York" promotions.

Depending on whom you ask, Washington's mythos probably includes: A Capital City, the center of federal government, a sleepy Southern town where sidewalks roll up at 5 o'clock, the Kennedy Years, an international community, the disenfranchised city, inside-the-Beltway, the monuments, a-city-with-a-big-sky, the recession-proof town.

"At a deeper level, these stories actually create the time and space that we live in -- that has always been true," says Owen. "Ask the question, 'Why do you think it is 1990?' Well, think about one-thousand-nine-hundred-and-ninety, A.D. anno Domini. After Jesus. What's that all about? Well, I'd have to tell you the story. Time literally comes out of the stories we tell."

As long as those base stories continue to measure up to our individual desires and our community reality, they "just kind of sit there and define meaning," says Owen. But when something changes, it can produce dissonance and discontinuity in the field of meaning they create. The myths then lose their validity, become uncomfortable.

When that happens, "the first impact is a sense of meaninglessness," Owen says. "And that's probably worse than death, because if you are dead, presumably you know it or you don't know it. When it's meaninglessness, you don't know who or where you are."

Welcome to Washington, D.C., circa 1989-90. Frustration. Discomfort. Dissension. Tension. Divisiveness. Blame. Depression. Lies. Scandal. Ineffectiveness. Hard feelings. Loss.

Psychologist Rollo May uses the term "mythoclasm" to describe what occurs when guiding stories go bankrupt or collide. People are "shaken to ease their grip on the myths that no longer serve their best interests," he wrote in his 1981 book "Freedom and Destiny."

Owen likens it to the sound of a steel kettle drum when the drumhead's tuning handles aren't adjusted right. "Each of these stories is like a tuning handle," he says. "You beat the drum, you get a tone. If the weather changes, and its drier or wetter, you're going to have to readjust the stories, otherwise its either going to sound too high, too low, or just wrong ... Change or cut off one or two of those stories, and you're going to have a pretty lousy sounding drumhead."

That, he says, is what has happened in the District. The resonance of the interwoven stories here turned to dissonance -- and a sense of meaninglessness followed. "It could be from the Barry thing or the murders or whatever, but once you get that kind of impact, then you will get an effort to realign the basic time-space continuum, or the stories we tell, to reestablish meaning."

Whether in the District or Moscow or Baghdad, the process is predictable and long-established, says Owen. "The impact on the community is precisely the same as dying. Quite literally, what happens is, 'I no longer have the time or space I was used to, {so} I do not exist in time and space.'

"What sets in then is exactly the same thing that happens with individuals when there is a death. The technical word for it is 'grief work.' It's a process that takes you from one time-space continuum to a new one -- from the point where your loved one died to a situation where you have readjusted your story in such a way that life will now be meaningful without that person. A community does the same thing."

Calls to "begin the healing process" that have echoed from pulpits and campaign rostrums throughout the city since the Barry trial reflect an intuitive understanding of the grief work required.

And it is in this sense that Owen feels perfectly qualified to assist the grieving incorporations and communities undergoing such transformations. Trained as an Episcopal priest in the '60s, and once a chaplain at Johns Hopkins University, he followed a crooked career path through graduate school where he analyzed Christian myths, into the civil-rights movement, the Peace Corps and Vista, and later senior jobs in the federal bureaucracy, until he left the Carter administration to examine the organizational myth theories through his consulting firm, H.H. Owen and Co.

"It isn't pushing the point too much to say I am now doing what I was trained to do," says Owen. "I mean, what does a priest do? He comforts the living, buries the dead, and tells stories ... I perceive that my job at the moment is to enable people to understand the mechanisms so they can do that for themselves."

Owen says he used to call himself an agent of change. "Now I really laugh at that," he says. "You don't have to change anything. That's not the issue. Nobody has to change the District of Columbia. The District has changed. Now what do we do with it?"

Back to the grief work for answers. The first two steps of grieving and the transformation process, says Owen, are shock and anger expressed over what was going on, and then denial of what was going on. In the District, outrage clearly was heard over the out-of-control murder rates and drug crimes, and resentment was boiling over both toward prosecutors in the Barry case and the mayor himself for not doing the right thing and mishandling public trust. Soon after came the denial: In the case of Marion Barry, it was, "He didn't do it," or "She set him up," or "It didn't really happen."

"People have to be given the time and space to say, 'Oh, damn.' It is a purely physiological response, like breathing in and out," says Owen. "And people have to be accorded the dignity of going into denial. Which is very much like bandages on a wound -- they're not going to cure the wound, but they will protect it long enough so the healing process can start. The temptation is for people to say, 'Hey, come on, face the facts. Marion Barry did it.' But there is no way to short-circuit this process."

The third phase is memories. "You'll see people reciting the stories of the heroes of the past," says Owen. "When Marion Barry first came to town, I remember one of the first times I ever saw him was in 1966. He had just come up out of the South and here he was this radical who showed up in the Adams-Morgan community council office in bib-overalls ... That's a great story about Marion Barry. Memories is all about remembering our heroes. When I first saw him, he was a heavy-duty dude.

"From some points of view, people say, 'Will ya just get off the past?' But the community is reassessing its assets. It is reviewing all the old stories. The word is re-member -- put back together again. Where did we come from?"

That sets the stage for going into the next step -- despair, says Owen. "It's only when you remember what you were that you can let go of that and move on to whatever it is you are about to become. For a lot of people, most of the tales of Barry's great deeds and the good stuff he did has been honored to some extent. Probably it needs to be more. You then get, 'Well, we don't have Marion Barry. What are we going to do?' "

Owen's best guess -- and this is not true of everybody -- is that District residents have reached the fourth phase of transformation: Open space. "It starts out looking like despair," he says. "The one thing we know is there is nothing there ... Hope is possible only when you have a time and space in which you can work out your future. Then, one of two things can happen: Either people will just sit at that point and the spirit of the place will just simply disappear. Societies go, companies go, communities go. The alternative is that somebody asks the magic question: What are we going to do for the rest of our lives?

"When the question is asked, it changes the vector from memories and despair to the possibility of imagination and vision. And then you will start getting questions like, 'I wonder if ... ?' Like, 'I wonder if there could be a new reality in Washington?'

"Once vision has emerged you essentially create the new bounds of a field of meaning. It will include a bunch of new stories, the major one being how we came through that cycle and survived. And that creates a new time and space -- in Washington, it'll be before Marion Barry and after Marion Barry."

Then starts the business of consciously structuring a new time-space reality. To some extent, says Owen, that is what candidates in the mayoral primaries tried to do -- some of them better than others. "As far as I can see, the community has opted for new articulators of the vision," says Owen. "So the good news, it seems to me, is that people have acknowledged the fact that the old order is through."

But Owen warns there remain pitfalls on the way to a new city. He believes the new mayor might do well to take a cue from Mikhail Gorbachev, who ushered the Soviet Union through such a transformation and into "the open space," without prematurely forging new institutions. "There will emerge after vision, an effort to articulate and institutionalize the new time-space continuum," he says. "If you do that too soon, what you end up with is typically a reversion. And so you will find some people trying to play the new game by the old rules. Some of the old rules apply, but a lot of them won't. And what the new ones are is not going to be clear ...

"You aren't going to create a totally new and appropriate structure overnight. But if you can effectively hold the open space and point to a vision of what Washington might become, the likelihood is that all the rest of the folks will begin to do that ... And a new Washington will come out of the new constellation of stories that are just now emerging and some old stories that will carry over."Owen tells a story about a man from India who was found sitting disconsolately in New York's JFK airport. Somebody went up to him and said, "Can I help you?" And he said, "Oh, no. I'm just waiting for my soul to catch up." Owen thinks there's a lesson in that story for the District, where events of the past decade have left its residents with "a bad case of jet lag of the spirit," he says.

"Sometimes you just have to wait for your soul to catch up. You need to help your soul catch up. That's what this city needs to do."